Saturday, September 09, 2006
Revolutionaries and power
One of my regular commentators BBC did this pithy statement below:
"The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution."
Let us examine this, then, in the context of historical revolutions. I will not count the so-called "American Revolution" as a historical revolution here, due to its unique nature as the revolt of the power structure of colonial America against a far-removed government which wished to reduce or eliminate their power. In short, the "American Revolution" was not so much a revolution, as it was a battle between two groups of men of power over whether one group (the Colonial aristocracy) would be allowed to retain its power. In that regard, the "American Revolution" can be seen as a throwback to medieval power struggles between rival lords, rather than as an uprising against the existing power structure. The men who won the American "revolution" *were* the power structure of the Colonies -- they acted to preserve their power, not to overthrow an existing power structure.
If we look at that as a defining quality of a "true" revolution -- that it overthrows an existing power structure (rather than being an action to preserve one) -- it becomes clearer that revolution rarely has a good outcome. The French Revolution led to bloodshed, war, and eventually widespread destruction and the loss of a generation of French manhood in the Napoleonic Wars. The Russian Revolution led to Stalin and the death of tens of millions of Soviet citizens in his gulags. The Chinese Revolution led to the deaths of yet more tens of millions of Chinese citizens and a brutal dictatorship. The closest revolution I can think of that had anything approaching a non-bloodbath outcome was the Mexican Revolution in the early part of the 20th century, and even that ended up with the PRI basically ruling the country as a dictatorship for the rest of the century.
A true conservative, by contrast, spends his time attempting to preserve the current power structure. In essence, the American Revolution was a revolution by conservatives, who were intent upon preserving their power from a ruler (George III) who wished to reclaim possession of colonies that were nominally his.
Given that, let's examine BBC's statement above. How does his statement correspond with the realities of those revolutions in particular?
In Russia, we ended up with Stalin. Who spent most of his tenure attempting to preserve his power structure. Very conservative. In China, we ended up with Mao. Who spent most of his tenure attempting to preserve his power structure. Very conservative. Napoleon believed that warfare was the best means of preserving his power. Very conservative. The PRI ruled Mexico as their personal feifdom for 80 years, providing few services to the people and doing everything in their power to maintain the power structures that they had put together. Very conservative. Everything that these dictators did was calculated to preserve and maintain the power structures that underlied the State.
I'm not sure whether I'm willing to call Mao a conservative. He made too many changes to Chinese society during his rule for me to feel comfortable saying that. But he was decidedly conservative in his approach to power -- he spent the majority of his rule establishing and preserving the power of the Communist Party in China. His successors who currently rule China are most certainly are conservatives of the old-line sort, the General Franco or PRI type of conservative rulers who keep a close clamp on society in order to preserve their power.
So how shall we view BBC's observation? In the short term, it may be wrong. In the long term, it is always correct. The revolution sets up a power structure. His successors spend their days preserving and conserving said power structure. When you spend your days preserving a power structure rather than attacking it, you are no longer a revolutionary. You are a conservative -- despite any rhetorical flourishes (like "Institutional Revolutionary Party" as the name of the party that ruled Mexico for 80 years) to the contrary.
- Badtux the Analytical Penguin
Posted by: BadTux / 9/09/2006 12:47:00 PM
Wonderful analysis. Excellent examples.
However, you never addressed the question of what BBC's comment was doing in that thread? It seemed completely out of context. Or was it me?
# posted by TheCultureGhost : 9/9/06 11:26 PM
Pretty insightful Tux.
# posted by BBC : 10/9/06 3:55 AM
it does always seem that the first thing robin hood does when he comes out of sherwood is to set himself up as the new sherrif of nottingham. excellent take on the dynamics of the american revolution. you are in good company there, ellis, ambrose, barbara tuchman and david hackett fisher agree with you.
oh yeah, and me too.
# posted by The Minstrel Boy : 10/9/06 9:50 AM
It has been observed that popular revolutions are incited, fueled and led by the middle class not the working class as they are presented.
The working class want freedom from power. The middle classes want more power.
But whatever, the means define the end or outcome. Violence begets more violence.
Tux, your observations on the American Revolution point out the primary importance of "framing" history.
# posted by : 10/9/06 3:03 PM
For the most part Pirates rule.
Pirates don't bother about academic distinctions like 'conservative' or 'revolutionary' Their distinction is 'Available?' or 'Mine!'
Wars of revolution or agrandisment are just the way pirates grab.
Whoever is in power takes it out of the 99.99%. Everything else is ambience.
Did you know archy tagged you in a meme? I would like to hear your answers.
# posted by Dum Luk's : 10/9/06 5:52 PM
Yes, I know Archy "tagged" me. I may (or may not) answer the questions, depending on how much they interest me. I do not, in general, do "memes" as such, though.
Regarding "pirate rules"... Indeed, there often are pirates hanging around revolutions. When the Continental Army was active, the soldiers were as often paid with IOU's -- bonds -- as in hard currency, due to the failure of the various states to forward payroll to the Continental Congress. There were various piratical sorts who went around after the soldiers buying up these bonds for pennies on the dollar, then who made sure they got positions in the new government where they could insure that the bonds were paid off to the new bondholders, not to the soldiers who'd been given IOU's rather than pay. Pirate rules, my friend. Those are the rules our country was founded upon.
That said, once the pirates have accumulated their booty, they become as conservative as anybody else. The sum total of law and order in the United States can be summed up as, "I got mine, and keep your grubby hands off of it." Which is why the whining of those with money about how much they pay in taxes is ludicrous -- if not for those taxes that they pay, the unwashed masses would gather and take all their ill-gotten booty away from them. Of course, under the Bush Regime, they get the unwashed masses to pay the taxes, not them, which I suppose is yet another instance of pirate rules... but really, it's the same "I got mine, and fuck you" at work, isn't it?
- Badtux the Rambling Penguin
# posted by BadTux : 10/9/06 8:54 PM
When you speak of the American Revolution, it wasn't quite the "American" (or Colonial) power structure" against the "British power structure" if by the words "power structure" you mean political power." This is because in the Massachusetts Colony (as in most of the coloniea) there was a Royal Governor, appointed by the King, advised by some variant of a colonial council also appointed by the King.
In many colonies there was also a colonial council composed of social leaders, mainly affluent traders, locally active artisans, and large scale farmers. But in many colonies, this "native" or "American" council was toothless and often proscribed by the Royal Governor, as in Massachusetts.
But you're right that the Colonial Revolution is an outlier, since it was caused more by economic than political persecution. (Stamp Tax tea tax, import prohibitions, especially molasses, milling machinery, etc.)
I took BBC's comment to mean that every revolutionary loses all interest in politcal and social change once he gains power. This is not a fault in Revolution, nor in conservatism, because it's caused by human nature.
If you want to discuss it further, consider Che Guevara, who was far less interested in consolidating political power than in exportation of the struggle. I think Ortega Saavedra of Nicaragua also felt the same compulsion.
# posted by Lurch : 11/9/06 2:49 AM
So, should we be frightened by the errosion of the middle classes?
# posted by : 11/9/06 8:06 AM
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