For a people brought up in a culture, the foundation of which lies in the learning that all things change (sabbe sankhara anicca), the fear of change is inexplicable. Sudden and gross change is feared more than gradual change; hence the fear of death, common among most people. Revolutionary changes in society are most feared by those who stand to lose in a process of change, Aragalaya which seeks change is feared by all sorts of people including bhikkhu, who preach day in and day out that change is the way of everything that exists (anicca vata sankhara, appamadena sampdetha). Parliament on 20th July, decided to maintain the status quo when there was a chance for change. They kissed a golden opportunity goodbye, and the ancien regime hit back.
Most among us find the present state of things odiously offensive. Although there might be some destruction in any process of rapid change, the good that comes out of those changes is so immense that one begins to wonder how sensible people withstand such tragedy. Change, revolutionary change, has so far done the world a world of good. In fact, they have made the modern world.
To demonstrate that, bear with me, for a few minutes, my selection of outcomes of the major political and social revolutions in the world (no less)!. The first of them was the English (‘Glorious’, bloodless) Revolution in 1688. For the first time in modern history, a king was chased away by a section of the people of England. (We did that too two weeks ago with a very different sequel.) Mary and William were invited from the Netherlands to rule England. Mary became queen at the invitation of the people (who mattered at that time). Whatever the oath of coronation said, Mary was queen with the consent (indeed the invitation) of the people, no matter the grace of God. That is a basic principle of democracy. The sovereignty of the people began. We learnt from it the course of a revolution. We learnt fundamental principles of government from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and James Stuart Mill.
The second major revolution was the American. They started the revolution by invoking the lesson learnt in the first: George III was no longer their king. For the first time after Rome, a large (and fast growing) population declared itself a republic, rule without a king. At that time all Europe except Switzerland and the Netherlands were ruled by kings, princes or bishops. Yet these migrants from Europe wrote a constitution in which they forbad an aristocracy, ‘No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United Sates’ (Article 1, Section 9). To date a counsel in a state court addresses judges as ‘Judge Winklehart’ or in the US supreme court as ‘Justice Wrinklefree’. Journalists address the president of the republic as ‘Mr.President’. There are no artificial wigs and ‘your lordships’ in those courts. The Federalists invented a form of government with two mechanisms to prevent the exercise of absolute power by government: the legislative, executive and judicial powers were separated from one another, each blocking the exercise of power by the other except with the others’ consent, completely contrary to the theory and practice in their earlier home country. Secondly, they dispersed the exercise of government authority and power among separate units: federal government, states, cities, villages, counties and school boards: ‘The Times, Places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof’ (Article 1, Section 4). Each unit was autonomous within the law. All universities (except military academies) and schools in the US, except those privately owned, are owned by States, cities, counties, villages and school boards. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French magistrate was full of admiration as was Montesquieu, his compatriot, a century earlier. Many saw this dispersal of power as the cause of the delay when the US was a laggard in controlling Covid-19 in 2021. But tables were turned soon and the US beat other governments in inoculating their people. All this and more came out of the 1776 revolution. While nobody can sensibly argue that these lessons may not have been learnt but for the 1776 revolution, nobody can gainsay that they, in fact, emanated from the 1776 revolution. Thomas Paine, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists were the philosophers of this new form of government.
We come to the most celebrated of these revolutions: the French in 1789. The abolition of the monarchy and the aristocracy, the disablement of the catholic church which was more effective than the Paris government in taxing people, the abolition of the three estates and many more changes were achieved in short order. Following the US, they established the French Republic, which survives to date having overcome several attempts to go back to a monarchy. The concept of liberty acquired new meanings and permanence in the vocabulary of political philosophy. The nation state became an ideal of many peoples. And many more changes came about. The French Revolution was more the work of thinkers than any other. The Paris salons were home to the growth of many of these debates as were coffee houses before the 1688 revolution. The phliosophes, physiocrats, learned men in society (Robespierre, a magistrate), Voltaire, Rousseau (in different ways) and even some clergy (Abbe Sieyes) made the way for the revolution. The revolutionaries themselves, men from Paris and Marseille did the hard work of destroying what stood for the ancien regime. Modern liberal democracies owe much to the French Revolution.
