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Wednesday, July 11, 2012






Publishers Note: This article was originally printed in the April 2011 Dakota Beacon magazine


As the middle eastern world destabilizes in a rash of revolutionary movements many westerners find themselves scratching their heads trying to discern what the revolutions are about.  They appear to differ from country to country, tied only by a common element of dissatisfaction with the status quo.  Many attribute the beginnings of the Egyptian movement to poor economic conditions, high food prices and high unemployment.  Others revolutions appear to be motivated by a desire for democratic reform.  But we should all be cautioned that the cause of revolutions is often a very poor indicator of what the ultimate outcome will be.  

            In 1938 the eminent American historian Crane Brinton published his classic work “Anatomy of a Revolution.”  In it Brinton studied several revolutions, including the Russian, French, and English revolutions, to determine their common causes, courses, and outcomes.  While Brinton also discussed America, he classified it as a rebellion rather than a revolution – a change of governments without a critical ideological or cultural transformation characteristic of true revolutions.  Brinton’s “anatomy,” or what has come to be labeled the “Brinton Thesis,” is as follows.  The first requirement is what he called a “historical watershed,” a long-accumulated collection of grievances and dissatisfactions ranging from economic hardship, government insolvency, private debt, and unpopular wars to food shortages, excessive taxation, and various forms of what is perceived to be oppression by the people.  The second requirement is the organization and mobilization of discontented people by parties able to articulate their grievances and focus them on action.  The third requirement is the demand for solutions that require the abdication of the existing regime.

 Once the regime abdicates, Brinton observed the following common course of events.  First, comes the rule of the moderate – an attempt by moderate forces to form a government that will address the problems through measured changes, perhaps including attempts to modify the powers of the existing regime or otherwise accommodate it.  Examples would be the short-lived interim Kerensky government in Russia or the Girondists of the French revolution.  But the moderate government seldom holds.  It is usually followed by a succession of increasingly extreme governments, called the “rule of the Radical” by Brinton, which seize power by catering to the violence incited by revolutionary passion.  Examples are the quick succession of ultra-montanist radical governments ending in the violent and murderous government of the Jacobins under Robespierre and the Directory in the French Revolution. 

In the end, as a nation slides into bloodshed  and chaos,  the final step is the entry of a strong man, a Cromwell, a Napoleon, a Hitler, or a Stalin who unites the nation, usually by focusing the emotional aggression and chaos generated in the people on some form of internal scapegoat (Jews - Hitler), engineers and small independent farmers (called “wreckers” by Stalin) or external aggression (Napoleonic wars, WWII). 

            This succession of scenarios has played itself through many times in the last half century;  and many a fool has failed to heed Brinton’s analysis to the sorrow of his people.  When I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota during the early 1980s, we American students were livid over the capture and hostage of our embassy by mobs during the Iranian revolution.  I remember the violent revolutionary exuberance of Iranian students at the University as they vented their wrath at the U.S. supported Riza Shah Pahlavi.  They were full of optimism in the beginning, but six months later they were stunned to silence as the radical and oppressive regime of the Ayatollah Kohmeini strapped its iron grip on their nation.  One young lady, a friend, was devastated because her brother had been drafted and killed in the post-revolutionary wars with iraq; her sister, a student in Iran, had been imprisoned for demonstrating against the NEW government, and her father had died of grief.  In six months her family had been decimated.  A new strong man had taken over, and their ill-defined revolutionary aspiration had been crushed.  

            And had Saddam Hussein heeded Brinton he would have saved the Iraqi people untold bloodshed by staying within his borders.  What Saddam perceived to be a moment of weakness engendered by Iran’s  revolutionary chaos was actually a furious beehive waiting to swarm,  as the internal revolutionary violence and blood lust focused on its new external enemy and claimed the lives of millions on both sides – in the end gaining Hussein nothing but hatred and acrimony. 

            One of our blind spots is that we tend to interpret the events in other parts of the world within the framework of our own historical experience and our own institutions.  To many Americans, the unseating of a despot or a monarchichal government is synonymous with freedom and a budding secular culture – an extension of our own sense of a manifest destiny.  This is dangerous thinking.  Revolutions in other cultures will invariably assume courses determined by THEIR history and institutions. The background whisper of islamic extremism is not inaudible in many of the street riots, with evidence of radical shiite agitation in  Bahrein and worries of terrorist groups  thriving with a power vacuum in Yemen.  In Egypt, the new “democracy,” what may be the  hopeful “rule of the moderate,” has already shown a disconcerting affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps tomorrows “rule of the radical.”   Indeed, when an eruption sweeps simultaneously across national boundaries in large portions of the globe, one cannot help but sense some unseen common element lurching in the shadows.

            As we watch the spread of revolutions and sort through the bewildering array of grievances comprising the “historical watersheds” that drive people to the streets in these nations, and as our news analysts and political pundits caress our ears with the optimistic hopes of the people swarming the streets for new “freedom and democracy,” it is prudent that we remember one thing.  In the end, the historical causes and the future hopes of these people will likely mean little.  While individual people at the barricades often share the common element of frustration and outrage, each has his own cause and his own dream, and a revolution can never solve them all.  In fact, revolutions seldom solve the real deep seated problems of the suffering masses and their failed governments.   Instead they too often succeed only in unleashing a bloody catharsis focused on their chosen scapegoats, until the people are exhausted by their own violence.  In the end it will be the people, groups, organizations or agendas that have captured their hopes and energies that will determine the outcome.  The people of Iran still, thirty years after their revolution, chafe beneath the yoke of the ruthless Shiite fundamentalists who captured theirs.    

            We should hope and pray that those forming the new governments will, indeed satisfy the aspirations of their people.  But we must understand that if those leaders are ideologically extreme enough or ruthless enough the outcome will take the form of their agendas, not the form of the people’s wishes.  It’s the organized people behind the scenes who will finally rule an exhausted people.  Do not be surprised if,  in the end,  many of these hopeful revolutions are steeped in the bloodshed of those who manned the barricades, not at the hands of those they have deposed, but at the hands of those who have captured their discontent and steered it to their own ends.  And do not be surprised if the outcome of many of these revolutions is a proliferation of wars or threats of wars external to their borders. The sponsored Hezbollah assaults and nuclear posturing of post-revolutionary Iran against Israel are a case in point. 

            Finally,  before we sling our missals to abet revolutions, let us consider that the historical record of outside nations trying to steer the revolutions of others is not encouraging.  Instead, let us prudently and carefully prepare to defend our people, our nation, and our institutions, and if necessary our friends against the potential aggression and fanaticism that may result from these movements; but in doing so let us be wise enough to keep our mitts out of the beehives and avoid lending the coming demagogues unnecessary cause that we unwittingly become, even more than we already are, the ultimate scapegoat for their hatred and discontent.  


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