“I am entering on a work full of disasters, terrible in its battles, riven by seditions, in which even peace was savage.” -Tacitus
“Only that which has no history can be defined.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
On March 30th 2016, the Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced that no charges would be brought against the Minneapolis police officers responsible for the death of Jamar Clark, the 24-year-old black resident of Minneapolis’ Northside shot by the officers in November 2015. A group marched that evening to a rally at sundown at the downtown government center. Towards the end, after a round of chants (“hey hey ho ho, these racist cops have got to go!”), a man in a white t-shirt stepped up to the mic, waited stoically for the chanting to end, and started his speech by saying “This is civil warfare” to tepid approval from a minority of the crowd, and went on to say “I’m from the hood. When this is done I have to go back [home]. What’s necessary is to fight.” He ended his short speech by claiming that “Between the ages of 12 and 24, we’re not fighting with [guns or fists] but with [our minds].” Many took this to be essentially a statement about education reform, and the majority of the crowd thus felt comfortable clapping affirmatively, having qualified his earlier statement in this light. We aren’t satisfied with that sole interpretation. Soon after him, a man identifying himself as an organizer with a local non-profit organization told us that if we want “to change this city, to change this country, to dismantle white supremacy, you are revolutionaries” and led the crowd in a gesture mirroring Fred Hampton’s: everyone raised their fist and chanted after him, “I am a revolutionary.”
This isn’t the first time that this opposition between civil war and revolution has appeared in a time of heightened struggle. The American historian David Ramsay wrote in the late 1780s that the American Revolution was “originally a civil war in the estimation of both parties.” Edmund Burke once characterized the “Glorious Revolution” as a civil war. According to Reinhart Koselleck the term civil war had, by the eighteenth century, “acquired the meaning of a senseless circling upon itself, with respect to which Revolution sought to open up a new Vista.” Both Marx and Lenin opposed civil war and revolution to one another in this way. Marx claimed that he had traced the development of the proletariat “through civil war up to that point where war breaks out into open revolution,” and Lenin remarked “civil wars … in every class society are the natural, and under certain conditions, inevitable continuation, development and intensification of the class struggle. That has been confirmed by every great revolution.”
Are we fighting a civil war or fighting for a revolution? Perhaps the difference is semantic. It seems to be common strategic intelligence that these two terms are related, but both the Left and the Right have generally favored “revolution” at the expense of “civil war.” Interesting, though, that “revolution” is scarcely more than two centuries old, whereas “civil war” has been in continuous use for over two millennia. It also seems that the “revolutionary” idea emerged directly out from discourse on “civil war,” and that, when “revolution” first appeared, it was hardly distinguishable from “civil war.” What is “revolution” supposed to describe that “civil war” could not? How is “revolution” pitted against “civil war?” We want to know if and how these two conceptions have appeared beside, together, or against one another to see if there is indeed a difference and what its significance might be. Above all, it is essential that we read “civil war” in the both the way it is used and the way is not used in order to grasp its importance.
From here on out, we will abandon the word stasis in favor of the more familiar civil war, except in direct reference to Athens. Although we’ve used, and will continue to use “civil war” as a translation of “stasis,” we do so carefully because they are not strictly the same. First of all, the concept of “civil war” emerges more specifically as a technical concept within the the Roman legal tradition, which also forms the historical basis of the European and American legal tradition in general. The main difference between the two terms lies in the fact that civile, citizen, is a legal category, while the factions involved in stasis could be composed of anyone who resided in the city: man, woman, or slave. The Romans split the more general stasis into the “social wars,” wars against allies; the “servile wars,” wars against slaves, like the one against Spartacus; and finally, “civil wars.” But “bellum civile,” or civil war — like stasis — is, like the event it describes, internally conflictual, maybe even paradoxical. According to Roman law, bellum, war, is waged by the citizens against the hostis, the hostile enemy, which is, by legal definition, the outsider and non-citizen. Who are the “opponents” in a civil war? Fellow-citizens. But according to Roman law, only the just war against the outsider is “true” war. A just war cannot legally be a war against other citizens.
Civil war thus explodes and collapses the inside (civile) and the projected outside (hostis) of Roman legal categories, just as stasis scrambles the inside and outside of the organization of the city and the home: “Bellum civile was a deliberately paradoxical expression of revulsion against the idea of formal hostilities between members of the same civitas and a recognition that such warfare destroyed civility itself” (David Armitage). In City of God, St. Augustine captures the ambiguity of the term when he characterizes the civil wars of Rome’s history as “civil, or uncivil, discords.” When we use civil war, we use it in precisely this sense: not as a war between truly internally bound “citizens,” but as the matrix of conflict that destabilizes that concept from the get-go. Just as stasis represents the division in the heart of the city, the impossibility of subsuming the parts into the whole, “civil war” turns out to be equally “uncivil war.”
