The New Statesman Essay - Who's revolting now?

Once, we all knew where we stood on people's uprisings. But as Venezuela shows, you can't trust them

H L Mencken called revolutions "the sex of politics". He meant not only that they were exciting to be involved in (or even to watch, presumably as the pornography of politics), but that they aroused the same mixture of fascination and revulsion that sex does. People found revolutions liberating or disgusting, but they were rarely indifferent - at least until recently.

For two centuries after 1789, the world lived in anticipation or dread of revolution. Gustave Flaubert joked in his Dictionary of Received Ideas: "Age of revolution - not over yet because every government promises to end it." For a century, Marxism, the quintessential radical ideology of modernity, replaced Jacobinism in people's hopes and fears. But Marxism died in 1989. Can revolutionary impulses survive in a postmodern age?

We still regularly awake to news of revolutions, uprisings and coups. Far from marking the end of upheavals, the implosion of the Soviet bloc began a period of profound instability. Yet for all the talk of "people power", there is something unsatisfactory about contemporary revolutions compared with the cataclysms of the past. The events of 1789 and 1917 were earth-shattering developments, and recognised by contemporaries as such. They had a resonance that went far beyond the politically active. Although people sometimes at first misunderstood the meaning of 1789 (the House of Lords welcomed the storming of the Bastille and declared a national holiday), they nearly always, in subsequent years, knew where they stood. The right was against revolution and the left in favour.

But over the past decade, it is the right that has adopted the word revolution. Partly by appealing to the American revolution as a model, conservative American organisations such as the Heritage Foundation flaunt their commitment to a "global democratic revolution" while taunting moribund Marxists with the revolutionary triumphs of anti-communism. So is revolution just a designer label to be stitched on any upheaval as a value-added come-on to the gullible consumer? Is the postmodern revolution the same animal as the tried and tested modern variety?

The weekend of 12-14 April saw the fall and resurrection of Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela. What was striking about this upheaval was the failure of the western media to question the US State Department's "facts" about Venezuela: the resignation of Chavez, his vice-president and cabinet; and the ousted president's request to fly to Cuba. All this was denied in local media at the time.

Since 1989, a new conform-ism has spread through the US media and the western press in general which recalls the early cold war era - except that then, there was a plausible rival to the western model, with its own apparatus of disinformation. Nowadays, controversies about foreign events scarcely exist in our media. Compare the Guardian's reporting of the alleged unpopularity of Chavez and the relief of Venezuelans at his fall with what was printed in the Financial Times or Daily Telegraph. Sadly, there is no contrast.

There is an interesting parallel with Muhammad Mossadeq, prime minister of Iran in 1953. He was the victim of a coup co-ordinated by the CIA in August that year. It put a stop to Mossadeq's campaign to use Iran's vast oil wealth for domestic development schemes at the expense of western oil companies which, in collusion with the corrupt elite grouped around the shah, were milking the country. The west's fear then was that radical nationalists would seize control of Iranian oil; this month, a Middle Eastern crisis coincided with Chavez's restrictions on oil output to the United States.

In 1953, as now, reporters detected growing opposition to a recently elected leader who was flouting US interests. The western press reported a popular uprising against Mossadeq and ignored the presence of American intelligence officers, partly because some journalists were actually passing on CIA-produced propaganda and cash to the anti-Mossadeq forces. The CIA chief Allen Dulles was better informed about Iran than newspaper readers, because those journalists who relayed romantic tosh about the "quasi-religious devotion" of Iranians to the shah were actually sending Dulles more detailed reports. The only contemporary mention of any CIA connection was Newsweek's charming report about the excitement in the shah's temporary refuge in Rome at Mossadeq's fall. The "hubbub" was such that, when Dulles arrived at the Excelsior, "no one paid any attention to him".

The New York Times called Mossadeq "a rabid self-seeking nationalist" and "an appalling caricature". Its editorials decided that the events surrounding his fall "bring us hope"; but they warned that "now Iran's big task is to salvage her economy". This, apparently (though it was not mentioned), was to be achieved by selling oil at knockdown prices to a new US-led consortium. Change the name to Chavez and substitute links to Cuba for Mossadeq's alleged links to Moscow, and the New York Times could have reprinted its 49-year-old material in 2002 without anyone noticing.

