Beware the Revolution!

Can you still remember the Arab Spring? Four years ago courageous citizens in a number of Middle Eastern countries took direct action to free themselves of the oppressive yoke of tyranny. The more optimistic and idealistic of Western observers of this phenomenon heralded this movement as the “Arab Spring”, confident that the overthrow of tyranny would naturally lead to enlightened democratic societies. It is patently obvious that the idealists were wrong.

There are many reasons why they were wrong. Perhaps, most importantly, throwing off the current tyrannical yoke left a dangerous vacuum in societies that had little history of autonomy and commitment to democratic ideals. As a result it was probably inevitable that the removal of one form of tyranny would merely open up the opportunity for the establishment of another.

The transformative movement towards democracy in most Western nations required centuries of preparation. It was naïve of us to believe that these nations, not far removed from feudalism, could manage the transition overnight.

Unfortunately in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq (among others) escaping from the current tyranny just allowed the protagonists of centuries old arguments between sects and tribal adversaries to re-emerge. Also, as others have argued, the leadership of these movements has not been inclusive enough to consolidate a national response that might have manufactured a more enduring collective solution.

All this is unfortunate and most of us would have wished for a better outcome. But in this essay I would like to propose that, as far as revolutions are concerned, this is what we should have expected. Most political revolutions end in disaster!

But this was not the case for the American Revolution. The American Revolution began in 1775 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Leading up to the American Revolution, the colonies established by Britain in the territory of North America had been in conflict with both the French and the Native American Indians. The British were finally victorious in this struggle in1763 but the long conflict had left the American colonies severely depleted. However, whilst victory in this war saw the withdrawal of the French, the Indians continued to pose a threat, especially to the pioneers on the western front.

The pioneers demanded that they be provided protection. Britain agreed but insisted that the colonies must pay for their protection and thus, in 1765, Britain passed the Stamp Act which imposed an impost on the American colonists to fund their military protection. Opposition to this tax united the colonists against Britain. Although the Stamp Act was subsequently repealed, Britain, soon after, passed further acts which not only sought to raise more revenue but also curtail the opportunities of the colonists to settle in some of the more fertile areas. The umbrage felt served to increase the ire that the American colonies felt against the British.

Of course the colonists eventually won the war. Even before the war however, democratic institutions had begun to be built in the colonies with representatives elected to various assemblies participating in collective decision making. One could argue that shaking off the imperial yoke enabled the newly freed colonies to adopt more democratic processes than Britain itself, had in place. As we will see this was an exception to the final outcomes of many of the revolutions that were to follow. Britain should at least be given credit for putting in place the basic democratic processes which subsequently flourished after independence was gained. Few revolutions have been so fortunate!

When we talk of revolutions, at least in modern times, it is most likely that our point of reference is the French Revolution. The French Revolution was an understandable reaction to the power of the aristocracy and the clergy over the modest demands of its citizenry.

In May 1789, the Estates-General met at Versailles, the king’s palace some 15 kilometres outside Paris. Delegates brought with them lists of grievances. They also brought with them the ideals of The Enlightenment, ideals drawn from the work of the Enlightenment philosophers like Spinoza, Locke, Hume and Voltaire. On June 17 they declared themselves to be a national assembly with the power to govern France.

The king, not unsurprisingly, took umbrage at this and took steps to prevent the Assembly from meeting. This incensed the population which in protest stormed the Bastille, a fortress and prison that symbolised the power of the King. In the weeks that followed the revolution spilled out of the city and into the countryside. In the beginning the French Revolution had no clear-cut goal. It was largely popular movement against privilege fuelled by some vague ideas based on the Enlightenment.

The National Assembly maintained control for but a few years but in that time it managed to adopt the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen which sought to codify some of the principles of the Enlightenment. Shortly after, the Revolution took a turn towards violence. The National Assembly was replaced by the Convention. A number of extremist politicians gained control of the Convention which stirred up a thirst for blood among the population resulting in the Reign of Terror. The monarchy were soon executed to be followed by thousands of their fellow citizens in a tyrannical attempt to stamp the will of the Convention on the people and to eliminate any perceived opposition. (This seems a frequent occurrence in revolutions!) Finally, moderates regained control of the Convention but they, in turn, executed the principal agent of terror, Maximillien Robespierre, which smoothed the way for the eventual ascension to power in1799 of the Emperor Napoleon.

