Revolutions That Are Eaten By Their Children

Recent developments in the Arab world led by Egypt have given rise to a new cottage industry. For the sake of that country, one would hope that the interest at its current levels would be of limited duration. Instead of recounting the past and dwelling on yet inconclusive indicators, it is time to fit the process into a larger design. Taking a step back from the immediate, helps to us to see the whole to the extent that our experience can be applied to it. Discovered tendencies help to envisage future scenarios.

The issue that is generally put into the focus of attention is what overthrew Mubarak and how this could happen. If we go beyond journalism’s concerns then another question takes center stage. It is whether, in the spirit of the revolution, its protagonists can prove to be capable to determine their society’s future. Numerous revolutionary overthrows have ended up missing their original goals after the removal of old power elites. In the case of the Arab/Muslim world, it pays to remember a salient fact.  All the systems, whose removal is now expected, were created following a revolutionary overthrow. This is notably true in the case of Iran.

Regardless of its labeling, any form of radical change, can be an expression of several underlying forces. Not all of these will be acknowledged by the time the date of taking power becomes a national holiday. The speeches to the march-bye of the thankful masses and school texts will sanitize the motives for the purpose of edification. The extent of the editorial improvement of history will be a measure of the distance between the original program and the reality created by a new set of rulers. Even in the case of chronologically and ideologically related revolutions, this distance can vary greatly. Take the American Revolution and the French Revolution. One realized most of its goals and resulted in the present’s most stable and therefore oldest functioning political system. The other ended, after a number of traumas where it began, in an updated dictatorship.

To be ultimately successful, the force driving the “revolution” needs to express its own strength and not only the weakness and indecisiveness of the “old regime”. The society that served as the womb of a revolutionary transformation needs to possess several characteristics if it is to capture the future. For one, it must express a unity of the mass behind a program that goes beyond the act of the overthrow. Having an agreed upon principle, the movement is enabled to define itself and not to lose its orientation after the old oppressors are gone.

The precondition of ultimate success is essentially the ability to control the period of post revolutionary consolidation. This consists of more than having the will and the program to pursue once power has been transferred. Such an agenda needs to be more than an expression of negatives. These are a useful at the time of the overthrow but they are likely to mute into a source of paralyzing division. Once a program emerges, the observer needs to determine its practical utility. Good blueprints must do more than to cater to the initial euphoria of the revolution’s participants.

It states the frequently disregarded obvious that, besides spontaneous support, such a program needs to be practical. Realistic programs presuppose practical men. These will be needed to formulate a course of action that can be realized among fallible men. Utopias can move masses but they are, by definition, not realizable. These practical men will also need to pursue a rational course that is accepted by society.

It is in this phase of consolidation that most revolutionary dreams turn into an awakening in disappointment. In this process, it is therefore customary that the original leaders that rose to the surface disappear. They are replaced by persons that know how to govern, or more radical types that are capable to prolong the era that between the revolution and consolidation. The latter lead the movement they captured into a permanent revolution. Such an era will be bloody and authoritarian. The continued struggle in the defense of the “Revolution” justifies the suppression of those that wanted something else of the upheaval they had once supported.

A similar trap lurks if the practical men that know how to govern, are committed to institutionalize a program that is not makeable. At that juncture, the movement’s stated ideology or something that exists as an inchoate “general will” enters the picture. Some ideologies can be, in theory, convincing and may even claim to express the laws that, supposedly, make the world turn. Marxism is a classical example. Its “materialism” and rationalism, the idea of a new man that acts according to his objectively measurable interests and further premises that appear to conform to experience, confer a world view with a utility. The attraction strengthens by promising to bring about, by claiming to be the logic of the ascent of man, a new world in which the ideal becomes the reality.

The wrong “Weltanschauung” is more than a path to the abyss. Ideologies preclude their use on a trial and error basis. Ideological errors are not corrigible –unless their system is smashed. All encompassing teachings create fanatics because they regard doubts and criticism to be treasonous and superfluous for the only possible truth is already known. For the same reason, those that begin as fanatics in search for confirmation of their infallibility, are attracted to movements with a world view. Add power to the mixture and you get a tyranny regardless of the point of departure even if that might be located in a striving for liberty.

Practical men in the pursuit of a workable program and with the charisma to transmit their ideas are a pre-condition of consolidation. Such persons will not only endeavor to implement the possible. Their characteristics will make them sufficiently flexible to entertain new impulses when underperformance demands adjustments. Characters with expertise, a drive to succeed and the strength to admit fallibility are not the typical product of the myths that move the masses. Realistic programs and their representatives are open to critique. They can also conceive of their removal by a majority within an institutional framework created to assure good governance. Alas, spontaneous revolutions that are actually upheavals seldom create or are responsive to leadership by such, necessarily moderate elements. The reason that Washingtons and Jeffersons rarely appear goes beyond the state of mind of spontaneous mass movements that express resentments developed under the old regime. Realism, the moderation of rational calculations and a respect for The Law are not traits that the collective personality of crowds develops.

Revolutions tend to be the reverse of the system they replace. Regimes that are felled by a revolution can be said to have laid the foundations of the upheaval that replaces them. When the leading Colonists separated from London’s rule, they started from the best system of their time. Therefore, they had a skilled population behind them and were by education, experience and temperament, qualified not only to tear down but also to build up. At the risk of earning curses, on this basis Spain has reasons to be thankful to Franco and Chile to Pinochet. Similarly, a connection exists between Tsarism at its worst and Lenin. As a frustrated revolutionary but it in 1848, “Total slavery is an inadequate preparation for Liberty”. Revolutions, whose subsequent praxis appears to betray their original goals, confirm the point.

Some authoritarian systems manage, through repression and the neglect of development that might rely on a cultural prejudice to look backward, to hold on to power. Following the removal of “old regimes”, their legacy can mean that no tested and prepared alternative leadership could develop. The future might prove this to be the case in the countries that are now experiencing upheavals. Besides the need to formulate programs beyond illusions and developing structures, these movements will fail or prevail depending on whether they can sideline their “revolutionary bums”. In every society, there is an element that finds that the turmoil of revolution is not a means toward an end but a pleasant condition. This element finds the opportunities offered by an orderly and fair society to be a threat that unmasks them as mediocre. Therefore, they have an interest in the opportunities chaos provides and in making a transitory phase permanent. Raising in Berkeley- style “non-negotiable” demands while preventing the majority to return to its business undermines order and therefore prevents progress. These “children of the revolution” are in this manner “eating the revolution”. Whether the peoples now rising shall prevail will depend on whether the new leaders can send the crowd home and have prosaic work resume “after the week end”.

Should the consensus-based return to a new order of normalcy fail then a new force will rise and impose its order. This impulse will come from a group that, regardless of its current size, has a firm organization from the time when it operated in illegality. In the context of general confusion, its discipline and purposefulness will make it into the core around which the new order crystallizes. By taking control of the majority that is incapable to convert its will into new structures, the original revolution will be appropriated. With that, the revolution will be truly devoured by its most determined children.