Those who wish for revolution should be wary, a new book by Dan Chirot warns; they might come to regret that wish should revolution become a violent reality.
Chirot is a professor in the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies and of sociology. His latest book, “You Say You Want a Revolution: Radical Idealism and its Tragic Consequences” was published in March by Princeton University Press. He is the author or co-author of many articles and several books, most recently “The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World” (with Jackson School colleague Scott Montgomery, 2015).
The book, publisher’s notes say, explores “why most modern revolutions have ended in bloodshed and failure – and what lessons they hold for today’s world of growing extremism.” One reviewer said that Chirot “thinks like a scholar and writes like an engaging journalist as he looks for wisdom in history.”
Chirot answered a few questions via email about his study of revolutions and how it comments on the current world situation.
What’s the central thesis of the book – is it that early moderates in revolutionary times are often ousted by the extremists who follow?
Dan Chirot: Yes, and let me say a bit more. When economic, social, and political problems pile up without being addressed because of incompetent political leadership, revolutions become more likely, particularly if an unexpected crisis occurs.
Typically, it is moderates who begin the process of forcing change and leading revolutions, but they tend to lose control to radicals willing to go to extremes to defend the revolution against its foes. The radicals may well start with utopian ideals, but these are impractical and are not supported by most of their people, so if they want to stay in power they quickly turn to brutal repression. That is why the best-known revolutions in modern times have turned into tyrannies.
What revolutions, across what period of time, does the book consider?
D.C.: I started with French Revolution of 1789 because it became the main, iconic example of a modern violent revolution. After Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik (as Lenin called his communist party) Revolution, that too became a model, though the French Revolution has remained very widely used as one that taught important lessons.
I compared the French Revolution to the American one because the latter was much less violent and has not been used very often as a leading example to be followed. Then I moved to the 20th century and used examples from the Mexican, Russian, Chinese and Iranian revolutions. I also used Hitler’s seizure of power because the Nazi program was indeed revolutionary. I also discussed the anti-colonial, “third world” revolutions, concentrating on Algeria and Angola. The most recent examples I used were the mostly peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that ended communism there.
Dan Chirot opinion pieces
“What can we learn from these and many analogous cases? For one, it’s that revolutionary outcomes only seem pre-ordained in hindsight.”
In “Project Syndicate“
“(N)ot all, or even most, analogous situations lead to actual revolutions, but there is a lesson to be learned from the most extreme outcomes. Delaying reforms, or pursuing reforms that do not go far enough to solve growing social and economic problems, leads to increased polarization.”
Also: “Science Salon” podcast: Michael Shermer talks with Dan Chirot
You write: “In a relatively stable, well-educated society with freedom of expression and a basic faith in science, the fanatics and liars can be marginalized. But when these beneficial conditions no longer exist, and when at the same time critical problems can no longer be successfully handled, moderate reformism will no longer prevail.” This situation sounds eerily familiar; what does your study of revolutions tell you about the world’s current woes?
D.C.: A main reason for the startling emergence of populist, mostly right-wing, anti-Enlightenment political forces in the world is that many problems brought on by globalization – the emergence of an Internet based economy, and the decline of employment in what used to be good blue collar and routine white collar jobs – have not been addressed by governments.
Mounting frustration has made many turn to those who promise quick fixes. Some hope this will bring about left-wing, or more socialist revolutions, but so far it is mostly the ultra-nationalist, ethnocentric, anti-scientific, even antidemocratic far-right that has gained traction all around the world. There have not been violent revolutions, but as these problems and rising inequality frustrate populations ever more, there will be.
The current pandemic and resulting economic depression will accelerate discontent, thus increasing the probability in many places, including countries so far considered stable, but even more in poorer ones, that there will be revolutionary violence.
“Great Britain industrialized, went through drastic social change, and democratized in the 19th to mid 20th century without a revolution,” you write. How was that accomplished, and are there lessons there?
D.C.: There were of course other countries that industrialized without having violent revolutions. The United States after the Civil War is an example, and so were some European countries, including Germany.
Good governance, capable administrators, making timely reforms, and allowing those frustrated to have some voice all make violent demands for change less likely. Stubborn autocracy led by incompetents like the Shah of Iran or Tsar Nicholas II of Russia shut off moderate opposition, fail to see that change is necessary, and thus eventually provoke violent upheaval.
The same holds for out-of-touch political and economic elites in general. Great Britain gradually expanded the proportion of the population that could vote, allowed a moderate socialist party to grow, and thus provided room for protest and change. It failed to do this in its colonies, including in Ireland, and in those places revolutions did break out.
Other European democracies with colonies, most prominently France and the Netherlands, tried to hold on to their colonies after World War II and wound up fighting bitter, senseless wars to stop independence movements. That led to the rise of more radical revolutionary independence movements. This was a disaster for everyone.
What of North Korea? You write that the country has failed to create the utopia it promised its people but is “a brilliant success in having survived in a difficult international environment.” Could revolution come there?
D.C.: If you keep a well-armed elite sufficiently satisfied it can prevent a revolution. The French Revolution actually began because the aristocracy was increasingly opposed to the monarchy. North Korea pampers its elite. It also allows considerable black market activity to keep the economy going. The top military brass remains loyal. At the same time the elite knows that if the system collapses, they are finished.
One day that will change, but not immediately. That is why autocrats need to constantly raise the perception of threat, especially from foreign sources, but also from domestic “traitors.”
The last of eight conclusions in the book begins, “If you want a revolution, beware of how it might turn out, because you might one day rue the one you get.” Could you explain a little?
D.C.: In retrospect many of those who pushed for the Iranian Revolution, especially among the young in the rising middle class, now realize that bad as the Shah was, what they got was far bloodier and in every respect worse for Iran.
The same has been true in far too many cases. Once you unleash the forces of revolution, you make it possible for extremists of the right or left to take power, and their remedies most often turn into something worse than the original disease. That is not the case with gradual reform.
The conservatives who put Hitler in power wanted to make Germany stronger, to curb the left, and to take back some of the cultural changes that had occurred in the 1920s (emancipation of women, loss of status for the old aristocracy, and others). What they got was a much greater change that led to mass murder on an unparalleled scale, a terrible war, and utter ruin. Had they known this ahead of time they certainly would never have turned to Hitler.
You quote Italian author Guiseppe Lampedusa saying, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” That’s intriguing – what does he mean?
D.C.: It is impossible to maintain any society as it was. To preserve what is most worthwhile from the past, or in this Lampedusa novel the position of a once powerful noble family whose fortunes are fading, it is necessary to adapt. So, for example, had King Louis XVI accepted change more gracefully he would have become a constitutional monarch with significant but limited power.
More recently, had the Shah of Iran accepted liberal reformers into power and made necessary reforms he would have kept his throne and Iran would be far better off than it is. In Algeria today the old military clique running things is refusing necessary political and economic change, and it is going to end badly.
In fact, in the U.S. we have not been properly addressing the need to adapt to significant changes. The list of issues that remain frozen – from making health care more affordable and equitable, to the general rise in inequality, continuing racism, climate change, demographic decline, the cost of housing in our richest and most dynamic urban areas, the drastic changes in employment patterns, etc. – have caused increasing discontent. But the rising populism almost totally fails to address any of these problems successfully.
So, we are not as far from having a truly destabilizing political upheaval as most of us think. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, in contrast, did change things enough to preserve American democracy and capitalism, though those changes were fiercely resisted by Republicans at the time.