October issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 14 years ago

Asked to evaluate the French Revolution nearly 200 years after the event, Chinese premier Zhou En-lai famously declared that it was too soon to tell. His pronouncement underlined the fact that, all too often, revolutions tend to be controversial long after they have occurred, not least because, whereas their causes may be reasonably simple, the consequences tend to be complex. This is not something that can be ignored in the context of the current clamour for a revolution in Pakistan.

There can be little doubt that the French Revolution of 1789 proved profoundly influential as a template for drastic change. The violent overthrow of the ancien regime, accompanied by the slogan of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, established an aspirational template that inspired many a national revolt in the decades ahead, across Europe and beyond.

The idea of a revolt against absolute monarchy wasn’t a novelty, though, almost 150 years earlier, the English had overthrown and decapitated Charles I, although the republic that followed was relatively short-lived. The American Revolutionary War in the late 18th century delivered a more enduring republic not long before the dramatic events in France, although in that particular case the toppling of the established order was focused primarily on smashing the colonial yoke. It is undoubtedly ironic, but not entirely extraordinary, that when Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam in the aftermath of the Second World War, his preamble echoed the words of the July 4, 1776, American Declaration of Independence.

The world in the late 18th century was hardly a global village, yet there was a degree of cross-fertilisation between the French and American revolutions, not least through remarkable personalities such as Tom Paine, whose influence extended to the British Isles — and whose Rights of Man, a radical response to Edmund Burke’s reactionary reflections on the French Revolution, remains an invaluable resource in circumstances where the dignity of humankind is compromised — hardly an uncommon occurrence in far too many parts of the world as the first decade of the 21st century approaches its conclusion.

The French Revolution was essentially a response to monumental disparities of wealth that the citizens of France, from starving peasants to the relatively well-fed, but intellectually disenchanted members of the intelligentsia found increasingly intolerable. Dismantling the established order, with its divine right of kings sustained with the support of a complaisant but effete aristocracy, proved easier, however, than agreeing upon a suitable substitute. It was perhaps inevitable that the revolution would entail chaos, and neither Maximilien Robespierre nor Georges Danton — both executed in 1794 — proved capable of determining its direction, notwithstanding the notorious Reign of Terror.

That was arguably the first time that the concept of terror — in terms of what was perpetrated by the state, rather than against it — entered political parlance. The origins of the term are worth recalling in times when it is used exclusively to condemn “non-state actors,” even though it could, in all too many cases, easily be extended to encompass state actions.

The chaos in France eventually led to a military dictatorship, and the Corsican dictator in question eventually acquired the confidence to crown himself emperor. Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquests entailed a great deal of misery, but also helped to sow the seeds of ideas that sprang from the French Enlightenment. It is perhaps coincidental that Napoleon faced his first crucial defeat at the gates of Moscow — in a country that was destined, some 100 years later, to undergo upheavals that proved instrumental in shaping the 20th century.

It was also nearly 100 years after the French Revolution that France was able — in the wake of the short-lived but emblematic Paris Commune — to establish an enduring republic (which was reconfigured only after the Nazi-sponsored Vichy rule of the mid-20th century).

Europe remained prone to revolutionary changes throughout the 19th century, amid wars and general mayhem, but it was the so-called Great War of 1914-18 that propelled the next drastic transformation. The Russian revolution of 1905 prompted a degree of political reform in one of Europe’s most backward components, but it was clearly not enough, and the forces that overthrew Tsar Nicholas II in February 1917, comprising bourgeois, as well as ostensibly socialist entities, did not seek to end the war against the German-led axis that was taking such a heavy toll on peasant conscripts.

It was a war that Russia could ill afford, and the Bolsheviks’ offer to end it inevitably struck a chord among Russian soldiers on the front lines — who may also have been influenced by the contemporary international slogan that “a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both ends.” The Bolsheviks were ostensibly the majority faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party who decided more or less at the last moment that Russia could leapfrog from feudalism to socialism without the intervening inconvenience of a bourgeois democratic interregnum.

The decision, spearheaded by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, was controversial at the time and has become more so as the decades have passed. Russia’s 20th century would obviously have been very different in the event of a bourgeois-democratic consolidation in the years after 1917. What no one can seriously dispute is that the revolution was profoundly transformative at every level. It went through several stages, including a throwback to a mixed economy, but it’s important to remember that in the early days the received wisdom among most Bolsheviks was that their revolution would not succeed without comparable uprisings in key European states. That did not happen, and where it did, for instance in Germany and Hungary, the reaction proved stronger.

