Revolution: how its meaning has changed since the Bastille storm


On the evening of July 14, 1789, Louis XVI returned. of France returned from the hunt and heard the news of the storming of the Bastille. When he asked, “Is this a revolt?” the Duc de la Rochefoucauld replied: “No, Sire, it is a revolution.” Less than a week later, the Duke was serving as President of the National Constituent Assembly, which was installed by the Third Estate as an authority that directly challenged the King and thus embodied the revolution he foretold.

What exactly did Rochefoucauld mean? The word he uses is notoriously difficult to define, and it is important to track the changes in its meanings over time. In the 1780s there were only two political precedents worthy of the name. The first was the displacement of James II from England in 1688, the so-called “glorious revolution” which applied the idea of ​​a social contract between rulers and ruled and created the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain. To us this may seem less like a revolution than the civil wars and the execution of Charles I four decades earlier – for contemporaries it was “the great rebellion” and if they used the word revolution at all, it was in the old sense of “turning the wheel “Applied to the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy in 1660.

The second example was the overthrow of British rule in parts of North America and the establishment of the Republic of the United States in the 1770-80s – which built on the concept of the social contract of the Glorious Revolution and added the universalist claim that the “inalienable rights” were based on Life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness gave citizens everywhere the right to overthrow a government that was undermining it.

In the 1780s there were only two political precedents worthy of the name

British radicals – dissidents against the mainstream Church, anti-slavery movement, advocates of free speech and political reform – came together in the London Revolution Society in the 1780s – but their name did not reflect (as we can imagine) a commitment to Planning against a future violent overthrow of the state; Instead, it reflected its roots in the Whig settlement of 1688-89.

The word was quickly adopted to describe what happened in France in the summer of 1789 – not just the storming of the Bastille, but the earlier founding of the National Assembly. The word was apparently borrowed from the revolutionary society, which quickly interfered with developments in Paris and served as a model for the establishment of the Jacobin Club. Edmund Burke is famous Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) was a response to the ideas of revolutionary society.

In the following twelve years the word acquired many other layers: the enforcement of popular sovereignty and social justice, the elimination of repressive institutions and corrupt privileges, and the liberation of creative energy and imagination to escape the cruel deadlock of a failed system; but also chaos and mob rule, the assumption of terror by the state to protect its new order and an authoritarian government that is ready to push through social and political change at any cost. It evoked both inner fear and visionary excitement.

Since Burke, philosophers and politicians, historians and the general public have debated the decisions of Louis and Robespierre, Danton and Napoleon Bonaparte, implicitly or explicitly supporting or shying away from their actions. The fall of the Bastille and its aftermath directly inspired many others to take control of their own fate – in the case of the black slaves of the French colony of Saint-Domingue, overthrow their colonial masters, abolish slavery and establish the new state in Haiti Year 1804.

The meaning of the word changed with the manifold Europe-wide upheavals of 1848, which began in Sicily. Barricades quickly followed on the streets of Paris to overthrow the Louis-Philippe monarchy and install a short-lived republic; these inevitably repeated those of 1789 and were seen as revolutionary. It meant every radical, popular challenge to the established order. At the same time, however, Karl Marx published his dialectically materialist theories of historical change through class conflict, in which he emphasized the inevitability of the bourgeois overthrow of feudalism and then the bourgeois overthrow of the state by the working class, each involving a profound, irreversible social and institutional transformation, one Revolution. Marx’s work led to the adoption of the term revolution for associated socio-economic changes – such as the industrial revolution, a term popularized by economic historian Arnold Toynbee in the 1880s.

In the later nineteenth century the burgeoning revolutionary ideology led to the emergence of committed revolutionaries, particularly but not exclusively Marxists, who devoted their lives to developing theory, identifying opportunities in political reality, and working to make the revolution a reality. In the early years of the twentieth century, Lenin developed the notion of the disciplined revolutionary party that could bring about socialist revolution in circumstances – such as those of Russia in the 1910s or China in the 1930s-1940s – that did not seem ripe for it its imminent occurrence.

In the last 250 years the concept of revolution has changed so much that a precise definition is impossible

The single-minded and proactive Leninist-style revolutionary dominated much of the thought of twentieth-century revolutions – even those, like the Ho Chi Minh-led Vietnamese Revolution, with a heavily nationalist, anti-colonial overtone – but in the later century the word became escaped the limits of Marxism.

This was first seen in the conservative, theocratic Iranian revolution of 1979. This was followed by a new style of popular, nonviolent and constitutionalist revolutions against authoritarian or military rule, such as the 1986 People’s Power Revolution in the Philippines, followed by the overthrow of Soviet rule in 1989/91. At the beginning of the 21st century there were the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere, as well as the Arab Spring 2010-13. These were less aimed at an idealistic or total transformation of society than at liberation from a repressive regime.

In the last 250 years the concept of revolution has changed so much that a precise definition is impossible. Except perhaps ideologues, there is no “ideal” revolution against which to measure a particular historical event. Those in power may call an uprising against them a rebellion, while those involved in the same uprising and sympathetic observers prefer the term revolution. Perhaps the broadest definition proposed by Jack Goldstone relates to an event with four key elements: the violent overthrow of a government; some degree of population participation; the creation of new institutions; and the introduction of an element of social justice. But it’s not difficult to find examples of events around the world that were then or subsequently called revolutions, but which are missing one or more of these elements.

Ultimately, the question of Louis XVI. maybe not so naive. The storming of the Bastille would not have been a revolution if it had managed to put down the insurrection and take command of the political hurricane it had already faced. But he could not, and the events of July 14, 1789 became the decisive moment of a revolution – because people then and since then thought it was so.

Revolutions: How They Changed History and What They Mean Today, edited by Peter Furtado, is available from Thames & Hudson

This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021


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