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Western Revolutions: Were There Any Changes?

Egyptian revolutions shared similar characteristics with Western revolutionary movements in places where chaos and unrest were common features. People often lose their confidence or appetite for change due to the economic and political disorders that accompany revolution, becoming disappointed once they realize that changes leading to a better life will not occur overnight. This was the case for many Egyptians who claimed that the January 25 Revolution did not bear fruit to produce a new Egypt. But has there ever been a revolution that was able to produce an entirely new society in a short span of time? History shows that many revolutions were in fact a series of revolutionary movements rather than a single radical step in the direction of change. For example, the French Revolution was a series of revolutionary waves that happened over a long period of time. In his book Anatomy of Revolution, Crane Brinton presents an analytical study of the life cycle of a revolution: “We shall regard revolutions . . . as a kind of fever. . . . In the society and during the generation or so before the outbreak of revolution, in the old regime, there will be found signs of the coming disturbance. Rigorously, these sings are not quite symptoms since when the symptoms are fully enough developed, the disease is already present. . . . Then comes a time when the full symptoms disclose themselves, and when we can say the fever of revolution.”12

Brinton explains that a revolution will subsequently witness a “Reign of Terror” but concludes that, “once the fever is over, and the patient is himself again, [he will] actually be strengthened by the experience, but certainly not wholly made over into a new man.” Brinton argues that such processes take place in the social sphere as well, a “parallel [that] goes through to the end, for the societies that undergo the full cycle of revolution are perhaps in some respect the stronger for it, but they [are] by no means entirely remade.”13

In his book, The Psychology of Revolution, Le Bon notes that during the French Revolution, the revolutionaries were preoccupied with executing the old regime’s figures through revolutionary courts controlled by fanatics, while crime prevailed in society in the absence of state institutions. The majority of the French Revolution’s leaders were neutral moderates who did not dare to challenge the radicals. Le Bon explains that the determined but narrow-minded radical minority dominated the majority of neutral moderates. He claims that the moderates damaged the revolution alongside the radicals. In fact, the radicals’ strength was derived from the moderates’ weakness. Le Bon also mentions a third group that was interested in participating in the revolution: an opportunistic group of unemployed lawyers, failed doctors, and retired priests who supported the radicals. Additionally, by examining the fatal conflict between two of the main figures of the French Revolution—Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre—Le Bon demonstrates how the damaging revolutionary fanaticism dragged France into chaos and instability. By the end, the French were ready to accept a tyrant like Napoleon as their savior, and he was said to at least have brought prosperity back to France.14

The eighteenth-century American Revolution gives another example of the gradual nature of the world’s major political revolutions. In his book Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, historian Woody Holton explains how the American people were disappointed by the creators of the Constitution, who were supposed to utilize America’s Revolutionary War against the British Empire to create a democracy but did not. Average Americans believed the Constitution was manufactured in order to take power away from states and the people.15 American historian Howard Zinn describes the bitterness American people felt after their revolution in his book A People’s History of the United States. Zinn uses the expression “sort of revolution” to describe the events that took place in the United States in the revolutionary period, referring to the long struggle that people went through to achieve rights for the marginalized classes within American society.16 However, Richard B. Morris also indicates that, at the time, people felt oppressed because the Constitution’s statement, “We the people of the United States of America,” only referred to white males and therefore excluded natives, African Americans, women, and other marginalized groups. In fact, it is worth noting that during the American Revolution, the slave trade dramatically increased. Politicians and officials worked hard to strengthen policies that led to widespread poverty, as only the elites benefited from the economic gains that followed independence from the British.17 The elite class also used laws and legal institutions to suppress those who dared to challenge established authorities. Such practices pushed authors like Henry David Thoreau, decades later, to write works of civil disobedience. In his seminal book, Civil Disobedience, Thoreau asserted, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well- disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”18

Yet, the American people continued their struggle toward a version of the Constitution that would serve them well as citizens of the United States. Even the great American leader Thomas Jefferson has been quoted as saying, “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”19

Indeed, while revolutions need time to reach their goals and to change people’s lives, they can eventually lead to stronger societies Brinton argues that a revolution’s ability to produce a stronger society depends on the intensity of the conflict between the moderate and radical revolutionaries. In fact, the result of this internal conflict determines the success or failure of any potential revolution. Brinton examines the four major political revolutions in the Western world: the English Revolution of 1640, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Brinton notes that although not all revolutions are identical, they all go through a similar cycle. At the beginning, revolutionaries act as one organized and united group, but as they gain more support and influence, internal dissent grows, betraying the lack of cohesive vision. The brief “honeymoon” period follows the fall of the old regime and lasts until the “contradictory elements” among the victorious revolutionaries surface. The first stage of revolution produces a “legal” government of moderates who compete against a radical “illegal” power, thus creating what Brinton refers to as “dual sovereignty.” The revolutions discussed by Brinton demonstrate how radicals attacked moderates by accusing them of attempting to bring about an end to the revolution. Moderates became weaker as they lost the people’s trust and, rather than focusing on their duties as a new government, they defended their position. They were thus dragged into a fatal but inevitable conflict.20

With the exception of the American Revolution, in Brinton’s examples of revolutions, radical groups, who were usually aided by a fanatical group of followers devoted to their cause, defeated moderates. Moreover, the small numbers of radicals gave them “the ability to move swiftly, to make clear and final decisions, to push through to a goal without regard for injured human dispositions.” Radicals then governed through authoritarian rule, dissociated themselves from the people, and devised slogans against the previous regime.21

In order to preserve the continuity of any revolution, it is essential to refresh people’s memories about the injustices that spurred the revolution in the first place. Successful revolutions are those that channel people’s anger toward change. If the anger becomes the end rather than the means, however, revolutionaries will lose their vision and will fail to determine the priorities of the revolution. To mitigate this risk, everyone, including leaders, must act responsibly and ensure the development of the revolution’s distinct cause, remembering that overthrowing a dictator does not mean defeating the regime. As Gene Sharp explains in his book From Dictatorship to Democracy,

Since 1980 dictatorships have collapsed before the predominantly nonviolent defiance of people in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Slovenia, Madagascar, Mali, Bolivia, and the Philippines. . . . The collapse of dictatorships in the above named countries certainly has not erased all other problems in those societies: poverty, crime, bureaucratic in?efficiency, and environmental destruction are often the legacy of brutal regimes. However, the downfall of these dictatorships has minimally lifted much of the suffering of the victims of oppression, and has opened the way for the rebuilding of these societies with greater political democracy, personal liberties, and social justice.22

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