What Occasions Revolutions?

~Paules: Has anybody other than Karl Marx established a theory for why, when, and how revolutions occur?  And even if we did have a theory, surely local considerations like culture, tradition, and history would modify the reasons.  This is complex stuff.  I’ll consider the opinion of a qualified Sinologist if anyone can recommend one.   · 9 hours ago

I quote Paules’ response to my most recent post on China because the question that he poses is a very good one.

The answer to that question is that there is a very considerable literature on this. Some of it is Marxist. Much of it is Tocquevillian. Read his Ancien Regime and the Revolution.

One key indicator is that those with access to the levers of power within the ruling order cease to believe in the religion or ideology that legitimizes the regime. Another is that their underlings also gradually abandon the beliefs that render respectable the rule of their masters. This happened some time ago in China, and there very nearly was a revolution at the time of Tiananmen Square. Tellingly, the key players among the young at that time were often the children of party officials.

At the time, the party split over how it should respond to the protests and quite a number of leading party figures ended up under house arrest for the rest of their lives. It did not have to end in the manner in which it ended. It could have gone the other way. It was a close-run thing.

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, I think it highly significant that leading figures in the Chinese communist party have recently instructed their underlings to secure and read Tocqueville’s book. People in China who are far more expert with regard to that country than any western Sinologist could possibly be are evidently thinking about the question I raised.

The Tocquevillian account of revolution fits the Arab Spring, the eruptions in eastern Europe in the 1980s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union to a “T.” First goes belief in the legitimacy of the system. Then comes a trigger — an event which causes large numbers of people to say to themselves, “I cannot take this anymore.” Then, the crucial question is whether those in charge have the nerve to try to crush the rebellion and whether their underlings will follow orders. If the powers that be are hesitant, ambivalent, or divided, if their underlings are fed up, things can very easily come apart (as they did in eastern Europe, in the Soviet Union, and in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria). So far, the Chinese and the Iranians have kept a lid on things. But do not think for a second that these regimes are stable. In both China and Iran, skepticism about the regime’s legitimacy is commonplace.

As for “qualified” Sinologists, they may be the last to know. Very, very few of those expert in communism in eastern Europe and very, very few Sovietologists saw that the end was near. Next to no Arabists predicted the Arab Spring. These people are expert in predicting how the regime in place works, and they are often exceedingly good at what they do. But that is often where things stop. One has to have a certain distance on things to be able to recognize the warning signs.

China very nearly came apart back in the days of George H.W. Bush. It could very easily happen again. I have thought for 25 years that the day would come, and I harbored similar views in the 1970s and early 1980s regarding Soviet domination in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself. I thought the same from the late 1980s on concerning Arab nationalism. It had run its course. Opportunists were apt to join the ruling parties. Young idealists did not. That was the story in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as well.

It is not all that hard to identify a pre-revolutionary situation. Foreseeing what will trigger the revolution and precisely when — that is almost impossible. The situation can be ripe for decades, and nothing will happen. Then, along comes a puff of wind, and the house of cards collapses. Who would have thought that an ostentatious suicide on the part of a street vendor in a town of no great significance in a backwater like Tunisia would have set off the Arab Spring?

If this subject interests you, I would suggest reading Tocqueville and, then, an old book by Crane Brinton: The Anatomy of Revolution. One could quibble with Brinton about the details, and scholars have, but in its outlines it makes a lot of sense.

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  1. Majestyk

    It happens in much the same way as revolutions that overturn paradigms in the scientific community – at some point a theory gains enough adherents who are motivated, and that momentum begins to consume the previously held consensus as evidence supporting the theory becomes overwhelming.

    The ChiComs have managed to hold back the flood of information and ideas eking into their country via the internet with decent success up until this point, but the breaking point is probably just around the corner.  Of course, we’ve been saying that about Iran for years now.

  2. raycon and lindacon

    We are approaching that point here in the US.  Could the gun control push be that point?  It might take years still, but it might come when the actual effort begins to take guns. 

    Until that effort, nothing really changes but lots of laws that are easy to not comply with.  But if force begins, then so the rebellion.

  3. Grendel
    raycon and lindacon: We are approaching that point here in the US.  Could the gun control push be that point?  It might take years still, but it might come when the actual effort begins to take guns. 

    Until that effort, nothing really changes but lots of laws that are easy to not comply with.  But if force begins, then so the rebellion. · 7 minutes ago

    Or people shooting back when the cops come to arrest them for not buying baby-killing health insurance.  Less than 12 months, now.

    Anatomy of Revolution was assigned to my freshmen survey course in 1964.  I’ve been dining out on it ever since (if that’s the term for pulling out my battered copy so I don’t look completely forlorn at post-dinner-hour fuelings at McD’s).

  4. The Mugwump

    Thank you for the response, professor.  The question of legitimacy is intriguing, perhaps even compelling.  But now we are forced to plumb the depths of mass psychology, a subject for which I am completely unqualified.  What do we mean by “legitimate” vs. a regime that suddenly becomes “illegitimate” in the eyes of the people?  Is there an identifiable standard, or is it simply a matter of what people are willing to put up with?  Food for thought.  

