Every century brings its own crisis but the crises of the twentieth century were unprecedented because of the global scale on which they occurred. I’m going to write about only one here — revolutionary movements. As we endure another period of political upheaval and uncertainty and our own tryst with domestic and external conflict, combined with a global pandemic, it’s useful to look back at revolutions past and what they meant in their own time.
A wave of revolutions swept the world from 1905. Defeat at the hands of Japan was the backdrop to a wave of strikes and mutinies in imperial Russia that coalesced into the 1905 Revolution. A constitutional revolution in Persia in 1905 and the 1908 seizure of power in Turkey by the Committee of Union and Progress (Young Turks) saw the beginning of the end of long standing dynasties in the Middle East — the Qajar and the Ottoman. The agitation against the 1905 Partition of Bengal became a wave of anticolonial protest that fanned the flames of revolutionary violence against British rule in India. The Jugantar group of revolutionaries included such figures as Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950), Khudiram Bose (1889–1908) and Bagha Jatin (1879–1915) who attacked the British by planting bombs and preaching armed revolution. In the Americas, the Mexican Revolution began in 1910 while in East Asia the Qing dynasty ended its 267-year run with a revolution in 1911. And we haven’t even got to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution yet.
Revolutions were not a new phenomenon by the twentieth century. The American Revolution (1775–1783) and French Revolution (1789–1799), the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) were a result of the political and social transformations of the eighteenth century. The 1808 crisis of the Spanish monarchy triggered by Napoleon’s interference in the Iberian peninsula generated liberation movements in Latin America too. These were followed by revolutionary outbreaks in Europe in 1830 and 1848. At the end of the nineteenth century, France experienced the Paris Commune regime in the aftermath of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.
The Second Industrial Revolution (1870–1914) created the economic changes and material conditions for revolutions. Although the economies of Europe and the United States took a downward turn beginning 1873, the growth of big corporations, cartels and monopolies also picked up momentum in the decades before World War I. The application of science and standardization led to a huge growth in sectors like transportation (railroads), metallurgy (steel produced by the Bessemer process) and energy (electricity) among many others.
During the period of the Second Industrialization, India and Egypt came under the expanded grip of British colonialism, generating adaptive responses by both intellectuals and working class migrants. A more intrusive and rapacious western presence in Asia and Africa influenced the unsuccessful defensive developmentalism of Qing China and Ottoman Turkey and the more successful response in Meiji Japan. The expansion of industry also created the new industrial working class in Europe and the United States, and resulted in a partial modernization of even tsarist Russia. A small industrial workforce of 1.5 million floated atop a vast agrarian mass of approximately fifty million peasants.
The twentieth century revolutions built on the legacy of the earlier revolutions and added their own traditions. Marxism, anarchism and nationalism provided the vocabulary of resistance (“Workers of the world, unite!” “Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it!”).¹ Working class militancy among skilled workers rose, boosting the membership of new socialist parties from France to Germany to Russia.
Revolutionary organization crystallized in the Indian diasporic communities of North America and Southeast Asia as British imperialism expanded imperial networks connecting Europe, Canada, South Africa, Southeast Asia and India. Through these networks flowed colonial and European soldiers, workers and students pursuing opportunities or following orders in different parts of the Empire. Among the most active of these revolutionary movements was the Ghadar Party, established in 1913 in San Francisco. Comprised of migrants from India, mostly rural workers from Punjab, Ghadar militants were radicalized by the racist mistreatment they received from Canadian authorities and the indifference of the British colonial state to their welfare. Radical intellectuals like Taraknath Das, Har Dayal and Pandurang Khankhoje joined the movement as it became a broad alliance between workers and intellectuals against the British Empire. The common experience of being powerless in a foreign land and fighting racist immigration laws forged cross class alliances between rural laborers and middle class students.² American, British and Canadian authorities used a mix of repression, surveillance and preemptive arrest to stem the tide of revolutionary protest. Anticolonial revolutionary movements returned during the First World War, exploiting the networks created by imperialism to try and overthrow imperial control.
Over in Europe, the large socialist parties — the PSF (France), PSI (Italy), SPD (Germany) — had become entrenched in their roles as critics of their own national regimes, paying lip service to the idea of socialist internationalism and antimilitarism. When push came to shove in the summer of 1914, all major socialist parties voted to support the military credits of their respective countries to the fury of Lenin, Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and others committed to an antimilitarist line. Out of the ashes of the Second International rose the Zimmerwald left — those who had opposed the First World War and met at Zimmerwald in 1915 — the future leaders of the Communist International, the revolutionary specter that really haunted European leaders of the interwar years in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Revolutionary activists of the twentieth century were aware of other insurrectionary movements, sympathized with some of them and even participated in them (Khankhoje in Mexico is a striking example). Established governments scrambled to contain what they saw as an existential threat. They understood that revolutionary movements are more than just a call to change the chairs on the deck of a sinking political ship. In 1917 the United States passed the Asiatic Barred Zone to exclude immigration from large parts of the East. The draconian 1919 Rowlatt Bill tried to extend wartime emergency powers to suppress revolutionary activity in India.
Successful or not, revolutionary movements offer challenges, sometimes conceptual, to the government of the day, its state institutions, and existing relations between society and state. From the dim recesses of graduate school readings, this is the collective distillation of what I remember from reading Theda Skocpol, Eric Hobsbawm, Sumit Sarkar and a smorgasbord of writings by Lenin, Mao, Gandhi and all the other High Society members of the systemic change club.³ Revolutions may or may not be violent but they challenge foundational political assumptions of the regimes they seek to overthrow. They also claim legitimacy from the masses or at least claim to speak for popular sentiment.
Harsh governmental measures drove revolutionary activities into clandestine channels in Russia, China and India. While the 1917 Russian Revolution established a new state, revolutionary formations in India and China had to regroup underground. In both China and India, revolution was inseparable from anticolonialism but it would take another war — World War II — for imperialism to loosen its hold in both countries.
¹ Marx’s Communist Manifesto also highlighted the hypocrisy of bourgeois society and the family values it claimed to hold dear: “The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour.” See Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/mantwo.asp
² Maia Ramnath, Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011), 28–29.
³ Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolution: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994); Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 1903–1908 (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1973).