Home/Daniel Larison/Revolutions Don’t Just Happen

Revolutions Don’t Just Happen

Andrew quotes a reader who thinks he has come up with a very clever argument against the Leveretts’ op-ed:

They [the Leveretts] suggest that there can’t be another revolution in Iran unless the opposition knows exactly what it wants, it has a visible leader in control, and it has a “process” for replacing the current government. How many modern revolutions have ever satisfied those conditions, beginning with the French Revolution?

Is this a serious question, or was the reader just trying to be contrary? Most revolutions do have specific goals and demands, most of the successful ones do have organized leadership that can mobilize at least a dedicated cadre of followers, and most have some idea what means they will need to exact the concessions they desire and have some idea of how to acquire these means. When revolutions fail, as they did across Europe in 1848, they failed because they were poorly organized, because they had an agenda that was either insufficiently developed or insufficiently attractive to a broad cross-section of society, and because they had no means by which they were going to take power. Most of the successful ones tapped into dissatisfaction with the current leadership and then effectively supplanted that leadership and established their own authority. Meeting these conditions is usually necessary for a revolution to succeed, and even then international conditions must be favorable. Liberal revolutionaries in Austria and Hungary might have had a chance in 1848, but Russian intervention put a stop to that. Even our own “revolution” could very well have been smothered in its crib had the colonies not obtained vital allied military support. When I read Soroush invoking Gandhi and preaching non-violence, I simply marvel. Aung San Suu Kyi has been preaching the same admirable and ineffective message in Burma for nearly twenty years. This sort of movement will undoubtedly win a lot of sympathy from Westerners, but it is unlikely to do much to weaken, much less break, the regime’s hold on power.

There is also something to be said for paying attention mainly to revolutions in Iranian history. If political change in Iran from the constitutional revolution to 1979 has happened in certain ways, that may tell us something about the specific political constitution of Iran that will give us a better idea of what chance the Green movement might have. This is probably why the Leveretts spent as much time as they did addressing the claims that 1978-79 precedents supported a more optimistic assessment of the movement’s chances. It is interesting as a matter of comparative politics and history to think about similarities between different revolutions, but it is normally local conditions and the details of a country’s political history that determine how political change occurs.

P.S. Andrew seems to think that mainstream media outlets are just craving dissenting voices calling for more extensive engagement with Iran. I have no idea why he thinks this. Evidently, he believes this because there is occasionally one co-written op-ed by the Leveretts in a major news outlet every couple of months. Meanwhile, one will look all day long in vain for similar arguments coming from the NYT’s own columnists, to say nothing of The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post. Even Roger Cohen has turned into little more than a pro-Green cheerleader. Nothing that has happened in the last six months have really disproved the core claim the Leveretts made last summer. They argued then that the Green movement did not command the support of a majority of Iranians, and there is still not much evidence that it does. Mousavi’s support was never as low as the official government tally made it out to be, but it does not follow that it must be vastly greater simply because the government chose to grossly exaggerate Ahmadinejad’s vote tally.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles