Magazine | February 8, 2010, Issue

Thoughts of Revolution

The strange cachet of a usually miserable phenomenon

Will the second revolution in Iran, if there is one, be any better than the first? How often, in fact, do revolutions increase the sum of human happiness?

Thirty years after the French Revolution, Coleridge, recorded in his Table Talk, said: “We are not yet aware of the consequences of that event. We are too near it.” A hundred and fifty years later, Chou En-lai, when asked what he thought the effects of the French Revolution had been, famously replied that it was too soon to tell.

The effects of every great event or process are constantly reevaluated, and there is no final or definitive interpretation of them; it is always too soon to tell, for the chain of consequences never comes to an end, and our perspective tends to alter according to our current preoccupations. Recently I bought a book in France, Le livre noir de la révolution française, that attempts to do for the foundation of the French Republic what Le livre noir du communisme did for Communism: that is to say, to leave it without a shred of legitimacy because of its sheer murderousness. It need hardly be said that this interpretation has not gone entirely unchallenged, but it has at least thrown a stone into the calm pond of official self-congratulation.

If the interpretation of a revolution as long ago as the French is still contentious, how are we to interpret the phenomenon of revolution as a whole? Is it, indeed, a useful category at all, or has it been too much diluted? People are now inclined to apply the word to changes, themselves not necessarily all that radical, in every aspect of life, from philosophy to fashion.

But that is precisely the interest of the word: its cachet, its generally positive connotation. To say of a scientist that he brought about a revolution in our understanding of something is to praise him more highly than merely to say that he added greatly to our knowledge of that same thing. Vive la révolution!

If I were to say that this is indeed strange, because revolution has mainly brought about disaster, or at any rate more disaster than benefit to humanity, I might be asked from whose point of view I speak. I can reply only: From my own, speaking on behalf of humanity as I see it, according to my own scale of values; others might not share my values, and in any case my knowledge might be highly deficient.

By far the most successful revolution in history — indeed, one of the very few successful revolutions as measured by the subsequent progress and contentment of the population — was the American, possibly for two reasons: It grew out of a political tradition of liberty, and the despotism that it opposed was, by the standard of world despotisms, a mild one. Even so, it was not immaculate: The question that Doctor Johnson asked at the time, how is it that the loudest yelps for liberty are to be heard from the drivers of Negroes, did not emerge from the mouth of a tenured radical, but was rather a question that plagued the country for many years to come. All the same, few great events in history have resulted so unequivocally in benefit for large numbers of people, certainly not most revolutions.

In my time, I have traveled through quite a few lands with a revolutionary history, or where a recent revolution, real or imagined, has been extolled, and the list is not altogether encouraging: Haiti, Congo, Albania, North Korea, Cuba, Ethiopia, Russia, Zimbabwe, and Somalia, to name but a few. Between them, they clock up many millions dead, and hundreds of years of ferocious dictatorship or worse, and every conceivable assault on liberty.

As an example, let us take Haiti, where the terrible earthquake is like the apotheosis of the country’s history, its effects so much worse because for nearly 200 years Haiti has accumulated poverty as other countries have accumulated wealth. No decent person, I think, can be unmoved by the story of the only successful slave revolt in history, or by the reasons for it. The leaders of the revolution were most remarkable men, and many of them were truly admirable. If ever a revolution was justified, the Haitian one was.

#page#But that, alas, is not quite the same thing as saying that its results were beneficial. If only it were the same thing, how much easier the art and science of politics would be! For the history of Haiti ever since its revolution, at least insofar as history is composed of politics and economics, has been one of almost continuous man-made disaster, or man-assisted natural disaster.

Of course, to say that a revolution has been disastrous in its effects is implicitly to indulge in counterfactual thinking: It implies some kind of estimate of what might have happened without it.

In the case of Haiti, continuing as a French colony, the slaves would have been emancipated in 1848, as everywhere else in French possessions. Haiti by now would be a département d’outre-mer of France, that is to say the polite fiction would be entertained that it was just the same as, say, la Drôme or Haute-Savoie, and it would have received massive subsidies from the French state to encourage at least the majority of the population to stay put. The buildings would be far more solid than they are, less liable to total collapse in an earthquake. One of the remote consequences of the Haitian revolution might therefore have been many more deaths after the recent earthquake than would otherwise have happened.

If only the heroes of the Haitian revolution could have hung on for another 40 or 50 years, how different would have been the standard of living of their descendants, and how much better placed the country to withstand natural disaster! But, of course, one cannot blame them: History is lived forwards, not backwards, and no one can see the long-term unintended consequences of his acts.

