The Future of Revolution

The word “revolution” brings to mind rampaging mobs carrying torches and pitchforks, while their betters run for their lives. Revolutions, in the common way of thinking about the term, are always violent. In reality, the degree of violence is not all the same, as some are quite peaceful, while others are quite bloody. Relatively speaking, the American Revolution was peaceful, compared to the French Revolution. This post in the Los Angeles Times on Ukraine has an interesting end worth considering.

I have argued that, in our time, 1989 supplanted 1789 as the default model of revolution. Rather than progressive radicalization, violence and the guillotine, we look for peaceful mass protest followed by negotiated transition. That model has taken a battering of late, not only in Ukraine but also in the violent fall that followed the Arab Spring. If this fragile deal holds, however, and the fury on the streets can be contained, Europe might again show that we can occasionally learn from history.

Revolution is not merely a change in who holds the keys to the prison. Revolution is a sudden collapse of the old system and the evolution of a new system. The French Revolution was not a failure when Napoleon crowned himself emperor. He may have looked a lot like Louis XVI, but it was not a restoration of the Ancien Régime. It was just another step in France evolving into a post-monarchical state. What’s going on in Ukraine is just a change in who sits atop the existing order.

What’s happening in Ukraine is a bad example, as it is a land with a strange history and not much of an organic identity. Much of what it means to be Ukrainian is tied to the history of the surrounding people. Still, to assume all revolutions are violent and obvious is an error. Like the cultural revolution that swept the West in the 1960’s, it is only in retrospect that it becomes clear that the old order was wiped away. That was not a violent over throw of the old regime, but it was a revolution nonetheless.