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Revolutionary times

Posted by Richard Thursday, June 02, 2011


Scholars tend to agree that the primary cause for revolution is widespread frustration with socio-political situation, and there is general accord as to the meaning of the term.

And, if the survey by the German institute Friedrich Ebert is any guide, we are getting close to revolutionary conditions. From a sample of more than 5,000 adults from Germany, Britain, Spain, France and Poland, researchers found that trust in their governments has considerably declined.

Only six percent of those surveyed had a great deal of confidence in their governments, while 46 percent of the participants said they did not trust their statesmen very much and some three percent had no trust in their governments at all. From there, however, there is a long way to go before the revolutionary process actually starts, but it seems closest in Greece, or perhaps Spain, where street protests are continuing apace.

According to author Crane Brinton, the revolution goes through a series of stages , beginning with a "financial breakdown of society". From there, there must be an "organisation of the discontented" to remedy this breakdown, who then make "revolutionary demands" which if granted would mean the virtual abdication of those governing.

The next stages, according to the Brinton doctrine, involve the use of force by governments, its failure, and the attainment of power by the revolutionists. The revolutionary group then fragments and power passes in increasingly violent stages from right to left, to the "terror stage", where the revolution devours its children.

Such seems to be the fate of many European countries, and despite the opportunities for relief revolutions afford, these is not to be welcomed. Classically, they are messy, violent affairs, which rarely if ever achieve the objectives of those who start them off. In fact, most often, they are the first to die.

The trick, therefore, it seems to me, is to achieve change in such a manner that it heads off the violent revolution, yet deals with the issues which, if allowed to continue, would inevitably give rise to such a revolution. The challenge, therefore, is to achieve revolution by non-violent means – at which the British are supposedly quite adept – although we have had our moments.

Conventional wisdom – or so I am told – is that to achieve anything of significance, unity is paramount. To that effect, political parties and other campaigning groups set great store by unity, often valuing it above all else.

However, it seems that organisational unity, as such, rather than assisting in the attainment of an objective, is more likely to interfere with it. As different groups strive to promote their own agendas, compromises have to be made. Unity becomes the ultimate objective, requiring the sacrifice of any specific group objectives.

To cite a fairly recent example, "eurosceptic" Conservative workers might accept the rejection of a long-stated wish to repatriate the Common Fisheries Policy, in order to maintain a unified front, in order to win an election. Theory has it that the unity is then prone to fracture after the election – but that it another story.

Thus, it would appear, attempts at unifying disparate organisations – or even individuals – in order to achieve campaign objectives, are not a sensible way forward. Rather than having an organisation and a revolutionary leader in the manner of Lenin, a more effective way of achieving an effect would be for different groups to maintain a unity of purpose, while keeping their separate identities and autonomy of action.

The effect of unity in such a context is similar to that of a magnifying glass concentrating the sun's rays in order to produce a flame. Without the lens, the sun will not have the desired effect. Without unity of purpose, it is difficult to prevail against the forces of government.

And therein lies the ultimate protection for government. It is not so much that it is highly efficient in protecting itself. Simply, its benefits from unity of purpose, derives from the need to perpetuate itself, and enrich its members, whereas the opposition is fragmented and uncoordinated.

But, if the focus derived from unity of purpose is essential for the success of a campaign, it is not enough. The other essential is persistence. One notes that the Chartist demand of universal suffrage did not see fruition until 1918, seventy years had elapsed from the date of publication of the charter, and then not until 1928 for women aged 21.

It will be recalled that opponents to the women's vote argued that they should not get the vote "because they were too emotional and could not think as logically as men".

Arguably, we cannot wait as long as the Suffragettes, but it has to be recognised that major change is rarely achieved quickly. On the other hand, persistent failure is timeless. The eurosceptic movement has spent 35 years failing. Success in ten years would be short by comparison.

What the Chartists and the Suffragettes both had in their favour was also the simplicity of their idea, and the broad appeal. The idea of one man (and woman) one vote, was simple to convey and could attract support from across the political spectrum.

Similarly, Referism has that simplicity, and potentially, the same broad appeal. The left, such as it is, and the right, can unite on the need for an annual referendum, as a means of budgetary control over government, albeit from different perspectives and with different objectives.

Thus, we are able to identify four elements necessary for a successful pre-revolutionary campaign, those necessary to head off a violent revolution. Firstly, we need a simple objective, and one with broad appeal. Then we need of campaigners unity of purpose, and persistence.

Of all these, possibly the hardest to achieve is unity of purpose. As I pointed out in the original post on Referism, there will be all sorts of resistance to the idea.

However, those who have different agendas should ask themselves whether they fulfil the requirements of simplicity and broad appeal, whether they can forge a unity of purpose amongst different groups to achieve their aim and whether the idea is sufficient to inspire persistent campaigning over the years. Campaigners then have to ask themselves what their own objectives are – whether they are campaigning just for the sake of it, or whether they actually want to succeed.


That question came up when I had the privilege of standing as the candidate for the Referendum Party in Derbyshire South, in the 1997 General. During that time, the founder, James Goldsmith came down to Swadlincote for an epic public meeting - amid dark complaints that he had only set up the Party for his own self-aggrandisement. What none of us knew then was that he was terminally ill with cancer, and had nothing personally to gain.

And that, on the scale of things, applies to most of us. For myself, on and off, I have spent some 35 years fighting the EU. I am not going to see another 35 years, and - like James Goldsmith - I would like to see the glimmerings of success before I die.

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