Revolution in the revolution: a century of change

A continuing cycle of revolutions, albeit irregular and unpredictable, is a feature of the modern world. But comparing experiences across the decades reveals a transformation in the nature of revolution itself, says Hazem Saghieh.

Hazem Saghieh
14 November 2013

The 20th century witnessed many revolutions across the world, from Russia in 1917 to Iran in 1979. Across this six-decade span, numerous predictions made in the 19th century were to materialise. In parallel, many precursory "dry runs" (as they appeared in retrospect) also unfolded on a larger and much more comprehensive scale. The latter included the fascists' rise to power in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, albeit in the German case the seizure came via parliament, which was then eliminated.

The pattern of revolutionary upheaval outside Europe is reflected in the Chinese revolution of 1949, followed by Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution in the 1960s. Revolutionary waves in Asia transformed Vietnam, Cambodia, and North Korea; in Latin America, Cuba; in Africa, Angola and Mozambique; and in the Arab world, South Yemen (as it then was). This is but a partial list.

The ideological rationales as well as the geographical locations of many of these events differed greatly: some were dominated by nationalist themes, others by state capitalism (often called "socialism"). But there are common or overlapping traits, of which five help to define the specific character of revolution and how its meaning has changed. 

Five traits...

First, revolutionary action in all cases was linked to an ironclad organisation and/or a charismatic leader and a strong ideology; after the revolution's triumph, this ideology was defined as the official, exclusive truth, with all else proscribed.

Lenin’s two most prominent works, What Is To Be Done and The State and Revolution, were for many the "bibles" of subsequent revolutionary activities. To his ideas - of the centralised if internally democratic party, professional leadership, and the vanguard that has no room for economic and trade-union spontaneity - Mao added notions of guerrilla warfare and philosophical musings on “practice” and “contradiction”. For their part, Benito Mussolini developed theories on the state, and Adolf Hitler on race, as two absolute facts that could not be compromised.

Hitler did not accept a situation where the leading party is just one among others. Instead, he as Führer (leader) sought fully to transform all facets of public life in accordance with his Nazi party’s ideology, and insisted that there would be no coexistence with any other party or ideology. A decade earlier, the October revolution in Russia had been followed by the banning of liberal and centrist parties, then of others until only the Bolshevik party was left. The Bolsheviks went on to proscribe factions within the ruling party itself. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini added a twist by declaring all parties opposed to him - even those that had participated in the revolution - as “enemies of God” that should be uprooted.

The leaders of these revolutionary waves were all very charismatic figures - or at least, this is how they were portrayed, in order to project an image of infallibility. This trend, which reached a level of caricature with North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung and his descendants, is the product of systematic manufacture: a relentless "oration" that secures a direct link to the public via a form of almost hallucinatory sedation that comes close to a rendering of leadership as permanent theatrics.

The official biography of the leader usually recounts his suffering for the sake of the people and the cause, then his role in inspiring the nation to brilliant victory. Even in the case of the most secular or vehemently atheistic figures, this narrative of immortality has an unmistakably religious character.

Second, all revolutionary movements pursued change through violence. Sometimes, this meant even elevating violence to the level of a noble objective in and of itself (the works of Georges Sorel and Frantz Fanon display this theme). By contrast, these movements derided existing political and constitutional institutions, accusing them of treason or dishonour.

Violence was the “locomotive of history,” attached to revolution as a pupil is attached to an eye. Lenin thought not one problem of class struggle was ever resolved in history other than through violence; Hitler went further, and celebrated the regular and perpetual use of violence. Leninism and all its offshoots mocked “bourgeois democracy”, echoing Karl Marx's view of the Paris Commune in 1871, where he denigrated this democracy as offering the proletariat only the right to decide who among the bourgeoisie can “represent and oppress them.”

