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Editors’ Pick: Lessons from Radicals and Reformers

Andrew Bacevich on revolutions, including the one you’re living through

Fifty years ago, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man. Her act of civil disobedience and subsequent arrest and trial triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the first and most successful mass movements against racial segregation in U.S. history, and propelled Martin Luther King, Jr., to the forefront of the civil rights movement.

Parks is a prime example of how a single person can change the course of history, a topic covered in depth in the seminar Radicals, Revolutionaries, and Reformers on Wednesday, November 1, at Mugar Memorial Library. Andrew Bacevich, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of international relations and history, explored the causes and personalities of famous revolutionaries and anarchists — from King (GRS’55, Hon.’59) to Florence Nightingale — by examining letters, diaries, and papers that are in the archives of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. The seminar is part of the Student Discovery Seminars, which run through the spring and include such topics as Diplomats and Spies (November 7), Women in Wartime (December 5), and African-American History Makers in Massachusetts (January 16).

BU Today talked with Bacevich about where to find today’s radicals, revolutionaries, and reformers and what we can learn from them.

Andrew Bacevich, professor
of international relations.
Photo by Vernon Doucette

BU Today: The word “revolution” often carries violent connotations. Is there such a thing as a peaceful revolution? Why or why not?
Bacevich:
Revolution implies radical or fundamental change. Revolutions involve struggle, conflict, and confrontation. Whatever their cause, revolutionaries face resistance. In the political sphere, revolutions do tend to entail violence. Outside of the political sphere, thankfully, that’s not necessarily the case.


Is revolutionary change always a good thing?

Heavens, no. Some revolutions produce great evil or spawn moral confusion. More broadly, it’s probably a mistake to judge a large historical event like a revolution as “good” or “bad.” Doing so invites oversimplification. For example, the American Revolution — which may or may not have been a real revolution — secured our independence. In doing so, it also perpetuated the institution of slavery. Based on that scorecard, does the American Revolution qualify as “good” or “bad”?

What type of revolutions, if any, are taking place in America right now?
We are in the midst of a massive cultural revolution. We are rapidly discarding conventions regarding sexuality, gender, and family that once seemed sacrosanct. In music and art, we are abandoning traditional standards of truth and beauty. We are in the process of redefining the social role of the individual — instead of citizens, we are becoming consumers. We are all at least dimly aware that this revolution is under way, yet we devote remarkably little energy to assessing its likely implications. Our working assumption seems to be that once we succeed in throwing off the last bit of self-restraint, we will then enjoy perfect freedom and therefore happiness. This is the principal delusion of our time.

What are the long-term implications of this massive cultural revolution?
As Zhou Enlai said of the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell.

Who are some modern-day revolutionaries and reformers, and what effects have they had on the world?
To judge by the newspapers, you might conclude that politicians like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are the most significant and influential personages of our time. They are not. In the long run, the politicians will prove to be less important than Eminem, Madonna, Robert Mapplethorpe, and others who are taking a jackhammer to American culture.

So does that mean you believe our revolutionary heroes of the past are a dying breed? Will we ever again see the likes of a Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Susan B. Anthony?
We don’t find the drivers of radical change today in politics. The real action lies elsewhere.

What can we learn from past reformers and revolutionaries, and how can we apply that knowledge to today’s society?
Modesty and humility. Revolutions give rise to unexpected and frequently adverse consequences. There is something to be said for incremental change. There is much to be said for treating the received wisdom of the past with at least a modicum of respect. But then I’m not a revolutionary — I’m a conservative.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

This article was originally published on BU Today on October 31, 2006.