The Arab Spring and the Soviet parallel


Writing last week on openDemocracy, John Keane suggested we need new words to describe the Arab Spring. Stephen Wheatcroft came across similar calls twenty years ago when analysing the fall of the Soviet regime. Then and now, there was a simple description for the events: democratic revolutions in the age of monitory democracy. With adequate monitoring, perhaps the latest ones may even stay democratic.

Stephen Wheatcroft
2 May 2011

I am a great admirer of John Keane. His writings on Democracy have helped shaped all our understandings of the History of Democracy, but I think that he is wrong in several important aspects of his historical characterization of the latest stages of the Democratic Revolution in the Middle East.

As an old hand in Soviet and East European studies I have come across the idea of refolution before. It was one of the mixes of words that we were struggling with over two decades ago as the Soviet Union disgauged itself of its European satellites and struggled to find a peaceful way into modernity. I think that current developments are related to those times, and that we do not need to have new words to describe them. The old words Democracy and Revolution are still quite functional, especially if we use one as a noun and the other as an adjective. There are two possible combinations: Democratic Revolutions and Revolutionary Democracy, and we need to be aware of the differences.

Democratic Revolutions. This is a term that has been much used by historians and political scientists. My university has taught a famous course on ‘The Age of Revolutions’ for the last 30 years. This is a course that refers to the Democratic Revolutions of the late 18th Century in America and France. But this was an Age of Revolution in those countries for only part of the population: mainly for the free and property owning groups. The Age of Revolutions for much of Europe was delayed to the long 19th Century and although linked to Democracy it ended up in places in unstable forms as Dictatorships and Totalitarianism, and in others in more durable forms as ‘managed’ democracies. A wave of Democratic Revolutions swept the world in the late 20th Century as former colonial states achieved independence. But despite the great emphasis placed on Democracy in the origins of these new states (and often in their names), the nature of these democracies soon deteriorated to the managed democratic shells that predominate today. Nowadays almost every regime calls itself a democracy, but these democracies are managed by all sorts of privileged groups and individuals using electoral fraud and repression. What they need is not another Democratic Revolution (a revolution to set up a state that describes itself as democratic), but a revolutionary change in the nature of that democracy.

Revolutionary Democracy meanwhile is a possible outcome of a Democratic Revolution, but so far it has been a rather elusive and fleeting outcome. We saw some elements of it in Russia between February and October 1917 and in the early stages of most Democratic Revolutions. But generally the Democratic Revolution fails to transform itself into an operating Revolutionary Democracy. The Revolutionaries who took power generally transform themselves into oligarchic elites or ruling parties that become divorced from democracy. They quickly become skilled in handling and managing democracy, either by crude demagogy or by even cruder electoral fraud and restrictions on criticism of the regime.

The Russian revolution of February 1917:  deeply democratic but with shortlived consequences. The vast majority of Democratic Revolutions fail to transform themselves into operating Revolutionary Democracies

The Russian Revolution of February 1917 had been deeply democratic-with almost everyone opposing the Tsar, but there were intense differences about how the new Revolutuionary state should be run. The Bolsheviks had the overwhelming majority of support amongst the workers and soldiers in the main Russian cities in October 1917, but the peasants who made up 80% of the population tended to support the Socialist Revolutionaries-SRs. In fact the SRs received 60% of the votes in the elections to the Constituent Assembly. This actually indicates that the Bolsheviks probably polled quite well in the countryside, but not well enough to claim a democratic victory. When the  Bolsheviks forcibly dissolved the constituent assembly and remained in power they could not claim to be running a democracy, and they didn’t. They changed the franchise of the peasants, who were unequally represented by deputies in the new Soviets and they described this accurately as the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

It was Stalin in the 1936 constitution that gave peasants equal representation with workers in the Soviet and introduced what he described as ‘the most democratic constitution in the world’. By this time the party had developed other ways of managing Soviet democracy, that replaced the need for competition and meaningful elections. This was formally a transfer of governmental system from a formal dictatorship to a system that now claimed to be democratic and so it could be called a Democratic Revolution, but the managed Democracy that resulted from this change was very undemocratic. Stalin and his successors never took democracy seriously, and only pretended to be democratic. They had elections, but with only one candidate, and the electoral commissions knew full well that their jobs, and possibly their lives depended on their putting on a good show of democracy and claiming overwhelming support for the regime.

With time the regime became  excessively confident in their ability to tame the idea of democracy.  Brezhnev signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975, confident that he could manage the problem of isolated dissidents who protested against the abuse of Human Rights and Democracy that the Soviet Union had now so openly claimed to support, but which it was so blatantly ignoring.

