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Revolutionary Disillusionment, from 1789 to 2013

Disillusionment is a time-honored revolutionary tradition. True believers risk their lives launching a revolution, only to see their ideals abandoned by others -- or, worse, to watch the former government return.

The abbé Henri Grégoire, a French revolutionary who was the subject of some of my past work, is a prime example of this phenomenon. Grégoire was one of the leaders of the French Revolution in 1789, and he gloried as the Revolution succeeded. The overthrow of the king was a dream come true for him (“On this September 21 [1792],” he wrote after the French Republic was declared, “we have annihilated the throne of this crowned monster. Since yesterday, I have been suffocated by joy to the point of being unable to eat or sleep.”) Unfortunately, Grégoire also lived to see the French Republic replaced by Napoleon’s Empire in 1804, and then the Restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy in 1814-15. Grégoire became disgusted with how quickly his countrymen forgot the ills of the past and abandoned the fight for a new society. Though he became pessimistic about human nature (he wrote an associate in 1817 that one needed to have spent two decades in politics “to understand the extent to which the majority of public figures... in France are weak, ungrateful and vile”), he continued to hold fast to his revolutionary ideals and to seek other ways to channel them. One way in which he directed his frustration was to export revolutionary ideals abroad, to countries still under monarchies; he also supported young republics like the United States and Haiti, who struggled to avoid being conquered by their former rulers. (Sepinwall, The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism [UC Press, 2005])

After the Arab Spring, there has been similar disillusionment among former revolutionaries. While scholars and journalists have examined the Arab Spring’s aftermath mainly in Egypt, similar disenchantment has set in elsewhere, such as in Tunisia, the birthplace of the movement. How much, citizens there ask, has really changed?

The New York Times has a fascinating article today on this topic (“Tunis Journal: A Café Where the Spirit of the Arab Spring Lives On”). The article examines the viewpoint of actors, artists and others who hoped the Arab Spring would transform the region. It focuses on Noureddine El Ati, a Tunisian actor director with an international reputation, and his disenchantment with the revolution there. (“‘People were radiant,’” he said. But the euphoria lasted only about three weeks. “Now we are in a black tunnel…. I thought the people would come to power, and society would move towards more transparency, equality, a good work ethic, but it is exactly the opposite.”)

How frequently does this phenomenon happen elsewhere? What will happen to frustrated revolutionary fervor as the Arab Spring does not result in immediate change? (Readers: Man your keyboards and head for the comments section!)