Since today is Bastille Day, I’ve been thinking about the nature of revolutions. Here’s my question for today: what makes a revolution succeed or fail? Why did the American Revolution result in relative political stability, while the French Revolution ran amok and eventually resulted in the rise of another dictator?

This question is also becoming increasingly relevant as we watch the transitions and revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Why did Egypt’s democratic revolution bring Mohamed Morsi to power?Perhaps the answer is prudence. Russell Kirk notes that the American Revolution was “not a revolution started, but a revolution prevented.” I mostly agree with that. The American system retained many parts of the old British system, including the bicameral structure and English common law. The nature of the executive they created was somewhat new, but for the most part, the new American government mirrored many aspects of the English government. While the French found themselves caught up in attempting a radical social transformation, the Americans were slightly more cautious. For example, French revolutionaries were the intellectual heirs of Rousseau’s Social Contract and demands for instant social change, whereas American revolutionaries were influenced by the more cautious ideals of Burke and Montesquieu.

There is something dangerous about being so furious with old system that the revolutionaries seek to do away with all parts of it. Many populist revolutions, like the French Revolution and later the Bolshevik Revolution, have the potential to pander so much to the public outcry for change that they do not stop to consider what they are changing. The French Revolution may well be the definition of the “tyranny of the majority,” and the tides of emotion and righteous indignation are difficult to quell.

Once a revolution begins, it is difficult to tell where it is going. There must be a mechanism in place to stem the passions of social transformation, or else the whole process can go horribly awry. For example, the Chinese Communist Revolution was so brutal in part because of Chairman Mao’s demand for “constant revolution” so that the people would never become “complacent.”

Social change is a worthy goal, but the lessons of history suggest that prudence is necessary to make sure it succeeds. Revolutions cannot be solely emotional if they are to work – logic and caution must play a prominent role as well.

On a lighter note, here is a great comic by one of my favorite comic artists, Kate Beaton:

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