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Tomgram: Lewis Lapham, How "Revolution" Became an Adjective

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This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: This site will be a little quieter than usual this week -- only one new piece instead of two -- because I'm heading off on a semi-vacation.  Don't count on me to answer mail in a timely fashion either.  Expect a new piece at the site this Wednesday, a TD classic "best of" piece over the weekend, and we'll be back up and running at full speed next week. Tom]

In 1969, I was working as a (not very good) printer at an "underground" print shop in Boston.  There was, in fact, nothing faintly underground about it, but in what was then called "the movement," it was a romantic label -- and use it we did.  I had an older co-worker there who had played an early role in launching the movement politics that became such a part of the era. He paid me next to no mind and yet his presence intimidated me greatly.  He was, as they said at the time, "close" to PL, or the Progressive Labor Party, which was a hardline lefty outfit of the moment.  One day, out of the blue, he invited me to dinner.  I was surprised, to say the least, but took it as an unexpected stamp of approval and accepted with alacrity, experiencing a wave of gratitude that, being a guy, it was impossible to express.

On the appointed night, I arrived at his place where he and his girlfriend, also close to PL, welcomed me to the table. In the middle of dinner, however, they got into a fight.  Suddenly, it was as if I weren't there at all.  As it turned out, they were arguing about the latest PL edict, a call to members to "build bridges" to co-workers, the category into which I obviously fell.  The question, it seemed, was which of several categories of fellow worker I fell into.  They ranged -- at this great distance I can't remember the exact descriptive details -- from the equivalent of simpleton liberal dolt to equally insulting labels somewhat more to the revolutionary left.  After the meal, I slunk out into the night.

That, I suspect, was as close as I got to being a "revolutionary."  In the generally exhilarating years we now call the Sixties, by which we tend to mean the period from perhaps 1965 to 1973, it often seemed as if an abyss had opened at your feet and the most reasonable as well as thrilling thing to do, even if you were a somewhat timid and polite boy of the 1950s, was simply jump in.  At an individual level in the America of that moment, the experience was, I suppose, revolutionary.  Certainly, in those years it wasn't hard to bump into every shade and grade of self-proclaimed revolutionary or revolutionary group.  Still, as Lewis Lapham makes clear today, and as I learned at that dinner table, revolution was then in the eye of the beholder, an easy enough label to throw around even if, looking back, the real revolutions of the moment weren't on the left but on the right and, as Lapham points out, also in fields that ranged from advertising to surveillance -- and aimed not at liberating but controlling us all.

In those years, Lapham, as you'll soon find out, was having far better dinners than I at far better establishments.  A half century later, he's made "revolution" the topic of the Spring issue of his remarkable magazine, Lapham's Quarterly, and so the focus of his latest essay at TomDispatch. (You can subscribe to the Quarterly by clicking here.) As ever, this website thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at Lapham's introduction to the new issue. Tom

Crowd Control
Political Revolt and the Accumulation of More
By Lewis H. Lapham

[This essay will appear in "Revolution," the Spring 2014 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at with the kind permission of that magazine.]

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In case of rain, the revolution will take place in the hall.
-- Erwin Chargaff

For the last several years, the word "revolution" has been hanging around backstage on the national television talk-show circuit waiting for somebody, anybody -- visionary poet, unemployed automobile worker, late-night comedian -- to cue its appearance on camera. I picture the word sitting alone in the green room with the bottled water and a banana, armed with press clippings of its once-upon-a-time star turns in America's political theater (tie-dyed and brassiere-less on the barricades of the 1960s countercultural insurrection, short-haired and seersucker smug behind the desks of the 1980s Reagan Risorgimento), asking itself why it's not being brought into the segment between the German and the Japanese car commercials.

Surely even the teleprompter must know that it is the beast in the belly of the news reports, more of them every day in print and en blog, about income inequality, class conflict, the American police state. Why then does nobody have any use for it except in the form of the adjective, revolutionary, unveiling a new cellphone app or a new shade of lipstick?

I can think of several reasons, among them the cautionary tale told by the round-the-clock media footage of dead revolutionaries in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia, also the certain knowledge that anything anybody says (on camera or off, to a hotel clerk, a Facebook friend, or an ATM) will be monitored for security purposes. Even so, the stockpiling of so much careful silence among people who like to imagine themselves on the same page with Patrick Henry -- "Give me liberty, or give me death" -- raises the question as to what has become of the American spirit of rebellion. Where have all the flowers gone, and what, if anything, is anybody willing to risk in the struggle for "Freedom Now," "Power to the People," "Change We Can Believe In"?

My guess is next to nothing that can't be written off as a business expense or qualified as a tax deduction. Not in America at least, but maybe, with a better publicist and 50% of the foreign rights, somewhere east of the sun or west of the moon.

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Revolt from Thomas Jefferson to the Colossal Dynamo

The hallowed American notion of armed rebellion as a civic duty stems from the letter that Thomas Jefferson writes from Paris in 1787 as a further commentary on the new Constitution drawn up that year in Philadelphia, a document that he thinks invests the state with an unnecessary power to declare the citizenry out of order. A mistake, says Jefferson, because no country can preserve its political liberties unless its rulers know that their people preserve the spirit of resistance, and with it ready access to gunpowder.

"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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Lewis Lapham is always thought provoking and so ea... by intotheabyss on Monday, Mar 17, 2014 at 4:03:53 PM
The return of the 'noun'. "The tragedy for our spe... by R. A. Landbeck on Monday, Mar 17, 2014 at 5:13:26 PM
Dear Lewis Lapham: Your analysis could not be... by Deena Stryker on Tuesday, Mar 18, 2014 at 10:48:41 AM