Final Word

Can the ANC’s revolution last forever?

Revolutiion.jpg

Much was said this last weekend at the ANC Youth League’s conference about an ongoing ‘revolution’, more than two decades after the party had gained political power in the country.

Reading all the inevitable declarations, statements and speeches that come with such an occasion, together with the perpetual use of the word ‘revolution’, got me thinking: Can a revolution last forever?

It turns out that the word indeed finds its origin in a phenomenon that is an everlasting process – the rotation of the planets around the sun.

The word and the concept are derived from the Latin verb revolvere, meaning ‘to revolve’, as originally applied to the motions of the planets.

The Renaissance mathematician and astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, called his seminal work of 1543, which displaced the notion of the earth being at the centre of the universe, On the Revolutions of Celestial Bodies.

From the world of exact science of the astronomers, the word then moved to the vocabulary of the world of fortune-telling as practised by astrologers, who claimed they could predict the future from studying the stance of heavenly bodies.

With the astrologers, ‘revolution’ also lost its sense of dependable, fixed predictability.

Employed by the ruling nobility of especially the 16th century, they used the word ‘revolution’ to designate sudden and unforeseen events, which they ascribed to the conjunction of planets, creating forces beyond human control.

In short, while in the scientific context the word meant dependable regularity in a repetitive pattern, in the affairs of humans it was the exact opposite, being unexpected, sudden and unpredictable.

The word came to English by the late-14th century, from French, where it was first recorded in the 13th century as revolucion. In both instances the context was the movement of celestial bodies.

Moving on to politics

The word found its way to the world of politics somewhere during the mid-15th century and was used to describe abrupt change in the social or political order.

By the second half of the 17th century it was well-established as a political term and the replacement in England of James II with William III became known as The Glorious Revolution.

To win the crown, William had to sign a Declaration of Rights, committing himself to not suspend laws or levy taxes without parliamentary approval. This revolution laid the foundations for modern democracy.

Just about a century later came the American Revolution, which had broader implications in asserting the independence of the country and changing the relationship between citizens and the state.

Next came the French Revolution of 1789, which was more spontaneous and was originally called a “national regeneration”, before being captured by ideologues and becoming a bloody affair for the ruling class of the day.

Over time the term ‘revolution’ also became used to describe great changes outside the political sphere, be it in culture, art or industry – as in the Industrial Revolution and the present Digital Revolution.

But it is especially in the political, social and economic spheres that most dictionaries and scholarly sources define revolution as: “an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed”, accompanied by words such as “sudden”, “radical and pervasive change” and “often accompanied by violence”.

Exceptions

But there are also the exceptions, and the 19th century classical scholar Alexis de Tocqueville differentiated between sudden and violent revolutions and sweeping “transformations”. What happened in South Africa around 1994 could probably be classified under the latter.

In his book, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes, in looking at the history of political revolutions, writes: “Nineteenth-century Europe witnessed the emergence of professional revolutionaries, intellectuals who devoted themselves full-time to studying the history of past upheavals in quest of tactical guidelines, analysing their own time for signs of coming upheavals, and, once they occurred, stepping in to direct spontaneous rebellion into conscious revolution.

“Such radical intellectuals saw the future as marked by violent disturbances, and progress as requiring the destruction of the traditional system of human relations. Their objective was to set free the ‘true’ human nature suppressed by private property and the institutions to which it gave rise.

“Radical communists and anarchists imagined the coming revolution as thoroughly transforming not only every political and socio-economic order previously known, but human existence itself. Its aim, in the words of Leon Trotsky, was ‘overturning the world’.”

The Communist Party in Russia attempted for many decades to keep their revolution of 1917 going and to export it to the rest of the world, but as Pipes writes: “The incontrovertible failure of the Russian Revolution in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart and its Communist Party was outlawed, can be interpreted as conclusive proof that utopianism inevitably leads to its very opposite, that the quest for paradise on earth ends in hell.”  

Final word

History proves that, unlike in the case of celestial bodies, revolutions cannot be a permanent state when it comes to the endeavours of humans. The leaders of the ANC, who are the rulers of the day, should become wary when the aspiring leaders of tomorrow in the ANCYL declare: “We will not be lapdogs of the ANC, but an ANC component that understands and appreciates the urgency of fast-tracking the objectives of the National Democratic Revolution ...”

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

Final Word

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