[To read the introduction to David’s blog click here.]

It is sobering to examine – as anyone of course can – the list of historical ‘revolutions and rebellions’ curated by Wikipedia, which contains almost 100 such events in the 19th century, well over 100 in the first half of the 20th century, and 117 between 1950 and 1999. There are no fewer than 30 listed for the first decade of this century, before we come to consider the current flowering of unrest around the shores of the Mediterranean. Perhaps we are, in fact, living in an age of permanent revolutions? Perhaps, however, we need to look more closely at what is being defined as ‘revolutionary’. Wikipedia after all also lists 23 19th-century coups d’état, 77 in the first half of the 20th century, and an astonishing 221 between 1950 and the present day. Not all of course succeeded, but then neither did many of the ‘revolutions’.

The model for what makes a ‘real’ revolution was set in the early 19th century, when Karl Marx borrowed some thoughts about history from a wave of triumphalist middle-class histories of the 1789 French Revolution, and determined that history was driven by such events, overturning the moribund political orders that had been left clinging to power by previous generations of underlying social change, and clearing the ground for new phases of dialectical social development. Thus a revolution is a world-historical moment of change, stirred up by vast impersonal social forces. Yet at the same time, ordinary Europeans – from students and junior army officers to artisans, labourers and peasants – were making new revolutions for themselves with a parallel model behind them. The 1820s and 1830s were dotted across Europe with successful and unsuccessful attempts to cheat history – from the Marxian point of view – and get things moving a little faster. Sometimes, as in Paris in July 1830, and again in February 1848, they succeeded, and history seemed to take a little skip forward, with its flags flying from the barricades.

However, far more often, these revolutionaries failed: the fighting of July 1830 led to a new constitutional monarchy, not the Republic many had thought was coming. Outside Paris, uprisings in Lyon in 1831 and 1834 were smashed; inside Paris, the 1832 insurrection that is the heroic heart of Hugo’s Les Misérables was a pointless, isolated gesture. In the following decade, four months after the first 1848 risings in Paris, a second round of agitation by urban workers was ruthlessly crushed by the new bourgeois government (and within 2 years the country was slipping towards the shabby quasi-military dictatorship of Napoleon III). Across the Italian and German states, through these decades and into the 1848 ‘Springtime of Peoples’, most insurrections achieved so little of their participants’ original goals as to be accounted failures by any reasonable measure.

Yet the dream of revolution persistently failed to die. The Marxist current was perhaps less influential here than the kind of romantic sentiment that inspired Hugo. For many revolutionaries of the first half of the century, revolution was a vocation, and it was also something they had determined must be capable of success – in student drinking-clubs and secret societies, in the offices of censored newspapers, in clandestine meetings of proscribed workers’ and radicals’ organisations, the dream of smashing the system, and of a new world awaiting to be born from beneath it, was as compelling, perhaps more compelling, than any sober political manifesto. This spirit re-erupted in 1871 in Paris, in another episode that demonstrated the heroic willingness of ordinary working people to resist in the name of a ‘red’ future, but again, showed with rivers of blood how easily outmatched these forces were.

The hundred years that followed the crushing of the Paris Commune were of course dominated – in several very real senses – by the ideas of revolution associated firstly with the rise of mass Marxist parties, and from 1917 with the reality of an international communist movement. This movement brought together the original Marxist construction of the inevitability of revolutionary social change with the voluntarism of those who had repeatedly leapt to the barricades to make it happen. But it wrapped both of these things inside the emerging ‘Leninist’ conception of a vanguard party – and what that came to mean was that any sense of revolutionary possibility emergent from spontaneous mass discontent was suppressed in favour of the unchallengeable correctness of a rigid hierarchy. One need not dwell long on the misdeeds of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to recognise that its ‘revolution’ in 1917 had in fact been more like a coup d’état after an actual, widely-based popular upheaval, and that subsequently the consolidation of the power of that party took precedence over almost any other ‘revolutionary’ objective – not just for years, or even decades, but generations.

