Stephen Chan: When we talk about rebel­lion, we’re usu­al­ly talk­ing about thought that is couched against the sup­posed ratio­nal­i­ty of the great rev­o­lu­tions of the mod­ern era. And we’ve talked about the Iranian Revolution as the lat­est of all of them. But the Iranian rev­o­lu­tion was pre­ced­ed by great rev­o­lu­tions in oth­er coun­tries in the Northern Hemisphere. And today I want to have a look at the English Revolution of the 17th cen­tu­ry. I want to have a look at the French and the American rev­o­lu­tions of the 18th cen­tu­ry. And a brief look at the rev­o­lu­tions of the ear­ly 20th century—that is those in Russia and in China.

Starting with the English Revolution, although it’s ques­tion­able whether it was a rev­o­lu­tion in the same sense as the oth­ers. Certainly the king was over­thrown. Certainly the king was put on tri­al and exe­cut­ed. And at that point in time in the 1700s, this was cer­tain­ly a very rev­o­lu­tion­ary thing to do. This idea of regi­cide was greet­ed with great shock through­out all of Europe.

But the English Civil War from 1642 to 1651, a civ­il war that had three dis­tinct phas­es and which final­ly wound up with the cap­ture and the exe­cu­tion of the king, was a time when there was a huge amount of debate. And I think that it is that debate that sets the scene for the rev­o­lu­tions that fol­lowed after it. So not so much what the English rev­o­lu­tion accom­plished, but what it began to think about.

Of course you had great poet­ic man­i­fes­ta­tions of this kind of thought. You had the great poems by John Milton for instance, Paradise Lost, when Satan and the rebel­lious angels are cast down into Hell. And Satan gives a great speech to rouse up the spir­its of the fall­en angels, say­ing that it was bet­ter to be king, to rule in hell, than to be a slave in Heaven. This kind of hero­ism which inflect­ed and infect­ed the idea of rebel­lion was cer­tain­ly some­thing that was car­ried for­ward way beyond the 17th century.

But the debates in England at that point in time, those con­duct­ed by peo­ple like Winstanley, those con­duct­ed by groups called the Levellers, in which a demand for equal­i­ty of all peo­ple was put for­ward, this idea of a demo­c­ra­t­ic foun­da­tion to soci­ety, a foun­da­tion of equal­i­ty, I think was some­thing that was in thought tru­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary. So this was tak­en for­ward as a foun­da­tion which ger­mi­nat­ed oth­er aspects of rebel­lion in oth­er countries.

Now, I’m think­ing very very much that the key and fun­da­men­tal aspect of the English Revolution, which has remained to this day, is the demand that there can be no king that is not answer­able to Parliament. In oth­er words the idea of the con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy was put into the frame in the English Revolution. But lat­er rev­o­lu­tions want­ed to get rid of the king entire­ly. This was the case very very much in France, where you had the ris­ing up of the French peo­ple, the so called mob of Paris, in 1789. And there you had the putting of the king on tri­al. You had an attempt to over­come not only auto­crat­ic rule by a monar­chi­cal fig­ure, but an entire ancien régime—all of its arti­facts, its man­i­fes­ta­tions in the role of the church, even the way the cal­en­dar was con­duct­ed, and the idea that cit­i­zens could take for­ward their own government. 

The idea of cit­i­zen­ship, that is that the sub­ject actu­al­ly had rights against the state as a cit­i­zen, not only owing loy­al­ty to any kind of gov­ern­ment but the gov­ern­ment also hav­ing oblig­a­tions towards the cit­i­zens, and the trans­ac­tion between gov­ern­ment and cit­i­zens being some­thing dynam­ic and onward-going and con­stant­ly inter­ro­gat­ed and renewed, that I think was the key and fun­da­men­tal lega­cy of the French Revolution. And to that extent I think that the French Revolution left behind it a lega­cy greater than the American Revolution. 

