[To read Part 1, click here.]
It might well be argued, looking at the list discussed in part 1, that we make far too much use of the term ‘revolution’, on all sides of the political spectrum, and have far too sharply-defined concepts of what it should mean. One of the things that very clearly gave the French Revolution of 1789 its immediately perceived world-historical significance was that it was a massive leap into the dark – even before the turmoil of the 1790s, the French had committed themselves to remoulding one of the most powerful states in the world into a new constitutional form, and imagining the relationship between state and citizen on new grounds, foreshadowed, but in no way defined, by the contemporary Anglo-American experience, and emergent from entirely different political and cultural traditions. This was an upheaval at the heart of an entire world-system, and it took a generation for the echoes to even begin to die down.
One might argue that many people experienced the same destabilization after the events of 1989-91. Certainly it would seem that the Chinese Communist Party has struggled with the implications of the collapse of the USSR every bit as much as the Habsburgs or the Hohenzollerns reeled two centuries before. Their answer, like their predecessors’, has been to let in the opposing value-system slowly and under tight control. But putting aside this parallel, for those who directly experienced the Soviet collapse, things were of course very different to the experience of the eighteenth-century French. Whether you choose to regard the political norms of the European Union and the United Nations as a relatively neutral set of democratic ‘best practices’, or as the expression of rampant and mystificatory capitalism, it is evident that almost all the recent revolutions have fallen, not into a space of broad possibilities, but very specifically towards this pre-existing model.
In that sense, when ‘revolution’ is bandied around the contemporary media, it has come to mean little more than a sudden lurch, perhaps violent, perhaps not, towards such formal democratic, and economic, ‘openness’. ‘Democratic transition’ is now a thing that the EU, other multi-state organisations, and international NGOs all ‘market’ towards the world’s less-democratic spaces: explicitly normative, implicitly moralizing and judgmental [see for example this EU press-release of October 2012; and here for a more critical perspective on the political and economic issues involved. In this respect it is certainly telling that the savage nationalist civil wars of the 1990s in former Yugoslavia evade the label ‘revolution’ altogether, after its early use to characterise the ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’ and ‘Log Revolution’ that delineated nationalist attitudes in Serbia and Croatia in 1989/90 [see discussion here and here]. The word ‘revolution’ is not used at all on the latter page, or in discussion of later events in Kosovo/Kosova.
The image of revolution that exists across global mediatised consciousness today is thus radically split. There persist, especially amongst the academic classes, fissiparous and dogmatic movements that claim that a Marxist vision of the future cannot fail, but can only be failed – and that to push on, by any means necessary (or by the limited means such groups are actually capable of) towards a properly revolutionary solution to all society’s woes is vital. For such people, ‘revolution’ alternates between being a permanent objective and a throw-away solution – only revolution can solve anything, the revolution will solve everything. But as revolution in these terms shows no signs of coming, we might suspect it has become nothing but a fetish [for one current example of the feeble and febrile thinking such groups are led into, review some of the links here, amidst the author’s own attempt to cast out the negative implications of the affair from the ‘real’ left, and the posted comments].
Against this both totalizing and strangely nullifying vision of actual change, there is the leap by western and global politicians and media to treat all upheavals against dictatorships as ‘revolutions’ that can, should and must end well – and end well quickly. Product of the normalization of the transnational ‘human rights’ package as a universal solution, and neglectful of the painful interactions of political and economic realities, this vision ignores history every bit as firmly as the Marxists try to twist it to their ends. One of the things that revolution-mongers today all share is the original dream of the barricades. In common with their nineteenth-century brothers and sisters, they seem to see revolution beneath the skin of tyranny (even if they cannot all agree where the tyranny is), waiting to break through, and to expect this to be a painless, ecstatic process. Hence the anguish today for the state of Egypt, fallen sadly short of this irenic liberation [see, for example, here, from the early days after Mubarak’s fall, and here from November 2012, an almost biblical lament].
Those in the West who have launched movements such as Occupy and the Indignados might be said to be suffering from a particularly complex and problematic form of this confusion about revolutionary solutions. Some, such as Slavoj Zizek, famously happy to label himself a Leninist [see here, and here], willingly embrace the chaotic consequences of this model of being ‘revolutionary’, though many might suspect this is only because he knows he will never have to face those consequences. Others, though, are caught between a yearning for the absolute purity of mythic revolution – a social apocalypse to end all forms of inequality and injustice – and the realities of individual desires for, at most, a little more social democracy and a little less unsecured debt.
The global fame amongst such circles of the works of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri stand as an example of this impasse of the revolutionizing urge. They elaborate a near-totalitarian vision of a world order led by American capitalist power, in which nothing but the complete overthrow of everything will change anything. Yet, as some critics – from the left – have suggested, they are pointlessly silent on how to effect change, and possibly dangerously confused on what it would look like [see here and here]. One can note here that, like the totality of the rest of the heritage of ‘1968’, this kind of thought has produced precisely no ‘revolutionary’ change despite its persistent fetishization of the term. Thus the poignant – and in some cases authentically pathetic – contrast between some of the language of current protest movements, and their inability to actually effect political solutions.
Though many might wish to see a seamless unity between all the ‘anti-system’ forces that have gathered in the West, as ‘antiglobalization’ has merged forward into these new movements of protest, there is little sign of concrete achievement, or mass mobilization. Such groups have made much – in the US at any rate – of declining to proffer a single solution to the crisis they perceive, but this has also led them into a spiral of dissension and self-righteous pursuit of purity that leads far away from anything that could be imagined as producing systemic change [see for example these comments, taken at random from the web, about Occupy LA in 2011. Or this rather mixed report on the sociology of Occupy New York in May 2012].
As western wannabe revolutionaries lose themselves in competing visions of what should be, their brothers and sisters in Egypt and elsewhere meanwhile face up to what is. And here they are encountering one of the other terrible problems of wishing for revolutions. In a thought-provoking publication in early 2012, historian Dan Edelstein noted the strong trans-historical tendency for those who had come to power in revolutionary processes to treat those processes as the authority for their subsequent behaviour – thus the claim of acting in defence of ‘the revolution’ has, since the 1790s itself, short-cut questions about what ought to be happening ‘after the revolution’. 1 It is with tragic inevitability, perhaps, that President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt has been accused by critics on the one hand of ‘betraying the revolution’, while on the other he has proclaimed his opponents to be ‘counter-revolutionary’. Other coverage has invoked the image familiar since Vergniaud first used it in 1793, of the revolution devouring its children, and some reports speak of self-conscious ultra-violent ‘revolutionaries’ coming to the fore. In this all-too-familiar charge and counter-charge, there is a real risk that ‘revolution’ becomes not just a matter of return, but of the paralysing awfulness of a Nietzschean eternal return.
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: Tahrir Square, 9 February 2011]
- D. Edelstein, ‘Do we want a revolution without revolution? Reflections on political authority’, French Historical Studies, vol 35, 2012, pp. 269-89 ↩