Revolution: An emotionally charged term, which, translated in different languages, is used by people of all civilizations and cultures.
However, what is a revolution?
Let’s start from a more specific context, which might sound more familiar, to gradually move to a holistic definition of the word. So, in political context, the word revolution, means:
The massive uprising of the people in a certain society, with a goal to cause a change in the way they are governed.
In this respect, a revolution can occur in cases of people belonging to a certain race or nation, revolting against people belonging to a different race or nation which govern them, because the latter have conquered them in the past.
So a revolution could be a violent uprising. An example included in Lapham’s Quarterly is the revolution of the Balkan peoples against the Turks in the beginning of the 19th century. More specifically, Lapham refers to Lord Byron’s death in April of 1824, fighting in the Greek revolution that ended 400 years of slavery under the reign of the Ottoman Empire.
However, is it always the case that a revolution resorts to violence? Although it seems so, some instances suggest otherwise. An example is the peaceful independence movement in India, that in 1947 eventually brought to an end more than 350 years of British domination over the Indian subcontinent.
At the same time, a revolution can occur within a state among people sharing the same ethnic and cultural identity. This occurs when a certain social group revolts against individuals that govern them, in order to change the political structure of their state. However, there is a difference between the war of independence and the uprising with the goal of political reform. The desire to achieve self-determination is apparent and vivid in almost all cases of a peoples having been conquered and being ruled by a different state. On the other hand, a political revolution requires a substantial change in the way of thinking, which will allow individuals to witness the oppression they are experiencing and acknowledge that the uprising will be in their own interest.
An example of such a change in the way of thinking was discussed in Unit 1, as caused by John Locke’s theory of the social contract. Through his revolutionary essay “Two Treatises of Government”, Locke illustrates the absurdity of the view that a governor’s power derives from God.
By presenting society as the result of a compromise between individuals to give up part of their total freedom for peaceful social co-existence to be attained, the British scholar highlights that the sole purpose of society is to improve the well-being of the individuals comprising it. This insight, together with Rousseau’s radical view that it’s a natural right of the individuals to revolt against an oppressive government with the purpose to change it led to the French Revolution of 1789. This is an unquestionable example of this type of revolution. This change in beliefs of the French masses caused them to revolt against their government, bringing the political system of democracy back to Europe after it was abandoned for more than two thousand years.
Another example of a large-scale political revolution we analyzed in Unit 7 was the Russian revolution in the period 1917-1923 that abolished the monarch regime of Tzar Nicholas II and established Communism in the newfound political entity of the Soviet Union. What we focused on was not the background and the development of the revolution per se, but how broad its effects were in the Soviet society. It did not just bring a change in the people in power, but also an utter social rearrangement in accordance to the Communist ideology.
Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna vividly showcases how the lives of all the people changed dramatically with the new regime, no matter their ideology or their degree of involvement with politics. At the same time, such a radical political change may not always be wholly supported, which condemns it to an everlasting uncertainty. Both Sofia Petrovna and Achmatova’s Requiem denounce the violence of the Soviet regime against its own citizens, which was the simplest way to prevent the occurrence of anti-revolutionary actions. As a result, Stalin’s regime, from a political system promising to establish the rights of the proletariat, diminished into a grotesque tyranny, that deprived its people of basic human rights and controlled them through fear.
Also, the Civil Rights Movement we analyzed in Unit 4 constitutes a revolution. In fact, the graphic novel “March 2” we analyzed constitutes a chronicle of this revolution. The difference between this revolution and, for instance, the French Revolution mentioned above, has to do with the results, as well as the causes of the revolutionary movement. Whereas the masses in France demanded to be handed the power, John Lewis and his fellow freedom riders, as well as all the civil right activists to follow did not demand political power, but a transformation of society in such a way that they would no longer be deprived of their human dignity in everyday basis. They wanted a social change and not a political one, manifested through the adoption of ideas supporting equality of races by the social body. Therefore, a broader definition of the term “revolution” would be more appropriate, in order to encompasses the complexity of its meaning.
A revolution is a major shift in the status quo.
The term “major” is used to signify that a revolution affects a society as a whole, or even the entirety of the globe.
The term “status quo”, refers to the set of ideas that are considered as holding, or describing, the truth, in a way considered unquestionable. It can refer to truths about the physical world and the laws that govern its function, or truths about morality, how individuals should behave and interact with one another.
The key term is that the revolution is a process that “shifts” the existing order. An old set of ideas is abandoned, and another one takes its place, transforming the society. Even the most “revolutionary” idea, does not cause a revolution until it is adopted and implemented in everyday practice, changing how individuals view the world around them. Even the most “revolutionary” invention will cause a revolution only by the time it is put into use, and changes a certain aspect of people’s lives forever.
That is the reason the steam engine is revolutionary. It completely changed the way people travel, as well as how trade is done. With the use of steam-powered trains, the distribution of products was made a lot easier. This enabled an increase in their production, as now they could be sold and consumed not only by people living in the nearby area, but also by individuals that live far away. And this technological revolution was one of the deciding factors that led to the Industrial Revolution; a complete shift from the agricultural model of society to the industrial, that re-shaped the image of the globe.
