Inglorious Revolutions

Inglorious Revolutions

Mini Teaser: Revolutions rarely produce stable democracies and human rights overnight—and it's foolish to expect otherwise.

by Author(s): David A. Bell

TWO AND A HALF years after it began, the revolution was widely considered a quagmire, even a disaster. Rebels had made disappointingly little headway against the forces of the hated tyrant. The capital and the country’s second major city remained under his control. Foreign powers had provided sympathy, but very little real aid. And despite promising to respect human rights, rebel forces were committing widespread abuses, including murder, torture and destruction of property. In short, the bright hopes of an earlier spring were fading fast.

This may sound like a description of Syria today, but it also describes quite well the situation of another country: the young United States in the winter of 1777–1778. George Washington had taken refuge in the miserable winter encampment of Valley Forge. Philadelphia (then the capital) and New York were both in British hands. France had not yet agreed to help the new republic militarily. And in areas under rebel control, loyalists were being persecuted—far more than most American school textbooks admit.

There is little reason to think that conditions in Syria will turn around the way they did in the United States between 1778 and 1781, when the American revolutionaries managed to eke out a military victory. But the comparison illuminates a different point. Historically, very few revolutions have been quick successes. They have been messy, bloody, long, drawn-out affairs. Victory has very rarely come without numerous setbacks, and, unfortunately, without abuses carried out by all sides. It has generally taken many years, even decades, for the real gains, if any, to become apparent. Yet today, international public opinion and international institutions usually fail to recognize this historical reality. There is an expectation that revolutions, where they occur, must lead within a very short period to the establishment of stable democracy and a full panoply of human rights, or they will be viewed as failures.

Consider, for instance, the disappointments that followed the Arab Spring and the resulting worldwide hand-wringing. Thomas Friedman, that great barometer of elite American conventional wisdom, wrote in May 2011 about the young Arabs who had begun to “rise up peacefully to gain the dignity, justice and self-rule that Bin Laden claimed could be obtained only by murderous violence.” Less than two years later, he was lamenting that “the term ‘Arab Spring’ has to be retired,” and comparing events in the region to the seventeenth century’s massively destructive Thirty Years’ War, in which areas of Central Europe lost up to a third of their populations. Many other commentators throughout the world now write off the Arab Spring as a disaster and failure, pure and simple. But arguably, not the least of the problems bedeviling the Arab revolutionaries of the last two and a half years has been the absurdly inflated expectations they have had to live up to. Put simply, they have been asked to achieve the sort of rapid and complete success that hardly any predecessors, including in the West, ever managed. The same has been true of the “color revolutions” of the past decade in the former Soviet Union, which commentators like Melinda Haring and Michael Cecire, in a recent Foreign Policy article, have been quick to label “terribly disappointing.”

But think for a moment about the point that some other major revolutions had reached two years or so after they began. Two years after the first shots of the American Revolution, Washington had not even gotten to Valley Forge, and victory looked very far off indeed. Two years after the beginning of the French Revolution, a huge and dangerous conflict was opening up between the country’s political factions, and that summer King Louis XVI severely exacerbated it by trying to flee France and join an enemy invasion force. Many more years of chaos and bloodshed would follow. Two years after the beginning of the Latin American revolutions against Spain, the First Venezuelan Republic had already collapsed, with Spain reestablishing its authority. In each of these cases, the revolutionaries themselves also failed, often quite spectacularly, to behave in a manner that modern human-rights activists would have condoned. Even the West’s paradigmatic example of a “good revolution,” Britain’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, was only “bloodless” and “quick” if one equates Britain with England, and fails to consider the extended series of destructive wars that convulsed Ireland and Scotland for decades thereafter. The historian Steve Pincus has written that “far from being aristocratic, peaceful, and consensual,” the Glorious Revolution was “popular, violent, and extremely divisive.”

WHY DO most observers today seem so oblivious to the historical record of revolutions? What are the consequences of this obliviousness? And what might it actually take, in the way of concerted international action, to help revolutions like the one in Egypt take place in a way that accords better with observers’ ideal script?

