Showing posts with label English Civil War. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English Civil War. Show all posts

09 October 2014

Anatomy of Revolution, Part 1


by Eve Fisher

As well as a writer and omnivorous reader, I'm an historian by trade, and I love patterns in history. Searching down and matching up cross-cultural, cross-chronological patterns is my specialty.  And there are a lot more patterns than people are aware of, because (1)  we always like to think that we (our generation, country, tribe, religion, etc.) are unique and (2) we often get the pattern wrong.  And we generally get it wrong because we're trying to get the pattern to match a predetermined belief system.

For example:  There's an illusion that revolutions are started by the poor and downtrodden masses, who have finally had enough and Rise Up! against the oppressor, and all hell breaks loose.  Sorry. That's not how it works.   As Leon Trotsky once said, "The mere existence of privations is not enough to cause an insurrection:  if it were, the masses would always be in revolt."

Delacroix - Liberty Leading the People

Nor do revolutions erupt when societies are at their lowest, economically/socially/morally.  Actually, when things are at their worst, no one has time for revolution.  Survival takes up everyone's time and energy. Instead, revolutions occur just as things are, finally, getting better.  And they are launched not by the masses, but by a thin wedge - actually many thin wedges - of which the most common are intellectuals (sometimes, but not always, of the upper classes, socially and/or economically), grumbling property owners, radicals, and extremists who - SPOILER ALERT - would not be satisfied if God came down from heaven and gave them everything they claim to be their heart's desire.

Crane Brinton (1898-1968)
Back in 1938, Crane Brinton, a history professor at Harvard University, wrote a book called "Anatomy of Revolution".  He revised it in 1965, and I only wish he had lived long enough to incorporate the Chinese Cultural Revolution in it as well.  Basically, he compared the English Civil war of 1642-1651, the American Revolution of 1765-1783, the French Revolution of 1789-1799, and the Russian Revolution of 1917-1922, and found significant patterns that ran through all of these.  He compared revolution to a fever, and he wasn't far wrong.  I'm not going to use all of his jargon, and I am going to simplify some things and add others, but here's the general run-down, in case something strikes you as familiar, or potential, or possible.  Personally, I find predicting revolutions far more practical, although much less hilarious, than predicting apocalypses.

The Pre-conditions of Most Major Revolutions:

In every revolution  (Britain, Colonial America, France, Mexico, Russia, and China), the economy was actually improving before the revolution.  BUT as things got better, people felt more discontented than they did when they were starving to death and could only focus on food.  Now they had food, and they started wanting more.  They were hopeful for the future, but they felt they were forced to accept less RIGHT NOW than what they hoped for.  And (sorry if this comes as a shock) they always blamed it on the government in power.

Brinton said that, in each case, the Old Regime was:
  • Economically weak - the government had deficits and/or debts and had to enforce taxes, which everyone hated.  
  • Louis XVI of France
    • NOTE:  In most countries, taxes were paid almost entirely by the poor, even though, throughout pre-revolutionary history the 5% wealthy/middle class owning 95% of the wealth was the norm. One of the purposes, and major achievements, of revolutions was to change those statistics significantly.  For one thing, today we EXPECT there to be a substantial middle class, and are worried when there isn't.  Thank the American and French Revolutions for that one, folks.  
  • Politically weak - the government was ineffective and could not enforce policy.  
    • NOTE:  this was especially true in governments that were based on hereditary royalty, which almost always eventually run out of steam, not to mention genetic material. 
  • Intellectually deserted - the intelligentsia (scholars, thinkers, some artists) gave up on the way their society operated and joined the reformers, speaking out against the government, often (especially in France and Russia) sawing off the branch they were sitting on.  
  • Riddled with class antagonism - there was a growing bitterness between the social/economic classes, with the classes closest to one another being the most hostile to each other.  (Basically, the poor don't have the time to hate the rich, they're just trying to survive; and the rich can easily ignore the poor, because they hardly ever see them.)
The Revolution Begins

Zapata in Cuernevaca
So all this is stewing away, and then a symbolic action rallies the people against the old regime.  The Boston Tea Party; the taking of the Bastille; the Petrograd strikes in February, 1917; Viva Zapata!; the Guangzhou Uprising in China of 1927; the mass rallies of the Cultural Revolution.  These are followed by planned "spontaneous" revolts (usually carefully orchestrated by the intellectual elite), and the government can't repress the rebellion without a level of violence that they fear will lead to total revolution. But total revolution happens anyway.  And the government... succumbs.

Change to Moderates

Charles I on trial for his life in 1649
In France, the Legislative Assembly ruled until 1792; in China, in 1911, the Qing Dynasty fell and Sun-Yat Sen became first President of the Republic; Charles I of England was held prisoner by Parliament, which ruled the country; Francisco Madero, a wealthy reformer, became President of Mexico; in Russia, Alexander Kerensky took over the Provisional Government.  In all of these and more the moderates quickly took over the mechanism of government.  Everyone celebrates!  "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!" (Wordsworth)  Everything is changing!  New constitutions!  New institutions!  Sometimes a new war!

BUT there's always somebody who isn't happy, whether you want to call them radicals or extremists or what ever other name is popular. Two VERY important facts:
  • The moderates fail to - and indeed cannot - satisfy those who insist on further changes because
  • the moderates want to/must maintain government, and the radicals want to destroy it. (Or at least the radicals want to destroy the moderates' government.) 
The honeymoon period is brief, sometimes as brief as a heartbeat.  In Mexico, President Madero was assassinated by his generalissimo successor Huerta, who claimed that the former President had gotten caught in an accidental crossfire; In 1911 China, Sun Yat-Sen was ousted by the old warlord Yuan Shi-kai in a matter of days.  (Sun Yat-Sen, no fool, resigned rather than stick around to be killed.)  In 1917 Russia, Lenin and the Bolsheviks got rid of Kerensky's government within months. In France, Robespierre took over the Committee of Public Safety...

And in all cases, any members of the former royal house still in the country get imprisoned and/or executed.

And now the Extremists, self-righteous, self-assured, irreproachable, illimitable and insatiable, are coming...

More next time.