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What is revolution? Is it a social and historical phenomenon? Or does it fall from the sky like a religious epiphany?

What makes a revolution? Every inquiry needs a starting place so I will began with the formal definition:

revolution
Syllabification: (rev·o·lu·tion)
Pronunciation: ˌrevəˈlo͞oSHən
Translate revolution | into French | into German | into Italian | into Spanish
noun

    1a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.
    (the Revolution) the American Revolution.

    (often the Revolution) (in Marxism) the class struggle that is expected to lead to     political change and the triumph of communism.

    a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people’s ideas about it:

Apparent from the above is that there is more than one kind of revolution. First, there are political revolutions; defined as the overthrow of the existing political regime. Second, there are social revolutions which are the overturning of the existing social order. Third, there are revolutions in ideas and practices which may or may not acquire a political or social character. These aren't exclusive categories though, since there can be much overlap between them. It should be noted that the word has no specific political or ideological character. A revolution can be either Left or Right, depending on its content.

So if we toss the word "revolution" around as if it were an incantation sans any specifics, we are doing little more than uttering an empty noise. A serious discussion of the topic requires specificity and at least some familiarity with the record of previous revolutions.

It's worth observing here that most of the "revolutions" in human history have been of the strictly political kind. Usually they have involved the overthrow of one ruling clique in favor of another. Social revolutions, OTOH, are a more recent historical vintage and have a very different character. They are a fundamentally social phenomenon involving the broad mass of a society rather than being limited to the rivalries of elites.

The definition cited mentions two of the preeminent social revolutions in European history; the American Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Omitted is the French Revolution which constitutes the historic bridge between these two. The American Revolution was a direct inspiration for the French and the Russian Revolutionaries viewed the French Revolution as a direct precursor to their own.

An outstanding common feature of all three of these revolutions is that each emerged from the confluence of larger social dynamics and political events that preceded them, rather than being the product of personal ambition or factional interests.

This point is crucial to our understanding of social revolutions and how they develop. The popular perception of revolutions tends to focus almost most entirely on the outbreak of open insurrection and its aftermath, ignoring the long train of events and circumstances that prepared them. This often results in a romanticized vision of revolution that can border on evangelical religiousness. In this view, revolution appears as something like an unexpected cloudburst, a natural cataclysm as unpredictable and unforeseeable as an earth quake. This produces a caricature in which the call for revolution, raised by some heroic, farsighted individual or group, is met with an immediate, spontaneous response by the mass of people who, without preparation, embrace the call to as if it were a divine revelation. The iniquitous are cast down and the righteous exalted.

This is a trope as familiar as the tales of Old Testament Prophets and the fables marketed by Hollywood. It is also far removed from the historic reality.

Take the American Revolution for example. It's generally understood that the initial impetus of the revolution came from the British government's imposition of taxes on the American colonies but how many appreciate that this dispute began in 1765, a full 10 years prior to the outbreak of actual fighting? How many understand that the colonies were not fully committed to a revolutionary course until the Declaration of Independence in 1776, well after the sanguinary events of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill? That prior to the Declaration the Colonies had been officially committed to a policy of reform rather than revolution? Further, how many of us could give a full and coherent description of the 10 year process of self organization in the Colonies that culminated in the move from a reformist to a revolutionary perspective?

Each July fourth we celebrate a revolution of which most have only a vague and cloudy notion.

The roots of the French Revolution likewise stretch back to the mid 18th century and are entwined with those of our own. Indeed, notables such as Thomas Paine and the Marquis De Lafayette participated in both and Thomas Jefferson was an outspoken sympathizer with the former. The calamitous defeat of France in the French-Indian War (known in Europe as the Seven Years War) helped give rise to both. In America, the expulsion of the French from the continent freed the colonies from their dependence on British military power to defend them. In France, the destruction of the Navy and the loss of their North American possessions left the Monarchy bankrupt and in desperate need of fiscal reform.

So dire were the circumstances that, following the accession of Louis XVI to the French throne, the King himself was compelled to attempt the necessary reforms, only to be stymied by the opposition of both the Rentier Aristocrats and Clergy. French support for the American Revolution was in part motivated by the hope that a victory by the revolutionaries would recoup France's earlier losses to Britain. This hope was disappointed when American commissioners signed a separate peace with Britain excluding the French.

By 1789 the crisis had become so profound that the King was forced to convoke the Estates-General, an assembly of the nobility, the clergy and, most importantly, commons, in an effort to push through necessary reforms. It became apparent that the representatives of the commons had a far more ambitious agenda, while the aristocracy and the clergy remained committed to defending their own status and privileges. The King, belatedly recognizing the threat posed by the rise of the commons, attempted to disperse the assembly. The commons responded by declaring themselves to be the National Assembly and asserting their constitutional authority over that of the King.

This pivotal event, although still ostensibly reformist in character, marked the beginning of a chain of revolutionary events that culminated in the abolition of the Monarchy and the proclamation of the first French Republic some four years later.

