Comparative Revolutions

Revolution as Concept and Experience: A proposal for a transnational network to explore the history of revolutions from the eighteenth century to the present day.

Revolutions, expectations and aspirations about revolution, and reflections on the aftermath of revolutions, both successful and failed, make up together one of the great transhistorical and transnational phenomena of global modernity. What might in a previous generation have been encapsulated within a single set of definitions, dependent on the existence of a ‘revolutionary’ Marxist tradition, has in recent years demonstrated its explosive capacity to expand far beyond such ideological boundaries. The twenty-first century has seen the ‘neoconservative’ government of George W. Bush praising and promoting ‘colour revolutions’ in eastern Europe and a Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, and it has seen violent revolution and civil war erupt in what appeared to be some of the world’s most stagnant regimes, with participants’ motivations far too particular and diverse to be constrained under any one heading.

Yet, as has been particularly the case for example in Egypt, the conceptual scripts of what it means to be ‘in revolution’, and to claim legitimacy from ‘revolutionary’ identities, have played out in ways with remarkable parallels to longer-term historical precedents. Such parallels, though apparently compelling, have also, arguably, helped to make the ongoing conflicts more intractable, and a successful emergence from ‘revolutionary’ circumstances more complex. Examining the extent to which this is but one example of the concept and experience of revolution as a problematic regularity within modern global history is part of the impetus for this project.

Previous generations of historians have looked at great world revolutions, and particularly to the French Revolution, in part because of the sense that it was a foundational event in a contested narrative of modernity still unfolding in their own time. Since the ‘world-historical’ break of 1989-92, this viewpoint has seemed less convincing, and the historical comparison less urgent, but this is only a product of the loss of that modernity-narrative. Putting aside a teleology, and a sense of events as ‘originals’ and ‘copies’ that implicitly underlies it, allows us to explore far more fruitfully a series of questions about two critical dimensions of the ‘revolution experience’:

A. ‘Revolution’ itself as a pattern of attempted and/or successful transition from more to less authoritarian forms of government within given state/society/culture systems.

B. ‘Revolution’ as a label that, through certain (perhaps inevitably distorted, partial, simplified, or wish-fulfilling) forms of historical awareness, plays a role in shaping participants’ sense of what is ‘supposed to happen’ in such transitional processes, and may in fact be a contributor in at least some cases to their failure.

In exploring these, our network would aspire to replace the teleological meta-narrative of modernity that clings to ‘revolution’ as a concept, and to replace it with a comparative, structural AND experiential study of how such events actually unfold, and how labelling them as ‘Revolutions’ has, throughout the last 250 years, contributed to their complexity and uncertainties.

General research questions:

  • What are the core meanings of ‘revolution’ that are in play culturally and socially during actual episodes of upheaval from 1789 onwards?
    • Are there ultimately clear transhistorical lines of continuity-within-change around this concept?
  • How, when and why do certain aspects of conceptual definition adhere to the ‘revolution’ concept?
    • Revolution as overthrow of social power-holders
    • Revolution as liberation from political authoritarianism
    • Revolution as conspiracy, whether positively or negatively imagined
    • Revolution as specific forms of socially- and politically-conditioned violence, from ‘state’, ‘people’ or other actors
    • Revolution as democracy, and as a path to democracy
    • Revolution as inevitable or structurally-determined
    • Revolution as contingent, fragile and voluntaristic
  • What changes and continuities in actors’ conceptualisations of ‘revolution’ occur through actual experience of upheaval?
    • How are such experiences mediated through prior understandings and evolving structures of active explanation?
    • What effect do long-term shifts in cultural-political context have on both immediate and emergent perceptions of developing revolutionary situations?
    • How far do leading actors in revolutionary episodes adapt their expressed understandings to contingencies, and how far do they use predetermined conceptual schemas to assert discursive control over events?
  • Is revolution in hindsight generally treated differently than revolution in prospect; and to what extent do hindsight and prospect concatenate meaningfully across time and space?
    • Is a ‘revolutionary experience’ generally something from which ‘lessons are learned’, on any side, or do predetermined conceptualisations of ‘revolution’ tend to reassert themselves?
    • What ideological and discursive formations around ‘revolution’ have most enduring power and significance? What perceived wider social, political and cultural roles do such concepts fulfil?
    • What are the immediate and longer-term consequences of the use of ‘revolution’, (or ‘the Revolution’) as a source of political legitimacy, either in prospect or hindsight?
  • Why do some periods appear to experience ‘revolution creep’, and an increased application of the label in ever-wider figurative dimensions? (Industrial revolution, agrarian revolution, consumer revolution, telecommunications revolution, ‘revolutionary’ as a general replacement for ‘novel’ or ‘innovative’…)
    • Do figurative uses of the concept extend, clarify, close off or obfuscate political and other direct uses?
  • How has the ‘revolution’ concept been able to propagate over time and across space?
    • What, at any and all stages, have been the key connections between ‘revolutionary’ agitation and emergent forms of mediatisation and communication?
    • What have been the effects of interaction with political traditions other than those born out of western Europe?
    • Can flows of anti-imperialist and post-colonial understandings of the concept back into the ‘western tradition’, and/or in other directions, be identified?
    • How significant are any such flows for a perception of global understandings of ‘revolution’ through to the present?

