By Shadrack Muyesu
Revolutions take many forms. But generally they are the rapid transformations of the political and socio-economic climate of a state.
The most accepted rationale behind revolutions can be drawn from the histories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Explaining the relationship between the societal base and its superstructure, they predicted the fall of the bourgeoisie state at the hands of an enlightened proletariat starved of wages due to advancement in the means of production. Revolutions of this nature would be spontaneous, requiring only the input and leadership of the starved workers keen on replacing the exploitative capitalist state with a democratic socialist one.
Though the events of the 19th Century collapsed the Marxist revolution theory, the success socialism initially enjoyed provides fundamental lessons on the nature and causes of revolutions. Most importantly, it mandates the existence of a hated ruling class – the bourgeoisie of Marx – which hatred must defy historical social and political biases to reflect equally upon the proletariat. While history testifies the possibility of revolutions that do not follow this cue, it consider them as palace revolutions likely to result in protracted sectarian warfare as opposed to accepted alternative government.
The proletariat also needs to be radicalised. Ideally, this ought to be at the behest of a political party boasting a national appeal. Indeed, the first major scalp of Marxism, the fall of the 365-year long tsar dictatorship, came as a result of the application of a variant of Marxism favouring a leading role for political parties in Marxism-Leninism. Parties magnify interest; they demonstrate the collective appeal of the oppressed proletariat while shielding them from individual atonement in the event of bourgeoisie retribution.
Especially where the state is large, parties also provide machinery necessary for spreading revolution rhetoric, which is very important, since revolutions require a rapid shift of ideas if they are to succeed. Care must, however, be given to the nature of the rhetoric passed. A common mistake that many would-be revolutionaries make is that, ignoring the nature of the masses they intend to appeal to, they ignore agitation to focus on easy to forget propaganda or a complex assessment of bourgeoisie (in) action. An ideal message is a novelty condensed into an easily discernible and acceptable slogan.
Mass revolutions cannot succeed without numbers. Political parties only exist to marshal them, which duty they need to be well structured to perform. Even as the party secretariat remains the custodian of the party’s ideological vision, the overwhelming majority of the party must consist of intermediate cadres of people who, though not exemplary theoreticians, astute mathematicians, thinkers or economists, are able to well connect with the masses and the secretariat. It is this school that Marxism- Leninism brands career revolutionaries – persons advanced enough to guide the vision of the proletariat yet lowly enough to share this vision with them.
An analogy of two limbs, the conditions must, finally, be ripe for a revolution. Not only must the political climate be favourable, but also the citizens must be adapted to spotting such opportunities and consistently engaging them. Historically, revolutions have been associated with states experiencing a marked decline in growth rates that had until then, been favourably positive, or altogether nonperforming economies. These changes must be visible to the people. While citizens of largely educated, homogenous urban societies will audit government for its ability to deliver on its promises and fulfil their aspirations, only very dire socio-economic conditions can catapult mass revolts in highly stratified rural societies. Otherwise, regime changes in the latter societies only come as a result of palace revolutions.
An appreciation of human rationality and the mechanisms of want is the key to understanding the different reactions just highlighted. Human beings are generally rational and “hardwired” with selfish preferences (Fish, 2008). When faced with two or more alternatives, their innate selfishness pushes them to make choices that best serve their individual interests (utility maximisation). Rationality, the tendency to make decisions based on “passion” – informed, shaped and flamed by phenomena such as “personality cult”, “religion”, “ignorance” and/or “desperation” (Elster, 2000) – is the definitive factor of revolutionary reaction anywhere. Where society is deeply stratified, it (rationality) begets equally varied reactions to government excesses hence a difficulty in mobilising and sustaining mass action.
Recent history suggests that revolutions that precipitate at the height of government power hardly midwife regime change. Where they can consolidate domestic and attract considerable international support, unwanted regimes often remain indifferent to revolutionary tunes, creating a power gridlock that lasts ages. Only when the ruling class starts to disintegrate from within can change be realised. The French revolution, the second phase of the Bolshevik revolution, and the recent events of the Arab spring are classic examples.
