For Professor Lea Ypi, revolution is not an abstract concept. Brought up in Albania, the country’s gradual transition away from communism was the backdrop to her childhood, while civil war in the late 1990s overshadowed her adolescence.
“I think there are some moments in history when it’s very obvious to the protagonists that there’s something like a revolution happening, and what I experienced in Albania in the 90s was exactly that,” she says. “You didn’t know where it was going and how it was going to end but you knew it was revolutionary change.”
Those experiences inform Ypi’s 2021 memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, which won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize. The book draws directly on her own teenage diaries, which chronicled the events in real time.
“I actually started keeping a diary in 1990, when Albania was transitioning from communism to liberalism, liberal democracy, or capitalism – whatever we want to call it! And so I guess because it was a time of confusion and bewilderment for me, keeping a diary was a way of recording events and trying to make sense of the world. And I kept it throughout those teenage years. In particular, in recounting the events around 1997, I was finding it really hard to write about the conflict with the point of view of now, and decided to just go back to the diaries.”
Ypi is a Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics, where her research and teaching focuses on political thought, the Enlightenment, Marxism, and nationalism in the intellectual history of the Balkans. Her contribution to the Darwin College Lecture Series this Friday will combine these interests to consider Are Revolutions Justified?
“The idea is to start with the more ethical, abstract debate, about whether revolutions are ever justified or not, and try and present the different sides of the argument, and also to trace the genealogy of these arguments to particular characters in the history of political thought,” she explains.
Pondering the etymology of the term itself, she points out that it has its roots, not in politics, but in science.
“The ancients didn’t really have a concept of revolution – they talked about cycles of crisis, and transitions from one regime type to another. Actually the term revolution comes from the Copernican Revolution and the planets revolving into orbit, the idea of returning to a natural order of things.”
The lecture will examine how the word was adopted to describe political uprisings, and explore the opposing philosophical arguments in justification or condemnation of them.
“On the one hand there are people who say well, there is a kind of moral justification of political authority, individuals should always have their rights guaranteed by the state somehow, and so when authorities don’t reflect these interests or these valid claims of individuals, people are in some way justified to take power back into their own hands. And then the opposite argument, which I have always found very interesting and is often too quickly dismissed, was that actually when you have a constituted power, there is a will that is universal already, somehow. So every time individuals rebel, they are particularising that will, and there is a kind of contradiction. The upshot is that you cannot legislate in favour of revolution…revolution can never be justified because the principle that supports the revolution, can never be universalised, it would undermine the legitimacy of the collective will that underpins the constituted order, even if it’s for a good individual cause.”
Ypi’s analysis of this debate will incorporate the arguments of the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, who both questioned the possibility of justifying revolution in principle, while actively supporting the French Revolution in particular.
“The argument that Kant actually makes about the French Revolution is that you can see that it’s an event that contributes to moral progress because of the enthusiasm that it generates in the impartial spectator. So there’s all these people seeing these events unfold, and they’re not really participating but they support the cause because the types of principles that the revolutionaries promote give us a sign that humanity is making moral progress. It’s the enthusiasm of the spectators that, for him, constitutes a sign of the revolution’s place in something like a philosophy of history, even though if you look at it from the point of view of the actors, it may be more controversial.”
This fascination with Kant is rooted in Ypi’s earliest academic interests, as an undergraduate studying Philosophy. She completed her degree at La Sapienza, University of Rome, in pursuit of a broader approach to the subject than the “very dogmatic, Marxist-Leninist’ tradition at home in Albania. A PhD in Politics followed at the European University Institute.
“My work is at the intersection of history of political thought and history of philosophy, on the one hand, and then the more problem-based, more abstract, moral approach needed to navigate the present… It’s always situated both in historical debates, but also thinking about what is the relevance of these debates for the times in which we live, what can we learn and how can we read charitably authors in a way that enables us to somehow think or rethink their work, or stand on their shoulders as it were, but whilst also acknowledging their limitations.”
Her upbringing provided an unforgettable education in the dangers of adhering too passionately to any political perspective.
“I guess in part because of my past, I’ve always been wary of ideology, and the relationship between philosophical ideas and ideological appropriations of those ideas. I think all ideas are vulnerable to that, and all politics is vulnerable to that. And that’s also why I really like studying the Enlightenment and studying reason, because it gives you a foundation that seeks to overcome the partiality of different perspectives, and makes an effort to actually construct an impartial standpoint – even though, I think, the impartial standpoint then also needs to be defended politically.”
Listed by Prospect magazine as one of the World’s Top Ten Thinkers in 2022, Ypi applies her critical acuity and historical perspective to both politics and philosophy, but her memoir revealed a complementary instinct for a less academic approach.
“Free is a much more literary project, actually. I have an interest in literature and literary writing, and also trying to think about how literary writing can contribute to encourage dialogue between perspectives. I like literature because I think it’s a very democratic form of reasoning, in a way. It’s more open, and it has tools of communication that I think philosophy maybe doesn’t have. Philosophy requires you to constantly argue your standpoint, defend it, show the limitations of alternatives. Literature asks you to embrace those alternatives, to construct characters that are very different from you and see the world very differently. There’s a kind of power to literature to somehow draw in a debate in a way that is somehow less polarised.”
As the news daily reminds us, global politics are volatile, and it is impossible to know, while living through them, which way the dominoes will fall.
“That’s partly the argument I’m making,” Ypi agrees. “A lot of it is about how it’s not always clear to the protagonists. The forces of history move in ways that we don’t know, and there’s wisdom that is only the wisdom of hindsight. When you’re caught in the moment it’s very hard to say if what is right will go the right way, and to predict the consequences of your actions. That’s what makes revolutions interesting as a topic I think, that there is this kind of uncertainty about them, that they challenge the common-sense and enable us to think creatively about the limitations of the present, and that they expand the boundaries of what is thought to be feasible here and now.”
Lea Ypi will give her lecture, Are Revolutions Justified? at 5.30pm on Friday, 2nd February.