The Atmosphere of Revolution?

by | 16 Apr 2015

1917-Russian-RevolutionI want to follow up on a post from last year about the general strike, using the idea of silence as that which binds it together in its negativity (or catastrophe as Sorel would say). As I reread that piece for a book that I’m trying to write about crowds, I realised that one of the key points is the atmosphere generated by a crowd-in-strike. The danger, however, of valourising atmospheres is that we begin to lose sight of the relation between the material political action and the atmosphere produced. Atmosphere becomes free foating, mysterious and unhitched from events. Lenin, Bataille and Luxemburg give us a clear sense of what is at stake.

After the 1905 December revolution, Lenin harries the mensheviks for calling for the creation of an atmosphere of revolt. During the events they had worried about who would take power following an overthrow of the Tsar: ‘Who at the present time is, or can be, in the eyes of the nation numbering 140,000,000, the natural successor to state power wrested from the tsarist government?… For when the popular movement for winning state power starts, the people must have a clear idea in their minds of who is to take the place of the overthrown government…’.[1] Lenin excoriates them for forgetting the Marxist question, which is not ‘into whose hands can power now pass?’, but rather: ‘which interests of which classes demand that the government be overthrown, and which—demand that its power be limited; which material conditions give rise to a revolutionary struggle (“overthrow”) and which—give rise to efforts to arrange a constitutional co-habitation of the overthrown with the overthrowers.’[2] For Lenin the question is not the idea of government in the eyes of the people, but rather the ‘the strength of the respective classes and elements of society.’[3] Thus, the question is displaced. It is not that there is a revolution and into a power vacuum steps some political party, but rather the workers who undertake the very act of revolution have (in that act) formed the new modes of organisation of state power. Thus, it is the Soviets of Worker’s Deputies, ‘the soldiers, railwaymen’s and peasant’s committees, and the elected rural bodies in the Caucasus and the Baltic Provinces’[4] that actaully perform the organisation that would be the revolutionary government. It is in this context that Lenin rejects the Central Committee’s call for ‘local mass expressions of protest [to] be organised at once, everywhere.’ The object of these protests is ‘to create an atmosphere of preparation for the impending decisive struggle.’[5] Lenin is scathing of this. The mensheviks are not interested in preparing for a decisive struggle, but creating the ‘atmosphere of preparing’.

There is a crucial question at play here about atmosphere: Is the purpose of the demonstrations to generate an atmosphere in which overthrow might occur, or is it to actually overthrow the Tsar and as a part of that purpose an the atmosphere is generated? The crude rendering of this question is whether atmospheres generate real political possibilities, or whether political possibilities generate atmospheres? In this sense, it is a question of causality. On the surface then we could pose Bataille against Lenin. Speaking in the context of the mass mobilisations against fascism before the Popular Front took power in the mid-30s, Bataille insisted: ‘What drives the crowds into the street is the emotion directly aroused by striking events in the atmosphere of a storm, it is the contagious emotion that, from house to house, from suburb to suburb, suddenly turns a hesitating man into a frenzied being.’[6] However, this apparent opposition is also deeply misleading. In fact, both Bataille and Lenin are in agreement here. There is no linear causality. The atmosphere, that settles in these times over a city, is a product of the crowds and the atmosphere is also a cause of further crowds (along with many other causes in this complex situation). Thus, it is both an effect and a cause. Rather than a linear causality, we have entered a series of feedback loops wherein the crowd intensifies the atmosphere and the atmosphere gathers the crowd. The feedback loop, does not return the same crowd every day. This is not a simple circle, but rather it is a spiral. Events spiral. They may spiral twoards disorder and revolution or away from it.

In this sense Lenin is absolutely correct. It is not a matter of calling for mass demonstrations in order to prepare the ‘mind of the people’ for the idea of a radical government. Atmosphere escapes the control of those that seek to produce it. There is no possibility of producing this atmosphere of preparation, as the mensheviks imagined. Lenin’s question is really: what is an atmosphere of preparation for revolt? We might add, what might that feel like? We can contrast the menshevik’s imagined atmosphere with Rosa Luxemburg’s later frame: ‘In the fiery atmosphere of the revolution, people and things mature with incredible rapidity.’[7] This is a real sense of atmosphere, one which radically changes the temporality and spatiality of the previous system of thought. Atmosphere is a crucial element in the production of an event. The ‘atmosphere of the storm’, as Bataille put it, is an intense moment where political possibilities are revalued in practice. It is produced in the context of a crowd, of mass demonstrations, of occupying factories, courts and universities. Lenin’s critique is not of atmosphere as such, but rather of the mensheviks’ failure to acknowledge the events that were already happening. They were fixated on the idea of government in the eyes of the people, relying on some deus ex machina which they even imagined could come from the upper ranks of the army, and not the workers councils that sprang up as an alternative and revolutionary government.

In this vein, we might also begin an atmospheric analysis of crowds, and of legal and policing tactics. Just think for a moment about strike legislation and jurisprudence which emphasises the limitation of the picket to six people, the refusal of the transmission of causes/affect through sympathy strikes, and most of all the jurisprudence on the tortious nuisance of mass pickets which enters into a spatial calculation of atmospheres of injury. These are laws aimed at cauterising a strike, individualising it, making it a simple negotiation between one worker and one employer. These are rules aimed at controlling atmosphere by determining the material manifestations.

[1] Lenin, The Political Crisis and the Bankruptcy of Opportunist Tactics, Chapter III, quoting the Central Committee

[2] Lenin The Political Crisis and the Bankruptcy of Opportunist Tactics, Chapter III

[3] Lenin The Political Crisis and the Bankruptcy of Opportunist Tactics, Chapter III

[4] Lenin The Political Crisis and the Bankruptcy of Opportunist Tactics, Chapter III

[5] Lenin The Political Crisis and the Bankruptcy of Opportunist Tactics, Chapter IV

[6] Bataille, Visions of excess 162

[7] Luxemburg, ‘What are the Leaders Doing?’ (1919)


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join 4,661 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.


*fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



Publish your article with us and get read by the largest community of critical legal scholars, with over 4500 subscribers.