Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The ‘revolution’ season is upon us again. Or at least the season in which many swear that revolution is ‘just around the corner.’ Last week, large protests and riots hit various cities in Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East. But, of course, a riot or a series of riots do not make a revolution.

Political turmoil in the shape of riots and protests is largely about a system correcting itself. And this self-correction mechanism often goes through teething problems. Yet, activists and the media are always misinterpreting such tumultuous periods of self-correction as “revolutionary.”

This perception that some sort of a revolutionary awakening is sweeping a society or revolutionary change is just around the corner is not more than half a century old. Its roots are in the ‘counterculture movements’ which emerged in the US and Europe in the 1960s.

When a political system goes through its teething process, political turmoil manifests itself through riots and protests that are often seen by excitable Western media as revolutions

In the 2008 issue of The Critical Journal of Social Sciences, British sociologist Colin Barker writes that, between 1968 and 1969, almost simultaneously, violent student riots broke out in well over a dozen countries across the globe, including Pakistan.

There are plenty of quotes documented by the era’s media of youth leaders and activists claiming that “revolution is just around the corner.” According to the October 2016 edition of BigMouth, the British online magazine of cultural criticism, “In the 1960s, more people changed their trousers than ideologies.” The article goes on to ask, “Did people really want a revolution or did they just want to throw the biggest party in history?”

Yet, most historians, political scientists and sociologists studying the global turmoil of the late 1960s agree that — even though there was really nothing revolutionary about the uproar — the annoyance that triggered mass-scale agitation by young men and women in the late 1960s, was not only about the youth trying to have a wild party in which portraits of Che Guevara, Chairman Mao and Karl Marx were simply situational props.

Most economies in the post-World World II period enjoyed a sustained boom. This meant an expanding urban middle-class and an influx of young men and women joining colleges and universities, more than ever before. However, according to the historian Michael Burleigh, in Blood and Rage (2008), educational institutions could not accommodate the influx and this led to some serious logistical issues, leaving the students feeling agitated and disrespected.

This feeling spilled over and was expressed through various ‘revolutionary’ and ‘radical’ ideas, even though, as Barker points out in his essay, the economy was booming and unemployment was low.

Commenting on the commotion, Neil Smelser, the American social psychologist in 1968’s Essays in Social Explanation writes that youthful rebellion against an institution takes the place of rebellion against the father. He added that it was a “biological urge” of the adolescent to assert him or herself.

The turmoil of the late 1960s in this context contributed to the strengthening of various social and civil rights movements and concepts. But it was really about a robust political-economic system correcting itself after failing to accommodate the influx and aspirations of a whole new generation.

That’s why, by the mid-1970s, ‘the revolution’ was over. The system had successfully appropriated and accommodated the new generation by building more educational institutions and then, from the late 1970s onwards, offering more lucrative economic opportunities to young graduates.

In 1990, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, these were revolutionary events, almost at par with actual revolutions such as the 1917, 1949 and 1958 communist revolutions in Russia, China and Cuba, and the 1979 revolution in Iran. Yet, there are those who claim that the events that led to the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe were, again, more about a system correcting itself.

In a May 25, 1987 article for the New York Times, the Czech journalist Jiri Pehe predicted a “major realignment of class power” in the Soviet Union and its satellite communist states in East Europe. Two years before the Berlin Wall came down, Pehe wrote that more and more members at the top of the region’s ruling communist parties were assuming “middle-class values.”

Many latter-day analysts have even gone to the extent of suggesting that, till the early 1970s, communism actually raised the living standards of thousands of people in communist countries. These lifestyle improvements led to the desire among people to espouse middle-class ideals. So even when communist economics began to crumble, middle-class aspirations and ideals brewing within these societies continued to grow. Thus, as Pehe put it, communist parties too began to embrace middle-class values, as a survival tactic.

So one can suggest, here too it was the system readjusting or re-setting itself. Of course, Western media never stopped calling these as the “democratic revolutions” of the century. They really weren’t, as the rise of illiberal and authoritarian regimes in many former communist regions should suggest.

But the tradition of excitedly describing such readjustments as revolutions (sometimes amping them up by giving them a colour) continues in the Western media.

Starting with the so-called Velvet Revolution (1989) in the erstwhile Czechoslovakia, there was the Rose Revolution (Georgia, 2003), Tulip Revolution (Kyrgyzstan, 2005), the Orange Revolution (Ukraine, 2005), etc. Each one of these was course-correction, not revolution. The 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ in various Middle-Eastern countries too was exactly that — course-correction.

And what is happening today in, say, Hong Kong or Lebanon, may be exciting Western media again, but these are course-corrections as well.

Revolutions are rare. Course-corrections are not, even though many are mistaken and sometimes peddled as revolutions.

The 1960s’ Pakistani activist Lal Khan in The Other Story describes the movement against the Ayub Khan regime as a revolution. It wasn’t for the reasons already discussed. It was course-correction by the system, as was the movement against Z.A. Bhutto in 1977 and the Lawyers’ Movement against Gen Musharraf. And if there is to be a movement against the current regime, that too would be the system correcting itself to adjust to newer realities.

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 27th, 2019