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Velvet Revolution: The Prospects

In the autumn of 1989, the term “velvet revolution” was coined to describe a peaceful, theatrical, negotiated regime change in a small Central European state that no longer exists. So far as I have been able to establish, the phrase was first used by Western journalists and subsequently taken up by Václav Havel and other Czech and Slovak opposition leaders.1 This seductive label was then applied retrospectively, by writers including myself, to the cumulatively epochal events that had unfolded in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, as in “the velvet revolutions of 1989.”

Twenty years later, in the summer of 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran staged a show trial of political leaders and thinkers it accused of fomenting enghelab -e makhmali—that is, precisely, velvet revolution. Across the intervening years, dramatic events in places including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, South Africa, Chile, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, and Burma were tagged with variants of adjective + revolution. Thus we have read about singing (Baltic states), peaceful, negotiated (South Africa, Chile), rose (Georgia), orange (Ukraine), color (widely used, post-orange), cedar (Lebanon), tulip (Kyrgyzstan), electoral (generic), saffron (Burma), and most recently, in Iran, green revolution. Often, as in the original Czechoslovak case, the catchy labeling has been popularized through the interplay of foreign journalists and political activists in the countries concerned.

These events could, with widely varying degrees of plausibility, be described as attempts—by no means all of them successful—to make a 1989 kind of peaceful, negotiated regime change, including elements of mass protest, social mobilization, and nonviolent action. Velvet revolution, it seems, has not just a past but also a present and perhaps a future. Starting as the moniker for a single historical event—the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989—it has cast off the definite article to become simply “velvet revolution”: the genus VR.


Painting with a deliberately broad brush, an ideal type of 1989-style revolution, VR, might be contrasted with an ideal type of 1789-style revolution, as further developed in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Mao’s Chinese revolution. The 1789 ideal type is violent, utopian, professedly class-based, and characterized by a progressive radicalization, culminating in terror. A revolution is not a dinner party, Mao Zedong famously observed, and he went on:

A revolution is an uprising, an act of violence whereby one class overthrows another…. To right a wrong it is necessary to exceed proper limits, and the wrong cannot be righted without the proper limits being exceeded.2

The 1989 ideal type, by contrast, is nonviolent, anti-utopian, based not on a single class but on broad social coalitions, and characterized by the application of mass social pressure—“people power”—to bring the current powerholders to negotiate. It culminates not in terror but in compromise. If the totem of 1789-type revolution is the guillotine, that of 1989 is the round table.3

Nonviolent revolution feels to many like a contradiction in terms. For two hundred years, revolution has been associated with violence. That is one reason people want to qualify these new-style revolutions with a softening adjective. During an internal debate among the leaders of the original velvet revolution, in Prague in autumn 1989, one Czech dissident even queried whether they should use the word “revolution” at all, since it implied violence.4 “Let us refuse any form of terror and violence,” declared the Information Bulletin of the Civic Forum on December 2, 1989. “Our weapons are love and nonviolence.”5

In the case of Pope John Paul II and of Aung San Suu Kyi and other Burmese Buddhists, one can say that the choice of peaceful means was primarily a moral and religious one. “Defeat evil with good!” was the Polish Pope’s often repeated message. In most cases, however, this is a strategic rather than a moral choice—and none the worse for that. Definitionally characteristic of the 1989 type of revolution is a strategic preference for nonviolent action on the part of those who desire change. VR can therefore also be considered as a category of, or overlapping with, another genus: civil resistance.6

Trotsky once characterized revolution as “the forcible entry of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”7 In VR, this happens too, but a vital line is preserved between the forcible and the violent. We speak colloquially of “the force of numbers,” and that is the kind of force we are talking about here. “If I see 200,000 people, I will resign,” Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said dismissively of a relatively small opposition demonstration some years before the “orange revolution.” In 2004, there were some 500,000 orange-waving protesters on the streets of Kiev—and Kuchma’s chosen successor had to resign soon after his fraudulent election victory.8 These events are characterized by vast turnouts, so that journalistic estimates of numbers become a branch of poetry. How many demonstrators, garlanded in green, filled the streets of Tehran from Revolution (Enqelab) Square to Freedom (Azadi) Square on that unforgettable June 15, 2009?9 Two million? Three million? No one could know exactly; no one will ever know.

1789 in France, 1917 in Russia, 1949 in China—all were at some point professedly utopian; all promised a heaven on earth. VR is typically anti-utopian, or at the very least non-utopian. In a given place, it aspires to create political and legal institutions, and social and economic arrangements, that already exist elsewhere (for example, in established liberal democracies) and/or that are claimed (often wrongly, or with much retrospective idealization) to have existed in the same place at an earlier time. François Furet, the historiographer of the French Revolution, doubted if the velvet revolutions of 1989 should properly be called “revolutions” at all, since they produced “not a single new idea.”10 In this sense, they were closer to an earlier, pre-1789 version of revolution, the one that gave the thing its name: a revolution, a revolving, a turning of the wheel back to a real or imagined better past.

Hannah Arendt quotes, as a perfect encapsulation of this idea of revolution-as-restoration, the inscription on the 1651 great seal of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, at the height of the English Revolution: “freedom by God’s blessing restored.”11 Poland in 1989 could have put those very same words on its seal, had it had one. “The return to Europe,” one of the great mottoes of Central Europe’s 1989, is also a version of the revolution-restoration theme. Most of the subsequent claimants to the title of VR display some such mixture of an idealized national past and a better present located elsewhere. While these movements manifest some unrealistic, idealistic expectations, none of them are decisively shaped by a utopian ideology, a vision of a new heaven on earth. The “new idea” is the form of revolutionary change itself, not the content of its ideological aspirations.

