Subscribe to Salvage and receive two print issues per year, plus digital access including audio and back issue PDFs

The Actuality of Counter-Revolution

by | January 28, 2023

I always thought that something, in 1920–25, was almost born: Lenin, Freud, Surrealism, revolutions, jazz, silent films. All this could have come together. And then each followed its sporadic destiny. Isolated, they could all be strangled. It is only in my memory that they made up a world.

– Jean Paul Sartre, War Diary

But one thing I do remember, one thing I know: the sense of possibility was real. It may have been naive to believe our dream could come true, but it was not foolish to believe another world was possible. It really was. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

– Alaa Abdel-Fattah

Whatever happened to social revolution? If one concedes that we live in a particular social order – capitalist, racist, extractive and patriarchal – hurtling towards extinction in a matter of decades, then the fundamental transformation of that order becomes a biological as much as a political imperative. Yet fundamental, rapid transformation of the social order appears nowhere in the programme of any significant political movement today. As Enzo Traverso notes in his magisterial intellectual history of revolution, the closest thing to a programme of totalising change is to be found not on the Left but amongst the Islamist epigones of Qutb and Khomeini. ‘The new anti-capitalist movements of recent years do not resonate with any of the left traditions of the past’, writes Traverso, but ‘being orphans … must reinvent themselves.’

This situation is a most puzzling one. On a cruder metric than that of fundamental social transformation, the second decade of the twenty-first century has been unprecedentedly ‘revolutionary’, in the sense of the depth and breadth of popular protest. The Arab revolutions of 2011 both initiated and prefigured this trend, marking, in the words of the global events database project GDELT in 2019, ‘a near-vertical inflection point in which two decades of relative calm instantly reversed into several years of elevated global unrest’. From the anti-austerity protests of Southern Europe to the anti-racist rebellions in the United States, amongst many other examples, apparently leaderless and spontaneous mass movements swarmed into streets and squares. The 2010s witnessed a wave of protest greater than any since that sparked by the Russian Revolution of 1917. As Samuel J. Brannen, Christian S. Haig, and Katherine Schmidt note in their report ‘The Age of Mass Protests’, across the world anti-government protests increased by 11.5 per cent year on year throughout the 2010s. All of the five largest demonstrations in US history occurred during the decade. The Middle East and North Africa saw the ‘largest concentration of activity’ and sub-Saharan Africa the ‘fastest rate of growth’; a dip in protest activity in 2013–17 was followed by a renewed global expansion of protest leading to 290.5 per cent more protests at the end of the decade than at the start.

To reinforce this point about the expansion of revolutionary episodes, examine the chart produced by Mark Beissinger, a Princeton political scientist, on the basis of his database of revolutionary episodes:

Table from Beissinger, ‘The Urban Advantage in Revolution’, 2020.


This is another topography of Traverso’s revolutionary ‘long twentieth century’. Four peaks, prior to the Arab revolutions of 2011 – which rank with the periods surrounding the establishment and fall of the Soviet Union in terms of new revolutionary episodes per year – are visible in this illustration. The first peak is the revolutionary wave that preceded and then was accelerated by the Russian Revolution in 1915–19, continuing into the early 1920s; a smaller and more chronologically isolated burst at the end of World War II is followed by the third peak, counter-intuitively at its height in the early 1960s (corresponding to the wave of anti-colonial revolutions) and then slightly decreasing in the latter part of the decade; and the fourth begins its upward ascent after 1975 to peak in the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s. The overall trend is upward, with a renewed ascent from 2010 onwards. 

Why, then, the appearance not just of political and social stasis but active retrogression? Where is the twenty-first century equivalent of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’, of Dessalines’ ‘Empire of liberty’, or the ‘Decrees of the Second Congress of Soviets’?

In part, the answer is contained within the question. What Beissinger’s chart represents are not revolutions in the sense of revolutionary outcomes but revolutionary episodes: the ‘mass siege of an established government with the aims of displacing the incumbent regime and substantially altering the political or social order’. The distinction between episode, or revolutionary situation, and outcome is accompanied here by another – between (political) revolutions that transform at most the form of the state, and those (social revolutions) that undo and remake the social relations of which the state forms a part. Political revolutionary episodes are becoming more common: social revolutionary outcomes so rare as to be almost unimaginable. 

This shrinking of the revolutionary horizon has political effects. In states lacking the apparatus of procedural democracy that accompanies bourgeois domination in the West, revolutionary episodes tend to become limited to the installation of such an apparatus. Where democratic participation is an option, any challenge to the rule of capital is likely to be bifurcated into a reformist march through the institutions on the one hand and protean ‘social movements’ on the other. One takes the state as tool, the other as obstacle. Reinforcing the boundary between the private sphere of exploitation and oppression and the public one of formal equality that is constitutive of bourgeois rule, neither strategy is adequate to the urgent task of overthrowing that rule. 

Even to begin (re-)making such a strategy must be the reciprocal work of struggle and debate, and not that of a single essay. My wager here is different: that our understanding of the gap between (political) revolutionary episode and (social) revolutionary outcome has been hampered by a lack of attention to the phenomenon that intervenes between them – counter-revolution. In particular, the disappearance of the Arab revolutions of 2011 from the discussions on the Left, either through their characterisation as renewed instances of Bush-era ‘regime change’ or through simple neglect, has forestalled the necessary clarity about contemporary forms of counter-revolution. Unlike previous such forms, which relied upon the uneven and combined nature of capitalist development to stiffen the defence of bourgeois order with agrarian reaction, these counter-revolutions were made entirely within and by the separation of the ‘social’ and ‘political’ wings of the power of capital. Yet how useful is it to speak of ‘revolution’ – and hence of counter-revolution – in 2011?



The Revolutions that Weren’t?

‘The important thing’, wrote Syria’s pre-eminent modern poet Adonis in Beirut’s Al-Safir newspaper shortly before its closure, ‘is the outcome of revolutions, not their beginnings.’ If Adonis is among the most strident and most well-known of the opponents of the uprisings of 2011, his position is far from uncommon. One finds, in the titles of historical works on revolutions, the same words appearing and re-appearing with grim regularity: betrayal, loss, defeat, and tragedy. The lesson learned, in the Western canon of political thought, is that it is better not to have revolutions at all, for to do so is, in the words of Edmund Burke, to ‘stir up the great fountains of the deep to overwhelm us’.

