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Revolution, Iranian and Otherwise

July 12th, 2010 - 7:10 pm

Tell the truth: you don’t really know what a revolution looks like, do you? Chances are that if anybody asked you, you’d conjure up some picture including the storming of the Bastille, or the great assault on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, or the like. A big, melodramatic scene involving big crowds attacking corrupt leaders and culminating in revolutionary banners flying from the ramparts.

And sometimes it really is just like that, although, more often than not, those big scenes either never happen or come only after a lot of hard work, much of it very undramatic, like drafting documents, debating within the revolutionary ranks, challenging authority within traditional political boundaries, and the like. Revolutions rarely move in a straight line or at a steady tempo; they ebb and flow. The American colonists spent years challenging the King of England — the first protests against English taxation took place more than 10 years before the Declaration of Independence — and there were many times when firebrands like Tom Paine and Sam Adams despaired of winning our freedom. In like manner, the French revolution advanced in spasms, beginning with moderate demands for political power from the middle classes, and only slowly evolving into open revolt and regicide.

Indeed, there is an enormous literature devoted to the subject of the “revolutionary situation,” and this literature extends from academic scholars to policy planners. I remember once talking to a particularly talented CIA officer about the Soviet Empire, and was surprised and delighted to hear him say: “If we made a checklist of the ingredients of social and political revolution in the Soviet Union, we’d probably check off every one.” This was a good 10 years before Boris Yeltsin removed Mikhail Gorbachev from the Kremlin. He was right, but nobody knew when or precisely how that revolution would take place. But we did know that it was destined to happen. It was so obvious that I wrote a book predicting it.

Violence and Revolution

For most of modern history it was taken for granted that you could not go from dictatorship to democracy without a violent conflict. That was because tyrants had fallen either after losing a war (King George, Czar Nicholas, Hitler, Mussolini) or at the hands of a violent insurrection. That changed in the last quarter of the 20th century, first in Spain and Portugal, then in Latin America, and finally in the Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe, and in some African countries. Thereafter it has been taken for granted that violence is no longer necessary for a successful democratic revolution, and there is a growing literature — some of it analytical, some of it of the “how to do it” variety — on nonviolent revolution.

I do not believe that there are any hard and fast rules about violence and revolution. And I believe that it depends more on circumstances than, for example, on culture. In the years prior to the death of Francisco Franco, for example, most any expert on Spain and indeed most any Spaniard would tell you that when the dictator died, there would be a replay of the Spanish Civil War. “After all,” they would say, “in Spain we kill the bulls.” And yet, there was a velvet revolution in Spain, and considerable violence in Portugal, where they do not kill the bulls.

The Charismatic Leader

Students of revolution also love to talk about leadership. Many of them will tell you that you can’t have a successful revolution without a charismatic leader. This is largely a legacy of the 20th century, which saw lots of charismatic leaders, from Hitler to Lenin and from Reagan to Pope John Paul. But even in the 20th century, this rule was hardly observed in every case. Was Havel charismatic? Walesa?  Certainly Boris Yeltsin was the very opposite, and Nelson Mandela’s remarkable appeal was hardly the sort that students of charisma have in mind.

Notice that the theory of the charismatic leader is decidedly un-Marxist. The Marxist view of revolution is that it happens spontaneously, once the circumstances are right. In this view, history makes the man, not the other way around.

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