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How Radical is Revolution?

George Watson examines the changing meaning of the term from Machiavelli to Lenin.

Revolution is not what it was. It once thought the modern age had been made by it; nowadays a sustained stability looks more interesting, since stable societies are not just more comfortable but at times more radical too. 'I suppose what connotes a revolution is shots', William Gerhardie once remarked gaily, 'they have a way of conveying a sense of importance'. And it is that importance, or self-importance, that has dramatically faded in recent years. The word has lost not just radical chic but sheer significance. Why, it is now asked, were revolutions ever supposed by nature to be radical? Why should societies not change faster and more efficiently without them?

The surprising truth is that revolution was not always thought of in radical terms at all: that use is exceptional before the nineteenth century. The word was once conservative. That this should be thought odd looks even odder when one reflects that many revolutions in recent times have been preservative in effect, in intent, or in both. Hard to resist the conclusion that theories of revolution in the past hundred years have been out of touch with political reality, doubly out of touch with such far-from-radical events as the English Revolution of 1689. What has recently been gained is an appreciation of stability and of what it can achieve in the way of social change. What we still have to recover is a sense of preservative revolution.

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