Is a Revolution in the Offing?
I used to own a poster from the old USSR of the "famous charge" on the Winter Palace during the October Revolution. The focal point of the poster was an ordinary soldier, with a fixed bayonet on his rifle, waving others forward toward the well-defended palace walls.
I liked the poster for its art. As a piece of history, it was, however, like many things that came out of the old Soviet Union: a wonderful depiction of an event that did not quite happen.
As the military historian D. J. Goodspeed recounts, there was no charge against the Winter Palace. While the communists assembled outside the gates, the members of the provisional government sat down to a bountiful, late dinner, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding threat. Communist units entered the palace gates and were surrounded by overwhelming forces and surrendered. But as more and more communist units entered, more and more of the defenders, seeing a never-ending stream of revolutionaries, deserted their posts. Sometime early in the morning of the next day, the remaining defenders saw themselves terribly outnumbered by their captives and they too began to leave their posts.
The last holdouts were the Second Women Moscow Death Battalion, who after some discussion also withdrew, leaving the Winter Palace in the hands of the communists. The victorious communists let the members of the government and military depart, and then proceeded to embark on a rigorous campaign against the contents of the palace's wine cellar from which they only emerged days later.
Our image of revolutions is that of men and women running through the streets with guns blazing. The assault on the Bastille, however, occurred when there were merely a handful of prisoners in it and France's feudal regime had already crumbled. The taking of the Bastille, like the taking of the Winter Palace, was symbolic, but revolutions do not occur in the swift momentous events that become the sources of celebrations and the subjects of inspiring works of art. Regimes die from a slow agonizing death that takes place over long periods of time; when a regime's decay becomes patently obvious, it is already too late.
Most regimes began to fall when they lose legitimacy. Few understand that even an ineffectual regime like czarist Russia was able to stumble on as long as the ordinary Russian still believed the czar was the little father anointed by God. It is the intellectuals, as Crane Brinton so brilliantly noted, who put the first nail in a regime's coffin by calling into question the principles that sustain its necessary legitimacy. Most regimes fall because they give sustenance to their accusers by being out of touch with the lives of average people. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it, regimes die from an absence of the heart.
The thoughts of regime failure engage me because of what I see as a continual separation of elites from ordinary people in Western democracies. There are many facets in our own polity where this occurs, from the economic meltdown laced with fraud and greed, for which no executive has been held accountable, to the current administration's seizure of the institutions of government to harass and hinder legitimate political opposition, to make journalism a crime, and to apparently lie about it with impunity, as the attorney general appears to have in the case of James Rosen.
But we will survive these, as we survived Watergate. They do not argue for regime change as much as they imply a change in which party gains access to the corridors of power.
Instead, I am more concerned about Western regimes denying the fundamental internal threat to security -- the rise in our midst of radical Islam and the refusal to grapple with it. There are the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon, the beheading of a Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich, in broad daylight; a similar attack in France where the perpetrator prayed before he stabbed a French soldier in the throat, the Muslim riots in Sweden, still ongoing as of this writing, similar to riots in France, and the creation of Sharia no-go areas in Amsterdam and London.
Throughout each of these episodes and earlier ones going back to 09/11, the public is told that this has nothing to do with Islam. We are told that the massacre at Fort Hood by a Muslim fanatic is workplace violence, that an Afghan Muslim who drove from his neighborhood in Fremont, California some forty miles through heavy urban traffic to run people down near San Francisco's Jewish Community Center was simply a deranged individual, that the shooting by an Egyptian Muslim of the El Al ticket counter at LAX had nothing to do with Islam, and neither did the shootings by a Muslim at the Jewish Federation in Seattle.
It is beginning to sound as if the Spanish Inquisition had nothing to do with the Catholic Church, and the Reformation had nothing to do with Protestantism. Such nonsense does not make us feel safer; it makes us feel that the government has deserted us.
The essence of low intensity conflict is to make a people feel that the government, corrupt, inefficient, and inattentive, cannot protect the people. Guerrilla warriors go to great lengths to create this message, but in the Western world, the government itself is formulating this message at the expense of its own credibility and ultimately its legitimacy.
When British Prime Minister David Cameron says that the beheading of a British soldier is an insult to Islam, when the police stand by in Stockholm while Muslim youth burn cars, and when President Barack Obama tells us that the Fort Hood massacre was an example of workplace violence, the inadvertent messages they send is that they are more concerned about protecting Islam than protecting everyone else. And the mixture of silence and euphemism with which a compliant media advances these ideas only reinforces public cynicism.
In each of these actions, the government tarnishes and diminishes its own legitimacy. In doing so, it paves the way for an alternative political narrative, one that will say: the truth is what you are not being told; the truth is what is obvious to you but hidden from the public agenda by corrupt elites who will not protect you from the next act of violence perpetrated by radical Muslims.
Amid such perceptions, social movements arise outside of the political mainstream. Fear is the appropriate motivator and hate is the great unifier. The two reinforce each other. If the mainstream political system is unraveling, the consequence of that interaction is an alternative political reality, an alternative more credible explanation of events and, most of all, a more credible interpretation of the otherwise inexplicable behavior of elites.
Revolutions are not made by those who desire them, but -- as Tocqueville notes -- by the stupidity of those who least want them to occur.
The idea that Western societies will lie down in the face of an aggressive Islamist movement that threatens their very civilization is ludicrous. Nationalism is one of the greatest and most enduring ideologies known to humanity. Elites might believe in multiculturalism, but to average persons nationalism identifies who and what they are. Threaten that and you mobilize them. All that is required is the arrival of the charismatic leader, a precipitating catastrophic event, and an elite running to the barricades to provide a fatuous explanation on behalf of the perpetrators while ignoring the victims.
Of course, some of it has already happened, but then an elite crumbles by increments; only in the end does it appear that a regime's fall is appropriately described as occurring in a single night.
The legitimacy of mature democracies is strong, but it is not unbreakable. Whether those who view themselves on the periphery will be mobilized is ultimately not up to those willing to go into the streets, but up to those who control the levers of power. Regimes blunder into revolution. It remains to be seen what course Western democracies follow in confronting the challenges presented by the Islamists.