There is one big difference, however, between Iran then and Venezuela now. Iranians took another 25 years to topple the shah, during which their anti-Americanism was nurtured with well-known consequences. But hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans - always derided as "poor" in the western media - took only 48 hours to reverse the oil barons' putsch. Representatives of the paragovernmental International Republican Institute, which channelled money and expertise most recently to Serbia in 2000 and Peru last year, described the change in Caracas to a regime of oilmen, bankers and generals as the triumph of "people power" and "civic society" and (most Orwellian) as "a restoration of normal democracy". The price of Venezuelan crude slid to its natural, good-neighbourly market level again. The new regime made it clear that it would adopt IMF prescriptions - more poverty for the many, more exports of capital for the few. Joy all round!

But the usually reticent US technicians of regime change had celebrated too openly and too quickly. Real crowds, rather than the synthetic variety, stormed the Miraflores Palace and ousted the successor regime before it even had time to finish toasting itself with champagne. There is still work to be done if the Venezuelan people are to correct their unfortunate failure to accept the verdict of "people power".

Chavez is certainly not out of the woods yet. It was only because the shah's subordinates bungled an earlier attempt to topple Mossadeq that Dulles had to send in the experts to settle things in August 1953. George Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, warned: "I hope that Hugo Chavez takes the message that his own people are sending him." This is people power lite, with no nonsense about majorities, certainly not sweaty ones.

Don't be surprised if the Mossadeq model is played out in full and that, next time, the anti-Chavez forces manage to suppress protests from the barrios. And don't be surprised if the overall Iranian model is played out in full. A post-Chavez regime, ruthlessly suppressing dissent, could well provoke a Latin American equivalent of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

The Americans seem oblivious to the disastrous consequences of going down the path of instigating coups, as they did at the height of the cold war. After the post-Watergate revelations of CIA skulduggery everywhere from Guatemala to Chile in the western hemisphere alone, the CIA stepped back, under congressional and public pressure, from the cynical methods of Allen Dulles. The west did not fall as a result. On the contrary, a bigger threat to its security was the bitter legacy of popular discontent in those countries "saved" from communism by such coups and by the west's backing for "our sons of bitches" in the Middle East.

But haven't we seen huge expressions of genuine people power, starting in the Philippines in 1986 and climaxing in central Europe in 1989? As Timothy Garton Ash, the most eloquent author of the theory of people power, wrote describing 1989: "A few thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands went on to the streets. They spoke a few words, 'Resign!' they said . . . And the walls of Jericho fell."

This is an attractive fairy story which is only partially true. Regimes fall, but they are also pushed.

Even revolutionaries need money, particularly if they are full-time activists. Just as Lenin had his Parvus Helphand to fund his devotion to the cause, so the dissidents of 1989 received cash from the west while nominally working as factory floor sweepers in the "normalised" Czechoslovakia or Poland. (I remember helping to carry US$30,000 in spring 1989 to a group in Hungary, including leading candidates in that country's current general elections.)

By 1989, people in the east had lost whatever illusions they may ever have had about the benefits of communism. But without a split in the communist elite, and without western aid to dissidents, popular discontent would have been crushed, as it was in 1956, 1968 and 1981. Even during the velvet revolution, people power needed a leg-up.

In many ways, the most corrosive charge against the nomenklatura was that they lived like a red bourgeoisie while preaching socialism. Self-indulgence by the rulers of poor countries angers people more easily than ideological differences. Imelda Marcos and Marie Antoinette may have had little in common apart from the number of their shoes, but contempt can kill a regime. People can understand corruption, and resent it. But it is mistaken policies that cause poverty - although many regimes promote both.

Without an ideology that offers a promise of a better future, upheaval is unlikely. Ideas, however, tend to come from elites; so without splits in the elite, revolutions are impossible. Then there are the political and administrative skills needed to take charge of the opposition and to give a voice and organisation to mass protests - these, too, must usually come from some discontented faction within the elite.

Alexis de Tocqueville antagonised left and right alike by pointing up the continuity between the methods of the old regime and the new after 1789. Legitimists and Jacobins in de Tocqueville's France could agree only on one thing: that the revolution had created a chasm between past and present. For good or ill, everything began anew in Year One.

