Revolutions: on-time; premature; overdue

A look back at great revolutions


by Kumar David

Revolution is a much used and overused word, but there are two broad categories; political changes of significance and social-cum-economic overturns called structural transformations. Nine out of ten of the latter are preceded by change of ruler and state. Conversely there can be overturns of rulers and states without much change in socio-economic content; best known in modern times is the American War of Independence circa 1775-83. Change that attracts the word revolution but little disturbs the economic and social fabric are a dime a dozen; the expulsion of Marcos, overthrow of military juntas in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Haiti and more), the end of monarchy in Nepal, the breakup of Pakistan and Sudan, and the remnants of the Arab Spring.

No more about these principally political jinxes. This piece, written on the occasion of the centenary of the October revolution, is about the heavy stuff, that is, overturns of architecture (state, class and economic modus) in the post medieval world. Much has been written and I do not have anything add to conventional discourse. Rather I am interested in a comparative look at whether some are premature, some just in time and others overdue. The use of these three terms presupposes that, at some level of abstraction, there is a right time for overturns of social architecture. I subscribe to this view and agree that changes (technology and production, external relations, class and ethnic conflicts) accumulate in the bowels of society which thus becomes pregnant with a new life form. Forgive the lurid association of idioms bowel and pregnant, but it does get the point across.

Today I will chew on England from the Tudors to 1688, France 1780s to 1815 and impact on Europe, Russia from the First World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union and finally China from the 1920s to the present. I will spread things out on either side of the magical date; year 1648, June 1789, October 1917 and October 1948. To judge the maturity or otherwise of a revolution one must take account of its genesis and its progress. The conventional literature can fill a room, allowing me to take a synoptic approach biased to my ‘is it premature, in-time, or delayed’, frame of reference.

The century of revolution in England

The favourite book for the left of the English Civil War and Revolution is Christopher Hill’s Century of Revolution: 1603 to 1714, though R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism is still remembered with affection by (surviving) pupils of Professor ‘Tawney’ Rajaratnam. The period of Tudor absolute monarchies (Henry VIII, 1509-57 and Elizabeth I, 1558-1603) laid the foundations for modern English society; capital accumulation, ascent of mercantile and manufacturing classes and Protestantism. England’s position in the world was transformed by mercantilism and defeat of the Spanish fleet in 1588, more by appalling weather than Gloriana’s plucky sea dog Francis Drake. The break with Catholicism not because of Henry’s concupiscence but a declaration of independence from Europe’s late-feudal Empires and the Papacy. England then prospered as nation state and economy.

There followed a short period of reaction and repression under the second Stuart, Charles I (reigned 1625-48 and lost his head on the block in 1649). A state recognising only parliament took shape during the "Commonwealth" with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector but the race to expunge the English aristocracy and redesign the state was too rapid. The restoration of the wicked Charles II in 1660, after Cromwell’s death in 1658, was a brief course correction after a dizzying epoch. The return of parliamentary supremacy but with Constitutional Monarchy in tow in 1688 in the Glorious Revolution finally squared the circle. A system of state which survives to this day was cemented.

I would argue that history timed the end of absolute monarchy, plucked power from the hands of the landed aristocracy, cemented a compromise model of state and ensured the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie to economic supremacy, pretty nicely. Neither Rome, nor state and economy in modern Britain, were built in a day. It was a pretty efficient job getting the English project completed in the moderate time span to 1688 - after all it was the world’s first such try.

Continental Europe’s age

of revolution

Distinguished historian Eric Hobsbawm titled his best known work The Age of Revolution; it spans the 60 years from the French Revolution of 1789 to Europe’s Year of Revolution 1848 much celebrated by young Marx. The focus is France (Marx handed the draft of the Communist Manifesto to Engels in Paris in 1847) but laps the reshaping of Europe; France was the first course on the menu. The literature on the French Revolution is voluminous, it is also the Classic Revolution and hence I need give no background or detail. The question for this essay is ‘did history get the timing right?’ My answer is Yes and No. Mostly Yes - but not entirely - for France, but the overreach into wider Europe was more complicated.

