The ambiguities of believing in ‘revolution’.
Originally presented as a keynote to the conference, ‘Living in Violent Times’, University of Warwick, 19 April 2013, some parts subsequently published at History Matters, University of Sheffield.
Gathered as we are to contemplate the nature of political violence, perhaps I should begin by reflecting on how tempting that object is. One of the things that the internet has revealed to us is how many people, on both ends of the political spectrum, live in the belief that society is only held together by violence. They usually also seem to believe that the wrong kind of violence is winning, but a salutary application of the right kind will sort everything out. In this sense, twenty-first century modes of communication only make more evident something which runs deeply through history. Revolution occupies a mythical place of rectification in the whole culture of the West – and by extension, the culture transmitted, by the twin instruments of Marxism and imperialism, to the whole world. The concept of a rectifying revolution takes, on the one hand, from the deep religious memory of our societies – from Lollardy and the Pilgrimage of Grace, Luther’s Theses and Savonarola’s Bonfire of Vanities [and of course, deeper still, from the very concepts of messiah and millennium] – and on the other it pushes a dream of what revolutions ought to be, and ought to have been, through modern history. Revolution has been a mobilizing myth, even in the face of actual experiences of revolution.
Today I won’t take the history of revolutionary experience back beyond 1789, but I will attempt, in the interplay between what the French did after that date, and what others have done much more recently, to show that revolutionizing is both a deep, and deeply flawed, part of our modern democratic cultures. I’ll begin by approaching my key themes – liberation, democracy and violence – through the experience of the original French revolutionaries, and to try to see in the evolution of the revolutionary ‘script’ through the 1790s some of the ancestry of more recent confusions.
Without dwelling on the causes of the French Revolution, I should nonetheless point out that scholars generally agree now that it was far from the class-driven social collision of a classic Marxist analysis. The French, living through a complex, multi-dimensional collapse of state legitimacy, lacked anything like the clarifying vision that Marx later provided. What we can discuss with some certainty is the variety of ways in which the consequences of state collapse were assimilated to ongoing experiences, hopes and expectations.
It is without dispute that liberation was at the core of the revolutionary experience. It took only months for the French to begin anointing 1789 as “the first year of French liberty” [long before they actually rewrote the whole calendar], and the National Assembly hastened to press the title of “Restorer of French Liberty” on King Louis XVI in the summer of that year. While the educated and propertied national representatives saw liberty in terms of political constitutionality, they had also already had to acknowledge that for many in the population, liberation from onerous social burdens of ‘feudal’ obligation and privilege was a primary concern. In their famous ‘night of 4 August’ they freed the peasantry from many such burdens, implicitly elevating all of the French to a new status where effective civic equality was a marker of general freedom.
But that general freedom was marked by massive ambiguities and tensions. One that has been well-documented was the notion that many feudal obligations were real property, and so peasants were expected to compensate lords for their loss – or keep paying them. This cultural clash over the implications of liberation for millions of real lives seems almost absurdly predictable in hindsight, as does its outcome – that peasant communities would refuse to pay, and resist legal efforts at enforcement, raising social antagonisms and compounding other emergent sources of conflict over, for example taxation and political participation.
What is also noteworthy is that the blinkers that the National Assembly wore about these consequences of its definition of liberty produced a blindness in other dimensions. A little-known group called the ‘Society of Victims of Arbitrary Power’ was formed after the revolutionary abolition of lettres de cachet, the royal orders that allowed for a wide range of ‘arbitrary’ judgments of imprisonment and degradation. The Society was made up largely of men who had had their careers in the military or civilian administration blighted by what they described as the persecutions of self-interested superiors. Lettres de cachet had often been used to strip them of offices, banish them from cities, provinces or colonies, and in some cases actually to imprison them – even, it appeared, occasionally on the request of foreign governments. What these ‘Victims’ now petitioned for, in the context of what they understood as a revolutionary liberation, was restitution. The revolution could only work for them if it actively undid what they saw as the old regime’s crimes against them – then they could be ‘free’ to take up the positions to which they felt entitled.
Of course, the revolutionaries had no intention of doing anything about this kind of social and cultural restoration – freeing such ‘Victims’ from the taint of having been subject to a lettre de cachet was supposed to be enough. Revolution, by cutting itself off from the whole ‘Old Regime’, effectively denied any continuing responsibility for actually undoing its ‘crimes’ in the name of individual liberation. Ironically, the new authorities did believe firmly in economic compensation, to the tune of hundreds of millions given to those whose ‘property’ in privileges and public office was abolished. Liberation, for the leading figures in the early years of the French Revolution, was a delicate balance between safeguarding newly-declared individual political rights, and similarly newly-clarified property-rights; in both cases, largely against a threat of reversion to the old order where arbitrary power could interfere with both kinds of individual liberty.
