Written by Guest Author: Alexander Driscoll
Karl Marx’s conflict theory tries to explain transformative social change by stating it is the direct result of violent conflict. Though it has its flaws, for example, the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia (an incredibly monumental moment in social change) was not the result of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ voters violently clashing in the streets of Canberra. However, some of the most significant watershed moments in human history, ones that have transformed the very fabric of society, have stemmed from a violent uprising. For example, the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, the foundation of the modern state of Israel.
Looking out in the world today, one of the most prevalent current affairs issues is that of the global mass-protest movement. Originating in Hong-Kong, states such as Lebanon, Bolivia, Iraq and many more have seemingly been inspired to do the same. And like Hong-Kong, many of these movements have descended into quasi-class warfare, the ‘every-man’ at odds with the national authorities, becoming increasingly revolutionary in their tone. As highlighted by conflict theory, this is a common cycle. The increasing volatility in Hong-Kong has seen the local government give into some of the protesters’ demands. In Bolivia, we have witnessed a coup.
So why is this all a dangerous line to tread? Don’t these protesters want simple things we take for granted? Democracy? Human rights? These things are all good in my humble opinion. Living in Australia, I am endlessly thankful that my political system (as disgruntled as we may become of it) gives us the chance to vote. And again, despite not being perfect, Australia has a pretty decent record with human rights. So, I ask again, what is it that worries me about protesters around the world demanding these very things?
For starters, let’s observe democracy. The right to vote and the right to suffrage is, surprisingly, a relatively new concept in human history. Though the Greeks and Romans flirted with the power of the people, democracy has only gone global in the last 200 years. And, as I said earlier, I think democracy is a wonderful system. I would love to see a day where it has spread into every part of the world. So, of course, when I see the demands of the protesters in Hong-Kong, I am filled with joy. Well… not entirely. You see, there is one problem with democracy. The fact that it is such a modern system of power-sharing and governance, very few places in the world outside the West have truly nailed it. This is not due to cultural reasons, merely a lack of practice. For example, take Russia. The modern state of Russia can be divided into three phases: The Tsarist Empire, the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet Federation. Each of these phases is quite largely different from one another; however, they are all united by one thing- a protest movement removing the status-quo followed by a failed democracy. The end of the Tsarist era in Russia was violent and messy, the attempts by a provisional government to create a parliament falling apart, forming the oppressive Soviet Union. Since the collapse of the Union, Russia and ex-Soviet states have been dominated by conflict and power-struggles, attempts at more democracy in these countries being hijacked by oligarchs such as Putin. This can all be linked to one factor, Russia has no history of democracy, and any attempts at it have fallen apart due to the belief that democratisation could be an ‘instant’ process. Instead, places that have seen revolution birth democracy, such as France, have been successful in doing so through a gradual introduction. Which is why I get worried at protester demands for this ‘instant’ democracy, as I fear that history has not taught them that unfortunately, it simply doesn’t work.
So, what of human rights? Another wonderful thing, in my opinion. I believe that all should look to uphold and enforce basic principles that seek to protect all humans and treat them in an equal matter, these sentiments echoed by many in protest movements around the world. So, what has me so worried? What lesson from history have they also failed to recognise? For me it’s one thing, that being the centrality of violence within so many of these movements. Hong-Kong and Bolivia both experienced mass violence in the streets in the name of human rights. For me, this is a strange paradox. How can one who supports human rights be so dependent on violence? This paradox has existed in many protest movements throughout history, and sadly, has often been the root cause of why these human rights are no longer upheld. Rather, groups that set out to achieve these goals through violence often end up causing more suffering themselves. During the French Revolution, thousands were slaughtered by the ‘saviours’ who promised democracy and general freedoms. Looking at the Soviet Union again, despite the promises of equality made by the Bolsheviks, the violent nature of their revolution carried into policies such as War Communism. It is because of this; I worry when I see the violence employed by the Hong-Kong protesters when demanding these rights and freedoms. Who is to say that, if the Hong-Kong movement is successful, the violence of the protesters carries on into the new system? What happens if we get another French Revolution, another Soviet Union? It is, admittedly, hard to say. But even still, the patterns of history tell a worrying tale.
For all my negativity, I think it is important to state one thing. I support these movements. I support any attempt made by the everyday citizen to cause change. However, I do worry. I worry that some of the leaders of these movements have not looked deeply enough at history. I fear that, as potentially foretold by failed movements in the past, all their effort will be rendered naught.
Article 1 of the ‘Learning from History’ Series: https://thelevinelowdown.com/what-we-failed-to-learn-from-history/
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