Velvet Revolutions: the New Zeitgeist

Timothy Garton Ash has a very thought-provoking essay in The New York Review of Books on the meaning of the Velvet Revolutions that took place in Central Europe in 1989. Ash’s main question is whether, judging by the last twenty years, these events have become the new model for revolution, in contrast to the ones of 1789 (France), 1917 (Russia), and 1949 (China). As he describes, whereas “The 1789 ideal type is violent, utopian, professedly class-based, and characterized by a progressive radicalization, culminating in terror,” the “1989 ideal type, by contrast, is nonviolent, anti-utopian, based not on a single class but on broad social coalitions, and characterized by the application of mass social pressure—”people power”—to bring the current powerholders to negotiate. It culminates not in terror but in compromise.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this idea of ‘negotiated revolutions’ is permeated

with Hannah Arendt’s thought. The distinction between power and violence that she drew in many of her works is likely one of the reasons why Arendtian approaches to 1989 have been so popular among political theorists, philosophers, and sociologists since the 1990s. As Ash admits, however, a decidedly nonviolent and negotiated approach to political transformation can often result in the re-imposition of past inequalities in different guises (for example, the privatization of state property in the former communist bloc and the return of communist politicians to national prominence.)

While Velvet Revolution is an admirable ideal that must be strived for, it also runs the risk of covering over the existing social fissures that led to the revolutionary moment itself. Instead, it can favor an imagined ‘national’ or ‘post-political’ consensus. This escape from the realities of political contestation in the form of ‘historical reconciliation’ can not only have a deadening effect on the political process itself, but also serve to cover up the social inequalities emerging after the transfer of power. (Chantal Mouffe’s argument against the Third Way politics of Tony Blair in her book The Democratic Paradox is a relevant analogy here.) This does not mean that violence must be a necessary feature of revolution; a regress into revolutionary terror must be avoided in every case. But it also means that the social coalitions necessary for a Velvet Revolution are not enough, because they can often conceal within themselves structures of power that will become perpetuated in a new, post-revolutionary order.

A final aside: in reflecting on the geographic and cultural likelihood of Velvet Revolution, Ash remarks that they have so far occurred only in Western and Christian societies. He asks: “But can one yet point to a plainly successful velvet revolution in an overwhelmingly Muslim country? (Mali? Maldives?) Or in a preponderantly Buddhist or Confucian one?” This reliance on culturally/religious criteria for judging is counterproductive for understanding the very modern roots of revolution. The fact that a Velvet Revolution has not yet succeeded in Muslim and Buddhist societies is not because of a religious or cultural aversion that isn’t present in the Christian West. Implying that this is so, as Ash does, is to work with an outdated understanding of how a single modernity has been experienced by all these peoples that has ideologically transformed modern religion into a form of political discourse. Even though Ash sees that modern authoritarian regimes are adopting similar tactics for guiding the political processes, all despite their geographic and cultural differences, he somehow still thinks that religion and culture can prevent a successful Velvet Revolution. The key here, clearly, is not religious but sociological: as a largely ‘secular’ political phenomenon (despite the religious language with which it may be justified in some societies), revolution has become universalized in the modern world. It is this crucial point made by Arendt in On Revolution that Ash has glossed over.

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