Never underestimate the power of a revolution

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Revolution and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Powerby Fred Halliday,(Macmillan Press, £15.99)

Revolution and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Powerby Fred Halliday,(Macmillan Press, £15.99)

Not so long ago, revolutions had to be taken seriously. Mao's Little Red Book was examined for clues about Peking's domestic policies. Biographies of Robespierre were searched for hints about Soviet political practice. The English Civil War retained huge interest; there was endless debate on the contribution of Cromwell's rule to life in modern Britain.

All that seems like a bygone age. The rot set in with those T-shirts of Che Guevara in the Sixties; revolution became a fashion item. Then Andy Warhol came up with a portrait of Mao that made him look like a tired circus performer. When the Cold War ended, this satirical approach became a way of envisaging revolutions. TV adverts for lager dressed actors up as Stalin; Lenin lookalikes were photographed with tourists on Red Square.

Revolutions no longer terrify us. William Hague's invocation to Tories to undertake a "common-sense revolution" shows that it is often the right that now employs revolutionary rhetoric. But, as Fred Halliday asserts in his new book, revolutions should be treated with circumspection. Each of them at the time had a leadership determined to turn its country upside down. The leaders were usually ruthless to the point of fanaticism and intent on propagating a message - an ideology or religion - that would set people free. Each revolution, too, was produced by deep tensions in the old society. The revolutionary leadership had little trouble in finding support for the overturning of law and tradition.

Halliday is keen to add that, nearly always, revolutions also have an important foreign ingredient. His principal theme is the relationship between the domestic establishment of a revolutionary state and its international entanglements. In his estimation, even the English Civil War - a process usually treated as impervious to influences from the European mainland - would have turned out differently if other powers had not been distracted by the effects of the Thirty Years' war. He adds that Cromwell's regime, by the very anti-dynastic principle of its creation, was bound to have an impact on English foreign policy and the policy of European powers towards England. Cromwell himself promoted a more expansive foreign policy than he appears to have wanted when he took power.

Halliday's thesis is that new types of regime, which we usually call revolutionary, have the consequence of destabilising international relations. Ideological élan breeds a desire to transform societies beyond the one in which the revolution was born.

But revolutionaries in government have to weigh up the risks to domestic consolidation posed by foreign military adventures. This was Lenin's dilemma in 1920. If he did not seize the chance to invade Poland after winning the civil war in Russia, how would his regime survive without ally-states in central Europe? But if he threw the Red Army at the Poles, what would happen if the Polish troops defeated it and revolts continued in Russia?

Ideology and personal impulsiveness came together, and Lenin chose to invade. The Reds were defeated, and the Soviet regime came closer to collapse than at any time until Hitler almost occupied Moscow in 1941. The conventional wisdom is that the battle of the Vistula in 1920 marked the abandonment of Communist revolutionary expansionism. Halliday disagrees. His surely accurate perception is that the tattered banner of Leninist world revolution still fluttered in the Kremlin even under Brezhnev in the 1970s. The arms aid lavished on liberation movements in Africa and Asia was no accident; it was inherent in the USSR's need to secure itself as a global superpower.

Halliday's specialist work on Iran, moreover, allows him to make incisive comparisons between Khomeini and Soviet leaders. If I have a criticism, it is that if Khomeini can be categorised as a revolutionary, then so can Hitler (who is excluded). But this is a quibble. Fred Halliday acknowledges his intellectual debt to the Trotskyist historian Isaac Deutscher. Much of the book, however, cuts a path away from Deutscher, who was hardly sensitive about Lenin's victims after 1917. The tension between these polarities makes for interesting reading.