April 12th 2014

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Global warming to hit the latté set: IPCC

SCIENCE: Global cooling means the party's over

CLIMATE CHANGE: We are on the edge of the abyss

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Racial discrimination amendments rule out hate speech

OPINION: Claims of racism more damaging than the real thing

CINEMA: Christian critics pan the movie Noah

CANBERRA OBSERVED: MH370 disaster highlights maritime surveillance weaknesses

ENERGY: NSW farmers win breakthrough on gas exploration

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Why economists failed to predict 2007/08 meltdown

NATION-BUILDING: You say you want a revolution?

HUMAN RIGHTS: Andrew Forrest backs bid to stamp out slavery

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: China trade roils Taiwanese students

LIFE ISSUES: A poor prognosis is not an argument for euthanasia


CULTURE: The Case of Mr Sherlock Holmes

BOOK REVIEW: Taking God to School, by Marion Maddox

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You say you want a revolution?

by John Morrissey

News Weekly, April 12, 2014

The lyrics of the Beatles’ song, “Revolution”, probably the only thoughtful lines among those of all of their hits, are echoed by David A. Bell’s essay, “Inglorious Revolutions”, published in the American journal, The National Interest (January-February 2014).

David A. Bell

Professor Bell, a historian at Princeton University (and son of the noted sociologist Daniel Bell), is disdainful towards those commentators who feel that they have been betrayed in their high hopes for the so-called “Arab Spring”. He observes that “it is unreasonable, even rather absurd, to expect revolutions to usher in stable representative democracies that respect human rights virtually overnight”.

He delights in quoting Thomas Friedman, “that great barometer of elite American conventional wisdom” [all irony intended], who wrote lyrically of young Arabs who began to “rise up peacefully to gain the dignity, justice and self-rule that Bin Laden claimed could be obtained only by murderous violence”. Two years later, Friedman was lamenting a loss of life comparable to that seen in 17th-century Europe during the Thirty Years’ War.

Two years after the Arab Spring, expectations of progress are unrealistic. However, Bell offers an account of an unnamed revolution which, after a similar time-span, had made little ground, was friendless and divided, and whose members had committed the usual atrocities associated with rebel forces. And that was an appraisal of George Washington’s predicament in 1777-78!

Bell holds little hope that conditions in Syria will improve swiftly, as they did for the resulting United States under Washington between 1778 and 1781. A similar scepticism is expressed concerning events in Egypt and following the “colour revolutions” in the former Soviet Union.

He proceeds to remind us that, historically, revolutions have been “messy, bloody, long, drawn-out affairs … [with] numerous setbacks, and, unfortunately, … abuses carried out by all sides”. Real gains, if any, have taken many years or even decades, a truth which is apparent to anyone aware of history or events within our own lifetimes — even the Beatles!

A brief survey of the major modern revolutions in France, Russia, China and Latin America follows, showing that all have the same pattern, with “years of chaos and bloodshed” ensuing. Two key factors are advanced to illuminate the problem, these being the influence of the French “model” and the socialist vision of history which sees the role of revolutions as transforming society (i.e., human beings) into “something new and better”. This was best articulated by Mao Zedong’s remark that “a revolution is not a dinner party”, excusing wholesale slaughter as one might by suggesting that you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.

It took the Russian Civil War, Stalin’s terror, the Gulag, China’s Cultural Revolution and the Cambodian holocaust before “the myth of a redemptive, world-transforming revolution lost its allure, as one moment of dreadful disillusionment followed another”. Thus it was that the age of revolution seemed to be over when those setting up independent political institutions in Eastern Europe after 1989 eschewed the term.

Looking at the conditions under which moderate democratic regimes may eventually take root, Bell reviews the upheavals in France from 1789 to 1871, when only after the Franco-Prussian War debacle and the Paris Commune was the “relatively stable, moderate” Third Republic established, effectively stretching the duration of the revolution to 80 years.

Although he does not suggest that such “bloodshed and turmoil” are inevitable, we are reminded that Russia and China, after similarly long periods of disruption, have still not achieved “similarly benign outcomes”. Apart from the Islamists, who wish to impose a godly order on mankind, recent revolutions have had more modest goals. He concludes from this that the limited expectations accompanying disillusionment with utopian visions explain why today revolutions are expected to be so quick and neat.

Bell acknowledges the oft-derided thesis of Francis Fukuyama in his 1989 National Interest article, “The End of History?” — later expanded into a book, The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992) — in which he predicted that free-market democracy would become universal. Bell observes that this outcome “has indeed overwhelmingly become the preferred political model in most countries … with the exception of the Islamic world”.

As Fukuyama expressed it: “At the end of history it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society.” In this statement he was celebrating the modest triumph of liberal society and the discrediting of the extravagant notion that a French-style revolution was the path to achieving “higher forms of human society”.

Returning to the problem of how to realise these modest goals, Bell emphasises the difficulties encountered in countries “plagued by poverty and religious differences, and lacking experience in the rule of law and toleration of opposition”.

