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Of Movements, Rebellions & Revolutions


ISSUE:  Fall 2016


A revolution is an opinion that has got its hands on some bayonets. So said Napoleon Bonaparte, who knew about such things. Fair enough: Throughout history, most revolutions have been brought about at the point of a spear or the end of a gun barrel—for, Mohandas Gandhi and Václav Havel notwithstanding, violence often precedes political change.

When politicians—think Ron Paul on one side and Bernie Sanders on the other—talk of revolution, they usually don’t mean it. A revolution is a turning over; hence the Latin volvere tucked inside the word, of some established order with an eye to replacing it with something different: A monarch is ousted and a parliament installed, or the power of an assembly usurped by a king, changing the form of government.

Rebellions, political uprisings that may or may not be violent, do not call for revolutionary razings. Instead, rebellions demand reform within the existing order. The farmers of western Pennsylvania who rose up in revolt in 1791, arousing George Washington’s ire, did not want the new Constitution torn up and King George III reinstalled, as a revolutionary would, but instead demanded a tax break. Thus the Whiskey Rebellion, and not the Whiskey Revolution. The terminology gets fuzzy, but since the farmers lost, we should call this event the Whiskey Revolt. The word “revolt” is often a subtle signal that the rebellion did not meet with success.

Be it revolution, rebellion, or revolt, an insurrection begins with a movement. Sometimes movements are revolutionary, seeking the demise of, say, the tsar and his replacement with a nice boy from the Urals. Sometimes movements are evolutionary, taking to the streets or courtrooms with placards or writs calling for an adjustment of policy—doubling the minimum wage, or ending a war. In the specialized sense of a gathering of a body of persons outside of the official government toward some political end, we owe the use of “movement” to the eminent British politician Benjamin Disraeli, who lived in a great era of revolutions. His younger contemporary James Anthony Froude borrowed Disraeli’s sense when he sniffed that the Protestant Reformation was “essentially a Teutonic movement,” while history records Froude as a later-to-rebel product of the “Oxford Movement,” which had it in mind to undo much of that Reformation while keeping reformist head on reformist body—the detachment of same being an occupational risk of revolutionaries everywhere.

In the summer of 1861, a Boston newspaper remarked on the matter of the recently erupted Civil War, “Since the middle of March the Southern movement has proceeded with strides so gigantic that it has passed completely out of the narrow domain of rebellion, and entered upon the broad limitless field of revolution.” There, in one onrushing sentence, lie revealed all the fine distinctions between related terms. A politician who talks revolution usually has in mind simply a minor rebellion whose aim is to provide him or her with a limousine and a good dental plan. That makes the would-be revolutionary a good target, in other words, for a rebellion to follow—and maybe even another revolution, for this is a wheel that keeps on turning.

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