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Egyptians hold a picture of a man killed during the uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak at Cairo's Tahrir Square on Feb. 18, 2011 during celebrations marking one week after Mubarak was forced out of office by an unprecedented wave of protests in the Arab world's most populous country. (PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images/PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptians hold a picture of a man killed during the uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak at Cairo's Tahrir Square on Feb. 18, 2011 during celebrations marking one week after Mubarak was forced out of office by an unprecedented wave of protests in the Arab world's most populous country. (PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images/PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Jeet Heer

One reason Egypt's spirit spreads: Revolutions can be bloody, but they're also fun Add to ...

As the world is learning afresh, revolutions are infectious. The great revolutionary years - 1776, 1789, 1848, 1917, 1989 and perhaps 2011 - never involve events that take place in one country alone. They shake the foundations of the global social order as people all over the planet suddenly start asking whether the rules that govern their lives are really fixed in stone.

Political philosopher Edmund Burke created modern conservatism out of his horrified reaction to the French Revolution, writing in 1790 that the defeat of the Bourbons presented "a great crisis, not of the affairs of France alone, but of all Europe, perhaps of more than Europe." Likewise, one could say that the dethroning of Hosni Mubarak represents a great event, not of the affairs of Egypt alone, but of all the Middle East, perhaps of more than the Middle East.

The contagious spirit of Egypt has even warmed many hearts in Canada, one of the more profoundly non-revolutionary countries in the world.

There are very few nations that have never had a full-scale revolution or war of national liberation, except Canada along with Japan, Australia and a few others. Perhaps this, more than appeasing Israeli nationalism, explains why the Harper government has given the Egyptian protesters the cold shoulder.

Still, even stolid and cautious Canada has its own roundabout revolutionary heritage. Our parliamentary system is the product of the English Civil War of the 17th century, which taught monarchs that they could be beheaded by the people's representatives. We also owe a debt to the slightly gentler Glorious Revolution of 1688, which reduced our kings and queens to being the well-paid pets of Parliament.

Revolutions are a relatively new phenomenon, animated as they are by the idea that society can be changed from top to bottom. Hannah Arendt argued in her seminal study On Revolution that it was only with the American and French Revolutions that we acquired the "fundamental conception of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known or told before, is about to unfold …"

Rival philosopher Michael Walzer counters that the origins of radical politics can be located in the fanatical passions of the English Puritans who spearheaded the English Civil War. But all the major theorists (including political scientist Barrington Moore and, of course, Karl Marx) agree that revolutions are modern events, rooted in the novel idea that humans have the ability to seize control of their destiny and change the world - the rite of passage a people have to undergo to enter into modernity.

But Ms. Arendt caught a glimpse of something in that novelty factor - the "new experience" of being free - that escaped the attention of the other scholars: Revolutions are fun.They are a holiday from the mundane world of routine activity.

She called attention to a curious statement made by American revolutionary John Adams, who noted that in rising up against the British, he and his fellow radicals learned that "it is action, not rest, that constitutes our pleasure." Adams was a dour man, so it's noteworthy that he took "pleasure" from revolutionary agitation.

Like children let out of school, revolutionaries love noise and grand, attention-grabbing gestures. In the theatre of revolution, previously silenced and submerged people find their voices. Think of the Boston Tea Party, the storming of the Bastille, the smashing of the Berlin Wall or the exhilarating mood of the protesters at Tahrir Square.

Every revolution is a bit of a carnival, where the world is turned upside down as kings are brought low and nobodies become heroes. It is no accident that Mikhail Bakhtin, the great theorist of the carnival spirit, developed his ideas in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

No one has better caught the romantic appeal of overthrowing the old order than poet William Wordsworth, who in his 1804 poem French Revolution wrote: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven! - Oh! times,/ In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways/ Of custom, law, and statute, took at once/ The attraction of a country in romance!"

Just having a revolution, of course, is no guarantee of success. There are countless ways that a new regime can go bad. Wordsworth himself was already souring on the French Revolution when he wrote his famous ode, which was more a work of nostalgia than of advocacy.

There's no need to rehearse the catastrophic consequences of the Russian Revolution, nor the hypocrisy of the American Revolution, which arguably gave slavery an extended lease on life. Even in the joyous early days of a revolution, the anarchic pleasure of throwing off rules can shade off into lawless chaos, as evidenced by the awful assault on reporter Lara Logan, a dismaying sign of the dark side of Tahrir Square.

More dire is the constant threat of counter-revolutionary violence as the old order tries to hold on, shown by the horrific attacks on demonstrators in Bahrain.

Still, revolutions are always an inescapable rupture in history. Even after a counter-revolution, there is never really a return to the old order with its aristocratic privileges and musty traditions.

It's notable that even conservatives now co-opt the language of revolution. Ronald Reagan much preferred quoting insurrectionist Tom Paine to the tradition-loving Edmund Burke, and contemporary Republicans hail Mr. Reagan as a revolutionary leader.

Paradoxically, even as revolutions uncork bottled-up emotions, to succeed they require that joy be coupled with self-discipline. Poet John Milton praised revolutionary Oliver Cromwell for being "a commander first over himself; the conqueror of himself, it was over himself he had most learned to triumph."

What was true of Cromwell applies more generally to any people that seize the mantle of revolution in the hopes of controlling their future. In a tyranny, the dictator controls the people; in a revolution, the people learn to control themselves.

Jeet Heer is a writer based in Regina and Toronto.

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