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Culture Q&A

Parsing the politics of tyranny

Why conservatives and liberals repeatedly underestimate the revolutionaries

Parsing the politics of tyranny

(Illustration by Alexis Marcou)

In one sense, Daniel Chirot learned about international politics as a baby: Born in Vichy France during World War II, he (with his family) evaded German roundups of Jews. Chirot made it to the United States when he was 6. This month he retires from his professorship at the University of Washington after 45 years of teaching and research. 

His books include Modern Tyrants, How Societies Change, and The Origins of Backwardness in Eastern Europe. Two have particularly scintillating titles—Why Not Kill Them All? The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder and (published in March 2020) You Say You Want a Revolution? Radical Idealism and Its Tragic Consequences, which is a runner-up for Book of the Year in our Understanding the World category. 

What did Lafayette in France, Madero in Mexico, Kerensky in Russia, and Bakhtiar in Iran have in common? They were liberals who initially led a revolution and were optimistic about its prospects. They underestimated the rage that strengthened the far left. They didn’t realize the ruthlessness of the extremists, who outmaneuvered and killed or exiled them.

So the Russian experience—liberal reformism, then idealistic but brutal Leninism, then an even more deadly Stalinism, then the slide into corruption and loss of fervor—tends to happen all over? Yes. The liberal first stage is very promising. Then the extremists take power and push solutions the populace doesn’t want. The extremists have the choice of either using greater force or else abandoning their ideals, so they create terrorist states. In Iran that’s still going on. Eventually the societies become more corrupt and everything falls apart, but that can take a very long time. 

How do regimes avoid revolution? They have to be willing to make some concessions. If they resist moderate reform, that leads to the tragedy.

France in the 18th century had big economic problems, including enormous debt. The aristocracy did not budge and “fake news” was everywhere: When people heard all kinds of rumors and believed them, the result was further collapse. Fake news wasn’t invented in the 21st century. France was not a backward country. It had the resources to overcome its problems, but the conservative aristocracy held on to its privileges. Later, in Russia, the czar and those around him rejected reforms. When the crisis came with the world war, their incompetence and their failure to enact reforms destroyed the entire system. The same thing happened with the Shah of Iran. Something similar happened in Nazi Germany, where conservatives afraid of any sort of leftist reform turned to an extreme figure to save them.

Why do both liberals and conservatives repeatedly underestimate the revolutionaries? We like to think that other people think like us. We hear some extremist voices and those who are more in the center say, “We’re all decent people, no one would really do anything like that”—but they’re wrong.

Many revolutions took anti-Christian turns. Was the American Revolution an exception because we didn’t have a powerful nationwide church? We had a political revolution, but no social revolution. The downside, which we’re all experiencing now once more, was that they did nothing about slavery. Partly because so many of the Founders were slave owners, but also because to do something about slavery would have meant the South wouldn’t have joined the Union, they sacrificed that, and the United States has been plagued by it ever since. In a way, you could look at the Civil War as Act 2 of the American Revolution, and it was very bloody.

The liberal first stage is very promising. Then the extremists take power and push solutions the populace doesn’t want.

Jefferson knew we were riding the tiger. Yes, and he knew he was a hypocrite. One reason he could never free his slaves wasn’t so much his personal ideology, but that he was a terrible spendthrift and always in debt.

Personalities are important. Lenin killed his enemies, Stalin murdered his enemies and also his friends, but Trotsky probably wouldn’t have been better. Yes. Probably not as paranoid, so he probably wouldn’t have killed as many millions. Personal paranoia does play a role: Mao became like that as well. Trotsky would have been a pragmatic mass killer. 

In China, Xi Jinping seems to want to repeat aspects of Maoism. China has become a classic fascist state, with very strong state control but no attempt to socialize the entire economy. It’s a militarily aggressive dictatorship that counts on nationalism and is persecuting—close to genocide—the Uighurs. Very dangerous for the world. 

The difference in methods between communism and fascism is not great. But the ambition of creating an egalitarian society is not the same. In a way fascism is more practical. If Mussolini had died in 1938 he would be remembered as a successful modernizer of Italy, but he got into wars that destroyed the country. The fascist regimes were militarily aggressive and alienated everyone around them.

Zipping around the world, does the recent history of the Arab Spring fit with the dismal history of revolution that makes things worse? Yes, and in most cases the Arab Spring was led by liberals who didn’t understand the power of extremist religion. You can see what happened in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood then came to power, the army overthrew it, and Egypt is back to an even more extreme form of Nasserism, which was really just corruption and dictatorial rule—with the exception that the Egyptian military is too smart to go to war with Israel again. The Arab Spring failed. The attempt in Syria led to a terrible civil war that Assad has won with Russian and Iranian help, but the country is ruined. 

The failure of revolution sometimes leads to ethnic tribalism, which seems to be resurging. Yes, and the persecution of minorities: Turkey, India now, and in China of course. It’s a way for political leaders to gain support: It doesn’t really matter who you pick on, as long as it’s an identifiable group that you can blame for all of your problems.

Some polls show socialism popular among our student population. When you explain to students that it’s no panacea, that these historical patterns are repeated, do you see any lightbulbs going on, or do the young tend to be ahistorical? Some are uninterested, but in the School of International Studies our majors are definitely interested. Many young Americans don’t know that during World War II the United States saved the world. People in Europe recognized that Americans saved them, but the United States no longer has the reputation of being willing to do that.

