Friday, January 25, 2013

Stray thoughts on revolution

A somewhat meandering discussion of revolution at Crooked Timber (CT) prompted me to open Skocpol's States and Social Revolutions (1979), which I hadn't looked at in a while. The distinction between political revolution and social revolution is central to that book's framework, and at the end of it Skocpol suggested that social revolutions -- i.e. those which transform not only political structures but social or class structures as well -- would be relatively unlikely to occur in postcolonial states whose "modern military establishments," while they might stage coups, would generally act to suppress upheavals from below (cf. p.290).

With the benefit of more than thirty years' hindsight, it appears that this forecast probably overestimated the strength and independence of postcolonial militaries. Skocpol herself, in an essay written several years later, i.e. in the early 1980s, about the 1979 Iranian Revolution, noted that "in most contemporary Third World countries, it is hard to distinguish political and social revolution in any firm way, because the state and its incumbent elites are so central to the ownership and control of the economy." But she judged the Iranian Revolution to be more like the great social revolutions of the past than "simply a political revolution, where only governmental institutions are transformed." [1]

Which brings one to the revolutionary upheavals of the last couple of years in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. (Not to mention the ongoing civil war in Syria, which is also a kind of revolution.)

The news summary on the NewsHour this evening contained this:
There were clashes in Egypt today as anti-government rallies marked the second anniversary of the revolution. At least four people were shot and killed in the city of Suez. The scene in Cairo's Tahrir Square was reminiscent of the massive crowds who helped topple President Hosni Mubarak. Street battles with police broke out in Cairo and elsewhere, and well more than 300 people were hurt. The protesters said the revolution was hijacked by Islamists, who now control the government.
Was the toppling of Mubarak a political revolution or a social revolution? I haven't been following events in Egypt very closely, but my impression is that it has been a political but not a social revolution. The upper classes, so far as I'm aware, have not fled the country en masse or been expropriated, whereas the Iranian Revolution by contrast did see "the dispossession of many (especially politically privileged) capitalists...." [2] The basic elements of the state apparatus in Egypt -- the judiciary, the army, the presidency, parliament -- are still in place, and the current struggles have to do, it seems, with the relative influence of Islamist versus liberal/secular forces in the framing of the new constitution, etc. Faced with popular protest, Morsi had to scale back his attempt of a month (or so) ago to seize extraordinary powers, but obviously the non-Islamist (or anti-Islamist) forces protesting in the street on this second anniversary feel that their hopes have not been realized.

In light of this, it is interesting that only one lone commenter on the CT thread, at least the last time I checked, had mentioned the Arab Spring and the associated upheavals. Whether this says something about the CT commentariat or about the difficulty of grasping a process that has yet to reach a conclusion (or both), I'll leave to others to judge.

1. T. Skocpol, "Rentier state and Shi'a Islam in the Iranian Revolution" (1982), reprinted in her Social Revolutions in the Modern World (1994), p.241.

2. Ibid., pp.240-41.

Added later: A commenter on CT points helpfully to this bibliography on the Arab Spring, compiled by the Project on Middle East Politics based at George Washington Univ.
Note: This post was edited slightly on 6/19/15.


hank_F_M said...


Free lance Middle East journalist Michael Toten a few weeks ago wrote (link lost) of meeting with westernized Egyptians at a press event a few years ago. They made a good impression on the press corp, with whom they shared many values. But not being on a dead line he stayed longer and asked them some follow up questions. What part of the Egyptian population would share your viewpoints. 5% at most. How much of their values are shared with the general population. Very little.

While most Egyptians are not Moslem Brotherhood fanatics they are not of a Westernuzed either. A social revolution of the type we might like to see is not going to happen any time in the next century or two. A political revolution that put Westernized Egyptians in charge will not have broad enough base to stay there.

The same for most if not all counties in that region.

Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

LFC said...

I don't know enough about Egyptian politics and society to estimate the extent of support for the more secular forces. But things might have changed somewhat in the few years between the meeting that Toten described and today; the overthrow of Mubarak is itself some evidence of that, I think. That said, your conclusion may well be right.

(I think, to quibble about terminology, that I would prefer some other term than 'Westernized', but that's a minor point and I understand what you mean to convey by it.)

Btw, I see in WaPo this a.m. that a court in Port Said just sentenced 21 people to death for their role in soccer riots last year, sparking off a riot in response to the verdict that killed 16 people.


Nick said...

Reading this a few weeks late, but great post. I too have been thinking a lot about Skocpol's thesis. In arguing so emphatically that states can prevent social revolution so long as they maintain a firm grip on military power, I think she was attempting to correct for the neglect of the 'autonomous power of the state' she and other neo-Weberians were hitting out against. Her basic argument involves simplifications but remains quite powerful.

As a non-expert on the MENA/West Asia region, Egypt does still seem to be in a revolutionary situation even if a social revolution has not yet occurred. A three or fourway struggle seems to be going on at present, if one of the non-regime factions manages to triumph after an extended period of mobilisation - or if it allies with another faction and turns on the others - then a Skocpolian social revolution might occur. But for now a blood stasis seems to prevail.

LFC said...

V. good points. Thanks for commenting.