In the short-term the benefits to the citizenry of the revolution were few. An autocratic monarchy had been displaced only to be replaced by an autocratic emperor. But the foundations had been laid for a better future for the average citizen with the displacement of the monarchy and a weakening of the influence of the church, and a growing recognition of the principles of the Enlightenment. But it would take many years for this to result in the improvement of the lot of the average citizen.

In 1917 Russia was subject to revolutionary change. The country was ruled by Czar Nicholas II assisted by council assemblies called the Duma. The first revolutionary movement occurred in February. It was triggered by women factory workers walking off the job to march in the streets of Petrograd to protest against the Government and its commitment of troops to World War 1. They were reacting to the long hours they had to work and the miserable conditions they had to endure whilst their husbands and fathers were risking their lives at the front. Over subsequent days the movement grew, now involving men as well, until after a few days Petrograd was virtually shut down. The revolution propagated quickly and there was little blood spilt. On 2 March the Czar abdicated and a provisional Government composed of members of the former Duma was set up.

The Provisional Government abolished the death penalty, granted amnesty to all political prisoners and those in exile, ended religious and ethnic discrimination and granted civil liberties. Whilst this was an impressive list of reforms the people were still not satisfied. The Government felt obliged to honour their undertakings to the Allies and thus continued to participate in the war. Food continued to be scarce and the land remained in the hands of the aristocracy.

Providing amnesty for those in political exile allowed the return to Russia of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Lenin arrived by train in Petrograd on April 3 and immediately set about denouncing the Provisional Government and advocating another revolution in favour of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks were a Marxist faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. In the early hours of October 25 the Bolshevik revolution began with the revolutionaries seizing control of the telegraph, power station, post office, strategic bridges, train stations and the state bank.

After a nearly bloodless coup the Bolsheviks under Lenin became the new rulers of Russia. Nearly immediately Lenin announced Russia’s withdrawal from the war, the abolition of private ownership of land and the nationalisation of factories which would be put under the control of the workers.

But conditions in Russia got steadily worse. Soldiers returning from the war were demanding their old jobs back but there were no jobs. Many of the factories, now under worker control, with the cessation of fighting had no orders to fill. Without private ownership of land, many farmers began to grow only sufficient produce to meet their own needs.

As a result of the growing discontent in June 1918 civil war broke out in Russia pitting the Whites (an alliance of monarchists, liberals and various socialist groups ) against the Bolsheviks (the Reds). The civil war lasted two years and was bloody, brutal and cruel. The Reds were finally victorious but not before millions of people were killed. Under Lenin they established an oppressive, vicious regime that was set to rule Russia until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Again, a movement that purported to be dedicated to liberating the people resulted in a totalitarian regime that subjected its citizenry to hardship and terror.

As you would expect, the communist revolution in China had a long and complex history. For centuries the Chinese had been ruled by a series of dynasties. The last of these was the Qing dynasty. It was overthrown in 1911 by a military revolt. Although the Republic established in 1912 held out hope for a democratisation of government in China, it proved a miserable failure. There followed an insurrection in 1917 when an attempt was made to restore the Qing dynasty under its last male heir, the boy Emperor Puvi who was 11 years old at the time. This insurrection failed and a rival government was set up in Canton.

However the dominant movement for reform and unity was established by Sun Yat-sin and was called Kuomintang (or KMT).

At this time China was far from a unified country. Foreign powers had established separate enclaves in the coastal cities. As well in the interior local warlords dominated in a number of regions. There was also concern that China had been badly treated by the settlement post World War I whereby Japan took over the German concession in Shantung and expanded its control over Manchuria. In this environment educated Chinese began looking towards Marxism and began to look with interest at the recent Russian Revolution.

In June 1918, the head librarian at Beijing University, Li Dazhao, established a Marxist study group which Mao Zedong, who was working as a clerk at the university, joined. Marxism, which was based on the advancement of the workers in a semi-industrialised state had to be somewhat translated to suit a country where the majority of the population was not indeed workers, but peasants. Li argued that China could not be liberated without liberating the peasants and he urged young Marxists to go into the countryside to engage the peasants. This later proved to be an important element in helping to propagate the Communist Revolution.

Lenin, meanwhile became convinced that the Russian Revolution could not survive unless successful revolutions were held in other countries. But he knew from his experience that revolutionary leaders were not workers or peasants, but bourgeois, i.e., middle class intellectuals. This drew him to support the KMT movement. He sent a series of senior people from the Comintern to act as advisors to the KMT Central Committee.

