IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Causes of Revolution

Leon Aron, writing in Foreign Policy, offers an explanation of the downfall of the Soviet Union that stresses moral over material causes. It was not the parlous state of the economy, nor a costly war in Afghanistan, nor yet the external pressure exerted by the Reagan Doctrine and Star Wars, that made for revolution and brought low Soviet power. Rather, it was an “intellectual and moral quest for self-respect and pride that, beginning with a merciless moral scrutiny of the country's past and present, within a few short years hollowed out the mighty Soviet state, deprived it of legitimacy, and turned it into a burned-out shell that crumbled in August 1991. The tale of this intellectual and moral journey is an absolutely central story of the 20th century's last great revolution.” Here is an extended extract, followed by my own commentary:

[T]hough economic betterment was their banner, there is little doubt that Gorbachev and his supporters first set out to right moral, rather than economic, wrongs. Most of what they said publicly in the early days of perestroika now seems no more than an expression of their anguish over the spiritual decline and corrosive effects of the Stalinist past. It was the beginning of a desperate search for answers to the big questions with which every great revolution starts: What is a good, dignified life? What constitutes a just social and economic order? What is a decent and legitimate state? What should such a state's relationship with civil society be? . . .

In a 1989 interview, the "godfather of glasnost," Aleksandr Yakovlev, recalled that, returning to the Soviet Union in 1983 after 10 years as the ambassador to Canada, he felt the moment was at hand when people would declare, "Enough! We cannot live like this any longer. Everything must be done in a new way. We must reconsider our concepts, our approaches, our views of the past and our future.… There has come an understanding that it is simply impossible to live as we lived before -- intolerably, humiliatingly." . . .

Back in the 1950s, Gorbachev's predecessor Nikita Khrushchev had seen firsthand how precarious was the edifice of the house that Stalin built on terror and lies. But this fifth generation of Soviet leaders was more confident of the regime's resilience. Gorbachev and his group appeared to believe that what was right was also politically manageable. Democratization, Gorbachev declared, was "not a slogan but the essence of perestroika." Many years later he told interviewers:

The Soviet model was defeated not only on the economic and social levels; it was defeated on a cultural level. Our society, our people, the most educated, the most intellectual, rejected that model on the cultural level because it does not respect the man, oppresses him spiritually and politically.

That reforms gave rise to a revolution by 1989 was due largely to another "idealistic" cause: Gorbachev's deep and personal aversion to violence and, hence, his stubborn refusal to resort to mass coercion when the scale and depth of change began to outstrip his original intent. To deploy Stalinist repression even to "preserve the system" would have been a betrayal of his deepest convictions. A witness recalls Gorbachev saying in the late 1980s, "We are told that we should pound the fist on the table," and then clenching his hand in an illustrative fist. "Generally speaking," continued the general secretary, "it could be done. But one does not feel like it." . . .

Delving into the causes of the French Revolution, de Tocqueville famously noted that regimes overthrown in revolutions tend to be less repressive than the ones preceding them. Why? Because, de Tocqueville surmised, though people "may suffer less," their "sensibility is exacerbated."

As usual, Tocqueville was onto something hugely important. From the Founding Fathers to the Jacobins and Bolsheviks, revolutionaries have fought under essentially the same banner: advancement of human dignity. It is in the search for dignity through liberty and citizenship that glasnost's subversive sensibility lives -- and will continue to live. Just as the pages of Ogoniok and Moskovskie Novosti must take pride of place next to Boris Yeltsin on the tank as symbols of the latest Russian revolution, so should Internet pages in Arabic stand as emblems of the present revolution next to the images of rebellious multitudes in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the Casbah plaza in Tunis, the streets of Benghazi, and the blasted towns of Syria. Languages and political cultures aside, their messages and the feelings they inspired were remarkably similar. . . .
"Dignity Before Bread!" was the slogan of the Tunisian revolution. The Tunisian economy had grown between 2 and 8 percent a year in the two decades preceding the revolt. With high oil prices, Libya on the brink of uprising also enjoyed an economic boom of sorts. Both are reminders that in the modern world, economic progress is not a substitute for the pride and self-respect of citizenship. Unless we remember this well, we will continue to be surprised -- by the "color revolutions" in the post-Soviet world, the Arab Spring, and, sooner or later, an inevitable democratic upheaval in China -- just as we were in Soviet Russia. "The Almighty provided us with such a powerful sense of dignity that we cannot tolerate the denial of our inalienable rights and freedoms, no matter what real or supposed benefits are provided by 'stable' authoritarian regimes," the president of Kyrgyzstan, Roza Otunbayeva, wrote this March. "It is the magic of people, young and old, men and women of different religions and political beliefs, who come together in city squares and announce that enough is enough."

Of course, the magnificent moral impulse, the search for truth and goodness, is only a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the successful remaking of a country. It may be enough to bring down the ancien regime, but not to overcome, in one fell swoop, a deep-seated authoritarian national political culture. The roots of the democratic institutions spawned by morally charged revolutions may prove too shallow to sustain a functioning democracy in a society with precious little tradition of grassroots self-organization and self-rule. This is something that is likely to prove a huge obstacle to the carrying out of the promise of the Arab Spring -- as it has proved in Russia. The Russian moral renaissance was thwarted by the atomization and mistrust bred by 70 years of totalitarianism. And though Gorbachev and Yeltsin dismantled an empire, the legacy of imperial thinking for millions of Russians has since made them receptive to neo-authoritarian Putinism, with its propaganda leitmotifs of "hostile encirclement" and "Russia rising off its knees." Moreover, the enormous national tragedy (and national guilt) of Stalinism has never been fully explored and atoned for, corrupting the entire moral enterprise, just as the glasnost troubadours so passionately warned.