Industry and commerce in France were nowhere near as developed in the 1780s as they were in England a century and a half earlier during the run up to the English Revolution. Intellectually, however, France was in ferment in contrast to England’s dullards. Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, what a star cast! Only Kant among philosophers and pioneer economist Adam Smith were contemporaneous foreigners. (Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke and Baruch Spinoza were a lot earlier). In the early and mid-1800s, urging ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ into Europe, were many celebrted revolutionaries including Auguste Blanqui, Lazare Carnot and Michael Bakunin; the last met Proudhon and Marx in Paris. Politically and intellectually, France was overripe for revolution though its means of production, using England as a yardstick, were not sufficiently mature.

Change could not be consummated without the abolition of feudalism, the intervention of the Jacobins through the Committee of Public Safety, the Terror relieving Louis XVI of his pate, and a Constitution establishing the First Republic. What took England forty years was completed in about five in febrile France. But history abhors haste. All the crowned monarchs, Pope, archdukes and nobility of Europe recoiled in horror; invasions followed. France’s reply was first a string of victories in Revolutionary Wars and then Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon harshly subdued chaos and dissent at home, assumed absolute power in 1799, and then his victorious armies reshaped the face of the European continent. Feudalism was abolished, republics with modern codes of law established, economies prospered, religious and intellectual intolerance was terminated and barriers to thought lifted.

This too was too much, too soon, for hidebound Europe. The backlash climaxed in Napoleons’ defeats at La Rothiere (1814) and Waterloo (1815). Actually this was the last straw of his foolish invasion of Russia’s vast terrain and bitter winter in 1812. This is what finished Napoleon; you can’t fight geography. Ancien regimés seemed to reassert themselves but actually not. Monarchs and dukes returned but social transformations could not be rolled back, nor feudalism restored. This brief paragraph recaps an elaborate story also known as combined and uneven development.

Two steps forward one
and a half back

Revolutions, like puberty, cannot be made to order or delivered on schedule; there are too many known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns augmenting a flood of known-knowns. If you think of known-knowns as Marx’s forces and relations of production, then known-unknowns are accidents of statecraft, politics and international intrusions. To push the figurative further, unknown-unknowns are consciousness and the role of leading persons – those who won (Cromwell, Robespierre, Bolivar, Lenin, Mao) and those vanquished (Wat Tyler, Tipu Sultan, Rosa Luxemburg, Che in Bolivia). And any Chinese Bikyim or Chan worth her/his salt will add: Don’t forget luck, it is like striking gold!

To linger with these figures of speech, both Russia and China, at the time of revolution, were clear cut no-no cases in the known-knowns materialist department. In the mind-and-will department, the subjective factor, Lenin’s indomitable resolve and the role of his party have become the stuff of legend. True also the indefatigable fighting spirit of the Chinese communists come across like myths from folklore. But still, excuse me, lovely ladies and kind gentlemen, it was not these unknown-unknowns but rather a known-unknown, not character but the foreign factor that clinched the deal. Apologies to Donald Rumsfeld for so much verbal legerdemain.

But my point remains; it was international subjugation that was decisive in both Russia and China – material conditions were no way appropriate for rushing off to start a socialist experiment. Begging your pardon Comrades Lenin and Mao, not all your talent would have carried the day if the imperialist bastards had not screwed up the landscape and made just about anything possible. Oh, no wonder I was writing about chaos theory and tipping-points some weeks ago. The straw that broke the camel’s back were the ravages of war, occupation, and burdens of imperialism. I don’t need to push the point; you know about pre-revolutionary conditions in Russia and China. The first of Lenin’s three great slogans (peace, bread, land) was an end to the war. China was cut to pieces, raped and exploited by the four great imperial powers of the day. The Emperor in Beijing was a political eunuch; Chiang Kai Shek was America’s catamite. The air was thick with the fog of revolution.

The Soviet Union expired because Stalinist economics was organisationally and technically inferior to advanced capitalism. Stalin was no Deng; he had no intelligent rear-guard plan. Are you asking me what will become of the Party-State and state-capitalism? Asking what China will be in half a century? Ah, ask not what will become of China; ask what will become of global capitalism; the answer to the China riddle my friend, is blowing in that wind.

So far this essay has been about revolutions in-time and revolutions premature. I have omitted one-third of the goodies promised in the title – revolutions overdue. Oh dear, don’t get me started on Europe and America, or what should social equity and real democracy be like in places that have got nearly half way there? Be patient, await the next thrilling instalment sometime in the future but to whet your appetite here’s a pointer:-

"Marx will have his revenge: Capitalism is undermining itself with technology that makes corporations and the private means of production obsolete. Then what happens? I have no idea". Yanis Varoufakis at University College, London, October 2017.

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