That lesson has been amply learned in the case of the ‘Arab Spring’, not least on the Arab and international Left. In late 2010, demonstrations and strikes – following the self-immolation of a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in protest at police harassment – spread throughout Tunisia, eventually leading to the toppling of the dictator of that country, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Similar protest movements broke out in much of the rest of the Arab world. For a time, the example of these uprisings seemed to inspire imitation, or at least appropriation of their tactical repertoire, from Manhattan to Athens. In that brief moment, something of the air of a new Springtime of the Peoples diffused from the Arab world to places culturally and geographically very distant.

The fruits of these struggles proved bitter indeed. Within three years of the initial uprisings, a revivified dictatorship held sway in Egypt, under the former Colonel General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi; the Khalifas maintained their rule over a cowed dominion in Bahrain and Libya (following NATO intervention); and Yemen and Syria had slipped into civil war. The staggering barbarism of the latter conflict gave birth to a new form of authoritarian state, as the so-called ‘Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIS), or Daesh, established itself in the borderlands between Eastern Syria and Western Iraq. The Middle East became, once again, the site of a bloody military contest between great powers both within (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey) and outside the region (Russia and the US). This entanglement led, more than once, to the threat of global nuclear confrontation, not seen since the most perilous days of the Cold War. Where once Arab protestors had awakened emulation abroad, new forms of xenophobic reaction in Europe and the Americas took as their prime target the refugees fleeing the general crisis of order in the Middle East. 

This combination of revolutionary wave and global crisis is not new. The history of the ‘Atlantic revolutions’ of the late eighteenth century or of the conflagrations surrounding the Russian Revolution of 1917 are reminder enough of the strongly established relationship between war and revolution. Yet the storm that burst forth in the Arab world in 2011 occurred in a global order accustomed to the idea that such concurrences were a thing of the past. Revolutions there might be, but these were expected to be largely peaceful, resolved by negotiated means, and welcomed, rather than opposed by the great powers.

The contrast between these expectations and the outcomes of the Arab uprisings led not to a reconsideration of the premises of those expectations, but to a genre of commentary on the ‘failure of the Arab Spring’, or in a favoured turn of metaphor, the passage from ‘Arab Spring’ to ‘Arab Winter’. Such arguments reprised older forms of Orientalist reason, which see the politics of the Middle East as the outcomes of a cultural and religious heritage endogenous to the region. The explanations for the ‘failure of the Arab Spring’, in this reading, are to be found in a familiar trio of factors: the insufficient modernity of societies still structured by sub-national and tribal allegiance; the anachronistic influence of (Islamic) religious belief and hence the conflict between political movements that seek to impose such belief at the heart of the state versus those committed to ‘secularism’; and, the gruesome outcome of the interaction between the latter two dynamics, the conflict between religious sects as the prime motive force of the politics of the region. 

In such readings, the Arab Spring and its consequences belong not to a global history of revolution, counter-revolution, and the changing forms of society that produce these phenomena but rather to a provincial history of the Arab and Islamic world. There is nothing to be learned from them that we did not already know. The bloody welter of conflict and repression that followed the uprisings was simply the endpoint of the twentieth-century attempt to suture a Western model of the rational sovereign state onto places where segmented identities of tribe and sect, not abstract nationhood, formed, for the New York Times Magazine, ‘the traditional organising principle of society’. Spared – or denied – the destruction of tribal society wrought by Europeans on their longer-standing New World possessions, inhabitants of the post-colonial Arab states were fated to fall back on these older loyalties when the lid of state repression was lifted and all hell burst forth.

The function of such repression, in this reading of the Arab Spring, was to keep at bay the most threatening bearers of the remnants of pre-modern society, Islamists. The Arab republics – for, with the exception of Bahrain, all of the states to have witnessed the revolutions of the Arab Spring belonged to this category – were indubitably brutal, corrupt and repressive: but they were, as an assumed recompense, ‘secular’. This term did not mean the constitutional injunction of the separation of the state from religious practice, for there is no Arab state that does not base its legal system on inherited traditions of religious jurisprudence. Rather secularism here meant the incorporation and management of the latter by the former. Secularism served as a justification for undemocratic rule, since, as the outcomes of the contested elections that followed the Arab Spring showed, Islamists were likely to win them. In this view, the prospect of such victories threatened a ‘Westernised elite’ or ‘secular middle class’, who would then return to the side of the authoritarian militaries that promised to protect them. The principal contradiction in Arab societies, unfolding in the wake of the Arab Spring, is then rendered as that between ‘secular liberals’, seen as representatives of a global modernity, and Islamists seen as recalcitrant, if popular, hold-outs against that modernity.

These two frames, of primordial loyalty and religious politics, come together in a third: the idea that what unfolded in the Middle East after 2011 both between and within states was an all-out sectarian war, a continuation of, in Simon Jenkins’ words for the Guardian, the ‘oldest and bitterest clan feud’ in the Middle East. The dispute in question was the split between the followers of the Prophet at the very foundation of Islam, producing the schism between Sunni and Shi’a supposedly still being played out in the battlefields of Syria, Yemen and Iraq and in confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the better part of two millennia later. US President Barack Obama, viewing the outcomes of the Arab Spring not as opportunity but threat for the United States, declaimed in his final State of the Union address that ‘we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states’, the product of a ‘transformation’ of the Middle East that would ‘play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia’. For good measure, Obama reinforced the point in a later Atlantic interview: ‘you’ve got countries that have very few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organising principles are sectarian.’ 

