“The revolutionary’s Utopia, which in appearance represents a complete break with the past, is always modeled on some image of the lost Paradise, of a legendary Golden Age,” wrote Arthur Koestler in a 1949 essay on his painful disillusionment with the Soviet Union. Koestler was a Hungarian communist intellectual who had been passionately committed to the cause, but later rebelled against the party over Joseph Stalin’s abuses. His essay was part of a collection of writings called “The God that Failed,” published by disaffected communists who had been forced to grapple with what appeared to be the failure of their revolution, as it veered into Stalinism.
“It [is] true that in the face of revolting injustice the only honorable attitude is to revolt, and to leave introspection for better times,” Koestler reflected. “But if we survey history and compare the lofty aims, in the name of which revolutions were started, and the sorry end to which they came, we see again and again how a polluted civilization pollutes its own revolutionary offspring.”
Looking back on the Arab Spring revolutions of the past decade, these sorry ends are not hard to find. These revolutions are also commonly judged to have “failed,” after briefly capturing the world’s imagination in 2011 when they first broke out. But the same set of circumstances that led to the uprisings in the first place continue to exist. And the ways in which different revolutionary movements failed are important, with relevant implications looking forward.
Among the revolutionaries there was a democratic trend that included liberal activists, nationalists, and Islamist groups willing to engage in the electoral process. Alongside the democrats was a violent, wildly utopian religious movement launched by groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda that tried to destroy Muslim societies and recreate them as a “caliphate” — an imaginary community where all the world’s Muslims would ostensibly live happily-ever-after under the rule of jihadis.
The democratic movements were largely crushed by the brutal response of local dictators. The jihadis, meanwhile, briefly managed to achieve a version of their caliphate, only to see it destroyed in a final cataclysm. But while the core idea that animated the Arab democrats continues to be attractive despite its repression, the utopian project of the jihadis has been undermined in critical ways by its failure.
The idea of a “caliphate” today looks like just another modern radical movement that promised a new paradise on earth, before violently destroying itself and its adherents.