Do revolutions wipe out the past?

The full title of the question that was posed to the candidates in the 2021 common competition to integrate the regional Institutes of Political Studies was:

“In light of your historical, cultural or artistic references, do you think that revolutions wipe the slate clean?”

Since the theme of Revolutions should be renewed for next year, we wanted to provide a more complete correction than the one for the question that focused on secrecy: Corrections: is it still possible to preserve secrecy today?

This time, the mock exam question that was closest was undoubtedly: “Are revolutions the condition of progress?” notably because it confronted revolutions with time and history. Many of you had proposed your ideas for this training subject, which was also the one we had chosen for our Method in Contemporary Questions. It was therefore quite timely, and we hope that it was useful to you!

The correction: Do revolutions wipe out the past?

As with any subject, there is not just one possible solution. So we suggest one way of dealing with the question that would have worked, but if you did it differently, it might be just as good or better!

Answer Key for the Introduction

Accroche : In the 17th century, the Ancients, including La Bruyère, Boileau, and La Fontaine, defended the idea that it is the past that gives works their prestige. A contemporary work can also be full of qualities, but it is only in connection with the past that it becomes illustrious.

Counter-hook: On the contrary, the moderns like Perrault and Fontenelle claim a break with the past. It is indeed through totally new works, which surpass the past, that creations can acquire their prestige and excellence.

Bringing out the paradox: In this quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns, it is finally a question of the interest of making a break, of the opportunity that exists to make use of a certain heritage, or rather to aim at an entirely modern creation, without being chained to this past. But more than that, whether it is desirable or not, is it nevertheless possible? Is it not in the nature of revolutions that they are literary, cultural, historical, political, symbolic, scientific, to destroy the past to create the present and its future?

Definitions: This reflection joins the ambiguities resulting from the multiplicity of definitions around the world revolution: Definitions of Revolutions [develop here all the definitions, in particular in the astronomical domain, to show clearly that the paradox of the question is already in the word itself]. To make a clean slate is to start again from scratch, and to have nothing to do with what existed until now, to rebuild everything from scratch. The notion of tabula rasa, even if it is different from the expression to make a clean slate, keeps a philosophical connotation, this blank paper being the symbol of various philosophical doctrines from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant.

Problematic: If revolutions constitute by definition a renewal of the existing system, do they escape perfectly from this past from which they want to break? How can revolutions tear themselves away from the past in order to be no longer reaction, but authentic novelty? To what extent can revolutions emancipate themselves from what produces them?

The announcement of the plan: [see below]

Answer key to the development

I. The aspiration to wipe the slate clean by means of a revolution…

A. The desire to break with the past

“The French Revolution, by wiping the slate clean of the institutions of the past, by leaving only the individual and the State to exist opposite each other, gave itself the difficult task of creating everything anew on the model of pure logic Ernest Renan, Contemporary Issues, 1868

B. The imperative to make a clean slate

“It is necessary to be absolutely modern” Rimbaud, April-August 1873.

History of the revolutions.

II. … can never perfectly get rid of the past

A. Against an idealist naivety, the materialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

“Each generation therefore continues, on the one hand, the mode of activity transmitted to it, but in radically transformed circumstances, and on the other hand, it modifies the old circumstances by engaging in a radically different activity; these facts can be distorted by speculation by making recent history the goal of previous history: this is how, for example, the discovery of America is given this end: to help the French Revolution to break out.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, 1846

B. Man cannot totally reinvent himself

“God has marked the minds of men with certain characters, which, like the defects of their bodies, maybe slightly amended, but which cannot be entirely reformed and changed into quite contrary characters.” Locke

III. … but can be used to create something new

A. It is by relying on the past that revolutions allow for progress

“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. If we see more and farther than they do, it is not because of the perspicacity of our sight, nor because of our greatness, it is because we are raised by them.” Bernard of Chartres

Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962.

B. Revolutions alone do not determine the future

“One of the great vices of history is that it paints men much more by their bad sides than by their good ones; as it is only interested in revolutions, catastrophes, as long as a people grows and prospers in the calm of a peaceful government, it says nothing about them”, writes Jean-Jacques Rousseau in book IV of his work Emile, or On Education.

12 thoughts on “Do revolutions wipe out the past?

  1. Hello, Can you tell me if I understood correctly: The history test was canceled in 2021 for the common competition and not the contemporary questions? For what ? In advance, thank you for your answer.

