[For the previous part of David’s blog click here.]
I have been studying revolutions and revolutionaries all my adult life. I was born only a few days after Jan Palach immolated himself in a great hopeless gesture of appeal to resistance for the Czech people. As soon as I was old enough to know about such things, I was fascinated with the era of my birth, when revolutions seemed to stalk the earth, in stark contrast to the triumph of greed that dogged the late 1980s. But it was soon clear to me that, with the exception of those heroes that faced real, brutal repression, most of the Western ‘revolutionaries’ that made so much noise in ‘the sixties’ were having fun doing exactly as they pleased, and most of them, of course, had long since faded back into the respectability they felt was their entitlement. As I developed as a historian, I saw that the idealisation of revolution (as well, of course, as its demonization from the right) was a recurrent theme – almost a conspiracy, one might say, between each revolutionary episode and its chroniclers. I settled on the study of the great and original French Revolution in the early 1990s, when its reputation was at a low point, having suffered the assaults of scholars such as Simon Schama and François Furet on almost all it stood for even while France ‘celebrated’ its bicentennial. Crude Marxist assertions that revolution was a Good Thing were countered with little less crude claims that any such upheaval, and especially one that spiralled into terror, must be damned as a Bad Thing from root to branch. My academic life has been spent trying to restore a sense of the complexity of the events, the contingency of the interactions that led in unexpected and horrific directions, and the agency of ordinary people both in carrying forward the goals of liberation, and in resisting the frequently-dictatorial demands of self-anointed revolutionary leaders.
In the process I have learned a lot about the French Revolution, and about revolutions in general. In the context of the massive historic upheavals I study, many of the events noted above scarcely merit consideration for the term. Revolution is a label far too easily bandied around by thoughtless pontificators of all political stripes. Of course it is always good news when a dictatorship yields to a regime with at least some more popular legitimacy, but to call every such episode a ‘revolution’ asks more questions than it answers. It tells us nothing about the future – which is what matters, once you have liberated yourself: what next? Where governments’ roots in society run deeper than those of unstable, narrowly-based dictatorships, then the upheaval required to create even the pre-conditions for revolutionary change is horrible to contemplate. The French state in 1789, for example, was quite literally on the edge of bankruptcy, had been in a condition of advanced political paralysis for much of the previous decade, and even that might not have been enough without the dreadful reality of a famine-winter, with a fifth of the country destitute, and bread prices continuing to climb beyond the reach of much of the rest. Over a century later, the revolution that toppled Nicholas II of Russia came out of catastrophic war that was bleeding the country dry.
In conditions like those, age-old social and political systems cracked, crumbled and crashed to the ground. But, unlike the dream of the barricades, a new order did not spring forth fully-formed. Years of bitter conflict followed – taking different forms, in different circumstances – but resulting in each case in death-tolls that no humane observer can contemplate with equanimity. And perhaps even more importantly to note, France and Russia in those eras were societies where, in the face of chaos, many people were simply able to fend for themselves, eat the food they grew (or buy it from farms within walking distance), and wait for better times. Our societies depend on food shipped halfway round the world, on minerals mined on every continent, and on globally-generated petroleum products to deliver our food and heat our houses. We are, as an urbanised mass society, always only days from starvation. We simply cannot survive a systemic collapse [see, e.g. this report on insecurities in global food supplies under current ‘stable’ conditions.
To step outside the realm of historical fact for a moment, the author Richard Morgan has created a character named Nadia Makita, or Quellcrist Falconer, her nom de guerre. She is a revolutionary in a future universe without justice, without human rights, with only the raw power of weapons and the ingenuity to wield them between her followers and annihilation. Through her, Morgan has said some exceptionally pithy things about politics, justice and force, and placed her, like all his characters, in situations where desperate, unscrupulous violence is their only recourse. But the pithiest thing of all he attributes to her is this: ‘Face the facts. Then act on them. It’s the only mantra I know, the only doctrine I have to offer you, and it’s harder than you’d think, because I swear humans seem hardwired to do anything but.’
Our contemporary dancing around the term ‘revolution’ is, far too often, a refusal to face facts – be they the facts of the marginalisation of the radical left, or of the difficulties of rebuilding societies ravaged by dictatorship, or indeed of the glaring contradictions between rhetorics of universal prosperity (capitalist- or socialist-supplied) and a dying, resource-depleted planet. We should stop imagining that revolutions solve anything by themselves – look situations like that of Egypt hard in the face to see that – and start concerning ourselves with solutions that lack such a well-recorded historical propensity to fly out of control. Those of us that already have democracies, and constitutions, and rights, should use them, and hope (and work) that others soon will be able to, not seek to wish them away for a mythical better world through revolution. It isn’t coming.
Oh, and the ‘Thatcher revolution’? As Will Hutton has neatly pointed out, whatever you call it, it didn’t really happen anyway.
[The article is posted in full here.]
David Andress is Professor of Modern History at the University of Portsmouth, and author of many works on the era of the French Revolution. His most recent book is The Savage Storm; Britain on the brink in the age of Napoleon (2012), and he is currently editing the Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution.
[Image: Moscow coup attempt, August 1991]