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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: September 2017

3 - Revolutions, Transformations, Civilisations: Prolegomena to a Paradigm Reorientation


ATTEMPTS TO DECLARE an end to the era of revolutions have proved as futile as the efforts to develop a consensual model for their study. Unexpected turns of history have brought revolutionary phenomena back to attention and, at the same time, have raised fundamental questions about definitions and demarcations in the field. That applies, in very different ways, to the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the collapse of Eastern European Communist regimes a decade later. In both cases, aspects indicative of a properly revolutionary dynamic (such as the exceptionally high level of popular mobilisation in Iran, or the liquidation of an entire ideological, political and economic order in Eastern Europe) seemed to combine with more disconcerting features (hierocratic politics in Iran, proposed adaptation to an older and globally dominant order in Eastern Europe). More recent developments have also underlined how far the mythologisation of revolution can outrun real history. The changes brought about by the ‘Arab Spring’, at first grossly exaggerated by Western liberals and radicals alike, now appear very insignificant. Only two cases can at all be claimed as evidence. In Tunisia, a fragile parliamentary regime still faces unsettled questions about the place of Islam in political life; as for the upheaval in Egypt, where the military state seems to have survived and given its main rivals just enough time to stalemate themselves, the only question is whether we want to describe the whole process as abortive or illusory. Another example is the imagery of ‘colour revolutions’ in post-Soviet states. The events in question did not amount to more than skirmishes within the ranks of unstable power elites, and the main reason for mythologising them is that it helps to justify a revival of cold war politics. But such vicissitudes may also serve to remind us of further sides to the problematic of revolutions. The revolutionary imaginary is a significant part of the story, and not only because of its impact on revolutionary processes; its disembodied offshoots include sectarian subcultures and quixotic adventures as well as geopolitical masquerades of the kind just mentioned.

The following discussion does not aim at a broad overview of current debates. Its main purpose is to highlight some basic points of dispute in the historical and sociological research on revolutions;…