The models of dictatorial and dogmatic ‘revolutionary’ party control exported to China proved equally, if not more, destructive of anything akin to uncoerced popular participation in change, or human flourishing in general. Very much more could be said on the complex relationship between communist states and movements for resistance and ‘revolution’ elsewhere in the world, but overall we can observe that many different things came to be called ‘revolutionary’ – from secret transnational networks, to externally-funded and trained guerrilla movements, to the participants in long-drawn-out and inconclusive civil wars – which only really had in common the support of the USSR and its satellites. In many places, Algeria being only one, the notion that liberation had arrived through ‘the Revolution’ licensed the movement that claimed to be its vanguard to hold onto power ruthlessly in the decades that followed.

Ironically, as China ripped itself apart in the brutalities of the so-called ‘cultural revolution’, and the USSR settled into its years of most dire stagnation, ‘revolution’ flashed again through western consciousnesses in new forms around the mythic year, 1968. Much ink has been spilled on this episode, too, though perhaps rather more on the dream of what was supposed to have happened in France (and probably didn’t) than on the reality of a further example of the Soviet ‘revolutionaries’ crushing genuine popular resistance in Czechoslovakia, as they had a dozen years before in Hungary. Undoubtedly real upheavals in culture were already taking place in the late 1960s, shifts in social attitudes that exposed possibilities we are still wrestling to come to terms with, but few of them resulted from, or were even particularly influenced by, the short-lived lunge for the barricades.

In some respects, the age we live in now has seen more genuine moments of spontaneous revolutionary change than the post-1917 half-century. One can pick almost any year of the last 40, and not be far from a seminal event. In April 1974, for example, troops spearheaded an attack on the dictatorial government of Portugal that was described at the time as a coup, but which has gone down in history as the ‘Carnation Revolution’, so popular, and ultimately democratic, were its outcomes [see here, reproducing a contemporary BBC report]. Five years later, Iran experienced a shattering, and initially ecstatic, revolutionary climax to years of unrest and regime collapse – one that led Michel Foucault famously to briefly contemplate whether a revolutionary Islamic state was a new way forward [see this reproduction of his October 1978 Nouvel Observateur article]. In the mid-1980s, South Korea broke free of decades of dictatorial rule after massive and violent street-protests, and US-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines was toppled in events now routinely referred to as the ‘People Power Revolution’.

The period from 1989 to the early 1990s was of course marked by truly epoch-making revolutionary change in central and eastern Europe, and all the lands of the former Soviet Bloc (as well, in counterpoint, as the tragic failure of ‘1968-style’ student protest/revolution in China). Upheavals bounced on into the 21st century, with the end of the Milosevic regime in Serbia in 2000, and later events in Georgia and Ukraine yoked together by commentators as ‘colour revolutions’. By the mid-2000s, so congenial was the term revolution that the US government took the initiative in applying it to political change in Lebanon in 2005, having already branded elections in occupied post-Saddam Iraq a ‘Purple Revolution’. Such labelling continued to prove irresistible – when Icelanders protested at their government’s financial incompetency in January 2009, it was first dubbed a ‘Fleece Revolution’ from their need for warm clothing, before settling on the ‘Saucepan’ or ‘Kitchenware Revolution’, as they banged pots in noisy complaint.

One thing to be noted from all the above examples is that none of them centre around a long-term organised movement that describes itself as ‘revolutionary’. One could assemble a much longer list of the coup-attempts, guerrilla-wars and terrorism-campaigns initiated by such organisations, which range from long-lasting post-colonial national liberation struggles, to an equal if not larger array of fissiparous, occasionally messianic, and frequently psychopathic armed groupuscules. In a few cases, such as Nicaragua’s ‘Sandinista Revolution’, overt Marxist rhetoric has co-existed with, at least initially, wide social support and the end of a corrupt and dictatorial regime. But in far more places, those who take on these labels have provoked situations of long-standing conflict with existing regimes that fulfil the definition of ‘a revolution’ only by embracing the most tendentious assumptions about eventual triumph.

[For the next part of David’s blog click here. It 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: Henri Rousseau, The Centennial of Independence, 1892]

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David Andress

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