What Occasions Revolutions?

~Paules: Has anybody other than Karl Marx established a theory for why, when, and how revolutions occur? And even if we did have a theory, surely local considerations like culture, tradition, and history would modify the reasons. This is complex stuff. I’ll consider the opinion of a qualified Sinologist if anyone can recommend one. · 9 hours ago

I quote Paules’ response to my most recent post on China because the question that he poses is a very good one.

The answer to that question is that there is a very considerable literature on this. Some of it is Marxist. Much of it is Tocquevillian. Read his Ancien Regime and the Revolution.

One key indicator is that those with access to the levers of power within the ruling order cease to believe in the religion or ideology that legitimizes the regime. Another is that their underlings also gradually abandon the beliefs that render respectable the rule of their masters. This happened some time ago in China, and there very nearly was a revolution at the time of Tiananmen Square. Tellingly, the key players among the young at that time were often the children of party officials.

At the time, the party split over how it should respond to the protests and quite a number of leading party figures ended up under house arrest for the rest of their lives. It did not have to end in the manner in which it ended. It could have gone the other way. It was a close-run thing.

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, I think it highly significant that leading figures in the Chinese communist party have recently instructed their underlings to secure and read Tocqueville’s book. People in China who are far more expert with regard to that country than any western Sinologist could possibly be are evidently thinking about the question I raised.

The Tocquevillian account of revolution fits the Arab Spring, the eruptions in eastern Europe in the 1980s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union to a “T.” First goes belief in the legitimacy of the system. Then comes a trigger — an event which causes large numbers of people to say to themselves, “I cannot take this anymore.” Then, the crucial question is whether those in charge have the nerve to try to crush the rebellion and whether their underlings will follow orders. If the powers that be are hesitant, ambivalent, or divided, if their underlings are fed up, things can very easily come apart (as they did in eastern Europe, in the Soviet Union, and in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria). So far, the Chinese and the Iranians have kept a lid on things. But do not think for a second that these regimes are stable. In both China and Iran, skepticism about the regime’s legitimacy is commonplace.

As for “qualified” Sinologists, they may be the last to know. Very, very few of those expert in communism in eastern Europe and very, very few Sovietologists saw that the end was near. Next to no Arabists predicted the Arab Spring. These people are expert in predicting how the regime in place works, and they are often exceedingly good at what they do. But that is often where things stop. One has to have a certain distance on things to be able to recognize the warning signs.

China very nearly came apart back in the days of George H.W. Bush. It could very easily happen again. I have thought for 25 years that the day would come, and I harbored similar views in the 1970s and early 1980s regarding Soviet domination in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself. I thought the same from the late 1980s on concerning Arab nationalism. It had run its course. Opportunists were apt to join the ruling parties. Young idealists did not. That was the story in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as well.

It is not all that hard to identify a pre-revolutionary situation. Foreseeing what will trigger the revolution and precisely when — that is almost impossible. The situation can be ripe for decades, and nothing will happen. Then, along comes a puff of wind, and the house of cards collapses. Who would have thought that an ostentatious suicide on the part of a street vendor in a town of no great significance in a backwater like Tunisia would have set off the Arab Spring?

If this subject interests you, I would suggest reading Tocqueville and, then, an old book by Crane Brinton: The Anatomy of Revolution. One could quibble with Brinton about the details, and scholars have, but in its outlines it makes a lot of sense.

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