Revolutions are fundamental changes, mostly irreversible and entailing violence, that profoundly transform the political, the social, and the economic spheres of society. All revolutions have been the product of political frustrations felt by several large sectors of society after a period of rising expectations that could no longer be satisfied. Also major unachieved reforms lead to revolutionary situations where a sort of fever will affect society. Revolutions entail a violent clash of challengers attacking the state. Revolutionary attempts are successful when the ruling elite loses its cohesion and when the armed forces are divided and decide not to fight back. There have been six victorious revolutions: the American (1776), the French (1789), the Mexican (1910), the Soviet (1917), the Chinese (1949), and the Cuban (1959). They have all institutionalized themselves and have led to strong state authorities. None of them has been reversed. The sheer passing of time prevents a return to the previous regime. The collapse of the Soviet Union has not reinstated the defeated social classes, but has opened the way to a new form of authoritarianism. If cohesion of the challengers is the most important condition for a revolutionary outcome, our times, characterized by pluralism of all kinds and by failed states exposed to the attacks of violent, often ethnic gangs, do not seem to be conducive to revolutionary occurrences.
All revolutions produce fundamental changes through a fair amount of violence. Revolutionary changes are irreversible. There have been “revolutions” in different fields: in astronomy, the Copernican revolution that in the early 1500s put the sun at the center of the universe; in the economy, the industrial revolution in the late 18th to early 19th century in Britain; and the communication revolution at the end of the 20th century. In a rightly famous book, Thomas S. Kuhn (1962) has written of scientific revolutions when the interpretive paradigms of a discipline are overhauled and replaced. In the last decades of the 20th century, yet another revolution made its appearance affecting the values of the post World War II generation: the postmaterialist revolution (Inglehart, 1977). More or less at the same time the West witnessed the so-called student revolution(s) of 1968 that affected a plurality of countries. Generally speaking, all these usages are acceptable (Griewank, 1969), but more precisely and appropriately the term “revolution” refers to fundamental changes in a political system. A revolution is considered by most authors to be an upheaval that produces major concomitant transformations in the political, the social, and the economic spheres (Eisenstadt, 1978). Hence, there is an overall, though not unanimous, consensus that so far the world has witnessed six revolutions: the American (1776), the French (1789), the Mexican (1910), the Russian (1917), the Chinese (1949), and, with some reservations, the Cuban (1959). Five other highly significant political events have also been defined as revolutions by some authors: the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 that transformed Britain from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy (a case of “regime change”); the revolutions of 1848 that shook most European traditional monarchies and initiated the reform of several of them; the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956 against the communist government backed by the Soviet Union; the overthrow of the authoritarian regime in Portugal (1974), known as the revolution of the carnations; and the conquest of political power by the Ayatollahs in Iran (1979).
Generally speaking, the so-called “revolutions from above” in Japan (starting with the Meji “restoration” of 1868), Turkey (1923), Egypt (1952), Peru (1968), as described by Trimberger (1978), to which one might add Ghaddafi’s in Libya (1969), cannot technically be considered revolutions. They were mostly military coups that replaced the rulers and attempted to change the state and society with a very limited involvement of the population. None of the events labeled Arab Spring (2011-2013) has exhibited the features that characterize a revolution. Even though in some cases the involvement of the population was high and the mobilization of youth and other social sectors was conspicuous, those events at best are examples of social uprisings. In some cases, the changes in the governing elites have been significant, but small. No fundamental changes have taken place in the socioeconomic sphere.
