“Plus ça change" or "Thoughts on changing the world”

Baccalaureate Address
by Lynn Sharp, Associate Professor of History

Saturday, May 20, 2006 - Whitman College

The French have a saying: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)  Like many old sayings, it is both fundamentally true and completely false.  On one hand, it’s absolutely true that most people go along, live their daily lives, and little changes.  On the other hand, if there is anything history teaches us, it is that things do change.  And, more importantly, they change because people change them. 

We all want a better world, and thus we all want change of some sort.  Frequently, people look to history for lessons in how to do things better.  History can't be simply “applied” to the present, but it can offer us some hints on how to change the world.  

First, we have to remember that we can change the world.  I was surprised to learn that many Whitman students don't believe this.  In a senior seminar we were studying the rise of socialists in France in the 1890s.  Let me introduce you to one of them – Jean Jaurès – as jaunty and good-humored a revolutionary as ever you could hope to meet.  Nearly everyone, even his opponents, loved him.  Jaurès insisted that in the French ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, lay the seeds of a new, truly democratic society, one that would recognize the contributions of all, including the working class, to the greatness of France.  As we discussed Jaurès and the movement that followed him, one student said with a mixture of amazement and clear disbelief “They act like they think they can change things!”  I in my turn was surprised and disbelieving: Of course they thought they could change things – they did change things!  As most of you know, it was pressure from the working classes, expressed through socialist parties, that brought a host of changes to Western societies that we take for granted today ... retirement pensions, the eight-hour day, that little gem known as the weekend.  What’s the point?  Not to promote socialist parties but to remind us all that concentrated effort by groups of individuals can not only change society, but improve it for the benefit of all. 

As a historian of modern Europe, I teach the slow development of contemporary society, the rise of industry and democracy, equality, science.  I also teach disasters and revolutions – those are the two hottest topics.  Recently, disaster has been the more popular.  Current trends in history tend to focus on the tragic – death, destruction, victimization.  In European history, the Holocaust is the best example.  We turn again and again with morbid fascination to the destruction of millions via a machine of hate.  This is not necessarily wrong.  We need to ask how horrors happen and, implicitly, how we might recognize and prevent them.  Although Hitler and the Nazi elite may have initiated the Holocaust, historians have found that it was allowed to happen because thousands of people did not recognize their actions as having moral consequences and millions more were afraid to act.  Instead they clung to what stability they could find in a rocking world.  People who protested and resisted acted alone or in very small numbers, without the support of the collective.  Although they saved some lives, they were ineffectual at creating systemic change.  

Disaster sells, but offers few answers: Disasters of the past can only indirectly show us how to make life better.  We need to look to history to ponder not only what leads individuals to react against injustice, but what moves whole groups to actively try to change the world.  As a French historian, my mind turns immediately to revolution.  Revolutions are not the only (and probably not the best) way to bring change, but they do present a distillation of the mechanism of change.  Looking at revolutions – by the French in 1789 and 1830; most of Europe in 1848; and the Russians in 1917 (twice!) – can show us a thing or two about how to effect change.

First and foremost, read the Idea People.  Artists and intellectuals articulate challenges to the status quo, give legitimacy to new ways of looking at the world, and point out problems with the current system.

Whether or not Rousseau was right that “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains,” his ideas so impressed French revolutionaries in 1789 that they incorporated them in the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen that proclaimed the new nation.  The intellectuals as a group will rarely lead the revolution, but they will help you to think about change.
Second, “it's the economy, stupid.”  The workers of the world may never have completely united, but when they did so in various countries, change happened.  Whether it was reformist socialist parties in France and Germany or the revolutionary socialists of October 1917 in Russia, dissatisfied workers meant change.  No system can remain stable if it leaves the majority of its people unprovided for.  If you want change, enlist those who are excluded from social goods and services, and help them learn to be an effective economic force.

Third, get the “peasantry” on your side.  It was the peasants in 1848 who supported the government crackdown against the radical working class.  It was the peasants in 1917 who ensured that the bourgeois provisional government from the February Revolution would not stand, because it ignored the wishes of the people in the countryside.  And it is often the rural people today who are left behind as change happens.  Getting the “peasantry” on your side is the key that so many in urban areas today ignore.  History doesn’t show any one sure way to do this, but the successful examples demonstrate that you have to recognize that your changes must include their voices and their needs.

Last, and perhaps most important.  Make sure working for change doesn't get you shot.  To win a war of change, it’s okay to have martyrs, but you cannot have massacres.  If you cannot escape the means of repression, either by getting the soldiers on your side or fighting legally within the system, you can only succeed in the long run, by slow and quiet persuasion.  That may be underground in repressive societies, or above ground in places like Europe, which still allow freedom of speech and organization.

In other words, you cannot change the world without reaching all parts of a society.  Change, revolutionary or otherwise, happens by creating a collective will behind the ideas of motivated individuals.  Some will lead, some will follow, but to be successful, many must act.  To effect change, you must speak as an individual, but reach the group and consider the good of all.  The balance between these, and the way to find the ability to speak – this is the task I leave to you – as individuals, in concert with others.  I have great confidence that you can do this.