We’ve discussed above how stasis never disappeared from the political in Greece and how it was, in fact, considered the basis of politics itself and the principle around which Greek political thought organized itself. The concept of “civil war,” on the other hand, seems at first glance to be entirely exceptional to the “normal” state of things, where internally peaceful citizens wage war against hostile outsiders and foreigners. If this were true, then our analysis of stasis would be nothing more than a curiosity to be wondered at from the peaks of our peacefully contained and stable civilization. But all the evidence points to the contrary. In contrast to “just wars” against the hostis, which the Romans considered s temporal and episodic outside conflicts, tumults and seditions were considered as the temporal chapters of an underlying civil war that had no beginning or end. Civil war, not peace, is the “normal” state of things, which episodic, temporal or explosive battles are the exceptions to. To be civilized at all means to be prone to civil war. In his poem, The Civil War, Lucan lamented, “These sufferings await, again to be endured, this will be the sequence/of the warfare, this will be the outcome fixed for civil strife.” the historians Appian, Tacitus, Florian, and Plutarch all wrote histories in the first century that, in a language familiar to us now, “diagnosed civil war as the city’s seemingly unshakeable curse, and prescribed remedies for the disease or condemned its victims” (David Armitage). Tacitus’ remark above is of tantamount importance here: the city is rife with a kind of conflict where “even peace was savage.” It is not the case that civic battles are constantly occurring in the city, but rather that the potential for battles and strife is considered as unavoidable, since being a citizen means being prone to civil war. Because civil war is a constant threat among citizens, even peacetime must be understood within its framework.
Consider also that, in the ancient world, the brother was considered to be the paradigm for the citizen. So much so that they could be used as stand-ins for one another. To be a citizen (always male) was like accepting someone as your brother and to be brothers meant to live in civil relations with someone. Thus, it should not be surprising that fratricide, the murder of the brother, could have been, and was, used as a synonym for civil war. Reconsider now the founding myth of Rome that holds that Romulus and Remus, two shepherd brothers raised by a she-wolf, left the land of Numitor to found their own city. They each received supernatural signs that they should be the one to found the city. Romulus, believing his sign to be superior, dug a trench and built a wall, the ritualistic founding of a city, and Remus jumped over it, the ultimate transgression. Romulus murdered his brother to found the city of Rome.
Roman historical thought was only able to think civil war and its prevention. Civil war preceded its founding, threatened its unity throughout its existence, and eventually tore it apart. It would be wrong to say that Rome ever “fell” after the Gothic sack or the split into Eastern and Western halves; it never “stood” without standing against itself. It would be more accurate to say that the breakdowns that proliferated in the ever-expanding Roman civil war diffused and rooted themselves throughout Europe.
The theme also survives in the Medieval theological tradition, which, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, took over the “government of man” to varying degrees. Religious thought, in this period, is applied analogously as political measure, whether as pastoral, confession, or conquest. We will analyze later how ontology is coextensive with the political, and thus implicitly how the “religious wars” of the medieval period were nothing other than civil war. One doesn’t need to look to far to see evidence of rupture and conflict in medieval Christianity. Gregory of Nazianzus, the archbishop of Constantinople, said quite bluntly that “the One is always in revolt [stasis] against itself.” Thomas Münzer, the revolutionary prophet declared war on the heathens and demanded that “[a]ll property should be held in common and should be distributed to each according to his needs… Any prince, count, or lord who did not want to do this, after first being warned about it, should be beheaded or hanged.” For those who offer the Judeo-Christian tradition of law as revelation and transcendence as a counterexample, we recommend they look back to Exodus 32 where Moses, the first “political leader” of the Hebrews, sets Israel against its own divided unity before he can begin his role as a legislator: “‘Thus says the Lord God of Israel, “Put your sword on your side […] go […] throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor” […] And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. And Moses said ‘Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord.’” Even the stable and eternally self-same seeming theocratic civil unions must first annihilate the heresies that make its own internal division visible. This is just as clear with Moses and the Hebrews above as it is with the Roman Christians and Arian in the 4th century. For now, though, we are interested in how civil war was understood in the “early modern” period, the period of secularization (or the era of the formation of the “state”), and in the period of the formation of the United States.
This understanding of civil war as existentially underlying “civility” and “civilization” was transmitted basically unchanged through the Western political tradition up to the eighteenth century and beyond. Algernon Sydney, a member of the Long Parliament and English colonel in the 17th century, whose Discourses on Government were a major influence on the American revolutionaries, wrote that “’Tis in vain to seek a Government in all points free from a possibility of Civil Wars, Tumults, and Seditions.” Sir Robert Filmer, a stern monarchist also writing in the late 17th century, was a natural opponent for Sydney. Desirous of an ostensibly opposite social order to Sydney’s republican commonwealth, he nevertheless desired the same basic outcome, when “Civil Contentions at last [settle] into a Monarchy.” Sydney’s primary point of contention with such a worldview was that “Popular Governments are less subject to Civil Disorders than Monarchies; manage them more ably, and more easily recover out of them.” Thomas Paine shared this sentiment in Common Sense, where he furiously refuted the monarchical position on the basis of its claim “that it preserves a Nation from civil wars; and were this true, it would be weighty; whereas, it is the most barefaced falsity ever imposed upon mankind.” Politicians, especially in a period of founding, aren’t so much concerned about whose platform or program could create peace as much as whose program could most effectively prevent or manage civil war.
The American Revolution, as we pointed out above, was originally referred to as a “civil war,” and was often referred to in that way long afterwards. One of the most direct and influential conversations about civil war in the revolutionary period took place in the Federalist Papers. In the 10th Federalist Paper, Madison describes how the new American style of government would prove exemplary in preventing the dangers of “faction,” which, let us remind you, is one of the possible translations of stasis. “Faction” is a curious word, stemming from a Latin word, factio, that can also denote a group of organized charioteers. If we understand it as it is commonly understood, as an organized interest group, then there is nothing particularly interesting about it. Madison wasn’t concerned with that kind of faction. For him, a faction was a “group of citizens… who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” These factions could be said to be “a multitude of subjects gathered together either by mutual contracts among themselves, or by power of someone, without his or their authority who bear the supreme rule. A faction, therefore, is as it were, a city in a city…” (Thomas Hobbes). To say “there are factions in our commonwealth” is coextensive with civil war because the faction represents a “multitude of subjects” or, in Madison’s words, “a group of citizens” who, nevertheless, form a “city in a city.” If the citizen can form a city inside the city, faction introduces a fault — a conflict — in the heart of the most fundamental unit of political consensus. In other words, it functions in the same way as stasis or civil war in marking the limit of civility and incivility, exposing consensus to that which it rejects in even its most basic unities.
