And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. This was written in a letter by Thomas Jefferson in a 1787 letter to William Stephens Smith, the son-in-law of John Adams (you can read the letter in its entirety at the end of this article). Jefferson was not speaking of violence in the abstract. He was speaking about revolution.
In political science, a revolution is a fundamental and relatively sudden change in political power and political organization which occurs when the population revolts against the government, typically due to perceived oppression. As a historical process, “revolution” refers to a movement, often violent, to overthrow an old regime and effect complete change in the fundamental institutions of society.
Notable revolutions in recent history include the creation of the United States through the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the French Revolution (1789–1799), the Spanish American wars of independence (1808–1826), the European Revolutions of 1848, the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Chinese Revolution of the 1940s, the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and the European Revolutions of 1989. I have chosen a few to discuss.
After the French Revolution of the 18th century which deposed the monarchy and attempted to recreate society in its entirety, revolution became synonymous with the radical overcoming of the past and the ruling class. Many came to believe modernity could only be achieved through violent and total transformation. That violent transformation began with the guillotine. While execution by guillotine began with the execution of the king in January 1793, in total 2,639 people were guillotined in Paris, most of them over nine months between autumn 1793 and summer 1794. Many more people (up to 50,000) were shot, or died of sickness in the prisons. An estimated 250,000 died in the civil war that broke out in Vendée in March 1793, which originated in popular opposition to conscription into the armies to fight against the foreign powers. Most of the casualties there were peasants or republican soldiers.
The inspiration for many 20th century revolutions was the Russian Revolution of 1917 led by Vladimir Lenin and inspired by the ideas of Marxist Communism. Marx believed that revolution was necessary to move societies from one historical stage to the next, and his formulation strengthened the perception of revolution as a universal and inevitable process in world history. For over a half century, the Russian Revolution provided would-be revolutionaries throughout the world with a model for political revolution and socio-economic transformation. The Soviet Union’s example was especially inspirational to anti-colonial and nationalist revolutionaries, from China’s Sun Yat-sen to Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, who saw in the experience of the USSR solutions to the dilemmas of their own countries. According to Richard Pipes the Russian Revolution killed 9 million people. Robert Conquest believes that at least 20 million and probably as many as 30 million people perished in the Great Terror. If “unnatural deaths” are included, that number could be as high as 50 million.
The Iranian Revolution of the late 20th century provides yet another model of revolution. The Islamist revolution of 1979 sought the radical transformation of a state and society perceived by many as overly secular and tainted by Western values and culture. The Iranian Revolution placed nationalist, Islamic values at the center of government and society and became yet another example of modern, revolutionary change.
The twentieth century was an age of revolution in much of Asia. One factor promoting radical change in many Asian nations was the pressure of Euro-American imperialism, starting in the 19th century. As England, then France, Germany, and the United States industrialized in the nineteenth century, their global reach expanded along with their demand for a variety of raw materials. A belief in the superiority of Western values combined with economic and technological innovations in shipbuilding, weaponry, and communications to create a potent mix that would challenge Asian societies in many ways.
The Asian experience of imperialism and revolution was as varied as Asia itself. India, directly colonized by Britain starting in the 18th century, saw the development of a small, professional middle class and a political organization, the Indian National Congress, which spearheaded the nationalist anti-colonial movement of the 20th century. China, humiliated in the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, was never colonized but lost substantial economic and political sovereignty as European nations, the U.S., and Japan established treaty ports and spheres of influence in the country, factors which fueled the first revolution in Asia in the 20th century, the Republican Revolution of 1911.
Japan, weakened by unequal treaties it was forced to sign with Western powers in the 1850s, transformed itself by the beginning of the 20th century into an industrial powerhouse with colonies of its own — a process historians have hesitated to call a “revolution” but one which was undeniably “revolutionary.” Southeast Asian societies, from the Philippines to Vietnam, would also become colonies of various Western countries. The experience of imperialism helped spark many of the revolutions of 20th century Asia. It was the historical condition that radicalized revolutionaries from Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-tung, to Mohandas Gandhi.
