Skip to main content

books Fareed Zakaria’s Speed Date With the Liberal World Order

In “Age of Revolutions,” the CNN host promises to shed light on four centuries of social upheavals and to offer insights on the global fractures of the present.

Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash From 1600 to the Present
Fareed Zakaria
ISBN-13: 978-0393239232

Covering 424 years of revolutions in a couple hundred pages is an ambitious undertaking. That is nonetheless what Fareed Zakaria, the Washington Post foreign affairs columnist and CNN host, seeks to do in “Age of Revolutions,” a chronicle of the civil upheavals that have led societies around the world to seek new kinds of politics.

By one scholarly count there have been more than 160 major revolutions over just the last two centuries alone — so what to cover? Zakaria solves that problem the old-fashioned way, by writing mainly about Britain, the United States and France (Holland has a cameo).

Consequently, while the book opens with a quote from “The Communist Manifesto,” some readers might be surprised to find that the communist revolutions are not part of this history of revolution. Nor, for that matter, is the Haitian slave rebellion, Mahatma Gandhi’s anticolonial independence movement or any of the fascist takeovers.

There are some advantages to this approach. It gives Zakaria, a lively writer and good storyteller, room for amusing asides — Robespierre standing atop a plaster mountain in a feathered sash, trying desperately to promote his deistic cult of the Supreme Being; Britain debuting its first intercity train in 1830, an event that was marred when a legislator who had championed the train was run over by it.

The omission is even stranger, because “Age of Revolutions” implicitly adopts the Marxist view that material economic change drives history from the similarly titled “The Age of Revolution,” by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm. Case in point: Zakaria skips the American Revolution, which he argues did little to “transform society’s deeper structures,” and focuses instead on the first and second Industrial Revolutions, in Britain and the United States.

Focus can be fruitful. It might show, for instance, how new economic realities (advances in navigation technology made global trade easier) change who can most easily accrue power (merchants). But Zakaria also wants his history to serve as an explicit guide to present-day challenges, and that’s where he runs into some trouble.

Zakaria is most interested in the apparent retreat of classical liberalism in the face of “illiberal forces” now spreading through countries like Hungary and Brazil. The key to reversing this trend, he says, lies in understanding what motivates revolutions. His history runs on two kinds of revolutionary “plotlines,” one founded in liberalism and the other in illiberalism. Liberalism is propelled by “progress, growth, disruption, revolution in the sense of radical advance,” and illiberalism feeds on “regression, restriction, nostalgia, revolution in the sense of returning to the past.”

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

When it comes to the actual history, however, Zakaria’s simple distinctions collapse. The French revolutionaries were forward-thinking: They sought progress, growth and disruption. But Zakaria suggests that their revolution was ultimately “illiberal,” partly because its ideals were imposed from above and abstract, a hidden sand trap he introduces, apparently to keep the Terror off the liberal side of the scoreboard.

In contrast, Zakaria’s enthusiasm for the 1688 Glorious Revolution in England is boundless. Was this a liberal revolution? It was certainly less of a “radical advance” than Oliver Cromwell’s republican revolution, which preceded it by three decades, and, while it did return lost powers to Parliament, the main goal was the re-establishment of the Protestant throne. Any revolution seeking the restoration of a prior religious order must involve some fond backward glances at the past. In most ways, Zakaria is more of a conservative, in the sense of Edmund Burke, than what he calls a liberal. As he writes later on, “religion, tradition, community” served as “ballasts in the storm of change” and prevented “communist or fascist revolutions in places like Britain and America.”

Zakaria’s real preference is for slow, moderate revolts, preferably of the Anglo-American Protestant variety. But this inclination is exclusive to his treatment of political revolutions; he is quite forgiving of radical economic change, even when the result is mass suffering. “While the workers of industrial Britain were exploited and poorly treated,” he argues, “they were still doing far better in material terms than their ancestors, or even their parents.”

After skipping through the 400 years of revolution that got us here, the second half of the book pivots into chapters on what Zakaria calls the “revolutions present,” namely, “globalization,” “technology,” “tribalism” and the post-Cold War wane of the “Pax Americana.”

If the first part of the book was a speed date, the second part is a drive-by. Zakaria covers globalization from the 1870s through today in 34 pages. The “technology” chapter spends a page on the 1830s, jumps to the ’90s and then to social media, ChatGPT and CRISPR. Somewhere in this whirlwind the promised development of a coherent theory of revolution is abandoned in favor of running political commentary, with China and Russia introduced as the modern-day champions of illiberalism, threatening to end American supremacy. Yet without any account of communism’s rise and fall, they arrive onstage as last-minute villains cast in a poorly thought-out play.

The book culminates in a plea to better appreciate the merits of global liberalism, offering a more emotionally wrought echo of Francis Fukuyama’s recent “Liberalism and Its Discontents.” Like the doctor who thinks the problem is in your head, Zakaria suggests that, in the West, we suffer from problems of attitude. “Liberalism’s problem in many ways is that it has been too successful.” Freedom creates anxiety, he says, and we crave an escape. Hence the rise of identity politics and nationalism to fill the void in our collective souls.

As Hobsbawm wrote, the study of revolution can tell us “how and why the world has come to be what it is today and whither it is going.” There is a case to be made, as Fukuyama does, for holding onto political liberalism despite its many failings. But history and political analysis are forced into a shotgun marriage in “Age of Revolutions.” Zakaria warns against revolutions that move too fast and displace too many people; it now seems that’s exactly what went wrong in the last 40 years with the rise of the global economy.