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.