Sunday, February 24, 2013
Three Things to Know About Revolutions
Below are three things experience has taught us about revolution.
First, revolutions are violent affairs. To paraphrase something somebody in the Godfather once said, after the rhetoric of evolutionary reform breaks down, “things get rough.” A revolution is an explosive situation in which men and women decide that violence is a legitimate method of solving a set of political problems. Strike that: a revolution is an explosive situation in which men and women decide that violence is the only appropriate method of addressing a set of political problems. As Chairman Mao said, "Revolution is no dinner party." People die in revolutions, and after revolutions, more people die.
Second, revolutions are exciting. Revolutions are extraordinarily creative affairs in which broad swaths of the population feel empowered to participate in civic and cultural life in new and creative ways. In fact, segments of the populations experience liberation in surprisingly diverse ways. If the political regime required radical reformation, why not do the same in art, architecture, prose, poetry, international relations, economics, family relationships, and gender relations?
Third, revolutions are predictably unpredictable. When a revolution breaks out, people often falsely believe they know what will happen to the revolution over time. That is to say, they believe that there is an ahistorical sequence to revolutionary events or a natural mechanism of revolt, something akin to the stages of grief. We get angry, we blame others, we feel guilty, we accept; or, in the case of revolutions, we suffer, we lose control, we dream and hope of a better future, we collapse into stale routine. There’s a paradox here. On the one hand, many analysts--Marx and Lenin included--believe that revolutions are the most predictable of all human events. That is to say, revolutionaries study previous revolutions in detail precisely because they believe on some level in an unalterable historical pattern. A revolution in ancient Rome looks like a revolution in modern Germany, or a revolution in Mongolia. A revolution is a revolution is a revolution.
If you read the Russian revolutionaries, to say nothing of Hegel or Marx who help to invent the trope of revolutionary historiography, you can’t help but be struck by their arrogance. They know what happened in France so they can predict what will happen in Russia. There will certainly be a Thermidor, and if there isn’t one, it’s only because the revolutionaries will change natural flow of history by enacting ingenious new dams or levies, usually in the form of draconian systems of surveillance and terror. But of course the revolutionaries weren’t simple people. They thought about revolution a lot, and lived closer to them than we do today. Lenin didn’t predict either of the revolutions of 1917. Instead, he and the other Russian radicals were like modern storm-chasers, driving toward political maelstroms even though they didn’t quite get to any of them in time to bear witness to their awesome power. But Lenin, and Trotsky more than Lenin, did see enough of the immediate aftermath of revolution to understand their chaotic, elemental power. Notwithstanding all of their stubborn attempts to diagnose something ahistorical about revolutions, Russian revolutionaries understood that revolutions were truly terrifying, unwieldy, and unpredictable. Their knowledge of this dark side of revolution was surely what made them so willing to turn to terror in attempt to try to prevent their recurrence once they were installed in power.
The Bolsheviks said they were suppressing opposition at Krondstadt out of a fear of counter-revolution and reaction, but one has to suspect that their brutal strategies of containment were born of their own involvement in history’s only real contact with almost primordial chaos. Viewed in this light, one almost comes to terms with the paradox of Bolshevik interest in making a science of revolution. After all, it’s only a scientist who hopes that we can conduct the same experiment with revolution over and over again but gain the same result.
Revolutions aren’t purely local affairs. Reading Antoinette Burton’s book, A Primer for Teaching World History, I am reminded that revolutions shouldn’t ever be seen as occurring in a purely national context. The Russian revolutionaries accepted Marx’s early take on this international thesis: revolutions were the product of modernity, global economic processes, and transnational class struggle. Lenin added something important to this line of argument by exploring the relationship between colonialism and international militarism. But even modern scholars understand that we can’t truly comprehend the nature of any revolution without exploring how the event, or series of events, is connected to global processes. These processes can be direct, and uncomplicated. For instance, the Russian Revolution was the outgrowth of processes and movements that affected men and women in almost every corner of the globe, including urbanization, industrialization, colonization, and world war. But they can also be more intricate. The Russian Revolution had analogies both inside Europe and outside Europe. Turks, Egyptians, Hungarians, Germans, and Chinese—to say nothing of Georgians and Uzbeks—all strove to initiate political and economic reform, to overhaul gender relationships, and recast their relationship with the global economic order. Moreover, if we don’t accept the fact that each revolution only exists in relationship to other revolutions—whether those revolutions are historically distant, such as 1789, 1848, or 1870, or nearly coterminous, such as that of Germany, Turkey, Hungary, Spain, Cuba, or China—we miss one of their most characteristic and important markers, i.e., their truly world-historical character.