What is truly interesting about the political evolution of the subsequent years is that radicals who would pass into history for their ‘left-wing’ opposition to this early position were often, indeed almost always, saying exactly the same thing. The furthest edges of more redistributive social policy were reached in the Terror of 1793-94, with a system of price-controls, and hints of a never-implemented scheme to hand the confiscated lands of counter-revolutionaries to ‘poor patriots’. While these contained a whisper of future socialist schemes, the vast majority of radical rhetoric focused on the revolutionary liberation of 1789 as an accomplished gain, consolidated politically by a further leap to a republic in 1792, and needing to be defended against treachery from above, in a corruptible political class, and below, amongst a gullible priest-ridden peasantry. The price-control issue was framed by claims of popular starvation and an effective ‘right’ to subsistence, but explained and justified as policy as a necessary fight against a counter-revolutionary famine-plot.
It is in this sense that, from this originary modern ‘revolution’, the paradoxical idea of revolution as something that can be both already accomplished and to-be-accomplished emerges. For the men [mostly men] of the 1790s who left us their words on the subject, the revolution is both a liberation achieved in 1789, clearly defined as epochal in all its aspects; and also something not achieved, something perhaps not exactly under construction, but at least not consolidated and under active threat. Out of this second sense grows the usage that we see in the Terror of 1793/4, where ‘revolutionary’ times are increasingly marked as distinct from the norms of ‘civil government’, and ‘revolutionary’ exceptional means are justified in order to establish a regime that will not need such means. This is the sort of rhetoric that will appeal to future revolutionaries from Blanqui to Žižek, but it is always worth noting that it was born in a situation that combined actual civil war with active foreign invasion.
Believing in revolution-as-liberation, then, can lead in strange directions. So, too, can the assertion that revolution brings, or is necessarily linked to, democracy. The French revolutionaries shied away from the word itself, but they wrestled long and hard with its implications nonetheless. Revolution clearly meant, as we have noted, the end of ‘arbitrary power’, but what was to replace it? Some elements of their response have a long heritage outside revolutionary contexts – such as whether property, age or sex should help determine the franchise – while others, such as the aversion to electoral candidacy in favour of free nomination by individual electors, were rather peculiar to their cultural context. Other issues, however, have dogged the revolutionary heritage ever since.
So determined were the French to do away with arbitrary power that they electoralised their entire structure of local government, police and judiciary; they envisaged multiple arrays of public officials, but all legitimised by public vote, constrained by term-limits, and answerable to their constituents. The residents of each town, each neighbourhood, each village, were to be empowered to defend their interests, and control their collective administrative lives. So thorough-going was this structure that in some of its aspects it approached that mythical perfect state, direct democracy. In others, however, not so much.
The revolutionaries created another ideal at the same time as they were imagining their new democracy – national sovereignty, which by 1792 was also being called popular sovereignty. And popular sovereignty turned out to contain two elements – contradictory yet oddly complementary – but both fatal to actual democratic practice. The first was a licence to disregard anything that challenged unrestrained state power when that power was wielded by a group of men who defined themselves, increasingly metaphysically, as the nation’s representatives. The second was the contention that groups that happened to be geographically close to the centre of state power, and able and willing to organise displays of physical force by visibly plebeian crowds, could thereby claim to be ‘the people’ and invent a mystical mandate for themselves.
Remembering, again, that all this took place in the galvanizing context of war and civil war, it nonetheless produced a situation in which politicians elected to the national representative body could find themselves subject to purges in the capital under street-level pressure, while at the same moment their colleagues who had been sent ‘on mission’ to the provinces were using their representative status to purge local administrations, and close down all avenues of opposition. The end-point of this dialectic of conflicting conceptions of representativity would be reached on the night of 9 Thermidor, when Robespierre and half-a-dozen colleagues, already formally outlawed, and in the last moments of their liberty, proposed to summon the army against the politicians in the name of the French people.
Robespierre’s subsequent rapid trip to the guillotine, following thousands of other civilian executions, tens of thousands of death-sentences from military tribunals, and hundreds of thousands of casualties from pitiless civil war, must bring us to contemplate the final element of my triptych – the inescapable connection between revolution and overt political violence.
The revolutionaries of the 1790s were convinced that they were working against violence. Even Jean-Paul Marat, the journalist whose unambiguous calls for the execution of traitors alienated almost every other political leader, always framed those calls in the context of an active threat of counter-revolution, plotting to restore tyranny by force, and as a prophylactic against greater massacre – hundreds of heads should fall, to save tens of thousands. Robespierre, the great bogeyman of later accounts, was always reluctant to call in advance for any form of violence, but proved himself adept at justifying in hindsight insurrections and massacres that protected the people from greater threats. His conversion from opponent to advocate of the death-penalty took several years, and was marked by his perception of a drumbeat of repeated betrayals at the heart of society and politics, and a growing siege-mentality. The enormity of what he and his colleagues brought into being cannot be denied, despite the work of generations of radical historians concerned to emphasise its circumstantial necessity; but neither can we agree with more conservative writers who have placed all the violence in the hands of the revolutionaries, as if aristocratic conspiracies, religious rebellions and foreign invasions did not exist.
