Simon Sebag Montefiore: Every Revolution Is Revolutionary in Its Own Way

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of the forthcoming “Jerusalem: The Biography.”]

A REVOLUTION resembles the death of a fading star, an exhilarating Technicolor explosion that gives way not to an ordered new galaxy but to a nebula, a formless cloud of shifting energy. And though every revolution is different, because all revolutions are local, in this uncertain age of Arab uprisings and Western interventions, as American missiles bombard a defiant Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, as the ruler of Yemen totters on the brink and Syrian troops fire on protesters, the history of revolution can still offer us some clues to the future....

...[T]he life span of a dynasty corresponds to the life span of an individual,” wrote Ibn Khaldun, the brilliant 14th-century Islamic historian-statesman. All these Arab “monarchies” have rested on the prestige of a religion (Saudi Wahhabism or Iranian Twelver Shiism), a personality (in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution; in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, the memory of the most popular Arab ruler since Saladin, President Gamal Abdel Nasser; in Saudi Arabia, the founder-king Ibn Saud) or a heredity link (Jordan’s King Abdullah II’s descent from Muhammad). But “prestige ... decays inevitably,” ruled Ibn Khaldun....

Such dictators are often so sclerotic that they do not even realize there is a revolution until it is upon them. In 1848, Prince Metternich, the Austrian chancellor, was so old that he literally could not hear the mobs outside his own palace. When the riots started, I imagine Colonel Qaddafi or King Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain had a conversation something like this one:

“So what is it? A riot?” asked King Louis XVI in Paris in 1789.

“No, Sire,” replied his confidant La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, “it is a revolution.”

Leaderless revolutions without organization have a magically spontaneous momentum that is harder to crush. Lenin had just reflected that the revolution would never happen in his lifetime when in February 1917, hungry crowds in Petrograd overthrew Nicholas II while the revolutionaries were abroad, exiled or infiltrated by the secret police.

This time, headless spontaneity has been aided by Facebook, which certainly accelerates the mobilization of crowds — and the transmission of Western culture, whether it concerns Charlie Sheen’s soliloquies or the joys of American democracy. But technology’s effect is exaggerated: in 1848, the revolution that most resembles today’s, uprisings spread from Sicily to Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Budapest in mere weeks without telephones, let alone Twitter. They spread through the exuberance of momentum and the rigid isolation of repressive rulers....

“Very pleasing commencements,” wrote Edmund Burke, observer of the French Revolution’s spiral from freedom to terror, “have often shameful, lamentable conclusions.” Look at Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution against Syria and its ally Hezbollah, which has ended with a Syrian-backed, Hezbollah-dominated government. The first success of revolution creates the exuberant dizziness of democratic freedom that we saw in Cairo and Benghazi. In Europe in 1848, in Russia in 1917, there were similarly exhilarating springs.

Often temporary leaders arise — think of Aleksandr Kerensky, the strutting Russian prime minister for some months before the Bolsheviks seized power — but every revolution has its figures who provide fig leafs for the hard men. Khomeini appointed Mehdi Bazargan, a democrat, as his prime minister, who ended up resigning during the hostage crisis.

The fiesta does not last long. The disorder, uncertainty and strife of a revolution make citizens yearn for stable authority, or they turn to radicalism. Certainly, extremists welcome this deterioration, as Lenin, that laconic dean of the university of revolutionology, expressed it with the slogan: “The worse, the better.” (At that point, extreme solutions become more palatable: “How can one make a revolution without firing squads?” asked Lenin.)...

The wisest judgments belong to statesmen who knew much about crushing and making revolutions. “Old Europe is at the beginning of the end,” reflected the ultraconservative Metternich as he was beset by revolutions, “but New Europe however has not yet even begun its existence, and between the End and the Beginning, there will be Chaos.” Lenin understood that the ultimate question in each revolution is always the unfathomable alchemy of power: who controls whom. Or as he put it so succinctly: “Who whom?”

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