With that in mind, it becomes much more significant that the American Constitution, as it was discussed in the Federalist Papers, was in fact a “constitution against parties” (Richard Hofstadter). The Constitution was not the foundational text of a political body, but a document of war codifying techniques of civil war already being practiced by the Founding Fathers. Indeed, Madison knew that civil war has no beginning nor end, and so, since “the causes of faction cannot be removed, […] the relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.” He believed, as did the political thinkers before and after him, that “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” Hamilton expressed similar views in the 9th Federalist Paper, entitled “The Union as a Safeguard against Domestic Faction and Insurrection” when describing the life of previous republics: “If now and then intervals of felicity open to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret, arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage.” The “science of politics,” which is made up of “The regular distribution of power into distinct departments, the introduction of legislative balances and checks, the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior, the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election” were created explicitly to “suppress faction and guard the internal tranquillity of States.”
But one need look no further than as exalted a document as the Declaration of Independence, in which one of the complaints leveled against George III was that, “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The United States did not “have a civil war.” The United States was conceived as a coordinated response to control the effects and possibility of civil war.
Hobbes’ conception of civil society’s relation to war appears to be an exception to this bracketing of war. Hobbes is undoubtedly the greatest theorist of the “state,” but he’s also responsible for modern confusion around the term. He’s the greatest stumbling block to understanding what Madison and Hamilton were trying to formulate. Let’s suppose there are two Hobbes. The one we are familiar with is the legal-minded, logically formal Hobbes who claimed that life outside the civil commonwealth was “nasty, brutish, and short.” This is the Hobbes who sought comfort and peace, who said that by giving up your “natural right” to kill your neighbor, you will receive safety in the commonwealth: “It is manifest that during that time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man […] All other time is peace” (Thomas Hobbes). This Hobbes is credited with having created the clearest exposition of the central legal myth of the “state” and the one that gives it its apparent substance: wherever there is war, there is no civil society; where there is civil society, there is no war. The problem is that the war he described of “each against each” is purely abstract, and he knew it. It’s a mythological stand-in for a legal lacuna he was desperate to fill.
Since the amnesty of 403 BC, it has been the common intelligence of historians and statesmen to separate war and law, to form a law of exclusion between the two. By doing so, they can assert the objective existence of the state. Hobbes certainly produces such an exclusion when he makes the “war of each against each” the “natural” state of man outside the state’s jurisdiction or “civil society.” Stasis, or civil war, makes such an exclusion impossible. One cannot put an end to civil war because civil war is not a temporal event, but a permanent existential potential inherent to politics itself. Civil war problematizes the relationship of exclusion that separates war and the state and reveals this relation to be not one of exclusion, but one of the interplay of force. Because civil war is common to all, it is the very basis upon which one may determine their role as a political being. This is the meaning of Solon’s law. In other words, the “law” is merely one more way of continuing the conflict of civil war. It does not do away with it, but reinscribes and practices it in new ways. What is interesting about democratic discourse is the way in which it practices civil war through the erasure of the very thing it derives its substance from. So often does it practice civil war, we could say that, today, the most common act of civil warfare is to deny it exists in “peacetime” while concurrently naming only the most atrocious outbreaks of violence “civil war.”
Both “constituent power” and, more generally, the “power of naming” need to be called into question. Reading stasis and civil war back into history means asking “how is power constituted and by whom, if it is constituted in the context of civil war?” Hobbes, for instance, needed to transform the variety of contentious parties into one single mass of selfish individuals. His goal was to normalize power relations into a logically simple and timeless hierarchy. The reason for this is simple.he’d been witness to the Civil War in England ten years previous, and he was no idle spectator. Hobbes wrote his Leviathan while hiding in France. Hobbes was a Royalist, obviously, and feared that he would meet his death at the hands of his political rivals. The great political tract of the “state,” of the “natural rights of man,” and of the “social contract” was written by a partisan in the midst of civil war, a desperate man afraid for his life. Similarly, Machiavelli, who is credited with having introduced the word “state” into the modern political lexicon, wrote The Prince in response to the tumults of the 1490s in Florence, the rise and fall of Savonarola, and the wars of the city-states. As for Bodin, the “founder of modern public law,” his theory of sovereignty in the Six Books of the Commonwealth was written in response to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and was, “like the state it defined, a product of creedal civil war” (Carl Schmitt).
Even in the internal discourse supposedly pertaining to the “state,” most perfectly exemplified by Hobbes, its activity appears as nothing other than a reaction, as a network of responses to what is perceived to be manageable in civil war. Hobbes’ strategy of referring to the state as an “artificial man” should be seen in the light of the political discourse of disease. Referring to the state as a machine is an attempt to escape the decomposition of the state as a body, to outlive its own disease and partiality in appearance. The logical formality and simplicity of the formula “State=Peace; Outside=War” was meant to exclude the real complexities of the situation he himself was involved in.
