Whatever Happened To Revolutions?

For decades many Westerners were confident that revolutions could transform lagging Third World countries into fledgling First World states. When the Arab Spring broke out in 2010 many from the White House on down expected a peaceful transformation of poorer Arab states.

Yet, only Tunisia has shown any signs of improvement, and even they are limited. In Syria, the civil war has killed 450,000 people, forced six million people to flee their homes and five million people to emigrate to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The fighting drew in forces from Syria, Russia, the United States, ISIS, Kurds and Hizbollah. The seemingly endless war has spread to Libya, Iraq and Yemen.

Why have the revolutions failed so dismally?

The problem is that when Westerners think of revolutions, they are thinking of three early revolutions ― the English Revolutions (1640-1660, 1688-1689), the American Revolution (1776-1789) and the French Revolution (1789-1799+). These early revolutions built on the protracted transition from the late feudal period to the early modern period (1420-1620). During that time there were key modernizing features in Europe ― the discovery of the New World (1492), the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648), the Catholic Counter-Reformation (1545-1648), the creation of the printing press by Gutenberg (1440s), and the development of the scientific method by Francis Bacon (early 1600s). The three great revolutions built on these dramatic changes.

The English Revolutions led to the dominant role of parliament in politics, the end of the divine rights of monarchy and emergence of a limited constitutional monarchy after 1688.

The American Revolution led to the rule of law, the Constitution, the right to vote by males for Congress and division of power among three branches of government. American citizens had the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” granted as inalienable rights given by G-d.

The French Revolution led to the elimination of monarchy and noble privileges and greatly reduced the power of the church. The revolution produced the concept of nation state and men being citizens rather than subjects of the state. The Declaration of the Rights of Man promoted human rights and proclaimed, “liberte, egalite and fraternite.”

But, even these revolutions took generations to achieve their goals. While King Louis XVI was executed in 1793 it took until 1871 before the French monarchy was eliminated. While England executed King Charles I in 1649 it took 40 years and the Glorious Revolution before a limited monarchy was achieved. In the United States, it took another 140 years before even women had the right to vote (1920).

Too, England, France and the United States before the revolutions were among the most developed countries in the world. By contrast, the GNP/capita for Egypt is $3,700, Syria $1,800 and Yemen $900. Oil rich countries, such as Libya ($5,200), Iraq ($4,600) and Iran ($4,600), are poor compared to the United States at $58,000, France and England both at $41,200.

Even the 20th century Russian and Chinese revolutions followed the same path. China’s first revolution ending the Qing dynasty (1910/1911) led to the terror of 12 years of the warlord period, followed by the war with Japan (1937-1945) in which the Japanese seized 50 percent of the country, the six biggest cities and killed 10-20 million people.

This was followed by the Communist revolution which killed several million people in the three-year war with the Guomindang nationalists (1946-1949). The intervention in the Korean War (1950-1953) saw 400,000 Chinese soldiers lose their lives. The Maoist desire to transform China led to the 30-40 million Chinese who died in the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the 2-10 million lives lost in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

The Bolshevik October Revolution (1917) also had dire consequences. It led to the Civil War (1918-1920) in which 11 million people died. In the 1930s millions died either in the Ukrainian famine or Stalinist terror. Today Russia, despite being a petro state, has $8,0000 GNP/capita, the same level as China today after 40 years of modernization.

Overall then we should not be surprised when we see other revolutions, such as Cambodia (1.5 million killed) and Angola (.5 million dead). But, what leads to modernity, as Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan have shown, is the non-revolutionary path of a hard form of capitalism that lasts decades. But, sadly, revolution can not achieve that end any more.