Plus ça change

I was thinking about revolutions today. I’ve taken part in, or witnessed, two of them:

  • The Digital Revolution (since 1940)
  • The Revolution against Revolutions (in effect, against political Ideology) – the end of the Socialist systems of Eastern Europe (1989)

Historians write about dozens of revolutions – the Agricultural Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and many others –  and we assume that revolutions are more or less identifiable events with known causes, and known outcomes. All of the ones I’ve listed happened more than a hundred years ago. The past is easier to describe. But what more recent events or periods will future historians identify as revolutionary? Will they write of the Digital Revolution, or the Revolution against Revolutions? Or the Ecological Revolution? Or the Human Rights Revolution?

I also started to think about the character of revolutions. For a start, people don’t really notice them when they’re happening. Even in retrospect it’s hard to say where and when they happened, or why. They’re made up of ideas (often a mix of quite incompatible ones), a few brave, fiery, madly motivated and foolhardy individuals, an accident or two, a skirmish here or there, and a lot of stuff happening quietly behind the scenes. It’s only later, and usually for reasons of propaganda, that events are identified as clustered, noticeable and critically significant –  events but for which there wouldn’t have been revolution, or so it seems later.

For example, I don’t think daily life was immediately affected by the October Revolution in 1917.  Our imagining of the Storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 – black and white figures streaming across a square –  is formed entirely by a staged and exaggerated recreation of the event three years later. It was probably no more than  a few vehicles drawing up at a kerb.

For most of the urban population it was probably a perfectly normal day in Petrograd, followed by many more normal days, and, yes, eventually the Gulags, but not suddenly. A revolution is not obviously an abrupt change of direction. And certainly it wasn’t a case of the unalterable forces of economics at play. The Bolsheviks won only because they (cynically) promised the army an immediate cessation of hostilities with Germany. It had nothing to do with the laws of economics and the triumph of the proletariat.


I remember drinking tea at the Café Europa in Wenceslas Square in Prague in March 1989 whilst demonstrators hurled insults at the Czechoslovak police outside and were roughly manhandled and pushed down the square. One could pop out of the café for a moment to see how it was getting on. In retrospect it was the beginning of a revolution that brought down the entire regime just six months later, but tea and cakes were just the same at the Café Europa that morning, and a few more streets away no one would have known anything was happening at all.

It is only in retrospect that revolutions appear to be a logical sequence of inevitable and influential events guided by the hand of history, ideology or a charismatic political leader. For most of those who are eventually and gradually affected by revolution, revolution itself is just another day at the office. And that’s something we forget. The most surprising feature of revolution is continuity. A few heads roll, and a few heads rise, but most of the faces stay the same. It was thus in Eastern Europe. Those who wielded mid-level power continued to do so after 1989. Those who knew how to make things work for themselves, even for others, went on doing so, to the bitter disappointment of the taxi-driving philosophers who thought their time had come.

Most people adapt to the ideology of the day. ‘Revolution’ – someone’s invention – happens above their heads. One day it’s this. Another day it’s that. The fact is that revolution is not an enemy of continuity.  It’s just an acceleration of change, a faster form of evolution. Anarchy is the danger. Which is why the worst thing you can ever do is to threaten the daily progress of the ordinary life of the compliant majority. Military victories and defeats are revolutions of a kind. When the Iraqi Army and the Baath party were foolishly disbanded in Iraq continuity was destroyed, and potential revolution became anarchy.

It’s hard, also, to put your finger on the Digital Revolution. I first became aware of computers when my brother wrote a Fortran program to generate discordant music in the 1970s (it never caught on as a method of composition), and I remember my father talking about computers being used for stock control even in the 1960s. There were big mainframes in the 1970s followed by PCs and networks from the mid-1980s. Most influentially, for most of us, the dotcom revolution of the late 1990s put information, reach and computing power into everyone’s hands. It’s been a sixty year revolution already and there’s no single identifiable event that stands out (might it have been Turing’s decrypting bombes of the Second World War, or his paper on the computability of numbers in the 1930s, or the machine that was used to model nuclear fission at Los Alamos in the early 1940s?).

Earth-shattering in retrospect, the Digital Revolution has been gradual and continuous. I was never more aware of this than when, already grey-haired by the time of the dot-com boom and bust in the very late 1990s, there was talk of the sweeping away of the ‘digital’ professions as we knew them, and which I lived from. The world, we were told, would belong to the young, to the upstarts who had broken the mould. True, it belonged to some of them, but continuity soon reasserted itself. Experience counted, in the end, as it counts today. Many of the dot-com generation hadn’t the first idea about how to manage a business or how to manage people. I remember rejecting (albeit with a little anxiety) an idea put forward by our crazy but enthusiastic Romanian general manager that we should rename our company (LLP Group) as Dot LLP Group. I would have been very embarrassed a year or two later. I don’t doubt that the Zuckerbergs, the Gates and the Jobs of this world are supported by armies of greyer-haired support staff who advise on finance, and management, and perhaps even IT.

Revolution overstates its case. There is no march of history that makes events inevitable.. History is just one small thing after another in billions of different places. It has no sense of direction, except towards the future and the total extinction of life. There’s only the contention of billions of very similar human beings seeking to satisfy the same basic needs for food, safety, freedom, comfort, meaning, knowledge, control, happiness and health for themselves and their families, needs that are best satisfied through cooperation. Thwart those basic needs and you risk the rise of intolerant religious and political ideology – anarchy, not revolution. Let us be glad that everything changes, and everything stays the same.

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