On Political Rupture
During Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai’s famous 1972 meeting, the latter was supposedly asked what he thought of the French Revolution and responded, "too early to say.” Even if this quote is a simple historical fiction resulting from mistranslation, it nevertheless raises an interesting question: how exactly is one to judge a political rupture?
Let’s clarify the issue. First, we must address the question of what even constitutes a political rupture. Consider the three following answers:
High Bar: A radical idea materializes within a government.
Moderate Bar: A government founded on radical principles exists, regardless of any subsequent deviations from the founding ideology.
Low Bar: A radical idea remains prevalent within relevant debates.
What we might even mean by a “radical idea” is worthy of its own discussion, but given this isn’t the focus of our discussion here, let us make do with a rather simple definition: if a political ideology substantially differs from that embodied by the government under consideration, we will call it a “radical idea” (hence, communism would be a radical idea in the United States, but would not have been in Soviet Russia). Given the nature of the discussion at hand, I believe the best way of making sense of these different answers is through exposition and example*, as is provided below. Hopefully what each answer represents will be made clear in the following paragraphs.
So, according to the High Bar, a political rupture has occurred when what would constitute a radical idea at time t-1 has materialized within a government from time t onwards. Exactly how this materialization has occurred is not important for our discussion; it could have been through a violent revolution or through a peaceful restructuring of the government per these radical principles, but insofar as an idea which would have been radical at t-1 now constitutes the primary guiding principles of the government at time t, we have passed the High Bar. An important aspect of this first answer is that these new principles remain a core component of the government during all periods of consideration after time t. While the exact manner in which they play out might change over time, we cannot have any substantial deviations from these principles under the High Bar.† The United States, with regards to democratic republicanism, would pass this bar. Though the United States has been through a number of “revolutions” (Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, etc.), we would be correct to say that the democratic republican principles that led to the founding of the country remained principal throughout these political shifts.
The Moderate Bar for political rupture is satisfied if and when the High Bar was passed at some point, and the government which subsequently came to be continues to exist. No matter the deviations from the core principles of the radical idea which brought this government into being – these deviations could be from a few of the core principals, or from all of them – insofar as this government continues to exist, we will say this Moderate Bar has been met.‡ China, with regards to communism, passes the Moderate Bar.
Finally, the Low Bar for political rupture is met whenever a radical idea has serious proponents within the country of consideration.§ The US and the UK, with regards to socialism, pass the Low Bar.
Given the substantial range between our Low Bar and High Bar, it is necessary that we justify these endpoints. We have placed the High Bar at a point where a rupture that has occurred is so severe and complete that it is clear something radical has happened and it has happened in a sustained way. Of course, the duration of this sustenance depends on the government we are considering – 69 years for the Soviet Union with respect to communism, and 238 years and counting for the United States with respect to democratic republicanism. It is hard for me to imagine what a higher bar of practical relevance would look like. The more contentious point is where we have placed our Low Bar, namely, why isn’t it higher? My answer is simple – I do not think it is an insignificant fact when there are popular politicians actively advocating for a radical idea, i.e. advocating for a High Bar-passing change to occur. The very fact that such a radical idea would find a number of advocates for itself makes the Low Bar a legitimate candidate for political rupture, even if the idea never makes its way into law. A radical idea’s conceptual introduction at a popular level indicates that there are a number of people who wish for this change to happen, who are seriously dissatisfied with the current political framework, and given thus grounding the legitimacy of the Low Bar. Our answers manifest in the real world as instances, as in the examples provided thus far, and in laying out a set of answers we want to be sure not to allow too many or too few instances to count as some type of political rupture. There are a number of people who would justifiably argue that the newfound popularity of socialist policies in the United States represents a political rupture, and our Low Bar recognizes the significance of these calls . This is why our Low Bar isn’t higher, and I can’t think of a lower bar of practical significance. Having established our reasons for these endpoints, we can now argue for the location of our Moderate Bar. The Low Bar represents a serious introduction of a radical idea, and the High Bar represents its complete manifestation. Thus, a “good” Moderate Bar should be one in which the would-be advocates of political rupture in a “Low-Bar world” have succeeded in achieving a High Bar-passing change, but failed (or their ideological successors have failed) in maintaining these changes.
