Un-American Revolutions

By Ferguson, Niall | Newsweek, March 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Un-American Revolutions


Ferguson, Niall, Newsweek


Byline: Niall Ferguson

Most rebellions end in carnage and tyranny. So why are Americans cheering on the Arab revolutionary wave?

Americans love a revolution. Their own great nation having been founded by a revolutionary declaration and forged by a revolutionary war, they instinctively side with revolutionaries in other lands, no matter how different their circumstances, no matter how disastrous the outcomes. This chronic reluctance to learn from history could carry a very heavy price tag if the revolutionary wave currently sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East breaks with the same shattering impact as most revolutionary waves.

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson hailed the French Revolution. "The French have served an apprenticeship to Liberty in this country," wrote the former, "and now -- they have set up for themselves." Jefferson even defended the Jacobins, architects of the bloody Reign of Terror. "The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest," he wrote in 1793, "and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? -- Rather than [the revolution] should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated."

In Ten Days That Shook the World, the journalist John Reed was equally enthusiastic about the Russian Revolution of 1917, a book for which Lenin himself ("great Lenin" to Reed) wrote an enthusiastic preface. Reed's counterpart in China's communist revolution was Edgar Snow, whose characterization of Mao--"He had the simplicity and naturalness of the Chinese peasant, with a lively sense of humor and a love of rustic laughter"--today freezes the blood.

Time and again, Americans have hailed revolutions, only to fall strangely silent as those same revolutions proceeded to devour not only their own children but many other people's too. In each case the body count was in the millions.

So as you watch revolution sweeping through the Arab world (and potentially beyond), remember these three things about non-American revolutions:

**They take years to unfold. It may have seemed like glad confident morning in 1789, 1917, and 1949. Four years later it was darkness at noon.

**They begin by challenging an existing political order, but the more violence is needed to achieve that end, the more the initiative passes to men of violence--Robespierre, Stalin, and the supremely callous Mao himself.

**Because neighboring countries feel challenged by the revolution, internal violence is soon followed by external violence, either because the revolution is genuinely threatened by foreigners (as in the French and Russian cases) or because it suits the revolutionaries to blame an external threat for domestic problems (as when China intervened in the Korean War).

To which an American might reply: yes, but was all this not true of our revolution too? The American Revolution was protracted: five years elapsed between the Declaration of Independence and Yorktown. It was violent. And it was, of course, resisted from abroad. Yet the scale of the violence in the American Revolution was, by the standards of the other great revolutions of history, modest. Twenty times as many Frenchmen were killed in battle between 1792 and 1815 as Americans between 1775 and 1783. And, as Maya Jasanoff points out in her brilliant new book, Liberty's Exiles, the losers in the American Revolution were not guillotined, or purged, or starved to death. Most of them simply left the 13 rebel colonies for more stable parts of the British Empire and got on with their lives.

There were other important differences too. The people who made the American Revolution were, by 18th-century standards, exceptionally well off and well educated. People in Libya today are closer to the sans-culottes of the Paris back streets, the lumpenproletariat of the Petrograd slums, or the illiterate peasants who flocked to Mao's standard. And that is why the likelihood of large-scale and protracted violence is so much greater in the Arab world today than it ever was in North America in the 1770s. …

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