Virtual Special Issue

Virtual Special Issue: Revolutions


Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815–1884). Lamartine, before the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, rejects the Red Flag, 25 February 1848. Wikimedia Commons.

Rebecca Spang

Radicals have planned them and protagonists have nearly always tried to steer them, but real revolutions nonetheless involve a considerable element of surprise. Nobody in the eighteenth century expected the French sugar-producing colony of Saint Domingue to become the Republic of Haiti; no one thirty-one years ago was confidently predicting the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Commercial, Demographic, and Industrial Revolutions all unfolded over much longer periods of time and were so profoundly transformative that they could only be recognized and named in retrospect.

So too with editing this Virtual Issue. All the old and familiar revolutions (French, Bolshevik, Industrial, Sexual, English, Haitian, American) can be found in the History Workshop Journal (HWJ) archive, but the connections between one essay and another cannot be anticipated in advance. The history of “revolution” in HWJ proves to be the story of our subtitle: from “a journal of socialist historians” to “a journal of socialist and feminist historians” and then to a journal of too many divergent identifications to name. Revolution in the HWJ sense is profoundly and paradoxically plural. Profound because pluralism—an open-ness to difference in political viewpoints, institutional affiliations (or their absence), and ways of doing history—has been characteristic of the journal and its Editorial Collective since its founding. Paradoxical because the effect of the word “revolution” (one might even say, its function or purpose) has long been to yoke disparate impulses and happenings together. A crowd in Paris demands access to the Bastille Prison; elite men in Versailles call themselves a “National Assembly”; peasants in Burgundy threaten to torch an aristocrat’s estate: understood as distinct incidents, these events have nothing of the force they gain from being grouped (first by contemporaries and then by historians) under the heading of “the French Revolution.” Or think about mid-seventeenth-century British history: did the conflict and upheaval constitute a “Civil War” or a “Revolution”? One word divides, the other unites.

The words have been readily bandied about (see Krishan Kumar’s review essay), but revolutions and revolutionaries are much less common than one might therefore think. How does somebody become a revolutionary? What does it take for someone not just to expect but even desire their world to be overturned and a completely new political and institutional order built in its place? How do men, women, and children live with that hope and how do they withstand the disappointments that often follow? (For, as Gareth Stedman Jones reminded HWJ readers many years ago, no less an expert than Karl Marx never got the revolution he anticipated). These questions recur throughout this Virtual Issue. In the journal’s first “Historic Passion” essay, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips chose to write about Christopher Hill’s The English Revolution 1640—a volume he “found by chance on the floor of a second-hand bookshop at the age of sixteen.” Property relations, he learned from Hill, are a sort of censorship mechanism: making certain ideas and utterances impossible, they raise the question of what might be said or thought in their absence. In his own “Historic Passion” essay several years later, Hill wrote not about revolutions or historical materialism but about a kindly Oxford tutor (whom he also encountered as an adolescent) and the value for historians of studying literature. Penny Corfield’s essay on Hill emphasizes the egalitarian imperatives of his family’s Yorkshire Methodism, showing how they stuck with him even after the “Macaulay of Marxism” had left his childhood faith. In his “God and the English Revolution,” Hill proposed that even God once became revolutionary—at least for a time.

“All accepted truths,” Hill wrote in the preface to Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (1965) “just because they are accepted, tend to become lies.” Becoming and being a revolutionary is therefore often a matter of standing for truths that have yet to be accepted, but it can also be far less intentional, even accidental. Reflecting on how he became the public face of anti-American sentiment in 1960s Germany, Bob Chase suggests it all came down to chance: the chance of having worn his opera togs to a protest march. The organizers, eager to show that they were not all hippies, put him—his neatly knotted silk tie peeping out above his belted trenchcoat—at the front and gave him a large American flag to carry. “Over the next few hours,” he remarks, “the tip of the [flag]pole did considerable damage to my navel.”

