Revolutions are portrayed as rapid and chaotic events, but more often than not they’re slow processes, and they tend to repeat themselves.
Text: Evert Whitehouse, English studies
The author Terry Pratchett once wrote: “Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions.” This opinion, expressed by one of his more socially-minded characters, highlights the curiously cyclical character of revolutions.
Why is it that revolutions often appear cyclical? Is it because revolutions rarely ‘complete’ themselves, and fall short of their goals? Or is it because we have ever-changing norms, with different expectations of what and how a society should be?
Ever-changing norms might hold the key. If you told a peasant from early medieval England that the people of the future had 8-hour workdays with strict labour laws, then he might say that the future sounded like a utopia. If you told him that we now sought 6-hour workdays he’d probably accuse you of being greedy.
This brings us to the first crucial point: Times change and what before seemed natural now seems outlandish. But these changes haven’t come in great revolutionary leaps. We did not go from peasants in a field toiling 14 hours a day to worker protection, voting rights and 8-hour workdays in one great leap. Instead, a lot of the progress we have made has taken place gradually. A steady trickle of legislation improving workers’ rights over time hardly seems revolutionary in the classical sense of the word. Revolutions are traditionally defined as swift and fundamental changes in political power or society.
Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions
This is the second essential point: Revolutions only seem revolutionary if you ignore all of the smaller events before a revolution. The French revolution was preceded by mass public discontent and food shortages. The Russian revolution by a previous revolution and a disastrous war. Revolutions don’t have to be fast and chaotic, they can be slow and organised. Instead of mobs storming the palaces and holding the king at swordpoint, they can be concerted efforts at reform which take decades to complete.
Are revolutions endless? Maybe. One problem with analysing revolutions is that we imagine them as a finite number which will eventually be exhausted, and after that they will lead us to a utopia in the future. Simply put, the idea is that if we just complete enough revolutions we’ll be transported to a future where revolutions will no longer be necessary, because a perfect society doesn’t require change. The problem with this idea is that the future is hard to predict, therefore it’s hard to know what challenges future societies will face. It’s not unreasonable to think that there never will be a utopia simply because people won’t ever fully agree on what a utopia should be. This leads us back to the original point: Suppose revolutions are constant because our social values constantly evolve? We judge previous generations for racist and homophobic attitudes, but who knows what social issues the future generations will in turn judge us for? A lack of veganism, or our slow reaction to combat climate change are just two of many issues which we may be judged for in the future. Perhaps we will seem ignorant to our descendants, similar to how we look upon our ancestors as ignorant.
Times change and what before seemed natural now seems outlandish. But these changes haven’t come in great revolutionary leaps.
It sounds pessimistic to say that we are stuck in a loop, doomed to repeat ourselves with cyclical revolutions. But it’s worth noting that being stuck in a loop normally means that one gets nowhere, whilst in this case we’re going somewhere. Where we’re going remains to be seen. What we can do is hope that the future revolutions will be quieter, gentler and more peaceful than the previous revolutions, when they eventually come around. Or, we could hope that someone has a revolutionary idea on how to break the cycle.