Reflections on Revolutions at the AHA

By Bryan A. Banks

Revolutions were well-represented this year at the American Historical Association’s 2016 annual conference in Atlanta. Conceptually, revolutions fit the conference theme — “Global Migrations: Empires, Nations, and Neighbors”— well. They have torn down and established empires, acted as powerful agents of nationalism, and have been, to say the least, of great interest to neighboring states. With this in mind, the organizers of the conference accepted over 50 presentations featuring some iteration of the word “revolution” in their title.  Panels on consumer revolutions ran alongside other panels on revolutionary liberation movements around the world. There was talk of the Green Revolution and the Red (Communist) Revolution too. For the purpose of this post though, I’ll be focusing on four panels that intentionally grouped papers on different geographical regions and temporal periods in the hopes of spurring conversation about revolutions in global and comparative perspectives. The first was sponsored by the AHA Research Division and the other three, entitled “Rewriting Revolutions,” were jointly hosted by the AHA and the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies — assembled from a workshop on the Age of Revolutions held in 2014 and sponsored by the William and Mary Quarterly and the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute.

Common to these four panels was the idea that “Revolution,” with a capital “R,” should no longer be a closely guarded term. In fact, several papers proposed expanding the term to include a set of ideologically diverse movements. Here, the inclusivity of R.R. Palmer’s The Age of Democratic Revolution was praised only to be immediately torn down again for leaving out Haiti and women — a not all too surprising omission given Palmer’s insistence on “democracy” as the defining element of revolutionary politics.[1] In order to further expand our definition of the Age of Revolutions then, many of the participants agreed that “democracy” itself should not be considered a defining characteristic in the field of comparative revolutions. The most obvious “undemocratic” examples of this were Haiti, many of the Latin American Revolutions, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Cultural Revolution in China, and the theocratic revolutions in the Middle East. Marcela Echeverri and Doris Garraway challenged their respective audiences to consider the revolutionary potential of monarchies.

In line with the conference theme, global connections and movements was a dominant theme among these panels. Immigrants, slaves, seafaring citizens, and “revolutionaries traveling between revolutions” featured prominently. This development, according to Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, is indicative of several historiographical shifts in the last couple of decades — i.e. the rise of the Haitian Revolution as a western hemispheric counterpoint to the French Revolution, a reorientation towards borderlands, and the concomitant move away from “high political history.” Rosenthal argued that the focus on global connections highlights the system of slavery in the Western Hemisphere and the development of polities and sovereignties as useful categories of analysis, rather than politics, which tend to be best defined within a national framework.

The second panel of the “Rewriting Revolutions” workshop broached the subject of materialities or the study of objects as texts with revolutionary and transnational significance. Of particular interest to attendees was Ashli White’s examination of the cockade in an Atlantic perspective. She showed how this product highlighted the cultural interstices between war-time “bellicosity,” political affiliation, and revolutionary sociability. Rosenthal examined muster rolls (crew lists) and other forms of identity paperwork aboard privateer ships in order to explore the ways that individuals navigated international spaces and used national affiliations to their benefit. This approach complemented the exclusive focus on individuals found in other presentations nicely.

While each historian examined a particular instance of revolution and revolutionary experience in his/her presentation, an inclination towards grand theorizing did emerge. How do we replace the Palmerian emphasis on democracy? Is there a unifying factor that links each movement in this proverbial age? Is this task even worthwhile? No single answer emerged. One audience member asked if the idea of “movement” might provide a common thread — an idea that some found too loose and problematic, given its potential to encompass all of human history. Stephen Pincus made several interesting interjections. He called for a multi-lingual approach to the Age of Revolutions, expanding it back into the seventeenth century and focusing on the common problems inherent to the fiscal reality of empire building. Others worried that such an expansion would obscure contingency and specificity. 

The presenters of these panels covered a lot of ground, but some subjects received scant attention. Women, gender, and sexuality received little to no attention during these four presentations. Katlyn Carter, a doctoral candidate at Princeton, recognized trauma and emotion as important developments in the study of the French Revolution, but they remained largely absent in those papers more globally oriented. Presenters and audience members invoked Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein’s recent Scripting Revolution: A Historical Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolutions often, but their methodology was neither employed nor dealt with in a substantive way. Its recent publication is undoubtedly to blame. Despite these notes, these presentations were thought-provoking, thoroughly researched, and a pleasure to experience.

Concluding Remarks 

On Thursday afternoon, William Storey highlighted an interesting development in the field over the last 25 years or so. He noted that as a graduate student, his professors focused on revolutions because they were “committed to the idea” — i.e. that revolutions made lasting, “progressive,” structural change possible. This no longer seems to be the case. It strikes me that this is, in part, indicative of the multivalent meaning of revolutions today and the global and comparative work being done by the newest generation of scholars. The word “revolution” has come to refer to so much that one wonders if it really means anything anymore. Should we resort to a simple, inclusive definition — revolution as a rapid change in politics? What is lost and what is gained by doing so? These are some of the issues historians of revolutions dealt with at the 2016 AHA in Atlanta.

Bryan A. Banks is a religious and intellectual historian of France with an interest in Atlantic and World History. You can tweet him @Bryan_A_Banks.

Title image: Isidore-Stanislaus Helman (1743-1806) following a sketch by Charles Monnet (1732-1808), L’Ouverture des États Généraux à Versailles le 5 Mai 1789. Engraving. 

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