activism politics

An age of revolution

There’s a fascinating visualisation on the Foreign Policy website this week. It takes 34 years worth of data on protests from a Global Database of Events, and maps them over time. The result is a visual history of unrest. Over the brief running time, you can see little outbreaks of protest over Apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall, demonstrations against the Gulf Wars, the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring.


One of the most striking things about it is the rising frequency of events. We tend to think that previous generations were more politically motivated, and that our own era is one of apathy by comparison, certainly in the West. The database starts in 1979, so we don’t have a comparison with the 60s and 70s, which is a shame. But it is notable how few protests there are through the 80s and 90s, seeming to bear out the idea of a more apathetic age. If there was ever any truth to that idea, it definitively ended halfway through the last decade, with an explosion of protests across America and Europe, and around the world.

There are limits to what the map can show. The data is drawn from news reports, so protests that haven’t been reported aren’t included. Perhaps the rise in protests is due in part to better reporting. It’s far easier to find out what’s happening around the world today than it was in 1979. The map also can’t show us who is doing the protesting, so those excited by the burst of Occupy protests across America in 2011 should consider that some of those little lights are Tea Party rallies too.

Nevertheless, we live in an interesting time, in an age of revolution.

That’s a word that is usually associated with regime change, with the overthrow of an existing order. We might think of the French Revolution, or of figures like Che Guevara. In reality, revolution is broader than that. It tends to move in waves, and brings change with or without violent uprising. The French Revolution might be the headline event of 1789, but there was widespread unrest over the four or five years either side, all involving a re-negotiation of power between the aristocracy and the majority. Germany saw a peasant uprising, Sweden’s king was assassinated, the Brabant Revolution saw the formation of Belgium and Poland rose up against Imperial Russia. Haiti became the first free black state, and sparked a series of slave revolts. At the same time, the USA was drawing up its founding principles as a nation, cementing the change towards shared power.
There was another revolutionary wave half a century later, the 1848 Spring of Nations that rumbled across mainland Europe. Britain saw the Chartist movement. Many of these movements were considered failures, but although they didn’t necessarily win the freedoms they sought at the time, the reforms did arrive afterwards. Feudalism had become impossible.

Another wave rippled across the world at the close of the First World War, when Germany disposed of the Kaiser and Russia of the Tsar. The Ottoman Empire dissolved. Protests against colonial occupation happened in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Egypt. Many of these were successful revolutions, some not, but the changes echoed around the world for years to come. These were broad political changes, paving the way for the creation of pensions and welfare schemes. Another wave of revolution through the 60s centred on rights and personal liberties, peaking in 1968.

What these waves do, according to David Graeber, is “transform basic assumptions about what politics is ultimately about”. Radical political ideas become common sense – women voting, elected rather than hereditary rulers, the idea that authority is derived from the people – all of these were impossibly idealistic ideas at one point, and are now largely taken for granted.

We appear to be in the middle of another era of revolution. Quite what comes out the other side remains to be seen, but there are reasons for optimism. History suggests that even when revolutionary movements peter out or are quashed, the political terrain is often sufficiently changed that the reforms arrive anyway. (In fact, as cases such as Egypt show, the revolutions that ‘succeed’ are often hollow victories.) Most importantly, revolutions open up new possibilities, space for new ideas. And in our stale and deadlocked political culture, perhaps that’s exactly what we needed.


  1. You seem to have forgotten the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s (though the Foreign Policy map does show a big spike in the late 1980s). That was series of major revolutions that had a huge effect on world thought, ending the idea of state socialism. The result of the revolutions was that democracy and liberal market economics are the dominant political and economic models of the World, though some countries such as China have only adopted the second part. Without the idea of freedom permitted by the fall of Communism and the ending of the dead and of the Cold War people wouldn’t be prepared to protest for fear of their governments.

    That said I take a Burkean position on most revolutions, they mostly end in the gallows or failure.

    1. I hadn’t forgotten the end of the Cold War, I hadn’t included it because it wasn’t in the same league internationally as 1789, 1848 and 1917 (the 60s less so). It was certainly influential, but the debate was already won – after all, we had been fighting communism for 40 years already. But yes, you could draw your waves of revolutions differently and historians do.

      Interestingly, there were many free market aspects to the 1789 revolutions, and those free markets were later undermined by the rise of protectionism during the 20s and 30s, so those battles have been fought before.

      Yes, I hold similar views on revolution in the narrow definition of attempts to overthrow a regime. Almost all the ‘successful’ revolutions of the last century have been disastrously bloody after the event, as the victorious revolutionaries realise that running a country is harder than they thought. The broader definition I’m exploring here is a newer perspective to me, and one that I find quite interesting.

      1. I think you undervalue how much the Cold War gripped the thinking of the World and how much its ending changed. It is doubtful whether the Nationalists would have given up power in South Africa without the ending of the Cold War given how the white government defined themselves as part of a Captialist-Communist struggle against the Soviet backed ANC. Or how many wars in Africa and Latin America were suddenly solvable when the superpower backers stopped arming their proxies. By removing the alternative it forced countries to join similar paths to development, the only path that has been shown to lead to prosperity. Globalisation is hardly conceivable if only half the World took part. And all because, as P J O’Rourke said, “people didn’t want to wear Bulgarian shoes”.

        The effect of revolutions takes time to play out. Asked to assess the French Revolution of 1789 Mao’s foreign minister Zhou Enlai famously said “it is too soon to say”.

        1. I’m not disputing that the end of the Cold War wasn’t a huge event, or that it made a whole lot of other things possible. But it doesn’t represent a global revolutionary moment for me because it didn’t have an ideological breakthrough – there had always been opposition to Communism, so capitalism winning the day wasn’t a new ideological possibility.

          But as I say, it’s entirely possible to read it differently.

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