Despite their claim to being something new under the sun, revolutions have their own histories complete with predictable patterns of decline and fall.
A classic example is the one that took place in France as the 18th century was ending with a bang. Its every twist and turn is worth studying, as one would examine the fever chart of a patient afflicted by bouts of the same body-wracking illness.
Anyone familiar with the history and interpretation of the French Revolution will look askance at the claim made by today's naive young revolutionaries that they represent anything but imitations of the original catastrophe. Students of historical follies, with all their violence and bloodshed, will have to wonder if this isn't where they came in. For each revolution exhibits the same series of shock waves following one another across Clio's stage. If you've seen one such revolution, you've seen 'em all.
It was Dr. Kissinger, who not only saw a great deal of history made but made much of it, who once asked Chou-en-lai, Communist China's foreign minister, what the Party's current line was on the French Revolution's place in history: Was it just another bourgeois revolution leading nowhere, or a precursor to an historic turning point? To which sage Comrade Chou replied: "It's too early to tell."
If any modern revolution did achieve something different, one might ask if the change was for good or ill. Historian Crane Brinton records in The Anatomy of Revolution that the one in France did away with the "old overlapping jurisdictions, the confusions and the compromises inherited from the thousand-year struggle" between the Crown and feudal nobility. Weights and measures "that varied from region to region, indeed from town to town," were supplanted by the more uniform metric system. Gone, too, were non-decimal coins unsuited "for long division."
The Glorious Revolution in England also did away with some outdated practices. Eventually the Bolsheviks brought all of Russia into the industrial and even space age--but at what price in human suffering? Large estates generally remained in the grasp of their new owners, while in France the redistribution of land to many small independent peasants did represent real change.
But when revolutions seek to change society's most basic structure--the family--they tend to fail, a testimony to the common sense of the population. And people tend to resist incursions upon society's other fundamental institution--religion--as Maximilien Robespierre discovered when he sought to establish the Cult of the Supreme Being as the official religion of France. So let's hear it for We the People and our innate tendency to trust the tried and proven rather than accept social experimentation, especially on the sinews that hold together husband and wife, parents and children. Efforts to establish new religions and the most personal of new habits amounted to nothing in the end.
The family of man isn't about to strike such a dubious and fleeting bargain with destiny. So on balance, to quote Professor Brinton, the French Revolution's "results look rather petty as measured by the brotherhood of man and the achievement of justice on this earth. The blood of the martyrs seems hardly necessary to establish decimal coinage."
The most successful revolution in modern times appears to have been the American one, which now seems less a revolution than a continuation. It's the well-named New World that now seems to have brought forth something new in human affairs. Let's be thankful that here the people rule and not just another brittle ideology. For in God we trust; all other lesser beings only play at being gods. And it's time sensible souls saw right through them.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 04/29/2018
Print Headline: Anatomy of revolution