Ranking revolutions

Eric Hobsbawm is a great historian, but his timing is sometimes a little out. Early in his ‘The Age of Empire’ he comments (p. 11): ‘The revolution whose memory dominates the world since the First World War is no longer the French Revolution of 1789’. He wrote that in 1987, only a few years before the Soviet Empire collapsed. But in fact, I think he was wrong even in 1987. The memory of the Russian Revolution may have dominated the mind of his generation (he was born in 1917) and indeed those born in the 1940s and 1950s. But I wasn’t born when Cuba went communist and I wasn’t yet three when the Prague Spring ended. To my generation, communism as a mass popular movement was a thing of the past. The communists might blow us all to radioactive pieces, but they weren’t going to take over our country (or anywhere else particularly significant).

So my question is: what revolution dominates the world’s memory now, and will do in the future? What will the Eric Hobsbawm of the twenty-second century see as the key political revolutions? (I’m deliberately sticking to political revolutions, since it’s hard to compare the significance of scientific and technical ‘revolutions’ to political events).

My suspicion is that it is the French Revolution which now again dominates the popular memory, as the prototype of both revolutionary ideals and violence, and also as the beginning of modernity. In second place, I’m less sure. The American Revolution of 1776 has had enormous geopolitical effects, but I don’t think it’s inspired many non-Americans. I think the cult of Che Guevara has now greatly declined (despite the new film). Possibly the Chinese revolutions are the most significant, although I think that more people’s mental images would be of the Cultural Revolution than the events of 1949.

But I’d also like to argue for the long-term significance of the Iranian revolution of 1979. As an experiment in a new form of government it’s clearly been a failure: I think Olivier Roy was right to talk about ‘The Failure of Political Islam’ back in 1994 (even though an ideology that’s failed in its practical implementation can still inspire fanatics to violence for decades to come, as communism shows). And whether the continued geopolitical impact of the Iranian Revolution will be as great as the Chinese Revolution isn’t clear. Why I think the Iranian Revolution may continue to fascinate historians, however, is in its challenge to notions of ‘progress’. Why should a country have turned its back on ‘modernity’ and become a theocracy, at a time when such forms of government had largely been abandoned elsewhere?

The dictatorship that haunts the imagination of historians today isn’t Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China but Hitler’s Germany. Its ‘warning from history’ is the fear of a ‘civilised’ country returning to ‘barbarism’, the sense that our state too could end like that. I think a similar diffuse fear about countries sliding into theocracy (whether Muslim, Christian or even Hindu) is going to continue to influence historians for decades to come, and the Iranian revolution seems an obvious case study for theories about such events. But that is only the revolution that haunts my memories (perhaps because it happened when I was at the impressionable age of 14). For those of different ages and from different backgrounds: what is your memorable revolution and why?


4 thoughts on “Ranking revolutions

  1. A bit of background – I was born in 1965 and I’m German. To me, the most memorable political event shaping the decades afterwards was the overthrow of the communist dictatorships of the Eastern bloc in 1989 (and the simultaneous end of Apartheid), i.e., in a way, the end of revolutionary utopia (apartheid wasn’t revolutionary, but I’d say it had the character of a racial utopia for a minority). Maybe it’s typical for our period that it’s formed more strongly by the reversal of revolution than by revolution?
    On the Iranian revolution, I’d say it’s akin to the fascisms of 20th century Europe in that it combines elements that look back to an idealised past with the radicalism of modernity. Islamic fundmantalism is, in my view, a developmental phase on the way to modernity, not a real turning back.


    • You’re my exact contemporary – I was born in 1965 as well. And it is weird to feel that we’ve lived through such a massive event as the end of the Iron Curtain (I visited Leipzig just before the wall came down, so it seemed particularly vivid to me: it must be even more so for Germans). My daughter will learn about a divided Germany and a Russian-dominated eastern Europe in her history books and it will seem bizarre to her that such a thing ever existed, as alien to her as the Austro-Hungarian empire is to our generation.

      You may well be right that the events of 1989 are going to seem key to future historians, but it’s very hard to be sure at the moment: we’re just too near to have a clear perspective. I think there is now a reaction to the euphoria of the immediate post 1989 period and maybe too much taking its singificance for granted, (at least in Britain). The genuine thrill that peaceful change is possible has got rather dented in the last 10 years, and I don’t know if it will be revived.

      I take your point that the Iranian revolution has modern as well as supposedly traditional elements, but I’m not sure whether fundamentalism is necessarily a phase on the way to modernity. It seems to me more post-modern in a sense, unselfconsciously using the tools of modernity (nuclear weapons, the internet etc) to denounce the concept of it. (There was a wonderful news story a while ago about the fact that Iranian propaganda banners are mostly produced on Israeli printing machines). (It’s true of Christian fundamentalists as well – think how many US anti-science websites there are). I’m not sure whether the Iranians are going to end up with Western style ‘modernity’ (as Middle Eastern leaders were often aiming for in the 1950s and 1960s) or some other bizarre hybrid.


      • As with Deng Xiaoping’s famous comment about the French revloution – that it’s too early to judge whether it was a success – we’ll probably have to let a few centuries pass to see how opinions settle down (if they do). In any case, twenty to thirty years later seem an especially bad time to judge revolutions – in 1809, France had become a monarchy again and many previous supporters were put off by the atrocities and wars it had released, and in 1819 it looked as if old-style monarchy would have been restored for good all over Europe; Russia in 1937 saw the peak of Stalin’s purges and I assume that without the victory against Nazi Germany, 1947 Russia wouldn’t have looked like an inspriring place to so many Western intellectuals as well.
        On Iran, it’s possible that the outcome will not be a liberal democracy; without World War II, it would be imaginable as well that big parts of continental Europe would live under some up-dated version of fascism.


  2. Hobsbawn is colored by a Marxist epistemological view-point. For him, revolutions change the fundamental nature of how a society produces wealth. Aside from the Communist Revolution in the early 20th century, there was really no other fundamental change in economic models. From this perspective, he is still right in saying that the only fundamental revolution of the 20th century was Communism.

    The 21st century might be viewed by future generations as the age of the Electronic Revolution. We are not there yet, and with this credit crunch pushing for GDII, it might take us a long time still. Only time will tell…


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