#AtoZAprilChallenge: Revolution

For this challenge I have drawn a lot from Keywords by Raymond Williams. My reasons are that his essays are wonderfully erudite, and fun to read (I hope followers of this blog will agree!) A beautiful example is his essay on Revolution. I cannot not quote this in its entirety! As a reminder, in Keywords C19 means in/from the 19th century.

Frontispiece of Leviathan, 1651 “Revolution now has a predominant and specialised political meaning, but the historical development of this meaning is significant. The word came into English from C14, from revolucion, revolutionem, derived from Latin revolvere – to revolve. In all its early uses it indicated  a revolving movement in space or time: ‘in whiche the other Planetes, as well as the Sonne, do finyshe their revolution and course according to their true time’ (1559); ‘from the day of the date hereof, to the full term and revolution of seven yeeres next ensuing’ (1589); ‘they recoil again, and return in a Vortical motion, and so continue their revolution for ever’ (1664). This primary use, of a recurrent physical movement, survives mainly in the technical sense of engines: revolutions per minute, usually shortened to revs.

The emergence of the political sense is very complicated. It is necessary to look first at what previous word served for an action against an established order. There was of course treason (with its root sense of betraying lawful authority) but the most general word was rebellion. This was common in English from C14. The sense had developed in Latin form the literal ‘renewal of war’ to the general sense of armed rising or opposition and, by extension, to open resistance to authority. Rebellion and rebel (as adjective, verb and noun) were then the central words for what we would now normally (but significantly not always) call revolution and revolutionary. There was also from C16, the significant development of revolt, from révolter, revolutare – to roll or revolve, which from the beginning, in English, was used in a political sense. The development of two words, revolt and revolution, from the sense of a circular movement to the sense of a political rising, can hardly be simple coincidence.

Revolution was probably affected, in its political development,  by the closeness of revolt, but in English its sense of circular movement lasted at least a century longer. There are probably two underlying causes for the transfer (in both revolt and revolution) from a circular movement to a rising. On the one hand there was the simple physical sense of the normal distribution of power as that of the high  over the low. From the point of view of any established authority, a revolt is an attempt to turn over, to turn upside down, to make topsy-turvy, a normal political order: the low putting themselves against and in that sense above the high. This is still evident in Hobbes, Leviathan, II, 28: ‘such as are they, that having been by their own act Subjects, deliberately revolting, deny the Sovereign Power’ (1651). On the other hand, but eventually leading to the same emphasis, there was the important image of the Wheel of Fortune, through which so many of the movements of life and especially the most public movements were interpreted. In the simplest sense, men revolved, or more strictly were revolved, on Fortune’s wheel, setting them now up, now down. In practise, in most uses, it was the downward  movement , the fall, that was stressed. But in any case it was the reversal between up and down that was the main sense of the image: not so much the steady and continuous movement of a wheel as the particular isolation of a top and bottom points which were, as a matter of course, certain to change place. The crucial change in revolution was at least partly affected by this. As early as 1400 there was the eventually characteristic:

‘It is I, that am come down

Thurgh change and revolution.’

(Romance of the Rose, 1366)

A sense of revolution as alteration or change is certainly evident from C15: ‘of Elementys the Revoluciouns, Chaung of times and Complexiouns’ (Lydgate, c.1450). The association with fortune was explicit as late as mid C17: ‘whereby one may see, how great the revolutions of time and fortune are’ (1663).

The political sense, already well established in revolt, began to come through in revolution from early C17, but there was enough overlap with older ways of seeing change to make most early examples ambiguous. Cromwell made a revolution, but when he said that ‘God’s revolutions’ were not to be attributed to mere human invention (Abbott, Writings and Speeches of Cromwell, III, 590-2) he was probably still using the word with an older sense (as in Fortune, but now Providential) of external and Determining movements. Indeed the most fascinating aspect of this complex of words, in C17, is that Cromwell’s revolution was called, by its enemies, the Great Rebellion, while the relatively minor events of 1688 were called by their supporters the Great and eventually the Glorious Revolution. It is evident from several uses that revolution was gaining a political sense  through C17, though still, as has been noted, with overlap to general mutability or to the movements  of Fortune or Providence. But it is very significant that in late C17 the lesser event attracted the description Revolution while the greater event was till Rebellion. Revolution, that is to say, was till the more generally favourable word, and from as late as 1796 we can find that distinction: ‘Rebellion is the subversion of the laws, and Revolution is that of tyrants’. (Subversion, it will be noted, depends on the same physical image, of turning over from below; and cf. Overthrow.) The main reason for the preference of revolution to rebellion was that the cyclical sense of the former implied a restoration or renovation of an earlier lawful authority, as distinct from action against authority without such justification.