Therefore, we can say that revolution is a collective process. It involves many people that adopt the new idea that is brought forward and act on its basis. That is why a political revolution that results in the loss of the individuals revolting should be considered an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow a government, but not an unsuccessful revolution, although that is how we refer to it in everyday conversation. The reason is that although in the physical level, the revolution may have failed, in the intellectual level, or the level of ideas, it has been more than successful: the revolutionary seed has been planted and has bloomed among individuals, that are looking for the next given chance to transform their society in accordance to those ideas. Revolution is sometimes a change in the state of mind, that does not include and physical or visible element.
That can also explain why, whereas we usually have revolution in our mind as something rapid, it can also be extremely gradual and slowly progressing. So slowly, that while it happens, people do not even realize a change is taking place. Such an instance is the scientific revolution concerning the change in beliefs about the structure of the solar system we discussed in Unit 2. Because of Nikolaus Copernicus’ and Galileo Galilei’s work, the new scientific knowledge revealing the truth about the model of the solar system closer to reality was out there. However, both scientists were highly criticized, and their work originally was discredited and perceived as mere nonsense. If you asked the people of that time period, or even the majority of the scientists, they would probably answer that the geocentric model of the solar system will remain unchanged because it is the closest to reality, and would dismiss the newfound theory. At the same time, the heliocentric model was gradually being further examined and shed light into, with the eventual result that we are all aware of: its adoption by the whole scientific community, which revolutionized the way we look at the sky.
On the same note, the revolution brought about by abstract art that we examined in Unit 6 needed almost half a century to fully flourish. In the beginning, such works of art were quickly dismissed as purposeless, incomplete and impropr. Consensus was that art needed to be realistic or at best, to be an improvisation over reality using different colors or loose shapes. The idea that works of art might not have a clear idea behind them but, on the contrary, derive their whole meaning from their interpretation from the viewers was something that needed much time to mature and be accepted by both the art community and the audience. Also, the studies examining the influence of stimuli by different combinations of colors to our brain in a purely biological level elevate abstract paintings to much more than a “random” or “purposeless” coloring of a canvas. However, what essentially led to the acceptance of abstraction as a true form of art was the revolutionary redefinition of how we perceive art. Through the abolition of the barriers dividing abstraction and non-abstraction, came the wide spread of the idea that, taking into consideration the inability of art to depict reality in its entirety, ultimately all art is abstract.
In Unit 5 we examined how dance and performance can be a means of revolution. A very interesting insight was that whenever we are watched by other people, we are essentially performing, sending multiple messages not only through our voice, but also through our facial expression and body language. As a form of artistic expression, dance can communicate messages about human oppression and pain or even call for revolution through the most natural and universally understood way, the motion of the body. Overcoming geographical and linguistic barriers, the body is something we can all identify with, because our corporeal empathy enables us to get a grasp of how the dancers are feeling, and what their bodies are experiencing. In this way, the communication of a message calling for action becomes more direct and engages the viewer emotionally, pushing them to consider and reflect the message they were conveyed.
In Unit 3, we studied Gourevitch’s renowned chronicle of the Rwandan genocide. This book is revolutionary because, through describing the unfolding of the events comprising this tragedy, it forced the West for the first time in a mass scale to look itself in the mirror and face its wrongdoings. The powerful narrative busted the myth that events of mass violence happen in underdeveloped countries simply because people there “are like this”, and “this is what they do to each other,” that for years had helped the Western countries keep a clear conscience. The belief that the West through its past actions is responsible for many of the tragedies happening in the global South is widely accepted. However, this book helped spread the inexcusably revolutionary idea it also needs to take responsibility of these wrongdoings and devote its resources in correcting them. Of course, the book did not go unnoticed; it ignited an extensive scholarly conversation about both the messages it presented, as well as ethics in journalism, portion of which you can find in my revised version of paper 2.
Finally, coming back to political revolution, we might have analyzed the forces that cause its prosecution and the ways in which it breaks out, but we are still missing a vital question: when have actions committed in the name of resistance to authority and demand for political change gone too far?
This essential discussion in Unit 8 was the concluding point of the course, where the analysis centered around the tense political climate in West Germany during the 1960s and 1970s. We analyzed the case of the RAF, a group hat denounced the state of West German as a police state governed by former Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. Perceiving it as authoritative, the RAF saw their actions as justified, as the media or any other means of making their opinions publicly known was controlled by the political leadership, giving them no other choice but to take drastic action.
Of course, the West Gerrman government did not share their assessment and directly considered them criminals, as the bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations they had committed in the name of resistance and political activism were deemed intolerable. From this instance, arises the important question of whether acceptance by a certain part of the population of the need in change is a sufficient condition to justify the initiation of revolutionary acts. Moreover, the decision of the RAF to pursue armed struggle as a means to bring about political change generates the question, could using violent means to achieve a change in the status quo be considered justified in our day and age?