Rethinking the Revolutionary Recipe

1989 and the Idea of Non-Violent Revolution

2 March 2020

The assumption that the replication of 1989 is both possible and desirable ignores much of the unique character of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in Central and Eastern Europe, debates ensued regarding the nature of systemic change. Did the domino-like, state-by-state collapse of communism across the region constitute a revolution, a restoration, or even, in the clever 1989 formulation of British historian Timothy Garton Ash, a “refolution”, combining the elements of reform and revolution? François Furet and Jürgen Habermas both suggested there was nothing “new” inherent in either the programs or ideals of 1989.[i]

Mikhail Gorbachev

One important feature united the commentators in this discussion: the commitment to non-violence on the part of key domestic and international players in most states save for a short-lived civil conflict in Romania (from the nomenklatura to dissidents domestically, as well as the restraint of both Western leaders and then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev).

Principled commitment

In 2003, I argued that 1989 represented a revolution in the very idea of revolution—simultaneously self-limiting with far-reaching impact via a principled commitment to non-violence. In states ranging from Serbia in 2000, Ukraine in 2004 or 2014, Iran in 2009 to Egypt in 2011, the idea of peaceful or “velvet” revolution became part of the civil resistance playbook in responding to or even unseating authoritarian leaders.[ii]

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Barbara J. Falk

Barbara J. Falk is Associate Professor in the Department of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College/Royal Military College of Canada in Toronto. She is well known for her work on comparative dissent, Cold War history and politics, security and terrorism law and policy and political trials.

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