But whether or not there was a year one in 18th-century France, there certainly wasn't one in late 20th-century eastern Europe. In post-communist states today, ex-apparatchiks such as Poland's current president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, or the Russian ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin, have risen to the very top. You could say it was like the Vicar of Bray in 17th-century Britain who sailed through all the upheavals and kept his living - but at least he did not get promoted by each successive regime. The metamorphosis of yesterday's Marxist-Leninists into what Russians call (without irony) market-Leninists, waving the banner for Nato and EU expansion, is an extraordinary triumph of opportunism as well as a triumph of western ideology.

So is global revolution dead? I suspect that the widely propagated belief that there is only one viable socio-economic model - the one that works tolerably well in the northern hemisphere - will prove to be an illusion. It is not just that the 1989 victory promotes complacency; it is also that what westerners mean by the market is not always what cynical power-brokers elsewhere mean when they mouth our rhetoric.

Western ideologists of the market revolution seem to have forgotten their Marx and Engels - which is odd, for a generation of leaders and commentators that contains so many ex-1968 radicals. The Communist Manifesto was a paean to the destruction that the new market economics and the new industrial methods would inflict on age-old agricultural feudal societies - not just in Europe, but around the world. In 1848, Marx and Engels expected globalisation to destroy social cohesion and spawn revolution, as the capitalists' blind pursuit of profit and empire turned the world into a single, seething mass of discontent.

Yet after the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin disengaged the Soviet economy as far as possible from the capitalist world. Other states that followed the Soviet model of restricted access to markets and rigorous exchange controls (plus state control of pretty well all the means of production) actually delayed what Marx saw as the essential global precondition for a communist revolution: a worldwide market vulnerable to the same crisis simultaneously.

Over the past decade, ex-communist governments and even the Chinese national party have embraced open markets and free exchange. What a quaint irony: while the old right celebrates its cold war triumph, the precondition of revolution, as laid out in the Marxist scriptures, has been coming to pass. In those ex-communist and developing-world countries that have adopted the one-size-fits-all model of economic development, won't the strains of reality create new social and economic tensions? Has that not already become visible in Argentina, for instance?

The International Monetary Fund's model is based on the experience of exchange rate stability in northern countries with highly developed economies and reasonably honest politicians. It does not easily transfer south. As Argentina recently showed, the IMF's obsession with predictable exchange rates (as crude as US$1 = 1 peso) can have revolutionary consequences. This is not only because absurdly high fixed exchange rates choke economies and enrage the poor by throwing them out of work and forcing down their living standards. It is also because the corrupt political elites of such states adopt the IMF's "tough medicine" not in order to stabilise their economies, but in order to make their ill-gotten gains, stolen from the rest of the population, easily transferable abroad.

This is the ultimate effect of IMF currency policies. They have proved to be a bonanza for the controlling mafias, politely called "reform-minded" politicians. Unlike their predecessors, who operated irresponsibly inflationary rackets, they have been able to squirrel away their swag in western banks without any loss on the exchange. In Argentina, the implosion came and the regime could not control the tumult. In Russia, which embarked on a similar journey after 1991, Boris Yeltsin closed down the parliamentary opposition and sent in tanks to suppress dissent on the streets in October 1993, while Bill Clinton cooed: "Boris, you just get stronger and stronger."

Exhausted by decades of Soviet-style communism and, with their low birth rates, hardly able to replenish the population, Russians and other east European peoples may lack the vitality to rebel against further decades of western-imposed austerity - particularly as so many believed that the western model would make them all rich quickly. Poles used to rise when the price of sausages went up, as they did in 1956, 1970, 1976 and 1980. But since 1989, post-communism, with its deflation of expectations, has knocked the stuffing out of them.

With vast sections of the once militant working class on the dole or reduced to penury, wives of ministers talk like arriviste Marie Antoinettes, one remarking that conversation in Polish society has become so advanced that people ask not what sort of mobile phone you have, but whether you have an ISDN connection. (What is the Polish for "Let them eat broadband instead"?)

But the teeming masses of the south are less tamed by their recent history, as Venezuela and Argentina show. They have not accepted the single ideology, and so are not deflated by its failure to produce the goods. The right in the west may yet fall out of love with revolution if the people of the south do not lose hope.

Mark Almond is lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford. His book Uprisings! is published by Mitchell Beazley next month