Cross-post from ‘Revolutionary Moments’ – Why Counter-revolution?

Jack Censer at our companion blog has a new post about counter-revolutionary moments. Cross-posting here, head over to the Revolutionary Moments site to comment:

While we are focusing on the Revolution, I’d like to raise a point about the counter-revolution of Thermidor. I do recognize that at first the leadership expected little change, but the regime morphed into a counter-revolution after a couple of months only. And the next few months witnessed  signaled a significant change from the most radical era of the Revolution.

Some revolutions do not seem to have this occur. For example, Iran still awaits a counter-revolution; likewise the Chinese did not have one either as long as Mao was alive. The Russians experienced the NEP in 1921 and then turned back from the market and the revolution resumed, not to abate in a thoroughgoing way until Gorbachev took power. It’s too early to tell for sure, but Egypt raced to counterrevolution very rapidly.

These ruminations suggest that counter-revolution needs some definition and that world history can give us some idea of what are general factors in creating such a retreat.

What is a Revolution?

Tariq Ali has some pertinent comments on the problem of reaching too eagerly for the label of ‘revolution’ in the context of events in the arc from Libya to Syria. But he is clearly operating with a schema of revolution – “a transfer of power from one social class (or even a layer) to another that leads to fundamental change” – that raises as many questions as it answers. Is state power actually held by a ‘social class’ in the sundry life-presidencies and dictatorships of the world – the Portuguese Estado novo in the 1970s, the Marcos regime in the Philippines in the 1980s, Mubarak in Egypt? Were the Soviet-bloc regimes overthrown so dramatically in 1989 a ‘layer’? Did the indisputably fundamental change that came over Iran in 1979 emerge from social conflict, or change the social basis of state power? It is not obvious that any of these questions can be answered positively, yet for most of these situations, the term ‘revolution’ is absolutely established to describe their transformations.

Network Member – Maxime Hermant

Another network member introduces themself:

Maxime Hermant: I am a French PhD student at Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense (Paris 10) under the direction of Pr. Monique Cottret. I am working on the religious issue in Provins – a town of 5000 inhabitants to the East of Paris – from the Revolution until the end of the Napoleonic Empire. My research is based on microstoria and the impact of religious legislation in a small locality that was not marked by acts of violence.

Continue reading Network Member – Maxime Hermant

Leading revolutions

David Andress’s review of Marisa Linton’s new book Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford UP, 2013) is just out.

Choosing Terror takes a new approach to the French Revolution by investigating how its leadership – men such as Robespierre, Brissot and Desmoulins, and women such as Madame Roland – experienced the events of 1789-94, and how their private and political worlds interacted with each other. Continue reading Leading revolutions

Revolutions, Liberation Movements and Peoples in Europe and Africa

I recently returned from a workshop at the University of Pretoria, organised as part of the project The Comparative History of Political Engagement in Western and African Societies led by a team at the University of Sheffield. As well as enjoying a very hospitable welcome, I also had a very stimulating series of discussions, which have given me much food for thought about further extension of the debate on ‘revolution’ in the modern world.

While recent events have made us focus attention on ‘bottom-up’ revolutionary upheavals, the role of spontaneous interactions and technology in popular mobilizations, and the general question of ‘crowds’ and their agency, a closer look at African examples reminds us that ‘top-down’ modes of revolutionary activism also continue to have a strong role to play. Continue reading Revolutions, Liberation Movements and Peoples in Europe and Africa

Protest or revolution – does it matter?

While attention has again shifted to brutally violent confrontation in Egypt, the other story of the year continues to be that of more peaceful mass protest movements organised extensively through social media. Academic Zeynep Tufekci has been observing the protests in Turkey from close range, and in June offered a typology of characteristics that such new forms of protest appear to share. Last month Eric Borja reflected on this eight-point list in the context of Brazil’s emerging protest movement, noting some similarities and important differences.

In a situation where it’s far from clear what has really been ‘won’ by any of these movements, the nexus between analysis and advocacy, especially in Borja’s piece, is complex. In a situation such as in Brazil, (and indeed, for the moment, in Turkey) where all the mechanisms of formal democracy are in place, yet there appears to be a massive popular willingness to launch disruptive protest, it will be intriguing to see if the language of revolution takes hold. It may not be good news for anyone if it does, however.

Update, 22 August: see this chilling discussion from Kenan Malik on how the Egyptian ‘revolution’, and some of its most ‘progressive’ leadership, now embraces military rule, and even condones massacre.

After the summer hiatus – a new research proposal

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.

Revolutionary transitions from the eighteenth century to the present