A century ago, if someone was referred to as a revolutionary, there was nothing obscure about the character of the person being talked about. Sure, the cause for which he or she was dedicated to may vary anywhere from the far left to the far right of the political spectrum, but there was no doubt that the individual revolutionary was a person who had drastically altered public consciousness (for better or worse). Moreover, a revolutionary was an individual that had usurped (or at least had attempted to usurp) an existing political order, in favor of a fresh one; in short, a revolutionary was one who actually took part in revolutions.
Nowadays, the original implications of the term have completely been lost on us. Revolutionary has become a filler word, utilized for both derision and adulation. A clear example being the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Right-wing pundits made headlines comparing it to some sort of Bolshevik takeover (when, in reality, if there was a Bolshevik regime in charge you would already be either silenced or dead), while left-wingers hailed it as the dawning of a revitalized new era in American history (when, in reality, the political system was entirely unchanged, occupied by the same individuals, the same groups, with the same interests as always). The problem is that we use the word revolutionary, when we actually mean transitional. A transition is simply a modified carry-on from what preceded, while a revolution is a wholehearted discarding of the previous order.
The confusion is made worse by the large number of individuals who see fit to assign the revolutionary label to satisfy whatever narrative they wish to present. A year ago, I read a horribly self-aggrandizing book called The Broken Compass: How British Politics Lost its Way (a work I cannot in good conscience recommend even as a tool of torture against my worst enemy), within the book the author refers to himself as having once been a revolutionary in his youths. But this is clearly nonsensical by any conceivable measure. What actual revolution had he personally taken part in? None. What revolution had he influenced? None. So, how does he fancy himself a revolutionary? Apparently, because in his youth he identified as a Marxist, and yearned for some fanciful social uprising that he couldn’t be bothered to actually lift a finger to bring about. In America, we have a word for such a person, poser (though, failure would also be quite appropriate). It is possible to be a failed revolutionary (such as Guy Fawkes, whose idiotic plot literally blow up on him before it went anywhere), but many of those in history who have been pinned with the revolutionary label are not failures in this sense, but complete nonstarters. Take for instance Emma Goldman, held in high regard as a revolutionary figure by the extreme left. Goldman spent all of her active years living in America, contributing written works promoting anarchism (among other social causes). Last I checked, the government functioned through her life unharmed by her “revolutionary” prose, so in what way is she really a revolutionary? None that I can see.
The last point I want to make will be the most controversial one; namely, that to be a revolutionary one must by definition be unreasonably dogmatic. No, revolutionaries are not critical thinkers, or clear thinking in any imaginable way. They are uncompromising, and unwilling to reevaluate the positions and values they hold, blindly proclaiming their doctrine of ideology as infallible in the great scheme of history. That makes them the intellectual enemies of all sensible persons. I don’t care what ideology it comes from, a lack of self-scrutiny is an admission of idiocy. And revolutionaries never self-scrutinize, which is why I’m glad that the word has lost all meaning in Western thought. I welcome the mild, watered-down facade that has been erected in its place. We’re better off for it.