Nor was this argument restricted to the centre or Right of the political spectrum. Some of the keenest critics of US foreign policy in the Middle East, Patrick Cockburn among them, shared this analysis of post-Arab Spring conflicts as expressions of the primordial rift between Sunni and Shi’a. Since the revolutionaries did not, for the most part, end up in power (nor did long-lasting social transformation issue from the uprisings that they led), the intifadaat of 2011 have been downgraded to the status of scattered protest movements, local rebellions, foreign conspiracies or mere ahdath, ‘events’: in the words of Hugh Roberts in the London Review of Books, the ‘revolution that wasn’t’.

Indeed, it is within this shared matrix that the Arab revolutions have been placed by both liberal and Left opinion. For the former, the uprisings represented the late coming of the democratising, liberal revolutions of 1989 – in which case they could expect to be welcomed into an international system dominated by such values – while for much of the latter they were a continuation (like the 1989 revolutions) of a project of regime change directed against challengers to that system, in which case they were not revolutions to begin with. Both these opposing arguments assumed a congruence between a liberal international system under US hegemony and the events of 2011 – considered as democratising revolutions, uprisings or conspiracies – in the Arab republics. Neither is accurate.

In fact, the Arab revolutions, although they did not (for the most part) succeed in producing the social or political transformation desired by their participants, represented mass, class-based revolts from below that established situations of divided sovereignty in the states in which they occurred. These were the largest and broadest protest movements in the history of each of the states in which they broke out, and some of the largest in the world. Where the data is available – for example that collected by the ‘Arab Transformations’ project at the University of Aberdeen – participation rates in the uprisings far outstrip those of paradigmatic revolutions such as France in 1789 or Russia in 1917. At least four states – Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen – experienced nationwide strike waves that were the largest in their history, and some of the largest in global labour history. In at least three states – Syria, Libya and Yemen – sovereign authority fractured into competing institutions, while elsewhere the ruling social order was challenged by demands for ‘cleansing’ or a ‘parallel revolution’ in both public and private organisations. 

Organised workers were certainly crucial to these movements, especially in Tunisia, where an outcome closer to the ‘transition pact’ of democratisation emerged. For the most part, however, the Arab revolutionaries formed a socially diverse, if largely plebeian, subject that emerged from the informal labour markets and precarious living conditions of the neoliberal era. Their social demands were typically made at the level of reproduction (housing, services, a life free from police oppression) rather than that of production. Peasant struggles over land were nonetheless notable by their scarcity. 

In one state, Tunisia, the result was a fundamental change of political system to an electoral democracy. In another, Egypt, a similar systemic political change, producing the country’s first-ever elected presidency, was initiated only to be reversed. In a third, Libya, the head of the old regime was toppled (with the aid of a NATO bombing campaign) and elections held but over a fractured polity; a not dissimilar outcome held in Yemen, albeit with more restricted electoral input. In a fifth, Syria, the existing regime was at one point reduced to controlling one-fifth of the country’s territory and a variety of new governing institutions – some roughly democratic, others not – temporarily established in the remainder. Only Bahrain failed to witness such changes. But at the high-point of the revolt in February 2011, a revolutionary situation held in which the Khalifas could not control most of the country. In each of these, existing hierarchies of workplace, gender and sect were unsettled and the revolutionaries prefigured a new form of expanded political self. 

The outcome of these struggles – the victory of counter-revolutions across most of the region – cannot be assumed but must rather be explained. As Victor Serge wrote of the fate of the Russian Revolution: ‘to judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried with him since his birth – is that very sensible?’ But by what means is the post-mortem to be carried out?



What do Counter-revolutions Counter?

Counter-revolutions are difficult to circumscribe because they belong both to the past that preceded the revolution and make the future that succeeds it. Or to put the issue in more prosaic language: when does counter-revolution begin? And, what does it counter – does counter-revolution simply restore the past, or make its own new present? What does counter-revolution preserve?

Revolution, it seems to make sense to say, means a lasting and deep change in a given society and state. Revolutions mark a caesura between the old and the new within the lifespan of their participants and observers. ‘A revolution’, writes Perry Anderson in the New Left Review, is 

an episode of convulsive political transformation, compressed in time and concentrated in target, that has a determinate beginning – when the old state apparatus is still intact – and a finite end, when that apparatus is decisively broken and a new one erected in its stead.

Powerful and lucent, this definition offers us a beginning (the old state in place), a middle (the ‘convulsive’ episode), and an end (the new state apparatus secured). Silent on the character of that apparatus or the nature of the convulsion that founds it, however, Anderson’s definition misses the particularity of revolution that has so inspired its opponents and terrified its enemies: the combination of popular insurrection with lasting overthrow of the prevailing social and political conditions in a given society. This combination, historically unknown before the early modern period, has entered social-scientific understanding through Theda Skocpol’s now-canonical definition of revolutions in States and Social Revolutions as ‘rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures… accompanied by and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below’.

This understanding of revolution, which renders both failed revolution and successful counter-revolution an impossibility, underpins the dismissal of the Arab Revolutions that I have already outlined. It is surprising that this conception of revolution has found such ready acceptance on the Left, given the centrality of the concept of an open-ended ‘revolutionary situation’ (equivalent to Beissinger’s ‘revolutionary episode’) in Classical Marxism. The most famous definition of such a situation is of course that offered by Lenin himself: when ‘the lower classes [do] not to want to live in the old way’ and the ‘upper classes [are] … unable to live in the old way’. Such a situation produces, in Trotsky’s conceptualisation, ‘double sovereignty’, the overcoming of which ‘becomes at every new step the task of the revolution – or the counter-revolution’. Nor was this schema limited to the Russian revolutionaries of 1905 and 1917. Marx, speaking in his own defence at the trial of the Rhenish democratic revolutionaries in 1848, made the argument clear: a revolutionary situation consists of the establishment of competing sovereignties between which ‘only power can decide between two powers’. A contest between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary sovereignties. The outcome of that contest is not predetermined.

Revolutionary situations are thus distinct and comparatively brief periods of time in which these competing claims to sovereign control are unresolved. This is Anderson’s ‘convulsive’ episode. Not just political forms of rule but the social order these protect come into question in revolutionary situations. Understanding revolutionary situations in this way allows us to link the question of revolution and counter-revolution to the distinction between social and political revolutions. The latter distinction – more widely accepted than the former – refers in Skocpol’s words to the difference between social revolutions as ‘rapid basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures’ featuring ‘the coincidence of societal structural change with class upheaval’ and political revolutions as ‘political transformations that are not accompanied by transformations of class relations’. Neil Davidson offers a clearer contrast: ‘political revolutions take place within a socioeconomic structure and social revolutions involve a change from one socioeconomic structure to another.’

