On Revolutions

February 19, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Business Standard on February 19, 2011.

Glued to television as the revolution in Egypt unfolded, I was reminded once again about an old book by Crane Brinton: The Anatomy of Revolution (Vintage, 1938), which I had to read before I went up to Oxford to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) in 1960. Having surveyed the pattern of events in the English Revolution of 1640, the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution of 1789, and the Russian Revolution of 1917, Brinton produced what has been called “the natural history of revolutions” [Jack Goldstone (ed); Revolutions, third edition, 2003]. It still remains the best guide to the pattern of events that unfold in a revolution. It has been added to by other social scientists to explain why revolutions arise. Can these analyses help us explain the Egyptian revolution and its possible outcomes? This is the central question I will try to answer in this column.

It is a common myth to assume that it is the wretched of the earth who resort to revolutions. I was in China in May 1991 whilst visiting Peking University, which was plastered with hoardings and signs by the students who were in the vanguard of the “democracy” movement in Tiananmen Square. Their main grievance was, in part, the heavy‐​handed surveillance of their personal lives by the authorities and, more seriously, the system of job assignment by the state. They did not want democracy as understood in the West, but the civil and personal liberties associated with it. Seeing the similar, young, educated middle‐​class protestors at Tahrir Square on my TV screen, I could not help but have a sense of déjà vu. In both cases, the revolutions arose not at a time of economic stagnation but during a period when the economy was doing well. However, the economic gains — particularly high income and employment — were widely perceived to be going to the “well connected” in corrupt regimes. But in both cases it was rising food prices that hurt a much larger swathe of the population, which fuelled support for the young urban revolutionaries.

The pattern of revolutionary outcomes depends crucially upon whether the old regime has the will to assert its authority. This depends on its control of the military. In 1991, the Chinese had to deploy a unit stationed on its borders to fire on demonstrators, since the units around Beijing were not willing to kill the demonstrators. In Tahrir Square, the military was, again, unwilling to fire on the people from whom its soldiers had been recruited. In China, where the government did not blink, the revolution ended in a bloody massacre. In Egypt, with the army maintaining peace between anti‐ and pro‐​Mubarak groups, the revolutionaries succeeded in toppling Mubarak. But, with the military still calling the shots, it is early days to predict whether the constitutional democracy that has been promised will be delivered.

If it is, there is a likely pattern that could echo what happened in Iran in 1979. Brinton argued that having toppled the ancien regime, the internal conflicts among the hitherto united revolutionaries emerge: conservatives seeking to minimise change (like the military council now running Egypt); radicals seeking widespread change (like the Muslim Brotherhood and Gama’a Islamiyya) and moderates (like most of the young demonstrators) seeking a middle course.

Moderate reformers are the first group to seize power, like Bazargan in Iran. Meanwhile, radicals attempt to compete with moderates through mass‐​mobilisation: the Jacobins competing with the moderate Girondin assembly in France, or the moderate executive in Iran competing with the mass mobilising mullahs led by Khomeini. The next stage, which is not inevitable, comes when the radicals supplant the moderates: the Jacobins in France and the mullahs in Iran. Typically, moderates have a better chance of staying in power if the revolution is against a colonial power, but less so when their enemy is an internal ancien regime. Both the American Revolution of 1776 and the Glorious English Revolution of 1640 bucked this trend. The next stage is Thermidor, or the imposition of order by terror: Robespierre’s rule by guillotine, Stalin’s Gulag, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the summary executions of opponents under Khomeini. The struggle between moderates and radicals, often exacerbated by external threats, sees the rise of a Napoleonic figure. It seems Iran is close to this stage with the Revolutionary Guards being the power behind Ahmadinejad and Khameini’s throne. In the final phase, the radicals are defeated or dead, and the moderates return to power, seeking economic progress rather than political change: as with the fall of Robespierre, in Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, and Deng’s of Mao’s Gang of Four. Iran has still not reached this stage.

Given the time it takes for a successful revolution to run its course, and the serious danger of the contagion facing the other authoritarian Arab regimes, West Asia is going to be a volatile, disorderly and dangerous place for some time to come. Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia are particularly at risk. The first stage in Brinton’s “natural history” is already in place. The regimes have lost the support of their “intellectuals” with the educated young demanding reform. Faced with the risk of revolution, the rulers have offered some reforms — the second stage in Brinton’s “natural history”. But these are likely to be too little, too late.

With burgeoning young populations, the root of the crisis facing the Arab dictators is their failure to generate economic growth through creating open market economies by adopting liberal economic reforms. Predatory elites have garnered the fruit of the limited reforms that have been undertaken. But the fuse to the resulting tinderbox of popular discontent has been lit by the rise in food prices. This has in large part been caused by the global diversion of land from food to biofuel production, to meet the Green hysteria about global warming. A prediction made in an earlier column (“Biofuels: An assault on the world’s poor”, February 19, 2008) has sadly come true.

William Wordsworth extolled the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” A sentiment widely echoed around the world in the aftermath of the revolutionary victory in Tahrir square. But the “natural history” of revolutions should warn us that if the Egyptian revolution follows the course of many of its predecessors, this euphoria might soon turn to ashes.

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