There has been an interesting discussion in recent days on the blog of our friends at Revolutionary Moments, concerning the current events in Egypt and how they translate (or don’t) to an awareness of the disappointments inherent in having ‘revolutionary’ expectations.
What these events have shown to me (apart from reaffirming some of my earlier thoughts about how easy it is for revolutions to go badly ‘wrong’ by anyone’s standards) is that there is an important space opening up for academics to talk humanely and justly – but also, necessarily, carefully and subtly – about revolutions.
Given that ‘Revolution’ is a term of fundamental centrality to modern politics, it is striking how loosely people and politicians have been using it for recent events. In so doing, they are building new layers of expectation about what the word will mean in the future, piled upon older readings that themselves are often confused, partial and decontextualised.
Historians (and other social scientists) should be using the benefit of hindsight to explore earlier episodes of the history of revolution in the new contexts created by current events, challenging simplified pictures of what revolutionary change looks like, questioning the recourse to languages of revolution and the expectations they carry with them, and reflecting on what messages can and should be conveyed about when and how (and indeed if) democracy and freedom are best served by violent upheaval.
To this end I have drafted an outline of some of the very many different questions that this topic raises, and I invite comments on it, along with expressions of interest in developing and seeking funding for collaborative research projects in this area.