A famous story goes that when in 1972 Richard Nixon asked Mao Zedong’s deputy, Zhou Enlai, for his thoughts on the impact of the French Revolution, Zhou’s response was that it was still “too soon to say.” Whether or not Zhou actually said such a thing, and whether even if he did he was really referring to the events of 1789, is a matter of some doubt. But in any case, as Nixon’s interpreter apparently put it, it was “a misunderstanding that was too delicious to invite correction.” For it seemed very much to substantiate the notion that the Chinese play a very long game, patiently waiting for history to unfold. But it also resonated with the notion that, far from being merely punctual political events, Revolutions can only be evaluated and understood over the long term. Their real effects, if any, may take centuries to discern.
In “A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse”, David Graeber offers something like a spatial correlative to this temporal caution. Drawing on Immanuel Wallerstein, he suggests that instead of our habit of seeing revolutions in strictly national terms–as American, French, Haitian, Iranian, Nicaraguan, or whatever–we should understand any true revolution in global terms: “revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense.” So the impact of the French Revolution might be felt in “Denmark, or even Egypt” as much as in France; perhaps “even more so.” And that impact might be judged in terms of the ways revolutionary spirit jumps national boundaries or crosses oceans: think of the interplay between the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, for instance. Or it might equally figure in the ways in which elsewhere the social order is reconfigured in response to and against that spirit: as the Russian revolution was “ultimately responsible for the New Deal and European welfare states” as the rest of the world tried to inoculate itself against the threat perceived on the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg.
Hence, against the pessimistic view that the revolutionary ethos of the 1960s (which was perhaps encapsulated in the single date of 1968) is long vanished, Graeber goes on to argue that contemporary neoliberalism continues to be a reaction against the perceived threat posed by the protests almost fifty years ago in Paris, Rome, Berkeley, and elsewhere. If so, “the legacy of the sixties revolution was deeper [and let us add, broader] than we now imagine,” and leads directly to a set of contradictions at the heart of the contemporary order: that “preventing effective opposition is considered more of a priority” that ensuring that the system itself works. Or in short, if the Left long seems to have abandoned the notion that there are alternatives to actually-existing capitalism, Graeber suggests that social and economic elites remain obsessed with the notion that those alternatives exist and may reappear at any time. So the paradox is that while those who purport to work for change see revolution as a musty concept buried in the past, those who want to forestall change at any cost are the ones who truly act as though Revolution were around the corner.