Thursday, July 23, 2009

Liberal and illiberal revolutions

John O'Sullivan, quondam speech writer to Margaret Thatcher, editor of National Review and, subsequently, of The National Interest, at present Executive Editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and a man I seem to quote fairly frequently, had a recent article on NR digital [to which one needs a subscription so I am not linking], entitled "Revolutionay Types"

This is not an analysis of personalities like Mikhail Bakunin or Pyotr Tkachev, not even of the usual suspects, Lenin, Mao, Hitler and Che but of the types of revolutions the modern world has seen. There are, Mr O'Sullivan points out, quoting among others, former Italian President Francesco Cossiga who, back in 1991 spoke about two kinds of revolution: liberal and illiberal with the East European "velvet" ones being definitely in the first category. (Since then Signor Cossiga has made some rather more controversial statements.)

The article's starting point is the recent and still fitfully continuing Iranian uprising, which will have to be judged fully in the future but which, at present, shows signs of being at the very least the starting point of a liberal revolution unlike that of the 1979 one, which was from the very beginning an illiberal one.

If violence is the test in Iran, it points clearly to two conclusions: The 1979 Iranian Revolution was an anti-liberal revolution and the 2009 demonstrations may be at least the start of a liberal one. The first point scarcely needs arguing — Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution used violence to topple the shah, violence to entrench its rule, violence against original supporters whom it exiled, and violence against the Iranian people at regular intervals. Its current use of violence against people demonstrating peacefully in opposition to the stealing of an election merely underlines its anti-liberal nature. What is less clear is whether the 2009 revolution is liberal in

Khomeini's 1979 revolution established what an earlier age would have described as "a mixed regime." It combined a limited democracy with a supervisory system of religious guardians. These ensured that any political debate or reform would take place within the regime's rules of Islamist orthodoxy. Thus, candidates were allowed to compete in this year's presidential
election only on condition that they were supporters of the Islamic revolution. If there was a difference between them before the election — and there was — it was over economic topics, on which the main challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, represented a pragmatic approach and Ahmadinejad a more populist one.

That was before the election, however. Since then the street demonstrators have shouted slogans that clearly indicated a rejection of the current Islamist rule in favor of some sort of moderate liberal democracy (probably one with Islamic tinges, on the model of the AKP government in Turkey). The supreme leader's brutal rejection of these complaints has liberalized the crowds still further. It looks as if they now want the end of the anti-liberal Islamist regime. And Mousavi, a moderate revolutionary in the anti-liberal camp, finds himself marching at the head of a liberal revolution.
Let us, however, look at the wider issues. The three obviously liberal revolutions were the 1688 Glorious Revolution in Britain, the 1776 one in America and the 1989-1990 ones in Eastern Europe. The two main illiberal revolutions were the French Revolution of 1789 and the Bolshevik coup of 1917 (the actual Revolution of 1917 being liberal in intent but becoming anarchy immediately).

There is a problem with the French Revolution in that its early leaders thought that they were actually enacting liberal British and American ideas but these did not have the same outcome in France for a number of reasons. Subsequent developments turned those early days of liberalism into a totalitarian nightmare.

Mr O'Sullivan defines the basic difference thus:
Whereas the Anglo-Americans saw liberty as a system of government that allowed people to pursue different ways of life, their Continental imitators saw it as a particular way of life that, if necessary, might have to be imposed on those mistakenly enslaved to tradition, religion, inequality, or whatever. Eradicating tradition, religion, inequality, or anything else to which people are strongly attached, however, requires abolishing their freedom, usually bloodily. Hence the revolution of 1789 became more plainly anti-liberal and more violent as it
ground relentlessly on.
There are other issues such as the different views of violence: an unfortunate necessity to be used very sparingly or a concept to be worshipped for its own sake. However, one cannot deny the crucial difference between the two understandings of liberty.

Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to insist that those two concepts are as separate as one would like them to be, no matter what British eurosceptics might repeat ad nauseam. Looking at the growing tea-party movement in the United States and the ever stronger grass-roots opposition to Obamacare (a proposed health care system that is going to be considerably more socialist and oppressive than the British one) I would say that these ideas are alive and well on the other side of the Pond.