He concludes that there must be “a proper structure of [tangible] incentives”, such as West Germany enjoyed after World War II under the Marshall Plan and within the Western military alliance. Free-market democracy held out attractions to Poland also after 1989, in the form of EU membership and NATO security. These incentives overcame the desire of any factions to grab power, in order to enrich their members and suppress their rivals.

Recent revolutions in Georgia (2003) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) have “failed” in the eyes of some observers, because “the rule of law never took root” and leaders made the “key mistake” of assuming that revolution equated with democracy, and not focusing on “institution-building”.

However, Bell insists that it was the absence of incentives which explains this “failure”, for neither is the United States able to offer massive economic aid, nor the European Union able to offer quick access to membership, as rewards for progress towards democracy.

He argues that most people in these countries have not seen the benefit of popular co-operation in institution-building, but do see the dangers of rival factions seizing power and of their own factions missing opportunities to enrich themselves while they can. Historical exceptions to the incentive model, such as colonial New England and 20th-century Japan, he readily explains by pointing to their “ingrained habits of rigid social discipline”.

Throughout this article, Professor Bell repeatedly repudiates the “absurdly inflated expectations” of so many of his fellow commentators concerning current revolutions across the globe, and envisages that progress towards even “limited non-utopian goals” may take many years and much bloodshed, with abuses along the way, even by the “good guys”.

He stresses that only a “serious external incentive structure” — that is, ongoing commitments to aid and protection — can “jump start” these revolutions to a successful, rapid and democratic conclusion. And, as the West is no longer able to provide these incentives, we are in no position to tout our own superiority.

Professor Bell’s thesis is very plausible and his disdain for the impatience of the armchair experts will be shared by many of his readers. Nevertheless, his dispassionate acceptance of protracted bloodshed and chaos as a nearly inevitable part of the process is something that we might find rather chilling.

In addition, he seems to isolate revolutions in his laboratory study, and to downplay geopolitical realities. How far can a revolution progress towards liberal democracy, if menaced by a larger neighbour, cancelling out the effect of any external incentives by calling the bluff of the now impoverished Western powers?

John Morrissey is a Melbourne-based writer.



David A. Bell, “Inglorious revolutions”, National Interest (U.S.), January-February 2014.
URL: http://nationalinterest.org/article/inglorious-revolutions-9641


Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive…

by David A. Bell

Extract from David A. Bell’s introduction to his book, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Modern Warfare (Houghton Mifflin, 2008).

The years ’89 and ’90 were years of elation and hope. A powerful and much-loathed regime not only collapsed unexpectedly but did so with surprisingly little violence. Amid its ruins, a new international order seemed to be taking shape, built on a respect for peace, democracy and human rights. So transformative did the moment appear that many advanced thinkers predicted nothing less than the coming end of warfare.

But disillusion followed with cruel speed. The years that followed brought not peace but unremitting violence, which the dominant powers found frustratingly difficult to contain.

The strange thing about this description is that it applies equally well to two different centuries. Most obviously for us, it applies to the period that began in 1989-90. Instead of an end to war, of course, there followed an intensification of conflict and danger: in the Gulf War, the wars in the Balkans, and then the global upheaval that began on September 11, 2001.

In the wake of that day’s horrific terrorist attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush began to describe the struggle between West and its adversaries as one between the forces of freedom and the forces of evil. Prominent supporters of his administration likened it to World War II and warned that the very survival of the West hung in the balance. Some insisted that to prevail, the West would have to flout established restraints on military behaviour.

Soon afterwards, the United States and its allies began a pre-emptive war in Iraq, starting with an open attempt to assassinate its head of state. Since then, American military operations have involved a number of well-publicised lapses into the “laws of the jungle”.

So far, so familiar. Yet, surprisingly, the description applies just as well to the years 1789-90, when the collapse of the Old Regime and the beginning of the French Revolution untethered hopeful imaginations around the world. Even before these events, advanced opinion in the West was already beginning to think of war as a rapidly vanishing anachronism. As an optimistic English clergyman wrote in 1784: “The time is approaching, when the sound of trumpets, and the alarm of war, will be heard no more throughout the earth.” On May 22, 1790, France’s new revolutionary government went so far as to issue a formal renunciation of “wars of conquest”, in what has been called a “declaration of peace to the world”. It promised that France would henceforth use its armed forces only in self-defence.

But just 23 months later, France invaded Austrian-ruled Belgium, starting a conflict that would drag in all of Europe’s major powers and continue, with only short interruptions, for more than 23 years, until France’s final defeat in 1815. From early on, both sides saw this long struggle in apocalyptic terms: “a war to the death”, as one of its early French advocates declared, “which we will fight … so as to destroy and annihilate all who attack us, or to be destroyed ourselves”.

Extract from David A. Bell’s introduction to his book, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Modern Warfare (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)


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