Sunday, April 29, 2007

Revolutions, short and long

Originally, the term "revolution" referred to the orbit of a planet. Indeed, in astronomy it still does. Old-fashioned phonograph records (and presumably CDs as well) are said to revolve at a certain number of revolutions per minute. That is a fairly direct application of the metaphor.
The political application is something else. During the early modern period, "revolution" served to describe a reassuring return of a situation to its status ex ante. After all, planets duly return to their original place. This notion gave the concept a favorable gloss. In the late eighteenth century, though, Edward Gibbon spoke of the decline of the Roman Empire as the "awful revolution." I suppose he meant "awesome" rather than awful in our sense. But the devolution of antiquity must have truly seemed awful to those who had to endure it.

Some of us remember the vogue of the term in the 1960s, when we witnessed the liberation movements in Algeria and Vietnam. And of course there was the "Cuban Revolution." America was not to be left behind, as friends of mine confidently asserted that we had entered a pre-revolutionary situation. Or as the title of one influential Italian movie had it, all advanced Western societies were in a state of "Prima della Rivoluzione." Historical inevitability endowed this scenario with absolute certainty. Except that it didn't.

Concealed within all this talk is an important antinomy. Most political revolutions have been one-off affairs, occurring within a restricted slice of time and yielding to the new post-revolutionary regime. Good examples are the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Revolution par excellence, the French one that began in 1789, and quickly morphed into the Directory. The October Revolution of 1917 in Russia is a telling example of this pinpointing.

Yet there is another usage in which revolution in fact designates not just the events, but even more the period of consolidation that follows—in short, the regime. A good example is the above-cited Cuban revolution, which has been chugging along (much to the disadvantage of the inhabitants of that unhappy island) for forty-eight years now.

What is the origin of this new concept of the revolution as not so much the event itself, but the outcome of the event? One might think of Leon Trotsky’s concept of "permanent revolution." However, that is not so much a stable tyranny (as in Cuba) but a forecast of endless turbulence. Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which mercifully lasted only from 1966 to 1969, is the example that comes to mind. Any visitor to today’s hypercapitalist China can tell you that that revolution was not permanent at all.

So what is the actual origin of this idea of a revolution that goes on and on? Yesterday I caught a glimpse of the answer. A lecture on propaganda posters from Mussolini’s Italy included one little gem with the caption "LA RIVOLUZIONE FASCISTA." This poster appeared in 1937, fully fifteen years after the March on Rome. This idea of revolution that goes on and on, becoming institutionalized as it were seems to stem from Fascist Italy. This is a disquieting, not to say unsavory realization.

But wait, we may not need to go there. Didn’t Mexico accomplish this semantic shift earlier? The actual upheaval that cleared the way for modern Mexico took place over a specific decade, the teens of the previous century. For many years a single hegemonic party, the PRI, or Partido Revolucionario Institucional, ruled Mexico. The Revolution Institutionalized. Perfect!

Not so fast, though. On March 4, 1929, ex-president Plutarco Elías Calles created the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR). This was the original name. The term "institutional" appeared only in a renaming of 1946. The new name indicated that the party was no longer a coalition of leaders who had survived the upheaval, but had succeeed in transforming itself into a stable regime. The most likely explanation of the original name is that the party was dedicated to the advancement of the ideals of the revolution—not that it incarnated it in perpetuity.

So it looks as if the palm still goes to Mussolini’s Italy. Mussolini’s propagandists originated the portmanteau concept of "rivoluzione" = the original event + the ensuing regime.
By the way, as A. James Gregor recognized many years ago, many similarities link Italian Fascism with Castro’s regime in Cuba. I won’t enter into these here.



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