You Say You Want a Revolution

Perhaps no journalist can match Polish writer Ryszard KapuściÅ„ski’s reporting on revolutions around the world. His analyses of political change remain as relevant now as they did in his lifetime. As Libya teeters on the brink of regime change, we revisit one of KapuściÅ„ski’s best books, Shah of Shahs, a classic account of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The causes of a revolution are usually sought in objective conditions – general poverty, oppression, scandalous abuses. But this view, while correct, is one-sided. After all, such conditions exist in a hundred countries, but revolutions erupt rarely. What is needed is the consciousness of poverty and the consciousness of oppression, and the conviction that poverty and oppression are not the natural order of this world. It is curious that in this case, experience in and of itself, no matter how painful, does not suffice. The indispensable catalyst is the word, the explanatory idea. More than petards or stilettoes, therefore, words – uncontrolled words, circulating freely, underground, rebelliously, not gotten up in dress uniforms, uncertified – frighten tyrants. But sometimes it is the official, uniformed, certified words that bring about the revolution.

Revolution must be distinguished from revolt, coup d'état, palace takeover. A coup or a palace takeover may be planned, but a revolution – never. Its outbreak, the hour of that outbreak, takes everyone, even those who have been striving for it, unawares. They stand amazed at the spontaneity that appears suddenly and destroys everything in its path. It demolishes so ruthlessly that in the end it may annihilate the ideals that called it into being. […]

As for the technique of the struggle, history knows two types of revolution. The first is revolution by assault, the second revolution by siege. […] In a revolution by assault, the first phase is the most radical. The subsequent phases are a slow but incessant withdrawal to the point at which the two sides, the rebelling and the rebelled-against, reach the final compromise. A revolution by siege is different; here the first strike is usually weak and we can hardly surmise that it forebodes a cataclysm. But events soon gather speed and become dramatic. More and more people take part. The walls behind which authority has been sheltering crack and then burst. The success of a revolution by siege depends on the determination of the rebels, on their will power and endurance. In the end, the gates yield, the crowd breaks in and celebrates its triumph.

Colonel Gaddafi on a 2009 state visit to Italy, alongside one of his military advisers and Italian President Berlusconi, via Libero Liberos/Flickr

Colonel Gaddafi on a 2009 state visit to Italy, alongside one of his military advisers and Italian President Berlusconi, via Libero Liberos/Flickr

It is authority that provokes revolution. Certainly, it does not do so consciously. Yet its style of life and way of ruling finally becomes a provocation. This occurs when a feeling of impunity takes root among the elite: We are allowed anything, we can do anything. This is a delusion, but it rests on a certain rational foundation. For a while it does indeed look as if they can do whatever they want. Scandal after scandal and illegality after illegality go unpunished. The people remain silent, patient, wary. They are afraid and do not yet feel their own strength. At the same time they keep a detailed account of the wrongs, which at one particular moment are to be added up. The choice of that moment is the greatest riddle known to history. Why did it happen on that day, and not on another? Why did this event, and not some other, bring it about? After all, the government was indulging in even worse excesses only yesterday, and there was no reaction at all. […]

All books about all revolutions begin with a chapter that describes the decay of tottering authority or the misery and sufferings of the people. They should begin with a psychological chapter, one that shows how a harassed, terrified man suddenly breaks his terror, stops being afraid. This unusual process, sometimes accomplished in an instant like a shock or a lustration, demands illuminating. Man gets rid of fear and feels free. Without that there would be no revolution.

Excerpts taken from pages 103 to 111 of Shah of Shahs (1982), translated by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand, Vintage International 1992 edition.

The Wheeler Centre will present a panel on the Arab Spring in partnership with the Melbourne Festival on Thursday, 20 October, at the Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre. It’s part of our series, ‘You Say You Want a Revolution’.

Read an extended biography of Ryszard KapuściÅ„ski at

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