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Are Revolutions A Good Idea?

Written By: - Date published: 8:30 am, January 23rd, 2021 - 24 comments
Categories: China, democratic participation, Donald Trump, political alternatives, Politics, Revolution, Russia, uk politics, uncategorized, us politics - Tags:

Ok so we saw Trump’s supporters storm the Senate for an afternoon. And the symbolic wrath they got in return was far greater than the massive and often violent burning and looting protests associated with Black Lives Matter for months on end. It’s not unreasonable to ask why the Police treated the BLM protesters harshly but BLM were in the end exceedingly effective, and on the other hand Police were pretty light on the Senate protesters but who were given near zero sympathy in the media and catastrophically lost.

Revolt? Revolution? Pain in the ass? Depends, like comedy, on timing. And which side of history you end up on.

The most successful rebellions and revolutions of the last century challenged the moral legitimacy of the current rulers and convinced people that an alternative was possible. They usually arrived – particularly just after World War 1 – when growing opportunity was blocked. Most profound revolutionary changes result from pressure from both the top and the bottom of society. Marxist belief that the proletarian mass have revolutionary integrity has been repeatedly disproven in the actual history of Marxist-Leininist revolutions. Lenin and Mao came from the middle class. Castro was the son of landowners. Career progressions are to be accelerated, mostly.

Revolutionaries need to demonstrate that the state is out of control. The Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968 makes no sense in military terms with 35,000 dead. But it demonstrated that the state no longer had the moral claim to be able to protect its citizens. It also did for the Iraninan Shah. Each time the Shah’s police shot demonstrators they set in motion a cycle of mourning and revolt. By the month of Muharram and the end of 1978, daily demonstrations were shot at until on 12 December 2 million people came onto the streets to start the Shah’s overthrow.

All rebellions begin as revolts against injustice, opporession, and exploitation. The memories of enslaved ancestors do more to drive people to revolt than any dreams of liberated grandchildren. But revolutions with a shot at success combine moral fervour of injustice with an ethical vision (irrespective of its coherence) of how the state could become a servant once again. Most revolutions have the same four goals: protection (often called peace); welfare (and bread); justice (wrongful imprisonments or death); and truth.

Ah truth.

In all revolutions truth is the commanding height which is fought for most vigorously. You are most of the way in a fight if you can make the state appear to be what it often is: a fiction that is self-made, often without roots, and one that is immoral as well as false. In the fall of the Soviet Union the trick was the truth production was that it was no longer reinforced with tanks. Arrogance from rulers helps. Marie Antoinette’s comment that if the people did not have enough bread they should eat cake is infamous.

In revolutionary situations most ruling groups reveal themselves to be prisoners of their own fictions, responding to threats by hardening themselves. Few can handle the politics of retreat: making concessions at just the right speed and with just the right amount of moral contrition to stay ahead of the waves. Brazil’s Lula could have jailed a swan of his corrupt state corporation cronies and given his anointed successor an easier time. Instead she held her predecessor’s line and was chucked out – but could have done a bit of firing and jailing and survived a few more years.

Revolutions are moments when under stress the symbolic world of the state collapses and its moral promises are revealed to be empty. As this happens, the real gulfs of interest between the state and those it claims to serve are exposed.

Unfortunately, you topple the old order and you have to live with chaos and anomie for a bit. Most every postcolonial country in Africa. Sometimes the entire country never recovers. Friedrich Engels wrote that “the revolution made does not in the least resemble the one they would have liked to make.” Fiji never recovered from its multiple military revolutions. Adam Michnik, one of the leading intellectuals of the Polish Solidarity movement, said that those who start by storming the Bastille end up building new Bastilles. Poland today is not what Solidarnosc promised. Huxley said “what starts as heresy ends up as superstition.” Jesus would agree.

There’s no guarantee you’ll win. Or even if you do that anything will get better. Four of the five nations on the UN Security Council – the US, China, Russia, and France – were all born of violent overthrow. They’ve locked up the world between them. And Britain still celebrates Oliver Cromwell the executioner of the King outside the gates of Parliament. They all believed they’d found the unique secret of good power. All believed their principles were universal. All thought they had begun history anew. Another will come along just as righteous.

We are used to thinking that the era of revolution is passed. Maybe it did in the 1980s in Africa. Maybe it did in Europe and slavic states and the Caucasus in the 1990s. Maybe it did in the Western Pacific in the early 2000s. Or maybe it’s just the left that’s foregone revolutionary fervour and the real revolutions are generated by the right and they are successful against the EU and against progressive states. It’s true that modern democratic states are built to resist revolutions. Because power is exercised through so many disciplines and agencies, a higher proportion of the population is likely to have a stake in the complex order of society and stand to lose if it is thrown up in the air. Both globalised people-networks and the shrunken devolved state encourage this interdependent and counter-revolutionary tendency. Marcuse’s “Revolution and Counter-Revolution” seeks to figure this.