If the war of each against each is a myth, then so is the state that is said to exclude it. We must dispense with the idea that there could be a theory of the state that is not also a weapon of a party in civil war. What we call the “state” is a network of locally effective administrative powers managing the variable appearances and effects of civil war. In other words, the only truth of the state lies in its policing networks, local preventative measures, and architectural strategies in the metropolis. The discourse on “the state” is merely an attempt to make the semblance of order outlive its own procedures. This is not to say there has not been something like a centralization, but it has only been able to be just that, a process of centralizing. To say “centralized state” makes it seem as if such a process could be actually done and finished. We lose sight of the process when we try too hard to define something. Too many words have been wasted on trying to decide what the “state” is, who is a part of it, why it “emerged.” Such questions imply that something like the “state” self-evidently has its own independent and ahistorical reality. “Maybe, after all,” Foucault wrote, “the state is no more than a composite reality and a mythologized abstraction, whose importance is a lot more limited than many of us think.” The real question for us is this: how do the actors of the so-called state fulfill their duties, i.e. within what infrastructural networks, with what discursive tools, and with the force of which weapons?
global civil warfare…
Over the course of the empire’s expansion, Rome’s “civil wars” came to include the previously separate social and servile wars within its ever-increasing horizon. As Rome conquered more territory and expanded its legal definition of “citizen,” offering civilian or partial civilian status to increasingly large groups of people, the boundary between the “hostile enemy” and the “potentially seditious citizen” tended to fade. The cosmopolitan dream of the Roman Empire was in this way the basis for what was increasingly becoming a global civil war in the eyes of many. Wars that previously would have been qualified as social wars against an ally or foreign wars against the hostis increasingly came within the conceptual confine of civil war. The virulent and vicious anti-foreigner sentiment that arose in the 4th century CE was a last-ditch attempt to save a central Roman identity that had already completely collapsed, where citizens with “barbarian blood” were already leaders in the military and even emperors. As the Roman Empire crumbled and Christianity, which offered the prospect of the universal citizenship the Romans always dreamed of, diffused itself throughout Europe and the Near East, the concept of “citizen” drew an even wider circle around the world, as did the possibility of civil war. By the late 16th century, the Spanish jurist Fernando Vázquez de Menchaca could argue that because no one shall take prizes in a civil war, as they are unjust, no prizes are to be taken in any war among Christians, since they are all civil wars. In 1758, Vattel explicitly formulated the dream of cosmopolitanism, and, implicitly, the cosmopolitan’s nightmare of civil war. He wrote, “A profound peace would prevail over all over the earth, and enrich it with its invaluable fruits; industry, the sciences, and the arts, would be employed in promoting our happiness, no less than in relieving our wants; violent methods of deciding contests would be no more heard of: all differences would be terminated by moderation, justice, and equity; the world would have the appearance of a large republic; men would live everywhere like brothers, and each individual be a citizen of the universe.” What does it mean when such men disagree? When they battle or separate, when difference persists? As Montesquieu assures us, “no kingdom has ever had as many civil wars as the kingdom of Christ.”
Just a few years after Vattel, Napoleon called Europe a “province” of the world and declared that, “When we battle, we engage in nothing more than civil war.” Kant, the figurehead of secular cosmopolitanism, asked in an essay whether “perpetual peace” might be achieved by a universal unifying humanism. It seems he answered his own question by calling his essay “Toward Perpetual Peace,” a name which he took from an ironic tavern sign depicting a graveyard. By the 20th century, these cosmopolitan concepts would become so grand and universal that Kennedy could call the Cold War a “global civil war that has divided mankind,” and the director of UNESCO could say on United Nations Day in 1949 that “all wars are civil wars: all battles are battles between citizens, nay more, between brothers.” It’s interesting to note that the first person to use “cosmopolitan” was Diogenes, the Cynic. When citizens confronted him and told him that his behavior and words — which included stripping naked and insulting the famous men of the day in public — were disturbing the other citizens, his answer was that he was a cosmopolitan. The association of that word with notions of “universal peace” and “egalitarianism” would have been completely foreign to Diogenes. Instead, he meant “I don’t have to follow your laws, for I am only a citizen of the universe, and not of your city.” Cosmopolitan was an insult to the notion of civility, not its universalization.
The paradox of increasing universalism is that the outbreak of conflict, when it does occur, appears more and more like the outbreak of an irrationality or a sickness. The horror of all this is that the Good Pacifist West, or the Enlightened Leadership, or the Rational Democrats then appear as surgeons removing infected parts of the body, as a purifier of all that causes breakdown and disease. When being a “citizen” coincides with being human in general, irreconcilable differences between people can only appear as a disease to be purged from civil society. The same Vattel who looked ahead to the “profound peace” that “would prevail all over the earth” made it clear that “unjust plunderers […] are monsters, unworthy of the name of men. They should be regarded as enemies of the human species […] Other nations are justified in uniting together as a body with the object of punishing, and even of exterminating, such savage peoples.” This is clear in the “global war on terror,” which is nothing other than a global civil war in which internal breakdown is reconstituted as fanaticism and blind hatred from a “sick” part of world society.
This isn’t just a conceptual shift. Traditional war between states has all but disappeared. In the former international law among European states, two sovereigns declare war and fight as equals. Legally, civil war remained the most unstable of all conceptions of war, and took on a variety of forms during the era of just war. This is because, as we’ve shown, it is within its matrix that the others acquire their meaning. Civil war is always thought as a “special case.” This is true, but only insofar as it is this “special case” that situates the possibility of a “normal case.”