The German Fuhrer, six decades later, saw democracy as but a deceptive ploy propagated by Jews in order to reinforce myths about equality. Ayatollah Khomeini found an alternative to Leninism's “dictatorship of the proletariat” - and the supposedly western "will of the people" - in the concept of velayat-e faqih (rule by the guardian jurist). The incidence of violence in the Iranian revolution was far less than in many other revolutions, partly owing to the Shah’s decision (perhaps influenced by his assessment of the international balance of power) not to crackdown on it; though the revolution espoused violence readily, as is apparent in its ideology and the terrorist practices that accompanied its birth.

Third, all revolutions ended up expanding the state’s economic, political, and cultural role at the expense of individuals and groups, who were barred from free expression of their interests or ideas. This suppression was often justified by references to supposed links with colonial and imperialist agendas hostile to the people and the nation.

Marxism claimed that the state - as the "executive instrument of the bourgeoisie" - would “disappear” in the classless society. Joseph Stalin felt it was necessary to strengthen this same state over the long period before the realisation of that classless society. The bolstering of the state, a powerful secret police, the monopoly of the public sphere and cultural creativity, were all underpinned by an economy based on public ownership of the means of production, collective farms, and central planning.

The Nazi state, also a police state, had more improvised economic programmes than the Soviet Union. The Nazis subjected the economy to their militaristic needs, in which the mood and judgment of the leader played a crucial role. By subduing business and controlling labour, whose previous organisations were banned, free enterprise was subjected to an economic discipline that led only to enormous debts. By “cleansing” culture and getting rid of “decadent” art, in parallel with the exodus of intellectuals, book-burning, and the Arianisation of creativity, Nazi Germany became a desert of sorts, deprived of all kinds of independent movement and fluidity.

Iran did not reach the same extent of total control over society. Yet half of the economy belongs to the realm of central planning, while religious institutions closely linked to the regime (both in function and as grantors of legitimacy) have budgets that account for a third of central-government spending. Moreover, the Iranian “cultural revolution” between 1980 and 1987 cleansed academia of “western influences,” while the Iranian state tightened its tutelage over the main levers of research and creativity.

All these revolutionary regimes - Leninist, Maoist, fascist, or Khomeinist - treat dissent against the official ideology as tantamount to treason and conspiracy. The defenders of the revolution - by definition all-knowing in relation to the interests of the nation and the people - are right in treating dissent as heresy.

Fourth, since Stalin proposed the idea of “socialism in one country” in the mid-1920s, each country riven by revolutionary transformation becomes more sequestered and isolated from the outside world, in part or in full. At times this is justified by the need to extract the nation from the international market and its exploitation; at others, to rescue it from cultural invasion or racial contamination.

The campaign against “foreigners” - be they “cosmopolitan,” “Jewish,” or “American” -  became a solid component of the revolutionary regime, in parallel with delirious claims about a “conspiracy” those same foreigners were organising. Perhaps the greatest monument of this policy of self-isolation is the Berlin wall, built by the communist regime in East Germany in the early 1960s to “protect the socialist experience” from western capitalism.

In all cases, it was western democracies that were portrayed as the source of the danger or the contamination threatening the revolutionary nation and its revolution. Towards them, the revolutionary people had to remain ever vigilant and alert.

Fifth, the “enemy” against which this kind of revolutions is directed may on the surface be seen as tyranny, corruption, or the abuse of power, to be fought in the political arena - and only with violence as a late resort. But at a deeper level, this enemy is an essence and a core in relation to which there is no room for deviation, omission, chance, or error. This enemy, be it class, racial, or religious, is fundamentally mistaken and can categorically be nothing but mistaken - nay, sinful. Its stain demands more than mere removal from power; it must be liquidated physically, then completely purged from society.

This tendency to eradicate evil was at first focused on the old rulers, such as the Romanov family after the October revolution, who were subject to execution or exile. This targeting came to involve entire segments of people, such as the Russian kulak class, or entire peoples and ethnicities like the Jews and the Roma.