    1. Hello, You understood correctly, the history test was canceled last year, while the contemporary questions test was maintained. This was due to logistical reasons. The tests were organized online in consideration of the health context. The direction of the competition common to the Sciences Po of region preferred to retain only the only test of contemporary questions, which is entirely specific to the Sciences Po and were the object of a preparation of the candidates Only for the Sciences Po competition. Sincerely, The Academics in Politics team

  2. Hello, the integrating science po team I know that what I am going to ask you is nothing to see but here you are so far you have always given me good advice, so here is my situation I am in terminal in history specialty and the May 5 I have a dissertation on heritage, so here are my chapters: chapter 1 “the social and political uses of heritage”, chapter 2 “the preservation of heritage between tensions and competition” and finally chapter 3 it is a conclusive work on French heritage “France and its heritage, major actions of enhancement and protection” So I want to train on many exam questions as for the competition so I would like to know if you or someone else in the same specialty as me had a few exam questions to offer me. THANKS

  3. Hello, excuse me for disturbing you but I took this subject in the contest and I wanted to know if you could tell me if my outline is good or if on the contrary I really missed my essay. For the problem I put: “In what way are revolutions a means of building a suitable future even though they draw their resources from a painful past? “ For the plan: I) The past is often a source of conflict, which favors the birth of revolutions and pushes to reform society A) the frustration of the past accumulates on the long-term and leads to the beginning of a revolution (which succeeds or not); therefore revolutions must make a clean sweep of the past. Ex: The Tunisian revolution. B) But for the revolution to really make a clean sweep of the past, it must already have ideas/reforms to bring in order to change the country. Ex: Utopia by Thomas More since ideas are thought out in order to create a ‘perfect’ society, which in a way constitutes a break with the past). II) a lot of revolutions result in radical change that differs from the past which begins with political upheaval A) Radical change, which differs from the past often begins with a political change that makes it possible to think of a new society. (Ex: French Revolution.) B) Technological and digital revolutions also result in political change that can change the whole of society. (Ex: choppers, the Anonymous) III) it is not the objective of all revolutions to make a clean sweep of the past, and this reconciliation with the past is never acquired. A) Some revolutions aim to return to an old order (ex: the Nazis) B) The radical changes acquired thanks to the revolutions are never acquired forever (ex: regime of Vichy which after the French Revolution installs a kind of dictatorship in France) Thank you in advance, have a nice day

  4. Hello, I was wondering if it was possible to say in the introduction that we were going to exclude all Of Revolutions to keep only the political revolution? (While explaining that according to Jacques Ellul or Ludivine Bantigny using the term Revolution to qualify nonpolitical events contributes to the trivialization of the Revolution and therefore to its death.) It is not likely to be pretentious or cost me points in terms analysis of subject terms? Have a good day

    1. Hello Loui, Your question and the case you raise are very interesting. There are several reasons why this should not be penalized: after all, you are applying for a school of political science; it is legitimate and possible to devote oneself to a single interpretation, on the condition of explaining it, which you seem to have done; it shows confidence and that you are lucid and conscious about your choices, in short the commitment can be valued. There are nevertheless several reasons why this could be penalized: it is rare for regional Sciences Po to choose a theme in the plural, this is how very often we speak of “science”, “justice”, “religion”, “the secret”, and therefore when a theme is announced in the plural rather than the singular, it is often voluntary (the theme was indeed the Revolutions rather than the Revolution); the question proposed to be based on various “historical, cultural or artistic” references, and therefore to take only one aspect, in this case the political aspect, could seem arbitrary. So we think it will depend first on your justification in the introduction, then quite simply on your development, especially if with the political aspect you have already had so much to say that indeed it was not worth it or in any case not materially possible to explore everything. It is therefore a very interesting bet that you have made, and we hope that it will be successful! Good day, The Academics in Politics team

      1. Hello, Thank you very much for the answer, in reality to be precise I did not pass the First year exam contest, I registered for the Second year exam contest (June 5th) but I try to imagine typical outlines as training 🙂 and let’s say that on this subject in particular I think I would have done it like that Indeed seen like that it seems to be a rather risky bet, but I note that I really have to apply myself in the introduction and avoid any superficiality. Good day !

  5. Okay thank you I have one last question when will we know if we took or not to integrate an IEP?

  6. Excuse me for disturbing you, but from what general average, can we consider that our school record is “good”, “very good”, excellent? I also ask the same question with the averages of our specialties and the baccalaureate. French Thank you in advance

    1. Hello, Since this is a competition, it cannot really be given precise criteria. An academic record will be judged as very good or even excellent, based on the 13369 other applicants who are vying for admission like you. Due to the exceptional terms of the competition this year, it would be impossible to give a strict enough range for this to be useful since there is no history. You will really have to wait. Good day,

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