If everything's 'revolutionary,' nothing is

From corn chips to deodorants, marketers tout new products as 'revolutionary.' But real revolutions are rare. And revolutions that endure depend on a secret ingredient: democracy

Revolution is an extremely overused word.

Marketers tout a new flavor of corn chip (cool ranch! honey crunch!) as revolutionary. A video game, a cellphone calling plan, a flamboyant outfit worn by a Paris runway model routinely get the same designation. If you search Google for the term “a revolutionary new,” you’ll be presented with 8.7 million possibilities, ranging from “glorious one-pot meals” to a compartmentalized pet feeder to a report on Estonian Air’s financial strategy.

More believable revolutions occur in politics, economics, and culture. The scientific revolution, the sexual revolution, the digital revolution, and the green revolution have better claim to the name than, say, the skin-care revolution. History changed, old assumptions crumbled, life is different as a result, and not just in the world of facial moisturization.

A real revolution is a moment of revelation and transformation. The word means to change things completely. A revolution occurs when a group of people concludes that present conditions are untenable and that the future is in their hands. Tradition and deference fly out the window.

Often, as historian James Billington noted in his 1980 book on the revolutionary spirit, “Fire in the Minds of Men,” things can go too far. Revolutionaries promise heaven on earth, with tragic and absurd results.

In the case of the French in 1789, the new order became so drunk on power that they embarked on a basic rebooting of everything, including the calendar – which was not a popular move. Despite revolutionary new month names (Thermidor! Germinal!), it turned out that working folks were not keen on 10-day weeks and the old Gregorian calendar was just fine with them as well.

For a real revolution to occur, it helps to have an out-of-touch despot like George III, Louis XVI, or Czar Nicholas II. Popular yearning has to be building as well. And something has to be in the air – a powerful idea like democracy (“Hey, why shouldn’t we have a say?”) or a galvanizing incident like the storming of the Bastille.

When the moment seems ripe, a burst of people power is unleashed. The result can be an almost magical uprising like Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” of November 1989. Or things can get ugly, as in the bloody overthrow of Nicolae Ceauşescu in Romania a month later.

There are a dozen nations that could see a revolution in the not too distant future. Among the most likely: Iran, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Burma (Myanmar). Iran is the one to watch most closely in 2010. There seems to be a growing ripeness for change 30 years after the Islamic revolution. The Monitor’s Scott Peterson, who has made some 30 trips to Iran since 1996, has much more insightful things to say about Iran than I can even begin to touch on here. Watch for his book on the subject, “Let the Swords Encircle Me,” which will be published later this year by Simon & Schuster.

The important thing to remember about revolutions is that revolutionary fervor and upheaval can last only so long. Unless revolution includes democracy – with its mechanism for continuous evolution – the revolutionary spirit can too easily get hijacked. In France, it led to the guillotine and then Napoleon, in Russia to Stalinism and labor camps, and in Iran to a hectoring theocracy not above rigging elections to hold onto power.

The French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions were true moments of complete change. None of them lasted. The American Revolution was different. It introduced a system that has brought us – not always smoothly – from rule by a small, white-male clique 200 years ago to the present heterogeneous, raucous, still far from perfect society.

Real revolutions are exceedingly rare – so rare, in fact, that the temptation to appropriate the word for advertising campaigns and PowerPoint presentations is understandable. The word would go virtually unused otherwise.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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