Three months ago, a global pandemic and a sudden economic crisis looked grave enough to suggest that something—if not a revolution, then at least the stirrings of a revolutionary era—was under way. Since then, the revolt against the pre-coronavirus status quo has only gained force. Crowds chanting “Black lives matter” and “Enough is enough” have marched all across the country. Statues have been toppled, buildings have been renamed, and pollsters report that public opinion has shifted with almost unprecedented speed. In Ferguson, Missouri, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, protesters carried a guillotine. As a historian of the French Revolution, I can’t help but pay attention to guillotines (adopted in the 1790s as an alternative to the cruel and unusual punishment of death by hanging). If the United States right now is not in the early months of a revolution, Americans are certainly surrounded by the signs of past ones.
Revolutions dress up in the costumes and rhetoric of the past for the same reason that, as Karl Marx once asserted, people learning a new language begin by translating word for word from a language already known to them. By repeating gestures and slogans from past upheavals—such as damaging a statue of Louis XVI, the French king beheaded in 1793—people pushing for permanent social change make the present recognizable as revolution. They might as well be chanting, “This is what a revolution looks like.”
Simultaneously, opponents can exploit the word’s association with violence to make any change seem frightening: When early election returns in New York and Kentucky appeared to favor progressive insurgents over establishment favorites, the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted that the French Revolution had come for the Democratic Party. In an article likening “the illiberal left” and “cancel culture” to Robespierre, the libertarian author Samuel Gregg predicted that the United States is about to fall into an intolerant Great Terror of “wokeness.” In images that went viral Sunday, a St. Louis attorney brandished a rifle as protesters passed his palatial home. He thought they were “storming the Bastille,” he told an interviewer later.
Would-be revolutionaries and radical counterrevolutionaries both forget, however, that real revolutions invariably catch people by surprise. [Continue reading…]