To say that the 1789–1917–1949 revolutions were class-based is of course a gross historical oversimplification, and even misrepresentation. As we know, the Bolshevik Revolution was not actually a heroic mass action of the working class. But it is fair to say that revolutionary leaders such as Lenin and Mao often claimed to be acting in the name of a class or classes—“workers and peasants,” and so on. In VR, the appeals are typically to a whole society, the nation, the people. Nationalism (or patriotism, according to circumstance and interpretation) is often a driving force of these, as it can be of more violent movements. In practice, the strategic key to mass mobilization—to getting those inestimable peaceful crowds out on the streets, to generating “people power”—often lies precisely in building the broadest possible coalitions between classes, sections of society, and interest groups that do not normally cooperate, and among which nondemocratic powerholders had previously been able to “divide and rule.”

In old-style revolution, the angry masses on the street are stirred up by extremist revolutionary leaders—Jacobins, Bolsheviks, Mao—to support radicalization, including violence and terror, in the name of utopia. Bring on the red guards! In new-style revolution, the masses on the street are there to bring the powerholders to the negotiating table. The moment of maximum mass mobilization is the moment of turn to negotiation; that is, to compromise. Or in some cases, to violent repression—at least for the time being. For also characteristic of VR is that it often takes a long time to succeed, after many failed attempts, in the course of which opposition organizers, but also some of those in power, learn from their own mistakes and failures—as, for example, in Poland, Serbia, and Ukraine. Protesters “fail again, fail better,” to adopt Samuel Beckett’s memorable phrasing. Both sides do it differently next time. Eventually, the moment comes when there are two to tango.

So another name for the genus is “negotiated revolution.” Exit prospects for the ruling elites are critical. Instead of losing their heads on the guillotine, or ending up hanging from lampposts, transition-ready members of an ancien régime, from a president such as F.W. de Klerk all the way down to local apparatchiks and secret policemen, see a bearable, even a rosier future for themselves under a new dispensation. Not merely will they get away with their lives; not only will they remain at liberty; they will also get to retain some of their social position and wealth, or to convert their former political power into economic power (the “privatization of the nomenklatura”), which sometimes helps them to make startling returns to political power under more democratic rules (as, for example, have post-communists all over post- communist Europe). In VR, it is not just the Abbé Sieyès who survives. Louis XVI gets to keep a nice little palace in Versailles, and Marie Antoinette starts a successful line in upmarket lingerie.

These uneasy and even morally distasteful compromises with members of the ancien régime are an intrinsic, unavoidable part of velvet revolution. They are, as Ernest Gellner once memorably put it, the price of velvet. They produce, however, their own kinds of postrevolutionary pathology. As the years go by, there is a sense of a missing revolutionary catharsis; suspicious talk of tawdry deals concluded between old and new elites behind closed doors; and, among many, a feeling of profound historical injustice. Here I am, a middle-aged shipyard worker in Gdan´sk, left unemployed as a result of a painful neoliberal transition to capitalism, while over there, in their high-walled new villas, with their swimming pools full of half-naked girls quaffing champagne, the former communist spokesman and the former secret policeman are whooping it up as millionaires. And their first million came from ripping off the state in the period of negotiated revolution.

There is no perfect answer to this problem, but I will suggest two partial ones. First, absent both the catharsis of revolutionary purging (that orgiastic moment as the king’s severed head is held aloft) and retroactive sanctions of criminal justice, it becomes all the more important to make a public, symbolic, honest reckoning with your country’s difficult past. This alone can establish a bright line between bad past and better future. That is why I have argued that the essential complement to a velvet revolution is a truth commission. Second, establishing the rule of law as fast as possible is vital to lasting success, and corruption is deeply corrosive of it. “Speed is more important than accuracy,” the famous motto of the no-holds-barred Czech privatizer and free marketeer Václav Klaus, sacrifices the long-term prospects to the short.

  1. 1

    Despite extensive inquiries with leading Czech and Western historians of the velvet revolution, I have not (yet) been able to pin down the first use.

  2. 2

    Mao Zedong, Report of an Investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan, quoted in George Lawson, Negotiated Revolutions: The Czech Republic, South Africa and Chile (Ashgate, 2005), p. 51.

  3. 3

    I am well aware that the guillotine was not introduced until a later stage in the French Revolution.

  4. 4

    See my account in The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ‘89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague (Random House, 1990), p. 113.

  5. 5

    Quoted in an excellent article by John K. Glenn, “Competing Challengers and Contested Outcomes to State Breakdown: The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia,” Social Forces, Vol. 78, No. 1 (September 1999), pp. 187–211. Note also that the Slovak counterpart of the Civic Forum was actually called the Public Against Violence.

  6. 6

    On this see Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (Oxford University Press, 2009). For this essay, I have drawn on the findings of that multiauthor volume, and the Oxford University research project behind it: cis.politics.ox.ac.uk/research/Projects/civ_res.asp.

  7. 7

    Quoted in Lawson, Negotiated Revolutions, p. 72.

  8. 8

    See Timothy Garton Ash and Timothy Snyder, “The Orange Revolution,” The New York Review, April 28, 2005, now reprinted in Timothy Garton Ash, Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name (Atlantic Books, 2009).

  9. 9

    See Roger Cohen, “Iran: The Tragedy and the Future,” The New York Review, August 13, 2009.

  10. 10

    Quoted in Lawson, Negotiated Revolutions, p. 90. On this, see also my The Magic Lantern, p. 154, and Krishan Kumar, 1989: Revolutionary Ideas and Ideals (University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

  11. 11

    Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Viking, 1963), p. 36.

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