How Revolutions Fail
Published Wednesday, February 18, 2015
The conservative right has produced some of the best scholars on the birth of revolutions, exemplified by Alexis de Tocqueville and his 1856 book “The Old Regime and the Revolution”.
In his landmark work, the French political thinker and historian argues that revolutions are moments of explosive birth — the delivery of something already growing in the womb of the old regime. Revolutions, he says, manifest what was latent in the period preceding their birth. De Toqueville considered the turn towards centralization that Napoleon Bonaparte (1799-1815) implemented after the 1789 French Revolution a course change that began with Louis XIV (d. 1715). The parliamentary revolt against the king (1642-1649), and the 1688 to 1689 revolutions, which effectively established Britain as a constitutional monarchy, had been conceived with the Magna Carta in 1215, a charter of rights and rule of law approved by the king, acknowledging the growing power of the nobles, giving rights and powers to local councils beyond his absolute authority.
Marxists, on the other hand, were the best at analyzing the failure of revolutions. Karl Marx’s book “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” (1852) presents an unprecedented and unmatched analysis of the failure of the French revolution of February 24-25, 1848, and how it led to a military coup led by the president of the republic on December 2, 1851 against the legislative assembly. The president made himself emperor in the name of Napoleon III, and continued his rule until his defeat by the Germans in the battle of Sedan in September 1870. Marx’s book is fit to be an educational reference on politics that surpasses Machiavelli’s famous tract.
Another Marxist book, Leon Trotsky’s 1936 “The Revolution Betrayed,” makes it plain to see why the revolution of October 1917 ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the last week of 1991.
Marx breaks down the revolutionary process in France between February 24, 1848 and December 2 1851, as follows: The revolution of February 24-25, 1848 saw the participation of broad segments of the French society, representing multiple political movements such as the Socialists and Republicans (led by Lamartine); while royalists, supporters of the House of Bourbon ousted in July 1830 and returned with foreign help in 1815 after Napoleon’s defeat in Waterloo, were neutral.
Revolution toppled King Louis Philippe d'Orléans. His regime, for 18 years, relied on bourgeois capital and emerging capital markets. In the elections of the Constituent Assembly on April 23, 1848, the 900 seats were distributed as follows: 500 for the Republicans, 200 for the d'Orléans, 100 for the Legitimists, and 100 for the Socialists.
The Socialist Left was concentrated among workers in Paris. All the other parties were concerned that the experience of Robespierre’s Jacobins from 1793-1794 would be repeated, when Paris ruled all of France against its will.
A general named Cavaignac, who was close to the Republicans, staged a massacre against thousands of workers in Paris in June 1848, and became the executive ruler until the presidential elections on December 10, 1848.
The moderate Republicans were the successors of the Girondists led by Danton, whom Robespierre sentenced to the guillotine. They dreamt of applying the English Westminster model with a president without powers, and in the last bargains up until December 2, 1851, in their meeting with the royalists, were open to the idea of a constitutional monarchy in France.
All of the right supported the June massacres, but afterwards, the right was not united about which path to choose: a constitutional parliamentary republic (moderate Republicans), or the return of the House of Bourbon, i.e. a constitutional monarchy as the royalists wanted.
Amid this division in the right-wing faction, a risk-taker without a brilliant past emerged. This nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte came from abroad to nominate himself for the presidency. He won by an overwhelming majority and surprised everyone. Louis Bonaparte won the votes of the peasants, who were divided between the moderate Republicans and the royalists. Eight months earlier, many of them had given their votes to the Legitimists, in April 1848.
In 1848, peasants in France made up a majority of French society. They were the backbone of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army that reached all the way to Moscow in 1812. On December 10, 1848, they gave their votes to Napoleon’s nephew, out of an attachment to the glorious past. Their leader would give them land that he had stripped from the landed bourgeoisie and the church, and almost put them in charge of all of Europe.
But those weren’t the only reasons they voted for Louis. They were fed up with the political disputes that they blamed for the recession, beginning in the summer of 1848, and high taxes. They were sick of partisanship and politics itself, and saw Bonaparte as a saviour, though he had none of his uncle’s qualities.
Meanwhile, the Legitimists and royalists backed Bonaparte against the moderate Republicans, and saw him as a way to settle scores. To them, the republicans were the biggest threat after the left was liquidated in June 1848.
Louis Bonaparte collaborated with them and helped them against the moderate republicans in the Legislative Assembly elections in May 1849. The royalists and legitimists dominated the parliament and the political scene afterwards, until May 1850. The Legitimists and royalists wanted to prevent his re-election in 1852 and restore the monarchy.
However, they soon fell into division: Who should be the new king? Should it be a Bourbon or a d'Orléans? Supporters of the latter also started siding with the republic.
Karl Marx believed that a number of factors helped Louis Bonaparte’s military coup, when he dissolved the legislative assembly and arrested its leaders: a broad preference for peace and order after waves of political unrest; the oversized French state (half a million civil servants and half a million soldiers).
Karl Marx wrote that the state had become independent with a consolidated position vis-a-vis the civil society, with the capitalist bourgeoisie abandoning the royalists in favor of a dictator who was walking in the footsteps of Napoleon III. The coup had strong popular support, and the majority of French put their fate and resources in the hands of a single individual, Louis Bonaparte, who presented himself as the protector of order and symbol of stability.
This is the evolution of a revolution by the majority in a society that ended three years and 10 months later with the majority of society abandoning politics and handing over the reins to one individual. In England from 1642-1649, something similar had happened with Oliver Cromwell, who later, in 1653, dissolved parliament and declared himself Lord Protector. The monarchy returned to England in 1660.
The coup of Napoleon Bonaparte on November 9, 1799 and the defeat at Waterloo in 1815 were the result of the failure of the revolution of 1989, though his and Cromwell’s other successes would give an impetus to revolutions later to continue the legacy of revolutions.
The revolution of February 1917 would have met the same fate were it not for the alliance between Lenin and Kerensky against General Kornilov. After the latter’s defeat, the Bolshevik leader overthrew Kerensky’s government in the October revolution of 1917. But Stalin’s rise to power in 1929 and his ensuing dictatorship was the beginning of the failure of the Bolshevik revolution, and lead to the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.
Four years after the Arab Spring, with revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and quasi-revolutions in Yemen, an elderly man won the Tunisian election. The man was once the head speaker under the Ben Ali regime. His victory follows the youth-led revolution against Ben Ali, even though his party is a reformulation of Ben Ali’s party.
In Yemen, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has returned to power through the Houthi front.
In Egypt, the January 25 revolution and July 2013 coup resemble the path of the February revolution of 1848 in France up until the coup of December 1851 there, and its President Sisi resembles Louis Bonaparte.
One of the signals of the failure of the revolution in Egypt was not only the July 2013 coup, but also the judicial verdict against Hosni Mubarak relative to that against the elected president Mohammed Mursi. Another symbolism comes from the sentences against the former spokesperson for the Revolutionary Youths Coalition, Ahmed Douma. Under Mubarak and Tantawi, he was jailed 18 times. Under Morsi, he was jailed twice. Under Sisi, he was sentenced to life in prison.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar English's editorial policy. If you would like to submit a thoughtful response to one of our opinion pieces, send your contribution to our submissions editor.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.