ccording to Webster’s, a revolution is most aptly described as an event that yields “sudden, radical, or complete change.” Of the big three, “complete change” is the most telling.
The French Revolution fits revolutionary criteria because it saw a group of dissenters successfully confront and decimate a millennial monarchy. The insurgents freed prisoners, slaughtered a king, and demagnetized the existing social compass so that radically altered France briefly bore little resemblance to its past self.
What about the American colonies? Were the events of the 1770s and 80s a substantive revolution or a rebellion that evolved into an independence fight? The answer is not clear-cut.
A group of English-born colonists used London’s abusive tax positions to open a family feud that eventually saw an insubordinate son push away a sternly self-righteous father. Outrage yielded to open hostility.
But when the hostilities ended in the colonists’ favor, a considerable number of wealthy landowners who had helped create assemblies to resist English arrogance anointed themselves in the role of national founding fathers (same names, same faces). The colonial break was sudden, radical, but hardly complete. Privileged classes maintained position and Father England’s ethics continued to affect how colonial sons defined the values of their newly free state. Cultural continuity was uninterrupted.
Russia of 1917 stands closer to France. A fiercely idealistic cabal whose idea of governance had nothing common with its predecessors upended a 600-year world of tsars, bureaucrats and imperial armies. The new group sought to galvanize (and manipulate) the marginalized. Once again, the ruler was killed, with millions more to follow as the people’s ideology turned to devouring its own. Communism’s revolutionary digestive process was complete in the extreme.
Iran is the most marked recent case of real revolution. A country ruled by a secular autocrat who limited political freedoms, the Shah, was in 1978 overturned by a bearded Koranic elite that re-engineered the apparatus of state and imposed a form of religious martial law that has lasted three decades. The “big three” criteria were all met: it was sudden, radical, and the resulting change was complete.
In the rush to satisfy real-time excitement, the potency of the word revolution has been diluted into the casual to make it available whenever a heroically perceived citizenry rushes into soldier-lined streets.
In early 2011, Tunisians demoralized about rising food prices and a miserable standard of living, seized on the self-immolation of a street vendor in a desert city to challenge a military-trained presidential autocrat, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who for 27 years had run the country on a faux-pluralist pretext (staging and winning five rigged elections). He was hounded from office, the aftermath witnessing the establishment of a freer parliament and, more recently, direct elections. A revolution? No. Instead, a successful (and moving) uprising against an entrenched tyrant in a state with a pre-existing parliamentary system, albeit in ruins.
Egypt followed. It, too, was run by a legendary presidential autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, a veteran of an omnipotent military establishment in a region where animosity toward Israel, more or less intense, helped dictate most policy choices. As in Tunisia, economic tensions inflamed social ones, leading to kinetic demonstrations that fashioned Mubarak’s ouster. The scapegoat-slaying achievement was also hailed as a revolution, with mass media soon marrying the events in Tunisia and Egypt to coin the expression “Arab Spring,” a catchy reference to the aborted Prague Spring of 1968 in which moderate Czech Communists sought to carve out greater autonomy from the Soviet Union, an enterprise crushed by Moscow-dispatched tanks in August of that year.
Eighteen months after social network-inspired dissent produced Mubarak’s ouster, “post-revolutionary” Egypt, unstable and tumultuous, remains in military hands, has yet to hold presidential elections, and while more politically open than under Mubarak has not changed radically, let alone completely. Its ruling elite quelled public revolt by sacrificing a chess piece, the president, and cosmetically rearranging aspects of the country’s domestic scenario to prevent daily street protests from yielding the national anarchy that could ignite real revolution. It worked.
The same holds true for Libya, where a tenacious and megalomaniacal leader was hunted down murdered (with foreign assistance), his leadership supplanted by that of an unstable central government, which answers to militia groups. In sequential order, Libya hosted a revolt (in its eastern half), a civil war, NATO backing for amorphous rebels, and now a peace in name only.
Sloppier democracies package resistance as fast food, putting hot sauce on burlesque versions of instant history, or hoped-for history. Protest is inevitably a revolution in waiting — the 2004 Ukrainian uprising became the Orange Revolution, which in fact changed little. Major change and serious disturbance is almost immediately dubbed “unprecedented” because the word is frothy and familiar. Meaning is meaningless, with an assist from the hasty adrenalin that laces most social networking.
Journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, who came of age as the French Revolution faded, turned his cynicism into epigrams. It was Karr who coined the phrase “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Only when the “after” is substantively indistinguishable from the “before” — as in the birth of Soviet Russia or Islamic Iran — does revolution take over from cosmetic surgery.