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Talking ’bout a Revolution

September 1, 2013

Have recently returned from a confab of eighteenth-centuryists in Rotterdam.  I found myself responding to a fine  paper from Professor Penelope Corfield to consider at what point a modern “revolutionary” consciousness can first be detected.

There is an older usage of political “revolution” that is not particularly revolutionary.  In the seventeenth century, it was common to refer to “the late revolution” in affairs – but this usage might be better translated as “late rotation”.  Revolution retained its more literal implications of “that which has revolved”.  Revolution was fully compatible with the medieval notion of the “wheel of fortune”.  A dramatic political, social, or cultural event might be called a “revolution” in the sense that the big wheel had turned, but retaining the implication that the status quo might well be returned once the wheel had completed a 360 degree rotation.

Central to our modern understanding of “revolution” is something like irreversibility.  A “counter revolutionary” is someone who attempts to push the wheel backwards or slow it down – but the very term “counter revolutionary” is only used by revolutionaries who tend to describe their own revolution in terms of a scientific and/or religious destiny.  “Counter revolutionaries” are, in this modern sense, clueless wannabe time travellers, trying to turn back time by pushing on the hands of a giant clock.  Within a dialectical determinist mindset, labelling someone a counter-revolutionary is the same thing as proclaiming the inevitability of their defeat.

Do we have to wait for Hegel in the early nineteenth century to talk of a real “revolutionary consciousness”?   Probably not.  Hegelian dialectics were themselves the product of a dialectical process and could not have been forged as an atemporal individual act of imagination.  The experience of “revolutions” in England (1688), America (1776) and France (1789) creates transformations which change the political grammar of their respective situations, which prevents anything like an ancien regime regaining power on anything like the same terms and assumptions.

In the eighteenth century, something like the modern sense of irreversible revolution co-exists with the older, simpler ‘rotationalist’ meaning.  How can we interpret the word in context?  Part of the problem is that then as now, people do not necessarily inhabit the same zeitgeist.  We all know people who still live in the 1950s and plenty of people inhabit the twenty-first century with greater confidence than I do.  A date on a title page cannot guarantee an understanding of the meaning of words.

Was the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 understood as a modern revolution or a mere “rotation”?  How many people understood the modern sense of revolution and when did they understand it?  The situation is complicated further by the fact that the Whig beneficiaries of the Williamite settlement had every interest in presenting their revolution as irreversible.  The extent to which their irreversibilist propaganda was accepted or understood is very difficult to recover.  Presumably, the Glorious Revolution (Rotation) only became consensually understood as a Glorious Revolution (Revolution) once the Jacobite threat had been decisively neutralised.

A revolution only achieves its dialectically decisive shape with hindsight.  Without an ideological evolution which acknowledges history but which interprets its conflicts constructively, even a twenty first century revolution risks being nothing more than a nothing yank on a big medieval looking wheel.

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