Beginning in the 16th century, legal scholars began to shift the emphasis away from individual belligerents and onto recognized sovereigns and specialized militaries. The rules of warfare began increasingly to disregard the “lawful cause of war” and began to center in on the “lawful enemy.” Vattel again most clearly laid out the boundaries of “war in due form” or “just war:” “War in due form must be viewed, in its effects, as just by both sides.” This is what Carl Schmitt has referred to as the “containment of war” or its “bracketing.” What exactly is it containing or “bracketing?” Civil war, of course, or the possibility that there is no center in a war; that war, by its very nature, displaces any posited center. The war against the outsider is a reconfiguration of the war raging on a plane with no inside or outside and is thus simultaneously the production of the stable inside. In response to this uncomfortable reality, Vattel and Grotius created the awkward construct “unjust war” to describe any form of conflict undertaken by “brigands,” “robbers,” and “pirates” as Grotius calls them in On the Law of War and Peace. In reality, the just war between equally contained sovereigns, striven after by Vattel, by Grotius, and by the Catholic Holy See, was always in the minority as far as European conflict was concerned, and, as such, was the exception to civil war.
Because of its inherent instability, civil war has been semantically used as a justification for asymmetrical practices of war, ignoring or subverting international standards of conducting war, or as a way to exempt oneself from a conflict altogether, as if calling a conflict a “civil war” means “that is their problem.” The last time the U.S. officially declared war was during World War II. A variety of legal and extralegal means have been used to justify force since then. More generally, since 1989, 115 of the world’s 122 wars have been considered internal wars, and, after the Gulf War in 2003, every conflict has been called a “civil war” by one party or another, which is not to say that international powers were not involved. Rather, to say our situation is a global civil war means that the fragile framework of traditional nation-state warfare, which actually had a short life, has collapsed back into the matrix of conflict with no center and no basis of legitimation, where even legal declarations and conceptual frameworks are merely weapons in a wider field of conflict. The recurrence and re-emergence of the concept civil war means the re-emergence of the unstable asymmetrical conflict that underlied traditional warfare. The difference between peace and war, and between police and military are finally collapsing back in on each other.
The U.S. now treats its enemies as criminals to be reprimanded. For the U.S. and Europe, war appears as a global peacekeeping mission, where the Western powers act as a universal police officer. This was spelled out by the shift in the National Defense Strategy from “long war” to “global war on terror.” In the midst of the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” — where the divisions between “internal” and “external,” inter-state and intra-state, are entirely blurred — it is obvious that global civil war is becoming a legal reality throughout the world, and yet we are still far from understanding it as such.
And then there are the ways in which civil war is not said.
What comes out of naming something a “revolution” instead of a “civil war?” Let’s take Hannah Arendt at her word that revolutions “have little in common with stasis,” or with “civil strife.” If there’s anything immediately unique about the discourse around revolution, it’s the constant characterization of revolution as a form of change concerned with “beginning,” constitution, and constituent power. “[E]very revolution,” wrote François Furet, “has tended to perceive itself as an absolute beginning, as ground zero of history.” Let us also consider the idea that, in Condorcet’s words, “the word ‘revolutionary’ can be applied only to revolutions whose aim is freedom.” If it is true that “only where this pathos of novelty is present and where novelty is connected with the idea of freedom are we entitled to speak of revolution,” then we must ask: of what nature is this “newness” (Hannah Arendt)? What sort of “freedom” is promised by the revolution and by whom?
The origins of the modern concept of “revolution” may seem surprising at first. It was originally only used in the astronomical sense, which we still use today, as the lawful and irresistible movement of stars. It indicated a cyclical movement, and neither something new nor liberating. Its first “political” usage in the 17th century in England in fact still retained this metaphoric content as it described the moment the Stuarts were exiled and sovereignty was restored to the monarchy. In addition, there was no clear and simple transition to the modern meaning of “freedom in novelty.” Arendt wrote, “The revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which to us appear to show all evidence of a new spirit, the spirit of the modern age, were intended to be restorations.” Indeed, at one point, Paine was actually able to refer to the French and American revolutions as “counter-revolutions” because they had reached that point where they discovered that a “revolution” — that is, a “restoration” — would be impossible and that they must embark on something new. And so the revolutionaries became partisans of the new and revolution-as-nature succumbed to revolution-as-will.
The original meanings of the word were carried into the modern era with the French and American revolutions in a mutated but fundamental fashion: the revolutionaries no longer believed that they were reviving some greater order of a family or a king from times passed, but the basic and universal rights of man. Even in the infant conceptions of revolutionaries, the “revolution,” which had just been created, was inevitable and as irresistible as the movement of the stars. It’s easy to get caught up in the dazzling logic and metaphors of revolution. But can we truly apply the title “revolutionary” to the Sons of Liberty without acknowledging that this “inevitable revival” appeared as one way of speaking in a much wider context? With that said, we can also ask the questions: what does calling something a “revolution” do? How does it reframe memory? Whom does it serve? Whose “universal rights” are they restoring, and what is the condition of the production of such rights? Who are the forgotten children of the Revolution?
What if the American “revolutionaries” were trying to control something more powerful and more dangerous than the Revolution as we’ve come to know it? If you read contemporary works of the Founding Fathers and revolutionaries, one finds them all in agreement that they had unwittingly unleashed a dangerous force of rebellion that threatened to destabilize and destroy more than just the authority of the king by furthering the instability of colonial authority with their resistance to the Stamp Act. Slave revolts, urban insurrections, and a general mood of rebellion were threats to authority in general. Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Charles Carroll, held that their “present danger seems to be a defect of obedience in the subjects.” This sentiment was shared equally by the opposition. The loyalist Peter Oliver, for example, said that “[T]he Hydra was roused. Every factious Mouth vomited out curses against Great Britain.” For any party concerned with a program based on unities or consensus models, the revolutionary era was a dangerous era. A detailed and expanded account of the civil war that we regularly call the American Revolution is outside the scope of this text. This is not the space to undertake a minute exposition of the Whiskey Rebellion, slave insurrections, frontier wars, or urban riots. We are concerned with exposing revolutionary discourse to what it rejects — to the visible elements of civil war. By doing so, we clear a path toward an empirical history of our capacities.