To describe a revolution as ‘political’ nonetheless implies neither that the change involved is trivial nor that it tends only in one direction – towards liberal democracy. The birth of the Islamic Republic in Iran after the 1979 Revolution, for example, undoubtedly marked a complete change of the political and symbolic order in that country and the wider region. The Islamic Republic transformed Iran’s political structures, justification for authority and the experience of everyday life – not least in the imposition of more repressive gender roles – compared with the ancien regime of the Shah. 

In this sense the Islamic Revolution was a real and profound one. The Islamic Revolution also brought to power a different social group to the Pahlavi ruling class; the activist clergy rallied behind Khomeini and allies in the traditional merchants of the urban bazaar. All Islamist trends seeking the forcible overthrow of existing regimes and their replacement with some form of Islamic state (if not ‘the’ Islamic state) have been influenced by this experience, the virulent anti-Shi’ism of some such factions not withstanding. When ISIS seized the oil-producing areas of Eastern Syria in 2014 a similar turnover occurred: as related by Patrick Cockburn in the London Review of Books, men who had been ‘illiterate and working in agriculture, often in debt’ suddenly had access to ‘millions of Syrian pounds’ as commanders of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. 

Such drastic changes in forms of rule and their accompanying symbolic justification undoubtedly represent thorough-going political revolutions. Yet such revolutions – although they may completely change the personnel of the ruling class and the ideas and daily practices that underpin its rule – do not transform what Robert Brenner refers to as the ‘rules of reproduction’ of the society in which they occur. Social counter-revolution preserves or reinstates those rules of reproduction. Social counter-revolution can therefore be accompanied by political revolution. The ‘net effect’ ten years after the profoundly transformative Islamic revolution in Iran, for example, was the victory – to quote Cihan Tuğal in The Fall of the Turkish Model – of ‘small-scale, predominantly merchant capitalism’ rather than the overthrow of capitalism itself. In order to maintain newly achieved power threatened by economic crisis and instability, political revolutionaries still require that workers go to work, that tenants pay their landlords, that oil reaches and arrives from global markets licit or illicit, and – unless they are willing to risk international confrontation – that their state creditors are reassured. 

Beyond this, whatever the form of legitimacy at the top of a state, post-revolutionary institutions after political revolution tend to retain not just their old personnel linked by ties of patronage or common social origin to the old regime but also the habits of command and obedience upon which it rested. During revolutionary situations, participants typically experience a sense of expanded, collective selfhood that offers new horizons of political and social organisation, as well as actually existing examples of the same that offer the possibility of fuller social revolution. Of course, the ‘social’ of a social revolution is not composed solely of economic relationships. When revolutionary situations upturn accustomed hierarchies of wealth and political power, they also do so for those of gender, age, racial, national or religious identification. Nor do these hierarchical and oppressive relationships represent a merely symbolic order appended to a fundamentally economic infrastructure: not the least of these being the role of gender in social reproduction. Revolutionary mobilisation, in which women have played a central role at least since the first modern revolutions of the seventeenth century, unsettle the enduring structures of gender subordination in the family and their associated forms of sexuality. The Arab revolutions very much conformed to this pattern. 

The defence of family, custom and patriarchy – as well as the practice and fantasy of extreme misogynist violence against revolutionary women perceived as upsetting such hierarchies – has thus formed a typical, if not universal, aspect of counter-revolution. No simple equivalence can be drawn, however, between revolutionary movement and the abolition of the hierarchy of gender, in itself a far from stable or solid category. Valentine Moghadam describes as ‘the patriarchal model of revolution’ those revolutions, such as those that ended Eastern European Stalinism in 1989 or the Islamic Revolution in Iran a decade earlier, that rolled back pre-existing standards of gender equality under their respective old regimes.

Social revolutions therefore overturn the ‘rules of [social] reproduction’ of which gender relations are an integral and not just symbolic part – social counter-revolutions defend or reinstate them. Political revolutions, although they transform the structure, personnel or legitimising ideology of the state, do not necessarily promote and may even impede social revolution.

Where does counter-revolution stand in this schema? Counter-revolution means the closure, attempted or successful, of a revolutionary situation on terms favourable to the old order – in either its narrow political, or broader social, sense. Counter-revolution therefore depends on the existence of a prior revolutionary situation but is not solely limited to the restoration of the rule that preceded it: indeed, the regimes that emerge from counter-revolution are themselves typically revolutionised, transformed versions of their pre-revolutionary forebears. Even counter-revolutions that emerge from within the revolutionary ranks themselves, after power has been achieved, seek to establish their own stable reproduction on the terms of the surrounding (usually international) vestiges of the old order they originally overturned. Counter-revolution is therefore a project that involves both a policy and a movement to reverse revolution or close a revolutionary situation.

Accompanying this policy is a movement of counter-revolution from below constituted by popular mobilisations against fundamental structural change, in often confused enmity to the revolutionaries or a part amongst them. No mere conspiracy of the upper fractions of a society, counter-revolution reaches far down to build and reflect mass support. The more material and symbolic resources available to counter-revolutionaries to do this, the more successful they are likely to be. The narrower the appeal to counter-revolution from below, the greater the necessity for counter-revolutionaries to rely upon their external allies to bolster  direct military means of suppressing the revolutionary situation. 

Revolutionary situations, consisting of the emergence of dual power provoked by mass insurrection, thus only rarely result in revolutionary outcomes. Such outcomes that do issue from revolutionary situations vary from a mere change of governing personnel or apparatus all the way to the most profound changes in everyday life and social relations. Counter-revolutionaries intervene, successfully or unsuccessfully, at any of these points. A counter-revolution seeks to put an end to the revolutionary situation, restoring singular rather than dual power. A counter-revolution may be mounted against a revolution that has succeeded in establishing its rule: a process of civil war and overthrow, often enlisting the support of outside powers. The defence of a limited political revolution may consist of the counter-revolutionary prevention of a social one. Even if social transformation is to some degree achieved, a version of the old order may be restored under the sign of the new – the phenomenon known to Marxists and other revolutionaries as ‘Thermidor’.