In this context, Soviet communism's eventual acceptance of a “parliamentary road” to socialism in the west was deemed heresy by many orthodox communists. Their view was confirmed by General Pinochet's coup in Chile in 1973, against a socialist experiment born of parliament.

...and five counter-trends

The fall of Nazism and fascism as a result of the second world war unleashed a wave of major revolutionary transformations that were very different from the aforementioned revolutions. A transition to democracy began in Germany, Italy, and Japan in the late 1940s; in the mid-1970s, a process of democratisation got underway in Greece (in 1974, with the fall of the military junta), Portugal (also in 1974, after Salazar’s dictatorship and the "carnation revolution" against Marcello Caetano), and Spain (in 1975, after Francisco Franco’s death and the erosion of military rule).

But it was the late 1980s and 1990s that saw the culmination of this astonishing and universal revolutionary transformation, embodied in the revolutions in Russia and the countries of eastern and central Europe against communist rule and Soviet hegemony. In parallel, similar upheavals took place in Latin America against military dictatorships, and in South Africa against the apartheid regime.

All these recent transformations also had five common traits, in this case the antithesis of those that bound the earlier revolutions.

First, the absence of a tight ideology and a concentrated vanguard organisation. In Portugal specifically, after a short-lived attempt to establish a leftist dictatorship to replace the rightwing one, parliamentary democracy took off as the desired and popular form of the country’s polity, which more or less was the outcome of the other experiences of the era.

These revolutions took place and triumphed without anyone remembering the names of their leaders, who soon joined the political game and deferred to it as the foremost referee. There were elements of charisma among a few of the faces of the democratic revolutionary wave, such as Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Vaclav Havel in the former Czechoslovakia; but this took on a completely different form than the erstwhile version seen in the cases of Lenin and Khomeini, and everyone else in between. Likewise, close-knit “organisational” plots to seize power, and inflammatory and hysterical rhetoric, were entirely absent, whereas the sense of moral responsibility of the new leader came to the fore.

If Joseph Stalin was the most prominent model of the leader emerging from those old revolutions, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel went on to voluntarily relinquish power. The first stepped down as president of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1997; two years later, when his presidential term expired, he did not nominate himself for another term. Meanwhile, after Havel's second term as president of the Czech Republic ended in 2003, he withdrew only to be succeeded by his political opponent Vaclav Klaus.

Second, non-violence and peaceful struggle was characteristic of these revolutions. There were exceptions, notably in Yugoslavia and former Soviet regions such as Nagorno-Karabakh, where communal splintering, though non-ideological by definition, overshadowed all else. However, these events did not go on to define the new revolutionary transformations or determine their direction; indeed, they ultimately remained closer to being an “eastern” pocket in a largely “western” process.

Vaclav Havel, for example, emphasised peaceful resistance in his struggle with the communist regime, though he was far from being a dreamy pacifist. He saw the cold war as a conflict between two powers which respectively stood for freedom and totalitarianism. As president of Czechoslovakia (then of the Czech Republic following the "velvet divorce" with Slovakia), enabling his country to accede to Nato was a primary concern.

Nelson Mandela, on the other hand, had a more complex biography. In his student years and later, he embraced the ideas of non-violence in the struggle against apartheid, until the the white supremacist National Party declared a state of emergency that restricted black involvement in politics and expression, as well as access to employment and freedom of movement. In this context, the young Mandela came to believe that violence alone could destroy the apartheid regime, and became involved directly in it. However, his long prison experience from 1962 pushed him gradually towards an affinity with the approach of Mahatma Gandhi and his non-violent campaign to end British rule in India. Mandela also worked against the extreme black groups that saw themselves as a radical alternative to Mandela’s ANC, notably the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

It is significant that figures such as Havel and Mandela went on to expunge the spectres of Mao, Guevara, and Fanon from the revolutionary imagination of many of the world’s young people, especially in developed nations. The trend is visible even in the fading of a quasi-radical ramshackle style marked by beards and khaki. True, Guevara’s image is ever-present, but is far more associated with “capitalist” consumer marketing than radical ideas.

