Daniel Chirot, You Say You Want a Revolution? Radical Idealism and Its Tragic Consequences. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. ix+157 pages. E-Book, $17.49.

AuthorLepley, John W.
PositionArticle 13

Daniel Chirot asks two questions in You Say You Want a Revolution (YSYWAR)? How do revolutions evolve and why are they predisposed to violence and tragedy? Using a comparative analysis, Chirot synthesizes the literature of revolutions in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe to produce a provocative work. Although the title of this monograph invokes Lennon and McCartney, the focus is on Robespierre, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and, of course, Lenin.

The thesis of YSYWAR is that revolutions have followed an arc similar to classical tragedy, an apt, yet conspicuous choice since Chirot concentrates on people, politics, and power, and eschews the arts and literature (save a reference to Battle of Algiers and a line from Lampedusa's 1958 novel The Leopard). The first 'act' of the French, Iranian, and Russian revolutions began with regimes that were incompetent, indifferent to, and ignorant of glaring problems, which inadvertently undercut reformers who could not mollify widespread anger and grievance. Here, Chirot cites the examples of the Marquis of Condorcet and Marquis de Lafayette whose efforts to establish a constitutional monarchy foundered between intransigent nobles, on the one side, and radicals who wanted to make the world anew, on the other. Condorcet was killed during the Terror; Lafayette bolted from France and was imprisoned in Austria before returning to French politics.

The three middle chapters describe the consecutive stages of revolutions. In chapter 3 ("Reaction, War, Invasion, Terror,") Chirot points out that the Thermidor--the moderate reaction that ousted the Reign of Terror--served as a warning for subsequent revolutionaries to consolidate control so as to thwart counterrevolution. Thus, in 1917 Lenin created the Checka (later known as the KGB) to suppress internal opposition, whether real or imaginary. Chapter 4 ("The Tyranny of Idealistic Certitude") broadens the scope of YSYWAR to Cambodia, China, Germany, Iran, Mexico, and Vietnam. When the utopian visions of revolutionaries confronted reality, Chirot tells us, "they increasingly applied violence to reshape not only their societies but human nature itself" (p. 64). The death toll from China's Great Leap Forward is just one example of these horrors; starvation, overwork, and disease killed anywhere from 15 to 45 million Chinese. Chapter 5 ("Revolutions Betrayed") is a sad litany of post-colonial African nations that degenerated into failed states. "All the Arab republics...

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