Historians in an Age of Revolution

Nuit_Debout_-_Paris_-_41_mars_01Do we live in revolutionary times? It’s tempting to imagine so. Bernie Sanders’ promise of “a political revolution” resonated with surprising numbers of Americans, especially the young. The Nuit Debout has captured some of the same spirit in France. Dramatic moments like the Oxi vote in Greece and the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong have followed the so-called Arab Spring and global Occupy movement. In spite of their failures and betrayals, those movements seemed to reveal revolutionary sentiment in east and west.

Yet in a recent interview for Dissent, David A. Bell, a historian of the French Revolution, put something of a counterpoint. “If we look at the broad sweep of modern history from the eighteenth century to the present,” he said, “we see that revolution has lost its salience as a political concept.”

On one hand, Bell says, we recognise that “the great revolutions of the past” entailed enormous violations of human rights, a concept that is now “far more central to the way that we define political legitimacy and morality.” On the other, he thinks those who bandy around “revolution” today see it as a kind of magic shortcut to change. “I think it promises a kind of end run around political processes and the hard, dirty work of getting things passed.” For the liberal Bell, we may not have achieved the end of history, but we have at least reached the end of revolutions. The world has, he suggested, grown up.

Meanwhile, however, revolution is back on the agenda for historians. The Age of Revolutions blog, launched last year and recently profiled in the OAH’s Process, is just one example of the trend. “We are all confronted, every day, with revolution,” said co-founder Cindy Ermus. According to Ermus, scholars are showing “an increasing interest in the idea of revolutions, tied perhaps to the uncertainty of our times.” If, in the Bush era, that uncertainty manifested itself in renewed attachment to the founding; the Obama era has seen that concept challenged by revolution. The National Constitution Center opened in Philadelphia in 2000; next year the same city will boast a Museum of the American Revolution.

As Ermus and her co-founder Bryan Banks point out, the concept of an Age of Revolutions “lends itself to ever expanding definitions.” Even when restricted to a period more or less from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, and a place more or less connected to the Atlantic Ocean, there is tremendous scope for exploration. To take one example, Joyce Chaplin recently situated the Industrial Revolution within this moment, as “The Other Revolution” that does most to bring the history of the environment into the picture. Sarah Knott has catalogued the areas where new work must be done—e.g. “we lack a cultural history of the age of revolution”—while tracing the two-century history of revolutionary narratives. This looks more like a new chapter than an ending.

“The very meaning of “revolution,” past and present, is under redefinition,” Knott wrote. That change has at least as much to do with contemporary political actors as it does with scholarly trends. Of course, it may be that the word is simply fading from overexposure, losing its definition like a photograph left too long in the sun. But it may also be more necessary now than ever. A historical moment when revolution seems impossible—and recent failures just seem to prove as much—is also one in which the study of its parameters becomes more urgent. Bell is right that the prospect of revolution should be terrifying. But the prospect of a world that cannot change the path it is now on may be more terrifying still. In either case, for almost all of us, there is likely to be some “hard, dirty work” ahead.

3 responses

  1. Great post, Tom. It raises some really interesting questions and I have to thank you for bringing my attention to the “Age of Revolutions” blog–can’t believe I’d missed it for so long!

    As someone who studies revolution, these questions are both fascinating and problematic, and it’s good to engage with them from time to time. I myself struggle with the “how do we define revolution” question, especially when it comes to success or failure as part of the criteria. (How do we then define “success” and “failure”?) While I have yet to come up with good answers to these bigger questions–though I’m inclined to agree with Bell on the subject of comparing 18th-century and modern revolutions–I appreciate you bringing them to the fore. Cheers!

  2. Pingback: Renovating the American Revolution: The Most Important Stories Aren’t on Broadway | JHIBlog


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