Intro: Margaret Thatcher as Revolutionary

Margaret Thatcher’s recent demise has shown us that the concept of ‘revolution’ is never far from political minds. As the nation prepares to bury her with all the pomp and ceremony of (largely invented) tradition, she has nonetheless been celebrated across the media as a revolutionary.

Commentators in The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph and The Scotsman have used the phrase ‘Thatcher revolution’ as an unquestioned description of her historic role. Others, such as the magazine Reason, have promoted their own contribution to bringing this event about. Across the political and cultural spectrum, from The Daily Mirror to The Economist, from Church Times to The Spectator, her revolutionary status is taken for granted.

Meanwhile, the editor of Socialist Worker, which printed a mock-up picture of Thatcher’s grave and the headline ‘Rejoice’, sending some elements of the more right-wing press into convulsions, does not hesitate to describe her Party as ‘revolutionaries’. Across the world, in Latin America, successes for left-leaning regimes are constantly spoken of as ‘revolutions’, and of course over the last three years the Arab world has undergone upheavals which would justify the name ‘revolution’ by almost any standard. For some commentators, the latter events in particular have seemed to mark a ‘return of revolutions’ to global affairs.

I would argue that in fact revolutions have never gone away, but that nonetheless, as real-life events, they rarely correspond to the cluster of images we commonly associate with them. Much of modern politics, from both left and right, is imbued with the idea of revolution as solution – that a sudden overturning of whole political or cultural structures can, will and must ‘put things to rights’. This is an idea that was commonplace in European politics decades before Karl Marx first formulated his own approach to historical change through revolution, and it has very clearly survived almost unscathed the collapse of the Soviet regimes animated by later variants of that model. There are undoubtedly many circumstances of oppression in which violent revolt can be justified, but the vision of revolution goes beyond revolt, to the belief that what follows such upheaval can be controlled, and will produce desirable outcomes. For this, unfortunately, history offers no consistent evidence.

What do we know, and what do we think we know, about this ‘return of revolutions’? Some, such as Andrew Arato, have offered schematic viewpoints on exactly this question, the political scientist invoking the touchstones of his profession – Burke, Tocqueville, Arendt, Schmitt – to map out what has happened, and is happening [see this, from 2011; and this from January 2013]. Others – many others – have leapt for joy as the coincidence of economic slump in Europe and political revolt in North Africa seemed to herald the ‘proper’ revolution that their dreams demanded [see here, the conflation of all global protest with the prospect of violent revolution]. There are, I think, three important things to say here:

1. Revolutions have not ‘returned’ – they have never gone away;

2. Nobody should ever think that real revolutionary upheaval will fit into their preconceived idea of ‘what should happen next’;

3. Yearning for revolution – particularly the imagined violent yet decisive revolution of so many ‘revolutionaries’ – is in the light of history one of the most anti-democratic, anti-humane things to wish upon a society.

Part 1: The return that isn’t

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.

Part 2: Real revolutions, ‘revolutionaries’ and ‘the Revolution’

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.

Part 3: Be careful what you wish for

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.

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]


  1. D. Edelstein, ‘Do we want a revolution without revolution? Reflections on political authority’, French Historical Studies, vol 35, 2012, pp. 269-89
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