What Would Marx Say about Cairo?

Written on February 8, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Africa, Democracy & Human Rights, Middle East

by David Armitage*

History repeats itself – Revolutions even more so.

It’s been hard for a historian to watch recent events in Egypt without a sense of déjà vu. Haven’t we seen eruptions in streets and squares like this somewhere before, whether in Tunisia last month, in Iran 30 years ago, or in France more than two centuries past? Is Hosni Mubarak going to be next week’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, or Louis XVI?

Matching past and present like this is more than just a parlor game. Revolutionaries, more than most political activists, tend to consciously imitate their predecessors. In this sense, the most transformative political events are often paradoxically the most traditional, as actors take their cues from dramas staged at other times in other places and often follow scripts originally written for quite different theaters.

It’s hardly news that revolutions inspire other revolutions, successful and unsuccessful. Think of the fast-moving “Springtime of the Peoples” from Paris to Prague in 1848 or, closer to our own time, the “Autumn of Nations” in 1989 and the “color” revolutions (Rose, Orange, Tulip) of 2003 to 2005 in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. As so often in studies of revolution, Karl Marx said it best. Everyone knows the most famous line from his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte — “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” — but the rest of the analysis in his pamphlet is just as acute. He carries on with the theatrical metaphor that seems unavoidable in such situations, arguing that almost all revolutions replay earlier ones: “Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.”

And, we might add, American revolutionaries took the mantle of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the early French revolutionaries looked back to the American Revolution, and the Latin American revolutionaries of the early 19th century issued declarations of independence and flew French-style tricolors. So the sequence went on through 1848 and 1917 to 1979, 1989, and beyond — and 2011 might well go down in history, too.

Revolutionaries of all stripes have deliberately set out to be imitated as widely as possible. Modern revolutionaries proclaimed themselves to be universalists, bringing liberation to “all mankind” or “tout l’univers,” exporting revolution beyond their own borders. This was just as true in the ages of sail and steam as it is now, in the era of live video and Facebook. The speed of communication may have accelerated, but the content of the message hasn’t changed all that much. Read more…

*David Armitage is the Lloyd C. Blankfein professor of history at Harvard University. Among his recent books are The Declaration of Independence: A Global History and The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760-1840. He is now working on a history of ideas of civil war from Rome to Iraq.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on February 7, 2011.


Cash A. Wright May 9, 2011 - 9:21 am

Egypt has always been a land of revolutions

Cash Wright

Kyrgyzstan June 11, 2011 - 1:30 pm

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