2 March, 2024


Revolutions: On-Time; Premature; Overdue – A Look Back At Great Revolutions

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Revolution is a much used and overused word, but there are two broad categories; political changes of significance and social-cum-economic overturns called structural transformations. Nine out of ten of the latter are preceded by change of ruler and state. Conversely there can be overturns of rulers and states without much change in socio-economic content; best known in modern times is the American War of Independence circa 1775-83. Change that attracts the word revolution but little disturbs the economic and social fabric are a dime a dozen; the expulsion of Marcos, overthrow of military juntas in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Haiti and more), the end of monarchy in Nepal, the breakup of Pakistan and Sudan, and the remnants of the Arab Spring.

No more about these principally political jinxes. This piece, written on the occasion of the centenary of the October revolution, is about the heavy stuff, that is, overturns of architecture (state, class and economic modus) in the post medieval world. Much has been written and I do not have anything add to conventional discourse. Rather I am interested in a comparative look at whether some are premature, some just in time and others overdue. The use of these three terms presupposes that, at some level of abstraction, there is a right time for overturns of social architecture. I subscribe to this view and agree that changes (technology and production, external relations, class and ethnic conflicts) accumulate in the bowels of society which thus becomes pregnant with a new life form. Forgive the lurid association of idioms bowel and pregnant, but it does get the point across.

Today I will chew on England from the Tudors to 1688, France 1780s to 1815 and impact on Europe, Russia from the First World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union and finally China from the 1920s to the present. I will spread things out on either side of the magical date; year 1648, June 1789, October 1917 and October 1948. To judge the maturity or otherwise of a revolution one must take account of its genesis and its progress. The conventional literature can fill a room, allowing me to take a synoptic approach biased to my ‘is it premature, in-time, or delayed’, frame of reference.

The century of revolution in England

The favourite book for the left of the English Civil War and Revolution is Christopher Hill’s Century of Revolution: 1603 to 1714, though R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism is still remembered with affection by (surviving) pupils of Professor ‘Tawney’ Rasaratnam. The period of Tudor absolute monarchies (Henry VIII, 1509-47 and Elizabeth I, 1558-1603) laid the foundations for modern English society; capital accumulation, assent of mercantile and manufacturing classes and Protestantism. England’s position in the world was transformed by mercantilism and defeat of the Spanish fleet in 1588, more by appalling weather than Gloriana’s plucky sea dog Francis Drake. The break with Catholicism not because of Henry’s concupiscence but a declaration of independence from Europe’s late-feudal Empires and the Papacy. England then prospered as nation state and economy.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

There followed a short period of reaction and repression under the second Stuart, Charles I (reigned 1625-48 and lost his head on the block in 1649). A state recognising only parliament took shape during the “Commonwealth” with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector but the race to expunge the English aristocracy and redesign the state was too rapid. The restoration of the wicked Charles II in 1660, after Cromwell’s death in 1658, was a brief course correction after a dizzying epoch. The return of parliamentary supremacy but with Constitutional Monarchy in tow in 1688 in the Glorious Revolution finally squared the circle. A system of state which survives to this day was cemented.

I would argue that history timed the end of absolute monarchy, plucked power from the hands of the landed aristocracy, cemented a compromise model of state and ensured the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie to economic supremacy, pretty nicely. Neither Rome, nor state and economy in modern Britain, were built in a day. It was a pretty efficient job getting the English project completed in the moderate time span to 1688. After all it was the world’s first such try.

Continental Europe’s age of revolution

Distinguished historian Eric Hobsbawm titled his best known work The Age of Revolution; it spans the 60 years from the French Revolution of 1789 to Europe’s Year of Revolution 1848 much celebrated by young Marx. The focus is France (Marx handed the draft of the Communist Manifesto to Engels in Paris in 1847) but laps the reshaping of Europe; France was the first course on the menu. The literature on the French Revolution is voluminous, it is also the Classic Revolution and hence I need give no background or detail. The question for this essay is ‘did history get the timing right?’ My answer is Yes and No. Mostly Yes – but not entirely – for France, but the overreach into wider Europe was more complicated.