What’s equally relevant to note is that although the Bolshevik revolution led to a dictatorship of the party (and at that, a party purged of all resistance to Josef Stalin) rather than the proletariat, for better or for worse, its inspirational value was a global phenomenon serving as the basis for any number of Third World revolts, but also contributing crucially to the introduction of welfare states in developed capitalist countries. Even as recently as the early 1980s, following the grievously mistaken Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, it was not altogether uncommon to find economically dispossessed Pakistanis indulging every now and then in a spot of wishful thinking about the red tide, as they saw it, rolling southwards.

What’s more difficult to forgive is that all too many well-meaning communists, most of whom harboured no totalitarian designs, turned a blind eye to the process, whereby Stalin eliminated millions of his compatriots, including much of the Soviet intelligentsia. And in far too many cases, a similar attitude prevailed towards the mass deaths in China, beginning a decade or so after the equally transformative Mao Zedong-led revolution in that country.

The Chinese revolution did not closely follow the Russian template, insofar as it relied more on peasant support than that of the minuscule urban proletariat, and used guerrilla warfare as a means of gaining political ascendancy. Barely 10 years after Mao’s triumph in Peking, in October 1948, Fidel Castro’s guerrilla forces overran Havana. Although Cuba is a far smaller country than Russia (which boasts the world’s largest land mass) and China (home to the world’s biggest population), the 1959 revolution there was significant in large part because of the island’s location, barely 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Which makes the revolution’s survival for more than half a century more or less miraculous — but it’s a miracle that has been sustained for the past decade by political processes in neighbouring South America, where socialist leaders have come to power in a number of countries — most notably Venezuela and Bolivia — through democratic means.

Pakistan was inevitably touched by Afghanistan’s so-called Saur Inquilab (or April Revolution) in 1978, although it was more of a Kabul coup that was supported by a section of the intelligentsia that inspired fear and uncertainty in the countryside — a state of affairs that the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as well as the United States of America found relatively easy to exploit, especially after the Islamist-nationalist Afghans (which could serve as a description of the Taliban) and the CIA joined forces.

In the meanwhile, another of Pakistan’s neighbours had been racked by revolution. In retrospect, the events of early 1979 in Iran are invariably referred to as the Islamic Revolution. However, although the role of clerics — and particularly the previously exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — should not be underestimated, the forces that coalesced to overthrow the Shah ranged from mullahs to Marxists and included liberal democrats. Nonetheless, initial indications of power-sharing made way all too soon for theocratic repression; revolutions, after all, are reputed to devour their children. And the war launched by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq inevitably made matters worse. Thirty years later, Iranians seeking deliverance from the ruling clique are looking to erstwhile Khomeini acolytes for leadership.

In Pakistan today, there cannot be much doubt about the existence of conditions capable of fomenting revolutions. The unprecedented devastation wreaked by August’s floods was hardly instrumental in laying bare the structures of society, long enveloped in layers of contradictions. Have these contradictions been sharpened by the apathy of the political and economic elites (which often coincide) by the diversion of deadly waters to impoverished villages, away from the agricultural holdings of the high and mighty, away from military bases surrendered to American forces?

It would be remarkable if it were otherwise.

Then, are there any forces or organisations that could harness this anger and resentment and despair towards a movement capable of displacing the established order?

Well, not on the progressive side of politics. On the other hand, there are the Taliban and their murderous allies. Their power and their potential ought not to be overrated — but it would also be unwise to underestimate it. They reputedly enjoy a degree of support within the military and especially the military-intelligence-establishment. Were these forces to connive at some form of revolutionary change, the results could be too awful to imagine.

The likelihood of a revolution that effectively inverted the economic structure and cleansed the hopelessly corrupt system of politics is negligible. A rapidly escalating level of anarchy is less difficult to foresee. That would disrupt, but not necessarily displace, the status quo. The possibility of a military coup cannot be ruled out, even though it does not seen imminent. But anyone called upon to choose between the time-dishonoured institution of direct military rule and an Islamist revolution with unpredictable — but almost certainly unpleasant — consequences could be forgiven for concluding that’s not much of a choice.

And whatever one may think about the desirability or otherwise of revolutionary change, there is certainly little evidence thus far that it can be conjured into existence by the meretricious banter of television talk-show hosts.

Related articles:

A Revolution in Waiting by Sairah Irshad Khan

Waiting for Ayatollah Godot by Abbas Zaidi

Till Debt Do Us Part by Saad Hasan

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.