I saw Les Misérables tonight, and aside from it being an absolutely fantastic rendering of one of my favorite musicals, it got me to thinking about the role that revolution–particularly violent revolution–plays in our romantic and historical imagination.
The main theme of Les Miz, for the uninitiated, is redemption, but the story also focuses on the June 1832 Paris uprising, which was a failed one-night rebellion by students against the restored monarchy of Louis-Philippe, a rebellion to which Victor Hugo was clearly sympathetic in his original treatment. The musical has a rousing anthem for the rebellion, “Do You Hear the People Sing,” which makes up the finale, and consequently is being hummed by every audience member leaving the theater. In this anthem, we see the poor and downtrodden people of Paris fomenting revolution, joining forces against the powerful and entrenched elites as they suffer in the street. It is a powerful moment in the film which has the audience on its feet cheering on the people against their oppressors, yet it ends in tragedy as the young students all end up killed at their barricades as the people they hoped to join their movement shutter their windows. The cause of the rebels and what they died for is all but forgotten to history, and would be only a footnote if Victor Hugo hadn’t enshrined it in his book. And we are left thinking about the almost pathetic nature of the failed rebellion; that final moment when the students realized that their brief moment of agitation has resulted in only their own demise.
It got me thinking: is a violent revolution ever worth it?
If you are planning a violent revolution or overthrow of your government, you can likely expect two outcomes. Success, in which case you and your cronies have accomplished not only a political transition but you now have the opportunity to establish your new world order. Presumably, as leader of the revolution you will have some role in the new government as well. If your revolution fails, however, before 1950 you will likely be killed no questions asked; today you will at least end up in prison for the rest of your life.
In the case of failure, I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with the revolution, for obvious reasons. No matter how just a cause is, when you’re dead or in prison there’s not much you can do about it. In the heat of passion it is easy to rush to arms to defend a principle, but not so easy to think it was all worth it if, at the end of the day, nobody will remember you or your little uprising. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would like to be martyrs for a cause, but all I can do is feel sorry for them. On the one hand, there is bravery in standing up for your principles in the face of oppression; on the other hand, there is foolhardiness in fighting to overthrow a bigger and stronger enemy. Even if you are right, you’ll be dead, and no one will know. The ink of history is the blood of dead revolutionaries. Most of their causes were undoubtedly just. It didn’t matter in the end.
So failure doesn’t interest me. What I want to know is, in the case of successful revolution, is it worth it–and I mean is it worth it morally, as either a participant or a sympathiser? In other words, has any good ever come of violent revolution, and would we expect any good to come out of a future one? (Although “good” is a relativistic term, let us say that generally “good” means improvement in the general wellbeing of society on the whole, and not just the party of the revolution.)
My short answer based on a cursory reading of history is that no, violent revolution has almost never had positive results. The most successful violent revolutions were either unmitigated disasters in their political and economic consequences (the Bolsheviks, the Fascists in Italy), completely unsuccessful in terms of their stated goals (French Revolution) or ended up installing and entrenching more oppressive regimes than the ones they supplanted (Zimbabwe, Tunisia, Algeria, Uganda). On the other hand, the most successful revolutions have largely been peaceful. Take the fall of the Berlin Wall and the transition out of the USSR, which took place with no bloodshed or violent revolution. Upon the independence of India, although partition was a nightmare, the removal of the original British colonizers was peaceful. Egypt in 2011, despite the tensions today, was largely been a peaceful transition. In South Africa, we have an interesting case of a former failed violent revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, coming back to lead a peaceful transition 30 years later. It’s a fortunate thing, too; in an earlier age, Mandela would have been sentenced to death for treason at Rivonia. Instead, he was given a life sentence with his co-conspirators.
Looking at the historical record of revolutions, it strikes me that there are a couple examples of violent revolutions that have actually worked. The first is the American case, where colonists fed up with taxes took up arms and over the course of a couple years were able to claim their own country. Another case is Libya 2011, which successfully overthrew Gaddafi and is now organizing self rule quite successfully. It’s a little too soon in Libya, but hopefully it will work out. Those are two examples–I’m sure there are some others.