In The Many-Headed Hydra, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker outline some of the major points of conflict in the 18th century that so terrified the American revolutionaries. The sailors were extremely important in the New World. They transported goods, slaves, and colonists between the Old World, Africa, and the New World. They were also a motley sort of the lowest classes and spoke a variety of languages. Sailors presented two major threats: piracy and mutiny. Pirates attacked merchant ships, stole property, and challenged the hegemony of the seas. Mutiny manifested in riots on both sides of the Atlantic, where the authorities were faced with the horrific possibility that they would join with the local disaffected populations against them, as happened in the insurrectionary plot of 1741 in New York. On St. Patrick’s Day, the main military installment of the city was set alight, marking the first of many fires to burn in the next few weeks. The plot was organized in a tavern by a mixed group of “soldiers, sailors, and slaves from Ireland, the Caribbean, and Africa,” a typically dangerous mix for the authorities at this time. Sailors had also led a series of riots against impressment (the practice of forcing men to serve in the military) in North America beginning in the 1740s. In Boston, there were riots in 1741, 1742, and 1745, destroying and burning the pressmen’s ships, and beating the sheriffs, press gangs, and magistrates who opposed them. Most horrifying of all were the slave insurrections, the most recent of which began in 1760s Jamaica with Tacky’s Revolt. Slaves were considered inhuman. When they banded together — or, worse, joined sailors or indentured servants — to fight against their masters, the world seemed to be turning on its head.
Tom Paine feared the “risings of the people” that could conclude in a coordinated attack from the sailors in the city, the African slave revolts, and Native resistance at the frontier. In this new land being torn apart by slave revolts and urban rebellions (both of which created new opportunities for elective activity between blacks, immigrant laborers, and Natives), the civic codes of the new country were being undermined in profound ways. Thus, it isn’t surprising that, by the 1770s, the revolutionary elite began to worry that they had an uncontrollable monster on their hands. The first act of American revolutionary discourse was to set it apart from the unrest that came before. In this case they say: forget the slave revolts and the urban insurrections of the 1740s and 50s, this movement is new and unstoppable. It is significant in this regard that John Adams proposed Hercules, the subduer of monsters, as the symbol for this new forward-reaching America. They wanted the Revolution, they just didn’t want the sailors, women, or blacks to be a part of it. As America trotted blindly forth, it would crush any bulwarks in its path.
Once again, the democrats —now “revolutionaries”— did their best to erase any threats to their identity. These democrats of the New World, at the birth of a new nation, surrounded by drunks, blacks, and savages, felt that everyone around them was in need of management. Their new scientific rationale explaining the naturality of their need for control had an authority and social stature the Athenian democrats couldn’t have possibly imagined. Once things got out of hand, these founding fathers couldn’t just decree a ban on the Revolution. It would have to be a many-sided attack on memory. The narratives preserved from this period are merely the products of this attack.
Present at all the famous revolutionary protests beloved in our civic memory were violent mobs consisting of “Sailors, boys, and Negroes” who “repeatedly manhandled captains, officers, and crews, threatened their lives, and held them hostage for the men they pressed” (Captain Jeremiah Morgan). Mobs were present at the protests in the 1760-70s against the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, the Townshend Revenue Act, the Tea Act, and the Intolerable Acts. Riots and mob action were an integral part to the destabilization of British power in the colonies. Paul Revere participated in riots against the Stamp Act, and Samuel Adams was present at the Knowles Riots in 1747 when a crowd of thousands opposed the press gangs in Boston. Afterwards, he would cease writing that the “rights of Englishmen” needed to be defended to saying that the mob represents “the fundamental rights of man against which government itself could be judged,” and argued for taking direct, violent action against an unjust government. This line about the “fundamental rights of man” would eventually find its way into Paine’s The Rights of Man, and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. One of the central tenets of American democratic discourse came from the rabble. In short time, it would be used against them by the Patriots and Revolutionaries who exploited their activities.
Paul Revere removed all the black faces from his engraving of the Boston Massacre. Adams, desperate to separate the new movement from anything tainted by the presence of blacks in revolt, went so far as to defend redcoats after the Boston Massacre, telling the court that the face of the black leader Crispus Attucks “would be enough to terrify any person.” Paine and Adams, who both argued, as we have shown, for the necessity and righteousness of the riots, turned against rioters in the late 1770s and 80s. Adams, for example, helped write the Massachusetts’s Riot Act of 1786, which suspended habeas corpus, allowing authorities to jail rioters without trial in a bid to control the insurgents of Shay’s Rebellion. The Sons of Liberty, the anti-Stamp Act and colonists rights group, came into existence in an express attempt to control and limit the new practice of rioting against the “threatened anarchy” it signaled as they “attempted to restrain the crowd and issued statements urging less misconduct” (Paul A. Gilje). Paine argued, for instance, that safeguards must be put in place lest “some Massenello may hereafter arise, who laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented,” i.e. the sailors, urban workers, African slaves, and natives. Let no one say that protest marshals are a new phenomenon.