Maximilien Robespirre (1758-1794)

Industry and commerce in France were nowhere near as developed in the 1780s as they were in England a century and a half earlier during the run up to the English Revolution. Intellectually, however, France was in ferment in contrast to England’s dullards. Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, what a star cast! Only Kant among philosophers and pioneer economist Adam Smith were contemporaneous foreigners. (Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke and Baruch Spinoza were a lot earlier). In the early and mid-1800s, urging ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ into Europe, were many celebrted revolutionaries including Auguste Blanqui, Lazare Carnot and Michael Bakunin; the last met Proudhon and Marx in Paris. Politically and intellectually, France was overripe for revolution though its means of production, using England as a yardstick, were not sufficiently mature.

Change could not be consummated without the abolition of feudalism, the intervention of the Jacobins through the Committee of Public Safety, the Terror relieving Louis XVI of his pate, and a Constitution establishing the First Republic. What took England forty years was completed in about five in febrile France. But history abhors haste. All the crowned monarchs, Pope, archdukes and nobility of Europe recoiled in horror; invasions followed. France’s reply was first a string of victories in Revolutionary Wars and then Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon harshly subdued chaos and dissent at home, assumed absolute power in 1799, then his victorious armies reshaped the face of the European continent. Feudalism was abolished, republics with modern codes of law established, economies prospered, religious and intellectual intolerance was terminated and barriers to thought lifted.

This too was too much, too soon, for hidebound Europe. The backlash climaxed in Napoleons’ defeats at La Rothiere (1814) and Waterloo (1815). Actually this was the last straw of his foolish invasion of Russia’s vast terrain and bitter winter in 1812. This is what finished Napoleon; you can’t fight geography. Ancien regimés seemed to reassert themselves but actually not. Monarchs and dukes returned but social transformations could not be rolled back, nor feudalism restored. This brief paragraph recaps an elaborate story also known as combined and uneven development.

Two steps forward one and a half back

Revolutions, like puberty, cannot be made to order or delivered on schedule; there are too many known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns augmenting a flood of known-knowns. If you think of known-knowns as Marx’s forces and relations of production, then known-unknowns are accidents of statecraft, politics and international intrusions. To push the figurative further, unknown-unknowns are consciousness and the role of leading persons – those who won (Cromwell, Robespierre, Bolivar, Lenin, Mao) and those vanquished (Wat Tyler, Tipu Sultan, Rosa Luxemburg, Che in Bolivia).  And any Chinese Bikyim or Chan worth her/his salt will add: Don’t forget luck, it is like striking gold!

To linger with these figures of speech, both Russia and China, at the time of revolution, were clear cut no-no cases in the known-knowns materialist department. In the mind-and-will department, the subjective factor, Lenin’s indomitable resolve and the role of his party have become the stuff of legend. True also the indefatigable fighting spirit of the Chinese communists come across like myths from folklore. But still, excuse me, lovely ladies and kind gentlemen, it was not these unknown-unknowns but rather a known-unknown, not character but the foreign factor that clinched the deal. Apologies to Donald Rumsfeld for so much verbal legerdemain.

But my point remains; it was international subjugation that was decisive in both Russia and China – material conditions were no way appropriate for rushing off to start a socialist experiment. Begging your pardon Comrades Lenin and Mao, not all your talent would have carried the day if the imperialist bastards had not screwed up the landscape and made just about anything possible. Oh, no wonder I was writing about chaos theory and tipping-points some weeks ago. The straw that broke the camel’s back were the ravages of war, occupation, and burdens of imperialism. I don’t need to push the point; you know about pre-revolutionary conditions in Russia and China. The first of Lenin’s three great slogans (peace, bread, land) was an end to the war. China was cut to pieces, raped and exploited by the four great imperial powers of the day. The Emperor in a Beijing was a political eunuch; Chiang Kai Shek was America’s catamite. The air was thick with the fog of revolution.