Meanwhile the Communist Party of China was founded in 1921. Lenin was keen to merge the two bodies. During the years of the Nationalist Revolution (1925-27) the two groups cooperated. A campaign was launched under Chiang Kai-shek against the warlords of central China. The campaign was successful but as Chiang’s forces approached Shanghai, the communist led labour unions in the city led an uprising and took the city from the inside. When Chiang entered the city he ordered a massacre of the communists.

In April 1927, KMT leaders met in Nanking and proclaimed the establishment of a National Government and outlawed the Communist Party. The communists initiated uprisings in Nanchang in August 1927 and in Guangzhou in December 1927, both of which failed.

The KMT under Chiang struggled to unify China. The Japanese over-ran Manchuria in 1931 and made the Last Emperor of China its puppet ruler. But by 1936 the KMT had loose control over some two thirds of China’s population. However the peasants found their lives largely unchanged. Chiang showed no inclination to introduce land reform or to yield basic human rights to the citizenry.

During this time the communist movement was being rebuilt by Mao at Jiangxi. Mao had successfully now changed the goal of the communist party from a workers revolution to a peasants revolution. The communists were also learning how to conduct guerrilla warfare. They cemented the peasants support by introducing land reform in those areas that they controlled. They had to learn to work with the peasants because of production shortages exacerbated by the KMT blockading those areas under communist control. Mao was displaced in 1933 by Chinese communists who had returned from Moscow and subsequently took a hard line which began to alienate the peasants. As a result he was subsequently restored to leadership in 1934. But by now the pressure exerted by the KMT was becoming intolerable. As a result the communists resolved to break out of Jiangxi and make their way to the northwest province of Shaanxi. This was the commencement of the fabled Long March.

In October 1934, some 100,000 people broke through the KMT armies in south Jiangxi and trekked some 9,000kilometres by a roundabout route to arrive in Shaanxi some twelve months later. Only 20,000 survived to reach their final destination. This legendary feat served to cement the authority of Mao. In his new stronghold Mao was to again rebuild.

But the picture was again complicated by a further foray by the Japanese. In July 1937, Japanese forces seized Beijing and Tientsin and then proceeded to occupy most of eastern China. The fight against the Japanese invaders was largely taken up by the communists. The KMT, after an initial effort, reduced its resistance to a minimum and the Nationalists retreated to far away Chungking.

The Japanese quickly got bogged down in northeast China, the very area that the KMT had found difficult to control. Meanwhile the communists who had developed links and contacts through the northeast began harassing the Japanese and doing their best to protect the peasant villagers. The communists’ efforts to protect and advance the interests of the peasants enabled them to construct a support base which previously no other Chinese government had. By the end of the war with the Japanese the communists had managed to control large areas of the population (perhaps 100 million) and had developed an army of about half a million. This was a dominant advantage over the Nationalists when the final struggle for China was to be fought. This was to occur immediately following the surrender of the Japanese in World War II precipitated by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

War broke out between the communists, their army now assuming the name of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Nationalists. Masses of KMT peasant soldiers from the KMT deserted to join the PLA who they perceived would better represent their interests. The PLA crossed the Yangtze River in April 1948 and finally took Guangzhou in October the same year. Chiang resigned as president of the Republic of China in January 1949. On October that year the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed under Mao’s leadership. The remnants of the Nationalist Government fled to Formosa (now Taiwan).

But again, just like the revolutions I have outlined above, in the end the communist government merely replaced one form of tyranny with another. Now over sixty years on, whilst there has been modest progress made the Chinese people are still repressed.

The history of the last century has been replete with revolutions all over the world. Very few have provided immediate relief to oppressed people.

In retrospect the American Revolution was different. The British colonies in North America already had some basic democratic institutions in place. Throwing off the imperial yoke actually accelerated the democratic processes. But in France, Russia and China we saw largely feudal societies overthrown by popular movements that then succumbed by and large to another generation of tyrants. These movements did however provide some benefits by diminishing the power of aristocracies and in the French example, the church.

But as I stated at the outset there is little likelihood that a semi-feudal state will pole-vault to democracy through the medium of revolution. The progress to democracy is via a tortuous journey which it appears can’t be hurried! To complicate matters the countries involved in the Arab Spring were Muslim countries where religion and government are close coupled. Of all the Muslim countries, as we saw in a previous essay, only Indonesia has made the conscious decision to separate state and religion. Let us hope that Indonesia continues to succeed and hopefully provide a role model for Muslim countries in the future to cast aside feudalism and embrace democracy.

One Reply to “Beware the Revolution!”

  1. Good doesn’t win, power wins. Might is right. And we wonder why people are depressed. Perhaps it is less about the ego than it is about the facts of human nature.

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