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.
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: Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, Assault on the Tuileries on 10. Aug. 1792 during the French Revolution, 1793]