The Soviet Union expired because Stalinist economics was organisationally and technically inferior to advanced capitalism. Stalin was no Deng; he had no intelligent rear-guard plan. Are you asking me what will become of the Party-State and state-capitalism? Asking what China will be in half a century? Ah, ask not what will become of China; ask what will become of global capitalism; the answer to the China riddle my friend, is blowin in that wind.

So far this essay has been about revolutions in-time and revolutions premature. I have omitted one-third of the goodies promised in the title – revolutions overdue. Oh dear, don’t get me started on Europe and America, or what should social equity and real democracy be like in places that have got nearly half way there? Be patient, await the next thrilling instalment sometime future but to whet your appetite here’s a pointer:-

“Marx will have his revenge: Capitalism is undermining itself with technology that makes corporations and the private means of production obsolete. Then what happens? I have no idea”. Yanis Varoufakis at University College, London, October 2017.

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  • 3

    Dear Prof. What is the relevant of this talk of revolution to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka had not seen any Army coup or revolution. I’m sorry to say that not all Western models are suiting us .. Look china communism with iron grips on power . How did it overcome all challenges and now world No 1 Economy. It is good politics what we need now. Green politics. Green in every sense? do you know what green politics. Please look it up./ it is growing now in many western countries too. Singapore managed to develop good politics.. why can not we.. It is our self-fish leaders since Independence we think in communal line at expense of national interest only Exception are CBK.. she wanted to something but she could not.. Do you expect Ranil could do it.. I do not know. Sri Lanka has all potentialities to develop. It’s bad politic has spoiled .. China did rob us but we are cheated badly .. due ineptitude political decision making .. How could they borrow money like this to build mega projects we do not need right Now. Look Each politician cares about their political careers not about national interest. So many example for this.. Unless and until we send qualified and honest people to parliament we do not expect that we will not see prosperity in our time.

    • 2

      Revolutions can not be expected in a world where masses have been kept away from facts and figures.
      Just try it by yourself, how many of the average are clear about the facts in today ‘s context. Given this situation,, srilankens cant expect any kind of revolutions so long media mafia would be made clear that they have to play an unbiased role here.
      Today, freedom is given to express almost everything, but media men biased to some political goons seem not taking it to note.
      Saddest reality but nothing seem to work against it adequately for some reasons..
      I dont think it is right to allow pvt media TV channels to abuse the masses the way they have been upto. It is very unfair, after all after 30 years long brutal war that almost changed almost everything bringing us all from frying pan to the hearth.

    • 1

      Dr. K. D. did not write this article for well dwellers and tunnel visionaries, aplenty in this chicken coop called SL. I see his effort as addressing the world of scholarship particularly in the areas of history and politics.

  • 2

    Revolutionists and Reactionaries: Dear Professor, it is a pity that you have completely forgotten a revolution that has taken place right here in Sri Lanka in your article. Perhaps you consider it not to be great. You are a Kulta, a product of the Royal – Thomian system with their missionary type outlook while I am just a Haramanis coming from a Sinhala Buddhist background. This makes us diverge right at the start. Revolutions and the Leftist movement are just a pastime for you.

    On the other hand for Haramanis like me, it is a matter of life and death. The 1956 revolution launched by another big Kulta (SWRD) enabled me to enter the University from a Central School. Without that I would have become a Viduli Baas at the most, an outcome that many CT commentators would have liked.

    The Central Schools are a product of the free education system introduced by CWW Kannangara of the capitalist UNP. It forms one of the 3 great achievements of Ceylon. Free education, free medical care and an effective Administration.

    Then came the 1956 revolution, that further refined the system by offering the village sons and daughters more opportunities. I am sorry that you don’t consider these to be important. You also dismiss the overthrow of Marcos as a little disturbance, a conclusion that Silvestra is not going to like. But then who cares about small people like her?

