I've recently been teaching the French Revolution at my high school. I also teach the Russian Revolution and the rise of national socialism in Germany. That's a lot of revolution, a lot of social turmoil, and a lot of violent death in my professional life. However, revolutions are important things to study – they usually compress everything that normally happens in the political and social life of a society over an extended period into a very short time-frame. This dynamic makes things much more interesting to teach and to learn.
A number of unifying themes emerge from these events. One is that very often revolutions turn out not to be revolutions at all. If we accept that a revolution is a full turn of a wheel, then many political and social revolutions run out of steam halfway around, then somehow find their way right back to where they started. France overthrew a monarchy only to end up with a monarch by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. Russia overthrew a tsar only to end up with Tsar Joseph Stalin. Germany revolted against an experimental liberal democracy in the 1930s only to end up with an experimental federal
liberal democracy after the second world war. Their attempted full revolutions, including the 'thousand-year reich', proved unsustainable.
The United States would seem to be the exception to this rule as their revolution still appears to have achieved its objectives, even though it can seem quite messy at times.
Another major theme, for me, is what starts revolutions in the first place. In France in 1789, everything kicked off with food riots in Paris. In Russia in 1917, the revolution also began with food riots in Petrograd. Starvation in Weimar Germany greatly contributed to Adolf Hitler's increasing popularity until he became chancellor via the ballot box after the surrender of his opponents in 1933. Food and justice, or lack of them, are often core motive forces that initially drive social and political movements, including full-scale revolutions.
New headline statistics tell us that 26 of the world's billionaires now together own more of the planet's human wealth than the poorest 50% of the entire population. I remember first becoming aware of this fundamental injustice when the 7:84 theatre company was touring Scotland with 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil'. Seeing them and knowing what they represented pushed me willingly into active politics. Watching depictions of my ancestors (MacKays in this case) being denied the very basics of life in the cause of greater profit helped in that process.
The fear of starvation combined with a heightened sense of injustice and powerlessness make the mass of the population more susceptible to political suggestion – known currently as 'populism'. Those who are opposed to populism, for whatever reason, tell us that this is a bad, even evil
, thing. They seek out evil individuals to blame for it and Mr Steve Bannon comes to mind, a global 'Grey Cardinal' if ever there was one. However, if the basic fears of the population over food and justice were not actually real, then the Steve Bannons of this world would simply be one type of blogger in an ocean of countless other bloggers. Action, or more accurately reaction, to current conditions such as in the case of the Brexit referendum result would not be possible.
So, 'populism'… What is it? The French Revolution was a festival of murderous chaos until Napoleon returned home in 1799 from his semi-exile in the Middle East. His first task was to restore order and finally give the people the stability that they had demanded in 1789. The food crises had not been solved and violent, arbitrary government had certainly not been ended by Robespierre's committee of public safety or the directorate that followed.
When Vladimir Lenin arrived by train, happily provided by the German imperial foreign ministry, in April 1917, he did not regale the crowd with the opportunities offered by dialectical materialism. No, he offered them peace, bread and land, because that is why they had revolted in the first place. The implementation of pure Marxism would have to wait.
Adolf Hitler was able to assume power, supported by between three and four million brown-shirted SA, because he convinced enough people that he could give them jobs, economic stability and an end to their dying of starvation in the streets. Revenge on Germany's enemies for the humiliations of 1918 and the creation of a new, sustainable empire for the Germans came second to these immediate goals.
In each case the chaos, starvation and a certain kind of anarchic injustice was ended (often to be replaced by better organised repression) by the clearly stated intention to give the majority of the population exactly what they said they wanted. Is this pop-u-lism? I think it is and if that is the case then populism can be called any other thing that you want to call it, including communism, liberalism and national socialism. Regimes are not overthrown by people hoping for something worse. Elections are not won by parties promising penury and leaders do not exist to deny their people the basic stuff of normal life.
Populism is not new, but it is
periodic. There are levels to which populations will not allow themselves to fall without a fight. Starvation and falling wages are obviously unacceptable, especially in the face of the extreme wealth enjoyed by an all-too-visible few. Obvious immunity from prosecution for the wealthy – e.g. unpunished tax evasion – is clearly unacceptable to those on PAYE, or whose working lives have been extended arbitrarily and who may never live to receive their reduced pensions. Food banks and taxes levied on unoccupied rooms in private homes are unacceptable. Can campaigning against all of these injustices be deemed 'populist' in any negative sense?
It has been said that 'information is power' and I still think that is true. However, only the very wealthy have useful information because they tend to own the means by which that information is filtered down to the population. Many people distrust 'mainstream media'; they seek an objectivity that has never existed and which today seems to be judged on the extent to which it validates one's own views. Instead, many 'activists' prefer to believe things they see in the far more distrustful 'independent' and social media. This is a media that produces far too much information – more than anyone can hope to make make sense of, and all of it is entirely subjective.
This social media fixation reminds me of 1630s/40s England, at the height of the conflict between King and Parliament. Then, there was an explosion of popular pamphleteering from every imaginable source, arguing about everything from the divine right of kings to the abolition of property. For a time the English civil war really did turn the world upside down and became, in many areas, truly populist. Let's not forget the revolutionary Putney Debates in 1647 within Cromwell's New Model Army.
The British establishment learned many valuable lessons on how to introduce timely reforms just before popular frustration threatened to get out of hand and generally avoided the threat of impending revolution. Even so, the current crop of leaders have not handled the period of austerity after the 2008 financial crisis too well and that has grown into the instability that is Brexit.
I believe that from the blizzard of information, now, and in 1640s England, comes the opportunity for the manipulation of people's basic needs and desires. That is where blame and distrust is disseminated by various interests with the means for their own purposes: 'It's the EU's fault; It's the fault of unworthy Latin migrants; It's a race thing; It's the fault of the cosmopolitan elite; We have been fooled long enough...'
When people genuinely fear that they cannot feed themselves and their families, and when they see obvious and unacceptable levels of injustice, they take action to protect themselves and their families. It's not new and it's not rocket science, and yes, it is certainly populism. The immediate problem has always been, and it's no different today, the direction in which such a forceful dynamic can be taken before the wealthy and powerful restore order and control for themselves, as they inevitably do. Nonetheless, periodic populist 'uprisings' will continue to occur as a counterbalance, because the great mass of the population have far too much to lose without them.