Revolution at 100: John Foran

Cover of Taking Power. Sandinista youths awaiting the attack of the National Guard, Nicaragua, 1979. Photo by Susan Meiselas reprinted with her permission.


  1. What remains of a politico-cultural horizon beyond contemporary capitalism? Is the term “revolution” appropriate today? Why or why not?

“Revolution,” in the sense of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, the great social revolutions of the twentieth-century in Cuba, China, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Iran, or the great anti-colonial revolutions of that century in Algeria, India, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Vietnam, among others, is dead.

Each of these revolutions, though conceived in the radical dreams of many diversely situated people, was carried through by a hierarchically organized, male-led guerrilla army (Chile in 1970 and Iran in 1979 being the sole exceptions). Under pressure from all sides, every revolutionary state, condensed power in a few hands and backed off on the promise of democratic participation (the exceptions were the elected government in Chile, Nicaragua in 1979, and to some extent, Iran). Thus all ended in failure, despite making significant gains for their peoples in some places, notably in Chile, Cuba, and arguably China.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the dreams of the activists, revolutionaries, radicals, and lovers of justice who fought and died in those revolutions, and the millions who are fighting and sometimes dying today, and will continue to do so for a thousand tomorrows, however unrealized, remain intact.

In this century – our century, quite possibly humanity’s last – we will fly under a different banner in “movements for radical social transformation,” a term big enough to apply to the great social revolutions of the last century, and the hopefully more promising movements of today, so different from them in style and much else, and yet still bear striking similarities with the worlds we imagine.

  1. Where does the Revolution exist in contemporary cultural politics, if it exists at all?

Today’s center of gravity for world transformation is global. Movements for social, environmental, and climate justice are the inheritors of the radicality of the past and the bearers of the new radicality. We are horizontalist but not afraid of power, intersectional and growing in numbers, non-violent but willing to die, and ready to imagine, to create, to dream, to fly…

  1. What new meanings or manifestations might revolution take on in the post- or neo-colonial present, one threatened with ecological as well as politico-economic and military catastrophe?

It is time for something new, something unthinkable or at least unthought, but readily recognizable to all who are rising to this epic moment at the cusp of the Anthropocene and the final impasse of capitalism. I bring one idea to this table by suggesting what we need is some excitingly new and original kind of party that in each country or case comes out of the social movements that would bring it to power, to then be held strictly accountable by them as it turns the ship around. Such a “party” (and the name is apt for the convivial connotations it holds) will be the patient, challenging, loving product of the actions of many people, and it will embrace the many, richly diverse threads of the new political cultures of opposition and creation.

It sounds simplistic and unrealistic, too good to be true. But what have we got to lose? We aren’t winning at present. We need to try something different, something we haven’t really tried before, that might not be contained by the great countervailing economic and political power of the global one percent.

What if we could harness the people power, radical imagination, and boundless energy of all of these new actors of the future, starting with facilitated discussions among the new social movements, brainstorming how to fashion some new kind of party to take power where that is possible and then beginning to support and enable all the emerging transition initiatives to co-create radical social transformation on the national level?

Our social movements include not just the Arab Spring and Occupy, but their brilliant predecessors, the Zapatistas and the global justice movement, and their offspring in Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and many, many other rising voices, the vast majority of them not well known.

Meanwhile, transition initiatives, whether by that name or more often some other, have sprouted and are being tended in multiple locations today, from Totnes in the U.K. to the ZAD in the woods and fields of France. The French film Demain captures the vibrancy and possibility of these movements, across a global space that includes urban gardens in Detroit, zero-waste processing in San Francisco, local currency in Bristol, England, a paper factory in France run on the principles of the circular economy, organic farming and solar panels on La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, and village democracy in Kuthambakkam, India.

  1. Is there hope for political transformation within the terms of actually existing representative democracy? Is it possible to address climate change adequately within the terms of capitalism?

