Thomas Apolte on the modern myth of revolution

During the Arab Spring, thousands of Tunisian demonstrators take to the streets

During the Arab Spring, thousands of Tunisian demonstrators take to the streets of the capital, Tunis, in January 2011, to demand the resignation of the President. © dpa - Lucas Dolega

After the disaster of the Arab Spring, the modern myth of revolution initially lost some of its attractiveness, but the myth has been revived again in the wake of the latest wave of mass protests in many countries across the world. The myth goes back primarily to Karl Marx. Because - as Marx, the critic of capitalism and a social theorist maintained - the exploited masses had nothing to lose but their chains, the ruling class would sooner or later inevitably be overthrown. Ironically, the people who were overthrown in Germany in 1989 were none other than those who legitimised their power through the teachings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Looking at history, though, it has to be said that the masses have seldom chased their rulers away. So, as a rule, the myth of revolution is first and foremost one thing: too good to be true.

The reason for this is rooted in the deep power structures of dictatorships. The diabolical logic they employ insists that, of all the groups which could pose a threat to a dictator, the broad masses are way down the list, far behind the dictator’s closest confidants, the members of the government, his advisors and secret service chiefs, and the generals and police chiefs. The mass of the people, on the other hand, is generally trapped in a structure which is difficult to escape from. Anyone who dares to turn against the dictator before a sufficiently large mass of other people do, can expect terrible consequences. It is a chicken-and-the-egg situation: without any protesting masses, no one dares to show his hand; but if no one dares to show his hand, there will be no protesting masses.

But can this really be a serious problem when we consider the many mass protests that have been taking place recently? Yes, it can. Because firstly, we see such mass protests almost always taking place in comparatively liberal dictatorships, or in times of temporary liberalisations - but never in dictatorships such as those of Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Kim Jong Un. And secondly, we only notice such protests that actually take place and never, of course, those which have never happened, despite terrible oppression. While it is true that all protests are a consequence of dissatisfaction, the reverse does not hold true. Statisticians call this effect ‘sample selection’, and it suggests to us that dissatisfaction generates mass protests, although that is so in only a very few cases. Worldwide, there are a good 100 dictators who are all exploitative to a greater or lesser extent, but mass protests arise in only a handful of such countries.

Where protests do happen, it is chance that has brought together a series of favourable factors. But even then, most dictatorships survive the mass protests. If they do ultimately collapse, it always has the same reason: in the face of mass protests, the confidants of the dictator - the generals and the chiefs of the secret services and of the police - turn away from the dictator, as for example in East Germany and Romania in 1989 or in Egypt in 2011. But they certainly do not always do this. In many cases these people remain loyal, for example in Beijing in 1989 or in Venezuela last year. In such cases, mass protests make no difference.

For mass protests to arise and have an effect, two rather unlikely factors have to come together. First, the broad mass of people have to overcome the chicken-and-the-egg problem - which rarely succeeds. If it does succeed, the consequence - and this is the second factor - has to be that the security forces then renounce their loyalty to the dictator, which itself is more the exception than the rule. But, even then, the revolution has only destroyed a power system and left behind a power vacuum into which organisations such as ISIS or ruthless power-hungry people such as President Lukashenko in Belarus are only too happy to step. A revolution cannot, however, create a new, better system by itself. As the Irish writer Oscar Wilde ironically commented, “Revolution is the successful effort to get rid of a bad government and to replace it by a worse.” Unfortunately, the comment contains a great deal of truth. After all, revolutions have only seldom resulted in liberal societies. The USA is one exception, as are the revolutions of 1989. If we look at Belarus, Russia, the Caucasus or Central Asia, much of the magic of 1989 has faded - to say nothing of the Arab Spring.

The myth of revolution is unfortunately a romanticisation - something which even scholars often do not accept. For anyone who does accept it, however, the study of revolutions provides profound insights into the logic of the power exercised by people over people. But unfortunately it also leads to the realisation that even today we have still not properly understood the conditions for liberal democracies to be established. We can, rather, see them as happy examples of historical chance. This is why we should take good care of democracy wherever we have it. Because if it is once lost, it cannot be retrieved again so easily.

Thomas Apolte is Professor of Political Economy at the Center for Interdisciplinary Economics (CIW), University of Münster. His latest book, entitled “The Myth of Revolution”, was published recently.

This article was first published in the Münster University newspaper wissen

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