The Thermidorian idea of counter-revolution also belongs, again to borrow from Traverso, to the ‘regime of historicity’ produced by the revolutionary traditions of 1789 and 1917. This ‘regime of historicity’ made it possible to conceive of oneself as a revolutionary (or to be conceived of as a counter-revolutionary) in relation to that event and its proclaimed successors. One could be a revolutionary – or a counter-revolutionary – outside of a revolutionary conflagration, provided one acted either to promote – or prevent – ‘the revolution’ in general. Revolution, in this sense, is an ongoing trend or movement at least in the epoch defined by such successful social revolutions as 1789 or 1917 and counter-revolution the policies that seek to reverse that trend – as, for example, repression of demonstrations, co-optation of leaders and so on. 

The idea is put most succinctly by the Left Marxist Karl Korsch opposing both the Stalinist and Fascist regimes of the 1930s. Counter-revolution meant:

counter-action of the united capitalist class against all that remains today of the results of that first great insurrection of the proletarian forces of war-torn Europe which culminated in the Russian October of 1917… [and at the] same time … a series of ‘preventive’ measures of the ruling minority against…new revolutionary dangers. 

Counter-revolution in this understanding extends throughout an entire historical period. It is the policy pursued by counter-revolutionaries, just as ‘revolution’ is the policy pursued regardless of the presence or absence of a revolutionary situation.

This regime of historicity is one we no longer inhabit. The counter-revolutions of the twenty-first century might be more properly referred to, following George Lawson, as ‘Burkean’, in honour of their foremost proponent. These are counter-revolutions both political and social, recalling the classic form of reaction to revolution as mass, transformative movement. Yet the world that anti-modern reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries once defended has long past. What explains, then, the paradoxical transformation of counter-revolution?



Revolution and the End of the Agrarian Question 

Arwa Salih, in her memoir of the Egyptian student movement of the 1970s, writes from a vantage point two decades later:

The laws that governed the eruption of revolutions through the beginning of the twentieth century have changed, as has the composition of the various social classes and their relative power. International capitalism seems to have learnt the lessons of those early revolutions better than everyone else and, with its vast resources, has become practically the sole architect of this dark era.

The idea that the late 1980s represented a ‘dark era’ would have seemed foreign to those who celebrated the apparent triumph of liberal democratising revolutions over Cold War authoritarianisms in the Eastern and Western bloc alike. Yet Salih was no apologist for the Stalinist regimes falling as she wrote these words. Like others on the Arab Left, however, she based her critique of those regimes – and the politics of her own youth – on the bedrock of revolutionary defeat rather than liberal victory. The ‘pious certitude’ of her comrades derived from the ‘continuing existence of the Soviet regime … that had once been inspired by a wave of worker revolutions in the capitalist West’. When this 

wave retreated, the glow of the first victorious socialist revolution disintegrated behind the iron curtain and bourgeois national-liberation movements of the third world – whose successes were built on the ruins of the communist movements – came to occupy the centre stage of world events. 

It is in the history of these bourgeois national liberation movements, and the broader process of uneven and combined development in which they were embedded, that the origins of present-day counter-revolution is to be found. All but one of the Arab regimes against which the revolutions erupted in 2011 had their origins in revolutions from above that transformed the agrarian and colonial social structures they inherited in the mid-twentieth century. The social consequences of bourgeois revolutions have already been achieved even where their agents were quite different in origin and ideology to the protagonists of the French in 1789. Any social revolution issuing against those consequences could therefore only come from below, not as a policy from above: as Brecht De Smet and Cemal Burak Tansel note, the revolutionary uprisings of 2011 did represented not ‘an attempt to “catch up”’ with the capitalist development of the core but rather embody a practical critique of capital in its ‘naked’ form.

This transformation changed the means by which counter-revolution could be carried out. Revolution places a dilemma before the counter-revolutionaries. For those at the core of the old regime, its hangers-on and beneficiaries, the premise of a revolutionary situation is precisely that the legitimacy of their rule has collapsed. If, as for Lenin, a revolution consists of a time in which the rulers can no longer rule in the old way and the ruled can no longer be ruled in the old way, counter-revolutionaries must establish a new basis for their old rule. They must build a counter-revolutionary political subject to contend with the revolutionary one. To bring the greatest likelihood of success, they must divide the revolutionaries and attract a part of them – or at least of their potential base of support – to their side. 

Arno Mayer, foremost historian of Europe’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century counter-revolutionaries, identifies an ‘anti-revolutionary triad’ of reactionaries, conservatives and counter-revolutionaries. Reactionaries (typically concentrated in the landed aristocracy and its associated intellectuals) seek a ‘retreat back into a [feudal] world both lost and regretted’, whereas conservatives seek the preservation or moderate amelioration of the status quo. Counter-revolutionaries, by contrast, revolutionise the content of reaction by adopting the methods of revolution: insurrectionary and extra-systemic, they actively seek a mass base amongst the déclassé and declining economic strata. The rise of revolutionary movements, embodied for Mayer in increasing workers’ organisation and the spread of socialist and communist ideas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, forced these three elements together, giving most initiative to the dynamic counter-revolutionaries.

The basis for this triad lies not, however, in the rather mechanical account Mayer gives of how the ‘old regime’ persisted in Europe until the twentieth century, but in the ‘uneven and combined’ nature of capitalist development or – as Ernst Bloch put it – ‘the simultaneity of the un-simultaneous’. Mayer’s argument that twentieth-century counter-revolution was based on the persistent power of pre-capitalist classes and institutions repeats and generalises the thesis of the so-called Sonderweg, the ‘special path’ traversed by Germany from Junker domination to Nazi Götterdämmerung. Yet the ‘special path’ was far from special. Rather, the path of revolution from above to achieve capitalist modernity – albeit in different forms of combination with pre-capitalist classes and relations – has been the general one. Its signposts have been marked by the simultaneous retention and sublation of pre-capitalist landed property, accompanied by relations of personal dependence and coercive power, in the defence of a nonetheless bourgeois social order.

