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Feb. 22, 2020, 8:48 a.m. EST

History’s warning: A society that will not reform may have a revolution instead

The center fails to hold only after it’s clear that those in power will not change

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By Daniel Chirot

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William Butler Yeats captured it best with one of his most famous poems, The Second Coming, written about Ireland’s revolt against British rule in 1919: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed … The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

A unifying thread of such situations is that societies become politically so divided only after a long period in which it is increasingly clear that reforms are necessary, but those in power, oblivious to how dire the situation has become, block the measures that could save the regime.

There is no stable alternative to sustaining the center, even when doing so requires overcoming elite resistance to reforms.

There are few better examples of this than interviews with the shah a few years before his violent overthrow. His people loved him, he insisted, and his paternalistic rule was far better than undisciplined Western democracy.

Ignoring discontent

Czar Nicholas II thought he could ignore the extent of discontent before he entered World War I. In the 1920s and 1930s, and in some cases even later, colonial European powers refused to relinquish control in their dominions by excluding moderate proposals to move toward gradual self-rule.

In all these cases, repressing or marginalizing moderate compromisers led only to extremism.

Of course, not all, or even most, analogous situations lead to actual revolutions, but there is a lesson to be learned from the most extreme outcomes. Delaying reforms, or pursuing reforms that do not go far enough to solve growing social and economic problems, leads to increased polarization. The center cannot hold, and the moderates have to choose: join with more extreme political leaders and ideologies or accept political (if not actual) exile.

A catastrophic example was Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.

Conventional conservative (today called “neoliberal”) solutions to unemployment were not working. Conservatives so feared and hated moderate social democrats that instead of trying to ally with them to create what in the U.S. became Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, they chose to put the Nazis in power.

Their assumption that they could easily control Hitler did not survive that decision.

Today, similar tendencies and accompanying violence have already led to the terrible civil war in Syria and are making compromise ever more difficult in India, Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America, and in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon.

Hong Kong, where an impossible dream of independence has made reasonable compromise extremely difficult, may be another example.

Tragedy of the American Revolution

But wasn’t the American Revolutionary War of 1775-1783 different? The Americans had a genuine political revolution, but no social revolution, as the established elites who led it retained power.

Tragically, they did not successfully address the issue of slavery. Some leading figures assumed it would gradually die out on its own. Instead, after about 1820, American society became increasingly polarized. In the South, led by South Carolina, extremists took over, eventually making impossible any compromise that would have gradually ended slavery.

The result was an extraordinarily vicious civil war. Today, that division remains unresolved. The continuing division about the persistent legacy of race-based slavery is a principal, though certainly not the only, cause of growing political polarization today.

So, if the past counsels anything about the present and future for much of the world (certainly including the U.S.), it is that there is no stable alternative to sustaining the center, even when doing so requires overcoming elite resistance to reforms.

This article was published with permission of Project SyndicateReform or Revolution.

Daniel Chirot, professor of Russian and eurasian studies at the University of Washington, is the author, most recently, of “You Say You Want a Revolution?: Radical Idealism and Its Tragic Consequences.”

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