The final great revolution was in 1917 (the October Revolution) in Russia. The war 1914-19 had destroyed 4 empires. The Russian was one of them. Austro-Hungarian and Hapsburg Empires collapsed in 1918. The Ottoman empire was dissolved in 1922. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics itself was a republic. USSR ushered in a period of persistent economic growth, diversification and modernisation that lasted more than 50 years and became a model for economic development in many countries newly founded after the 1939-44 war. The central government in Moscow used a new instrument of government: a political party spread all over the union and highly centralised in and controlled from Moscow.
One does not forget (which I do here) the atrocities that the new forms of government committed. But I am not interested in those problems, now. Similarly, I do not talk about the tectonic shifts in power relations in economies and societies that fundamentally brought about those revolutions; that is because I am interested in the consequences rather than causes.
These four revolutions gave us the essential elements that in different combinations make up all governments in the modern world. They came into being in preparations for, during or as sequel to the revolutions. Then why fear revolutions; rather why not lament their absence. Revolutions were kept at bay when leaders in a society read the minds of the people and reacted with speed to address issues that plagued them. The best example there was the behaviour of English political leaders in the 19th century. Many in Britain admired the achievements of the French revolution. Many more feared contagion. There were others mortified by the fear of similar upheaval at home. The most intelligent reactions of the political leaders were the reform bills of 1832 (Lord Grey, Whig) and 1867 Earl Derby (Conservative), which exorcised away the ‘spectre that haunted Europe’. Our predicament is that those who stand to lose most from reforms happen to hold all authority and lethal power in society. What options are available to the people who want change?
It is true that in revolutions much property is destroyed and many lives lost. So, during wars. Young lives lost in the 1914-18 war were in millions. Warships sunk, airplanes shot off the sky and tanks destroyed on their tracks during wars in the 20th century dwarf costs of all revolutions to be miniscule. Two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1944 harmed society in ways more cruel than in any clash with revolutionaries in all four revolutions combined. The destruction to property in London and Dresden in the 1939-44 war exceeded anything that happened in these revolutions. (It is true that there was much less property to destroy when the world was poorer.) The point I am driving home is that although ‘revolutions are not tea parties’, they are actions of last resort. They occur when all attempts at reform in rotten societies fail. That was most clear in France in the latter half of the 19th century and in Russia in the first half of the 20th century. There is no reason that this little speck of an island cannot achieve great things in the first half of the 21st. They fail when the status quo is preferred by the most powerful people in society. Against them must stand the most powerful instrument the people have: themselves.
People in this country, for many years now, have attempted to reform ( 19th and 20th amendments to the constitutions from 2015 to 2020; a 21st amendment is in the making) institutions that form the fundamental laws of this country. Notwithstanding them, a murderous, kleptocratic, corrupt and incompetent bunch of rulers who systematically and progressively ruined the lives of its peoples have come into being and looks to being restored. Now (one hopes) is the nadir of our fall. On 20 July, Parliament tried and failed to dislodge them from authority and power. The people must try one more last time and that time will come with the next elections to the office of president and to parliament.
Why do I bother about all this? Because I belong in age cohorts that were brought up by this state: fed, clothed, housed and taught even up to Cambridge University. Many lives were enriched and enhanced in quality by those programmes. Infant mortality fell, maternal mortality fell, average expectation of life at birth rose markedly, literacy of men and women rose because of the wise leadership in government then. This state then was directed by leaders with sense, sensibility and competence. The hopelessness of the present young age cohorts is manifest in the crowds that mill around the passport office in Battaramulla.
A state is as good as the government that runs it. (Think of Clement Atlee of the UK against Adolf Hitler of Germany. Think of Jawaharlal Nehru and Man Mohan Singh of India against Mahinda Rajapakse and Maitreepala Sirisena of Sri Lanka). All these (even in Adolf Hitler’s massive charade) were elected by the people. There is no reason why a people as highly literate as ours will fail again at the forthcoming elections to the office of president and parliament. If they fail, woe betide us.