Revolutions begin in righteous idealism but too often end in absolute horror. Lots of nice ideas get bandied about, but in the end most things get worse and very little gets better. The essential contradiction, the crux of the matter is that revolutions may entail the highest aspirations of the human spirit for freedom, dignity, and fairness, but when they involve war, everybody loses. The costs exceed the benefits every time.
I have always come down on the side of the revolutionaries. My mother taught me to wear the Ban the Bomb symbol in 1960, and I have been 110% radical left counterculture ever since. But revolution, to old armchair-traveling peaceniks such as me, is just a word. What is it like in reality?
A book about the role of oil in World War I made me shudder at the number of oil tankers that were sunk intentionally, by Japanese, British, Germans, and Americans alike. A history of the Crimean War mentioned that countless animals died of abuse during that conflict. It made me think, of the many terrible things that humans do, war is the worst. War combines murder, torture, violence, rape, environmental destruction, and animal abuse -- all the worst things, all at the same time, nonstop, every day, on an inconceivable scale.
Look at the French revolution – revolutionaries killed the king, and then they killed each other until Napoleon was able to take advantage of the power vacuum and make himself dictator. Then he led France in wars from one end of Europe to the other. In the name of fraternity and liberty and equality, hundreds of thousands of people died after which France went back to being a monarchy again. Not much got better for the average citizen.
The much-touted American Revolution, as Howard Zinn has taught us, merely substituted one group of rich white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males for another. Two hundred and thirty-six years later we still have taxation without representation, and grievous oppression by rich white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male bankers.
In the Mexican Revolution all the revolutionaries eventually died in action or else killed each other. Then the bad guys promptly returned to business as usual. It may have started as a true revolution of The People, but it degenerated into a slaughter for the spoils of power. The reality of revolution is two or three groups of thugs fight it out while all the goodhearted people cower in their basements and watch their idealistic fantasies crumble.
The long-slumbering masses of Russia awakened in 1917 and demanded freedom from the Tsar. Their reward was civil war, invasion, starvation, epidemics, and national humiliation under Lenin, and then Gulag, purges, oppression, pollution and starvation under Stalin. Now in 2012 they have hyper-capitalism and an authoritarian dictator. Was the revolution worth it?
Tens of millions died under Mao, and now China is a hyper-capitalist state with little freedom, an arbitrary authoritarian government, and horrendous economic inequality. Who won that revolution? It certainly wasn’t The People.
The people of Iran banded together in 1979 in an extraordinary and deeply touching national movement to shake off the dictatorship of the hated Shah and achieve freedom and dignity. But as soon as the Shah went down, the extreme Islamists took over the people’s revolution and imposed a theocracy that most of the citizens did not want, and Iran remains an undemocratic theocracy to this day.
When warfare is used as a means to revolutionary ends, it’s even worse. After a few hundred thousand are dead and armies have laid waste to the countryside, the new society ends up being as bad as the old. How do you defeat the Old Warlords to win your revolution? You must create New Warlords who are even more bloodthirsty and fearsome! And before you know it, the New Warlords have hijacked your revolution and the people have just exchanged one group of oppressors for another.
The downtrodden of Syria heard about an “Arab Spring” and they were inspired with dreams of a better future. What have they gotten so far? The army has slaughtered something like 14,000 civilians, and now outside parties are arming all sides for full-scale civil war, maybe even a proxy war involving America, Europe, Russia, and Israel. That’s just great for the aspirations of the Syrian people, isn’t it?
Think of Egyptians, who saw their much-touted “democracy” descend into an unbearable choice between Muslim Brotherhood theocracy versus a return to business as usual under Generals who were cronies of the old dictator. What did their revolution bring them besides chaos and the real possibility of civil war? While rich males quarrel over wealth and power and religion, poor people, women, animals, and the environment pay the price. All humans dream of a better life, but no one seems to know how to lead us there.