Can reforms be revolutionary?, by Alexander Stoffel

The concept of ‘revolution’ is notoriously difficult to define. Frequently, definitions of ‘revolution’ entail an explicit disambiguation from its counterpart, ‘reform’. The two can be regarded as contradictory, whereby reformist policies, such as welfare provisions, are understood as impeding revolution; as dialectical, that is, as opposites that nevertheless work towards the same end; or as conjoined, as indicated by Garton Ash’s (1999) neologism ‘refolution’. It is the relation between these two concepts that this essay explores. It shows, first, that the distinction between ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’ is usefully understood through poststructuralist accounts of ‘politics’ versus ‘the political’. Second, it argues for a reconceptualization of ‘revolution’ as an attitude and an ethos. This makes it possible to resist the oppositional framing of the ‘reform or revolution’ debate without assuming an uncritical attitude towards reformist policy. In short, reforms can be revolutionary.

At first glance the distinction between ‘revolution’ and ‘reform’ appears evident. Reform movements are commonly understood as seeking to achieve social change through non-violent, lawful action. This usually takes the form of new legislation or constitutional changes. Revolutions, on the other hand, are understood to represent a more fundamental transformation of the social order. If reforms are gradual and focused on particular issues, revolutions are rapid and leave no aspect of social and political life untouched. Whereas reforms are interesting in changing governmental structures, revolutions seek to overthrow the government. Within (and without) disciplinary IR, this is the most common way to distinguish the two concepts (e.g., Lawson, 2006; Rao, 2016).

Nevertheless, this common-sensical distinction has been challenged by scholars in various ways. In a 1973 article, Sandra Harding argued that the distinction between reform and revolution is artificial because ‘reformist’ demands and actions are central in effecting fundamental social transformation, whereas ‘revolutionary’ demands and actions often fail to alter the status quo in any meaningful way. For Harding (1973: 275), any movement that transforms the prevailing system, ‘leaving nothing the same, must be nothing but a series of reforms’. She argues that it is entirely possible for reformers to have long-term goals and envisage entirely new societies, which can be realized through a series of small changes. In this understanding, ‘reforms might constitute a revolution’ (Harding, 1973: 275). Furthermore, she claims that the distinction between quick seizure of government (revolution) and rational persuasion (reform) is misleading insofar as revolutions must be accompanied by some form of rational persuasion or, in the particular case of a feminist revolution, consciousness-raising. In other words, Harding is arguing that reforms are, in fact, revolutionary.

This dismissal of the reform/revolution dichotomy is predicated on the idea reforms are, indeed, about progressive change. However, reforms need not be progressive or about change. Queer analyses of social change have been particularly critical of late-twentieth-century feminist writing that suggested that the inclusion of women (and other marginalized subjects) into the hegemonic structures of the nation state through reformist action was inherently progressive and that it brought about social change. In Terrorist Assemblages, Jasbir Puar (2007) provides a critical analysis of LGBT reform movements that assume that the Western nation state is capable of expanding to include all marginalized populations. Instead, the inclusion and acceptance of certain gay and lesbian subjects affords some populations full legal and cultural citizenship at the expense of (racialized) Others by upholding certain ideas of social progress and modernity. Consider, for instance, movements seeking to reform the passport application process for trans people. Whilst this would undoubtedly allow trans people greater participation in national life, such a legal reform would simultaneously uphold the nation state’s sovereign power to violently police borders and surveille and monitor racialized minorities. There are numerous examples of similar homonationalist discourses and practices that are essentially reformist, yet in many ways naturalize and sustain the social order rather than transform it. A queer revolution would not consist in a long series of such reforms. However, it is worth noting that this is certainly not true for all reforms. The question then becomes: How do we identify reforms that are truly revolutionary? And is it even analytically or empirically useful to speak of revolutionary reforms?

