Students, faculty, and others struggled to find a seat on Thursday, March 30, for the History Department’s signature event of the year: Soviets, Sans-Culottes and Zapatistas. Featuring multiple guest speakers, the event looked at the effects the French, Mexican and Russian Revolutions had on society and their significance to modern life.
Featured speakers included David A. Bell, professor of history at Princeton University specializing in early-modern France, William H. Beezley, professor of history at the University of Arizona where he built an international reputation for his work on the history of Mexico, and Mark D. Steinberg, from the University of Illinois and a specialist in Russian history.
The event kicked off with a presentation by Bell, where he discussed the principles that the French Revolution was founded on, and its plummet during the latter half of the 18th Century.
What made the French Revolution unique, in Bell’s words, was “the fact that France went through the most important political states of government, in only 10 years. From a monarchy, to a constitutional monarchy, to republic, limited republic and finally, a dictatorship.”
Bell repeatedly emphasized that the French Revolution was the foundation for modern political distinctions, such as the ‘left’ and ‘right,’ as well as its contribution to shaping modern day nationalism.
Fast forward a hundred or so years, and Beezley was quick to claim that his area of expertise, the Mexican Revolution, was the world’s first “social revolution.” Even though his fellow speakers disagreed slightly, Beezley cited Mexican constitutional provisions such as worker protection, healthcare and education assurances and parliamentary term limits, as well the reduction of corruption, as the backbone to his claim.
In addition to speaking to the revolution’s upbringings and provisions, Beezley also addressed the “lack of attention and respect” the Mexican Revolution receives. “It’s not just tequila, tortillas, and mariachi music,” Beezley said.
On whether or not the revolution should matter in U.S society, Beezley had a simple remark that closed his presentation. “When you go to an ATM, your first option is to continue in English or continue in Spanish.”
The Russian Revolution was the topic for the final presentation of the event. In his analysis, Steinberg discussed the fundamental groundwork that all revolutions must be founded on and how the Russian Revolution achieved these goals. Namely, what attributes make up a utopian society, like the one the Revolution tried to create.
Steinberg challenged the audience to question “What is freedom? What is justice? Is a utopian society truly possible given the realities of the world?”
To answer this, Steinberg dove into the minds of the pre-revolution Russian people.
“Pre-1917 Russians never believed they would have freedom, let alone know what freedom actually is.” Steinberg said. “Humans are determined to conquer the unknown. Freedom itself is infinitely improbable, yet revolutions have always tried to realize the impossible.”
The event focused on the relevant correlations and distinctions between the three revolutions and their lasting impacts on the modern world. All three speakers have authored multiple books on their respective revolutions, and contributed to the intellectual environment that the event generated.