The Allure of Revolution
We live in an age of revolutions. The concept of a revolution itself is ever-present, malleable, and promising. We are so constantly inundated with the idea, that one wonders how such a seemingly singular concept can continue to mean anything. Revolution is found in historical scholarship, popular advertising for nutritional supplements, on television, and on and on and on. Revolutionsare everywhere.
Why is this concept so popular? Revolutions accelerate time, hinting at an immediate resolution to a persistent problem. Tyranny and belly fat can be whisked away in a single revolutionary action. Take up arms or take a pill. Buy into a revolutionary ideology or simply buy a product. Revolutions play to our hopes — whatever they might be.
Historians use the term “revolution” to place emphasis on change, rather than continuity. The French Revolution set France, Europe, and the World on a new course. In his Philosophy of History, Hegel wrote that the French Revolution was “world-historical.” Other revolutions were globally significant too. The Glorious Revolution overthrew one king for another. The American Revolution turned into the first successful colonial revolt and a few decades later the Haitian Revolution became the first successful slave revolt. In the political sense of the term, revolutionary moments change the political culture of a moment — mostly through violent, and on occasion through peaceful, means. All of these events are significant on a global level and all emphasize a swift break with a previous regime.
Economic and technological revolutions inevitably and irrevocably alter the economic landscape. The Industrial Revolution sits alongside the Information Revolution. We might also talk about the Print Revolution of Gutenberg in the same breath as the E-books, Blogs, and Social Media Revolutions. Will our grandchildren remember George Washington and Steve Jobs as two great American revolutionaries?
Yet, revolution and change are not direct synonyms, nor can they be. The original meaning of the word “revolution”was different from its usage today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word referred to the circular or elliptical course of celestial bodies or of the complete revolution our planet makes in a single day. A recurring period of time. A cycle. A repetition. From the sixteenth century onwards into the era historians normally think of as the Age of Revolutions (1688-1848), the word gradually gained new meaning.