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Is Violent Revolution Worth It?

Is Violent Revolution Worth It?

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.

850884The 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.

blog-5-ideas-pk-revolutionaryBut 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.

December 26, 20122 commentsRead More
A Pale Blue Dot

A Pale Blue Dot

From Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994):

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

August 16, 2010Comments are DisabledRead More
Russia, Georgia and the Dirty War

Russia, Georgia and the Dirty War

Picture this.  A powerful, tested military power invades a small, militarily weak country with strong diplomatic ties to the Western powers, including the United States, Britain and France.  The invasion of this small country prompts an international outrage.

What’s next?  For World War II purists, the stage has just been set for a massive international conflict.  I know the Russians would revile at even considering a strategic likeness to the Great Dictator, but in essence, there is a parallel.  And that parallel does not lead down the right path.

What is most ironic, of course, is that the Russians claim that the Georgians themselves have perpetrated acts of genocide against the South Ossetians.  This claim has yet to be independently verified, but even if the Georgians don’t take kindly to the people of one of their two breakaway regions, most Georgians, no doubt, are completely ignorant of any sort of “ethnic cleansing” that occurs there.  If any such atrocities are occurring, most Georgians are innocent of the matter.

Unfortunately, the PR war that Russia is waging has been lost.  There is no way they can continue to hammer this poor country into submission without drawing criticism and, eventually, sanctions.  What is doubly ironic is that their war is being criticized most strongly as an overextension of military force by the country who has most exercised its own military force in recent times–the United States.  Not only that, but the country the United States has most recently beat down on–the country whose people did nothing wrong and whose leader could have been removed diplomatically through UN negotiations–and the country whose acts of genocide should have been punished when they occurred, in the early 90’s and not 12 years later–was, until recently, hosting 2,000 Georgian soldiers who were sent their to strengthen ties with the United States.

It seems that Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had calculated everything.  Which is why it is so strange that he would order a military deployment into South Ossetia, when he knew it would provoke Russian ire.  But that’s a story for another day.

What is outrageous is the degree to which the Russians have been bombing–and invading–sovereign Georgian territory outside South Ossetia.  Most recently, over 60 civilians were killed in Gori, and bombings have been reported outside Tbilisi and in the port cities as well.  This is all part of Russia’s plan to weaken a military that could not be weakened any more.  For a country that receives it oil, electricity and internet from Russia, it seems to be doing pretty well for itself considering.

Parallels have been drawn to the 2006 Israel war with Lebanon.  But whereas the Israelis had declared war against a subnational terrorist group, Hezbollah, the Russians have clearly staked out to defeat the sovereign nation of Georgia.  The Lebanese were right to be angry, however, and the anger in Georgians today toward the Russians is at par with the anger of these Lebanese two summers ago.

Such anger is not going to go away when the last bombs fall.  On the contrary, it will brew, beneath the service, until open conflict erupts again.  It was inevitable in the rise and fall of international politics, just like it was sixty years ago and thirty years before that.  I just hope the United States intervenes before it’s too late for Georgia and its people.

August 12, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More