Third, in the newer revolutionary wave the state has been curtailed and its power (political, economic, and cultural) has given way to the freedoms of individuals and civil societies. Most such revolutionary experiences adopted parliamentary democracy and a market economy with limited and varying doses of government intervention, as well as an attempt to build "civil society" in order to prevent state tyranny.

This approach was pursued by the revolutions in central and eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The amicable partition of Czechoslovakia after the democratic revolution there offered a powerful example of the tendency of the new revolutions to curb the state's imperialist proclivities. The forerunners of this development had appeared, albeit in different contexts, with Portugal’s withdrawal from its African colonies (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Cape Verde) after the "carnation revolution".

Even earlier, post-war Japan had adopted a constitution drafted under the United States occupation, which rendered the emperor a nominal ruler and effectively prohibited Japan’s ability to wage external war. The same thing happened in federal Germany, with demilitarisation a central aim of post-war policy.

This tendency amounts to an unprecedented break with the earlier wave of revolutionary transformations, with its penchant to expand and annex. Lenin and his comrades left behind a large body of work on the right to self-determination, but ended up at the helm of an empire that reproduced the Tsarist one while imposing a degree of repression far beyond its predecessor.

Fourth, the later revolutions helped end the isolation of the countries where they took place, whether economic or cultural, and bring about greater openness to the outside world. This was especially true of the developed capitalist democracies that the first waves of change had been hostile to, in the belief that a sharp breach was the path to salvation.

The isolation had been clear in southern Europe where in Spain, for example, Franco had pursued a policy of “self-sufficiency”. The revolutions of east-central Europe broke with this pattern by reaching out to the rest of Europe. The fluidity of goods and ideas had become the essential revolutionary demand, just as isolation from the outside world had earlier been a synonym for tyranny.

Fifth, the new revolutions refused to assign an essentialist or absolutist value to the tyranny and corruption they opposed, and focused instead on the responsibility of certain individuals. It's true that some former Nazis were rehabilited after a brief de-Nazification in West Germany, but even these acts demonstrate an ability to compartmentalise and diagnose evil rather than treating it in an indiscriminate way. In the same sense, it was possible for communists in the former Soviet bloc to return, following the revolutions that toppled their regimes, to legitimate political action, without more being demanded than that they recognise the principle of peaceful and electoral rotation of power.

Even post-apartheid South Africa dealt with its past with gradualism, and by refusing to ideologise the sins and evils of the previous era. Here lies the deep logic behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), sponsored by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In the meantime, policies and measures on land and employment were implemented to address poverty and injustice among black South Africans. This is what sets the South African experience, in both methods and outcomes, apart from the anti-racism experiment in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). There, the approach of the early revolutionary wave was adopted by Robert Mugabe his vanguard party, theZimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). The outcome was disastrous, both politically and economically.

The two waves

The comparison between these two types of revolution reveals much about the dynamics of the modern world, and its forces and ideas. In complex reality, the two approaches are not always so linear or exclusive. For example, in the same period that southern Europe underwent a democratic transformation, Chile witnessed Pinochet's coup against democracy in 1973; and several African nations have vacillated between democracy and military coups. Moreover, the second wave suffered a setback in the countries nearer the fringes of Europe, like Georgia and Ukraine, while Russia itself settled on a model that combines formal democracy and presidential exclusivity.

Yet the overall distinction holds, with its strongest impact in more developed countries and those with stronger bonds to the west. For instance, socialist parties and factions in Latin America resolved that their path to power lay in parliament; Italy's powerful communist party became social-democratic; and the strength of France's communist party greatly diminished when it became clear that it was unable to make the same kind of transition. A century of revolution has seen a change in the character and meaning of revolution itself: a "revolution in the revolution" indeed.

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