Which is why today's Russia appears once again to be inching toward another perestroika moment. Although the market reforms of the 1990s and today's oil prices have combined to produce historically unprecedented prosperity for millions, the brazen corruption of the ruling elite, new-style censorship, and open disdain for public opinion have spawned alienation and cynicism that are beginning to reach (if not indeed surpass) the level of the early 1980s.

The connections Aron draws between the Russian and Arab revolutions are very illuminating, with the same factors making for both revolutionary sentiment and subsequent disillusionment. In the longer term, one cannot rule people by depriving them of dignity, but in the aftermath of revolution the detritus of the preceding regime constitutes a huge obstacle to the construction of a decent civil society and political order. As was said at the time of the Soviet collapse: everyone knows how to make fish soup out of fish. No one knows how to make fish out of fish soup.

The title of Aron's essay--"Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union is Wrong"--is arresting but overdrawn. (He may not be responsible for it, of course). It seems less a bold revisionist thesis than a brilliant exposition of the conventional view. The God That Failed is not exactly news. (The affront to dignity was also the leading theme of Fukuyama's End of History and the Last Man.) This gentle criticism notwithstanding, I like the idea, in effect embraced by Aron, that the moral stands to the material as three to one in understanding certain great episodes. 

Almost no one predicted the Russian Revolution, as almost no one predicted the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. I don't think that "better analysis" and a more probing investigation of the relevant factors making for regime stability can really enable us to greatly improve this bad (but very widely shared) predictive record. Surprise is built into the very character of great social and political movements; that is the one thing predictable about them.

Unfortunately, we are unlikely to become better at forecasting the future of revolution by becoming freer with bold predictions (it's coming in Russia; it's coming in China; it's coming everywhere men are deprived of dignity). Aron's projection--a perestroika for Russia, a revolution for China--is not convincing.

In revolutionary situations, two questions predominate: Will the state use force? Will rebels brave death? To get to yes on either side, you have to have people with their backs to the wall, their escape routes cut off. "I will die if I refuse to fire!", thinks the soldier; "I have lost everything already!", says the rebel. If the army is not threatened, its logical course (as occurred in Egypt) is to cast the regime aside.  In Syria and Libya, by contrast, those fighting for the regime know (or believe) that if the regime falls they're toast. In those circumstances, prolonged civil wars are as likely as the rosy projections of an Arab 1989.

In order to make a revolution, there must be widespread hope in the possibility of fundamental transformation. What could possibly be the basis for such an expectation among this generation of Russians? Disillusionment with the fruits of the 1986-1991 revolution operates as a barrier to revolutionary activity in the present. The truncated Russian state that emerged after 1991 has far more legitimacy than the Soviet Union in its last days, and is seen broadly in the population (even among those who hate the regime) as having rescued Russia from a period of national weakness and humiliation. The threat of terrorism, too, strengthens rather than weakens the apparatus of power, because it seems to bear out the need for a strong state. Oligarchies can be obnoxious but still unbreakable, their obnoxiousness stemming in part from the very aggregations of power that make them so difficult to change.

A "revolution from above," as the original perestroika partly was, may be undertaken by a future Russian leadership; that such promises for change will lead to fundamental change in the regime, however, seems much more unlikely. Aron's essay reminds us what a rarity Gorbachev was, not so much in launching a revolution from above (the Tsars were known to do that) but in his basic refusal to use force to preserve the regime. His comment--"It could be done, but one does not feel like it"--is both funny and profound. Gorbachev deserves unstinting praise for his attitude during that time. Such reticence, however, has been unusual among the rulers of authoritarian regimes.

China also does not seem ripe for revolution. The regime has a legitimacy crisis that is very serious, with growth producing expectations and inequalities that in turn fuel intense anger at the regime and its officials. Corruption is endemic and the scale of inequality is nearly as bad as . . . the United States. China has a state that is rightly subject to innumerable complaints; it is, however, the only state the Chinese have. The fear of disorder runs deep, based on ancient as well as more recent experience. (One bad memory is the nihilism produced by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Another is the catastrophic suffering endured in the civil wars from 1911 to 1949). Nationalist feeling in the population, taking satisfaction in China's accomplishments, stature, and just pretensions, supports rather than weakens the regime. Discount the comment of a Chinese friend--"All Chinese people care about is making money"--and you still fall well short of a revolutionary situation.

We can say with confidence that revolution is coming--somewhere. The overthrow of governments and changes of basic regime we associate with revolution really are regular eruptions of the political world--"as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical," as Jefferson somewhat freely said. Their absence over a protracted period, considering the world as a whole, would be anomalous. Change is the law of life, and some regimes prove utterly incapable of changing of themselves, so are periodically removed by revolt.

As a practical matter, however, predicting when or whether a particular regime is likely to fall is a "known unknown." There can be a great deal of ruin in such states. In foretelling the future, outsiders are especially disadvantaged, as being in the main oblivious to the intimate knowledge produced by "being there." But participants are handicapped as well, having about as much practical knowledge to estimate the outcome as they do a sporting event. They know, perhaps, how they would answer these existential questions, but can they really be sure how others, both among friends and enemies, will do so?