https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/revolution-doesnt-look-like-revolution/613801/ Tags: The True Believer revolution mass movement society america Do Protests Even Work What Makes a Protest Effective “Would-be revolutionaries and radical counterrevolutionaries both forget, however, that real revolutions invariably catch people by surprise. Revolutions happen when the distinct concerns of many different groups are for a time more or less soldered together—and this coming together is not planned in advance, but produced largely by chance. This is what historians call “contingency”: One thing builds on another in a way that is neither inevitable nor easily reversed.” “When word of the violence and mayhem in Paris first reached the National Assembly, 20 miles away in Versailles, its members were horrified. Educated men, many with great fortunes, they had little personal sympathy for a mob of workers and agitators. Fearful for their own lives, many worried they would be the next victims. Within days, however, their anxiety turned to hope, as National Assembly members who took part in a fact-finding mission to Paris reported being greeted by a peaceful and joyous crowd eager to shake their hands. Men whose politics we would today characterize as center-right then spoke positively about the attack on the fortress, describing its conquest as legitimate resistance to tyranny—much like their own decision to write a constitution.” “An unexpected and growing coalition now exists. On a basic level, these are pro-democracy protests made difficult to recognize as such because they’re happening in a country that has widely been considered a leading site of liberal democracy. Critics have been fast to dismiss statements from Romney, Bush, and others as mere show, but they signal a decisive change in the direction of public opinion. Republican leaders may (in the eyes of many activists) be on the wrong side of history, but they want to be on the right side of the future.”
The members of France’s first National Assembly were hardly men with an obvious stake in disturbing the status quo. Their conscious impulses in the first months of the revolution were in many ways conservative; they wanted to protect themselves, ensure continuity, and get things over with as quickly as possible. In the name of honoring the absolutist monarchy’s debts, however, many of them opted for policies (such as nationalizing properties held by the Catholic Church and issuing a new currency) that proved to be far more disruptive than expected. We might think of the revolution’s radicalization as a Möbius trajectory—moving in what seemed to be a single direction, it nonetheless arrived on the other side of a metaphorical strip.
- small changes build up to a huge wave
- things that may seem conservative or conventional or inconsequential can be the stepping stones into a radical new way of doing things
The protocols and norms that emerged in the aftermath of 18th-century revolutions—the inviolability of private property, the abstract idea of the rights-bearing individual, the fiscal-military nation-state—are today under attack as forms of privilege themselves. For now, translating that critique into an existing revolutionary vocabulary (the “poetry of the past,” Marx called it in the text I mentioned above) helps to sharpen it and draw attention to it. But those acts of translation should not, however, be mistaken for revolution itself. For real structural change, Americans will need to look not behind them to vanished certainties but ahead to uncertain possibilities. What is the difference between a revolution and the failure of a state or the collapse of an empire? Only that in a revolution, many men, women, and children have the emotional energy to imagine a better future and put lots of creative work into trying to make it so.