A revolution, according to James Harrington (1611-1677), is the product of a major incongruence between the distribution of political authority and economic power within a society. However, revolutions are not the automatic product of inequality, of marginalization, of impoverishment, or of proletarianization. It is not true, as written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto, that “the proletarians have nothing to lose, but their chains.” In any insurrection against the rulers, all of them risk their lives too. Moreover, most of the proletarians are probably not aware of the possibility of liberating themselves through revolutionary action. Marx thought that the revolution was going to take place once the contradictions of capitalism at its highest stage would pit the owners of the means of production against the proletarians. Therefore, the revolution was possible only in advanced countries where capitalism had reached its maturity. Lenin had different ideas and expectations. Only a party composed of professional revolutionaries, he wrote, would be capable of instilling the class consciousness indispensable to start a revolution. Interestingly, quite a different “theory” of revolution had been available some time before Marx and Lenin. It had been sketched in the 1830s by Alexis de Tocqueville in a letter to John Stuart Mill:
Notice the mechanism of all our revolutions; it can be described very exactly today: the experience of these last seventy years has proved that the people alone cannot make a revolution; as long as this necessary element of revolutions is isolated, it is powerless. It becomes irresistible only at the moment when one part of the enlightened class comes to unite with it, and such men lend it their moral support or their material cooperation only at the moment when they no longer fear it. (1985, pp. 367-368)
The space for a revolution opens up when the ruling class loses its cohesion, when some of its members join other social groups in search of a transformation of the regime, when the opponents of the regime grow in number and power up the point that the defenders of the regime realize that they no longer control sufficient power (Tilly, 1978). Hence, either they yield to the “revolutionaries” or they are militarily defeated. Unlike a coup d’état, a revolution is not a sudden event quickly concluded, but may drag on for some years.
For a revolution to take place, then, there must be, first, the breakdown of the social system, especially with reference to power deflation. Second, a loss of authority may follow when the elite becomes unable or unwilling to resort to the use of force no longer considered legitimate. “The final, or sufficient, cause of a revolution is some ingredient, usually contributed by fortune, which deprives the elite of its chief weapon for enforcing social behavior (e.g., an army mutiny), or which leads a group of revolutionaries to believe that they have the means to deprive the elite of its weapons of coercion” (Johnson, 1966, p. 91, author’s italics). To put it differently, but as cogently, following Tocqueville’s incisive remarks, a “revolution is most likely to take place when a prolonged period of rising expectations and rising gratifications is followed by a short period of sharp reversal, during which the gap between expectations and gratifications quickly widens and becomes intolerable” (Davies, 1969, p. 690). Frustration follows in the economic, social, and political arenas. “If the frustration is sufficiently widespread, intense, and focused on government, the violence will become a revolution that displaces irrevocably the ruling government and changes markedly the power structure of the society” (p. 690).
Revolutions develop through time and go through different phases. In order to explain the revolutionary dynamics, Harvard historian Brinton (1965) has resorted to two metaphors. The first revolves around the storm; the second around the fever. The metaphor of the storm goes as follows:
At first there are the distant rumblings, the dark clouds, the ominous calm before the outbreak … then comes the sudden onset of wind and rain, clearly the beginnings of the revolution itself; the fearful climax follows, with the full violence of wind, rain, thunder, and lightning, even more clearly the Reign of Terror; at last comes the gradual subsidence, the brightening skies, sunshine again in the orderly days of the Restoration. (p. 15)
Having discarded the storm metaphor as too literary and dramatic, Brinton sketched the fever metaphor he found more appropriate. First, there are some symptoms not sufficiently developed to be the disease. Then comes a time when the full symptoms disclose themselves … the fever of revolution has begun. This works up, not regularly but with advances and retreats, to a crisis, frequently accompanied by delirium … the Reign of Terror. After the crisis comes a period of convalescence, usually marked by a relapse or two. Finally, the fever is over, and the patient is himself again, perhaps in some respects actually strengthened by the experience, immunized at least for a while from a similar attack, but certainly not wholly made over into a new man … for societies which undergo the full cycle of revolution are perhaps in some respects the stronger for it; but they by no means emerge entirely remade. (p. 17)
Both metaphors are suggestive and illuminating, but they also, on the one hand, contain some controversial elements and, on the other, deserve to be supplemented.
