Dispensing Statehood

Mark Perry

Palestine Report, September 7, 2005

In 1938, American historian Crane Brinton wrote The Anatomy of Revolution. To this day, Brinton’s book remains the most powerful and influential political treatise on the history and meaning of revolutions. “Anatomy” had an enormous impact, though not simply because it presented a coherent explanatory theory for understanding the violence inherent in political change. Rather, as Brinton implied, his book showed that it was possible to view history as organic, lawlike, immutable – its events arising from quantifiable causes that would lead to predictable effects. No American college student of the 1950s or 1960s escaped their education without reading Brinton’s “Anatomy,” and while its lessons are now considered quaint, or even passé, its theoretical underpinnings have been largely adopted in academia.

Brinton wrote that each revolution evolved through set stages: from economic disenchantment and outbreaks of resistance, to the rise of a revolutionary elite who impose their ideals through a reign of terror, where violence is loosed on the revolution’s enemies. At the height of this terror, Brinton wrote, the pendulum begins to slowly swing back – a “Thermidor Reaction” sets in (named for the revolutionary month of Thermidor, when Robespierre stalked through France), the middle class reasserts their power, and a new elite is born. This elite then empowers a strong central ruler (a Washington or a Napoleon) to organize the gains of the revolution and spread its ideals to other nations. Later still, the revolution now a spent force, the old ways return, albeit devoid of the incompetence of its former pre-revolutionary, autocratic, leaders. A colleague of mine puts it a different way: “When one dog’s on top and another’s on the bottom, there’s going to be a dog fight – and it’s usually pretty nasty.”

Brinton detailed his theory by studying the British, French, American and Russian revolutions, but nearly all revolutions since the publication of his book have eerily followed his model. No one would have predicted, while Brinton lived, that Russia would one day give up its revolutionary ideals – but it did. The revolution in Vietnam was different, and the same. Ho Chi Minh purged the largest landowners, then retracted his mistake and fought two wars, against the French and the Americans. Saigon is now studded with skyscrapers and the government in Hanoi invites the likes of Nike and Exxon/Mobil to employ its nation’s peasants. In Iran, the terror imposed by the revolutionary guards burned itself over many years, but the move to more moderate policies is taking much longer. But it will happen. And in Palestine?

It is a central tenet of Brinton’s thesis that revolutions gain strength from revolutionary parties, who empower themselves through governing mechanisms that compete with the old regime. So it was that Trotsky urged Lenin to recognize workers’ Soviets, as a counter to the elected (but corrupt and ineffective), Duma. In France, the Third Estate – the People – claimed that only they represented France. As soon as this declaration was made (it happened on a tennis court in Paris, of all places), the other two estates disintegrated, the Revolutionary Assembly was formed, and the monarchy fell. In each and every case, a revolutionary party seizes control of the mechanisms of power and imposes its revolutionary will. “The problem of the dual power” comes then, as Brinton would have it, when a radical revolutionary party must compete for sovereignty with a bureaucracy, or parliament, that is run by moderates. Lenin solved that problem – he simply closed the Duma and posted guards. Inevitably, Brinton wrote, “the problem of the dual power” is difficult to resolve, as it involves answering a central question: who rules?

Of course, it is far easier to spill ink than blood, to man a desk than a barricade, to study than to act, to sit somewhere in America and comment on what is going on in Ramallah, but Brinton’s study seems particularly pertinent to Palestine – where the question of “who rules” is being asked with increasing passion. Brinton would say that that question arises only when the revolutionary party begins to disintegrate, its revolutionary fervor spent, its “old guard” fossilized and unwilling to change, its younger more democratically minded members disenchanted by their inability to move upwards into positions of leadership. There are only three possible results to this impasse: the party can become more democratic, it can be replaced by a more competent and representative movement, or it can disappear. Rarely, if ever, does a revolutionary party shift its allegiances willingly: the Old Guard either dies or (in the case of Robespierre) is guillotined. In either case, the calcification of the party’s political skeleton is almost always irreversible.

