mercredi 9 février 2011

Revolution? Which revolution?

“I keep my mind still open to instruction, if any one will vouchsafe to bestow it on me.”

This quote by David Hume comes to mind each time I think of the word “Revolution” as used by American scholars when they discuss the American War of Independence. I simply fail to understand in which way this historical event would qualify as revolutionary.

Of course one should start by asking what a revolution is. Bringing such modifications to the course of History that the world no longer is what it used to be? 

The archetypal examples of revolutions have been the French Revolution of 1789 (the “Great Revolution” as the Soviets used to call it) followed by the Russian Revolution of 1917. 

The consequences of the French Revolution weren’t limited to France but extended to the entire world and are continuing in the present times. It was the end of the monarchy through a complete upheaval of the political, economical, sociological, religious and legal structures of the Nation. “Down with the aristocrats!” was the motto. Most importantly, the ideas that the French Revolution were based upon spilled all over Europe through the Napoleonic Wars. And the very concept of democracy as we understand it now was born during the revolutionary years of France. Peoples all over the world, be it in Asia, in Muslim countries, in Africa, etc., refer to 1789 when they press for democracy.

Now, wasn’t the American War of Independence more a war of secession from the motherland than anything else? Not even a war of independence as we would understand it today since the colonists weren’t trying to get rid of any invaders/occupiers coming from elsewhere like the Algerians or the Vietnamese did during their wars of liberation against the French.

What was the Boston tea party but an urban revolt based upon general dissatisfaction in the face of fiscal pressure? It eventually snowballed into what we know but basically the rationale was just to get rid of the fiscal abuse by the English aristocracy which was ruling from beyond the Ocean. When the American Republic came into being, it didn’t shatter the political, economical, sociological and, overall, religious structures of the Nation. Quite the opposite. 

There was no aristocracy to be freed from, the power of the Church was fundamental and remained unchallenged, exploitation of man by man (in Marxist terms) wasn’t exactly questioned (see slavery until 1863) and the notion of a Parliament was transferred from Britain where it had already been active for centuries. It looks like the same can be said from the habeas corpus concept and the system of common law which were imported from the motherland and mostly kept unchanged.

Where’s the revolution?

As to why the word “revolution” has been abused in this way (as I see it), may I suggest that this word brings with it a romantic notion of birth from nothingness that gives some legitimacy and grandeur to any historical event of some importance. The old tabula rasa syndrome so to speak. Not to belittle the importance of the War of Independence for Americans of course, but a revolution?

“I keep my mind still open to instruction, if any one will vouchsafe to bestow it on me.”

Note: the painting is “Le château des Pyrénées” by René Magritte (1959).

14 commentaires:

Flocon a dit…

Not exactly a brand new post but these last days I wonder how far from common sense I'm drifting away with some of my little posts...

Some of the regulars may have not read that post anyway...

Anijo a dit…

hmmm, I've never thought about it this way. Was the American War for Independence a revolution? I'll have to ponder it a bit more.

I enjoy your philosophical posts, but the others respond more to the political posts.. I guess that one cannot please all of the people all of the time. ;)

Anijo a dit…

Looking around the internet it turns out that a number of people have questioned how revolutionary the American Revolution was.

Here for example.

I don't consider the question to be all that important. If it is preferable to refer to this history as the War of Independence, so be it. But then, one could argue that it was the opposite for the Native Americans as they lost Independence.

Perhaps it should be called War of Independence for British colonialists in North America.

Flocon a dit…

Your link is a good find Anijo.

"A true social revolution destroys the institutional foundations of the old order"...

That was my point yes.

"...and transfers power from a ruling elite to new social groups."

Have things really changed in that regard both in France and in the US?

From the aristoratic elite of the XVIIIth century to the ploutocratic one of the XXIth century, I'm not sure the commoners have gained much say in their respective domestic policies.

"The Revolution also//...//made it impossible for elites to openly disparage ordinary people."

I don't know about the U.S but here in France Sarko and his croonies have no qualms about it.

Anijo a dit…

Is what has happened today in Egypt a revolution? My friend Sally, the lady from Cairo is elated and I join in her celebration.

