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Classical And Christian Conceptions, The Seventeenth Century, Inventing Revolution: American And French Revolutions, The Revolutionary Idea In The Modern World

It is tempting to give a definition of revolution at the outset of an account such as this. This is a temptation to be resisted. The great sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) was right to say that "definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study." Another great thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), declared that "only that which has no history can be defined." Both of these remarks are highly relevant to the concept of revolution. It is best to postpone any attempt to define it until one has inquired into its history. As a humanly made event, revolution cannot be seen as a timeless thing, lacking change and variety. Like all human artifacts it has a history, and that must mean change. Our understandings of revolution must be sensitive to those changes. There cannot be any "essentialist" definition of revolution, any account that assumes some permanent, unvarying meaning, stretching across space and time.

This does not mean, on the other hand, that revolution can mean just anything (except, that is, to advertisers and marketing people who announce every new model of a motor car as a revolution). The various European languages have naturalized the word revolution—révolution, Revolution, rivoluzione, revolución—to mean much the same thing. That is because Western societies have shared certain common legacies and certain common experiences. The concept of revolution has reflected that shared tradition. While we should not therefore expect revolution to carry one unequivocal meaning everywhere, we should at least expect what Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) called "family resemblances" between the various uses and understandings.

Revolution, finally, is a European invention. The meaning that it has in the world today derives from European use and experience. As a particular species of change it had no equivalent in the non-European world. The theory and practice of revolution was carried, along with other European inventions such as industrialism and nationalism, by traders, missionaries, and colonizers along the paths laid out by the European empires, formal and informal. It was learned and studied by non-Western intellectuals in the cities and academies of the West. If, as is indeed the case, revolution has become a worldwide inheritance, that is because Western principles and patterns of politics have become the norm for much of the world.

That some of the meanings in the non-Western world differ from those in the West is only to be expected from a concept that has always, even in the West, been sensitive to particular contexts and particular histories. The Russian understanding of revolution has been different from that of the French, and that too from the English or American, which have in their turn differed from German or Spanish conceptions. So African, Asian, and Latin American ideas of revolution have shown characteristic variations reflecting their different cultures. Even here, however, it is possible to see the same family resemblances that are observable in the Western cases. The fact that revolution has a tradition of use and meaning explains its variability; but it also points to continuities and similarities. The Western origin of revolution has meant that, as an ideal and a practice, it carries a certain basic stamp that enables us to identify and study it as a coherent phenomenon wherever it appears. Not anything can be called a revolution, whatever the claims of either its adherents or detractors.

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