January 5, 2014


Inglorious Revolutions (David A. Bell, January 2, 2014, National Interest)

WHY DO most observers today seem so oblivious to the historical record of revolutions? What are the consequences of this obliviousness? And what might it actually take, in the way of concerted international action, to help revolutions like the one in Egypt take place in a way that accords better with observers' ideal script?

In addressing the first of these questions, one place to start is with a rather odd development: current expectations about revolutions in fact represent something of a return to a very old understanding of such events. Up until the mid-eighteenth century, the word "revolution" meant little more than "political upheaval." Revolutions were held to be sudden, unpredictable and largely uncontrollable. History books told the story of countries' violent changes of dynasty almost as if they were a series of earthquakes. Revolutions were things that happened to people, not things that people themselves were seen as capable of consciously directing. A typical usage can be seen in the title of a pamphlet by the seventeenth-century English radical Anthony Ascham: A Discourse: Wherein is Examined, what is Particularly Lawful During the Confusions and Revolutions of Government. Samuel Johnson's dictionary gave "revolution" as a synonym for "vicissitude." Tellingly, at the beginning of what we now call "the American Revolution," very few people actually described what was taking place as a "revolution." The word does not appear in the Declaration of Independence, or in Thomas Paine's great 1776 pamphlet Common Sense (except in reference to 1688 in Britain). In 1777, John Adams could write to his son John Quincy about "the late Revolution in our Government," implying that the event was already finished and in the past.

These ideas began to change in the late eighteenth century, with significant consequences for the events that would continue to convulse the Atlantic world for half a century. In America, by 1779 it was becoming clear that the political and social transformations set in motion by the War of Independence had yet to run their course. In that year, Richard Henry Lee wrote to Thomas Jefferson about "the progress of our glorious revolution," and Jefferson himself finally began to use the word in reference to American events. By 1780, John Adams was writing to his wife Abigail about "the whole course of this mighty revolution," treating it as something still taking place. Yet even then, he did not present it as a process he himself had a hand in directing, but as a great natural upheaval sweeping him along.

It was in France where the most decisive conceptual transformation took place. As the country's "old regime" began to crumble in 1789, observers immediately started to refer to what was going on as a "revolution" in the traditional fashion. Then, within a matter of months, they began speaking of it less as a sudden and cataclysmic event than as an ongoing process. Soon they went even further, presenting the revolution as something that could be controlled and directed. Stanford's Keith Baker, who has written luminously on this shift, characterizes it as one from revolution as "fact" to revolution as "act." Before this moment, the word "revolutionary" did not exist, and would have made little sense to people, referring as it does to people or actions that actively drive revolutions forward. But in September 1790, the radical deputy Bertrand Barère referred to the demolition of the Bastille as "a truly revolutionary act," and soon his colleague Georges Danton was describing himself as "a steadfast revolutionary." In 1792, Maximilien Robespierre renamed the executive committee of Paris's municipal government the "General Revolutionary Council," making it the first political institution in history to bear such a title.

Baker's colleague Dan Edelstein has added a further fascinating wrinkle to the story, noting that by 1792-1793, "the revolution" seemed to be taking on a life of its own, becoming, in the eyes of its advocates, a quasi-mythic force and a source of political legitimacy. After armed crowds stormed the royal palace in 1792 and overthrew Louis XVI, there were calls to put the king on trial. The radical Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, however, insisted that the people had already delivered a verdict through their revolutionary action. Any procedure that might exonerate the king therefore amounted to "putting the Revolution itself on trial," in the words of his patron, Robespierre. A year later, with France at war with much of Europe, Saint-Just made a remarkable speech demanding that the ruling National Convention formally suspend the new constitution it had just approved, and declare the government "revolutionary" until the end of hostilities. He insisted on a full overhaul of the government's personnel and procedures, arguing that "the laws are revolutionary; those who execute them are not." And he added the following, remarkable sentence: "Those who make revolutions, those who wish to do good, must sleep only in the tomb."

This new understanding of revolutions partly reflected the simple fact that the French Revolution was indeed a very different sort of event from its predecessors. Instead of its principal political changes coming to an end quickly, culminating in a document such as a declaration of independence, a process of explosive radicalism continued to build, leading to the deadly Reign of Terror of 1793-1794. But the new ways of thinking themselves provided a spur to radicalization, by giving the political actors of the day a way to see "revolutions" as exceptional historical moments in which ordinary practices and principles could be suspended. The leading figure of the Terror, Robespierre, developed an entire political theory on this basis. In a legislative report he wrote in the winter of 1793-1794, he distinguished between ordinary "constitutional" government, whose role was to govern a republic, and "revolutionary" government, whose role was to found the republic. In the latter, he argued, the state needed far greater leeway, both to protect its citizens and to ensure that institutions would be given a durable form. "The Revolution," he thundered, "is the war of liberty against its enemies." Several of Robespierre's allies openly urged him to become a "dictator," a title still then associated with the ancient Roman military office of the name, and which they viewed favorably. In theory, the dictatorship would end once the republic had been durably founded, and the revolution completed, but given the vastness of the radicals' ambitions, it was not clear when this goal would be reached. "Revolution" was becoming not just a process, but also a utopian one that might extend into the future, indefinitely.

