Revolution without institutions

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I’ve been rereading Political Order in Changing Societies, the book Samuel Huntington should be famous for, and would be, if he hadn’t gone and mucked up his legacy with the horrid Clash of Civilizations. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on his earlier book, and go back to it now and then for insight.

His chapter on revolutions is pretty lucid. “Revolution,” he writes, “is one means of political development, one way of creating and institutionalizing new political organizations and procedures, of strengthening the political sphere. Every major revolution of the twentieth century has led to the creation of a new political order to structure, to stabilize and to institutionalize the broadened participation in politics. It has involved the creation of a political party system with deep roots in the population. The triumph of the revolution is the triumph of party government.”

He is thinking of Mexico, the USSR, China, Turkey and Yugoslavia – cases where, love it or loathe it, the political system that the revolution brought about was highly institutionalized and stable.

The problem, though, is that it doesn’t always work. “Not all revolutions end in triumph, and not all triumphs are irreversible. It is possible for a society to suffer the agonies of revolutionary dislocation without achieving the stability and integration a revolution might bring.”

It’s worth thinking about the Chavez era in these terms, because the personalism and institutional fragility of the Fifth Republic is so obvious. For all the dislocation of the last few years, the revolution has not innovated in institutional terms at all. Instead, it has bulldozed all institutional structures in its path and replaced them with Chávez’s personal will.

Huntington suggests that revolutions that do not manage to institutionalize themselves usually end up as footnotes in their country’s histories. His paradigmatic example of a revolution that failed at the institutional game is Bolivia’s MNR period in the 1950s…and who on earth gets worked up about that one anymore?

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