    I remember that you were like that even in your treatment of technical matters. For you, Reactive Power is just VI sin (Theta), simply a product of the magic of mathematics without much practical significance. You seem to forget that Revolutionists and Reactionaries are the two faces of social dynamics. I don’t know what Marx says about that.

    • 0

      This is good. And thoughtful comment Edwin :)

      There we need to kneel down SWRD for his golden steps taken even by sacrificing his life.
      Lankens forget everything at once. In the past 10 years, Rajapakshes behaved as if we did not have such good leaders in this country. Rascals destroyed almost everything so thatnothing can easily help anything return.
      Leadership to elemination terror was one thing but just because his term found it, but tha respect to be misused in the aftermath of the war is no means forgivable.

      • 1

        You think you can fool me. I am not going to be fooled by your praises. OK. Tell me to remove the bold from text. And I will do it. You can see, I have already done it for my text.

  • 0

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 2

    You forget the Industrial Revolution. The most significant global event that made the West with Steel and Iron Ore and other natural resource begin centuries of world domination as older historical nations like China took a backseat. Funny how you can sit in the USA adn talk socialist communist crap and be mute about the millions murdered by Stalin, by Mao and PolPot etc in the name of your communist and socialist egalitarian crock of porcine excrement. October revolution did make significant chances to an otherwise impoverished peasantry but the only way they could progress and force industrialization was by DICTATORSHIP. Arab spring was sabotaged by Obama-Hillary-Sarkozy etc, Look at what they did in Libya and Egypt. But it is really queer for you to pontificate bullshit from USA or UK; Why dont you go be a professor in Cuba with powercuts and rations? or in N.Korea? Problem with self appointed intellectuals is they cannot ever change their hypostheses when facts on t he ground fly in their faces. Intelligent people change their policies based on facts; Intellectuals and pseudo intellectuals change facts to fit their derelict beliefs and insist they are smarter than the rest.

  • 1

    The entire interpretation of History of revolutions by Kumar David said that metholodey which he applied is Metaphysis Outlook of Evolutionary process. The reader do not have that abundance facts of politics of core Nature of Bourgeoisies Revolutions.
    In fact current many writers and elites are NOT Marxist that including David Kumar? The essay that he wrote are mix of facts but not in order of differ ERA of revolutions in the History.
    An Engineering background such man, which reading of Historical Materialism and its analysis has not been taken into account facts of reality history by David Kumar?
    You like it or not we need accession to dialectical approach by very beginning, if you want to write revolutionary changes of history.

    While people are lack of knowledge of Feudalist State and its governances, as well as bourgeoisies rule of law and its governances.
    By that David Kumar not provide enough facts before the public of yet the government policies current UNP leadership by MS, Ranil Wic…. and CBK in general.
    While government of bourgeoisies states in every country ,that including Sri lanka the question is usually answers not quite simple: we do no know there is no Counter-Revolution at all OR we do not know where it is.

    An Undoubtedly that we know fully well, WHERE POWER IS underline by UNP governances.
    It is obviously in the hand of UNP Ranil Wicks, CBK and MS fully mode of operandi by USA, UK and Indian -RAW> This is the usual answer.
    The UNP led Corny capitalist are totally departure from so-called “rainbow revolution” promised in 2015 January 8th that its foreign and economic policies in specially principles of discarded democratizes of Parliamentary norms. Since 2015 January 8th political parties and their classes in Power of State, its breaches majority order of the Democracy .
    An ongoing UNP led political; parties ,TNA JVP & MC by affiliated SLFP -CBK fraction and ruling class have shown, what they stand for so clearly and specially Federal State for Tamil Homeland.
    The majority people who have gone mad or deliberately got themselves into mess of simply moving towards partition of Island for racial basis that cannot have any illusion on this time.?