But rebellion remains a vital part of what keeps power moral. When young French Muslims rioted in 2005 they weren’t trying to change the regime they weren’t trying to change the regime, but their actions forced the neglectful state to respond as nothing else could. That responsive reform to include more moderate Muslims and exclude radicals continues under Macron and will continue after him. We certainly saw it here after 9/11. When Bolivian rioters in the mid-2000s forced an ineffective government from office they too showed that democracy isn’t solely about polite conversation in parliaments. It needs to be continually refreshed. If we don’t get the short sharp shock of raw passion and anger and ideals, we just get mediocrity. Arguably that’s what we’ve had here since Bolger, and we’re now one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.

The Ihumatao protesters who in 2019 blocked the road, seized land, and drew thousands, got the attention of government as few others have. They got deals through ideals.

Revolt that revitalises and restores power’s moral sense can do good by becoming institutionalised and tamed, leaving the battles of politics to result in bruised egos and a few ended careers, rather than bloodied corpses.

24 comments on “Are Revolutions A Good Idea? ”

  1. RedLogix 1

    Peterson described the nature of tyranny very well.; it's what happens when everyone starts repeating the lies necessary to maintain the tyranny. Most people do not have the courage to expose themselves by telling the truth and this lack of collective courage enables the oppression. At the moment a moral leader appears, or events weaken the tyrant, the people defy the regime and with little to no violence it crumbles overnight.

    But the nature of truth is the most slippery of the four goals you list and why it's so fought over. Absent a universal moral framework, fit and adapted for purpose in the era, we have no measuring stick to determine truth. All becomes a post-modern soup of idle intellectual vanities, nothing can be decided.

    But we're not allowed to directly address this – the nature of such a framework, where it might be found, it's precepts and principles – are the modern taboo.

    The secret to good rebellion is courage – not violence.

  2. Good insight:

    It’s true that modern democratic states are built to resist revolutions. Because power is exercised through so many disciplines and agencies, a higher proportion of the population is likely to have a stake in the complex order of society

    Elections allow for a peaceful transfer of power without the need for chopping heads. But now we (democracies) are ruled by a technocratic political class that is susceptible to the influence of external nations or corporations.

    • roblogic 2.1

      Politicians are like piñatas; you have to poke them a bit to get what you want. That means protesting and making a lot of noise. Like FDR said when he met some political activists: “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.”

    • Phil 2.2

      But now we (democracies) are ruled by a technocratic political class that is susceptible to the influence of external nations or corporations.

      There has never been a time in the history of democracy where the political class wasn't dominated by a combination of technocrats, the independently-wealthy, and the highly educated. I don't see any reason to believe that now makes us somehow more susceptible to external or corporate political interference.

  3. Stuart Munro 3

    Although you're generally on the right track

    the “Let them eat cake” story had been floating around for years before 1789. It was first told in a slightly different form about Marie-Thérèse, the Spanish princess who married King Louis XIV in 1660. She allegedly suggested that the French people eat “la croûte de pâté” (or the crust of the pâté). Over the next century, several other 18th-century royals were also blamed for the remark, including two aunts of Louis XVI. Most famously, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau included the pâté story in his “Confessions” in 1766, attributing the words to “a great princess” (probably Marie-Thérèse). Whoever uttered those unforgettable words, it was almost certainly not Marie-Antoinette,

    Did Marie-Antoinette really say “Let them eat cake”? – HISTORY

    It illustrates too, the enduring power of political slanders – which can often be recycled until they meet a figure with a sufficiently vulnerable public persona.

    • Incognito 3.1

      I think it is a bit of a moot point whether Marie-Antoinette uttered those exact words. In the context of the OP, the question is whether she was arrogant and whether leaders who got toppled by revolutions shared this trait. Does arrogance play a role in catalysing revolutions?

      • Stuart Munro 3.1.1

        The matter is necessarily complex – Marie Antoinette was readily demonized because she was a queen of foreign origin, and by rejecting her the populace need not appear disloyal to the nation, while nevertheless pursuing their republican ideals. Moreover, if as the writer suggested she neither spoke those fatal words nor was of a character to do so, she can hardly be rated arrogant on the basis of them. The government of the period may well have been arrogant however, or insensitive to the plight of the poor, or of the consequences of some of their policies – but it has been argued that it was unremarkable, benign by the standards that had prevailed over the preceding century, and that it was a philosophical shift in public perception rather than a specific shortcoming of that government that made it more susceptible to revolution than its predecessors.

        If arrogance alone sufficed for revolution, certain NZ scoundrels would long since have met with the natural consequences of impoverishing the greater part of our population. But certainly the addition of arrogance to the injustices Ad already listed is more likely to prompt the relatively risky business of riot and insurrection.

