There is something naïve about rejoicing at a revolution. Whether across the Arab world or in Ukraine, the fall of decadent regimes is met with euphoria. Euphoria and a tendency to forget that revolutions are often successions of failures, occasionally yielding something better. On the way, the suffering they cause often surpasses the worst of old regimes. Yet at each fallen dictator we still cheer too soon, thinking this time won’t be like the last.
The most famous revolution of all – 1789 in France – was a dismal failure. It led to civil and continental war, Bonaparte’s dictatorship, the restitution of the monarchy, the 1848 revolution, the rise of the Second Empire, and finally – nearly a century later – a burgeoning democracy. On the way, hundreds of thousands died from state terrorism and conflict. Far more than the ancien regime had ever killed.
Why do revolutions go astray? Studies abound on why they erupt, but few on why they turn so ugly. This is partly because it is a difficult outcome to observe. On what timescale is a revolution judged? Did the American revolutionary war succeed when Britain surrendered? Or was it an unresolved first chapter culminating in the 1861 civil war? Did the Russian revolution succeed with the fall of the Tsar or fail in Stalin’s dictatorship?
However, whatever the timescale of a revolution, they are often marred by similar factors. First, revolutions are driven by a shared narrative of resistance, but not of what comes next. This uncertainty is dangerous in the honeymoon period, just after old regimes are swept away.
If there is no mechanism, figurehead or institution to mediate different visions of the future, different factions tear each other apart. Civil war and survival of the strongest ensue. This is what happened in 1789 France, when Robespierre emerged out of the chaos to impose his terreur, later replaced by Bonaparte’s Empire.
On the other hand, if there are already strong, organised opposition factions, these often step into the vacuum and impose their tyranny. Even if they do not stand for the majority, or played no major role in the revolt, their strength stifles competitors. Without a mediating force to channel and restrain their ambitions, powerful factions rapidly take over institutions and the revolution flounders.
This is what happened in Egypt. When Mubarak fell, mechanisms capable of coping with pluralism were weak. The most organised and long-standing opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood, won elections on the back of fragmented and incoherent opposition. It imposed its own dysfunctional regime, only to be over-thrown by the military, still sufficiently organised to fight back. The biggest bullies won.
The second factor is ideological fervour. Some revolutions are driven by a post-regime utopia. They are informed by a single ideology, instead of a loose union of competing interests. This ideology drives coherent revolutionary forces to victory, allowing nothing to get in the way of their utopia. Worse than not knowing what comes after the revolution, is having a dogmatic idea of what should. This is what drove the Russian, the Chinese and Cuban communists to tyranny, and the Iranians to theocracy.
In both scenarios, only some sort of mediator can prevent the slide into tyranny or anarchy. Mediators take many forms: institutions, figureheads, assemblies, or the habits of political precedent. Anything that brings competing factions around a table. Without strong legitimate mediators, opponents tear each other apart, and bullies take over.
Such mediators are shaped by past political experiences. They do not appear in a vacuum. Countries where there is a history of democratic engagement, or figures and institutions experienced with political pluralism, do better during revolutions.
For instance, the American Revolution succeeded in forging a democracy because it was familiar with political pluralism. The 13 colonies already had pluralistic political assemblies before the revolution. American citizens were familiar with the workings of the British parliament (ironically the source of their tyranny). The mechanisms and the knowledge necessary for a smooth political transition were already in place.
Conversely, in 1789 France, the notion of political pluralism was new. French thinkers had theoretically discussed the concept before, but no one had experienced it. There were no institutions ready to handle it. So when dozens of new political forces burst onto the scene, they quickly fell into chaos and infighting.
Leapfrogging political experiences – attempting pluralism before knowing how to handle it – blights Egypt and Ukraine today. They are relatively inexperienced at mediating plurality in non-repressive contexts. The thing about revolutions is that conditions have to be ripe for the explosion, but also for when the dust settles.
This raises the question of political continuity. Revolutions which wipe the political slate clean seem to have worse outcomes than those who adapt existing institutions. Russia, China, Iran and Cuba re-booted their political structures from scratch. Doing so wiped out any counter-powers and channels for political plurality. The result? Dictatorship.
On the other hand, the English revolutions (the civil war, and the glorious revolution) gradually increased the powers of parliament over time. Even though the Cromwell era ended in dictatorship, the continuity of parliament allowed England and later Britain to learn democracy without further violent revolution. Similarly, America’s anchorage in British parliamentary tradition helped it survive the post-revolutionary years, and successfully reconcile the union after 1865.
Perhaps the silver lining is that however badly revolutions turn out, they represent valuable experience. They familiarise civil society and institutions with plurality. In the long term, they can help move towards democracy. France, after all, eventually became a democracy because it learnt from the failures of previous revolutions.
However, the next time a dictator is overthrown, we should think twice before cheering. In a rush to make things better, the hopeful revolutionaries might wash away the very institutions they will need.