The most important controversial element is whether the political system that has undergone a revolution should be considered “entirely remade” or not. All victorious revolutionaries have advanced the claim to have totally restructured their political, social, and economic systems, going so far as to announce the appearance of a new man or, at least, the will to create the new man. Not only has this claim proved to be quite exaggerated, if not outright wrong, but its pursuit, often through periods of terror, has imposed a high toll of lives on all postrevolutionary societies. Another controversial element in Brinton’s metaphorical description of the dynamics of revolutions has to do with the likelihood of the reappearance of the revolutionary fever. There may be different stages in the revolutionary process, for instance, the democratic stage that brought to power Alexander Kerensky in February 1917 and the socialist stage which saw the ascent of the Bolsheviks in October 1917. But it would be more appropriate to consider the second stage as essentially the continuation of the same fever, not the product of a second attack of fever. Having survived the revolutionary fever without the disintegration of the political community, the political system will be rearranged with new rules, procedures, practices, and institutions. One can maintain that, no matter how, almost all successful revolutions have institutionalized themselves: some giving birth to democratic regimes (the American and, through long and difficult adjustment processes, the French and the Mexican); some through a gradual process of bureaucratization of their leaderships (the Soviet and the Cuban). The recent impressive economic development of China cannot, on the one hand, make one forget the convulsions during Mao Tse-tung’s rule (1949-1976) and, on the other hand, discount the fact that no democratization is in sight.
When dealing with the dynamics of the revolutionary process, there are three additional elements that deserve specific attention: the theme of the permanent (or uninterrupted) revolution; the too often neglected role of the armed forces in the revolutionary process; and the fate of the revolutionaries themselves. The first theme can easily be connected to the metaphor of the revolution as fever. Permanent revolution is a feverish condition deliberately maintained by the revolutionaries themselves. The term was coined by Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) who suggested, first, that, contrary to Marx’s expectations (Tucker, 1969), the two stages of the revolution, the democratic and the socialist, could be and, in cases of less developed countries, had to be combined together. Indeed, under some conditions, for instance in Russia, it had been imperative to combine them together. Second, the revolutionary process had to continue even when the revolutionaries had acquired political power. It had to affect and reshape all social relations in order not to be reversed. Third, and perhaps more important, Trotsky emphasized that the Russian revolution ought not to remain within the borders of the Russian state. Against Stalin’s will to build socialism in one country, Trotsky fought to carry the revolution to the West and to make it worldwide. In his opinion, socialism in one country was already degenerating (at the time of his writing 1928-1931) into a bureaucratic-authoritarian experiment, while in western countries the conditions were ripe, according to an authentic interpretation of Marx’s analysis, for revolutions and subsequent transitions to socialism. “The international revolution, in spite of its backslidings and provisional relapses, represents a permanent process” (Trotsky, 1963).
The launching by President Mao of the Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution (approximately 1965-1971) appeared to be largely motivated by the same preoccupations of Trotsky’s, that is, the increasing bureaucratization of the Chinese ruling group and the disappearance of the revolutionary spirit, plus, not to be underestimated, Mao’s desire to reaffirm his personal leadership. Local committees of soldiers, peasants, and students were created throughout China to fight against the intellectuals and the counterrevolutionaries. Many of them, members of the Communist Party, were purged and imprisoned, and, when not killed, had to go through a reeducation process entailing manual labor. Increasing the temperature of the fever surrounding and spurring the revolutionary transformation, the Red Guards, invited by Mao “to shoot on the headquarters,” brought havoc to the political system. Following Mao’s death (1976) the system was stabilized thanks to Deng Xiao-ping’s pragmatism (1982-1987).
All revolutions have necessarily been a challenge to the existing state apparatus and the rulers (Skocpol, 1979). No revolution can succeed unless the state apparatus is defeated and disintegrates. Therefore, violent confrontations have characterized all revolutions and are inherent in them (Kotowski, 1984). Especially with reference to the armed forces, their disintegration or, at least, the decision of sizable sectors of the officers not to stand by the rulers is required for the revolutionaries to take over. “Owing to the immense technical superiority of trained and fully equipped troops,” according to the pioneering analysis by Chorley (1943, p. 243), “it can be laid down that no revolution will be won against a modern army when that army is putting out its full strength against the insurrection.” While the French revolution was in fact the product of rising expectations and the subsequent socioeconomic and political frustrations that diminished the willingness of the police and the security forces to defend the King, there is no doubt that defeat in war was the most important condition leading to both the Russian and the Chinese revolutions. Russian and Chinese armed forces did disintegrate. Trotsky reorganized and led a completely restructured Red Army, while Mao forged his new military organization through the Long March. The Mexican Army broke down during the revolutionary process, while the armed forces supporting the Cuban dictator, former sergeant Fulgencio Batista, were poorly staffed and not well organized. Hence, they offered only limited resistance to Fidel Castro’s guerilla barbudos. The situation changed after World War II when, in Latin America and in Asia, professionalized armed forces have all rejected revolutionary attempts, preferring to give birth to military governments aiming at the construction, usually without success, of stable military regimes.