Is our period starting to look like the 1930s? I do make an analogy to the 1930s, when the world was spinning out of control. The Western democracies were wavering. France was deeply divided and had serious political problems that it couldn’t resolve, which contributed to the catastrophe of 1940 and Vichy regime. Even in Britain some conservatives looked at Hitler and said, “He’s not great, but we should accommodate him.” Churchill was unusual in that respect, as an arch conservative who recognized the danger. 

People thought the world would have to choose between fascism and communism? Early in 1941 Great Britain was holding out, but it wouldn’t have been able to if the United States hadn’t come into the war. Switzerland and Sweden were neutral, but the rest of Europe was either fascist-sympathizing, like Spain, or outrightly under German, Italian, or Soviet control. Japan controlled the richest, most populated parts of China, and it was expanding. Many younger Americans don’t realize how much the United States saved the world—and who’s going to save the world now?

You write, “It may seem natural for those on the right to think that the extreme right is a more reliable ally than the moderate left, or for the moderate left to suppose that the very radical left is a better partner than the moderate right, but when that happens, it becomes more probable that the ultimate winner will be one of the extremes.” That’s exactly what’s happened in Russia, and that’s what happened in Iran where right and left don’t mean quite the same thing, because it’s all a matter of religion. It would be hard to categorize the Iranian Revolution in 1979 as either right or left. The shah was so hated by so many, including moderates in the middle, the left, and the religious right, that they all joined forces and somehow thought that that would solve the problem. It solved the problem of getting rid of the shah but not the problem for the moderates who were outmaneuvered by the religious radicals. 

Did the shah have any awareness of his situation? On YouTube you can watch interviews with the shah in the 1970s: It’s shocking because this man was clearly very well educated. Some of the interviews are in English, some are in French: He spoke excellent French, superb English. He’s suave, he’s persuasive, and he was a complete idiot. He had no idea of what was actually going on. He keeps on saying, “My people love me, my system of government. I’m the father of my people. They all love me. You Western democracies don’t understand why we’re so successful. Iran will soon be one of the five leading powers in the world.”

But meanwhile … There was all this ­bubbling anger, which Iranians living in Tehran or other cities at the time saw perfectly well, and he didn’t. This is the kind of blindness that leads to catastrophic outcomes when you have very powerful leaders out of touch with ­reality.


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  • Hawkdriver
    Posted: Tue, 12/01/2020 10:14 pm

    Very interesting and well done.  Thank you.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Wed, 12/02/2020 06:01 am

    Great interview and insights! So true, ALL! What a novel concept, "...the United States saved the world." But now who will?

    We are so blind, especially in hindsight. I couldn't help to wonder about these concessions and compromises that Mr. Chirot talks about. Wasn't the concession and acceptance of slavery in the 18th century such a concession? In retrospect we can see errors in judgment but at the time it was the prudent decision. What concessions and compromises do we make today? Mr Chirot seems to make it seem so easy. [Admittedly this is just a short interview and neither of his books in which I suspect he goes into some depth, hopefully, about these critical questions.]

    But I do wonder where these fit in. First the  downfall of the Roman Republic culminating under Augustus. This seems to have been, to a great extent, due to a desire for peace and safety - and an end to civil war and a desire for stability. And then ... the fall of the Roman Empire itself.

    I also wonder about the Christian worldview and especially the need for a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy. We tend to look for and expect a political remedy. Why do we not get along? Why do we not really want to? And isn't there an unseen Enemy at work? And why don't we pray and seek God's peace and justice? And all of this to know how we should live in this fallen world!

  • RT
    Posted: Wed, 12/02/2020 11:20 am

    The more I learn about the founding of this great country the more I realize that A) they did have to compromise on slavery to get the Southern states to sign on and B) Baked into the cake were the seeds to end slavery. I just think that point needs to be highlighted as well.

  • Terry Little
    Posted: Sun, 12/06/2020 10:23 am

    Very insightful and his read on Jefferson's hypocrisy helped with balance. Honesty about our founder's does not preclude their contribution to liberty! 

  • CA
    Posted: Mon, 01/18/2021 10:09 am

    The last line "powerful political leaders out of touch with reality" seems to define elements of the Democratic party who seem bent on anger and destroying Republicans while ignoring that close to 50% of the people voted for Trump.  Republicans seem to have lost touch with the poor and middle class and are aimlessly seeking some reason, some cause to stay in power.

    Earlier there was another line. "We’re all decent people, no one would really do anything like that”—but they’re wrong.  Both lines are true."  Unfortunately, I heard a political commentator complaining that politicians are moderate at home but are captured by extremism in Washington.  Republicans now are facing the results of supporting Trump and suddenly seeing some crazy members of their power base attacking the Capital.  I loved the political cartoon that had the line. "Let's destroy Congress to keep the Democrats from destroying Congress." Both sides have lost touch with the suffering and mistaken beliefs that fill the poor. 

    The War on Poverty has become the War on the Family.  Fathers are temporary, parenthood a casualty of the urge for a career or for self-realization.   The old cry it takes a village to raise a family ignored the reality that in the village there were many men willing to be father figures. The War on the Family leads to hedonism and anarchy and fewer and fewer children. 

    We need repentance.  Viva Responsibility!  Ok, it lacks the dramatic punch of "Freedom now!" but without it and commitment, we cannot have freedom.  We need God!