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.
Here again, I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. I’m convinced that circumstances are extremely important, but I also believe that there are times when great men can overcome seemingly unbreakable obstacles and prevail. And they can prevail in different ways, sometimes imposing their will by the force of their personality and the appeal of their message, sometimes by force of arms. It all depends.
All of which brings me, as you undoubtedly guessed early on, to Iran.
The Iranian Revolution
For at least 10 years, the very idea of an Iranian Revolution was dismissed as fanciful, both by academic experts and government policymakers (most notably those in the intelligence community). The dictatorship in Tehran was seemingly in firm control, and while there was certainly economic misery and social discontent, nobody — aside from a handful of us — could see anything like a revolutionary movement, nor the sort of charismatic leadership necessary to lead it. All of a sudden, following the bogus elections of last summer, a vast movement suddenly emerged, and there were big demonstrations all over the country, demanding an end to the Islamic Republic.
The leaders of this movement were decidedly anti-charismatic. The most famous of these, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is downright boring, although he has a very dynamic wife, who has played a major role in the events of the past year. Mousavi has insisted on nonviolent methods, and once the regime showed its willingness to beat, torture, and kill its critics, he told his supporters in the Green Movement to refrain from direct confrontation in the streets.
This is a shift in tactics, but not an abandonment of revolutionary goals. Although the Green Movement first surfaced as a protest against the stolen election of June 2009, it is now dedicated to revolutionary change, above all to the creation of a free Iran. The Greens hope to bring down the regime by relentlessly increasing pressure from below, and in recent months they have gained support from workers and most of the ethnic groups that had previously remained apart. In the past week, protests against the regime reached the bazaar, which is to say the merchant class. The bazaar merchants have always been extremely important in Iran’s turbulent political history, and while the original bazaar protest was against new taxes, it has clearly taken on a more political dimension, and the regime suddenly declared a two day holiday. I think the Independent has it just about right:
For a second day yesterday, the authorities ordered a public holiday, ostensibly because of the unusually high summer temperatures, but in reality, many Iranians speculated, to camouflage the strike and head off any trigger for a mass outpouring of public protest. The merchants’ action, which began last week, is a clear and potentially grave challenge to the authority of the hardline president.
Nobody knows whether the Green Movement will be able to bring down this evil regime, or even when and how it is likely to happen. As you know, I think that the regime would have fallen quite some time ago if any Western leader had seen fit to support the opposition, but none has. God willing, that will change, for most successful modern revolutions have had outside support.
Just ask George Washington.
Update: Tehran bazaar still closed on Tuesday.