The History Workshop movement was always as much about a revolution in how history was studied and taught as it was about writing the history of revolutions. Already in 1977, long before university History faculties were preoccupied with impact and public outreach, issue 3 had a special feature on “The Teaching of History” (including a wonderful article about primary-school children conducting oral history interviews with grandmothers). Anna Davin’s 1980 (issue 9) report on the meetings of the London feminist history group describe a world now 40 years gone, yet its references to women who participate “when they are not too tired by the week’s work, can get a babysitter or can afford the fare” and the many who “face isolation and even hostility” because of their research ring as true as ever. Writing decades later, Gareth Stedman Jones traced the idea that the history of revolutions required a revolution in history writing to John Stuart Mill. Reviewing Sir Walter Scott’s Life of Napoleon, Mill wrote: “Commenced by the people, carried on by the people, defended by the people… the French Revolution will never be more than superficially understood by the man who is but superficially acquainted with the nature and movements of popular enthusiasm. —that force which converts a whole people into heroes, which binds an entire nation together as one man”—notice again how “revolution” unites, unifies, and singularizes.

A final cluster of contributions is included in this Virtual Issue for the poignant insights afforded by their immediacy, by what anyone versed in historical thinking will realize as the effect of not knowing “what happened next.” Raphael Samuel’s 1990 Editorial on “The Russian Question”; Jeffrey Weeks describing the first ever “conference on the history and politics of homosexuality in Estonian, and Soviet, history”; Ken Inglis’s report from a Moscow conference in 1991—all evoke the anticipation of a new world (and that world’s slow coming into being). What lessons, if any, might we take from the events of 30 years ago for our own uncertain era? Teodor Shanin suggests revolutions do not so much topple old orders as reveal them to be already in ruins: “behind the façade of obedient bureaucracies, strict ideologies and all-powerful regimes, there was emptiness: a few old men who had lost faith in their own regimes and had nobody to defend it until death.” Words to ponder, and perhaps to motivate action, as events in Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon, the UK, the United States and everywhere else unfold around and through us.

Revolutions and History Writing

The Rhetoric of Revolution in France
Lynn Hunt | 15 (1983)

God and the English Revolution
Christopher Hill | 17 (1984)

Revolution: History’s Cheshire Cat
Krishan Kumar | 27 (1989)

French Feminists and the Rights of ‘Man’: Olympe de Gouges’s Declarations
Joan Wallach Scott | 28 (1989)

Beautiful Bodies and Dying Heroes: Images of Ideal Manhood in the French Revolution
Alex Potts | 30 (1990)

Dilemmas of Emancipation: From the Saint Domingue Insurrections of 1791 to the Emerging Haitian State
Carolyn E. Fink | 46 (1998)

The Redemptive Power of Violence? Carlyle, Marx, Dickens
Gareth Stedman Jones | 65 (2008)

Becoming Revolutionary

Craft Consciousness, Class Consciousness: Petrograd 1917
Steve Smith | 11 (1981)

Revolutionary Lives
Jonathan Beecher | 28 (1989)

Revolutions and Rebellions
Adam Phillips | 39 (1995)

Black Heroes/White Writers: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Literary Imagination
Cora Kaplan | 46 (1998)

Breaking Bread with History: C. L. R. James and The Black Jacobins
Bill Schwarz and Stuart Hall | 46 (1998)

Oedipus Radicalized
Bob Chase | 51 (2001)

We Are All One in the Eyes of the Lord’: Christopher Hill and the Historical Meaning of Radical Religion
Penelope J. Corfield | 58 (2004)

Ruskin, Radicalism, and Raphael Samuel: Politics, Pedagogy and the Origins of the History Workshop
Kynan Gentry | 76 (2013)

History and Historians in Revolution

The Russian Question
Raphael Samuel | 29 (1990)

The Question of Socialism: A Development Failure or an Ethical Defeat?
Teodor Shanin | 30 (1990)

Sexual Minorities and Society. International Scientific Conference, Tallinn, Estonia, 28-30 May 1990
Jeffrey Weeks | 30 (1990)

Report Back: Synthesis in Moscow, 27 Oct-2 Nov 1991
Ken Inglis | 35 (1993)

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