Robert Darnton: 1789—2011?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard and director of the Harvard University Library. 
His new book, Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris, was published in November. (December 2010)]

The question has come to haunt every article and broadcast from Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the region whose people have revolted: what constitutes a revolution? In the 1970s, we used to chase that question in courses on comparative revolutions; and looking back on my ancient lecture notes, I can’t help but imagine a trajectory: England, 1640; France, 1789; Russia, 1917 … and Egypt, 2011?

I would not presume to pronounce on the course of events in Egypt over the past three weeks, but I think it’s fair to ask whether the information that now arrives every second by every means of communication from Twitter to television bears any relation to the classic models of revolution. Or should Egypt teach us to abandon those models altogether and to consider a kind of upheaval undreamt of in our old varieties of political science?

From the perspective of the 1970s, France produced the mother of all revolutions in the 1780s; and we saw proto-typical phases in the French experience: the collapse of the old order, a period of constitutional reconstruction, counter-revolution, radicalization, terror, reaction, and a military dictatorship. If the events in Egypt fit that pattern, they have barely entered phase one, and have far to go....

Frankly, my worn-out lecture notes don’t help me understand today’s newscasts. I tried to steer my students right by insisting that Marie-Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” But a report from Tahrir Square quoted a revolutionary as shouting, “Where is my Kentucky fried chicken?” Apparently that cry gave the lie to a rumor, planted by pro-Mubarak agitators, that the protesters were being bribed and offered snacks by foreign powers in order to get them to stay in the Square. But it also showed that the protesters had a sense of humor. A revolution with a funny bone? Did Robespierre ever laugh?...

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