July 15, 2013
11:02 am
Mon August 19, 2013

Revolution Now

Yesterday was Bastille Day, which is hard to miss if you happen to be in France. There are parades and patriotic speeches in every town and village, and often fireworks and festive dinners too. This year's celebration marked the two hundred and twenty-fourth anniversary of the French Revolution, and it had a special poignancy because of the ongoing turmoil in Egypt. Revolutions have a way of going wrong, or going nowhere, but this doesn't seem in any way to diminish their popularity. The Arab Spring has produced a whole series of popular uprisings since 2010, with no very clear result.

The tempting thing about a revolution, as compared say to an election or a Congressional enquiry or a grass roots campaign, is that it promises big changes right now. Also, very importantly, it promises that your kind of people will finally be in charge and their kind of people will be out in the cold, or dead – us versus them, winner takes all. The expectation is that your people will certainly give you whatever you want, whatever it is. But so often, as in George Orwell's parable Animal Farm, once your people are in power they turn out to be exactly like their people, or worse. If you have absolutely no knowledge of history this always comes as an unpleasant surprise.

Fine slogans like "No taxation without representation" tend to vanish in a puff of smoke right after the revolution. Every government adores taxation. Other resounding slogans like "Freedom now" or "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" are rarely given the kind of rigorous sociological examination that would perhaps make the revolutionaries think twice. Too often they don't think at all, being absolutely convinced that religion, tribe, economic system, or political party is the only right and virtuous one, and that any contrary argument or evidence is a waste of time, and probably wicked into the bargain.

The closest I ever got to a revolution was in 1968, when I was able to observe the so-called youth revolution as it unfolded in London, Paris, and Berkeley California. It was all very dramatic, but even at the time it seemed more like performance art than politics. In the end it produced some positive change by challenging a lot of outdated prejudices. But on the negative side you could argue, and plenty of clever people have argued, that the events of those years deepened the huge political and cultural divide that is now one of our main problems: us versus them.

Revolutions are always ambiguous. The French revolution produced first chaos and bloodshed, then the dictatorship of Napoleon, then a return of the monarchy in 1815, and finally a democratic republic thirty-three years later. Revolutionaries rarely want to wait that long. A revolution, like a music festival, is about enthusiasm – what's happening now rather than what may happen later. It's about the experience of being there, and sharing the excitement.

You might say: so much for revolutions, they're nothing but trouble. But here's the catch – and don't blame me, it was Thomas Jefferson who said it: "What country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?" Without the occasional messy rebellion, Jefferson believed, nothing would ever change.

Copyright: David Bouchier

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