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 can 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 appeal to a liberation ideology for a revolution against the status quo. 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 often create dictatorships that distort the original ideology (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 slavery, or from Castro to Khomeini to the Arab Spring. Fidel Castro, like all the revolutionaries, was a freedom fighter for his people, he declared just after the revolution that he would have started finally democracy in Cuba (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjpnfDwWd7Y) but then became another Prince, the enlightened tyrant who wrongly believes in the utopia, that a society can be guided for good with the authoritarian imposition top down for the good of the people. But the democratic failure of Cuban revolution was not alone in the 20th century. This revolutionary downfall can be considered for the Communist world what the Iranian revolution has been for the Islamic world. Actually Hobsbawn speaks about the failures of state communism, free market capitalism, and nationalism in the 20th century, but he forgot about Islamism.
So revolutions are important for the self-determination of people in the short term but they are not enough for their democratic flourishing in the long term. As we political scientists knows, it is the constant and progressive reforms towards a democratic system what 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 ven if he failed he opened the space on the right track: after Putin that track will have to be retaken if Russia wants to go towards democracy, modernization and development. Same for China, Cuba, Venezuela, and their socialist regimes, or Iran after the end of Ayatollah regime one day, as well as the other Islamic Republics and the countries that failed 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 the 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. As Castro said “ideas don’t need arms if they convince masses”, but also: “who doesn’t believe in the human being is not a revolutionary”. So today we need new non armed revolutions, revolution of ideas, to face the fast approaching of the future and the risk for the human societies to become more divided, unequal and dictatorial. Inequality and exclusion are the cancer of democracy and to overcome them we will have to make political, economic and social reforms, starting from civic education, efficient bureaucracy, and a moderate government intervention.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 liberal representative democracies more legitimate, efficient and sustainable in the long run and a globalized world. We need new leaders and new intellectuals, but also empowered individuals, 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).