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In Praise of Revolutions

Two hundred and twenty years may have passed since 1789, but there’s still life in the French Revolution. During the bicentenary commemorations, though, François Mitterrand had extended an invitation to Margaret Thatcher and Joseph Mobutu to check it was dead and buried. The anniversary year also saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, prompting Francis Fukuyama to announce the “end of history”; in other words, the neoliberal domination of the world would last forever, the so-called revolutionary parenthesis opened in 1789 had closed for good.

But the current crisis in capitalism is now challenging the legitimacy of ruling oligarchies. The air has become lighter – or heavier, depending on your viewpoint. Le Figaro, for example, referred to “these intellectuals and artists who call for revolt” and lamented: “François Furet [the French historian] seems to have been mistaken: the French revolution isn’t over”.

Like many others, however, Furet had spared no effort to dispel the memory of it. In the past, the Revolution was taken to be the expression of a historical necessity (Marx), of a “new era of history” (Goethe) or of an epic which began with the soldiers of the Year II celebrated in a poem by Victor Hugo: “magnificent barefoot men marching on a dazzled world”. All we are allowed to see now is the blood on the Revolution’s hands. From Rousseau to Mao, an egalitarian, terrorist, virtuous utopia is said to have trampled on individual liberties and given birth to the cold monster of the totalitarian state. And then “democracy” got its act together and won the day: cheerful, peaceful, free-market. It too is the heir of revolutions, but of a different sort – English or American style, more political than social, decaffeinated .

A king was beheaded across the Channel too, of course. But the English aristocracy put up less resistance than in France, so the bourgeoisie there felt no need to make an alliance with the people to establish its domination. Among the privileged classes, a model without the barefoot or sans-culottes had more appeal and seemed less dangerous than the alternative. So Laurence Parisot, head of the French employers’ union, wasn’t betraying the trust of her members in telling the Financial Times: “I love French history, but I don’t like the Revolution very much. It was an act of extreme violence from which we are still suffering. It forced each one of us to be in a camp.” She added: “We don’t practice [democracy] as successfully as in England”.
The polarization of society inherent in the notion of “being in a camp” is unwelcome because instead we all ought to be showing our solidarity with our employer, our boss or his brand – while still knowing our place. For in the eyes of those who aren’t among its fans, the main charge against the revolution isn’t its violence – sadly an all too common phenomenon in history – but something infinitely rarer: the upheaval of the social order which occurs when the proletariat and the affluent go to war.

In 1988, George H. W. Bush, looking for a knock-out argument to floor his Democrat opponent, Michael Dukakis, came up with this: “We’re not going to be divided by class. You see, I think that’s for European democracies or something else. It isn’t for the United States of America.” Class. Just think how horrifying such an accusation must be in the US! To the extent that 20 years later, at the moment when the US economy seems to be imposing sacrifices as inequitable as the profits that preceded them, the present incumbent in the White House judged it imperative to forestall popular anger thus: “One of the most important lessons to learn from this crisis is that our economy only works if we recognize that we’re all in this together, that we all have responsibilities to each other and to our country… We can’t afford to demonise every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit”. Whatever ultra rightwing Republicans are claiming, Barack Obama is not about to start any revolution…

“Revolution is first of all a rupture. Anyone who cannot accept that rupture with the established order, with capitalist society, cannot be a member of the Socialist Party.” Those were the words of François Mitterrand in 1971. Since then, the conditions for membership have become less draconian, since they don’t put off either the IMF’s director general Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or its head, Pascal Lamy. The idea of revolution has ebbed elsewhere too, even in the most radical groups. But the Right has made the word its own (evidently it still contains some seeds of hope), and has turned it into a synonym for the rolling back or destruction of social security gains made – or wrenched – from the established order.

Everyday acts of violence

Even so, a charge levelled against major revolutions is they were violent. Exception is taken to the massacre of the Swiss Guard during the storming of the Tuileries in August 1792, to that of the Russian royal family in July 1918 in Ekaterinburg and to the liquidation of Chiang Kai-Shek’s officers when the Communists took power in China in 1949. But if you object to those, then you shouldn’t ignore the famines of the Ancien Régime, which happened against a background of balls at Versailles and of tithes demanded by priests; or the hundreds of peaceful demonstrators massacred by Nicholas II’s troops in St Petersburg on Bloody Sunday in 1905; or the revolutionaries in Canton and Shanghai thrown alive into the boilers of locomotives in 1927. Not to mention the everyday acts of violence which were part of the social order the revolutionaries sought to overthrow.