But the overwhelming weight of history seems to be against violent revolution as a solution to political problems, even when it is successful. In the cases where revolutions have been successful, they have either been regime changes where there was enough popular pressure to dismantle the status quo without much violence, or they have been violent overthrows resulting in a drastically reduced quality of life for the greater society, and often a society very much different than the one intended by the revolutionaries.
I have some ideas for theories that may account for this. The first is that a political situation in which violence is necessary is one where there are entrenched interests in the status quo. These are interests that are willing and eager to defend violence against the regime with violence in turn. These interests would be supported by a large silent majority that funds or benefits from the status quo. This means that, if successful, the revolutionaries may merely be superficially victorious and all their real work lies ahead of them: work that includes the subversion of pre-revolutionary ideas and people. Any successful revolution would naturally succumb to the temptation to quash dissent and prevent counter-uprisings. The reason why a Libya revolution would be successful in the long run while a Soviet revolution would not be is there were only a handful of people supporting the Gaddafi regime, whereas many more people would have supported Tsarist or proto-capitalist Russia in opposition to a Marxist takeover. The key, I think, is in the tipping point where people are willing to openly oppose their government vs. the silent support of people to the status quo. Once a revolution is successful, it becomes the status quo and it must make a business of suppressing supporters of the old regime. In Libya, it’s not so much of a problem, but in Russia, millions of people had to die for the revolution to “succeed” in the long term.
Another theory is that political situations which devolve into violence are usually in spheres where dialog and compromise is made impossible, either by intransigent factions, warring ethnic groups, tenuous confederations, or terrorism. In these situations, violent revolution may be possible, but in doing so, the power vacuum is opened up for lots of players to take a role in shaping the new political order. The French Revolution comes to mind here. This situation, however, makes it nearly impossible to improve the general welfare, as no political stability can be had when there are many factions jockeying for power. War does not breed economic success.
Finally, successful violent revolutions simply make it too easy to install dictators and military chiefs that are unwilling to give up power. Countless dictatorial regimes started as violent revolutions: Pinochet’s Chile, Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Idi Amin’s Uganda, Soviet Russia, Maoist China. It’s much harder in history to find dictators who came to power through peaceful means: Hitler and Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti come to mind of course.
So going back to the proud and foolish last stand of the ABC Club in Les Miz, I find it interesting that the weight of popular imagination in literature is usually in favor of the idealist revolutionaries who want to overthrow the system. We root for the underdog. We think a just cause justifies martyrdom in case of failure and don’t necessarily think about the downside of success. In any event, the best revolutionaries are not necessarily the best governors.
One caveat: I wouldn’t say that, just because violent revolutions haven’t worked, that they haven’t been necessary or desirable. It may be true that the Soviet Union eventually collapsed rather silently, but only after 75 brutal years of oppression during which violent revolution, like the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, was the only hope people had to break out of the system. Thinking about how to overthrow a truly oppressive regime that will fight back with violence, despite having relatively little support, like North Korea today, it is hard to imagine any solution other than violence, and it is easy to justify these solutions morally. However, it is also not hard to imagine that when North Korea eventually does fall, it will happen because of the economic collapse of the system and/or a domino collapse from external invasion.
So maybe my thesis should be contoured around the notion of violent revolution in a relatively stable and open society, where dialogue is permitted, economic growth exists, and there exist basic democratic institutions. In the United States, we have factions on both sides of the spectrum calling for some sort of violent revolution: the rhetoric of the Marxist left which often invokes the language of oppression to propose violent overthrow of capitalism, and the radical right which has proposed violent overthrow of the United States based on the principle of individual sovereignty. The latter group may be more worrisome because they are heavily armed, although the former group has more the weight of history behind their “noble” cause and is more prone to sympathy.
But for those of you out there who look to foment revolution as a radical solution to the problems we have as a country, remember this: the thrust of history is almost always against the short- or long-term success of violent revolution, regardless of the nobleness of the cause.
PS. Someone encourage me to examine this thesis further in the form of an actual, organized essay on the subject.