Beyond those with a direct stake in the maintenance of the ancien regime, usually a far greater proportion of the population than the revolutionaries imagine, the historic bulwarks of support for counter-revolution – including outright opposition to political as well as social equality – have tended to come from the countryside and especially landlords or colonial settlers. Since the seminal work of Barrington Moore, landlords – especially landlords employing ‘labour-repressive’ forms of personalistic power and extra-economic coercion over the labourer – have been identified as the strongest opponents of democratic reform, and the staunchest supporters of counter-revolution. Such methods of labour control do not presuppose the ‘dual freedom’ of the labourer and hence the separation between social and political power central to ‘democratising’ revolutions: the freedom from the personal dominion of the landlord, and the freedom, or rather compulsion, to sell one’s labour power for wages. Moore’s claim has been challenged, and later modified by Michael Albertus to one that labour-dependent rather than labour-repressive agriculture is most commonly identified with landlord opposition to democracy. In either case, however, landlords who rely on the brute expansion of the labour force and intensification of their labour, rather than technical innovation or capital investment, held a particular affinity with the coercive and undemocratic states that allowed them access to that supply. To the counter-revolutionary landlords may be added the imperial administrations and settler-colonists who proved the most consistent counter-revolutionaries and against whom most of the anti-colonial revolutions of the twentieth century were waged.

Such classes formed the most consistent and coherent counter-revolutionaries from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, as well as the staff of the administrative and coercive state apparatuses called upon to suppress any general threat to social order. In revolutionary situations, the alliance of throne and altar – stiffened by the military bearing of high-ranking officers – was called upon by hitherto liberal or even social democratic political leaderships to fend off the levelling aspirations – material or juridical – of revolutionaries. In the most well-known historical example of the French Revolution, counter-revolution was most concentrated in the defence of old agrarian hierarchies and inequalities, even amongst those at the bottom of them: a matter of the resistance to revolutionary attacks on the existing social fabric of village communities, especially the church and the patriarchal family. In the prototypical case of the Vendée, large-scale revolts against the French revolutionary regimes of the 1790s were precipitated by peasant resistance to the intrusion of the new state into hitherto relatively autonomous rural communities, most provoked by the revolutionary attacks on the authority of the parish church. 

Even when embedded in wider global and national capitalist frameworks, the world of rural social hierarchy and its concomitant cultures of direct and coercive exploitation come into conflict with ideologies of liberal freedom and hence democratic revolution. This is the case even – or especially – where that freedom is racialised. Manisha Sinha demonstrates in The Counterrevolution of Slavery how the planter-ideologues of antebellum South Carolina developed a rigorously counter-revolutionary defence of unfree labour that challenged the ‘universal ideals of liberty, equality and democracy’ in the name of a general ‘norm of inequality’. 

The progeny of such social worlds continued, as Mayer amply demonstrates in The Persistence of the Old Regime, to provide the military and administrative apparatus of European states until the Second World War and in some cases after – a permanent bulwark against revolutionary transformation likely to be removed only by force of arms, hence generating recurrent bouts of revolutionary-counter-revolutionary civil war that characterised the continent’s history throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In settler and colonised societies, even where the colonists and administrators did not themselves hail from such backgrounds they exercised analogous forms of personal, paternalistic and direct power over the indigenous populations. 

In revolutionary situations leading to democratisation, as Rueschemeyer, Stephens and Stephens further demonstrate in their Capitalist Development and Democracy, the most historically repressive class coalition has been that of agrarian landlords and urban capitalists. Limited, parliamentary democracy (the potential outcome of a political revolution) has proven more palatable to wage-paying capitalists than ‘labour-dependent’ landlords because the legal and bodily freedom of the worker is both a consequence of the ‘dual freedom’ of workers to sell and to fail to sell their labour power, and allows for a degree of stability negotiated through formal or informal workers’ organisations. 

Coercive power is not absent from this relationship, of course, and in moments of crisis even bourgeoisies that have supported revolutionary movements tend to return to the counter-revolutionary fold when threatened by independent workers’ action. This alliance has extended even to the reformist leaderships of labour movements: the Freikorps militias that crushed the German revolution of 1918–19, thereby preserving the military-aristocratic caste at the heart of the imperial state, did so on the orders of Social Democrat leaders attacking their own rank-and-file. 

Yet the predominance of old agrarian ruling classes, albeit with urban middle-class allies, in the van of counter-revolution gave a particular character to the revolutionary cycles of the eighteenth to the twentieth century. The threat of equality, juridical or material, between landlord, tenant and peasant brought forth violent opposition from those most frequently in command of violence. As Jack Goldstone notes in his study of Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World, social revolutions that promote such forms of levelling and redistribution ‘raise more counter-revolutionary pressures’. From the response to these threats came codified ideologies of inequality and domination, which had hitherto required no explicit justification. ‘Where their predecessors in the old regime thought of inequality as a naturally occurring phenomenon’, writes Corey Robin, counter-revolutionaries learned ‘that the revolutionaries were right after all: inequality is a human creation’ that once unmade can also be remade. 

Hence the historical interlude between the French and Russian Revolutions witnessed a new phenomenon: mass ideologies and movements of counter-revolution, often racialised and ultra-nationalist in character. These movements typically drew support from rural areas, defending the pre-existing hierarchical social relations even as they were transformed through the nineteenth and twentieth century. They also promulgated a particular vision of the national community typically in the image of the imagined pre-lapsarian past – an agrarian, devout, religiously and linguistically homogeneous community presided over by a stable hierarchy of power. 