Brinton writes that one of the key hallmarks to understanding the problem of the dual power is to understand that there are always two credible ruling forces contending for power. That can be literal: two parties, two institutions – or even two foreign ministers. Sometimes, “the problem of the dual power” takes place when a group of “insiders” contends for power with a group of transplanted “outsiders,” and sometimes “the problem of the dual power” takes place between a revolutionary generation led by an “Old Guard,” which is confronted by a younger group of disenchanted leaders who have closer ties to their people. Sometimes, “the problem of the dual power” is evidenced by a combination of all three. Compromises reached in order to resolve the contentions between warring institutions – by, just for instance, naming a prominent leader as the leader of the revolutionary party and naming another leader as the leader of the government – almost always fail. Compromises do not resolve the problem of the dual power, Brinton says, but only exacerbate them. Sooner or later there will be a clash.

Frantz Fanon, the brilliant theorist of post-colonial societies who was born in Martinique and lived in Algeria added to Brinton’s thesis on revolution in a fundamental way – even though his work was not intended as an update to Brinton’s seminal study. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon detailed the insidious nature of a colonial society’s purposeful policies of dispossession. Most insidious of all, Fanon wrote, was the ability of a colonial society to undermine an anti-colonial revolution by selecting and then empowering revolutionary leaders who would become the puppets in a new structure of exploitation. The tragedy was complete: these new, formerly revolutionary, leaders were anointed precisely because they had become victims of their oppressors – they had spent time in their jails, learned their language, read their books, emulated their customs, wore their suits, and admired their culture. These leaders were particularly susceptible to money which, once they rebelled at the demands of the colonialists for the imposition of “order” and “transparency” in all their dealings, made them vulnerable to charges of corruption. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, the former colonizers were forced by events to step into the fray – to demand that a nation’s account books be opened, that new finance ministers be appointed, that nations exploited for hundreds of years now take loans from international institutions in which they had no say.

Writing about this corruption among revolutionary movements in Africa, Fanon castigated these leaders as having “black faces hidden behind white masks.” As it turned out, Fanon’s words were prescient. An entire generation of African leaders mimicked the diplomatic formulas of their former masters, participated in international conferences that were called to solve their problems (but which, alas, went nowhere), hired colonial guards to oversee their properties, built homes for returning colonizers, became minority stake-holders in overseas businesses, took their honored places at the UN, and then – faced with a recalcitrant populace and the growing popularity of other national movements – cancelled elections and refused the entreaties of a younger generation of leaders for more power. With the approval of the colonialists, these new leaders labeled the young revolutionaries as “upstarts,” and “violent elements whose only tool is terror.”

Fanon argued strenuously against this natural evolution, though he struggled to find a solution to it. His most lasting formula, and the one on which he was working as his life ended, was a condemnation of both independence and sovereignty. These were words, mere palliatives that had meaning only to the colonizer. The challenge was not simply one of defining nationalism, or inculcating a culture with a sense of “independence.” What people wanted was not a state, Fanon argued, but “liberation”. Borders on a map were not enough. So Fanon (nearing the end of his life), finally and decisively rejected colonialism’s most insidious political program – that the colonizer and occupier, even on their way out the door, actually believed and acted as if they were in a position to negotiate anything at all; that they were convinced that independence was theirs to dispense. Why should they think otherwise? After all, there were actually people who called themselves revolutionary leaders who believed them.

Set amidst the deepening miasma of the Palestinian political environment, where contending parties maneuver against a backdrop of clichés (“transparency”, “democracy”, “disarmament”, and “negotiation”), where two leaders claim to be the foreign minister, where elections are cancelled and General Conferences postponed, where communications ministers jet off to conferences in Copenhagen or Stockholm (or wherever), where the keenest debate is over “security” and “disarming the militant factions,” where Palestinian statehood is a matter of following a “roadmap” to a “final settlement”, and where the word “contiguity” is now a prominent part of the political vocabulary – it might be useful to reread Brinton and Fanon.

“We really have them wrapped around an axle,” a senior Israeli diplomat said to me last week. That same diplomat, speaking to me at the end of Camp David talks six years ago, lowered his voice in frustration, and shook his head: “I don’t understand it,” he said then. “We were actually going to give them their state.”

This article first appeared in Palestine Report.