 Yes, and no. Yes, in the sense that we must rise in the circumstances we find ourselves in. No, in that we must change those circumstances as we rise…

Climate change and the dawning of the Anthropocene are game changers for all the players, because of their intersection/imbrication with global capitalism, the yawning (in both senses of the word) democracy deficit, the cultures of militarism and violence that are killing people everywhere. Worse, we are on a short time line here not dictated by us but by the laws of that very Nature we have pillaged in transforming the world without transforming ourselves, part of that Nature but now subject to it, rather than the other way around. Capitalism or nature, only one will win, and it won’t be capitalism.

And if it isn’t clear now, or yet, we are striving to eventually build a future without this system, without capitalism, without endless growth, without obscene inequality, without the violence of militarism, and with democratic participation from bottom to top and back to the bottom again.

The latest spectre – the threat posed by a nearly ice-free Arctic – rises the possibility of abrupt climate change that is not accounted for in the existing climate models and scenarios. This only adds extreme urgency to our already utmost efforts – we must do this work now, while hoping to bring about a substantially more favorable balance of forces in the near-term future. The timeframe we face is perhaps ten years, or more poetically a hundred months. We must make every day, every moment, count.

  1. What do art, aesthetic action, and visual culture have to offer when it comes to the imperatives of political transformation? What role might they have, more broadly, in building and envisioning political transformation?

People join movements through particular political cultures of opposition and resistance capable of bringing diverse social groups together. These cultures originate in people’s experiences and emotions and are expressed with all media in complex mixtures of popular, everyday ways of articulating grievances – whether in terms of fairness, justice, dignity, or freedom – and more consciously formulated radical ideologies such as socialism, nationalism, liberation theology, and anti-colonialism.

In any given society, there usually exist multiple political cultures of opposition, for people do not necessarily share the same experiences, speak similar idioms, or respond as one to the call of formal ideologies. The most effective revolutionary movements of history found ways to tap into the political cultures in their society, bridging the gaps between them, often through the creation of a clear and concise common demand such as “the regime must step down” or “the foreign powers must leave.” When this happens, a movement’s chances of growth and success are considerably increased.

The forging of a strong and vibrant political culture of opposition is thus an accomplishment, carried through by the actions of many people, and, like revolutions themselves, such cultures have been relatively rare in human history.

Those who would bring about deep social transformation in the present century, including the global justice movement, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements across the world, and today’s global climate justice movement, have proceeded in some crucially different ways from their forerunners in the twentieth, above all by their stress on non-violence and deep participation.

The new movements for radical social change are moving in the direction of more horizontal, deeply democratic relations among participants; the greater expressive power of popular idioms than appeals to ideology; visionary narratives and compelling stories using all manner of media; the growing use of civil disobedience and militant nonviolence; the building of intersectional coalitions as networks that include diverse outlooks; and the salience of political cultures of creation alongside political cultures of opposition and resistance.

Today’s movements, in addition to political cultures of opposition and resistance, also place strong emphasis on what might be called political cultures of creation (or PCOCs, which may be conveniently read out loud as “peacocks”!). Movements become even stronger when they add a positive vision of a better world to a widely felt culture of opposition and resistance, providing an alternative to strive for that could improve on or replace what exists.

  1. How might different subjects—whether differently abled, aged, or particularly vulnerable and precarious—be unevenly affected by the prospect of revolution/political transformation? What work is being done, or needs to be done, to ensure that radical transformation is radically inclusive?

Might these new political cultures of opposition and creation produce – or at least contribute to – the type of global transformation that is needed to deal with a world in crisis?

Twenty-first century movements for radical social change have shown an ability to move beyond ideology in favor of the strengths of popular idioms and powerful, strategic memes demanding social justice – Black Lives Matter! Water is Life! But how to fashion large-scale popular spaces for democracy, and how to articulate the discourses that will bring together the broadest coalitions ever seen onto a global stage constitute great challenges.

The title of adrienne maree brown’s 2017 book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Oakland: AK Press) heralds a valuable approach to the problem of making change in the midst of diversity and chaos. She suggests working from the bottom up in an inclusive way to generate a group analysis and enable a focus on the articulated desires and sought after outcomes of all involved. An emergent strategy begins with assessing the current state of relevant issues, moving on to a vision exercise to identify our ideal state, conducting a “change analysis” stage, which outlines what needs to change in order to achieve those visions, and ends with an “action” exercise to identify the actions that group members are most passionate about, with the potential to be put into motion.

