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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Serge Halimi: In Praise of Revolutions

here are extracts of the remarquable article of Serge Halimi, you can read the integrality of it on Counterpunch Political Newsletter.

"We Lost All the Battles, But We Had the Best Songs"

Two hundred and twenty years may have passed since 1789, but there’s still life in the French Revolution. During the bicentenary commemorations, though, François Mitterrand had extended an invitation to Margaret Thatcher and Joseph Mobutu to check it was dead and buried. The anniversary year also saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, prompting Francis Fukuyama to announce the “end of history”; in other words, the neoliberal domination of the world would last forever, the so-called revolutionary parenthesis opened in 1789 had closed for good.

But the current crisis in capitalism is now challenging the legitimacy of ruling oligarchies. The air has become lighter – or heavier, depending on your viewpoint. Le Figaro, for example, referred to “these intellectuals and artists who call for revolt” and lamented: “François Furet [the French historian] seems to have been mistaken: the French revolution isn’t over”.


A king was beheaded across the Channel too, of course. But the English aristocracy put up less resistance than in France, so the bourgeoisie there felt no need to make an alliance with the people to establish its domination. Among the privileged classes, a model without the barefoot or sans-culottes had more appeal and seemed less dangerous than the alternative. So Laurence Parisot, head of the French employers’ union, wasn’t betraying the trust of her members in telling the Financial Times: “I love French history, but I don’t like the Revolution very much. It was an act of extreme violence from which we are still suffering. It forced each one of us to be in a camp.” She added: “We don’t practice [democracy] as successfully as in England”.
The polarization of society inherent in the notion of “being in a camp” is unwelcome because instead we all ought to be showing our solidarity with our employer, our boss or his brand – while still knowing our place. For in the eyes of those who aren’t among its fans, the main charge against the revolution isn’t its violence – sadly an all too common phenomenon in history – but something infinitely rarer: the upheaval of the social order which occurs when the proletariat and the affluent go to war.


Everyday acts of violence

Even so, a charge levelled against major revolutions is they were violent. Exception is taken to the massacre of the Swiss Guard during the storming of the Tuileries in August 1792, to that of the Russian royal family in July 1918 in Ekaterinburg and to the liquidation of Chiang Kai-Shek’s officers when the Communists took power in China in 1949. But if you object to those, then you shouldn’t ignore the famines of the Ancien Régime, which happened against a background of balls at Versailles and of tithes demanded by priests; or the hundreds of peaceful demonstrators massacred by Nicholas II’s troops in St Petersburg on Bloody Sunday in 1905; or the revolutionaries in Canton and Shanghai thrown alive into the boilers of locomotives in 1927. Not to mention the everyday acts of violence which were part of the social order the revolutionaries sought to overthrow.

The story of the revolutionaries who were burned alive hasn’t just affected those with an interest in China; it’s also known to the millions who have read André Malraux’s novel, La Condition humaine. For decades the greatest writers and artists made common cause with the workers’ movement to celebrate revolutions and the glorious future. In doing so, it is true, they underestimated the downside, the tragedies and the chilly dawns (with their political police, personality cults, labour camps and executions).

For 30 years, by contrast, those are the only consequences of revolution which have been spoken about; in fact it’s the recommended course of action for those who want to succeed at university, in the press – or the Académie Française. “Revolution inevitably means an irruption of violence,” explains Academic Max Gallo. “Our societies are extremely fragile. The major responsibility of those who have a public platform is to guard against this irruption”. For his part, Furet reckoned that any attempt at radical transformation was totalitarian or terrorist, that “the idea of another society has become almost inconceivable”. His conclusion is that “we are condemned to live in the world that we live in”. It’s not hard to imagine that such a destiny fits in with the expectations of his readers, who are generally protected from life’s storms by a pleasant existence of dinners and debates.