This new concept of revolution as what G. W. F. Hegel would call a "world-historical" event helped to justify the French revolutionaries' most outlandish projects. These included a new calendar, which started with the birth of the French Republic; the attempt to replace Christianity either with state-sponsored atheism or Robespierre's deistic "Cult of the Supreme Being"; plans for universal education and charity; and, dangerously, the transformation of a war against other European powers into a crusade for universal human liberation. Robespierre and his allies went so far as to characterize "revolutions" as millennial projects that could literally change human nature. "The French people seem to be about two thousand years ahead of the rest of the human race," he mused in the spring of 1794. "One is tempted to regard them as a separate species."

IT IS HARD to exaggerate the hold that this French model of revolution exerted over imaginations throughout the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In country after country, generations of would-be revolutionaries plotted to take power and instigate upheavals of similar or even greater ambition. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the model was potently combined with socialist visions of history as a story of class struggle, but the idea of revolution itself as an ongoing, consciously directed process remained much the same. In Russia, China, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, self-proclaimed "revolutionary" regimes took power with goals of nothing less than transforming human beings into something new and better. In Terrorism and Communism, written at the height of the Russian Civil War, Leon Trotsky (a great admirer of the French Revolutionary Terror) expressed sentiments very close to those of Saint-Just and Robespierre:

We were never concerned with . . . prattle about the "sacredness of human life." We were revolutionaries in opposition, and have remained revolutionaries in power. To make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him. And this problem can only be solved by blood and iron.

Mao Zedong, who repeatedly spoke of revolution as a long and arduous road, called its ultimate goal the changing of society and the establishment of a new sort of human freedom (he also famously remarked that "a revolution is not a dinner party").

Of course, in country after country these later revolutions produced even greater chaos and bloodshed than in France. In Russia and China and Southeast Asia, the number of victims stretched into the millions. And finally, after the Russian Civil War, Stalin's terror, the Gulag, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Cambodian holocaust, the myth of a redemptive, world-transforming revolution lost its allure, as one moment of dreadful disillusionment followed another. By the late twentieth century, when the self-proclaimed revolutionary regimes of the Soviet bloc began to crumble, the dissidents who stepped into the breach generally refused the label of "revolution" altogether. As the Polish Solidarity leader Jacek Kuron informed French readers in a remarkable newspaper column in the summer of 1989--as the Poles were ousting the Communists and the French were marking the bicentennial of 1789--the age of revolution was over, and a good thing too. Germans self-consciously refer to the events of 1989-1990 not as a "revolution," but as die Wende--"the change."

In some cases, the exhaustion that has followed upon bloody utopian experiments has itself created the conditions under which moderate democratic regimes could eventually take root. In France, for instance, the events of 1789 marked the start of nearly nine decades of astonishing political turmoil. Monarchies, republics and empires succeeded each other so rapidly that, according to one popular joke, libraries began storing copies of the constitution in the "periodicals" section. But finally, after the fall of Napoleon III during the Franco-Prussian War, and one final outburst of radical utopianism in the doomed Paris Commune of 1871, a relatively stable, moderate republic was established, and it lasted until the Nazi occupation of 1940. François Furet, one of twentieth-century France's great historians, labeled the entire long period from the late eighteenth century to the late nineteenth as "the French Revolution." In his view, it only came safely "into port" with the Third Republic in the 1870s. But it is hard to argue that the turmoil and bloodshed was necessary to achieve this relatively limited goal. And, of course, in many other countries--Russia and China, most obviously--similarly long periods of revolutionary disruption have so far failed to produce similarly benign outcomes.

THIS LONG PROCESS of disillusionment helps explain why, today, revolutions are expected to be so quick and neat. If revolutionary movements no longer come bearing utopian hopes of redemption, then there is less need for them to extend indefinitely into the future. And indeed, most of the revolutions that have taken place since 1990, such as the "color revolutions" in the Soviet bloc and the revolutions of the Arab Spring, have aimed at relatively modest goals, in comparison with their French or Russian or Chinese predecessors: representative democracy, stability, the rule of law, human rights. The great exceptions to this rule, of course, are the Islamists, who hope to impose their vision of godly order on human societies. The Iranian Revolution was in this sense the last of the great line of utopian revolutions that began in the eighteenth century. Francis Fukuyama has been widely mocked for his 1989 National Interest article "The End of History?" and his prediction that free-market democracy would become universal throughout the world. But with the exception of the Islamic world, free-market democracy has indeed overwhelmingly become the preferred political model in most countries. As Fukuyama himself put it: "At the end of history it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society." At the heart of these earlier ideological pretensions was the idea that the means to these "higher forms" was a French-style revolution.

The golden opportunity for the Third World came at the end of WWI, when Wilson could have rammed decolonization down the allies throats, but instead grasped for the utopian League. The result was hypocrisy on such a scale that indigenous independence movements became reactions to our system rather than demands to benefit from the same system.  We're still paying the price of this stupidity, but, more importantly, these peoples are stuck tracing a needlessly bloody path to the End of History.

Posted by at January 5, 2014 8:32 AM

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