All of the Founding Fathers sought particularly and in various ways to exclude slaves and blacks from the new revolutionary coalition. There was a deep and widespread fear of slave revolts among the colonists. According to Edward Rutledge, a leader of the South Carolina Patriots, the British strategy of arming free slaves tended “more effectively to work an eternal separation between Great Britain and the colonies than any other expedient could possibly be thought of.” This is unsurprising since a cycle of slave revolts shook the colonial powers just before the revolutionary period, taking advantage of the breakdown and instability of the imperial and colonial powers in the period of urban anti-impressment and stamp act riots: slave revolts occurred in Alexandria, Virginia in 1767; Perth Amboy, New Jersey in 1772; Saint Andrew’s Parish, South Carolina and in Boston in 1774; and in New York, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina in 1775. Lord Dunmore, the last colonial governor of Virginia, took advantage of this fact by providing what the Americans refused to offer: emancipation for slaves who fought in the King’s army against the colonists.
But “[w]hile five thousand African Americans fought for liberty [by accepting the promise of liberation for fighting in the army], the American political and military leadership battled the British and some of its own soldiers to protect the institution of slavery” (Linebaugh and Rediker). One of Washington’s slaves even snuck away in the night to fight against him for his freedom in the light of day. Rather than offer the same freedom in exchange for fighting, slaveholding colonists, particularly in the southern states, increased their efforts to mobilize and prevent slave emancipation. Simon Schama writes:
Instead of being cowed by the threat of a British armed liberation of the blacks, the slaveholding population mobilized to resist. Innumerable whites, especially those in the habitually loyal backcountry of Virginia, had been hitherto skeptical of following the more hot-headed of their Patriot leaders. But the news that the British troops would liberate their blacks, then give them weapons and their blessing to use them on their masters, persuaded many into thinking that perhaps the militant patriots were right.
The centrality of the issue for the colonists can equally be evinced in a letter from James Madison to William Bradford: “it is imagined our Governor has been tampering with the Slaves & that he [Dunmore] has it in contemplation, to make great Use of them in case of a civil war in this province. To say the truth, this is the only part in which this Colony is vulnerable; & and if we should be subdued, we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one that knows that secret.”
Such reactions against civil war would be canonized in the new country’s founding political documents. The Constitution (“the Constitution against faction”) gave the federal government power to suppress domestic revolts and also extended the rights of slave owners by providing for the return of fugitive slaves. When Constantine Volney, an outcast of both the French and the American Revolution, visited Thomas Jefferson in 1796, he reported the following scene:
After dinner the master [Jefferson] and I went to see the slaves plant peas. Their bodies dirty brown rather than black, their dirty rags, their miserable hideous half-nakedness, these haggard figures, this secretive anxious air, the hateful timorous looks, altogether seized me with an initial sentiment of terror and sadness […] The master took up a whip to frighten them, and soon ensued a comic scene. Placed in the middle of the gang, he agitated, he grumbled he menaced, and turned far and wide […] as he turned his face, the blacks changed attitudes: those whom he directly looked at worked the best, those whom he half saw worked least, and those he didn’t see at all, ceased working altogether.
Jefferson would say later that he believed that the drafting of the Act Concerning Aliens of 1798, designed to maintain “purity of national character,” had Volney specifically as its target.
The American revolutionaries were not “men of their times,” tacitly supporting slavery like everyone else. They were among the vanguard of the slave institution, attempting to put down the possibility of a successful slave insurrection in a period when that possibility was very likely. White supremacy was a structural reaction against civil war, a way of coding inferior bodies to preserve the new revolutionary coalition of householding men. The black body still embodies the history of its imprisonments, tortures, criminalization, and management. American democratic power and discourse is built upon the denigration of the black and native body. These same colonial authorities were promising vast swaths of land for whites by driving the natives into new camps, denigrating and dehumanizing them as a justification for plunder. The revolutionary vanguard of the the late eighteenth century was one party in a civil war who tried to control the battles, revolts, and insurrections in a bid to expand their own interests. They themselves did very little in the way of participating in activities; besides Revere, Paine, and Adams, the Founding Fathers were primarily absent from the major urban rebellions and slave revolts of the period. Instead, they managed its appearance from afar, redirecting certain elements (the sailors, the urban workers), erasing others (slaves, women, Natives), and controlling or limiting the dangerous elements that threatened to undermine it from within (riots).
Then there were the rebellions and conflicts that were better to just ignore, or else reinterpret in the new dimmed light of the “revolution.” Many stories do not fit into the heroic colonial narrative of the “rights” of the American versus the imperial “tyranny.” The forms of rebellion captured and reinterpreted by the revolutionary vanguard span far back before the revolutionary period and continue after, now suppressed by the very people who hopped so late on the bandwagon to push their colonial agenda. Reclaiming it as a civil war allows us to recast the revolutionary era as one phase of a — sometimes tragic, sometimes awe-inspiring, but in any case real — wider ongoing conflict.
We can reinterpret the Revolutionary era, then, in the context of the Pontiac war and the Paxton boys’ revenge. The loose confederation of Great Lakes Natives had a short campaign of resistance against the British in Illinois and Ohio Country, taking some forts and killing a few hundred. This was one of many native conflicts generally seen as separate to the revolutionary ascendancy, and one that highlights the complex and tragic relationships between the “official” American colonial powers, the natives, and the new American citizens. Colonel Bouquet led an expedition to free one of those forts, using a now well-known tactic described here by him in a letter: “I will try to inocculate [sic] the Indians by means of Blankets that may fall in their hands, taking care however not to get the disease myself.” The vigilante group known as the Paxton boys later led a campaign in Pennsylvania against natives, burning their villages, scalping and disemboweling adults and children alike. Coming to terms with these conflicts means coming to terms with both native violence and vigilante genocide, both uncomfortable for democratic discourse. In the same way, democratic discourse only obliquely discusses the arson and murder of slave revolts and the passionate rage leveled against black bodies by actors other than southern plantation owners like white workers, immigrant slave patrollers, or even black slaveowners. Doing so would force them to see these practices as related to forces and powers that are not embedded in a social mass or interest.
