- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Revolutions Don’t Just Happen

Andrew quotes [1] a reader who thinks he has come up with a very clever argument against the Leveretts’ op-ed [2]:

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 [3] 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 [4] 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.

Advertisement
2 Comments (Open | Close)

2 Comments To "Revolutions Don’t Just Happen"

#1 Comment By Norwegian Shooter On January 7, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

There’s got to be a blogger somewhere just itching to name an award after Sullivan for doozys such as this:

For what it’s worth, I believe that a democratic revolution in Iran is both possible and would be the single most transformative event in global politics since the end of the Cold War. Especially for the US.

#2 Comment By conradg On January 8, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

“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.”

First of all, even by these standards, the Iranian opposition meets most of these criteria quite well. First, the reform movement is not poorly organized. It’s organization is simply not top-down, but is grassroots and organized using horizontal media such as the internet. It’s certainly better organized than the French Revolution of 1789. It also does have real leadership with legitimate claims to power, namely a stolen election that Mousavi had taken from him, and the support of other popular opposition leaders. The agenda of the movement is also quite clear: to restore free and fair elections, to topple those who stole the last election, to restore integrity to the process, and to take power out of the hands of any politician or cleric who has stolen elections and governed without integrity or the support of the people. This means that they are also wishing to reform the IR as a whole, and to prevent absolute power from being in the hands of clerics like Khamenie. That’s a pretty clear agenda, even if the specifics might differ, as they always do in revolutionary movements.

Likewise, the agenda of the reform movement does indeed have broad support. That’s exactly why the election had to be stolen in the first place! A whole lot of people voted against the government, and they didn’t want to acknowledge that. The agenda of having a new election that is free and fair is quite popular in Iran. The idea of reforming the system to prevent this kind of hijacking is also quite popular. What’s not entirely clear is how far people want to take reform. But that’s how every revolutionary movement is. There was no popular consensus in 1789 on where storming the Bastille would lead. Nor was it even well organized or backed by a majority of the French.. These things build their own momentum and produce unpredictable results.

Also, the Iranian opposition clearly does have very clear and legitimate means for taking power. There are all kinds of legitimate ways for the government to fall, to lose the backing of the clergy, to simply collapse from non-support and sustained opposition, even from very simply shifts of allegiance by powerful figures like Rafsanjani. There’s nothing vague or unlikely or impossible about any of these routes to success. There’s nothing certain about them either, but these are not just random protests from street folks, the leading politicians and power brokers in the country are deeply involved in this. In other words, there are many routes for this movement to “tap into dissatisfaction with the current leadership and then effectively supplant that leadership and establish their own authority”. Exactly how or even if that will happen is not yet clear, but it isn’t because there is no lack of ways for it to come about.