The Failure of Revolutions

David Tucker

November 1, 1999

This has been quite a year for revolutionary anniversaries. The Chinese Revolution occurred 50 years ago, and the Iranian revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power occurred 20 years ago. The Russian Revolution also has an anniversary this year. It was 10 years ago this November that the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the collapse of the Soviet Empire and ultimately of the Soviet Union, as the inheritors of the Russian revolution repudiated both it and the communist party that brought it to pass.

In fact, what all these revolutions have in common is failure. The communist party still rules in China and may for a while longer, but it and the Chinese people have repudiated Marx and Mao, the co-founders of the Chinese Revolution. In Iran, there is growing recognition that the clerical rule established by Khomeini, a departure from traditional Islamic ways, has not brought freedom or justice. The clerics are slowly losing the support of the people. Even some of those who led the seizure of the American Embassy 20 years ago on November 4, 1979 and set off the long hostage crisis are questioning the revolution.

Another thing these revolutions have in common is the cause of their failure. In each case, those who led the revolution claimed the right to lead based on some special knowledge they possessed. The followers of Marx in China and Russia claimed the right to rule because they understood the supposed laws of history and therefore the destiny of mankind. In Iran, the Ayatollah became the supreme leader because of a claimed special ability to interpret the will of God. Because they believed themselves wise, these rulers, especially in Russia and China, set up governments in which they had uncontrolled power. The result was not the promised golden age but corruption, collapse and disillusionment.

Compare these revolutions with our own. Our revolutionary document, the Declaration of Independence, famously states that the truth of human equality and the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are self-evident. To say they are self-evident truths means that if we think about them, we can see they are true. No special knowledge, available to only a few, is necessary.

This difference between our revolution and the others has profound consequences. Since no one can claim special knowledge or wisdom, we do not let anyone have uncontrolled power. Instead, we have the right to free speech, so that we can think about what we should do as a nation and how we should do it. We have the right to assemble, so that we can do this thinking together without interference. We have the right to property, fair legal proceedings and to be secure in our “persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures,” as the Fourth Amendment puts it, so that we can remain independent and think for ourselves.

All of this comes from the insistence at the heart of our revolution that not some special group of wise men but that we, the people, have the responsibility and the capacity to sort out our own destiny. The result has not been a golden age, of course, but the struggle for, and the achievement of, a freedom, justice, prosperity and stability that no other nation can match. Something to think about in this year of revolutionary anniversaries.

David Tucker is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.