We can now also include the equally complex Land Riots. Between 1750 and 1800 in New York, Maine, and New Hampshire, tenants, landlords, and Natives all claimed ownership of the same tracts of land. Insurgents, after having been removed from their homes, would regather to destroy farms and buildings belonging to the landlord. After the Revolution, the new militias organized by the revolutionary government would use their power to suppress this domestic unrest and gain control of this conflict as well, returning land into the hands of the landlords. The Whiskey Insurrection of 1794 also threatened to undermine the new American civic identity. The federal government was only officially ratified in 1789. By 1791, they already passed the Whiskey Act, requiring small distillers to pay an exorbitant tax, which is how, almost as soon as the revolutionaries took power, they found their own slogans — “no taxation without representation” — being levelled against them by veterans of the war they’d just won. In what was beginning to look like a familiar situation, tax resistance followed until 1794, when that resistance turned into armed insurrection in Pennsylvania. Had it been allowed to grow, this could have caused the revolutionary discourse to spiral out of control. George Washington, then president, was charged with suppressing the rebellion. He took up the task with the “deepest regrets,” but knowing in his heart that “the very existence of government and the fundamental principles of social order are materially involved in the issue, and that the patriotism and firmness of all good citizens are seriously called upon, as occasions may require, to aid in the effectual suppression of so fatal a spirit.”
Plagued with factional interest and the complexities of civil war, American democratic discourse functions in a precarious relation to its own potential dissolution, hence all disagreements and emotional disputes that put its identity in crisis are avoided on principle. The American democratic identity requires the idea there has been a progression of democratization that has crystallized into the rights we supposedly enjoy today. One need not face such a history head on, but rather can expose it to the demons it tirelessly struggles to exorcise. On the one hand, it imagines a “resistance” (cleaned up of all the things that made it threatening to the authorities in the first place) legally making progress to include more people in its processes. Democratic discourse fundamentally cannot account for the bloody deeds of the vengeful slave, the raucous child, the shameful drunk, the hysterical wife, and the determined warrior. They do not speak the same language, and they strive for something other than democracy using other tools.
On the other side, democratic discourse imagines a stable —and evil! — minority of slaveowners and then over-zealous and unchecked capitalists. When faced with the fearful white plantation owner raising the whip, of course, but also the poor white workers with minor privileges chasing slaves, or the recently freed slaves who kept still-enslaved wives — democratic discourse tends to retreat into narratives that imagine American history as a struggle between a collective democratic power and an oppressive minority of southern plantation owners or unchecked capitalists culminating in the recognition of civil and constitutional rights. In order to mold history in this way, they must embed associated practices in a stable minority endowed with particular interests and capacities to erase the possibility that they were shared by a wider portion of the country. An even more simplified and smoothed out version, cleaned of all the “minor conflicts,” has appeared today as the 99% versus the 1%. In American history, democratic power was undoubtedly a tool in the service of slaveowners, the complicit whites, and the heads of the households, and it served their interests.
Democratic discourse frames history in the same way that it frames all discourse: by excluding from the outset anything which does not agree with it and reinterpreting everything in the light of the categories it already chose. It’s war. Paine makes black faces white. Jefferson drafts a law to get rid of pesky foreigners who don’t like his “revolution.” The Sons of Liberty encourage rioting when it undermines the British, but express moral outrage when it threatens them. This isn’t “history” at all. This is democracy defining itself with new examples taken from history. Those who, like us, were brought up hearing the story of American democratic progress on repeat have learned to recite it very well with all the necessary reverence and gratitude. What we must now learn to do is to analyze power relations, not laws; structural functionality, not legal categories; the power of symbols and language, not identity. Until then, there will always be those who think racism is a logical construct rather than a historical one. Perhaps they truly believe racism to be “officially” over after Civil Rights and Obama or that one can be racist against whites. There will always be those who think patriarchal power is when a man is mean or unfair rather than the organizational model that structures the family, society, and the police. Maybe they actually think equal pay is the last frontier of systemic sexism. History is not an accumulation of identities and their legal recognition, nor is it the advancement of their inclusion into “democracy.” Democracy has always been imagined to be eternally threatened by those events, those decisions made by real people —revolts, defection, denial, fleeing, conspiracy, piracy, murder— that threatened the whole of its identity with itself. Recognition by democratic discourse includes those people or acts that threaten it —today as much as during the revolution— as objects of management alone.
There is no eternal battle between humanity and a minority of evildoers, there are processes that sweep up bodies, inclining them temporally in one direction or another in a series of conflicts with other bodies. How those conflicts play out produces their lasting effects. That some bodies are together able to make the same decisions over and over again is the sign of a well-functioning machine, not a class. The binary conflicts imagined by the Left and the Right flatten history, removing from it the experiences that give it its texture and tones. Rather than examining the interplay of “types” apparently reproducing their own activities and status over and over for all eternity, we must stay firmly rooted in the decisive moments, for it is on their explosive potential that the world becomes different from itself.