The story of the revolutionaries who were burned alive hasn’t just affected those with an interest in China; it’s also known to the millions who have read André Malraux’s novel, La Condition humaine. For decades the greatest writers and artists made common cause with the workers’ movement to celebrate revolutions and the glorious future. In doing so, it is true, they underestimated the downside, the tragedies and the chilly dawns (with their political police, personality cults, labour camps and executions).

For 30 years, by contrast, those are the only consequences of revolution which have been spoken about; in fact it’s the recommended course of action for those who want to succeed at university, in the press – or the Académie Française. “Revolution inevitably means an irruption of violence,” explains Academic Max Gallo. “Our societies are extremely fragile. The major responsibility of those who have a public platform is to guard against this irruption”. For his part, Furet reckoned that any attempt at radical transformation was totalitarian or terrorist, that “the idea of another society has become almost inconceivable”. His conclusion is that “we are condemned to live in the world that we live in”. It’s not hard to imagine that such a destiny fits in with the expectations of his readers, who are generally protected from life’s storms by a pleasant existence of dinners and debates.

There are many other examples of the phobia of revolutions and its corollary – the legitimization of conservatism – besides Gallo and Furet, such as the media, including the cinema. For 30 years, television has been keen to show that the only alternative to liberal democracy is scheming tyrannical regimes. And so the attention given to the German-Soviet pact assumes much greater importance than other unnatural alliances, such as the Munich Agreement or Adolf Hitler’s handshake with Neville Chamberlain. At the very least, the Nazi and the conservative shared a common hatred of popular fronts. And the same class fear inspired the aristocrats of Ferrara and the ironmasters of the Ruhr when they enabled Mussolini and the Third Reich to come to power. But is it still permissible to point that out?

If so, then we can go further still. While brilliantly explaining why he rejected a Soviet-style revolution, no less a figure than Léon Blum, France’s first Socialist prime minister, reflected on the limits of a social transformation which had universal suffrage as its only talisman: “We are not certain,” he warned in 1924, “that the representatives and leaders of society today won’t themselves depart from the law at the moment when their essential principles appear too seriously threatened.”

A requirement for revolution

Since then there has been no shortage of just this sort of transgression; from Franco’s pronunciamento in 1936 to Pinochet’s coup d’état in 1973, not forgetting the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. Blum underlined moreover that “the Republic has never been proclaimed by virtue of a legal vote according to constitutional rules. It was established through the will of the people who rose up against the existing laws”.

Universal suffrage, which is now invoked as a way of ruling out other forms of collective action (including public service strikes, which are compared to hostage taking), has become the alpha and omega of all public action. The questions Blum posed about it have scarcely dated at all: “Is it a true reality today? Don’t the influences of the boss and the landowner bear down on the electors with the pressure of the power of money and the press? Is every elector free of the suffrage he expresses, free through the culture of his thought, free through the independence of his person? And in order to liberate him, isn’t a revolution precisely what’s required?”. In three European countries – the Netherlands, France and Ireland – the ‘no’ vote defied the combined pressures of the bosses, the power of money and the press. For that very reason, it was disregarded.

“We lost all the battles, but we had the best songs.” This view from a Spanish republican fighter seeking refuge in France after Franco’s victory sums up the problem of conservatives and their insistent message of submission. Simply put, revolutions leave an indelible mark on history and human consciousness, even when they fail and even when they are later dishonoured. They embody a moment when fate rises up and the people have the upper hand. This gives them their universal resonance. Each in its way –the mutineers of the Potemkin, the survivors of the Long March, the barbudos (“bearded ones”) of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra – echoes the actions of the soldiers of the Year II; that suggested to British historian Eric Hobsbawm that “the French Revolution demonstrated the power of the common people in a manner that no subsequent government has ever allowed itself to forget – if only in the form of untrained, improvised, conscript armies, defeating the conjunction of the finest and most experienced troops of the old regimes.”