There are many other examples of the phobia of revolutions and its corollary – the legitimization of conservatism – besides Gallo and Furet, such as the media, including the cinema. For 30 years, television has been keen to show that the only alternative to liberal democracy is scheming tyrannical regimes. And so the attention given to the German-Soviet pact assumes much greater importance than other unnatural alliances, such as the Munich Agreement or Adolf Hitler’s handshake with Neville Chamberlain. At the very least, the Nazi and the conservative shared a common hatred of popular fronts. And the same class fear inspired the aristocrats of Ferrara and the ironmasters of the Ruhr when they enabled Mussolini and the Third Reich to come to power. But is it still permissible to point that out?


A requirement for revolution

Since then there has been no shortage of just this sort of transgression; from Franco’s pronunciamento in 1936 to Pinochet’s coup d’état in 1973, not forgetting the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. Blum underlined moreover that “the Republic has never been proclaimed by virtue of a legal vote according to constitutional rules. It was established through the will of the people who rose up against the existing laws”.

Universal suffrage, which is now invoked as a way of ruling out other forms of collective action (including public service strikes, which are compared to hostage taking), has become the alpha and omega of all public action. The questions Blum posed about it have scarcely dated at all: “Is it a true reality today? Don’t the influences of the boss and the landowner bear down on the electors with the pressure of the power of money and the press? Is every elector free of the suffrage he expresses, free through the culture of his thought, free through the independence of his person? And in order to liberate him, isn’t a revolution precisely what’s required?”. In three European countries – the Netherlands, France and Ireland – the ‘no’ vote defied the combined pressures of the bosses, the power of money and the press. For that very reason, it was disregarded.

“We lost all the battles, but we had the best songs.” This view from a Spanish republican fighter seeking refuge in France after Franco’s victory sums up the problem of conservatives and their insistent message of submission. Simply put, revolutions leave an indelible mark on history and human consciousness, even when they fail and even when they are later dishonoured. They embody a moment when fate rises up and the people have the upper hand. This gives them their universal resonance. Each in its way –the mutineers of the Potemkin, the survivors of the Long March, the barbudos (“bearded ones”) of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra – echoes the actions of the soldiers of the Year II; that suggested to British historian Eric Hobsbawm that “the French Revolution demonstrated the power of the common people in a manner that no subsequent government has ever allowed itself to forget – if only in the form of untrained, improvised, conscript armies, defeating the conjunction of the finest and most experienced troops of the old regimes.”


Revolutions remain rare

If the international interest in Latin America is greater, that’s because its political orientation is both democratic and social. A sector of the European left has spent 20 years justifying the priority it gives to the wishes of the middle classes by coming up with theories about the end of the “revolutionary parenthesis” and the end of the political significance of working classes. Venezuela and Bolivia’s leaders are, by contrast, remobilizing these people by proving that their lot is being taken into account and their destiny is not sealed – in short, the struggle goes on.

However desirable they may be, revolutions remain rare. They require simultaneously: a broad mass of dissatisfied people who are prepared to act; a state whose legitimacy and authority are challenged by some of its usual supporters (as a result of economic incompetence, mismanagement of the military or crippling internal divisions); and finally, pre-existing radical ideas that question the social order and which, though they may be held only by a tiny minority to begin with, are capable of attracting all those whose loyalty to the old order has crumbled.


For nearly two centuries, millions of political and union activists, historians and sociologists have been examining the critical variables: is the ruling class divided and demoralized? Is its machinery of repression intact? Are the social forces that seek change organised and capable of mutual action? Nowhere have these studies been more abundant that in the US, where it is often a case of understanding revolutions and conceding all that they have achieved, the better to avert them.

The reliability of these studies has been patchy. In 1977, for example, there was concern about the “ungovernability” of capitalist societies. And the question of why the USSR was so stable also arose. There was no shortage of available explanations: the preference of the Soviet leadership and people for order and stability; collective socialization which consolidated the values of the regime; the non-cumulative nature of problems to be tackled, allowing the party room for maneuver; good economic results; the USSR’s status as a great power and so on. The Yale political scientist Samuel Huntington, who was already immensely famous, concluded this roster of corroborating signs: “None of the challenges which are identified in the future appear to be qualitatively different from those the Soviet system has demonstrated the ability to deal with in the past” .
And the rest, as they say, is history.

Serge Halimi is the director of Le Monde Diplomatique. His article appears in the May, English language edition of the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, to be found at

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