And for a while the Soviet managers could handle the problem. Samizdat, the Helsinki Monitoring Group and Western supported Radio stations like Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe appeared to be having only limited success, but these appearances were deceptive. Future generations of Russian, Soviets and East Europeans were beginning to think differently, and were not being as easily intimidated as the managers had presumed. And then in the late 1980s the leading Soviet political managers Gorbachev, Yakovlev, Shevanardze and others, eventually came around to placing ‘democratization’ onto their agenda.

I remember well how the Soviet Union was transfixed by the peaceful democratic revolution that Gorbachev and his colleagues carried out with the ‘unleashing of glasnost’ (Openness)’ and the revolutionary force of democratization once it had been released from managerial control in the USSR. It wasn’t the unleashing of Democracy that brought down the USSR, but the upsurge of personal and Nationalist interests that were mobilised against the revolutionary force of democratization. For a while the new Nationalism that came to the fore in post-Soviet states,  in alliance with the vested interests of the old security system, military and managerial elites, were themselves successful in  their attempts to tame and de-revolutionise democracy. But they like the USSR before them were trapped by their pretences at being democratic. The Orange Revolution of 2006 was a clear indication that the spirit of the old dissidents and early Gorbachev period were alive;  the population could no longer be fooled by signs of democratic fraud and they went onto the streets to protest the fraud. 

What is new about the process is the expansion of the public monitoring possibilities through new technology. It is this which is making the old hypocrisies and frauds more apparent

It is the recurrent demonstration of refusals to accept electoral fraud, and the false promises of democracy that link the USSR and East European Revolutions of  1987-90, to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in  2006, the Belarusian demonstrations against electoral fraud in 2009-11 and the Middle East demonstrations and Democratic Revolutions of today. 
Professor Keane is mistaken when he tries to emphasise the separation between these events. With respect I do not think that he is fair on Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel when he calls them ‘self-selected saviours of the nation’, and I don’t think that he is right in saying that such figures as Walesa and Havel are absent in the Middle Eastern Revolutions. It is clear that the Revolutions are not being led by professional revolutionaries like Lenin or Trotsky, but Lenin and Trotsky did not lead the Russian Democratic Revolutions of 1905 or February 1917.  Solidarnosc was led by a minor trade union activist who was an electrician, it was the revolution that turned him into a revolutionary leader. And Havel was a philosopher/playwrite and not a professional revolutionary before he was declared a dissident by the authorities. Gorbachev may be different as he was a political leader who was trying desperately to resolve an intractable political (and economic) problem before he, rather unwillingly stumbled into democratic revolution. (In those days we debated as to whether Gorbachev was an in-system reformer, or whether his priorities would lead him to go further and change the system if required. At one point he appeared to reach a point when he felt that there was no turning.) I wouldn’t call this process ‘self-selection’, the process was more dialectical and complex than that. 

There are undoubtedly electricians and philosophers in the Arab democratic revolution, and some of them and other members of non-political professions are likely to be pressed into political leadership, and may well be transformed by that process. Some politicians who had earlier served the regime loyally may also be persuaded that Democracy is the way to go.

What is new about the process is the expansion of the public monitoring possibilities through new technology. It is this which is making the old hypocrisies and frauds more apparent. The role of election monitors is becoming more important. Earlier elections could be easily managed by the government. It was the government who appointed a compliant electoral commission, and these electoral commissions had a tendency to do what their governments wanted them to do.

In order to pretend to be a real democracy, it was necessary to allow some observers, and even international electoral monitors. The international observers would not interfere in the elections and would only write up accounts of what they had observed. These accounts would typically only be published a long time after the election and these monitors have been criticised for allowing corrupt regimes to appear more legitimate than they were.  

But such criticism is being shown to be wrong. The radical nature and extent of recent complaints about electoral fraud have been greatly strengthened by the knowledge of what these monitors and observers have been saying. Their reports do embolden the disadvantaged candidates, and generally they do make it more difficult for electoral commissions to be so blatant in allowing fraud to happen. In the regions of the former USSR there are CIS electoral observers who seem to find nothing strange with a 90% turnout at voluntary elections in Chechnya with a record level of support registered for a regime that the locals appear to detest. But even Russian deputies are beginning to challenge some of these bizarre results. (see the mass walkout of Deputies in 2009).  The compliant CIS monitors were set up precisely to counter the revolutionary force that other less compliant monitors were having, and as we saw in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, in recent elections in Belarus and in Russia this did not succeed. Elsewhere, and particularly in the Middle East these observers and monitors have been particularly significant.

The exciting thing about recent developments is the explosion of revolutionary democracy in states that have claimed to be democratic and in which their democracies have been subject to the revolutionising impact of massive democratic monitoring.   

We don’t need new words to describe this, John Keane himself gave us the words to describe it. These are democratic revolutions in the age of monitory democracy and they are causing a democratic revolutions to be built. Through active monitory procedures they may even stay democratic.  

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