‘Alligators and revolutions both eat their children’, wrote one letter writer to The Australian yesterday, one of many commenting on events in Egypt at present. I suspect this may be a slander against alligators, but it does sum up what many people feel, consciously or unconsciously about the idea of revolution: all revolutions have a lot in common, and it is very easy for the process to go pear-shaped very quickly.
I know just enough about Egyptian history to understand all those cartoons with Hosni Mubarak being fitted for a sarcophagus, and to know that a lot has happened since the last pyramid was built, which tends to be ignored, at least by cartoonists. (Pyramids are very easy to draw)
But Revolutions are another thing. Academics in the humanities love revolutions, in art and literature as well as history. Which is odd, really, when you consider how anti-democratic most universities are, and how unlikely academics are to rise in open rebellion against these quasi-feudal institutions. Pitchforks in the Senior Common Room? I don’t think so.
So rather than look at Egypt, I want to look at the man who, more than any other scholar of the 20th century, defined the way we think about revolutions.
Crane Brinton was born in Connecticut in 1898. He went to Harvard, then to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, before returning to Harvard where he worked until his death in 1968. He was an expert on the French Revolution, publishing works on the Jacobins and Tallyrand during the 1930s.
In 1938, he published his most famous work, The Anatomy of Revolution, in which he attempted to trace a general pattern that revolutions follow. Continue reading