Specific research areas for comparative study:

  • The contours of ‘revolution’ as conceptualised experience in the various ‘canonical’ events since French Revolution.
  • The development of revolutionary ‘traditions’ and recurrent revolutionary outbreaks in contexts including 19th-century Europe, early 20th-century global Marxism, and post-1945 decolonisation, neo-colonialism and superpower rivalry/proxy conflicts.
  • Specific contributions of Marxism to the development of understandings of ‘revolutionary’ practice, especially in the context of the USSR after 1917.
  • Interactions between the concept of revolution as an immediate, time-specific occurrence, and the institutionalisation of ‘revolutionary movements’ in modern history.
  • The role of conservative, reactionary and ‘counter-revolutionary’ political currents in creating and maintaining the salience of the ‘revolutionary’ concept through political contestation, both short- and long-term.
  • The transhistorical propagation, adaptation and evolution of the iconography and imagery of revolution, as ‘site of memory’ and incitement to action.
  • The collision of different concepts of ‘revolution’ in contemporary history – the politics of 1968 and 1989, or of ‘velvet revolution’ and violent nationalist ‘revolution’ in the 1990s.
  • Violence as an analytical component of revolution – its multi-faceted presence, attempts to align ‘bad violence’ with political opponents, willingness and unwillingness to accept and excuse ‘necessary violence’.
  • Being ‘in revolution’ in societies with different levels of socio-economic development, different political traditions, different forms and structures of media and communications.
  • Claims and realities of ‘revolutionary’ attitudes to power mediated by class, race, gender and other cultural and institutional structures.

Notable interdisciplinary research questions:

  • The state as goal and opponent in revolutionary struggle; identification with and against blocs defined by various forms of discursive and material power.
  • Languages of rights and universalism in contexts of violent struggle.
  • When conflict becomes ‘revolution’, and when ‘revolution’ becomes civil war – temporalities and contingencies in beginning and ending violence.
  • Revolution in contemporary societies – the distinctive features of web-enabled social mobilisation versus continuities and cultural/situational specificities.

3 thoughts on “Comparative Revolutions”

  1. These are highly interesting and insightful questions and challenges, Dave. Thank you. Just two comments:

    1. I’m not sure the areas you list adequately highlight the phenomenon of regional/ethnic loyalties and even separatisms which was so marked in 1787-89 and is so evident in contemporary Syria, Libya and Egypt, to name just a few. I recently gave a paper at at Europeanist conference in New Zealand on the current situation in Catalonia as an example of the re-emergence of ‘old fautlines’ in Europe.

    2. I am wary about any suggestion that we historians as a profession or sub-group have any likelihood of making sensible collective comment when there are such contrasts in the way we go about understanding the French Revolution, on which we are supposedly expert, let alone contemporary revolutions. I think that “9/11” has accentuated divisions between those who understand revolutionary violence as having profound material as well as other causes and those for whom it is the result of warped or “unrealistic” ideologies. Of course, this does not mean that your project is any the less important.

  2. See my previous email regarding how eaders can engage meaningfully in the study of terror. In that email I sent you a long essay about the neuropsychology involved. I am interested in being included in your newsletter.

  3. Quite an interesting row of research questions on comparative revolutions. I think that revolutionary spirit in general is a kind of “infection” which can affect different nations with different success. I came from the field of Russian and East European studies and Marxist interpretation of revolutionary events is still prevailed, especially in analyzing of the French revolution and revolutions of 1848-1849. It can be a subject for workshop.

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Revolutionary transitions from the eighteenth century to the present

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