02/17/2011 03:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

'You Say You Want a Revolution'

Recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Islamic countries in North Africa and Southwest Asia have gotten me thinking again about the 1960s and also about organizing a secondary school social studies unit around the idea of revolution in the twentieth century. The title of this post is from a song by John Lennon and The Beatles where they declared that they would not blindly support calls to overturn society and replace it with something they found equally or even more repressive. On the other hand, Bob Marley, father of Jamaican Reggae, called on the disposed of the world to stand up for their rights and Bob Dylan heralded times that were changing and demanded that people either join the movement for social change or get out of the way, much as young people are doing in Egypt.

The 1960s were a time of revolutionary upheaval around the world, especially 1968 when young people, including me, marched in the streets and defiantly challenged governmental authority in Mexico City, Cairo, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Paris, Berlin, Prague, Rome, London, Tokyo, Kingston (Jamaica), New York, and Chicago. We demanded, as did revolutionary movements before and after us, fundamental change in the organization of society and the legal system (justice), opening up the decision-making process to people previously excluded from participation (democracy), the extension of social, political, and economic rights to the dispossessed (liberty), and the elimination of what we considered arbitrary restrictions on personal behavior (freedom). We hoped to achieve these goals through collective struggle and were willing to break laws and put our lives and privileges at risk.

There is still dispute amongst historians, educators and government policy makers about why protest exploded around the globe during the 1960s. Explanations include cultural and generational conflicts, sexual liberation and drug use, the changing role of women and the nature of work, extended education and financial dependence, as well as the impact of class and anti-imperialist struggles.

The thing that is striking about the political 60s for me is that these movements that seemed so earthshaking at the time, an American President decided not to run for reelection, passed from the historical scene without creating new types of governments and societies. Part of the problem was that upheaval that does not generate new social and political institutions has a tendency to die out, either due to repression, frustration, or cultural absorption into the mainstream. I worry that the Middle Eastern movements will suffer a similar fate and that "old regimes" will return to power unless new democratic institutions are quickly put into place.

A number of important historical themes and essential questions can be examined in a thematic and comparative unit on revolutionary movements in the 20th century. Students will discover that foreign imperialist powers and domestic dictators rarely give up their power without costly and destructive wars and often underestimated the ability and popular appeal of revolutionary leaders such as Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam and Revolutionary wars, whether against foreign occupiers or local oppressors, tend to be violent affairs that employ intimidation and attacks on civilians. Generally, all sides employ terror tactics. This raises the question of whether, or when, ends justify means.

A comparative examination of revolutionary wars shows that they tend to have their own historical logic. Many were initially led by small groups of committed individuals with liberationist goals, developed broad popular support, sometimes suddenly as in Ireland after World War I and in Cuba in 1958, and sometimes over an extended period of time, had difficulty establishing democratic institutions after achieving power, and then deteriorated into dictatorships responsible for human rights abuses. Success in battle by revolutionary leaders did not always translate into success in building a just and democratic society. T-shirts with the image of Ernesto "Ché" Guevara are much more popular than t-shirts celebrating Fidel Castro, in fact, I have never seen one, even when I visited Cuba.

Revolutionary wars, fought to liberate the economic potential of societies, have often left countries impoverished and unable to improve conditions for their citizens. Since the French Revolution of the late 18th century, the return of repressive government following a revolution is termed the Thermidorian Reaction.

The idea of revolution can be romantic, exhilarating, and frightening depending on your social position and individual involvement. Two of history's most famous romantic revolutionaries were the British poet Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) and the Argentine-born doctor Ernesto "Ché" Guevara. Both died while involved in movements to liberate other countries. In 1823, Byron joined insurgents against the Ottoman Turkish occupation of Greece, but he succumbed to fever before seeing any military action. Guevara, an Argentine, joined Fidel Castro and other Cuban revolutionaries and played a major role in overthrowing the Batista dictatorship and building a socialist society in the 1950s and 1960s. He left Cuba to support revolutionary movements in other countries and was assassinated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Bolivia in 1968.

But not all revolutionaries and revolutions are remembered with the fondness of Byron and Guevara. The French Revolution transformed French and European society, but lead to periods of "terror," reaction, and dictatorship under Napoleon. Historians have debated whether all revolutions are doomed to follow this pattern. The Haitian Revolution of 1793-1804, the most successful slave rebellion in human history, had a horrendous level of violence against both life and property and an independent Haiti has been mired in poverty since. Similar problems emerged in the struggles for Congolese, Kenyan, and Algerian independence. All of these revolutionary movements confronted savage repression by occupying forces. Students need to consider who are the real terrorists and must societies be cleansed after these conflagrations?

I have posted activity sheets for teaching about revolutionary movements in the twentieth century on my website in the drop-down Teaching Global History.