Kapuściński on Crowds and Revolutions

In his semi-novelistic, semi-journalistic account of the Iranian revolution and the final days of the Shah of Iran, Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapuściński, in the closing chapter ‘The Dead Flame’, writes:

Everything that makes up the outward, visible part of a revolution vanishes quickly. A person, an individual being, has a thousand ways of conveying his feelings and thoughts. He is riches without end, he is a world in which we can always discover something new. A crowd, on the other hand, reduces the individuality of the person; a man in a crowd limits himself to a few forms of elementary behavior. The forms through which a crowd can express its yearnings are extraordinarily meager and continually repeat themselves: the demonstration, the strike, the rally, the barricades. That is why you can write a novel about a man, but about a crowd–never. If the crowd disperses, goes home, does not reassemble, we say that the revolution is over.

This is an interesting cluster of remarks that do not necessarily belong in the same paragraph.

The ‘outward, visible part of revolution’–the one most often identified and commemorated and studied–often does have a transitory character; it is upon us quickly and ebbs away just as rapidly. It is why most superficial analyses of revolution insist on its ‘suddenness’ and its ‘dramatic change.’ But revolutions do not occur in days, weeks, or even months; sometimes they take years, decades, centuries. But the revolutionary, radical changes underway are not always visible, not always on the ‘surface’; more often than not, they happen away from the town square, away from the sites of assembly and protest and sloganeering and brickbats, away from where statues are pulled down. They happen in spaces of quieter, but just as intense, political dispute, where blueprints for change are drawn up, haggled over, contested, and drafted. Sometimes they happen in tiny, localized pockets of intimate and personal spaces where the tiniest of individual interactions are up for recontestation and reconfiguration. Sometimes a revolution bubbles up and then back down to find its ultimate resolution in these little pockets. There is a reason a revolution is called ‘radical’ – it’s because it happens at the roots, which more often than not, are deep, and well hidden away from continual inspection.

As for the forms in which a crowd can ‘express’ itself, they are not as ‘extraordinarily meager’ as Kapuściński might imagine. To suggest this is to make the mistake of imagining that the forms of the novel are meager because they always, at least until recently, took the form of paper books. ‘The demonstration, the strike, the rally, the barricade’ are very abstract templates. Within them lurk endlessly diverse possibilities for the display of revolutionary potential: perhaps in their manner of assembly and movement, perhaps in their persistence, perhaps in their effectiveness, perhaps in the forms in which their members finally rise up and resist. A revolutionary crowd is a collective artist of sorts–and here I address Kapuściński’s dismissal of the possibility of a novelistic account of it–one capable  of many reconfigurations of itself. That these basic forms have endured for as long as they have is perhaps the most eloquent testimony in support of the claim that they offer ample opportunity for creative revolutionaries to express themselves.

Finally, ‘if the crowd disperses, goes home, does not reassemble’, the revolution is indeed, often over. But sometimes, and this takes us back to where we began, it’s because the ‘crowd’ knows work remains to be done and not necessarily in the streets. There, the revolution continues.

3 comments on “Kapuściński on Crowds and Revolutions

  1. Noor Alam says:

    Nice retort to an unfortunately narrow conclusion on revolutions. How did you find the rest of the book?

  2. breslico says:

    this is beautiful, reminds me Freire:

    “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge
    emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing,
    hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

    in the world. with the world. and with each other.

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