  4. Tiger Mountain 4

    A revolution by my, and a few more highly qualified practitioners, definition is: “a fundamental change in class power”–in a marxist sense, whereby private ownership of the means of production, and appropriation of socially produced wealth, is done away with by mass action of the exploited and oppressed. Society is run in accord with natural resources and requirements, not by rabid Bezos style projections for the “4th quarter”.

    There have been precious few revolutions in human history that met that standard. And really the failed ‘first attempt’ degenerate workers states, as Trotskyites sometimes term them, of Europe including the USSR, should give little comfort to the likes of Advantage and other insipid centrists. For a socialist transformation is what may save humans arses in the face of climate disaster. Wall St is clearly not going to do it. Wall St has stood back in air conditioned comfort as 400,000 Americans died unnecessarily.

    The “land of the free” has been well exposed as nothing of the sort–a colonised, genocidal, forced labour dependent, bastion of capitalist exploitation and horrific white supremacy.

    • Incognito 4.1

      Would it be possible for you to leave the ad hom out, next time? Just asking, for a friend.

    • Adrian Thornton 4.2

      @ Tiger Mountain +1…if watching our own apparently saintly Ardern who also apparently made climate change her central focus, failing miserably in real time to even get on the first steps of seriously dealing with this looming disaster doesn’t make you understand that free market liberalism cannot and never will tackle this problem, then I don’t know what will.

    • Ad 4.3

      That definition of the term is so narrow it's useless for answering either the question of the post or political analysis generally.

      The question is never whether revolutions are worth the risk and hence only ever evaluated on their success rate. The question that must be answered is the conditions for their necessity.

      • RedLogix 4.3.1

        Short answer in my book -literally – is no.

        Just as the time of barbarity, of slavery, of subjugation, of empire and war belong in our past – so does revolution.

        • Tiger Mountain

          Heh, in your dreams. Earth is near the end of anything but a greatly reduced role for human society, or even none at all. Private ownership and appropriation of socially produced wealth, ensured by armed state force, surveillance, Finance Capital, and consumerism, is not going to turn that around unless forced to. n.b. the 0.1%ers are not good at sharing.

          It is amusing that people with no desire for revolutions, and in fact that seem to crap on the very idea from a great height going by their comments on The Standard.org.nz, want to play mind games with the question.

        • In Vino

          Sorry to disagree, RedLogix, but it seems to me that barbarity, slavery, subjugation, empire and war all exist in surplus quantities in our modern world. Your attempt to equate revolution with them as undesirable is quite right. But while they exist, so will revolution., with any luck.

          • RedLogix

            but it seems to me that barbarity, slavery, subjugation, empire and war all exist in surplus quantities in our modern world.

            Not really – while I agree they're not gone, they've diminished to levels far lower than at any time in our history. Pinker has provided a very strong case for this.

            But the crucial point you miss is this; in pre-industrial times all of the above conditions while considered undesirable by those on the pointy end – were never condemned as ethically unacceptable. This has changed very dramatically over the past 200 years.

          • Pierre

            As Victor Hugo said:

            Today for the whole earth France is named Révolution; and henceforth this word will be the name of civilization until the day it is replaced with the word Harmony.

            Looking at the world, I'm still waiting for harmony, so revolution it is.

  5. Castro 5

    Not if you're on the No Zealand property ladder… if you feel you have nothing to lose… then quite possibly yes 😉 One regime's terrorist is another's guerilla freedom fighter etc. Perhaps all the blog's authors could state at the top whether or not they are part of the landed gentry or belong to the (growing) underclass… that WOULD be informative…

    • Ad 5.1

      That's the first thing 'revolutionaries' do: they turn ad hominem slurs into ranked lists for the firing squad. Purge, purge, and keep on purging … until the entire liberated countryside glows in the green of their blood and bone.

      • In Vino 5.1.1

        "Well, they bloody asked for it, didn't they? Fair go, it stands to reason.. They really asked for it!"

        That is the reply I got from students I had found out were bullying, and tried to reason with them, suggesting that by hurting the victims they were worsening the vicious cycle, and not helping someone who needed help rather than beating up.

        You are asking for it too. Have you been reading Orwell, or something?

        Human nature to some degree. But I am not sure that your contemptuous attitude is really justified. It certainly helps the powers that be.

        • Ad

          "Perhaps all the blog's authors should state at the top whether they are a part of the landed gentry or part of the (growing underclass)". Almost work for word from Pig in 'Animal Farm'.

          You're looking for contempt in all the wrong places.

      • Phil 5.1.2

        That's the first thing 'revolutionaries' do: they turn ad hominem slurs into ranked lists for the firing squad.

        The first thing they do? The first thing they do?

        Good gravy, man, even Fox News and Breitbart have the decency to insert a few extra steps in between 'Elect a left wing government' and 'Death panels at you local hospital'

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