the revolution is now

June 23, 2009

so like just about everyone else, i’ve been watching the news reports coming in from iran over the last week. and today i sat down and looked through the pictures of it over at the big picture. and looking at pictures of what appear to be normal people of varying ages taking to the streets in protest brings to mind a couple of points.

1. is revolution still possible in this country? i’ve discussed this elsewhere, to varying degrees. i don’t think it is, largely because on the whole, we’re too complacent. and while i no longer remember where i read it, i do recall seeing something in the past week about how this revolution came about because the iranian government was too harsh, too blatant in their election-stealing. things are never quite that brutal (definitely) or blatant (arguably) in this country.

2. but for now, i want to talk about the role of ordinary people in revolution. for most people in the u.s., revolution is an abstract notion, an idea beyond our grasp. i would argue that most americans cannot see themselves taking to the streets, facing down riot police and militia groups, to demand justice and change. and because this situation is so far beyond our ken, we never know how we would react to it. would we have that strength of conviction? we’d all like to think so, but there’s no way to know until it comes time to make the choice. certainly i’d like to think that in the face of danger, i would stand up for what is right. but maybe i’m really a coward. i’m afraid i might be. 

i was actually half-planning a post on this for next month, after i’d had a chance to reread the historian’s craft, and maybe i’ll still do something then. what, you may be asking, connects ideas of revolution to a book of historiographical theory? Marc Bloch, of course. a French historian (meaning a historian of France, although he was also French) of some renown, a founder of the Annales school of history, and a man who died on June 16, 1944, shot by the Gestapo for being a member of the French resistance. Marc Bloch has always sort of fascinated me. we tend to see academics–especially brilliant academics–as pale nerds who might know all about 14th century social structures but can barely tie their own shoes, they’re so uncoordinated. in our culture, there’s a real divide in perception: men of action versus men of thought. and so it fascinates me when ordinary people, or people who are ordinary in ways that are thought to be antithetical to fighting, whether in war or in revolution, turn out to be brave and bold.

i feel that i’m not expressing this very well. at the very least, i appear to be revealing what are perhaps only my own polemic ideas about action versus thought in people. after all, intellectuals have been at the forefront of many revolutions. i guess what i’m really trying to get at here is the way that ordinary people–not professional soldiers, or even drafted soldiers in war time–act in times of danger and unrest. i believe that adage about there being no heroes in a war, only survivors; and i believe that heroes, like history, tend to be defined by the victor. but regardless of terminology and semantics, there is honor in standing for what you believe in. i can’t help but admire Marc Bloch, historian and resistance fighter:

Marc Bloch lived life as he wrote history: he always chose the difficult and spurned the easy. Like some historians, he could have effortlessly described simple events and dodged issues, but such history disgusted him. Like many men, he could have survived the war by taking no risks, but such was not his way. He need not have mobilised when war came in 1939. He had seen four years of action at the front in the war of 1914–1918; he was married; he was a father. When France fell he need not have remained there; he could have escaped and gone to England or America where distinguished universities had invited him to join their faculties. But, seeing neither life nor history in simple or expedient terms, Marc Bloch shunned escape and chose to fight in whatever way he could for his ideals and his country.

Having been captured shortly before the allied landing in Normandy, and having been imprisoned and tortured for his part in the Résistance, he along with twenty-six others was shot by the Gestapo in a field not far from Lyons on 16 June 1944. Thus at the age of fifty-eight Marc Bloch died for the France that he loved, the France of which he had said that he had drunk from the sources of her culture and could only breathe under her sky.

 –Bruce Lyon, “Foreword,” in Marc Bloch, French Rural History: An Essay on its Basic Characteristics, trans. Janet Sondheimer. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978. page x.



  1. I think there are many distinctions to be made before declaring Americans out of action re: revolution. In Marc Bloch’s case, his country was under enemy rule. Should Nazi Canada invade and control the States, I do believe there would be a very active resistance. In Iran, they are not beginning a revolution, but contesting election results, and, probably, just giving vent to various frustrations with their terrible government. In 2000 there were a number of pretty wild protests before and around the election– a group I was with in St. Louis was tear-gassed. Then, in the build up to the Iraq war, the anti-war movement was huge– we shut down SF for a couple days. Then leaders of the movement sold out to the democrats and the movement fizzled.

    The main thing holding back any sort of wide-ranging revolutionary movement here is this: what are we revolting for? There isn’t any new positive vision to rally around. No grand idea to animate us, no future to die for. Instead we have only reactionary street action, anti-corporate, anti-war, anti-LAPD. But in the past 20 years there have been a lot of people taking to the streets in NYC, LA, Seattle, and San Francisco. I think there is life in the old dog yet.

    • oh admittedly there have been plenty of actions in the last 20 years. not all of them have been productive, necessarily–like the riots in oakland earlier this year–but they have been legitimate expressions of rage and frustration.

      but i feel like most of these–the WTO demonstrations in Seattle, the anti-war shut down of SF you mentioned–were relatively isolated and had few concrete results. and i think that it’s not so much that we aren’t *capable* of revolution, but that we’re too complacent. it’s like what you said: what are we revolting for? there are many things going on in this country that we might not agree with, and we might not agree with them enough that we take to the streets in protest. but protest is allowable, for one thing. in the bay area, it’s practically de rigeur. and our country is not iran or vichy france, for another. we’re not being horribly oppressed or rounded up and sent to camps. things aren’t bad enough to provoke a majority of the people to physically engage governmental forces. if it came right down to it–if we were invaded and occupied, or if the government started shooting anyone who disagreed with them–i’m sure we could stand and fight.

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