If labour-repressive landlords and colonial administrations are the most consistently anti-democratic and counter-revolutionary force in revolutionary situations, albeit with urban middle class allies, which social force has played the opposite role? Contrary to the assumptions of much of the democratic transition literature that a rather vaguely defined ‘middle class’ produces liberal democratic outcomes – an inheritance of the idea of political democracy as the outcome of bourgeois revolutions – large cross-case comparison demonstrates that the most consistent force pushing for democracy has been the organised urban working class. Organised workers have both an interest in general inclusion of the lower social strata to which they belong and the mobilisational capacity to demand that inclusion. 

Anti-colonial revolutions, such as those that produced the Arab republics that experienced the uprisings of 2011, both partook in and changed this history. These were most often directed against two kinds of enemy: landlords and colonial administrations, frequently the same thing. With the partial exception of the Russian Revolution, the transformative revolutions of the twentieth century – in China, Cuba, Mexico, Algeria and Vietnam – were ‘peasant wars’: rebellions against agrarian domination and for a wider distribution of land. At the heart of these conflicts lay the aspiration to escape the coercive power exercised by large landowners, either directly over sharecroppers and tenants or indirectly through the concentration of holdings: colonial racial distinctions between, for example, the colons and Muslims in French-ruled Algeria, revolved around access to land.

Landlords lost the peasant wars, although it is far from certain that peasants won them. Where anti-colonial nationalist movements took power in their wake, they generally achieved the liquidation of the agrarian ancien regime, indigenous or foreign. Rural direct producers were freed from their previous bonds in order to participate in industrialised wage labour, although the degree of such industrialisation varied greatly across countries. Nonetheless, land reform comprised the centrepiece of most strategies of national development in the post-colonial world. In the second half of the twentieth century, land reform programmes affected around 1.5 billion people, as recorded by Albertus in Autocracy and Redistribution. Whether by revolutionary victory or reformist adaptation designed to stave off such victory, the world of domination on the land passed largely into history. Land reform was followed, under neoliberal development models, by the global financialisation of landed assets, which made landowner interests more liquid and therefore less threatened by seizure. Neither landlords nor the rural poor disappeared, but the relationships that led to violent social transformation attempted by the latter and resisted by the former no longer prevailed even in the Global South: these were struggles over land, to be sure, but lacking, writes Henry Bernstein, the ‘systemic … significance’ of the classic agrarian question, which meant the dispossession of ‘classes of predatory pre-capitalist landed property’. 

By the turn of the twentieth century, then, the most familiar counter-revolutionary actors, hereditary or semi-hereditary landlords employing extra-economic coercion, had largely disappeared. The Arab anti-colonial revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s were responsible for this outcome in the region. The ‘agrarian question’ – what to do about both the peasantry and ‘predatory landed property’ – had been solved, or at least displaced by other issues of inequality of land, lack of investment in rural areas and so on. This shift had enormous consequences for revolution and counter-revolution. The classic sites of Skocpol’s social revolutions, semi-peripheral agrarian empires, ceased to exist: in 1961, the world population was two-thirds rural and one-third urban; by the beginning of the twenty-first century, the proportions were equal, with the crossover point reached and surpassed decades before in many countries. According to Mark Beissinger’s historical database of revolutionary episodes, 61 per cent of revolutions were primarily ‘rural’ in their locus before 1979; after 1979, they were 61 per cent urban. 

This urbanisation was accompanied in many, though not all, states by increased proletarianisation, providing the social basis for the liberal democratising revolutions of the late twentieth century. Before 1975 – again relying upon Albertus – the presence of ‘labour-dependent landowners’ is strongly correlated with undemocratic regimes and with the collapse or overthrow of democracies. After 1975 this correlation disappears or reverses into a weakly positive effect on democratisation. This change offers a concrete example of the shrinking horizons of social mobilisation: landlords were willing to support, as a fall-back measure, democracies that would guarantee stability and property rather than threaten those interests and which they sought to shape to provide such guarantees. The new life-worlds of urban migrants – closely interconnected with each other, with far higher degrees of literacy and concentrated near sites of governmental power – promoted Beissinger’s ‘urban civic’ repertoire of protest associated with the democratising revolutions. An even stronger source of popular power lay in the growth of working classes and their organisational muscle, as trade unions and other working-class organisations followed the same path as their European forebearers in demanding democratic rights as well as wage increases. Of course, by no means all the cases of democratic revolution studied featured organised labour as their moving force, but the component ‘waves’ of democratisation from the earlier 1970s to the turn of the century clustered around core cases that did. 

These changes underpinned the so-called ‘democratic revolutions’ of the late twentieth century. These were received not with counter-revolutionary hostility but welcoming acceptance by the dominant states in the international system, most of all the US. The victory of the latter over its Soviet competitor reflected in part this transformation. The Arab world appeared a lone hold-out to the liberal democratic wave, a recalcitrance used as the justification for the doctrine of regime change by force adopted by the Bush administration. For this reason, the 2011 uprisings were initially assimilated either to the understanding of regime change under continuing US dominance of the region or to the model of liberal democratising revolution – rather than to fall to competing authoritarian counter-revolution.

Within this system at the apogee of US domination and proclaimed liberal world order – roughly between 1979 and 2010 – the contours of competitive international counter-revolution were being shaped. By the early 2000s the Arab regimes had become, in Lisa Wedeen’s terms, forms of ‘neoliberal autocracy’ combining continued coercive power with ‘desires for market freedom, upward mobility and consumer pleasure’. Urbanising but only rarely industrialising under the neoliberal model, they attracted millions of migrants to cities wherein they could secure only precarious access to wage labour at best. Their ruling core was no longer composed of the revolutionary military officers, typically of lower middle-class origin, who had pursued the post-colonial revolution from above, but of new composite financial-security elites. These new ruling classes were connected to global markets, not disconnected from them – in many cases directly incorporating Gulf capital. These, rather than the agrarian-bourgeois-middle class coalitions of nineteenth-century Europe, would form the core of the counter-revolutionary project.