Anijo a dit…

The coverage on Al Jazeera of what's happening in Egypt is celebratory and an island of joy ;) . Whatever tomorrow may bring, today is a momentus and wonderful day for Egyptians.

Flocon a dit…


I would be cautious before calling what's currently happening in Egypt a revolution.

What maybe considered revolutionary tough is the very fact that the masses succeeded in agregating and forcing the system to take them into consideration.

Now the army is at the helm of the State. Does that bode well for democracy? Just questioning...

Mubarak didn't leave out of benevolence or to eventually please the Egyptian people.

Rather, I would think the army -like was the case in Tunisia- forced him out.

When a dictator is abandonned by the military, he no longer is a dictator.

I've read some pieces saying the U.S was powerless as pertains what's unfolding in Egypt.

I'm not so sure.

Considering that the Egyptian army owes about everything to America, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some big brass in the Pentagon have met with some big shots in the Egyptian army and they agreed to let Mubarak down.

Now, I don't want to spoil the party and I wish the Egyptians the better.

Ned Ludd a dit…

Flocon, "Considering that the Egyptian army owes about everything to America, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some big brass in the Pentagon have met with some big shots in the Egyptian army and they agreed to let Mubarak down."

Also consider that not only its army, but everything, Israel owes to America. America gives about 1.3 billion dollars in military aid to Egypt, but 3 billion dollars in military aid to Israel, and another 3 billion in economic "aid".

Egypt has a population of about 85 million and Israel about 6 or 7.

Flocon a dit…


The U.S has been blackmailed by the Jewish community since the end of WWII.

As regards the aid America gives to Egypt I understand it's a way to keep the balance unbalanced between the two neighbours...

According to the figures, l'israélien reçoit à peu près 20 fois plus que l'Égyptien.


Maintenant que tu maîtrises les liens bleus il t'est facile de mettre en italiques ou en gras.

Just type i ou b between <> and the trick's done!

Anijo a dit…

I am aware of all of the problems. Yesterday I was in a celebratory mood. Now the real work begins. I am crossing my fingers that all works out the best possible for the Egyptians. I realize that there are a lot of road blocks though.

Flocon a dit…


There are a lot of articles in the NYT these days (I can't read more than this American newspaper everyday) about what's going on in Egypt.

This one for example with strong disagreeing points of views by the readers.

A man has been brought down (who certainly was less of a thug than Ceaucescu was in Romania for example or S. Hussein in Irak of course), but remains to be seen how will the system evolve.

The next one I'd like to be toppled is Gaddaffi from Libya.

Si l'on s'en tient à la définition assez stricte (au début du billet) de ce qu'est une révolution, je ne crois pas que l'histoire du monde sera changée par les destitutions de Ben Ali ou de Mubarak.

Mais il est un peu tôt pour se prononcer. On jugera dans un ou deux siècles.. ,-)

Ned Ludd a dit…

Flocon, in addition, military aid to Israel is a hidden subsidy to America's military-industrial complex as 70% of the aid is supposed to be spent on American equipment. I don't know if that is the case with Egypt, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Flocon a dit…

Ben Ali a fui, Mubarack a été destitué and life goes on as usual... et ce serait la même chose avec la chute de Kadhafi.

Même si Kim Yong-il devait tomber -mais là c'est aussi inimaginable que Staline ou Enver Hojda- ce ne serait pas une révolution mais la chute d'une tyrannie. Il y aura réunification avec le sud et life will go on...

Peut-être le temps des révolutions est-il passé. 1830 n'a rien révolutionné et 1848 a marqué la fin de la monarchie. Les rapports sociaux n'ont nullement été affectés par le soulèvement de 1848, la bourgeoisie s'en est encore mieux portée.

For better or worse la Révolution française et la Révolution russe ont bien orienté le cours de l'histoire mondiale.

La révolution des œillets portugaise, la révolution de velours tchèque et tous les autres mouvements insurrectionnels, pour positifs qu'ils aient été sous certains aspects, n'ont pas modifié le cours de l'histoire en ce sens qu'ils n'ont pas eu de répercussions de l'autre côté de la planète.

Flocon a dit…

Un article intéressant dans Times magazine sur les "révolutions" au Moyen-Orient.

L'auteur se réfère aux révolutions françaises, russes et américaines. Yet the last one is debatable in my opinion...