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Book cover: Political Power and Social Theory

Political Power and Social Theory

ISSN: 0198-8719
Series editor(s): Professor Julian Go

Subject Area: Sociology and Public Policy

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Free Riding on Revolution: Conservatism and Social Change

Document Information:
Title:Free Riding on Revolution: Conservatism and Social Change
Author(s):Robin Archer
Volume:23 Editor(s): Julian Go ISBN: 978-1-78052-866-3 eISBN: 978-1-78052-867-0
Citation:Robin Archer (2012), Free Riding on Revolution: Conservatism and Social Change, in Julian Go (ed.) Political Power and Social Theory (Political Power and Social Theory, Volume 23), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.3-26
DOI:10.1108/S0198-8719(2012)0000023006 (Permanent URL)
Publisher:Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article type:Chapter Item

There are a number of reasons for thinking that the pursuit of change through revolution is fundamentally flawed. Indeed, after over two centuries of debate, Burkean conservatives seem to have won the argument. They have made a strong case against revolutionary change by demonstrating how it has regularly produced some of the worst atrocities we have known. They point out that despite the fact that revolutionary movements have often been the repositories of some of our highest aspirations, their unintended consequences have produced enormous human suffering. And they show how the pursuit of gradual change in some countries brought about the very same goals to which revolutionaries aspired in others, but with far less bloodshed and suffering.

But are the conservatives right? In this article, I consider various problems with their argument. One of the biggest is that the gradual changes they admire were closely entwined with the revolutions they deplore. Not only did revolutions provide incrementalists with a kind of compass that set the direction of change, but they also induced fear in powerful elites: fear that gave these elites an incentive to accept incremental changes they would otherwise have resisted. Indeed, because of these kinds of effects, countries that are usually seen as paradigm examples of the virtues of conservative change may have ultimately been among the major beneficiaries of revolution. In short, there is a good case for arguing that modern conservatism has been free riding on revolution.

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