These global transformations in political economy underpinned the period of liberal democratising revolutions and US predominance that began, not coincidentally, around 1975. At the apogee of this moment, around the turn of the millennium and the US invasion of Iraq, US domination of the region under the banner of ‘regime change’ appeared near complete: a hierarchical relationship to which even notionally anti-imperialist states such as Syria and Libya had to adapt, further deepening the programmes of neoliberal reform. Yet beneath this umbrella of US domination, fissures were emerging. The occupation of Iraq eroded rather than strengthened the US position in the region, enabling a greater role for Iran in both its neighbour and the wider Middle East. Meanwhile, as a consequence of their linkage to global markets through oil rent, a class of Gulf capitalists came to interpenetrate all of the ruling classes of the Arab states. When the uprisings began in 2011, these developments would provide for a competitive rather than singular form of counter-revolution and one that was not solely dependent on the US.

The very transformations wrought in and between Arab societies after the Cold War, atomising and disorganising the social forces most favourable to overturning authoritarian regimes while establishing new regional bonds among competing ruling classes, proved propitious for the counter-revolutionary project. 

How, then, were these counter-revolutions carried out? In Egypt, the counter-revolution occurred by the traditional means of military coup followed by a vigorous campaign of arrest, torture and massacre – first directed against the Muslim Brotherhood, then against wider circles of opposition. The co-ordinating core of the military state, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was able to rely on the heritage of state-led revolution from above to split the revolutionary coalition and bring a part of it over to support their counter-revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood’s willingness in power to suppress the ongoing revolutionary movement added to the counter-revolution.

In Tunisia, such an outcome was avoided only by the political participation and return at the ballot box of the counter-revolutionaries, the azlam (counter-revolutionary remnants) of Nidaa Tounes who formed an administration in coalition with their erstwhile Islamist opponents, Ennahda. The azlam relied on a similar appeal to secularist nationalism against Ennahda, again drawing on a previous revolution from above that had transformed agrarian relations. The strength of the workers’ movement, however, allowed it to broker a compromise between the two cemented by shared economic policies. 

In both cases, counter-revolution from without operated mainly through financial and diplomatic support but was primarily divided between the Saudi-GCC axis, aiming to prevent any form of popular representative democracy as represented in their view by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Qatari-Turkish axis, likewise seeking to profit from such political revolutions but prevent social ones.

In two cases, Syria and Bahrain, the existing regimes were able to isolate and crush the revolutionary uprisings, albeit at great cost. In Syria, this consisted of an all-out war by the regime against the territories liberated from its control, combined with a massive campaign of arrests, tortures and assassinations of the original revolutionary activists and the release of Islamist insurgents who would sectarianise the revolt. In Syria the regime was less sure of a popular basis but was able to suture the support of many non-Sunnis to the pre-2011 coalition of a new bourgeoisie embedded in the security apparatus and most of the older Sunni business class: a cross-sectarian elite to which sectarianisation nonetheless proved a useful counter-revolutionary strategy.

In Bahrain, the Khalifas adopted a scaled-down version of this policy, complete with the semi-military occupation of restive Shi’a villages, but only once assured the support of the occupying forces of the GCC. The Bahraini monarchy relied upon far more open sectarian mobilisation of Sunnis, bolstered by the outside help of the GCC. In both countries, counter-revolution from without was particularly salient: in Syria a three-fold competition between a Russian-Iranian-Hizbollah axis supporting the regime; and an opposing camp divided by Saudi and Qatari-Turkish loyalties. The US vacillated between the first and second axis – American policy in Syria was a symptom not of US hegemony, but decline. In the case of Bahrain, a relatively straightforward direct intervention by GCC forces under Saudi leadership was necessary to put an end to the revolutionary situation.

In Yemen and Libya, neither revolution nor counter-revolution triumphed; instead, this sequence led to state collapse. In Yemen, the unresolved grievances of the unification and civil war of the 1990s were overlaid with a sectarian understanding that transformed the difference between the Shafe’i and Zaydi schools of jurisprudence into a ‘sectarian conflict’ seen through the gaze of Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Tehran. In overwhelmingly Sunni Libya, tribal networks (and to some extent ‘ethnicity’) offered a means of mobilisation for militias on both sides of the civil war, although only Field Marshal Haftar claimed the mantle of the ‘Libyan National Army’ and pre-2011 command structure. 

In both of these states, competitive external intervention again played a crucial role. In Libya, the NATO bombing campaign aided the overthrow and eventual murder of Gaddafi but then produced a division between those who wanted, on an Islamist model, completely to restructure the Libyan state and those who wanted partially to preserve or revive it: the latter coalescing around the counterrevolutionary officer Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. In Yemen, a counterrevolutionary settlement was found under GCC auspices that would in effect preserve the old regime while sidelining Ali Abdallah Saleh – resulting in the paradoxical outcome that at least some of those opposing the old regime ended up (temporarily) on the same side as its former figurehead.

There did emerge two separate attempts at remaking a ‘revolutionary’ state in Northern Syria: the autonomous administration of ‘Rojava’ ruled by the PYD and the ‘caliphate’ of the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham. The first was the closest thing to a social revolution to have emerged from the uprisings, but was fatally flawed by its separation from the wider Syrian uprising. Although its project of a universal, novel, violent transformation resembles that of previous revolutions, ISIS both lacked the popular base that (outside of liberal ideology) characterised those revolutions and actively suppressed that popular revolutionary movement to the benefit – if not always the connivance – of the Assad regime. Indeed ISIS’ success was inconceivable without the counterrevolutionary strategy of the regime it nominally opposed, and the sectarianisation of the Syrian uprising that resulted from it. 



This Incomprehensible Agent

Traverso’s history of revolution contains this dictum from Joseph de Maistre, the most rigorous of all counter-revolutionaries: 

All greatness, all power, all subordination, rests on the executioner. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world and in a moment, order gives way to chaos, thrones fall, and society disappears. God, who is the author of sovereignty, is therefore also the author of punishment.

Counter-revolution is the ideology of the scharfrichter. Not for the first time, it is revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries who understand most clearly the stakes in their contest. We who would abolish greatness, power, and subordination must seek to comprehend this agent, the better to defeat him. We may not get another chance.



JAMIE ALLINSON teaches politics and international relations at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of The Age of Counter-Revolution: States and Revolutions in the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2022).