From late C17 the sense of revolution in English was dominated by specific reference to the events of 1688. The ordinary reference (Steele, 1710; Burke, 1790) was to ‘the Revolution’, and revolutioner, the first noun for one engaged in or supporting revolution, was used primarily in that specific context. Yet a new general sense was slowly making its way through, and there was renewed cause for distinction between rebellion and revolution, according to the point of view, in the rising and declaration of independence of the American states. Revolution won through in that case, both locally and generally. In a new climate of political thought, in which the adequacy of a political system rather than loyalty to a particular sovereign was more and more taken as the real issue, revolution came to be preferred to rebellion, by anyone who supported independent change. There is a surviving significance in this, in our own time. Rebellion is still ordinarily used by a dominant power and its friends, until (or even after) it has to admit that what has been taking place – with its own independent cause and loyalties – is a revolution, though also with an added sense of scale: ‘Sire… it is not a revolt, it is a revolution’ (Carlyle, French Revolution, V, vii; 1837). (It is worth noting that revolt and revolting had acquired, from mid C18, an application to feeling as well as to action: a feeling of disgust, of turning away, of revulsion; this probably accentuated the distinction. It is curious that revulsion is etymologically associated with revel, which itself goes back to Latin rebellare – to rebel. Revel became specialised, through a sense of riotous mirth, to any lively festivity; rebel took its separate unfavourable course; revulsion, from physical sense of drawing away, took on from early C19 its sense of drawing away in disgust.)

It was in this state of interaction between the words that the specific effects of the French Revolution made the modern sense of revolution decisive. The older sense of a restoration of lawful authority, though used in occasional justification, was overridden by the sense of necessary innovation of a new order, supported by the increasingly positive sense of Progress. Of course the sense of achievement of the original rights of man was also relevant. This sense of making a new human order was always as important as that of overthrowing the old order. That, after all, was now the crucial  distinction from rebellion or from what was eventually distinguished as a palace revolution (changing the leaders but not the forms of society). Yet in political controversy arising from the actual history of armed risings and conflicts, revolution took on a specialised meaning of violent overthrow, and by late C19 was being contrasted with Evolution in its sense of a new social order brought about by peaceful and constitutional means. The sense of revolution as bringing about a wholly new social order was greatly strengthened by the socialist movement, and this led to some complexity in the distinction between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism. From one point of view the distinction was between violent overthrow of the old order and peaceful and constitutional change. From another point of view, which is at least equally valid, the distinction was between working for a wholly new social order (Socialism as opposed to Capitalism)  and the more limited modification or Reform of an existing order (‘the pursuit of equality’ within a ‘mixed economy’ or ‘post-capitalist society’). The argument about means, which has often been used to specialize revolution, is also an argument about ends.

Revolution and revolutionary and revolutionize have of course also come to be used, outside political contexts, to indicate fundamental changes, or fundamentally new developments, in a very wide range of activities. It can seem curious to read of ‘a revolution in shopping habits’ or of the ‘revolution in transport’, and of course there are cases when this is simply the language of publicity, to describe some ‘dynamic’ new product. But in some ways this is at least no more strange than the association of revolution with Violence, since one of the crucial senses of the word, early and late, restorative or innovative, has been simply important or fundamental change. Once the factory system and the new technology of late C18 and early C19 had been called, by analogy with the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, one basis for description of new institutions and new technologies as revolutionary had been laid. Variations in interpretation of the Industrial Revolution – from a new social system to simply new inventions – had their effect on this use. The transistor revolution might seem a loose or trivial phrase to someone who has taken the full weight of the sense of social revolution, and a technological or second industrial revolution might seem merely polemical or distracting descriptions. Yet the history of the word supports each kind of use. What is more significant, in a century of major revolutions, is the evident discrimination of application and tone, so that the storm-clouds that have gathered around the political sense become fresh and invigorating winds when they blow in almost any direction.”

“France could have readily reinforced her own resources with those of the European revolution; as indeed all revolutionaries hoped she would. But the implications of such a leap into revolutionary war frightened moderate liberal French governments as much as Metternich. No French government between 1815 and 1848 would jeopardise general peace in its own state interests.”

(Eric Hobsbawm: The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848)

List of Revolutions and Rebellions in Wikipedia

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