Every so often in European history there comes a ‘Year of Revolutions’, when progressive insurrections break out in several nations at once. 1848 was one such; 1917 another; 1968 a third – although that one has, I think, been rather over-egged. In between these Years of Revolution there have been periods of Reaction, again happening simultaneously in several countries: the 1820s, 1930s, 1980s (Thatcher), and the present day. In both cases the coincidence between these great movements has been due partly to influences spreading from one country to another, and partly to general underlying causes, affecting them all. More parochial historians, of course, don’t realise this, but instead try to explain each revolution or reaction separately: the influence of Lenin in Russia, or of Thatcher in Britain, for example; so ignoring the broader common factors which could make more sense of each of them.
Today the ‘simultaneous’ spread of our latest period of Reaction is quite plain to see, expressed in the rise of ‘far Right’ and nationalist movements all over continental Europe, in Ukip and Brexit in Britain, and of course in Trumpery over the pond. Most of the common causes of these have also been fully examined and explained, from mass immigration to neo-liberal Austerity – or ‘late capitalism’, which is my personal favourite – and many variations of these. We’re living through one of the troughs in the long undulating graph of human progress (if you’re a ‘Progressive’, that is), with little sign yet of any upswing.
Another feature of these cyclical movements in European history, however, has been that each extreme moment also nurtures its own answer, or antithesis, or opposite, which then becomes the seed of the next great movement, or ‘Year Of…’, turning the graph in the other direction. That’s why ‘Reactionary’ movements are so called – they originate as reactions to the ‘Progress’ that has gone before; but the word could equally well be applied to ‘Progressive’ or ‘Revolutionary’ movements that arise as ‘reactions’ (strictly speaking) to the Reactionaries. I think I can see signs of that today.
This is what gives me the tiniest bit of hope, currently. Trump has provoked a huge reaction against him, moral, feminist, democratic and even (in America!) socialist. Surely that will sink him soon? Even if not, it furnishes the template for a more ‘progressive’ form of US politics and of life. In France the neoliberal Macron is getting his come-uppance at the hands of the ‘yellow vests’ – though I’m not entirely clear how ‘progressive’ they are. The Left is on the rise in Sweden, as well as the nationalist Sverigedemokraterna Right. In Britain the current unprecedentedly incompetent Conservative government is clearly riding for a fall. (If it does fall, let’s hope it marks the end of the malign influence of Eton College on our politics. I think we ought to make an electoral law that forbids any Old Etonian from entering Parliament unless he’s George Orwell.) To take its place, it’s at least possible that we might get a Social Democratic government again, after all these years, if people can see through the bile that’s hurled at Jeremy Corbyn, and are drawn to his decent and intelligent form of politics, as a natural reaction (again) against the superficialities and lies of nowadays.
You never know. If we’re on the verge of a new ‘Year of Revolutions’ anything can happen. My study of history has, I’m afraid, made me a pessimist at heart – never one of those utopian socialists – but requiring just a sliver of light to keep me going. This is it. But then I remember AJP Taylor’s clever summing up of 1848: ‘the historical turning-point at which history failed to turn.’ 1968 was the same. Next year will likely be no different.
I’m back to Britain for a very short trip tomorrow. Last time I was there the streets were strewn with rough-sleepers. We need a revolution. I’ll be looking – albeit not in great hope – for the signs.