What follows is an article by an Englishman who teaches at Harvard University by the name of Niall Ferguson that I really think is one of the best commentaries that I’ve read about the uprisings in the Middle East. It was published in the current (March 7th) issue of Newsweek magazine and I thought I would share it with you on the blog today in an abridged version.
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.
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 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.
The scale of violence in the American Revolution was, by the standards of the other revolutions of history, modest.
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 18thCentury standards, exceptionally well off and well educated. People in Libya today are closer to sans-culottes of the Paris backstreets, the lumpin-proletariat 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. Poor, ill-educated young men. Around 40 million of them! (That leaves us with) absolutely no idea who is going to fill today’s vacuums of power.
Only the hopelessly naïve imagine that 30-something Google executives will emerge as the leaders of the Arab world, aided by their social network of Facebook friends. The far more likely outcome – as in past revolutions – is that power will pass to the best organized, most radical, and most ruthless elements of the revolution, which in this case means Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.
The probability of a worst-case scenario creeps up every day – a scenario of the sort that ultimately arose in revolutionary France, Russia, and China. First the revolutions of North Africa and the Middle East could turn much more violent, with the death toll running into tens or hundreds of thousands. Then they could spark a full-blown war claiming millions of lives. Worst of all, out of that war could emerge an enemy as formidable as Napoleon’s France, Stalin’s Soviet Union, or Mao’s China.
Yes, Americans love revolutions. But they should stick to loving their own!