Monday, May 5, 2014

The History of Revolution

Although this blog (like all blogs) frequently strays from its theme, its main purpose is to analyze the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath.  What caused the Revolution?  What did the revolution mean to Russian society?  What impact did the Revolution have on Russian society?  These seem like simple questions but simple questions don't always have simple answers.  What is a revolution anyway?  How should we define the term?  Sometimes it's a good idea to go back to the basics, as the study of comparative revolutions allows us to do.

This week I looked at a relatively old work on the subject, Peter Calvert's Revolution.  It's interesting to see how slippery the definition of revolution can be, and how much it has evolved over time.  Calvert begins his study at the beginning of recorded history, with history's first violent political ruptures.  Dedicating a whole chapter to Ancient Egypt, Calvert looks at humanity's very first documented coup d'etats.  At the time, and for a long time thereafter, the idea of violent political change was utterly detached from the more modern notion of violent political change associated with radical social transformation.  When power changed hands in Egypt, and one dynasty was replaced by another, the foundations of society generally remained in place. Outsiders sometimes conquered Egypt, but conquest doesn't really qualify as revolution, which by definition implies an internal struggle against existing leadership.  Moreover, the term revolution implies successful struggle:  if a revolt fails to achieve power, it remains just that, a revolt, and does not qualify as a revolution.

Although the Egyptians experienced the violent overthrow of one political group by another, they never systematically analyzed the phenomenon.  The Greeks, by contrast, did.  In fact, they took the whole issue of the violent takeover of a government very seriously because, as Calvert points out, any political revolution in a Greek city-state had both domestic and international repercussions.  A democratic revolution meant a new potential member of a democratic alliance, and vice-versa.

Aristotle and other Greek thinkers analyzed the concept of revolution in some detail.  They believed in a cyclical concept of regime change.  Political orders weren't stable, one form of government inherently led to another.  Democracies, for example, eventually led to tyranny, which in turn, gave way to oligarchy.  The Greeks also thought that revolutions were something more than the displacement of one political regime by another.  There was both a governmental and a social aspect to revolution. Whereas the Egyptians believed that weak governments were merely displaced by stronger versions of the same fundamental phenomenon, the Greeks classified different types of political orders.  Moreover, for the Greeks, a revolution represented the class of different social classes, or at least the violent breakdown of social order which resulted from social inequality. Calvert quotes Aristotle thus:  "In revolutions, the occasions may be trifling, but great interests are at stake."  Or again:  "Oligarchy is based on the notion that those who are unequal in one respect are in all respects unequal;  being unequal, that is, in property, they suppose themselves to be unequal in absolutely.  The democrats think that as they are equal they ought to be equal in all things..."

With the rise of the Hellenistic monarchies, and eventually with the rise of the Roman "global" state, revolution lost any sense of being an ethically neutral category of analysis.  In the search for order, Hellenistic thinkers and Roman thinkers accepted the notion that revolution was little more than the breakdown of social order.  And of course anyone who has read Suetonius will understand that even dynastic succession was often violently disruptive for Roman society.  Order and continuity were the appropriate goal of any political theory.

If pagan Romans thought chaos had very little to recommend it, late Roman and medieval Christians also fore swore the concept. According to Calvert, the Christian perspective on the concept of revolution was one of the chief causes of what was once known as the "Dark Ages."  Christian thinkers emphasized social order and obedience.  They also argued that religious change could be unrelated to politics.  One could seek radical spiritual transformation even as he or she accepted God's political representatives on Earth, the monarchs.

Medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas sometimes asked whether regime change could theoretically be justified  by outcomes such as improved governance, but it took the Renaissance, and Machiavelli, to offer Europeans a full-fledged revival of the Greek's ethically neutral interest in violent political transformation. Over time, the term revolution entered all European languages.  The modern concept of revolution was secular one, and it eventually evolved into a belief that revolution was almost inevitable.  Societies changed over time, and sometimes that change was violent.  Now it only remained to make the argument that revolutions were healthy phenomenon, something akin to the fires which, under natural conditions, ensure that prairies remain purged of unhealthy elements and healthy.  The moderns believed, and perhaps still believe, that revolution led to salubrious reordering of a previously disjointed society.   The revolutions in Great Britain, America, and France, actually improved society.  As Calvert maintains, modern people followed Rousseau in thinking that revolution was practically an end in itself.  To be a full member of society, one almost had to be a revolutionary.

Writing in the 1970s, Calvert next examines how the concept of revolution was celebrated within the socialist tradition, and eventually exported to China and most sites of colonial exploitation.  Interestingly, he also tracks the democratization of the term to include personal transformation of the kind young, liberal and radical Americans embraced in the 1960s.  The wars of liberation were fought in various colonial sites of domination, as well as in the minds and bodies of America's exploited classes, genders, races, etc.  The idealistic goal now was to find some way of making revolution permanent and self-sustaining.


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