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 wasnt born when Cuba went communist and I wasnt 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 werent going to take over our country (or anywhere else particularly significant).
So my question is: what revolution dominates the worlds memory now, and will do in the future? What will the Eric Hobsbawm of the twenty-second century see as the key political revolutions? (Im deliberately sticking to political revolutions, since its 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, Im less sure. The American Revolution of 1776 has had enormous geopolitical effects, but I dont think its 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 peoples mental images would be of the Cultural Revolution than the events of 1949.
But Id also like to argue for the long-term significance of the Iranian revolution of 1979. As an experiment in a new form of government its 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 thats 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 isnt 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 isnt Stalins Russia or Maos China but Hitlers 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?