This excerpt is from ‘How Might Revolutions Have Better End(ings): Lessons from Latin America’s Past and Present’, a 2001 essay by John Foran.

John Foran’s book, ‘Taking Power: On the Origins of Third World Revolutions’ is part of our recommended readings list. Additionally, editor Nikolai Brown will be delivering an original presentation based on Foran’s primary thesis as part of the Radical Summer School in Denver, Colorado.

As always, posting here is for educational purposes and does not imply endorsement, agreement, or affiliation.

The angel of history and the lessons of the past

The twentieth century we depart has been the age of revolutions, in Skocpol’s sense of ‘rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures … accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below’(in my view still the most useful definition of revolution). From the Russian events of 1917 that so profoundly shook the world, to the great Third World social revolutions in Cuba and China (and the lesser ones — in transformational terms — in Nicaragua and Iran, among many other places) and the anticolonial revolutions in Algeria, Vietnam and southern Africa; from the shorter-lived but no less remarkable democratic revolutions in Chile under Allende and May 1968 in France and the more enduring revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, to the current struggle in Chiapas, the historical record is rich in dramatic experiences of ordinary people undertaking extraordinary collective acts.

In previous work I have argued that five inter-related causal factors must combine in a given conjuncture to produce a social revolution: 1) dependent development, 2) a repressive, exclusionary, personalist state, 3) the elaboration of effective and powerful political cultures of resistance, and a revolutionary crisis consisting of 4) an economic downturn, and 5) a world- systemic opening (a let-up of external controls). The coming together in a single place of all five factors leads to the formation of broad revolutionary coalitions which have typically succeeded in gaining power — in Mexico, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, as well as Algeria, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique, and shorter-lived revolutions that were ultimately reversed in Guatemala, Bolivia, Chile and Grenada.

What are some of the lessons we might cull from the revolutionary record in light of this theory of causes? Let me try stating a few in propositional terms:

♦ revolutions have typically been directed against two types of states at opposite ends of the democratic spectrum: exclusionary, personalist dictators or colonial regimes, and — more paradoxically — truly open societies where a critical left had a fair chance in elections

♦ they have usually been driven by economic and social inequalities caused by both the short-term and the medium-run consequences of ‘ dependent development’– a process of aggregate growth by which a handful of the privileged have prospered, leaving the majority of the population to their hardships (each group relative to its social location)

♦ they have had a significant cultural component in the sense that no revolution has been made and sustained without a vibrant set of political cultures of resistance and opposition that found significant common ground, at least for a time

♦ they have occurred when the moment was favourable on the world scene — that is, when powers that would oppose revolution have been distracted, confused or ineffective in preventing them

♦ finally, they have always involved broad, cross-class alliances of subaltern groups, middle classes and elites; to an increasing extent women as well as men; and to a lesser degree racial or ethnic minorities as well as majorities

Once in power, a series of related difficulties have typically arisen, which result from the continued significance of the patterns above for revolutionary transformation:

♦ truly democratic structures have been difficult to construct following revolutions against dictators, while democratically chosen revolutionaries have been vulnerable to non-democratic opponents, internal and external

♦ dependent development has deep historical roots that are recalcitrant to sustained reversal, however much the material situation of the majority can be improved in the short and medium run

♦ the challenge of forging a revolutionary political culture to construct a new society has generally foundered rapidly on the diversity of subcurrents that contributed to the initial victory, compounded by the structural obstacles all revolutions have faced

♦ few revolutions have been able to withstand the renewed counter-revolutionary attention of dominant outside powers and their regional allies

♦ given the above, the broad coalitions that have been so effective in making revolutions are notoriously difficult to keep together, due to divergent visions of how to remake society and unequal capacities to make their vision prevail; meanwhile women and ethnic minorities have consistently seen little reversal of patriarchy and racism after revolutions

The reader will be able to fill in many of the concrete examples that underlie the above propositions (as well as thinking of counter-examples and other propositions, no doubt!).

In addition to these linked causal and outcome issues, there seem to be recurrent trade-offs or contradictions in the revolutionary record as well. For example, the participation of massive numbers runs up against the leadership’ need to take decisive measures to deal with all kinds of problems once in power; this in part explains the often bloody narrowing of substantively democratic spaces even as so many previously disenfranchised members of society are gaining new rights and opportunities. When movements have been radically democratic, as in France in 1968 and Chile in the early 1970s, they have had troubles articulating a programme acceptable to all parties at the debates, and withstanding illegal subversion from the right. Similarly, there are a series of economic trade-offs associated with many revolutions, particularly in the Third World: impressive gains in employment, wages, health, housing and education have after short periods been eroded by internal economic contradictions (demand-driven inflation, limited human and material resources, labour imbalances) and powerful international counter-thrusts (boycotts and embargoes on trade, equipment, loans). As if these political and economic contradictions are not daunting enough, massive external intervention has often also been applied, whether covert or openly military in nature, further undermining prospects for democracy and development.

These patterned realities have produced disappointing outcomes, including authoritarian, relatively poor socialisms in Russia, China, Cuba and Vietnam (the only revolutions to last much longer than a generation, except for Iran, where the degree of economic change has been limited); violent overthrows of revolutionaries in Guatemala, Chile and Grenada; slow strangling of change leading to political reversals in Mexico (by 1940), Bolivia (by 1960), Manley’ Jamaica and Sandinista Nicaragua; and blocking the path to power altogether in France 1968, El Salvador in the 1980s, China in 1989 and Iraq in 1991, among many other places. This is not to mention the containment of social revolution in the form of far more limited political revolutions in places like the Philippines in 1986, Zaire in 1996 and, in a different and complex way, in the Eastern European reformist capitalist revolutions and the spectacular overthrow of apartheid in the 1990s.

No revolutionary movement of the twentieth century has come close to delivering the common dreams of so many of its makers: a more inclusive, participatory form of political rule; a more egalitarian, humane economic system; and a cultural atmosphere where individuals and local communities may not only reach full self-creative expression but thereby contribute unexpected solutions to the dilemmas faced by society. In this sense Benjamin’ image of the angel of history being swept forward by the storm of progress willy-nilly into the future, its face turned to the catastrophic debris of the past, appears an apt one. Yet the past may hold other messages for the future, if we know how to read them.

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. […] In his book, Taking Power, On the Origins of Third World Revolutions (2005, Cambridge University Press), sociologist John Foran calculates a series of causal factors behind the development and success of revolutions. […]


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History, Imperialism, Latin America, Maoism, Marxism, Neo-Colonialism, Political Economy, Theory


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