Many Asian revolutionaries sought not simply to achieve independent nationhood, but also to transform their societies internally. In the early 20th century, many believed that becoming modern required the elimination of old hierarchies and the creation of new, more equal social relations. In China, this meant condemning old Confucian customs and hierarchies and undertaking fundamental socio-economic and political reforms. Mohandas Gandhi took a different approach, rejecting Western-inspired “civilization” and advocating a return to “traditional” Indian ways. In both examples, internal transformation was considered a necessary component of revolution for national independence.
These diverse experiences and understandings of “revolution” underline the importance of political and social revolution to modern Asian history. In recent years, with the dismantling of revolutionary regimes in the Soviet Union and elsewhere and China’s movement toward a market economy, some historians have begun revising their understandings of revolution and its outcomes. Even in light of these reevaluations, there can be no doubt about the importance of revolution — as both a goal and historical process — to the formation of modern Asia and the modern world.
Each revolution in each region of the world was started by the same themes. Regardless of country, region, culture, or ethnicity each revolution was born out of two things: socio-economics and social repression. Let me state this more plainly. People became tired of not having money and being treated poorly by their government, but the oppressed people gave their lives for a better way of life.
The similarity doesn’t stop there. In each revolution the people resisted violently. They didn’t protest, march, pray, make signs, and aspire to the ethereal higher sensibilities of the ruling class. They didn’t fight within the existing system, because they understood that the existing system was there to perpetuate the status quo. They resigned themselves to the fact that the existing system needed to be destroyed, but that the benefactors of the existing system were going to defend it. Therefore, the system would have to be dismantled…violently. The rights that the underclass wanted would have to be taken. Not absconded with surreptitiously. “Defund the police” is a perfect example of dismantling a system once realized that its rehabilitation is impossible. Police and their conservative allies will resist. Will violence be necessary for this to be realized?
The modern world has been formed through violence because at the end of the day those in power only understand two things: money and violence. If you noticed, each of the names of these conflicts are called revolutions: the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the French Revolution (1789–1799), the Spanish American wars of independence (1808–1826), the European Revolutions of 1848, the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Chinese Revolution of the 1940s, the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and the European Revolutions of 1989. You will also notice that they lasted for years, not decades and certainly not centuries. If you read about any of these conflicts, they started off as riots, but history remembers them as revolutions. Why? Because the victors record history.
Is it any wonder that black people’s civil disobedience are always called riots? Is it any wonder that after 400 years that we are still in the same set of circumstances? What are we willing to do to obtain the free and fair treatment that we deserve? It’s obvious that power and wealth will not be shared. It must be taken like it has been taken over centuries by every modern civilization. How far are we willing to go to secure our liberty? To date not far enough.
As usual, I am in this moment cautiously optimistic. The very needed and necessary coalition across all racial groups is taking place all over this country in spite of a very vocal conservative minority. We are at the time of this writing going into our 19th day of peaceful protests. The cause of black people in America is being supported around the globe. Our cause is being supported by governors, mayors, and private industry. Let us not fool ourselves. The initial response gave rise to this moment and put it before the eyes of the world. My trepidation persists.
History would call me a fool. Ultimately my fear is that it will take only the smallest of nudges with leaders like we have today to use the tools of imperialism practiced abroad here at home. You need only read further about the revolutions written about here to see how quickly false patriotism and nationalism seduces a desperate people seeking meaning and identity at the expense of others whom the powerful willingly subjugates. Dictatorships ruled by despots often follow soon thereafter. Permanent underclasses of people based on dubious and false notions predominate. I hope that the ideals embodied in our founding documents have the strength to finally overcome the benighted natural tendencies of the architects of our condition. That condition is called racism.
Thomas Jefferson’s letter to William Stephens Smith
I do not know whether it is to yourself or Mr. Adams I am to give my thanks for the copy of the new constitution. I beg leave through you to place them where due. It will be yet three weeks before I shall receive them from America. There are very good articles in it: and very bad. I do not know which preponderate. What we have lately read in the history of Holland, in the chapter on the Stadtholder, would have sufficed to set me against a Chief magistrate eligible for a long duration, if I had ever been disposed towards one: and what we have always read of the elections of Polish kings should have forever excluded the idea of one continuable for life. Wonderful is the effect of impudent and persevering lying. The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, and what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusets? And can history produce an instance of a rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it’s motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13 states independant 11 years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusets: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order. I hope in God this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted.