So You Want to Overthrow the State: Ten Questions for Aspiring Revolutionaries

A professor at Washington and Lee University is offering a writing seminar called “How to Overthrow the State,” which “place(s) each student at the head of a popular revolutionary movement aiming to overthrow a sitting government and forge a better society.” Students are charged with writing their own revolutionary manifesto in light of readings from revolutionaries like Che Guevara. The right-wing outrage machine, as you can imagine, is feasting on it and offering it as an example of the radical takeover of higher education.

Do I have the facts straight? Karl Marx said that “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” I doubt very much that you will know which changes you need to make if you don’t have a very good idea about your starting point. In his book Factfulness and in his many excellent online presentations, the late Swedish Professor of International Health Hans Rosling identifies a lot of the ways things have gotten better, especially for the world’s poorest.

Suppose, for example, that you encounter the name “Milton Friedman,” perhaps in connection with lamented “neoliberalism” and maybe in connection with human rights abuses perpetrated by the brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Friedman has been denounced as the “father of global misery,” and his reputation has taken another beating in the wake of the fiftieth anniversary of his 1970 New York Times Magazine essay “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” which I suspect most people haven’t read past its title. But what happened during “The Age of Milton Friedman,” as the economist Andrei Shleifer asked in a 2009 article? Shleifer points out that “Between 1980 and 2005, as the world embraced free market policies, living standards rose sharply, while life expectancy, educational attainment, and democracy improved and absolute poverty declined.” Things have never been so good, and they are getting better, especially for the world’s poor.

In 2008, there was a bit of controversy over the establishment of the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago, which operates today as the Becker Friedman Institute (it is also named for Friedman’s fellow Chicago economist Gary Becker). In a blistering reply to a protest letter signed by a group of faculty members at the University of Chicago, the economist John Cochrane wrote, “If you start with the premise that the last 40 or so years, including the fall of communism, and the opening of China and India are ‘negative for much of the world’s population,’ you just don’t have any business being a social scientist. You don’t stand a chance of contributing something serious to the problems that we actually do face.” Nor, might I add, do you stand much of a chance of concocting a revolutionary program that will actually help the people you’re trying to lead.

What makes me so sure I won’t replace the existing regime with something far worse? I might hesitate to push the aforementioned button because while the world we actually inhabit is far from perfect, it’s not at all clear that deleting the state overnight wouldn’t mean civilization’s wholesale and maybe even perpetual collapse. At the very least, I would want to think long and hard about it. The explicit mention of Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara in the course description suggest that students will be approaching revolutionary ideas from the left. They should look at the results of populist revolutions in 20th century Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The blood of many millions starved and slaughtered in efforts to “forge a better society” cries out against socialism and communism, and macroeconomic populism in Latin America has been disastrous. As people have pointed out when told that “democratic socialists” aren’t trying to turn their countries into Venezuela, Venezuelans weren’t trying to turn their country into Venezuela when they embraced Hugo Chavez. I wonder why we should expect WLU’s aspiring revolutionaries to succeed where so many others have failed.