Both ‘revolution’ and ‘reform’, it appears, are contested concepts that are difficult to pin down. One way to overcome this difficulty is by relating them to the poststructuralist distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’. As Jenny Edkins (1999) outlines, for scholars such as Derrida, Foucault, and Žižek, ‘politics’ refers to a particular organization of the social order that results from contestation. It is an area of activity that is ‘depoliticized’ in that it does not contest the boundaries of what counts as ‘politics’. ‘The political’, on the other hand, refers to the establishment of the social order that institutes and maintains a specific account of what counts as ‘politics’. A revolution is nothing less than the paradigmatic moment of ‘the political’. The profound transformation that revolutions bring about is a contestation of the social order. What takes place after a revolution is no longer ‘the political’, but occurs within the newly drawn parameters that define ‘politics’. In short, revolutions are constitutive of social order and are therefore an instance of ‘the political’.

In this model, reforms need not be confined to ‘politics’. Whilst the homonationalist reforms that are the focus of Puar’s analysis uphold and reify the boundaries of what counts as ‘politics’, Sandra Harding is interested in moments when reforms can contest those same boundaries. Indeed, particularly within feminism, the famous slogan ‘the personal is political’, which was the watchword of many legal reforms, is exemplary of ‘the political’ in that it challenges the narrow scope of ‘politics’. Feminist reforms have reimagined politics and, consequently, invited new forms of political analysis and intervention. Therefore, the project of questioning the limits of the political order need not be confined to revolutionary situations. What must be added to Sandra Harding’s analysis, then, is that there are different types of reforms. In response to Harding, bell hooks (2000: 160) writes: ‘Reforms can be a vital part of the movement towards revolution, but what is important are the types of reforms that are initiated.’ In an interview in which he refuses the dilemma of being either for or against Mitterrand’s 1981 socialist government, Michel Foucault (2002: 457) makes a similar distinction between ‘superficial’ and ‘deep’ reform. For Foucault (2002: 456), ‘one can work and be intransigent at the same time’. Revolution, or what he refers to as ‘“ideal” criticism’, is indispensable for ‘deep’ reform. If reform does not consist in ‘seeing on what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established, unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based’ – that is, unless reform is a process of contesting ‘politics’ –, it remains superficial and stuck ‘within the same mode of thought’. Following Foucault, it becomes possible to think of revolution as a continuous practice of radical critique, as a critical attitude or ethos. There is thus no reason why reforms cannot be revolutionary if they are ‘the outcome of a process in which there is conflict, confrontation, struggle, resistance’ (Foucault, 2002: 457). In brief, reforms can be revolutionary.

In conclusion, the reform/revolution dichotomy is best resolved through a distinction between two types of reform. On the one hand, some reforms strengthen the existing social order and take place within the technologized realm of ‘politics’. On the other hand, when reforms are enacted through a process of continuous and radical critique, they can envisage long-term goals and successfully transform the entire social order. They take place in ‘the political’ and can therefore be termed revolutionary reforms. In sum, reforms can be revolutionary. The opposition of ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’ is therefore misleading, yet we should remain critical of reforms that do not question the concealed boundaries that limit our politics.


Edkins, J. (1999) Poststructuralism and International Relations: Bringing the Political Back In. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Faubion, J. D. (2002) Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984, Volume III. Translated by Robert Hurley and others. London: Penguin Books.

Garton Ash, T. (1999) History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Despatches from Europe in the 1990s. London: Penguin Press.

Harding, S. (1973) Feminism: Reform or Revolution? The Philosophical Forum, 5 (1), 271-284.

hooks, b. (2000) Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 2nd ed, Cambridge: South End Press.

Lawson, G. (2006) ‘Reform, Rebellion, Civil War, Coup d’état, and Revolution’. In: DeFronzo, J. (ed.). Revolutionary Movements in World History: From 1750 to the Present. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 717-722.

Puar, J. (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press. Next Wave: New Directions in Women’s Studies.

Rao, R. (2016) ‘Revolution’. In: Berenskoetter, F. (ed.). Concepts in World Politics. Los Angeles: Sage, 253-270.

About the author

Alexander Stoffel holds a Master of Science (MSc) in International Relations Theory at the London School of Economics (LSE).

How to cite this article

Mundorama. "Can reforms be revolutionary?, by Alexander Stoffel". Mundorama - Revista de Divulgação Científica em Relações Internacionais,. [Acessado em 21/11/2018]. Disponível em: <>.

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