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What the French Revolution Tells Us About Today's Activist Movements

Today's protesters should remember the lessons of revolutions past, but most of all they should remember the importance of debate, discussion and argument.

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No one should look high in the sky for modern-day aristocrats to swoop down from the heavens and save us. Nor should anyone underestimate the importance of study and discussion. The lessons of the French Revolution -- that history is a process, that it’s possible to completely remake the world, that ordinary people can do this and that some people simply have a vested interest in the existing order -- are relevant today, perhaps more so than they were in 1789.

We today possess a number of advantages the Bastille rebels lacked. Technology allows for faster transformation of knowledge than ever. Our post-scarcity society offers the promise of plenty for all. Perhaps most importantly, we have an additional 200 years of history to draw from. The 20th century is largely the history of revolutions drowned in blood and the horrible consequences -- war and fascism -- flowing from stillborn revolutions. Learning from these tragedies is truly the only way to honor the struggle.

When the next Occupy or Egypt breaks out, remember the lessons of revolutions past, remember to be patient in the wheels of history, remember to have faith in ordinary people to do extraordinary things, but most of all remember the importance of debate, discussion and argument. No service is done to anyone by glossing over historical lessons or taking political shortcuts in the name of greater numbers. Indeed, the patronizing forced intimacy of “the broadest number of forces under the broadest possible program” might well be a recipe for disaster.

Nicholas Pell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasPell.