Stephen Chan: Political thought on the just rebel­lion, part 7. The man on horse­back. This is a cel­e­brat­ed phrase, the man on horse­back.” It was in fact invent­ed by the German philoso­pher Hegel. Hegel was a young lec­tur­er at a German uni­ver­si­ty at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. And the French armies were lay­ing siege to his city and he had to evac­u­ate. And he wrote to his friends after­wards, say­ing, I have seen the future. The future comes on horse­back.” Meaning the con­quer­ing armies of Napoleon. Meaning the con­quer­ing armies of Napoleon that by means of mil­i­tary force were bring­ing new con­sti­tu­tion­al orders to Europe, bring­ing with these new con­sti­tu­tion­al orders echoes of the val­ues of the French Revolution. Values to do with the equal­i­ty of all humanity.

This was some­thing new in a Europe that was mod­ern­iz­ing but at the same time had huge dis­crep­an­cies in terms of the lev­els of cit­i­zen­ship, the lev­els of obe­di­ence owed to sov­er­eigns, the lev­els of sub­servience that peo­ple in the low­er class­es had to give to sov­er­eigns. The idea of an equal­i­ty brought by mil­i­tary con­quest, this was very very much sum­ma­rized in Hegel’s phrase of the future on horse­back. The man on horse­back, the mil­i­tary con­queror who brings new con­sti­tu­tion­al order. 

The Man on Horseback became the title of Samuel Finer’s famous book about mil­i­tary coups. And to this day that book remains the sem­i­nal text for how we study what is called civ­il mil­i­tary rela­tions. But there’s a fun­da­men­tal dif­fi­cul­ty with using Samuel Finer’s book, and that is it’s A, a very very old book; B, it came out before most African coun­tries achieved inde­pen­dence, or were very ear­ly into the years of inde­pen­dence; and C, almost all of the case exam­ples that Finer used were drawn from Latin American countries.

The idea of the banana repub­lic mil­i­tary ruler, the banana repub­lic gen­er­al, was an image that took root. It was trans­ferred very very read­i­ly to Africa, for instance, where the arche­type of the banana repub­lic buf­foon dic­ta­tor in mil­i­tary uni­form became Idi Amin of Uganda, it became Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic, which he called the Central African Empire.

But when we look more objec­tive­ly at the phe­nom­e­non of mil­i­tary rule, it’s prob­a­bly bet­ter to start in terms of Europe and its own recent his­to­ry. If you look back to just the 1960s, then you will see that Portugal, Spain, Greece had long peri­ods of mil­i­tary rule. These were regard­ed as peri­ods of right-wing total­i­tar­i­an mil­i­tary rule, times of great sup­pres­sion of free­doms, times when polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion was impos­si­ble if it stood against the order imposed by the mil­i­tary rulers.

This seems like a dark hour for Europe, but in fact it was a very very recent hour. And of course the inter­est­ing thing is that Portugal was able to be freed of some of the mil­i­tary yoke in the 1970s pre­cise­ly because of a mil­i­tary coup against a mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment, but in this case orga­nized by younger offi­cers who had new ideas more in accord with the moder­ni­ty of their day. And it was because of their actions that Portugal began to decol­o­nize in Africa, that Portugal who up to that point in time was regard­ed as the sick coun­try of Europe began to mod­ern­ize and devel­op to the coun­try that it is today.

And that was accom­pa­nied by a moment of mil­i­tary ide­al­ism. So, looked at from that per­spec­tive there’s more than one demeanor that could be asso­ci­at­ed with mil­i­tary rule. And in fact when you look at great mod­ern­iz­ing moments in the 20th cen­tu­ry, you look at the move­ment of the free offi­cers in Egypt led by Nasser, at a stroke began the process of mod­ern­iz­ing the coun­try. When you look at what hap­pened in Turkey, the upris­ing led by Atatürk at a stroke began the mod­ern­iza­tion, the devel­op­ment, and the sec­u­lar­iza­tion of Turkey. Of course you had a some­what less for­tu­nate demeanor of this kind of phe­nom­e­non in places like Iraq and Syria. But there is more than one way of look­ing at mil­i­tary rule. 