At first glance the Russian Revolution would seem far removed from its historical predecessors. Some of these differences were bound up in the peculiar conditions of Russian history and culture. The mammoth size and ethnological diversity of the Russian Empire and the near Pharaoh-like character of the Tsar's position as ruler were unique. Moreover, coming over a hundred years after the previous two revolutions and after the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the Russian experience was shaped by the subsequent rise of a militant Labor movement and Socialism as a radical political movement. The American and French revolutions were pre-industrial and consequently reflected the ideas of National identity and popular sovereignty bequeathed by enlightenment theories, whereas the Russian Revolution was heavily influenced by ideas of internationalism and class division.

Nevertheless there are number of points of commonality. First, the Russian Revolutionaries, just as their American and French counterparts, saw themselves as part of a great historical movement for the abolition of Monarchical absolutism and aristocratic privilege and towards popular rule. They considered themselves to be the inheritors and forwarders of a revolutionary legacy.  As with the previous revolutions it's roots extended farther back than is widely appreciated.

To begin with, the Russian revolution wasn't a single insurrection but two. The 1917 revolution was prefigured by the 1905 revolution. The latter was itself preceded by an extended period of radical ferment. The revolution of 1917, like the American and French, was the culmination of an unfolding historical and political process. Again like the earlier revolutions, the revolution of 1905 was essentially reformist in nature, drawing to a close when the Tsar, against his will and in bad faith, appeared to capitulate to demands for greater civil and political liberties, a limited Constitutional Monarchy and an elected national assembly known as the Duma by issuing the October Manifesto.

This ploy proved successful in that it split supporters of the revolution between those who saw the Manifesto as victory and those who saw through it. Having divided the opposition, the Tsarist regime moved swiftly to suppress the remaining revolutionaries and to reestablish its autocracy. By 1907 the Tsar had re-written election laws to ensure that the Duma would be dominated by the landed gentry and urban business interests, effectively subordinate to his wishes.

Nevertheless, the ten years leading up to the Revolution of 1917 saw most of the elements that had participated in the 1905 Revolution, including the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, entering the Duma in order to remain politically relevant. This despite the fact that the duma was at best reformist in character and at worst a hollow shell.

At the outbreak of the February Revolution in 1917 which toppled the Tsarist regime it wasn't the radical elements that forced the Tsar's abdication and established the Provisional Government. Rather it was the reformist elements, such as the Kadets & Octobrists, dedicated to the goal of a parliamentary constitutional Monarchy who took the lead.

Moreover, at that time both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks supported the establishment of a liberal, democratic government in Russia rather than an immediate socialist revolution. The Bolshevik position did not change until Lenin returned to Russia and issued his April Theses a little over a month following the revolution. Six tumultuous months would pass before the Bolsheviks seized power in October of 1917.

Certain points emerge from a comparison of these three revolutions. First, none of them began as avowedly revolutionary struggles. All began as reformist movements and only moved to a radical stage under the impact of events. While radicals participated, it was not they but the reformers who led these struggles through their early stages. It was only when reforms were blocked and/or threatened with roll back that these movements shifted in a radical direction.

Second, each went through an extended period of organizing and experimentation which produced alternate structures of administration to those of the existing regime. In no case did the actual overthrow of the status quo precede this process. Indeed, it was the existence of this alternate political infrastructure that made the abolition of the existing social/political order possible.

Third, in keeping with the first and second, the initial stages of these revolutions were characterized by a unity of purpose among all forces opposing the status quo. They did not divide themselves in internecine combats between the reformist and radical elements. Despite the very real differences between various factions, they maintained a solid front until the overthrow of the existing regime was completed.

What this suggests is that, as a matter of historical fact, the relationship between the reformist and the radical elements, at least in the initial stages of the revolutionary process, is synergistic rather than antagonistic.

Of course this runs contrary to what is taken for scripture by many ostensible radicals/revolutionaries. For some idea that reform is part and parcel of the revolutionary process is anathema. It is even argued that reform is the "main enemy" and that it must be defeated and repudiated before the status quo can be ousted.

Putting aside the fact that historic experience contradicts this view, there remains an obvious objection. The only way that reforms can block the revolutionary process is if they are successful at mending the existing society, thus rendering revolution unnecessary. Lurking at the heart of such "radical" posturing isn't the belief that reforms will fail but the fear that they will succeed.

If one actually believes that the existing status quo is unsustainable, that reforms are inadequate and will ultimately fail, what better way of demonstrating the accuracy of that assessment than by putting such reforms into practice? Either the reforms will fail or the existing regime will attempt to reverse them. Both possible outcomes would illustrate the need for radical change to the great mass of the population far more effectively than windy cheerleading for revolution.

What is clear, given the historic synergy between the reform and radical elements of previous revolutions, is that attacks from the Left on the Center and Center Left, to the degree that they lump them together with the reactionary forces that underpin the status quo,  advance neither reform or revolution. Rather, they strengthen the existing system by dividing the opposition.    

 

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