Big Q's in history: Blocked arteries stir the blood

August 6, 2004

Chris Bunting encounters 'Wolfie' Smith as he asks what causes revolutions, while Fred Halliday asks if the conditions for such upheaval still exist.

In the title sequence for the 1970s British sitcom Citizen Smith , the hero "Wolfie" Smith, general Marxist revolutionary about town, used to stride out from Tooting Broadway Station whistling an up-tempo version of The Red Flag . The camera followed Wolfie, clad in Afghan coat and Che Guevara beret, as he whistled his way up Tooting High Street and kicked a can across the railway bridge. At the other side of the bridge, he thrust his fist in the air, struck a heroic pose, and bellowed across South London, "Power to the People".

Sadly for Wolfie, there was never a revolutionary mob waiting to surge forward at his rousing words. It took our hero four series, and endless revolutionary schemes, to realise that his dreams of being swept to power and lining his enemies against a wall for "one last fag, then bop, bop, bop" were just that. Tooting was happy in its chains.

Every age and every place has its Wolfie Smiths. There is always someone hoping that the social and political system will be turned on its head. And realisation of these desires has, more often than not, been a distant fantasy. For every storming of the Bastille, there have been 10,000 Socialist Workers Party meetings in nearly empty halls spent grumbling about the apathy of the masses.

Just occasionally, however, somebody puts his head above the parapet, shouts "Power to the People" and finds a chorus of excited voices shouting back. And when the idea of revolution catches hold of a society, all hell can break loose.

But why do these radical changes happen in certain places and certain periods and steadfastly refuse to happen in others?

Historians and political practitioners have grappled with this question for centuries. The Chinese classic text the I Ching , composed three millennia ago, says of the seizing of power by the founders of the Shang dynasty, T'ang and Wu: "Heaven and earth undergo their changes and the four seasons complete their revolution. T'ang and Wu led insurrections according to the will of Heaven and in response to the wishes of men. Great indeed is the significance of such a time. Change of any kind is generally viewed by people with suspicion and dislike; therefore it must be instigated gradually. When change is necessary, it will only be approved after it has been seen to work. A proven necessity beforehand, and a firm correctness throughout: these are the conditions under which revolutions can be successfully brought about."

Within the Western tradition, the Ancient Greeks devoted much thought to violent seizures of political power, but we must be careful about assuming too much similarity between their approach to the problem and our modern view of political change. The word most often used by the Greeks to refer to unconstitutional change - " stasis " - means the opposite of our word "revolution". Rather than describing rapid movement, stasis talks about "rigidity" and a lack of flexibility. Confusingly, the Greek concept focuses on what classical thinkers generally agreed to be the cause of revolution - the sclerosis and rigidity of a bankrupt political order - rather than its effect, rapid change.

For Aristotle, who provides a pragmatic guide to stasis in Politics V , political disorder is triggered by all kinds of short-term causes (changes in the factional balance of power, for instance) and differs according to the society in which it occurs. But, fundamentally, stasis is about a loss of fluidity in politics and the underlying spirit of cooperation on which a political system relies. When factions become hardened in their positions, then the political order has become sclerotic and revolution is on the cards.

The word " rivoluzione " does not make its first appearance until the late medieval period in Italy. According to Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, writing in Revolution and World Politics , for the Italians, "radical change was above all something which returned to a previous era". What is strikingly absent from both this and the classical view of revolutions is any idea that they are part of some grand "progress" in history, a concept that was later to mark our thinking on the subject deeply. For ancient Greek thinkers, including Plato, the overthrow of governments through stasis was seen as part of a process of degeneration. Revolutions were symptoms of a breakdown in the health of a political system: like the heart attacks that kill an old, inflexible man.

By contrast, thinkers in the late 18th century associated revolution with youth, with historical progress and with the growing up of a polity. The French Revolution was largely responsible for this change. In the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: "No previous upheaval, however violent, has aroused such passionate enthusiasm, for the ideal the French Revolution set before itself was not merely a change in the French system but nothing short of a regeneration of the whole human race."

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who developed the idea that history is "the march of reason in the world", explained the French Revolution as the overthrow of an "utterly irrational state of things". He wrote: "The idea of right asserted its authority all at once, and the old framework of injustice could offer no resistance to its onslaught... Not until now had man advanced to the recognition of the principle that thought ought to govern spiritual reality. This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn."

This idealism was later discarded by Karl Marx and his followers in favour of a rigorously materialist world view, but its assertion that history is progressive and that revolutions are instruments of that progress is deeply ingrained in the dominant revolutionary tradition of the 20th century.

According to Marxists, revolution is likely to happen when social and political institutions frustrate economic progress. Modern revolutions are understood as the inevitable triumph of the urban industrial working class, the proletariat, over the trustees of doomed and outdated forms of economic organisation.

The Marxist tradition has produced many, often contradictory, analyses of the nature of revolutions. Important branches include Leninism, with its emphasis on the role of the revolutionary party, tactics and leaders in playing midwife to a revolution, and Maoism, which stressed the ability of the communities from which a revolution arises to shape its particular form. The overall approach, however, has remained deeply marked by a post-French Revolutionary view of revolution as a tool of historical progress.

Outside the mainstream Marxist tradition, however, revolutionary analysis since the 1950s has been characterised by a slow retreat from historical optimism towards a view of revolutions as expressions of specific problems within particular societies. Much modern analysis sometimes seems to have more in common with Aristotle and the Ancient Greeks than Marx and Hegel.

Social scientist Chalmers Johnson's Revolutionary Change , for instance, recalls Aristotle's idea that societies rely on shared values to maintain order. According to Johnson, social and political institutions rely on, and are legitimated by, value systems that are internalised by the population through processes of socialisation. When such value systems and the environment become "dis-synchronised" because of either internal or external disruptions, Johnson says, the population can become disoriented and open to conversion to revolutionary ideologies offering alternative value systems. The existing authorities, unless they act quickly to "resychronise" themselves to the environment, can find themselves relying on raw power to maintain their control and vulnerable to violent attempts at political change.

Politics professor Ted Gurr, in Why Men Rebel , offers an even more psychologically based theory of revolution. He argues that "political violence" happens when large numbers of people become angry at gaps between what they feel they are entitled to from a social system and what they get.

Such anger is not always expressed as revolution - revolutionary action requires a high level of organisation - but, for Gurr, revolution is in essence a function of mass psychology.

Structural theories advanced by thinkers such as sociologists Theda Skocpol and Ellen Trimberger, on the other hand, have maintained the Marxist view that revolution is the product of objective economic and social conditions rather than subjective experience. They too, however, have backed away from a simplistic equation of revolution with historical progress. In recent history, they point out, revolutions have occurred in primarily agrarian, relatively backward states challenged by military and economic threats from more advanced nations. Instead of being instruments of modernisation, they have been about resisting foreign incursions. Some revolutions have followed modernising policies as part of such resistance, for example Japan's Meiji Revolution or the Russian Revolution, but others have taken an opposite path, including Iran in 1978 or Cambodia in 1975.

Skocpol even questions whether "revolution", in the traditional sense of a violent and cataclysmic seizure of power, is possible any more in advanced industrial nations with their repressive capabilities.

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