Do all revolutions fail before they start?

Three simple steps for starting a revolution:

  1. Suspend the rule of law.
  2. Kill everyone you don’t like.
  3. Sit back and enjoy a peaceful and prosperous future.

Can anyone spot the flaw in the plan? Was it scrapping the rule of law? Was it the mass killings? Or was it the futile hope that this is a remedy for a better world?

Revolutions are a failure to achieve a political result by lawful, peaceful and democratic means. It’s not surprising therefore that they usually end so horribly.

The French staged a revolution and ended up with the guillotine, the Reign of Terror and Napoleon.

The Russians did the same and got Stalin and a century of oppression.

The Chinese got Mao and destroyed their entire history, their culture and then their country.

Hey, at least the Cubans got some cool posters & T-shirts and some funky dance moves. Pity their homes fell to ruins all around them.

Contrast the short-lived and destructive outcomes of revolutions with the spread of the Enlightenment throughout Europe. Here the tools were ideas, writing and speech, and the effects were positive and lasting. Instead of Mao, Stalin and Napoleon, think Galileo, Descartes, John Locke and Voltaire.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall and Prague’s Velvet Revolution were largely peaceful events and led to secure, lasting change. South Africa’s shaking off of apartheid was a rocky road but the transition and the reconciliation that followed were mostly peaceful, orderly affairs. In Northern Ireland, decades of terrorism achieved nothing but slaughter, whereas cross-party talks gave us peace.

Perhaps there are a few exceptions. In Libya a monster was overthrown by military force and the country seems to be putting itself together again now that Gaddafi has gone. It’s still early days though and the country may yet tear itself apart in another civil war. The difference here is that Libya under Gaddafi was a disaster in waiting. Gaddafi himself came to power through revolution and was a sponsor of international terrorism. If Libya turns out well it’ll be the exception to the rule, not a roadmap for the future.

It seems to me that violence is almost never a helpful political tool. In some cases it can get you what you think you wanted, but rarely what you actually hoped for.

And now Egypt. So the Egyptians made a big mistake electing the Muslim Brotherhood as their first democratic government – something that most Western commentators pointed out at the time. But deposing it a year later with a military coup might turn out to be a bigger error. After all, everyone makes mistakes, but using violence to reverse them is usually a bad move.

The Egyptian leader was very unpopular, but in most democracies, the government is pretty unpopular most of the time, and there are always groups advocating violent revolution. The rule of law is all that stands between civilisation and perpetual chaos.

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