The perspective is based on

strategies for organizers building movements for justice and liberation that leverage relatively simple interactions to create complex patterns, systems, and transformations – including adaptation, interdependence and decentralization, fractal awareness, resilience and transformative justice, nonlinear and iterative change, creating more possibilities.

and now it’s like … ways for humans to practice being in right relationship to our home and each other, to practice complexity, and grow a compelling future together through relatively simple interactions. Emergent strategy is how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.

and maybe, if I’m honest, it’s a philosophy for how to be in harmony and love, in and with the world

[Emergent Strategy, 23-24].

If this sounds more evocative than prescriptive, that’s because it’s about attending to process, cultivating relationships, maximizing our diversity, and staying open to learning and deciding in unfolding situations, which are skills much more useful to social movements than a list of activities to check off.

  1. In our counter-factual, anti-regulatory, climate change denying era, how might the arts support scientific endeavors? How might the Sciences learn from art activism?

I have one personal experience to draw on. It is not taken from a political experiment or social movement, but it points readers to a space for assisting in the development of radical young agents of change. In the past year, I have worked with thirty colleagues across the University of California and California State University systems to create, using the tools of emergent strategy, the UC-CSU KAN: a Knowledge Action Network for Transformative Climate and Sustainability Education and Action. The idea is to scale and intensify California students’ climate justice literacy by establishing a dense network of active and knowledgeable faculty and students at each UC and CSU campus in the hope that the knowledge gained by interacting with our peers throughout the California public higher education system contains the potential for multiplying our impact as educators at every level, from kindergarten through college.

We have based our approach to confronting the pressing social and existential challenges of the climate crisis on the foundational perspective of climate justice, seen as a global issue and a universal right of humanity and of nature generally. “Climate justice” refers to a set of insights and practices that center the effects of climate change on the stakeholders and communities most affected by it yet least responsible for it and often possessing the fewest resources to adapt to it. These tend to be people who live on the “front-lines” of the climate problem, from low-lying island nations to populations in the Global South, to communities of color and low-income areas in the United States. Due to the broad and growing diversity of California’s population, we believe this is the most effective approach to climate change in the educational field.

A key principle has been to affirm the essential roles that social scientists, humanists, educators, the arts, and culture in all its forms can play alongside the STEM fields in advancing transformative climate action. We hope to expand and develop the roles of California college faculty and K-12 teachers in supporting their students to act on climate and in reaching beyond the campus to engage various publics to accelerate the shifts we must make for a livable and just future.

You can find us here. You can hear some of our ideas here. You can join us by e-mailing me at

Conjuntos podemos/Together We Can!

The Insurrectional Clown Army at the People’s Climate March, COP 19 U.N. climate negotiations, Warsaw, 2013. Photo by John Foran, reprinted by permission of Interface.

John Foran's Biography: My academic specialty is Movements for Radical Social Change, both 20th century revolutions my book [pdf here] is called Taking Power: On the Origins of Twentieth Century Revolutions in the Third World (Cambridge UP, 2005) and 21st century movements for radical social change, from the global justice movement to Occupy, the Arab Spring, the Zapatistas, and now, esp. the global climate justice movement (see “Beyond Insurgency to Radical Social Change: The New Situation,” pp. 5-25 in Studies in Social Justice (2014). I now work passionately as a scholar-activist on and within the global climate justice movement, which I see as at the center of the struggle for any prospect of achieving social justice and radical social change in the 21st century. A lot of my work is published at It can also be found in two places that I have helped co-create: the websites of the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory and the Climate Justice Project. I am also involved in a major new curriculum project on teaching climate justice from kindergarten to the university with colleagues in the UC and CSU university systems here in California. I teach university-level courses on “Earth in Crisis,” “Climate Justice,” “Activism,” and “The World in 2050: Sustainable Development and Its Alternatives.” I am an active member of System Change Not Climate Change, the Green Party of California, and Santa Barbara 350.

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