When we think of revolutions, most people visualise the cataclysmic events of the 1789-1799 French Revolution, the barbarism of which has been sanitised as “liberte, egalite, fraternite” (liberty, equality and brotherhood). The French Reign of Terror inspired Russia’s 1918-1922 Red Terror, which sought to eliminate political dissent, opposition and any other threat to Bolshevik power.
These revolutions, with the reprisals and counter-revolutionary actions that followed, came to be seen as a threat to progress. Market democracy was proposed as an alternative to people power, but quickly morphed into a market economy, building up wealth in the hands of a few.
George Lawson disagrees that revolutions should be consigned to history. Instead, he proposes the idea of a negotiated revolution. Instead of “a fight to the finish, comes a process in which the old regime and revolutionaries together negotiate the destruction of the old order and the birth of a new nation.”
China, whose Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961, and the 1966 Cultural Revolution, where Red Guards had to be reined in from creating complete civil disorder, settled upon a negotiated revolution with Revolutionary Committees made up of rebels, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and old cadres, to return the economy to stability.
The best example of a negotiated revolution in modern history is that of South Africa. After decades of Apartheid, a peaceful transition was achieved, with no bloodshed, and reprisals were avoided by Truth and Reconciliation Committees.
While people are often fearful and sceptical of change, it is often not only necessary but also inevitable
Despite the spontaneous violence that marred the partition of India, it was in essence a negotiated revolution. The end of Britain’s largest colonial enterprise, and the creation of two nations, was achieved at the discussion table.
Further back in history, a remarkable negotiated revolution was established by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Sulah Hudaibiya, a contract of peace between the believers of Madina and the non-believers of Makkah, was a preamble to the general amnesty offered to all who had plotted against Islam, as the Prophet rode into Makkah on his favorite camel Al-Kaswa in 630 AD. He referred to the Prophet Yusuf who forgave his brothers, saying “Go, you are free.”
Forgiveness is an important part of conflict resolution. Janna Ezat forgave the terrorist who killed her son in an attack on a mosque in New Zealand, as did Farid Ahmed who lost his wife, along with 49 other worshippers. He said “I don’t want to have a heart that is boiling like a volcano. It burns itself within, and also it burns the surroundings.”
Phuc, one of the children photographed running down a street in Vietnam after being bombed with napalm by the United States, later forgave the man who planned the attack in which many of her friends and family were killed.
Forgiveness frees a person from the control of the person who caused harm. It also frees the individual from the emotional damage of nurturing anger and negative thoughts.
Negotiated revolutions have a place in peace time as well. A business leader negotiates with resistant colleagues to reorganise business systems. Nineteenth century artists chose to depict life as it was, rather than the idealised world of classical art, persisting until the critics finally accepted the new art. This was also true of later art movements such as the Dada Movement, abstraction and digital art. Artist Shazia Sikander developed a new style of miniature painting, despite the misgivings of her classically trained teacher, Bashir Ahmed. Today it has become the norm.
In 1903, Henry Ford was advised, “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad.” In 1946, an executive at 20th Century Fox predicted television would not last more than six months.
People resist change for a number of reasons, not all of which are malicious. The majority fear changing what is familiar or fear they may not have the skills for a new system. Some feel, pessimistically, that nothing can improve. The proof of change lies with the test of time.
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist. She may be reached at
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 14th, 2023
Dear visitor, the comments section is undergoing an overhaul and will return soon.