But it isn’t just about memory: modern political vocabulary and half the legal systems in the world were inspired by the code invented by the Revolution. And anyone who thinks about the support for the Third World of the 1960s may wonder if a part of its popularity in Europe comes from the feeling of both recognition and gratitude which it gave rise to. The revolutionary, egalitarian, liberating Enlightenment ideal seemed to be reborn in the South, in part thanks to the Vietnamese, Algerians, Chinese and Chileans who had learned their lessons from Europe. The Empire grew cumbersome, former colonies took up the baton and the revolution continued.

The situation today is different. The emancipation of China and India and their self-assertion on the world stage may give rise to some curiosity and sympathy, but they don’t refer back to any universal hope linked to equality, the rights of the oppressed, an alternative model for development or the desire to prevent conservative restorations based on knowledge and social graces.

Revolutions remain rare

If the international interest in Latin America is greater, that’s because its political orientation is both democratic and social. A sector of the European left has spent 20 years justifying the priority it gives to the wishes of the middle classes by coming up with theories about the end of the “revolutionary parenthesis” and the end of the political significance of working classes. Venezuela and Bolivia’s leaders are, by contrast, remobilizing these people by proving that their lot is being taken into account and their destiny is not sealed – in short, the struggle goes on.

However desirable they may be, revolutions remain rare. They require simultaneously: a broad mass of dissatisfied people who are prepared to act; a state whose legitimacy and authority are challenged by some of its usual supporters (as a result of economic incompetence, mismanagement of the military or crippling internal divisions); and finally, pre-existing radical ideas that question the social order and which, though they may be held only by a tiny minority to begin with, are capable of attracting all those whose loyalty to the old order has crumbled.

The US historian Victoria Bonnell studied the workers of Moscow and St Petersburg on the eve of the First World War. As this is the only instance of this social group being a major player in a “successful” revolution, her conclusion is worth quoting: “What distinguishes revolutionary consciousness is the conviction that grievances can be redressed only by a transformation of the existing institutions and arrangements, by the establishment of an alternative form of social and political organization”. In other words, this consciousness doesn’t appear spontaneously without some pre-existing political mobilisation and intellectual ferment.

This being so, the demands of social movements are primarily defensive – as can be seen at the moment. They aim to re-establish a social contract which they believe to have been broken by the bosses, landowners, bankers and governments. Food, work, shelter, education, prospects: not (yet) a glorious future but “a vision of the present stripped of its most painful aspects” . It is only later, when the inability of those in power to fulfil the obligations which legitimate their power and privileges becomes apparent that the question is sometimes asked outside militant circles: “whether kings, capitalists, priests, generals, bureaucrats, etc, serve any useful social purpose at all”. At this point, it is possible to talk of revolution. The transition from one stage to another may occur quickly – in two years in 1789, a few months in 1917 – or may never happen.

For nearly two centuries, millions of political and union activists, historians and sociologists have been examining the critical variables: is the ruling class divided and demoralized? Is its machinery of repression intact? Are the social forces that seek change organised and capable of mutual action? Nowhere have these studies been more abundant that in the US, where it is often a case of understanding revolutions and conceding all that they have achieved, the better to avert them.

The reliability of these studies has been patchy. In 1977, for example, there was concern about the “ungovernability” of capitalist societies. And the question of why the USSR was so stable also arose. There was no shortage of available explanations: the preference of the Soviet leadership and people for order and stability; collective socialization which consolidated the values of the regime; the non-cumulative nature of problems to be tackled, allowing the party room for maneuver; good economic results; the USSR’s status as a great power and so on. The Yale political scientist Samuel Huntington, who was already immensely famous, concluded this roster of corroborating signs: “None of the challenges which are identified in the future appear to be qualitatively different from those the Soviet system has demonstrated the ability to deal with in the past” .
And the rest, as they say, is history.

SERGE HALIMI is the director of Le Monde Diplomatique. His article appears in the May, English language edition of the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, to be found at mondediplo.com. This text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique

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