Give revolution a chance

With a prestigious Princeton University fellowship, History of Consciousness Professor Massimiliano Tomba, will spend the next year advancing his reinterpretation of the concept of revolution

Professor Massimiliano Tomba
History of Consciousness Professor Massimiliano Tomba
Revolution is exhausted, says Massimiliano Tomba, professor of history of consciousness.

The word “revolution” has been employed since the 18th century to imply political and social change toward an improved future. Tomba’s in-depth examination of the actions and writings of revolutionaries has revealed different and more complex meanings.

“I want to give revolution another chance,” he says.

A prestigious fellowship to Princeton University’s Shelby Cullom Davis Center will enable Tomba to refine and expand his work on the topic over the next academic year. The annual fellowship brings together accomplished researchers doing parallel scholarship on a theme. The 2020–2021 theme is “Revolutionary Change.”

Tomba’s work has involved developing new theories through close examination of historical evidence from social movements in Latin America in the 20th century as well as the French Revolution and other European uprisings. He’s found a sense of the idea that is as much about bringing back what has been taken away as it is about pushing toward an envisioned future.

“What emerges is a layered concept of revolution in which the ancient notions of revolution, restoration, and restitution are not erased but coexist as temporal stratifications that can be and have been reactivated in specific historical events,” Tomba says.

Tomba’s analysis grew out of his preparation for courses he has been teaching, Freedom and Resistance, and What is Revolution.

Tomba’s approach to studying revolution draws on the evidence activists and insurgents have left, and not so much the writings of recognized movement leaders. In the case of the French Revolution, that means looking beyond the writings of Robespierre to the uprisings that preceded his rise.

“There was no such thing as a French Revolution, rather many revolutions,” Tomba says. “There were declarations of women, black slaves, the poor. Each tried to orient the revolution in a different way.”

He expects the opportunity to spend nine months in a different environment will enable him to complete the initial chapters of a book destined for print by a university press.

Joining Tomba for his sojourn in New Jersey will be his partner, Associate Professor Banu Bargu, who has been awarded fellowships for the same period by the Institute for Advanced Study and American Council of Learned Societies, along with their 1-year-old son.

When the family returns to UC Santa Cruz, Tomba is expected to chair the History of Consciousness Department.