Turn, Turn, Turn: The Notion of Constant Forward Movement – Jan Hennings

Turn, Turn, Turn: The Notion of Constant Forward Movement – Jan Hennings

We tend to think of revolutions as radical and irreversible, but is that really the case?

Why do we use the term ‘revolution’ to describe events or developments that contain elements of radicalism and irreversibility? One reason might be that the historical experience of radical change has often been tied to visions of the future and the idea of irreversible progress. While the term ‘revolution’ as we understand it today has political and social connotations, this was not always the case. It was the transition from the pre-modern age to modernity that gave rise to the current definition, and it is this sense of the word that continues to shape our perception of profound changes even to this day.
We know that the term was used in diverse contexts from very early on, such as in astronomy. And there has always been a comprehensive vocabulary for violent upheaval or long-term social transformation. Since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, however, the word acquired a new, positive and politically legitimising sense that continued to inform the optimism of Enlightenment historical philosophy and, with its idea of progressive, comprehensive change, laid the intellectual groundwork for the French Revolution. Historical experience transformed the meaning of the term. The contemporaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began to use it to describe an inevitable historical process and to express the feasibility and enforceability of political goals. Since being introduced into the political realm, ‘revolution’ has come to mean not only an event in the past or a scientifically observable fact that determines people’s lives. It also stands for something radically new, for a programme that people follow to shape their future. As Reinhart Koselleck formulated it when summarising the term’s shift in meaning in the historical lexicon Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: ‘The term guides both thought and action. Therein lies its modernity.

The Tatlin-Tower as a symbol of the proletarian world revolution

The Soviet avant-garde artist Vladimir Tatlin captured this idea in a particularly memorable way within the artistic context of the Russian Revolution. In 1919 he presented a model for the ‘Monument to the Third International’: the famous Tatlin Tower. The architecture of the design represented the union of a process-orientated awareness of time and the human mandate to act. At a height of four hundred metres, the building was intended as the headquarters of the Communist International and to not only serve as a symbol of the proletarian world revolution and socio-political life, but also to embody them in its dynamics and produce a sensory experience of them.

Monument to commemorate the Third Internatinal, 1919-20 (Litho), Tatlin, Vladimir Evgrafovich (1885–1953)/ Shuchev Russian Architecture Museum/ Sputnik/ Bridgeman Images
The plan called for three axes that were to grow together into a single spiral, with separate levels rotating around each axis and accommodating important components of modern life. Each axis was to orbit according to its own unique schedule, and would play host to important activities of the Third International. The lowest level was to consist of a cube-shaped construction that rotated annually and was intended for legislative functions and congresses. Executive and administrative activities were to take place in a pyramid on the middle level that rotated monthly. At the top, institutions for information distribution were to be housed in a cylinder that rotated once a day.

The notion of ‘No turning back now!’ is an utopian idea

In its aesthetic, the tower portrayed the revolution as an irreversible, constantly advancing development. At the same time, the rotational dynamics of the structure, and the decision-making processes taking place within it, implied that the tower produced this revolution itself. In a contribution to a Russian magazine in 1921, the critic Viktor Shklovskii noted fittingly that the tower was made of glass, steel, and revolution. In an earlier commentary, the art historian Nikolai Punin had observed that in its movement, the tower signified a revolutionary liberation. While its form was safely anchored in the foundation, the building simultaneously fled from the ground upwards, spiralling into the sky and thereby overcoming both the material and the forces of gravity. According to Punin, society was growing upwards in a similar spiral movement and in constant revolution, overcoming all earthbound, animalistic interests and instincts. In this interpretation, the new overcomes once and for all the shackles of old structures and traditions. A process of this kind requires a radical desire for change and makes it impossible to return to previous states of being.
While revolutions have the connotation of being radical and irreversible, this has never truly been the case for any of the political-social transformations that occurred. Radical upheaval always gives rise to forces that turn the wheel of revolution backwards when it is already in the middle of an unstoppable forward motion – think of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, of the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, or of the Russian Civil War after the October Revolution, or the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century. History reminds us that the notion of ‘No turning back now!’ is an utopian idea in manmade revolutions, although the idea of irreversible forward motion lies at the core of the modern concept of revolution. Tatlin’s vision of the future, designed during the Russian Civil War, obviously did not include this counter-axis – the wheel of history. Instead, the revolution was to drive society upwards in seemingly irreversible spiral movements to ever higher achievements. But that idea of the revolution remained a utopia, and the tower was never built.
The only thing that has been both profound and possibly irreversible – and in this sense truly ‘revolutionary’ – is the change in meaning that modern revolutions have caused by joining together historical awareness, human action, and visions for the future within the very term ‘revolution’. There seems no turning back to a time before that word. This terminology may perhaps also explain why not every regime change in recent history is unequivocally called a ‘revolution’ in everyday language, despite the positive and legitimising connotations that may accompany them. At least not when the events in question cannot be easily placed within the lexicon of historical experience and either are modified with attributes or generate new vocabulary, as in ‘the Peaceful Revolution of 1989’ – ‘die Wende’.
Historian Jan Hennings joined the Junge Akademie in 2016. He teaches at Central European University in Budapest.

Further Reading: Reinhart Koselleck, ‘Art. Revolution, Rebellion, Aufruhr, Bürgerkrieg’ in: Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, vol. 5, Stuttgart 2004, pp. 653-788. Nikolai Punin, Pamiatnik III Internatsionala. Proekt khud. V.E. Tatlina, St Petersburg 1920. Viktor Shklovskii, ‘Pamiatnik Tret’emu Internatsionalu’ in: Zhizn’ iskusstva, 5-9 January 1921.

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