But why is it so com­mon, whether of a right-wing or left-wing, whether of a pro­gres­sive or repres­sive nature, why is mil­i­tary rule so com­mon in almost every sin­gle part of the world? You have dif­fer­ent kinds of mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment. You could say the People’s Republic of China was born of mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment because of mil­i­tary con­quest in the great civ­il war that end­ed in 1949. And you could cer­tain­ly say that gov­ern­ments in Africa today such as in Zimbabwe were the prod­uct of mil­i­tary vic­to­ry in strug­gles for lib­er­a­tion. Not every­thing that’s come out of those strug­gles has been ben­e­fi­cial, but a mixed record at very best, some of which has been very very good. 

But the ques­tion that most vex­es com­men­ta­tors when they look at civil/military rela­tions is not the moment of lib­er­a­tion when an armed strug­gle was per­haps jus­ti­fied, it is what hap­pens when in what seems like a sta­ble civil­ian regime of long stand­ing, the army ris­es up. And this is where the­o­rists have been very very vexed as to how best to account for this phe­nom­e­non. People have writ­ten very very large tracts of very often unhelp­ful work to do with what they regard as a cer­tain mil­i­tary con­di­tion. Someone like Samuel Huntington wrote about weak­ness in soci­ety on the civil­ian side of things, and this weak­ness auto­mat­i­cal­ly draws in the strength of orga­ni­za­tion of the mil­i­tary. The weak­ness of gov­ern­ment cre­ates a vac­u­um, which the mil­i­tary with its strength, fills.

This is a very very neat account, it’s a very sym­met­ri­cal account, it is an account which could only have been writ­ten by a North American aca­d­e­m­ic. Because of course what hap­pens in soci­eties where both the civil­ian gov­ern­ment and the mil­i­tary are week insti­tu­tions? Where the mil­i­tary is weak­ly orga­nized and it’s only advan­tage over the civil­ian admin­is­tra­tion is that the mil­i­tary has got weapons? So by force of arms they can achieve a takeover of gov­ern­ment, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly bring any fur­ther strength to that gov­ern­ment and to its prospects of run­ning the coun­try for the bet­ter­ment of its citizens. 

All the same, we are look­ing now at an era where mil­i­tary gov­ern­ments are on the wane. They’re dis­ap­proved in Africa—the African Union no longer tol­er­ates them, or tries its best not to tol­er­ate them. You can­not be a mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment and attain mem­ber­ship of the Commonwealth, for instance. You have to leave if you’re very very much involved in tak­ing over the gov­ern­ment by mil­i­tary means.

But mil­i­tary strong­men remain very firm­ly in the back­ground of many coun­tries. Probably the prime exam­ple of that as we speak at this moment in time is what’s hap­pen­ing in Burma. Even should there be vic­to­ry announced for Aung San Suu Kyi and her par­ty after so many years of strug­gle, even if it’s declared that she has won the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of seats, even so, by right the mil­i­tary will hold 25% of the seats in the Burmese—or the Myanmar—parliament. They will there­fore move from being the pow­er on the throne to the pow­er behind the throne. 

Or, you can have the exam­ple, as in Egypt, of President Sisi. The gen­er­al takes off his uni­form. The gen­er­al puts on civil­ian dress. The gen­er­al ger­ry­man­ders an elec­tion, declares that he is the pres­i­dent by nor­mal process­es, but has the army in reserve. 

The era of naked mil­i­tary gov­ern­ments may have passed. The era of mil­i­tary fig­ures, with mil­i­tary might, hold­ing pow­er in reserve, that era is still very very firm­ly with us today.

Further Reference

Course infor­ma­tion

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.