When it comes to theories, they're only as good as the last uprising

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.

There are key reasons for wanting to understand the causes of revolutions: first, because of the impact revolutions have on the modern world and, second, because analysis of the causes of revolutions could help us determine where modern society is headed.

Over the centuries, revolutions have provoked debate not only among historians and social scientists, but also among participants, whether they be seeking to legitimate an uprising or to oppose it. Many of these analyses face the same problems. Analysts often operate with a limited sense of national political/social systems and fail to appreciate how individual upheavals are part of a broader context. Moreover, the recent trend in social science and historical sociology has been to downplay the importance of ideas, beliefs and ideologies in animating the leaders and the led. As such, it seems to have come as a surprise to historians of the Cold War working on recently opened Soviet archives that Lenin, Stalin and others believed in some of what they said. Finally, we need to pay more attention to the actions of leaders, without whom long-maturing crises might never have taken the form they did.

It is also worth recalling, in these times of global triumphalism, that periods of upheaval are not aberrant or accidental but are a central feature of the shaping of the modern world. Political theorist Hannah Arendt once observed that the 20th century, the bloodiest and most rapidly changing epoch in human history, was made by wars and revolutions. If the First and Second World Wars, and the ensuing Cold War, did much to shape that age, revolutions were equally important.

The First World War was preceded, and to a considerable degree precipitated, by revolutions in Russia, Persia, Turkey, Mexico and China, and was followed by the Bolshevik seizure of power, the consequences of which were to last until 1991. The Second World War was followed by the Communist seizure of power in China, the imposition of revolutionary change from above in Eastern Europe, and the rise of revolutionary nationalism in Vietnam. The path of the Cold War was also marked by a variety of revolutions: orthodox Communists in Indochina; radical nationalists in Algeria, Cuba, Angola, Mozambique and Nicaragua; military radicalism in Egypt and Ethiopia; and, finally, a strange pair of contrasted, but adjacent, extremes, the seizure of power by an ultra-dogmatic Communist Party in Afghanistan in 1978, and the mass upsurge of the Islamic revolution in Iran a few months later, in 1978-79.

It can also be argued that, despite their peaceful nature, the mass movements that overthrew the Communist parties of Eastern Europe in 1989, and which thereby hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union, were revolutionary in the degree of political, social and economic change they envisaged, and later achieved.

The central role of revolutions applies not only to the 20th century but to preceding centuries as well. The 17th century was marked by two major upheavals of a political, economic and ideological kind, the "Revolt of the Netherlands" (1566-1609) and the event euphemistically referred to as the "English Civil War" (1642-1649); while the 18th was marked by the American Revolution (1776-1783), and then the most influential and paradigmatic of all, the French Revolution (1789). The Europe of the 19th century was shaped by the outcome of the revolutions of 1848. Varied as they were in national character and context and in ideological import, as well as in outcome, this not large but nonetheless immensely significant and comparable set of upheavals form a key part of modern world history.

Beginning with 19th-century histories of the French Revolution, and then repeated for all later revolutions, historical approaches to the causes of revolution tended to focus on political factors: the strength or weakness of the state, the wisdom or folly of rulers, the growth of opposition from below. Depending on the writer's view, these factors could also be social and economic. Revolutions were here the outcome of narratives, either of socioeconomic change or of particular short-term events.

A second body of literature on the causes of revolutions emerged out of the sociological and sociopsychological frameworks developed from the 1950s onwards. This focused on why existing, hitherto viable and reasonably stable, social and political systems broke down. Here, explanations varied from the psychological, according to which revolutions were made by "dissatisfied" persons, groups or classes, to the sociological, stressing dysfunction and disequilibrium in society, to analysis in terms of political sociology, looking at the tensions involved in modernisation and at conflicts over resources within society. They showed a much more elaborated sense of social causes, but also tended to operate with the bounded system characteristic of sociology, and gave little space to the role of ideas or belief.

Finally, in the 1970s, came explanations in terms of broad macro-historical change, influenced particularly by Karl Marx and Max Weber. These downplayed short-term causes of personality or politics, and looked instead at longer-term social and economic change, and, in particular, at how a combination of factors, external as well as internal, weakened the state.

Individuals, parties and ideologies were downplayed and greater emphasis was put on how international factors such as wars undermined the power of states. Revolutions ceased to be events that took place within specific countries and became, rather, part of the broader conflict of states and social groups on the international stage.

No consensus was reached on these issues, and within each of the three broad camps there were disagreements. There were two good reasons why no unity could be achieved. One was history itself - no sooner was a theory of revolution formulated, by academics or by revolutionaries, and accepted, than events jumped up to correct it. The vision of revolution as a necessarily violent but still positive pathway to the creation of a modern liberal order, based on the American and French cases of the 18th century, was contradicted by the creation of the authoritarian Soviet Union, the touchstone for 20th-century revolutions. The hegemony of the Bolshevik model of proletarian revolution, dominant after 1917, was rebuffed by the upsurge of revolutions made by a previously disparaged class, the peasants, in China in 1949, and later in parts of Africa and Latin America.

Furthermore, the implicitly "progressive" nature of revolutions as defined by liberals and Marxists, was thrown in to question by the Islamic revolution of Iran, led by clergy who stated their goal as being to restore the 17th-century model of state and society associated with the Prophet Mohammad. Meanwhile, denial of the role of agency was solidly challenged by the voluntary seizures of power by Khomeini in Iran (February 1979) and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (July 1979). Finally, the historical perspective of revolutions as state-building and historically irreversible seemed to crumble in the face of the mass rejection of Soviet-style communism in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991.

Equally important, however, were disputes on methodological issues. Lenin once observed that revolutions could happen only when two conditions were met: that the ruled could not go on being ruled in the old way, and that the rulers could not go on ruling in the old way. Most studies of revolution have looked at those wanting change - the rebels and revolutionaries - but also important is why the old state, possessed of the instruments of coercion, should collapse. One factor is the weakness, corruption and indecisiveness of the rulers - a recurrent theme from Charles I, through Louis XVI, Nicholas II and, more recently, the Shah of Iran. It is also important to consider not only the social and economic context prompting rebels to act but also their will, organisation and mobilisation. Revolutionaries often claim to have made revolutions and, even when their exaggerations are discounted, an element of conscious will, and vision, seems to be important.

In addition, those wishing to discredit revolutions often say they are sparked by alien or foreign forces and will weaken the state. They have a point. Even if the state wins the war, ideas and examples from abroad, even if inaccurately received, can contribute to political discontent.

To some extent, the revolutions of modern history, especially since 1789, form a separate historical set of upheavals - part of the "history" of competing world visions that, Francis Fukuyama says with some justification, has ended. The two centuries between 1789 and 1989 make up a separate era, marked by a particular set of ideological assumptions - about social change, novelty, the path to an imagined modernity - caused by the very same conflicts with modernity that prompted modern wars, and are quite distinct from earlier revolts and rebellions. Whether 1991 marked not only the "end of history" but also "the end of revolutions" is still, however, a matter for speculation and anxiety, although, for some, it offers an element of hope for the 21st century.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

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