Being of the latter persuasion, and also being mindful that both flavors of academics are looking in the rear-view mirror, I have been intrigued of late by watch the uprisings/protests/dissension going on—real-time—in three of the biggest authoritarian regimes in the world: China, Russia, and Iran. The causes of all three are radically different, as are the scope, extent of violence, and, indeed, the nature of the protests.
So, one question is whether there is anything to the co-incidence of the three. There were waves of revolutions in Europe in 1830 and a bigger wave in 1848. Some find some common causes in the revolutionary activities in Mexico (1911), China (1912) and Russia (1905, 1917). There’s clearly a close connection between the changes in post-Communist central Europe, the Baltics, and other former parts of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 is another example. There’s some good evidence of the connections between them, but there are a whole raft of revolts, uprisings, etc. scattered across European and world history over the past 250 years which had little to do with events and developments in other countries. In the not-too-distant field of democracy studies, there’s a strong story about “waves” of democracy; the most recent of which occurred in the collapse of the Soviet empire in Central Europe and in Central Asia. “Waves” are possible, but have to be handled with care (more care than the media is likely to use!) and that’s assuming that there is enough comparability between the circumstances to begin with.
In Russia, Putin’s repression has forced most opposition underground or out of the country. The forces with enough oomph to actually work change are likely buried deeply inside the Russian State and are invisible to those outside the intelligence community. But, as demonstrated by the French in 1789, the Russians in 1917 (and 1991), and the Iranians in 1979, once a process begins, it’s pretty hard to predict how it will twist and turn. Still, the impact of Ukrainian War sanctions will put pressure on both military and economic sectors to get out from under their respective predicaments.
In Iran, the popular protests have been most visible; as have the state suppression with both direct and judicial violence. The same pressure from Western economic sanctions has made clear to common folks that there is a significant price to be paid for the aggressive international posture of the Islamic State. A State that, at the same time, seems to lack broad support for its religious ideology. Indeed, the prominent role of women in this set of protests is remarkable. It may be that the Ayatollahs’ efforts to reject Western modernity, which has dominated the country for over forty years, is losing its grip. Whether the military will find religion, seek a more visible domination of the country, or allow some other shape of leadership to emerge remains to be seen. Of course, it’s easy to see the religious state, with military backing, crushing the popular uprising and delaying shift towards modernity for another decade or so.
In China, unhappiness is widespread, but there is no clear picture of an alternative to the Communist Party. Compared to the other countries, the State is strongest here, evidenced by the lack of visible popular protests. It’s possible that the incipient COVID outbreak, coupled with severe economic downturns (both cyclical and fundamental) could lead to a stunning change in the leadership of the Party and its policies.
The lack of real-time visibility into complex, dynamic, and highly contingent processes can only make us humble about guessing whether any of these situations will turn into a serious revolutionary effort (even if unsuccessful). This is why historians wait.
As to whether there’s any connection between them, my guess is not; or, at least, only in the broadest sense of reflecting a number of global changes. Unlike Europe in 1848 where there was conscious parallels and some coordination, it’s hard to imagine much connection between pro-“democratic” forces in China, Russia, and Iran; or between their militaries. Local factors are primary.
There’s no telling how any of these will evolve. In Iran in 1979, protests turned into Revolution; in Tiananmen Square in 1989, protests were suppressed. Authoritarian regimes are hard to assess from the outside since they are, by nature, not transparent. A few key players might shift allegiances and the whole edifice collapses; popular protests might have little effect or provide an opening for an insider to crack open the incumbent system. You can’t tell until its actually happening, and developments are notoriously erratic (I’m certainly NOT making any predictions). And then, even if something gets going, its course and outcome are as uncertain as whether the incumbent power structure goes by the boards.
Still, we shouldn’t be surprised if—some years from now—we look back on the troubles of 2022 as part of a path of revolution (one or more!). The historians of 2052 will let us know.