Revolution and its discontents

By Daniel Stratford


There is nothing so simultaneously joyous yet inexplicably mournful as the demise or capture of a hated autocrat. Be it the capture of Saddam Hussein, the trial and incarceration of Hosni Mubarak, or the deaths of Osama bin Laden and, much more recently, Muammar Gaddafi, there is a certain, uncanny duality of emotions that the situation elicits. On the one hand, for many it is a cause of unrestrained jubilation, which, to a certain extent, is to be expected. After all, is it not normal to celebrate the demise of one’s oppressor, one’s opponent, or one who is considered to be an inveterate wrinkle in the fiber of our moral order? Displays of contempt for and relief surrounding the capitulation of one’s opponent have, after all, been a common and predictable occurrence throughout history, from the cries of “Carthago delenda est” – “Carthage must be destroyed!” – that filled the streets of Rome to the euphoric demonstrations that erupted in Southwest following the quietus of bin Laden in early May.

However, at least with regards to the revolution and overthrow of a longstanding government, there is a palpable gulf between the joyousness of the revolutionaries and the reticence of those who have seen the effects of revolutions that have previously come to pass. Revolutionaries may laud the dawning of “freedom,” celebrate a newly-christened “rule of the people,” or venerate the coming of “democracy,” but it is common amongst the revolutionary class to forget that that is a triumvirate of ends, not means – that is, if they don’t represent abstractions and dangerous departures from reality altogether.

Revolution has been ingrained into the Western psyche as an intrinsically beneficial thing. After all, weren’t many modern-day republics in Europe and the Americas birthed from the tumultuous womb of revolution? Isn’t upending the established order perceived as rejuvenating? Is tradition not emblematic of the stodgy, quaint proclivities of epochs past? Is change for the sake of change not inherently good?

Though it may be to the chagrin of those so captivated by the perpetual recurrence of the revolutionary spirit, the collective answer to these conundrums is an emphatic “No!”

When people speak of “revolution,” it is oftentimes laced with the romanticism surrounding the Age of Enlightenment or the Spring Revolutions of 1848. True revolution refers not to a superficial change in regimes, but in a complete repudiation of the social order that is being upended, for good or ill. The French Revolution was just such an infamous case: Aside from undoing the monarchy and the presence of the Catholic Church in France, the revolutionaries – the infamous Jacobins chief amongst them – sought to restructure society based on stringent Enlightenment rationalism, and sought to make government conform to the whims of the “popular will,” however ill-defined. What is most distressing, however, is that the revolution in France erred more on the side of instability, and exemplified not the uplifting of society, but the pernicious effects of unintended consequences.

Though chronologically distant and known by most only through textbooks and classes in Modern European History, the history of revolutions in France and elsewhere do a great job of informing our understanding of the nascent trends of modern uprisings, the Arab Spring chief amongst them.

People may have praised the downfall of Mubarak and his authoritarian largesse, but they fail to see the movement of Egypt towards the precipice of chaos. Similarly, there are those verdant souls who may have accepted, or even fawned, over the death of Gaddafi, but are blind to the inchoate tribalism that is once again threatening to destabilize Libyan society. Though the original zeitgeist that provided the animus for the Arab Spring may have been driven by a singular desire for the promulgation of freedom, politics – and by extension, revolution – does not exist in a vacuum.

Though dictators may fall, instability, not democratically-elected governments, often serves as their successors. The mere act of revolution does not at all guarantee a smooth transition to democracy or economic stimulation. Indeed, more often than not, revolution and prosperity are antithetical to each other, with the former given to subverting stability while the latter is utterly dependent upon it.

Consequently, we should not look upon the Arab Spring with the haughty grin of victory quite yet. Revolution and reform are only as virtuous as they are effective, and the efficacy of the revolutions in North Africa and parts of the Middle East will only be revealed as the ambiguous fog of time is cleared by the advance of history. Edmund Burke, a preeminent observer of the plentiful pitfalls of revolution, made a similar claim with unflinching clarity over two centuries ago during the tumults of revolutionary France when he proposed that he should “…suspend [his] congratulations on the new liberty of France, until it had been combined with government … with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective revenue, with solidity and property, [and] with peace and order…”

This is not to say that revolution serves no utility at all, and that the evil and the despotic should be made to reign in perpetuity for the sake of fickle “stability.” Indeed, it is often the unbalanced structure and imprudent dispositions of many autocratic governments that foreshadow their demise in the first place.

Just as dangerous as the lust for power, however, is the desire for change for the sake of conforming to one abstract ideal or another, without due consideration of the innumerable minutia that sustain any state, authoritarian or not. The fault of the revolutionary is not his desire for change, but his lust for novelty.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]