The postrevolutionary phase
Starting with the French experience and culminating in the Russian (Bolshevik) one, it has been stated that revolutions devour their children. With reference to those who launched, organized, and led the revolution to achieve its most fundamental goal, that is, the overthrowing of the previous regime and the total transformation of the existing socioeconomic structures, this statement is only partially true. It fits the two most dramatic cases of France and the Soviet Union in which, indeed, Robespierre and Stalin eliminated the entire revolutionary vanguard. The dynamics of the American, Mexican, and Chinese revolutions and, to a lesser extent, of the Cuban revolution too, have followed quite a different path. In all these cases, leaving aside a few personal trajectories, the revolutionaries who acquired political power have proved capable of retaining it and, to a large extent, have decided to share it. There was no prolonged struggle for power among those who made the revolution. There was no bloody reckoning and again, aside from a few exceptions, only limited purges were performed. The revolutionaries succeeded in institutionalizing their rule in a party, for instance the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) in Mexico and the Chinese Communist Party, and/or in a constitution, as in the USA and Mexico. Fidel Castro’s personal leadership seems to have assured the institutionalization of the Cuban revolution, although he did not refrain from the elimination of a few members of the original revolutionary team, but legitimate doubts remain concerning his heritage and succession.
A lot has been made of the importance of ideology and, especially, of Marxism in creating the cultural background and even the structural conditions for successful revolutions (Tucker, 1969). In practice, however, only two revolutions (Russia and China) out of six can be said to have been inspired by Marxism and to be led by communist leaders. In Cuba, Fidel Castro embraced communism years after his conquest of political power. Cuba cannot even be bracketed with those African and Asian countries in which the communist ideology has been utilized as an instrument oriented to socioeconomic development. Nevertheless, economic development cannot be considered the exclusive or even the paramount goal of the revolutionaries. Hannah Arendt’s words, “only where this pathos of novelty is present and where novelty is connected with the idea of freedom are we entitled to speak of revolution” (1963, p. 27), are more than suggestive. It is one thing to believe that “the revolutionary spirit of the last centuries, that is, the eagerness to liberate and to build a new house where freedom can dwell, is unprecedented and unequaled in all prior history” (p. 28), but quite another to proceed to an evaluation of the long-term consequences of the various victorious revolutions.
By definition, as well as in the minds and hearts of those who took part in them, revolutions are meant to produce not just a transfer of political power, but fundamental and irreversible changes in the allocation and distribution of political power. Following a successful revolution, technically, new authorities make their appearance. Irreversible changes are introduced in the postrevolutionary regime, that is, new rules, new procedures, new institutions, and, in several cases, a new constitution are created. Social hierarchies are obliged to disappear, that is, revolutions are meant to destroy all previous privileges and inequalities. All become citoyens or comrades supposedly to be treated equally. However, the political leader and intellectual Milovan Gilas, who participated in the construction of the communist regime in Yugoslavia, wrote in 1957 that a “new class” had made its appearance in all postrevolutionary communist countries and that a tight nomenklatura had acquired all the political power and privileges, reproducing itself and selectively coopting few additional components. Last but not least, the economic sphere is totally restructured by the revolutionaries. The land is redistributed and all properties are nationalized. The revolutionary state becomes the owner of the means of production and of all valuable resources or is put in full control of all the most important economic activities. Looking at the economic sphere, some revolutions, that is, the communist ones, have been more “revolutionary” than others. In practice, different methods of state ownership of all economic resources have meant the effective impossibility of any type of pluralism and have undermined any chance of oppositional activities, except from within the nomenklatura itself.