In Russia, When Petrograd troops could no longer resist the unrelenting pressure of the protesting masses, regiment after regiment they defected and left Tsar Nicholas II with no option but to dissolve the Duma. A few days later, the revolution triumphed. In France, drought, disease, poor cereal harvests and rising food prices, amidst a costly American Revolution, and compounded by the arrogant extravagance of King Louis XVI, catalysed a proletariat reaction that led to the ouster and death of the King. This success would have stalled had the French guard and Swiss Patrol cavalry not joined the people in storming government agencies.
Different states, different results
In Libya, a previously strong Ghadaffi couldn’t stretch his resistance beyond three months, having lost the support of key domestic and international allies. In neighboring Egypt, a government-imposed curfew went unenforced by the police and military, allowing the masses free reign in their protests. According to some reports, plainclothes police officers not only abetted the looting that defined the protests, they actually participated in it. Contrast these with the events in Syria where the Basher al Assad government remains popular.
The success of governments that take the place of ousted regimes is entirely dependent on the nature of the revolution. Though fuelled by popular will, mass revolutions create a leadership vacuum – and consequently anarchy – with various proletariat forces competing for control. An inevitable palace revolution introduces a momentary order, which collapses at the altar of the new government’s oppressiveness and the dawn of yet another palace revolution, creating a troublesome tradition of oppressive regimes and internal coups. The history of independent Africa demonstrates this position.
Pan Africanism betrayed a strong sense of unity and homogeneity that events after independence soon proved false. Indeed, where independence ought to have been a slow-to-arrive-at, carefully considered prospect, many countries stumbled into freedom with nothing as a plan beyond blind passion. Though many staked the unity and prosperity of the continent on this pan Africanism, limitedly equipped and tribal, independent regimes soon settled down to consolidating their position at the expense of those left behind. They soon rebelled. Countries such as the DRC, Nigeria and Uganda experienced massive consistent upheavals due to their natural wealth and deep division, while for others like Rwanda and Sudan – where colonial powers had created new bourgeoisies with their indirect rule strategy – sectarian uprising came much later yet with far worse effects.
The Bolshevik revolution is another example of this mass-palace revolution transition.
While the initial phase sparked off spontaneously, the second phase came as result of a Lenin instigated palace coup that resulted in a dictatorship that later fell courtesy of another palace coup by Josef Stalin. The French revolution also took a similar trajectory in reducing France to killing zone for proletariat factions that could not agree on a leader. Indeed, the new regime that emerged, that of Napoleon Bonaparte, was only a little different from the uprooted Nicholas aristocracy.
Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Nationhood theory offers perhaps the best explanation behind the inability of highly differentiated states to actualise mass revolutions. Where a state consists of many distinct tribes, Benedict has observed that the success of Marxist-Leninist revolutions is entirely pegged upon the nature of the revolution leader, that of his party and the larger society. They guarantee peaceful government as long as the leader remains visionary, fair in his dealings and guarded in his excesses.
Even so, the examples we draw from in defining this phenomenon are more palace revolutions than they are Marxist- Leninist. An ideological shift towards liberal democracy has restricted the occurrence of actual Marxist-Lenin revolutions to earlier in the 19th Century. The same can be said of Marxist revolutions. History records no case of a Marxist revolution of the purest sense. What one can bear witness to are popular revolts that lead to liberal democracy-mass revolutions.
The Tunisian revolution was by every definition, a mass revolution. Egypt achieved initial stability in the popularly elected the Muslim Brotherhood regime not exactly different from the Mubarak dictatorship. It latter descended to chaos in systemic palace and sectarian coups that eventually stopped. Syria and Libya only experienced sectarian revolts, which explain the hard-to-come by peace today.
Kenya is a highly differentiated society in which fidelity to tribe often trumps over socio-economic dissatisfaction. Only when a leader is able is able to harness this disaffection to surpass tribal sentiment can she qualify for a mass revolution.