What Causes Revolutions?
A surprising number of people in China have been writing and talking about “revolution”. First came word, in November, that China’s new leaders have been advising their colleagues to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic book on the French Revolution, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (The Old Regime and the Revolution), which subsequently has shot to the top of China’s best seller lists. Just this past week, Chinese scholar Zhao Dinxing, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, felt the need to publish an article (in Chinese) laying out the reasons China won’t have a revolution (you can read an English summary here). Minxin Pei, on the other hand, thinks it will.
In the midst of this debate, I happened across an interesting set of passages in retired Harvard professor Richard Pipes’ slender volume Three “Whys” of the Russian Revolution. The first “why” he asks is “Why did Tsarism fall?”, an event that few saw coming:
If you read the Russian and foreign press before 1917, or memoirs of the time, you find that hardly anyone expected the downfall of tsarism either. On the contrary, people believed that tsarism would survive for a long time to come … For had not tsarism weathered all onslaughts and all crises [including the 1905 uprising], and emerged from them intact?
The answer, he argues, lies in the fact that Russian society changed dramatically, but its political system did not, leading to an explosive disconnect between the two:
So, around 1900, we have a mechanically rather than organically structured state that denies the population any voice in government, and yet, at the same time, aspires to the status of a global power. This aspiration compels it to promote industrial development and higher education, which has the inevitable effect of shifting much opinion and the power to make decisions to private citizens. Pre-1905 tsarism thus suffered from an irreconcilable contradiction. A not-insignificant segment of the population received secondary and higher education, acquiring, in the process, Western attitudes, and yet it was treated as being on the same level with the illiterate peasantry, that is, unfit to participate in the affairs of state. Capitalist industrialists and bankers made major decisions affecting the country’s economy and employment, yet had no say in that country’s politics because politics was the monopoly of the bureaucracy …
The result was a situation which Marx had rightly predicted had to arise when the political form — in this case, heavily centralized and static — no longer corresponded to the socio-economic context — increasingly dispersed and dynamic. Such a situation is by its very nature fraught with explosive potential. In 1982 [Pipes writes], when I worked in the National Security Council, I was asked to contribute ideas to a major speech that President Reagan was scheduled to deliver in London. My contribution consisted of a reference to Marx’s dictum that, when there develops a significant disparity between the political form and the socio-economic context, the prospect is revolution. This disparity, however, had now developed in the Soviet Union, not in the capitalist West. President Reagan inserted this thought into his speech, and the reaction in Moscow was one of uncontrolled fury: this, of course, was a language they well understood and interpreted to mean a declaration of political war against the Communist Bloc. Their anger was enhanced by the awareness that the statement was correct, that they were ruling in a manner that did not correspond to either the economic or the cultural level of their population.
Read that again carefully, line by line, with present-day China in mind, and I think you’ll find some fascinating food for thought. I have often observed that I know of no country that has changed as much in the past 30 years as China has, in terms of the kind of practical freedom people experience in their day-to-day lives. The greatest challenge facing China’s leaders is how — or whether — a fundamentally closed political system (rule by an elite) can cope with the dramatically more open economy and society that present-day China has become. That’s why they’re reading Tocqueville.