From a theoretical point of view, all the above-mentioned transformations could be reversed, but so far no counterrevolution has ever succeeded in turning back the clock of history. If and when the revolutionaries are stripped of political power, it will not be the old rulers that reacquire it. The aristocrats, the autocratic rulers, and the mandarins are gone forever. The landowners will never be returned their confiscated land. New oligarchs may emerge, but they have no relation whatsoever with those who were swept off by the revolution. All this does not mean, as Arendt suggested, that freedom has carried the day and will be forever secured. The experiences of the Soviet Union, of China, and of Cuba indicate, on the contrary, that new forms of oppression have made their unwelcome appearance. The post-1991 reemergence of Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union is testimony that there is no return to what the revolution destroyed; rather, the new situation contains a battery of unexpected and original, but nonetheless quite effective, authoritarian practices.
Revolutions and the media
In all revolutions and revolutionary attempts, domestic conditions are dominant, perhaps paramount factors. All revolutionary attempts entail both the spontaneous participation and the organized mobilization of large masses of people. There may exist phases and cycles of participation and mobilization, often produced, augmented, and accelerated by the communication of events taking place in some specific area of the country. Most of the time that area is not the periphery but the capital, the exceptions being the Chinese and the Cuban revolutions (although in the latter case the conquest of Havana was decisive). Spreading the news that a revolt has started, that an increasing number of people have joined it, that the authorities are divided and vacillating, adds fuel to the revolutionary flame. It is legitimate to ask how the Internet and new media, in all their forms, contributed to the communication process instigated by some specific events and the way those events and the opportunities they provided became almost instantly known throughout several countries.
Facilitated by the existence of a common language, the new media offered the instrument through which what started in an obscure, peripheral area of Tunisia could be transmitted to many Arab countries in 2010-2011. The now “old” form of television broadcasting contributed as well but, of course, smartphones, Facebook, and Twitter acquired a significant role. In particular, what took place in Tahrir Square in Cairo and later in the Gezi Park in Istanbul suggests that the new media have served to enhance the amount of information easily available to all the participants as well as to international public opinion and foreign rulers. Still, the authorities themselves are in a position to utilize the new media in order to control and manipulate the flow of information. The fact that none of the revolutionary attempts of the Arab Spring has culminated in a revolutionary outcome does not detract from the importance of the Internet and new media. It only indicates that revolutions are much more than communicating grievances, inciting rebellion, and resorting to violence, even in the most modern form and in the most sudden way. Revolutions are about organizing large masses of people with a purpose.
Are new revolutions possible and likely in our times? Revolutions as historical phenomena can be, and have been, compared from a variety of points of view. However, all of them have exhibited peculiar aspects deriving from time and space. A historical comparative perspective indicates that revolutionary opportunities may exist and materialize in many areas of the world. The question to ask is whether those opportunities will be translated into actual revolutions in the present globalized world. The tentative answer must be based on two considerations. The first one is that almost all contemporary political systems are socially, politically, and culturally extremely diversified. Therefore, they seem largely unable to give birth to cohesive blocks of challengers willing and capable of attacking the state and its apparatus. The second consideration is that where a revolution may seem to be a likely answer to a situation of high dissatisfaction, the masses of dissatisfied people lack the necessary organizational capabilities. Looking around, what can be seen are several failed states which, paradoxically, are so weak that they are exposed to violent gangs of rebels and pirates that are unable and unwilling to coalesce and that, in any case, do not seem in the least interested in attempting to launch the difficult enterprise of the conquest of the failed state. The revolution of communication has made available to the entire world images of dissatisfaction and destitution, but also of tough and unscrupulous repression. Easy and swift communication processes through the Internet hugely contribute to the mobilization of masses of individuals, but they have little or no impact on their organization. Expectations can still rise. But disorganized individuals and uprooted postideological intellectuals are both unable to capitalize on the discontent. Only religious affiliations seem, to some extent, to retain revolutionary potentialities. Fundamentalism seems to be the 21st century drive for major, albeit negative, transformations.
SEE ALSO: Leadership, Political; Political Participation; Progressive Movement; Social Movements; State/Statehood
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