Who Makes a Revolution?

Here’s another excerpt from graham Swift’s Waterland, an exchange between a history teacher and a pupil who believes the subject is a waste.

“How would nostalgia make these hungry workers go on the rampage then?’ ‘I’m glad you asked that, Price…  – sociologically speaking. because it raises the question of how you define a revolution, sociologically speaking Just as a revolution moves in strange directions, so its social location is elusive. You mention the hungry workers. Do those make a revolution? Or do the overtaxed bougeoisie? Is a revolution merely a spontaneous external event or somebody’s conscious plan? Surely a revolution cannot be called a revolution unless before it is even an act it is the expression of a will? But whose? Where do we place the revolutionary will? The petit bourgeoisie? The hungry masses? The political clubs? As you try to define the revolution you imitate precisely the action of the revolution itself – eliminating with a mental guillotine those who do not fit some impossibly absolute notion of revolution. Where is the revolution truly embodied? In Danton? He wanted to call it a day and retire to the country. Robespierre?He, on the otherhand, was a ruthless fanatic. Thus one comes to the obligingly vague notion of “the people” – vox populi, vox dei. …The voice of the people is the voice of God… But true? And who, in this case, werethe people? The professional menwho flocedto the Natonal Assembly? They for the most part were fired by personal ambition and the prospect of power. The masses? The mob? Are they evolutionaries? Study the history of the Paris mob from 1789 to 1795 and he one consistent feature you’ll find is inconsistency…

The mob supports this party, thenthat, but onceits popular grievencces are met, once it is no longerhungry, it will follow a Napoleonas readily as a Danton. There can be no revolution, perhaps, withut a mob, but hemb are not the revolutionaries…

So, where does it lie, this revolution? Is it erely a term of convenience? Does it realy lie in some impenetrable mesh of circumstances too complex for definition? It’s a curious thing,… but the more you try to dissect events the more you lose hold of them – the more they seem to have occurredlargely in people’s imagination…

And so, having examind all the evidence, we must askourselvessome big questions. Why was it that this revolutiion in the name of liberty and equality ended with an emperor?  Why was it that this movement to abolish for good the ancien regime ended with a reincarnation of the old Sun King?

Why was it that this revolution which did indeed achieve lasting reforms could not do so without fear adn terror, withou thte piling up, in the streets of Paris alone, of (at a modest estimate) 6,000 corpses, not o mention the thousands of corpses in greater ance or the unnumbered corpses of Italians, Austraians Prussians,russians Spaniards, Portugese Ewhich were to be strewn over the battlegrounds of Europe? Why is it tht every so often history demands a bloodbah, a holocaust, an Armageddon? And why is it that every time the time before has taught us nothing?

Follow me, said the little Corsican, and I will give you your Golden Age. And they followed him – these regicides, these tyrant haters.

How it repeats itself,how it goes back on itself,no matter how we try to straighten it out. How it twists and turns. How it goes in circles,  and brings us back to the same place.


2 thoughts on “Who Makes a Revolution?

  1. Swift was very insightful. I think if people are moderately materially satisfied and free-ish within limits, they won’t support a revolution. Things have to be pretty bad. As for who starts it, the mob as usual are just cannon fodder.


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