Liberal Revolutions: Comparisons and Conclusions

Historical Analysis

The liberal revolution is not just a rebellion or a coup d'etat; it is a transforming series of events or evolution in politics resulting from the industrial revolution and increasing education, literacy, and political awareness, particularly within the middle class. In theory, it replaces the principle of inheritance as the basis for legitimizing power with the principle of elections. It is associated with a rhetoric about equality among people, therefore, inspiring other groups within and beyond the middle class to aspire to access to political power when the time is ripe for them to do so.

The liberal revolution challenges the existing power structure, which resists the sharing of power and the loss of its special privileges. It occurs when the existing government is faced with a crisis which divides and weakens the ruling elite. It results in a loss of control by the ruling elite and a temporary political paralysis leading to a breakdown of order and stability. It is accompanied by violent conflict and war, which postpones and often prevents the achievement of the liberal goals sought by the revolutionary leaders. If, the revolution is accompanied by foreign involvement and an international war, the resulting upheavals are likely to result in extensive and costly bloodshed.

Much depends upon the existence of representative institutions and experience prior to the revolution. These institutions will provide the mechanism for the establishment of a new order which is capable of minimizing the conflict and realizing the achievement of liberal goals. Such were the circumstances in both the English and the American Revolutions where the prior existence and long experience of the English Parliament and the American colonial legislatures provided the basis for the re-establishment of peace and order. The separation by an ocean between the American revolutionaries and the British establishment further eased the process there.

The lack of any comparable institutional experience in France and Russia made it impossible to quickly establish alternative governments in those revolutions. Both the French and Russian Revolutions were complicated by international wars, which created hysteria and panic, and put the focus on military action to save the revolution. Consequently, a military dictatorship under Napoleon and a one-party dictatorship under Lenin arose. Napoleon's empire was brought down after several years of war; and a very conservative, if constitutional, monarchy put in its place. The lack of much liberalizing progress in France in the following decades meant that France had to experience another liberal revolution in 1848. England, by contrast, was faced with a severe crisis due to continued rapid industrialization, but avoided another upheaval through the passage, by Parliament. of the Reform Bill of 1832. English political institutions weathered the crisis and proved capable of further, painfully slow, but effective responses to the continued socio-economic changes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

France , on the other hand, had their own unique evolution based upon their national experience. Although liberal ideals were firmly entrenched in the minds of people due to the revolution of 1789, the French Republic was still identified with the terror that had accompanied the establishment of the first republic. These historical memories, combined with a mythology about the greatness of France during the Napoleonic era, helped to create the Second Empire under the nephew of Napoleon. A strange mixture of imperial fantasies and republican practices characterized the period. Even Napoleon III, himself, shared some of the Republican ideals and felt it necessary to have his proclamation as emperor be ratified by French voters. Driven by nationalism and motivated by an image of international glory associated with the past, Napoleon entangled France in overseas adventures. The Crimean War, the Franco-Austrian War, a failed attempt to build a canal in Panama, and a farcical adventure in Mexico served only to weaken the nation. Meanwhile, the government retained support by gradually relaxing its control over a resurgent Assembly. The Empire was repudiated by defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and a liberal, republican government established soon thereafter. France could never return to a pre-revolutionary past.

Crane Brinton's phases of revolution are a useful tool in analyzing all of the liberal revolutions. They reflect attitudes that are inescapable. Prior to a revolution, the political status quo, having existed for decades or even centuries, the political elite of a national community cannot envision that it will be swept away. The revolutionaries demand change but only expect moderate change. The English Parliament expected only to share power with a still powerful monarchy. The American colonial protestors expected to remain a part of the British Empire but also to continue to enjoy a high degree of self-government. The newly established National Assembly in France expected to share power with the monarchy. The liberal element in Bismarck's Germany, motivated by their national feeling and enjoying the success of national unity, were enthusiasic in support of the authoritarian government. In Russia, during the Revolution of 1905, the revolutionaries expected to share power within the czar's government, and the monarchy was overthrown in 1917 only because of its inept internal corruption at a time of great national crisis caused by the First World War.

In each case, the existing ruling elite struggled to maintain their monopoly of power and , consequently lost control when faced with crises they could not resolve. They, like the revolutionaries, could not envision the fate that awaited them. Failing to share power with moderate revolutionaries, they lost control completely, and moderate leadership was repudiated or took a radical turn.

The failure of King Charles I of England to compromise with the Parliament in 1628 and again in 1639 led to the break in relations and the English civil war. As a result of the war the unthinkable happened. The King, the legitimate ruler, as determined by inheritance, was deposed and executed. In America, the British tried to impose their rule upon the colonists by force. The result was the Revolutionary War, which taught the British that they lacked the means to rule without the consent of the colonial elite, and convinced the rebels that they must declare independence. That, in the moderate phase of the revolution, would have been inconceivable. In France, the vacillation and then the refusal of the King to accept joint rule with the National Assembly destroyed his credibility and set the stage for his imprisonment and execution. In Russia, the failure of the Duma to sue for peace with Germany and withdraw from the war, assured that they would be repudiated. Consequently, in the radical stage of the Russian Revolution, defeat and surrender in World War War I was followed by three years of civil war. In Germany, the failure of the German people to accept defeat undermined the Weimar Republican Government and prepared the way for an inconceivably irrational political movement, the Nazis, to gain popular support. None of these results, during the radical stages of the revolutions, would have been thought to be desirable or acceptable during the moderate phases, and none of the radical circumstances could endure because the national communities, in each case, could not or would not accept the instability and disorder.

In the counter-revolutionary phase, following the death of Cromwell, a revived English Parliament restored the monarchy but assured its own supremacy of power over the King. In America, the ruling elite of an independent United States wrote a Constitution that created a central government with the sovereign power to tax, collect duties, and, if necessary, make war; in other words, all of the powers which the British government had once thought it had. In France, Napoleon established a military dictatorship and would have re-established a new dynastic rule based on inheritance had he not been finally defeated and deposed by the ruling coalition of Europe. This dynastic concept was not finally put to rest until the nephew of Napoleon was also deposed by a foreign power half a century later. In Russia, the Bolshevik leadership survived the civil war and presided over a counter-revolution which involved authoritarian rule and even a repudiation, in practice, of its own professed Marxist ideology. Stalin took over the police state instruments forged by Lenin and established a regime which contradicted Marxist ideals and resembled the autocracy of the most despotic of Russian czars. In Germany, Adolf Hitler claimed to be restoring Germany to the greatness of its past, while he established a ruthless and racist dictatorship until, like Napoleon, he was defeated by the many enemies he had created abroad. The counter-revolutionary phase reveals the great endurance of past traditions within each national community. Although the past can never be restored, the only enduring changes are those which have gradually been accepted over a long period of time.

It is a great historical tragedy that the political changes driven by industrialization seem only to be able to occur through a difficult process involving conflict and war. The liberal revolutions seem inevitably to occur but the price paid is exorbitant. Is it possible that we can learn something from the examples set by Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, and other dedicated non-violent revolutionaries?

Historical Analysis