Now that we have a set of justified definitions of political rupture, the next step seems to be to pick out one of the three as “correct”. Before engaging in such an analysis, however, let us return to the supposed Kissinger-Enlai exchange and see whether there are any more insights to glean. When the American statesman asked his Chinese counterpart what he thought of the impact of the French Revolution, Kissinger was picking out a rupture in history that he could compare with the rupture of the Chinese communist revolution. Thus far in this piece we have implicitly shown why Kissinger made a “good” comparison – both the Chinese and French Revolutions passed the High Bar, and so he was referencing revolutions of the same kind! What we currently have, then, is a framework for differentiating between different kinds of ruptures which can be used to enrich comparisons between instances of ruptures. When comparing two ruptures that pass the same bar, we know we are comparing two things of a similar kind, and when comparing ruptures that pass different bars, we can keep this in mind in the course of our analysis. This is, I believe, a rather useful tool, but if we were to say that only one of the three bars constitute a “true” rupture and throw the other two answers out, we would lose this capability. Moreover, I do not think that we can even pick one of the three as “correct” since, by their very definitions, each represents a different type of political rupture. It is not an insignificant fact that the United States passes the High Bar with regards to democratic republicanism, the Moderate Bar with regards to state paternalism‖, and the Low Bar with regards to socialism. To say that only one of these three represents a true political rupture is to ignore that countries have multiple radical ideas playing out in different ways at the same time – we would be turning a blind eye to the complexity of the discussion at hand. So, instead of picking one of the three as the only correct answer, we are better off accepting the trio as a framework for making sense of different types of political ruptures. To continue our discussion, then, let us instead examine the implication of Zhou Enlai’s response, “too early to say,” since it brings up the serious issue of the adjudicative worth of this framework.
Russia, with respect to communism, passed the High Bar for decades, but with the collapse of the USSR, whether it even passes the Low Bar today is unclear. If we were to consider China with respect to communism in the 1950’s, we would say it passed the High Bar, though now it only passes the Moderate Bar. Even with the case of the Low Bar, how long an idea must stay relevant for us to say it has “remained” prevalent represents a substantial dilemma. In all these cases, it is clear that for contemporary instances of ruptures, our framework can at best give a time-indexed answer: “As of now, X country has passed Y bar.” Yet, I do not believe this is a serious knock against the utility of the framework for political rupture. To end this piece, there are three specific applications that I would like to draw attention to.
The first fruitful application of our framework is one we have seen throughout our discussion – towards historical ruptures. Reconsider the case of China – using the framework, we are able to justify our comparison of the Chinese and French Revolutions and also make sense of the differences between the technocratic oligarchy that China is today and the agrarian communist dictatorship it used to be (the latter passed the High Bar and the former passes the Moderate Bar). The second fruitful application is for predictions. We can use our historical analysis, compare the origins of previous ruptures with contemporary cases, and have justified cause to predict which kind of political rupture we can expect in a given case.¶ The last application is in qualifying the success of radical ideas so as to avoid black-and-white analysis. For example, it is a common claim that “socialism failed because …” (insert failed socialist experiment). Such blanket statements, however, do not explain the seemingly never-ending appeal of socialist-minded politicians across the world. Under our framework, however, we can make sense of the mixed success socialistic rupture has had by saying “countries tend to pass the High Bar with respect to socialism for only a limited period of time, but can pass the Low Bar for extended periods of time.”
The answer to our question “how exactly is one to judge a political rupture,” then, is by our three-tiered framework. With this, we can successfully differentiate different kinds of political ruptures, clearly see their underlying differences, and do so in a way that does not ignore internal complexities within nations. By no means is this analysis perfect or complete but it does, I hope, represent a solid starting point.
* I’m sure many will have legitimate qualms with my use of historical examples. I’m sure they would also have specific reasons for why they think I am misrepresenting history. Yet, I only use these examples in order to explain my different answers; so, if you disagree with my historical analysis, surely you can identify the reasons for my mistakes and deduce from that what the theory is meant to say.
† A substantive deviation has occurred if another instance of the High Bar has been met. For the geopolitical region of consideration during the period of consideration, we can only have seen this High Bar being passed once.
‡ So, the High Bar could have been met multiple times, but as long as we are considering the same government, we still pass the Moderate Bar. For example, England from the reign of Charles II through the Interregnum would fail to pass the Moderate Bar since we have an official ending of a government. China would pass the Moderate Bar since its current government is a continuation of that founded by Mao Zedong.
§ An advocate is “serious” if she is worthy of national news coverage. Think Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn.
‖ There is a legitimate point to be made that many state paternalistic policies represent aspects of a socialist program. When I say socialism, I mean an ideology that advocates for social ownership of the means of production. Clearly, this differs from a capitalistic setup that simply includes some socialistic elements, which would probably best describe the contemporary US.
¶ I’ve decided not to include an example of this since any would be rather controversial; I’d rather limit controversy to the theory at hand and leave this exercise to the reader.