  • 1

    Kumar David’s analysis is wrong. Human’s inborn nature is greed and engulf in it. that is why communism becomes crap. You soviet russia was technically and inferior. Yet, Soviet russia had many weapons that the Czaputalist USA could not imagine and would be overly expensive. Most of those technologies are military. One example is speeding hydroplanes, small nuclear reactors that could be used engines to sttlittes. Yet, they di dnot know how to roll out a COK can when the capitalism encrochaed to them.————— “I also do not understand why this ancient crap is relavent to this web site ?

  • 1

    A brilliant piece by Dr. Kumar David. He has addressed the politically initiated with a broad and well studied survey of revolutionary movements. To students of history, the interpretations may seem unconventional. Those familiar with political cataclysms would understand the past better.

    The analysis provides nothing delectable for the ravenous appetite of separatism which is dominating the post war world. Though a long haul away, it is nearer home to the writer KD.

  • 0

    Revolution is something that had been spoken of mostly by the LSSP and in particular by Dr.N.M.Perera .When the LSSP was talking about a revolution, it was highly theoritical.Tody, I think, I am not a Marxist, that that so called mythical revolution is fast becoming a fact.The 1977 govt destroyed everything we had from discipline in the society, discipline among the monks, respect for high ethics and the agriculture and industry that sustained the society. Education was made a joke.Public administration was brought to redicule viz the public servants were called BOORUCRATS a vulgarised form of bureaucrats by JRJ himself

    .The economy is being managed in an impractical manner.If our govts can think analytically, with the resources that the country has we can still get out of this mess.

    There are economists living in their dream world .Rohan Samarajeeva used the sale of hand phones ( aka SIMS) to gauge the affluence of the society.He had missed a salient fact, the fact that today there are individuals who carry more than one hand phone with them.I myself use two hand phones when i travel long distances – a necessity to over come a fast run down battery.I know of individuals who own more than five sims. Some Phones come with four to five sims.

  • 0

    While I wish Mr.Ranil Wickramsinghe all the best in his endevours to correct the economy, I do not think that he is going to be successful.His palns are all cockeyed.

    I am saying this with experience.The Ginganaga valley had sugar industry that had been there through 200 years, That was killed by the involvement of a British Firm, who came here on JRJ’s govt’s request.The passion fruit industry, if one can recollect was flourishing.More or less every grocery had passion fruit cordials for sale . Today, one has to search for a passion fruit, fruit like the mythical search for needle in a hay stack.Thanks once again to an foreign investor.

    From 1977 on wards no govt gave a helping hand to the agriculturist or the industrialist with low investment. The people who benefited are the trading community. Few months ago I had a chat with a marketing manager of a company that has a wide range of products with their brand name.I had one question, to manufacture such a wide range, where do you have your production facility. He felt shy and out came the reply – South Korea.

    The much hyped Sisil refrigerator was made here, today it is a label on a product from Korea.

    I have been attempting to convince the govts since Mr Premadas’s govt to develop an alternative fossil fuels. Mr.P. replied my letter by not Athulathmudali. Since then I have contacted many with no response.I believe that a litre of locally made fuel can be supplied at about Rs 50-60 at the pump.Do not ask me how.It can be done and I am skeptical about filing a patent application, because my experience in the past had been horrible.I have come to suspect that some at the patent registry are not objective.

    If that is done many problems of our country can be corrected, but no that will not be done because no foreigner is interested and they cannot boast.

  • 0

    I too agree with you Sri Lanka should encourage all local products and local farmers..?
    Why do import fruits and Vegs..?our local fruits and Vegs are more organics..more good ?
    Why do we get fish tines?
    Ptatoa? Onions and many other items?
    We do not help local farmers ?
    We do not have national proud to eat local food ..
    Sorry to say more of illness come from eating junk foods .
    This course a lot of money for health ?
    Government should enforce people to do all home forming and encourage local farmers .
    China and India are use this vacuums of our farmers ..

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