(According to Jammiewearingfool, who quotes various sources, President Obama has been reduced to using the Violet Elizabeth Bott argument. "I'll thcream and thcream until I am thick." Let us hope Congressmen are made of sterner stuff than Mr and Mrs Bott or the Outlaws who generally let Violet Elizabeth get away with everything.)

In Britain, on the other hand, we have a serious problem with almost all political parties, the entire MSM and a good deal of the rather frivolous blogosphere as well as public opinion.

We are frequently told in a somewhat lachrymose fashion that Britain fought two wars (as if Britain's fighting was limited to just two wars) to preserve freedom and democracy. Well, that's as may be.

We have also been told that the second of those two wars (which were the only ones Britain fought in this century until she got to Iraq and Afghanistan and pigs might fly) was also fought to create "a new order", "a new Britain". That certainly happened. The consensus of the time, wrong as a consensus always is, that there was no way back to the old values and the new kind of war that included the whole population deserved a new kind of peace.

Well, we got that new kind of peace and are still living with it. Unfortunately, it really did mean what it said: a discarding of all the old values, the notion of "liberty as a system of government that allowed people to pursue different ways of life". Liberty is now seen as a particular system, a set of rights and privilieges granted by the government to the people.

Just how long are we going to go along with it?


  1. Liberal revolutions require a Christian culture.

  2. The "revolutions" in Eastern Europe were no such thing - more a case of regime change where a rival elite to the communists took advantage of Russian weakness and military withdrawal to grab power. They did not invent anything new, just caught up with the West.

    I would add the Nazi upheaval in Germany to the list of illiberal revolutions.

  3. A revolution is a regime change not just a change of elites. Which is precisely what happened in Eastern Europe: the regime was changed completely to constitutional democracies in which liberties were guaranteed in practice and not just in the constitution. So they were liberal revolutions. It is always alternative elites that produce revolutions not the people. Who do you think the Whigs were in 1688? The peasants?

    You are right about Hitler heading another illiberal revolution though he, too, was playing catch-up with the Soviet Union. Never quite succeeded.

  4. //It is always alternative elites that produce revolutions not the people. Who do you think the Whigs were in 1688? The peasants?//

    I absolutely agree with this! But that does not make regime change a revolution.

    Regime change, whether illiberal or liberal, does not seem to me to be the same kind of revolution as a revolution.

    Regime change seems more often to be influenced by outsiders - either directly through regime change imposed by force, covertly though sponsoring and intelligence efforts, or through financial clout. In each case the stimulus came from outside.

    In 1989 Eastern Europe was the latter kind. When the Russians had to withdraw the region fell towards the default position of the strongest states in the region because they had the money to help pull them out of a hole. The revolutions generated no new ideas that could threaten the dominant power structures. They simply conformed, is the antithesis of revolution.

    In contrast the French, Russian, German, Cuban, and Iranian revolutions were home grown, and as a consequence out of sync with the done thing in their regions at that time. (Iranian was limited by the lack of Shia but it had an affect on Iraq where there were Shia). A mere illiberal regime change, such as Chavez in Venezuela, did not mean as much to already socialist South America as perhaps did Castro's takeover of Cuba, because it was not a rejection of the principles of the surrounding, largely socialist, states. In fact, it appears a conforming regime change.

    Given the fact their are so many more illiberal revolutions than true liberal revolutions, rather than regime changes, the US revolution was pretty incredible.

    What did they called the US and Glorious revolutions before the word "revolution" came into use circa 1799? Civil wars?

  5. I don't think the end of the Second World War is quite so explicit the divide between Liberty and il-liberty. Quite plainly the elite in Britain had already bought into the idea of central planning long before and the war provided yet another opportunity to ratchet down liberty. I wouldn't dispute it was significant step but I would say a bigger one was the Act for compulsory education and the subsequent take over of the institutions by the state. This has been far slower in enactment (indeed it is still ongoing) but the effects are far worse.