As many of my colleagues have pointed out, last week China celebrated Mao Zedong’s birthday. Mao was many things to many people. For me, he was first and foremost a revolutionary. Mao was at least as significant to revolutions in the 20th century as Vladimir Lenin, and Mao’s model of revolution—building support among the peasantry before moving to the cities—was widely emulated by anti-colonial leaders throughout the world. During his time in power, Mao also gave material support to many of these anti-colonial movements.
For these reasons, Mao’s birthday seems like an apt time to ponder why Americans are so fascinated and supportive of revolutions. Although often times despising their outcomes, Americans—particularly American elites—are predisposed to generally support revolutionary movements. This inclination has endured across time. Many American elites—particularly Thomas Jefferson—initially looked very favorably on the French Revolution. Jefferson at times even defended the French rebels’ later excesses, writing to one American critic of their actions: “Time and truth will rescue & embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. the liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with as little innocent blood?”
Americans similarly initially cheered the onset of the Arab Spring (although none of these uprisings have produced genuine revolutions to date, the general feeling in the beginning was that they would). There was almost no reason for the U.S. to be hopeful about U.S. policy in an Arab world in which publics had a greater say, given the widespread dislike of America among Arab populations. While some in the U.S. recognized this reality, they generally cast aside these concerns. Typical was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s response, who implored that in Egypt, America should “trust that in the long arc of history those shared beliefs will matter more than the immediate disruptions that lie ahead and that, ultimately, our interests and ideals will be well served.”
It seems to me that Americans’ support for revolutions is entirely misplaced. To begin with, as a status-quo power in the international system, the U.S. has little geopolitically to gain from the instability and large-scale changes that are the hallmarks of modern revolutions.
More importantly, even the normative considerations that undergird Americans’ support for revolutions are based on misperceptions. For example, many Americans look favorably on revolutions today because America itself won its independence from England in a war that became known in the U.S. as the American Revolution. Since the American Revolution is unanimously seen as a positive, many Americans assume that revolutions today will also improve the societies in which they occur.
Despite its name, however, the American Revolution was not a revolution. At most, it was a war of national liberation. For the better part of a century before the war, American colonial elites effectively ruled the colonies under the British policy of salutary neglect. As England’s fiscal woes worsened following the French and Indian War, the Crown tried to crack down on the colonies in order to extract more benefits from its ownership of them. Most of the colonial elites objected to these policy changes, such as having to pay higher taxes to the monarch, and eventually convinced most of the colonial population to fight a war to free them from England’s increasing demands. Following the independence war, however, the same elites who governed under salutatory neglect effectively resumed ruling the now independent United States. Little of the underlying socioeconomic order was changed by the war, save for England’s nominal overseer role. And in the years that followed the American elite created a socioeconomic order that in many ways was modeled on England.
The other reason Americans support revolutions is because they believe they will transform autocracies into democracies. But this again is mistaken. Although the initial protesters may be seeking democratic changes, they almost never achieve them. This is certainly true of the major revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries—namely, the French, Russian, Chinese and Iranian revolutions.
Although some of the 20th century national liberation movements led to democracies, the vast majority only replaced the colonial powers with local strongmen. Furthermore, those national liberation movements that did lead to democracy were not very revolutionary at all. India, for example, won its independence from Britain without a major violent struggle against London. The system it adopted maintained many of the institutions of British India. Perhaps the most successful revolutions with regards to democracy were the uprisings against the Soviet Union and its satellites, which in some cases produced partially free, albeit unstable democracies. Still, the former Soviet bloc is hardly considered a beacon for democratic governance today.
The reason why revolutions do not produce stable democracies has less to do with the greed of revolutionary leaders than the nature of revolutions themselves. The rapid overhaul of political and socioeconomic orders—what Marx called the superstructure—will almost by definition need to overcome fierce resistance from those who have interests in the existing order, as well as those who have a different vision for the future. In nearly every case, this resistance can only be eliminated in the short term through violent means. Thus, one of the most common characteristics of modern revolutions is widespread bloodshed. Mao and Stalin, for instance, almost certainly killed more people while imposing their socioeconomic orders in China and Russia than died globally from World War II.
And this is why revolutions don’t produce liberal democracies. Societies torn apart by widespread violence and strife are hardly fertile grounds for democracy. For democracies to function over the long term there needs to be some shared consensuses among the major social, political, and economic actors in these countries. These necessary consensuses take time to develop and tend to only grow in relatively peaceful and stable societies. Thus, the strongest democracies today—including America’s—tended to come about as a result of evolutionary, not revolutionary, social and political change.
If the U.S. wants a world full of democracies, it must do a better job at formulating and sustaining long-term policies promoting evolutionary changes within societies, instead of holding out for widespread mass unrest to immediately replace authoritarian states with full-fledged democracies.