Don’t for­get that the American Revolution, so-called of 1776, was not com­plet­ed at that point in time. It took until 1791, for instance, before the Bill of Rights was agreed. And even with the agree­ment of the Bill of Rights, it took many many years right up until very recent­ly, before there was a gen­uine demo­c­ra­t­ic equal­i­ty in the United States. You’re look­ing for instance at a lack of progress towards suf­frage, or the right to vote for women. That did not come until quite late in the 19th cen­tu­ry. You had a great deal of dif­fi­cul­ty in secur­ing full demo­c­ra­t­ic rights for black peo­ple. That took the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and ear­ly 1970s to accom­plish. People in the District of Columbia could not vote in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions until as late as 1961. And lat­er, red Americans had their rights denied for a long time, until in the mid­dle of the 20th century.

So the incom­plete­ness of the American Revolution does lend the sug­ges­tion that a very great deal of what we asso­ciate with it was rhetor­i­cal, still hav­ing to be fought out in very very recent times. The very great vio­lence in the 20th cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, that accom­pa­nied the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Chinese Revolution of 1949, these were hall­marks of rev­o­lu­tion that we now asso­ciate with tech­no­crat­ic means of over­throw. Here you’re now talk­ing about mod­ern weapon­ry, you’re now talk­ing about mod­ern forms of orga­ni­za­tion, and you’re now talk­ing about mod­ern forms of ide­ol­o­gy that talk about things like mate­r­i­al pro­duc­tion, about indus­tri­al foun­da­tions to wealth, and the need to dis­trib­ute that indus­tri­al­ized wealth.

The rev­o­lu­tions of the 20th cen­tu­ry are thor­ough­ly mod­ern ones, with­stand­ing the fact that the Chinese Revolution was locat­ed for the most part in the coun­try­side. But the prize was the cap­ture of the cities and of the engines for the pro­duc­tion of wealth. What you saw, how­ev­er, in both rev­o­lu­tions were crit­i­cal dif­fer­ences. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the Bolshevik Party regard­ing itself as a van­guard par­ty, was in fact in itself an elit­ist move­ment that claimed to speak for the peo­ple because the peo­ple could not speak freely and in an orga­nized way off them­selves. Then the van­guard spoke for them. In a way, in Russia the van­guard nev­er stopped speak­ing for the peo­ple, and the par­ty became more pow­er­ful. It may have been Marx’s inten­tion for the state to with­er away, but the par­ty itself showed no signs of with­er­ing away until after 1989.

In China, the par­ty has not whith­ered away at all. It cer­tain­ly trans­formed itself. Still very much in pow­er, how­ev­er. It’s trans­formed itself into a cap­i­tal­ist engine of growth. The social­ist ideals are there only in rhetor­i­cal terms. But here you can say there was a rev­o­lu­tion that fun­da­men­tal­ly trans­formed a country—a vast coun­try. A coun­try with thou­sands of years of record­ed his­to­ry. And in those thou­sands of years of record­ed his­to­ry, not one era until the mod­ern era where there was the idea of equal­i­ty. The idea that there was not sim­ply a hier­ar­chy in soci­ety, but there could be the pos­si­bil­i­ty, at least in ide­ol­o­gy and in rhetoric, of a flat line equal­i­ty where every­one had the same rights.

Of course, in actu­al prac­tice the Communist Party remains very very much the supe­ri­or organ in Chinese soci­ety. It’ll take a long time for its hege­mo­ny to be erod­ed. But the break­through in thought behind the Chinese Revolution was some­thing very rev­o­lu­tion­ary in terms of the total­i­ty of Chinese his­to­ry. In Russia, you had at least some asso­ci­a­tion with the cur­rents of thought in the rest of Europe. In the American and French rev­o­lu­tions you had a curi­ous trans-Atlantic com­merce in thought. Someone like Thomas Paine trans­act­ed the rev­o­lu­tions in both coun­tries, cross­ing the Atlantic to be a pros­e­ly­tiz­er of change in both the United States and in France. And of course they drew on the ideas of the English Revolution of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of major reform, of equal­i­ty, and of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of gov­ern­ments that were answer­able to the peo­ple. What I think is now miss­ing in the Chinese state, accom­plished by rev­o­lu­tion­ary means, is of course that latter-day answer­abil­i­ty to the people.

Further Reference

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