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E. J. Hobsbawm The Making of a “Bourgeois Revolution” TO ENTERTAIN ANY THEORY ABOUT REVOLUTION,” WRITES JOHN DUNN, “—and it is not even possible to identify just what events do consti­ tute revolutions without assuming some theoiy about the meaning of revolution—is to assume a political posture. . . . The value-free study of revolutions is a logical impossibility for those who live in the real world” (Dunn, 1972:1-2). For the student of revolutions the problem is complicated by the fact that the political postures assumed spontane­ ously by those who write or speak about them, and, if not careful, by him self or herself, are not necessarily coherent or consistent. We live in an era when rapid and fundamental change has become the norm in eveiyday life, so that the terms “revolution” and “revolutionary” extend far beyond the field of political science. Moreover, common discourse identifies them, much in the eighteenth-century manner, with prog­ ress and the improvement of life, so that, as advertising agencies under­ stand only too well, the word “revolutionary,” when attached to a new microwave oven as distinct from a political regime, will sell the product more effectively, even among those most passionately committed to the defense of the status quo against subversion. Nevertheless, the primary political meaning of “revolution” remains profoundly controversial, as the historiography of the subject demonstrates, and as the debates surrounding the bicentenary of the French Revolution of 1789 demonstrate even more unmistakably. What usually happens to revolutions sufficiently distant from the pres­ ent—and two centuries are, by the news agency standards that domiORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN SOCIAL RESEARCH VOL. 56, NO. 1 (SPRING 1989) social research Vol 71 : No 3 : Fall 2 0 0 4 455 nate our information, almost beyond the range of the remembered past—is that they are either transformed into nonrevolutions—that is, integrated into historical continuity or excluded from it as insignificant temporary interruptions—or else they are celebrated by public rites of passage suitable to the occasions that mark the birth of nations and/or regimes. They remain controversial only among historians. Thus the English Revolution or revolutions of the seventeenth century has been tacitly eliminated from political discourse: even in the tercentenary year of what used to be called the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and the constituting event of British parliamentary sovereignty, its presence in public rhetoric has been subdued and marginal. On the other hand, a celebratory consensus has marked the various bicentenaries connected with the American Revolution, and even opponents of those aspects of it which are still—or again—highly controversial, such as its deliberate refusal to give public recognition to religion, would not dream of using this as an argument against it. Its public face, jubilees and centenaries apart, is that of a rite of passage in the life of the nation, independence (celebrated on the Fourth of July) taking its place after first settlement (celebrated on Thanksgiving). Attempts to apply these two techniques o f elim inating the controversial aspects of the French Revolution have been made, by republicans and by the political right respectively, and the contention that it achieved little or nothing other than what would have happened without it, and thus constitutes not a major transforming set of events but only a sort of stumble on the long path of French history, is one of the main weapons in the intellectual war against those who wish to celebrate its bicentenary. Yet these attempts have failed. On the one hand, the revolution never gained the general retrospective consensus without which such events cannot become harmless national birthdays, not even after World War II briefly eliminated from the political scene that French Right that defined itself by its rejection of 1789. On the contrary, since the revolution inspired not only the Left of the relatively remote past but also the contemporary Left, it could not but remain contentious. As is quite evident from the pre-bicentenary debates in 456 social research France, the traditional opponents of 1789 have been reinforced by the opponents of 1917; by reactionaries who would not disclaim that label, by liberals who certainly would. Yet the antirevolutionary attempt to demote the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 455-480
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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