Spaces of Revolution

Recently, in a blog post entitled “Monumentalising Revolution,” my commentary argued that the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City stands as an ambiguous carrier of utopian promise, which links past and present generations of struggle. Specifically, my concluding point was that this architectural space stands as a possible symbol of “the effective participation of the present generation in shaping the utopian desires of the oppressed, linked to ongoing past and present social struggles.” Written in April, there was no anticipation in this piece of the events to come that have swirled around the student movement #YoSoy132 in contesting the presidential election process in Mexico.

This very movement has invoked the ghosts of the past haunting the present, including the massacre of some 500 students by the Mexican state on 2 October 1968 at Tlatelolco and the follow-on Corpus Christi Massacre on 10 June 1971, which unfolded in and around the streets surrounding the Monument to the Revolution. As reported in La Jornada, today’s members of #YoSoy132 have also reclaimed the space of the monument by hosting key speeches and addresses, including the visit of Camila Vallejo (see Transcend the Electoral Conjuncture); by exploding an effigy of President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto; by holding a “Peñatón” to protest against the return to power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); and by staging musical protests such as this performance of “Un Derecho de Nacimiento” [Birthright] by various artists on June 26, at the monumental space.


What can this site therefore tell us about spaces of revolution?

The year 2010 witnessed the centennial of the Mexican Revolution as well as the bicentennial of the country’s struggle for Independence. Following this celebratory year, a significant exhibition was organised at the Museum of National Art called Los sueños de una nación: un año despues 2011 [The dreams of a nation: one year after, 2011], hosted by the National Council for Culture and Arts (CONACULTA), from 11 November 2011 to 29 January 2012. Writing in the catalogue of the exhibition, the president of CONACULTA, Consuelo Saízar, states that the event was meant “to reflect on the way there have been systems of representation, artistic and visual, on the concept of the nation, understanding this as an ideology – social and political – emanating from the State that attempts to bring together in one identity the diverse cultural groups that inhabit the Mexican Republic.”

Aniversario by Eduardo del Río “Rius” in ‘Rius en Proceso’ (México, DF: Revista Proceso, 1983)

At the centre of this exhibition was a set of different artistic interventions reflecting on the Monument to the Revolution. In Mexico, there is a great history of political cartoons in general as well as specifically in relation to the monument itself. As Thomas Benjamin has commented, this includes the cartoon by the famous Rius, depicting an official ceremony at the site of the monument where one of the participants is confused and asks, “Is this the anniversary of the triumph of the Revolution or the triumph over the Revolution?” Following this lineage, the exhibition Los sueños de una nación features the cartoon “Festejo revolucionario” [Revolutionary Celebration] by José Hernández, depicting the increasing authoritarianism underpinning the Mexican state, as published in La Jornada on 20 November 2006. With aesthetic expressiveness, the amazing ‘Revolución petrificada’ [Petrified Revolution, 1996] by Antonio Luquín is also included in the exhibition (see the featured artwork), which conveys the cracked and crumbling image of the Monument to the Revolution during the rollout of neoliberalism.

In one of the most detailed commentaries in the exhibition catalogue, though, is Helena Chávez MacGregor’s essay ‘The Revolution Will Be Live” on the work of Melanie Smith. The latter was an installation by Melanie Smith in collaboration with Rafael Ortega that displayed the promise and failure of revolution, its frames and forms of representation. The focus was an event in 2010 hosted in the Estadio Azteca and funded by Televisa in which stunt cards were held above the heads of the participant crowds to create mosaic images, visible from distance, of Mexico’s past and present. In her essay, Chávez MacGregor comments on the tensions between revolution and counter-revolution indicating that what must be feared the most is not the condition of revolution but its institution, when a homogenous project becomes unable to incorporate different demands and desires and a single system establishes itself.

At the moment when the revolution is instituted in order to make way for the constitution of a proper state, the revolutionary process can be violently subsumed under a program that attempts to create a new order, one that would give a direction to and an outlet for the forces that those processes opened up, unleashed, invoked.

In my opinion, this emphasis links to Antonio Gramsci’s notion of passive revolution that refers to a situation when capitalist development is either instituted and/or expanded to result in both “revolutionary” rupture and a “restoration” of social relations. As I argue in my article, “The continuum of passive revolution,” the condition of passive revolution captures ruptural conditions of state formation ushering in capitalist development as well as ongoing class and spatial strategies linked to the continual furtherance of capitalist restructuring.

Extending these insights, specific spatial practices in the form of state codifications of architecture also clearly contribute to the construction and reproduction of the modern state in conditions of passive revolution. Here, processes of revolutionary rupture become displaced, thwarted, and averted leading to a continuation of the old political order through monuments that transform space. Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space [1974] states that “monumental buildings mask the will to power and the arbitrariness of power beneath signs and surfaces which claim to express collective will and collective thought.” In terms of synthesis and symbolism, then, the Monument to Revolution might actually be better understood as a monument to passive revolution in Mexico. It represents the very institutionalisation of the Mexican Revolution, retaining the empty space of the old structure under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to stand as a monumentalisation of Mexico’s incomplete modernity.

Returning to Chávez Macgregor’s essay, there is then a danger that lies in the celebration of revolution that can end up in an affirmation of its opposite, meaning the counter-revolution of dogma and the institution of power and sovereignty. This captures the very symbolism of the Monument to the Revolution but also, perhaps, comparable spaces of revolution. Can one think similarly about the techniques of state power invested in architecture in Mexico in the example of the Monument to the Revolution, and in Turkey in terms of the significance of the Monument to the Republic in Taksim Square, or in Egypt in relation to the historical and contemporary significance of Tahrir Square? What different kinds of urban experience, conditions of modernity, and representational spaces of revolution might these cases reveal?

Will the process of becoming revolutionary that is now being absorbed within Egypt’s emergent passive revolution be revisited? Additionally, what kind of passive revolution is being enacted through the reordering of the hegemony of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey? Finally, as I argue in my recent book, can the history of revolution and state in modern Mexico be seen as a struggle of passive revolution?

Revisiting old spaces of revolution might therefore pose some new questions about the transformation of state power today.

Dr. Adam David Morton is an Associate Professor and Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham/United Kingdom.