Strangely enough, however, the word “revolution” retained its prestige in Haiti so successfully that Dr. Duvalier availed himself of it. His tenebrous regime was revolutionary, at least in its own estimate; and in the sense that it brought about profound changes, perhaps this was just. The man one of whose early publications was a study of the use of tetracycline in the elimination of yaws, conducted under the auspices of the Rockefeller Institute, and one of whose books was extolled in a postface by a courtier as his Mein Kampf (intended as a compliment), always claimed legitimacy by means of the word “revolution.” Even stranger, the word retained its positive connotations long after the good doctor’s death.

Everywhere I went, any prominence of the word “revolution” did not seem to augur very well for the population. I remember a time when it was fashionable among intellectuals in the West to argue that anti-colonial revolutions in Africa, such as those in Algeria and the Lusophone countries, would lead to “real” independence as against the phony independence of the other African states, revolution being necessary to shake up the apolitical torpor of the population and liberate it from its mind-forg’d manacles. It would be interesting one day to write a his­tory of this madness.

If you had to have a revolution at all, it was obviously best to have a bogus one, such as that in Zaire under the rule of the late Mobutu Sese Seko. At the time, I did not appreciate him at his true worth. His “revolution” consisted of forbidding neckties and making everyone abandon his European first name in the cause of African authenticity. It otherwise largely left people untouched: It had no choice in the matter, for it was so inefficient that the transport network virtually ceased to exist. Where it did exist, the revolution set up military checkpoints, but these were not much to be feared. I remember going through one in a truck without stopping, sending the soldiers flying in all directions. I asked the driver whether this was not dangerous; would the soldiers not fire at us?

#page# “Oh no, monsieur, they’ve sold all their bullets long ago.”

That’s the kind of African revolution I learned to like (rela­tively speaking), the bogus one that sells its bullets. It turned out, in the event, that the driver was absolutely right. When it came to fighting opponents with real weapons, the revolution was utterly defenseless. Needless to say, the real thing has been incomparably worse: millions dead, and millions of refugees.

My experiences of Latin American revolutionary movements also led me to conclude that people rarely take to violence for the sake of freedom. Power is much more attractive to them than freedom, which necessitates the difficult discipline of toleration; liberation movements, so called, fight for the freedom to boss other people about because they know what is right for them. They are about the replacement of one elite by another, not infrequently worse because even more self-righteous.

This is nothing like an iron law of politics, however: not like the iron law of oligarchy expounded by Robert Michels, say. The violent downfall or overthrow of regimes can sometimes lead to an increase in liberty, even where such was not the real intention of the leaders. The prime example of this is Romania. Having visited that country in the last days of Ceausescu, when it seemed that he and his Lady Macbeth would preside over it forever, I rejoiced when he was overthrown (and, I am ashamed to say, I briefly rejoiced also that he had been shot after the briefest of trials by a kangaroo court on charges some of which were manifestly untrue). What seemed like a revolution came then to appear like a putsch, an attempt by one faction of the ancien régime to preserve that regime. But though the putsch was intended as such, it really was a revolution in its effects; for a regime such as Ceausescu’s is like an egg, it is either whole or it is broken, and once broken it cannot be made into a whole egg again. Although the new governments in the first years after the downfall of Ceausescu managed the difficult feat of making the economy yet worse for many, perhaps most, people, from the point of view of freedom they represented an improvement. And, as Tocqueville said, woe betide him who seeks in freedom anything other than freedom itself.

All in all, I am skeptical of the prospects before Iran. The Iranian revolution of 1979 enjoyed support not because it promised freedom, at least in any form that we know it. And even if the current government committed electoral fraud, it was not on such a massive scale as to imply a population near-unanimously in favor of the government’s overthrow, let alone its violent overthrow, or a regime that commands absolutely no popular support. It is far from certain that a regime of the kind that the opposition would like to install would enjoy majority support, being based as it would be on an unrepresentative educated elite, in which case the possibilities for extremely violent conflict would be strong. It is very rare in history that freedom has emerged from such violence, and rarer still in countries like Iran; those who claim to fight for freedom have often been all too ready to resort to extreme force to defend their own power. I hope that I am wrong.

– Mr. Daniels is the author of Utopias Elsewhere and other books.

Anthony Daniels — Mr. Daniels is a long-time contributor to National Review.

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