Revolutions past and future: a roundtable

We started the new academic year at the CSMCH as we mean to go on: with thought-provoking conversations and a full house. It helped that our first event was a roundtable discussion on the controversial topic of revolution, which is our theme for the year. Fortunately, our panellists Jim Livesey (Dundee), Jake Blanc (Edinburgh), Kalathmika Natarajan (Edinburgh), and Megan Hunt (Edinburgh) were more than up to the task of dissecting the history of revolution. Marina Moya Moreno has distilled the roundtable into this blog post  – or you can listen again to the discussion via our podcast channel or by following the Audiomack link below. 

Jim, who works on the late 18th and early 19th century Atlantic World, opened the discussion in relation to the meaning of revolution by pointing out how, even though the terms revolution and revolutionary have  become very complex and problematic. Moreover, this denomination is deeply linked to North Atlantic dynamics and concepts of Western universalism, modernisation, liberalism etc. Nevertheless, he sought to lay out his appraisal of a revolution in terms of the path of creative action opened when the capacity to produce rational answers is exhausted. He pointed toa certain form of prefigurative politics, stressing the importance of the physical bodily participation in these.

Jake followed up by drawing on his own research area of 20th-century Latin America. He observed how many movements in Latin America have used the label of revolution, and how this label has become pejorative. This is related to the repetitive use of the term revolution to legitimise political claims. When this becomes the dynamic, who is to decide what is subversive? How does the cycle come to an end? As a result, the perception of revolution comes to be a constant struggle between different groups, a denunciation of betrayed revolutions, unfinished revolutions.

Kalathmika observed two ways of understanding revolution in relation to her own work on twentieth-century South Asia. Firstly, the term revolution is linked to a romantic idea, to the young idealists dreaming of overthrowing the British Empire. However, she also stressed that it is an ongoing theme in current South Asia, understood as part of social activism and everyday life; as an example, she referred to how many women challenge established gender-based practices.

For Megan, a specialist of postwar US politics, the term revolution is not clearly defined in her field, and she prefers to think about it as a question, rather than a fixed concept. What does revolution mean? Regarding her own research on the civil rights movement and black power nationalism, she identified a dichotomy in the analysis of these processes, with a clear emphasis on legislative and political achievements at the expense of radical ideas, the grassroots or the systemic change.

Moving forward, the dynamics of revolution became the focus. Panellists discussed how the very action of labelling processes as a revolution or revolutionary is significant in the context of analysis: were they named as such by their participants (and if so, on what grounds), or was it branded afterwards (either by opponents, members of the movement, or analysts)?

Making reference to the self-labelling of revolutionary processes and individuals, Kalathmika reflected on the use of these terms in South Asian politics. Even though she mentioned how normalised their use in the political scene has become, she also pointed out how their use is not always in accordance with everyone. As an example, she considered those who support the abolition of the Indian caste system, and how supporters of this proposal have usually been labelled as revolutionaries, a description that they would not have put on themselves. The broad and general use of this word might have resulted in dilution of its meaning, or a situation such that there is overlap with neighbouring contexts.

The following questions focused on violence and commodification. Violence, something considered an integral part of revolutionary processes, seems to have disappeared, or at least there have been efforts to have it removed.

Megan pointed out how differentiated the perception on the civil rights movement and black power are based on violence. Furthermore, she stressed the relevance of the aesthetic and ‘marketing’ choices made by different groups, and how not only violence, but these choices, served to frame their revolutionary character. As a result, whereas black power movements were easier to identify as revolutionaries, the marketing of the civil rights movement during the early 1960s was based on the construction of an image of respectability. Even when this choice changed in the late 1960s, the image that persisted associated with the civil rights movement was deeply rooted in the initial choices, differentiating it from other movements.

On the subject of the current perceptions of violence, Jim pointed out how the situation has changed since the nineteenth century. The reasoning behind the violence was that if one is not engaging in the violent response towards the system, then one is not taking responsibility as a citizen and has no moral legitimacy as such. People legitimised themselves through acts of violence, something that is nowadays often regarded as illegitimate.

Kalathmika and Jake both developed this point by exploring the relationship between violence and the state, and how this can be framed in terms of terrorism, in a way that depoliticises the term further, or how it can be (and it has been) used as a justification to increase the scale of violence.

Emile Chabal introduces the roundtable to a large audience

Finally, the discussion moved on to the commodification of revolution. Has revolution been commodified? Has it become a packaged good available for consumers? While Jim had emphasised the somatic character of the revolution and its practices, he also brought up how this can be catalysed through symbolic violence as well, through disrespect towards authority.

Kalathmika linked the commodification of revolution to a certain level of its depolitisation, but she stressed that this is not an all-embracing circumstance, and those parts of the most marginalised groups still participate in the most exposed forms of practice, putting their bodies on the line.

Returning for one final time to Latin America, Jake pointed out the ambiguities of commodification. On the one hand, there is definitely a revolutionary aesthetic cultivated for specific audiences, both outside and inside Latin America, where all these symbols, even though commodified, are still highly important as part of foundational and national narratives.

The roundtable discussion concluded with an extensive question and answer session, which focused both on conceptual aspects of revolutions, as well as current views of such processes. A number of topics emerged.

First, the problem of temporality. The audience and the panel explored whether revolution is the same when its focus is event-driven, or if it is associated with a particular individual, group, or idea, which then brings on the question of the end of such processes.

Second, the issue of revolutionary objectives and leadership. The panellists were asked to consider whether revolutions become less directed. In their various responses, they acknowledged the less tangible ends and more amorphous character of contemporary revolutions.

Finally, the last set of questions focused on the nationality and transnationality of revolutions, and how some movements seem able to easily spread throughout countries or, on the other hand, to stay contained within only one space. Jake, in particular, commented on the way revolutionary ‘feeling’ can be easy to disseminate, even when few structural changes actually take place.

As ever, this stimulating roundtable is likely to give rise to more questions than answers, but it nevertheless laid the path for this year’s seminars and subsequent discussions on revolution.

Marina Moya Moreno is a PhD student in History, working on the analysis of representations and memorialisation of the Spanish transition. Her research focuses on analysing the changes in the definitions of different narratives and portrayals of this period found within Spanish society. She is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.