In addressing the first of these questions, one place to start is with a rather odd development: current expectations about revolutions in fact represent something of a return to a very old understanding of such events. Up until the mid-eighteenth century, the word “revolution” meant little more than “political upheaval.” Revolutions were held to be sudden, unpredictable and largely uncontrollable. History books told the story of countries’ violent changes of dynasty almost as if they were a series of earthquakes. Revolutions were things that happened to people, not things that people themselves were seen as capable of consciously directing. A typical usage can be seen in the title of a pamphlet by the seventeenth-century English radical Anthony Ascham: A Discourse: Wherein is Examined, what is Particularly Lawful During the Confusions and Revolutions of Government. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary gave “revolution” as a synonym for “vicissitude.” Tellingly, at the beginning of what we now call “the American Revolution,” very few people actually described what was taking place as a “revolution.” The word does not appear in the Declaration of Independence, or in Thomas Paine’s great 1776 pamphlet Common Sense (except in reference to 1688 in Britain). In 1777, John Adams could write to his son John Quincy about “the late Revolution in our Government,” implying that the event was already finished and in the past.

These ideas began to change in the late eighteenth century, with significant consequences for the events that would continue to convulse the Atlantic world for half a century. In America, by 1779 it was becoming clear that the political and social transformations set in motion by the War of Independence had yet to run their course. In that year, Richard Henry Lee wrote to Thomas Jefferson about “the progress of our glorious revolution,” and Jefferson himself finally began to use the word in reference to American events. By 1780, John Adams was writing to his wife Abigail about “the whole course of this mighty revolution,” treating it as something still taking place. Yet even then, he did not present it as a process he himself had a hand in directing, but as a great natural upheaval sweeping him along.

It was in France where the most decisive conceptual transformation took place. As the country’s “old regime” began to crumble in 1789, observers immediately started to refer to what was going on as a “revolution” in the traditional fashion. Then, within a matter of months, they began speaking of it less as a sudden and cataclysmic event than as an ongoing process. Soon they went even further, presenting the revolution as something that could be controlled and directed. Stanford’s Keith Baker, who has written luminously on this shift, characterizes it as one from revolution as “fact” to revolution as “act.” Before this moment, the word “revolutionary” did not exist, and would have made little sense to people, referring as it does to people or actions that actively drive revolutions forward. But in September 1790, the radical deputy Bertrand Barère referred to the demolition of the Bastille as “a truly revolutionary act,” and soon his colleague Georges Danton was describing himself as “a steadfast revolutionary.” In 1792, Maximilien Robespierre renamed the executive committee of Paris’s municipal government the “General Revolutionary Council,” making it the first political institution in history to bear such a title.

Baker’s colleague Dan Edelstein has added a further fascinating wrinkle to the story, noting that by 1792–1793, “the revolution” seemed to be taking on a life of its own, becoming, in the eyes of its advocates, a quasi-mythic force and a source of political legitimacy. After armed crowds stormed the royal palace in 1792 and overthrew Louis XVI, there were calls to put the king on trial. The radical Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, however, insisted that the people had already delivered a verdict through their revolutionary action. Any procedure that might exonerate the king therefore amounted to “putting the Revolution itself on trial,” in the words of his patron, Robespierre. A year later, with France at war with much of Europe, Saint-Just made a remarkable speech demanding that the ruling National Convention formally suspend the new constitution it had just approved, and declare the government “revolutionary” until the end of hostilities. He insisted on a full overhaul of the government’s personnel and procedures, arguing that “the laws are revolutionary; those who execute them are not.” And he added the following, remarkable sentence: “Those who make revolutions, those who wish to do good, must sleep only in the tomb.”

Image: Pullquote: It is condescending and cruel to scold countries for their “failure” to reproduce, within a span of a year or two, what took France, the United States and many other countries decades or even centuries to achieve.Essay Types: Essay