Monday, May 13, 2013

The Dimensions of Revolution

Revolutions are inherently fascinating phenomena.  Unlike some other historical events or processes, revolutions never unfold in one or two discrete realms of human interaction or meaning.  The power and influence of revolutions can't be easily summed up.  Revolutions seem to impact the destinies of humankind out of all proportion to the political or economic change they engender.  How can we describe the principle ways in which revolutions overrun history?  What are they words that conjure up their complexity?  Let's start with some of the obvious ones.

Revolutions are about VIOLENCE.  They are soaked in blood.  I once wrote a post comparing revolutionary violence to true crime novels.  The comparison makes sense to me.  We read good true crime novels not only to explore the darker aspects of the human story, but also to illuminate the banality of everyday life.  When Truman Capote describes a tragic multiple murder, he tells us something about the nature of evil, but also something about the way ordinary farm life operates on the Kansas plains.  Thus revolutions revolutions shed blood, but in doing so they reveal both the dark underpinnings of civic life while paradoxically shedding light on those factors that keep ordinary social life operating.  The violence compels us, but it has a dual effect.  Some members of society reenact the violence, while others spend an equal amount of energy trying to prevent its recurrence, perhaps even at the cost of dictatorship.

Revolutions are about TIME.  It's no accident that revolutionaries spend a great deal of time examining the nature of time.  Revolutionaries set up new calendars and new ceremonies to remind them of temporal rupture.  Revolutionaries are obsessed with the differences that exist "before" and "after" what they regard as a foundational event.  It takes a De Tocqueville to see continuity between an ancien regime and a new millennium.

Revolutions speed up time, launching their participants headlong into the FUTURE, which is of course its own revolutionary keyword.  For nobody supports a revolution if it doesn't promise to put a people into a different grammatical tense.  For whatever reason, modern men and women are unhappy with both the past and the present;  they generally prefer the future.  No matter that the future established by Russian and Chinese revolutionaries was so much worse than the immediate and perhaps even distant pasts.  People who accept revolution (and few ultimately resist its seductive power) ultimately do so in the belief that revolution represents an airline ticket to a promising future.  Without revolution, the future will eventually come, but perhaps the proper analogy would be a bus or train ride.  And who has time for the bus or train these days?  Without revolution, men and women might as well walk to the future.

Revolutions are about ART.  Revolutions have an aesthetic component.  People who accept the logic or revolutions usually want to live more beautifully.  Revolutions are of course the ultimate form of performance art.  When the outbreak of the February Revolution in Russia is described, contemporaries often noted that the great event interrupted an actual theatre-going experience of the bourgeoisie. This isn't an accident.  The two events--an actual theatre performance and revolutionary spectacle--resemble one another.  Revolutionaries are seeking a more elegant even beautiful solution to ugly social problems.  If revolutions weren't related to beauty, mundane reform would probably be enough.  You pass laws to improve conditions, you participate in revolution if you want to create a lovely future.

There are other words that conjure about the mysterious power of revolutions.  Revolutions are WORDY, CHAOTIC, BLOODY.  They produce CHANGE and EXCITEMENT.  They are GLOBAL, relying on an appeal to the whole of humanity in order to justify spectacular carnage and ordinarily unacceptable carnage.

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