So, speaking as an historian of the French Revolution, I can say that at this originating point in the modern history of revolutions, the intersection of liberation, democracy and violence was complex – when did a historian ever say something was simple? What we can go on to explore, however, is how the subsequent history of revolutions has often been the story of attempts at simplifying those relationships. And often also been the tale of collision between simplified ideals and further complex realities.
Historians conventionally think of revolutions as rare events, often choosing a literal handful as the basis of comparative histories. France in 1789 is often bookended by Britain in the 1640s and America in the 1770s on one side, and Russia in 1917 and China in 1949 on the other. In such a context it is sobering to observe 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. Revolution in the broad sense is clearly not rare at all.
Of course, many historians are working with the kind of assumptions about what makes a ‘real’ revolution first put forth in the early 19th century, when Karl Marx borrowed some thoughts about history from a wave of triumphalist middle-class histories of the 1789 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. Such things do not come along every day, or even every decade.
Yet at the same time as Marx was developing his ideas, 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 the Marxian view of history 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 Victor 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. There was much of this, too, in the re-eruption of revolutionary fervour 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.
For the participants in these events, the revolutionary dream seems to have welded together liberation, democracy and violence into an almost alchemical union. Symbolic of this, perhaps, is the street-barricade. Effectively unknown as a tactic in the 1790s, and useless or counterproductive against the explosive artillery of the mid-nineteenth century, these static constructions, that hemmed revolutionaries into their home neighbourhoods, dividing their forces and subjecting them to piecemeal elimination, were yet repeatedly constructed – to monumental heights in 1871 for example – as if they were a route to revolutionary victory. The model of what revolution was that seemed to underpin such episodes was in effect that of a ‘pro-democracy coup d’état’, in which a violent uprising against central government authority would cause, in unspecified but spectacular style, nationwide acceptance of a new popular regime. When, as in France in 1848, elections organised under actual manhood suffrage created a national assembly that did not agree with radical Parisians’ demands, the latter had no recourse except a return to the barricades, which proved fatal against a new government now sure that it had the support of the wider population. The events of the infamous ‘Bloody Week’ of 1871 shared all the essentials of this tragic failure.
The hundred years that followed the crushing of the Paris Commune were of course dominated 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. In one sense this was an answer to the problem of the previous generations of revolutionaries – Marxism would deliberately create the mass support that they had mistakenly assumed would appear spontaneously.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, in many places, Algeria under the FLN 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.
Fifty years on from the triumph of the Bolsheviks, 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 consciousness in new forms around the mythic year 1968. Much ink has been spilled on this episode, 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 half-century up to 1968. 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. 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. 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.
It might well be argued, looking at the list above, 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 and undefined 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. 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.
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 of revolutionists 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.
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 revolutionists 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 the Arab nations that have been revolutionizing themselves for the past three years, and are yet fallen sadly short of this irenic liberation.
Thus we come full circle, for one of the things that has struck me as an historian observing events in Egypt is how remarkably like the French Revolution they are. Without getting into elaborate schematic parallels, one can nonetheless say that the hesitant, half-acknowledged compounding with existing power-brokers, the rising and falling waves of ecstatic expectation from vocal, yet evidently minority, radicals, the emergent sense of complex and destabilising betrayal – and notably the recent resort to a language of ‘the revolution’ as something to be both defended and extended, almost exactly as in 1793 – all point to the real historical experience of revolutionary times in a fashion that imagined revolutionary triumph cannot. Yet it is the lack of such triumph which commentators find disturbing and tragic.
This I think is the final conundrum for historians of revolution. It is evident that almost all those who, since the early 1800s, have sought revolution have believed that it would provide a rapid and decisive solution. Revolution lives even now in the global political consciousness as something like a wonder-cure – a salutary dose of necessary violence to create a new situation of political health (whatever definitions of liberty and democracy suit your particular preferences for that ‘health’).
Yet both longer-term and more recent histories show that to be a myth. The more deeply entrenched the injustices of a society, the harder and longer is the struggle to throw them off, the more likely revolution is to lead to counter-revolution, or at the very least forms of violent and unpredictable backlash.
We live in an age of revolutions, yet we persist in treating ‘revolution’ like some longed-for Armageddon; we have seen dozens of revolutions succeed, or fail, or not clearly do either, yet we cling to the idea that revolution will be a definitive answer. A violent step into a liberated future, a coercive midwife to the birth of democracy, these are the ambiguities that we, our culture, continues to embrace, believing in ‘revolution’.