Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

John Higginson discusses revolutions and resistance

(Collegian File Photo)

As part of the Resistance Studies Initiative Fall Speaker Series, John Higginson, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, spoke to a packed room at the Integrated Science Building about the context and consequences of revolutions.

Higginson has written extensively on South African politics and is currently working on a book titled, “The Hidden Cost of Industrialization: State Violence and the Economic Transformation of Southern Africa, 1900-1980.”

As he introduced the speaker, Director of Resistance Studies Initiative Stellan Vinthagen expressed his thanks for Higginson and encouraged the crowd — which extended to people standing in the doorway — to attend the talk, “Eliminate nuclear weapons before they eliminate us!,” by Timmon Wallis on Dec. 5 in the Integrated Science Building, Room 145, at 4:30 p.m.

The first half of the talk was led by Higginson, who read from his “paper in progress” — provisionally titled “Why or why not revolutions?” — which focused on the Mexican and Russian revolutions of the early 20th century.

Higginson began by reading contrasting quotes from Leon Trotsky, the Russian Marxist revolutionary, and Richard Cobb, a British historian renowned for his writing on the French revolution. There are two types of revolution, Higginson asserted: the successful and the unsuccessful.

He then explored why revolutions “do not always usher in genuine social reform,” and considered “the circumstances that gave rise to sustained grievances.”

He honed in on the bloody mechanics of a revolution, often defined by the class divides they are designed to escape.

“Promoters of violent ideas usually have to convince others, often the young and hapless, to kill and maim others,” Higginson said.

He also noted how the most common cause of a riot accidently becoming a revolution is the “over[use] or underuse of the repressive powers of government.”

“War has often opened up space for revolutionary activity,” said Higginson, pointing to the First World War, during which state sponsored violence moved in two directions, domestically and internationally.

He went on to assert that not only was “The 20th century…the most violent moment in human history,” but also that this trend has continued throughout the 21st century.

Both the Mexican and the Russian revolutions were extensively interrogated; in 1910, one percent of the population owned 97 percent of the land in Mexico, creating and reinforcing a fundamentally unequal society.

Higginson followed the talk by engaging in an expansive question and answer session, which covered topics from his time living in South Africa — where he narrowly avoided a bomb blast — to technological advancement and the mechanization of jobs.

“South Africa was not a revolution…it was a negotiated settlement,” Higginson told the crowd.

Asked what future leaders of revolutions need to do differently to succeed, Higginson was pensive.

“[They need to consider] what ordinary people want, not what they think they want,” he said.

Taesan Yoon, a junior computer science major, found the talk compelling.

“I’m not really familiar with this stuff — my history knowledge is very limited — so I pretty much had to take all this with a grain of salt,” he said.

“One of the most interesting points he made for me was the circumstances in which people can rapidly change how they react to things, like how they treat other people,” Yoon continued. “People who they share all these resources with, they know, but they just turn their back on just because circumstances change. It’s pretty crazy to me…how this relates to how revolutions begin.”

Yoon was additionally interested by the idea that many people who advocate for revolutions may not end up gaining anything from them if they are enacted.

Glenn Houlihan can be reached at [email protected].

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