Eric Hobsbawm defined the 19th century as “The Long Nineteenth Century”, starting in 1789 and ending in 1914, and the 20th century as the “The Short Twentieth Century”, from 1914 to 1991. In reality also the 20th century could be considered a “long century”, at least in its conception and its heritage: we can say that it started in 1865, with the civil war and the end of slavery in America (the strongest democratic step since its independence for the most powerful country of 20th century) and ended definitely in 2016, when an American President visited Cuba, 88 years after the last one, and Fidel Castro died, almost 60 years after its Cuban Revolution. These events marked the final end of the ideological cold war, the planetary confrontation between capitalism and communism, which represented the history of the second part of 20th century.
All people under oppression appealed to a liberation ideology for a revolution against the status quo since the beginning of times. Revolutions bring dignity and self-determination to people, and they have been liberating people from oppression in every corner of the planet. But revolutions in their aftermath has difficulty to realize the dream of a idealistic society and they risk to even distort the original ideals (sometimes as a need to defend from external attacks) and build authoritarian regimes, as history shows from French revolution with Napoleon dictatorship to American Revolution with black slavery, from Iranian revolution to the Arab Spring. Fidel Castro, like all the revolutionaries, was a freedom fighter for his people, and actually he declared just after the revolution that he would have started finally a democracy in Cuba (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjpnfDwWd7Y) but then became another Prince, the enlightened tyrant who believes in the utopia that a society can be guided from top down for the good of the people. Actually while many Cuban policies had good effect, like high levels of public education and health, the development of the country for the end of people poverty failed, in particular after the end of the Soviet Union. So today the Cuban regime needs to find a new model, may be the Chinese one with state capitalism, if it wants to survive.
The revolutions are important for the self-determination of people in the short term but they are not enough for their democratic and economic flourishing in the long term. As we political scientists knows, it is the constant and progressive reforms towards an inclusive and empowering economic and political system that brings real human liberation in the history of humankind. Gorbacev attempted to reform Sovietic communism to make it more legitimate, efficient and sustainable as ideology and system, and even if he failed he opened the space on the right track. When Putin will die (as it seems that he will not leave the power before that) that path will have to be retaken if Russia wants to go towards real modernization and development. Same for Cuba after the end of the old guard, or Iran, after the end of Ayatollah regime, as well as the other countries that failed to democratize with the Arab Spring or are still monarchies like Saudi Arabia.
This doesn’t meant though that all countries have to follow exactly the Western style liberal democracies for a future of “End of history”, as Fukuyama believed. Actually culture matters and also the liberal representative democracies of the Western world will need reforms to survive and flourish anyway. Democracy and human liberation, equality and inclusion are never ending processes, as we can see from the Roman Republic two millennia and half ago to the election of Trump in a divided democratic American society. And, most important, democracy and human liberation has to be authoctonous, coming from an internal evolution of a country, with its traditional systems, cultural elements and historical approaches. There is no one solution fits it all, as the “one person one vote” of the universal suffrage is an historical evolution of European individual rights against the old tyranny of the nobility, but other geographies and histories have to develop their own way of social contract and political representation, that could be more communitarian than individualistic.
As Castro said once “ideas don’t need arms if they convince masses” and also “who doesn’t believe in the human being is not a revolutionary”. So we need to have faith in human beings to change the status quo for a better future and to do that today we don’t need arms if we have ideas: armed revolutions are a tool of the past, when people had less power of today, when we can use education and technology, as we saw with the Arab Spring and we can see in Cuba already with the arrival of internet. Today what we need are new unarmed revolutions, that is “revolutions of ideas”, both in democracies and in autocracies, to face the fast and complex globalization and the risk for the human societies to become more divided, unequal and chaotic. Inequality and exclusion are the cancer of democracies as well as autocracies and to overcome them we will have to make in Western democracies as in non-Western autocracies many political, economic and social reforms, to reach a higher civic education, a more inclusive development, and a more effective governance. We need new ideas and forms to reduce economic inequality, minorities’ exclusion and extreme polarization. We need to fight the risk of populism and make democracies more efficient and sustainable in the long run and autocracies more open societies in a globalized world. We need new leaders and new intellectuals, but also empowered masses, for revolutions of ideas more than armed revolutions.
If Hobsbawn might have been wrong in the definition of “Short Century” he was right on the risks for the future. As he said: “If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millennium on that basis, we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is the alternative to a changed society, is darkness.” (The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991, 1994).