  5. Tim H.

    I don’t know about scholarly works on revolution, but there have been some computer simulations of how they break out.  One that I’ve played around with a little is this one, written in the NetLogo language, which can be run in a web browser.  

    These models make assumptions of how people behave, and they’re necessarily simplified, but within their constraints, they might lead us to some interesting conclusions.

  6. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    ~Paules: Thank you for the response, professor.  The question of legitimacy is intriguing, perhaps even compelling.  But now we are forced to plumb the depths of mass psychology, a subject for which I am completely unqualified.  What do we mean by “legitimate” vs. a regime that suddenly becomes “illegitimate” in the eyes of the people?  Is there an identifiable standard, or is it simply a matter of what people are willing to put up with?  Food for thought.   · 43 minutes ago

    By illegitimate, I meant illegitimate in the eyes of the people. A divine-right regime enters a crisis of legitimacy when the movers and shakers in the polity no longer believe in God or no longer believe that any king could be God’s viceroy on earth. The Enlightenment delegitimized the aristocratic-monarchical regime in 18th-century France. The loss of faith in communism did the same for the old Soviet Union. The phrase movers and shakers may seem vague, but we all know who they are.

  7. The Mugwump
    Paul A. Rahe  By illegitimate, I meant illegitimate in the eyes of the people. A divine-right regime enters a crisis of legitimacy when the movers and shakers in the polity no longer believe in God or no longer believe that any king could be God’s viceroy on earth. The Enlightenment delegitimized the aristocratic-monarchical regime in 18th-century France. The loss of faith in communism did the same for the old Soviet Union. The phrase movers and shakers may seem vague, but we all know who they are. · 6 minutes ago

    If I understand you correctly, then it’s the philosophy by which a regime justifies its right to rule that comes under question.  I will think on this more because it has implications for American democracy as well.  

  8. Britanicus
    raycon and lindacon: We are approaching that point here in the US.  Could the gun control push be that point?  It might take years still, but it might come when the actual effort begins to take guns. 

    Until that effort, nothing really changes but lots of laws that are easy to not comply with.  But if force begins, then so the rebellion. · 1 hour ago

    Or when they come for our 401ks.

    Edit: @ TimH: That looks awesome. I’m going to play with it later tonight.

  9. Tim H.
    Britanicus

    @ TimH: That looks awesome. I’m going to play with it later tonight. ·

    One thing I see about this model is how the conditions for revolution can grow quickly, after long dormant periods.  (Like Rahe notes above)  Just about anything involving people is a great example of what we call a “non-linear system” in physics.  Chaos theory.  

    And in these systems, even small changes in your initial conditions can lead to large changes in the outcomes.  Thus, even small uncertainties in your knowledge of the initial conditions lead to large uncertainties in your predictions of the outcomes.  I think this is consistent with the fact that experts on the Soviet Union, the Middle East, etc. are usually blindsided by these catastrophic outbreaks of mass behavior.

  10. genferei

    But if the legitimacy of the CPC (the “mandate of heaven”) relies upon maintaining the integrity of the Chinese motherland — against foreign enemies and the internal forces of warlordism that are historically unleashed when the central authority is insufficiently strong — then there is, arguably, no crisis of legitimacy. One need only ask what the populace thinks of the history of Japanese interference with the mainland, or the rebel province of Taiwan, or the attitude of the US to the legitimate aspirations of the Chinese people, to see what generations of propaganda has wrought.

  11. Jim Durbin
    Revolution is different than regime change, and it’s important to distinguish the two. The global non-profits that work to install civil society in the third world work off the assumption that transition to democracy is a pretty standard thing.  Once GDP equals some $3-4,000, the middle class is strong enough to demand political representation.  This doesn’t always work, though. The Arab Spring was surprising to most because of how late it occurred, and how little it did.  GDP was at the $7-8,000 mark, far past the time when true elections take place. This is not the only form of revolution, as it’s really just data analysis in a world of global powers, but the economic lever is the first big one.  A second aspect to remember is that revolution without someone in power doesn’t work well.  This is where the Iranians failed.  An uprising is what occurs when the mob takes to the street.  A revolution occurs when authorities with guns replaces the former authorities with guns.  If you can’t get a power center with military force behind you, you have no revolution. 
  12. Scarlet Pimpernel

    As I read history, revolutions often happen where there is a frustrated group that is close, or close-ish to holding power, but the powers that be either won’t or can’t let them in.   To sustain itself, a regime must assimilate the better part of the best, brightest, and most virtuous in each rising generation–or those who have some claim to think themselves to be such.  Failing that, there is a core leadership group that will make trouble.

  13. Keith Preston

    I have been intrigued that Pat Caddell keeps saying that American society today is in a pre-revolutionary stage.

    Do we agree?  Discuss.  :)

  14. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    ~Paules

    Paul A. Rahe  By illegitimate, I meant illegitimate in the eyes of the people. A divine-right regime enters a crisis of legitimacy when the movers and shakers in the polity no longer believe in God or no longer believe that any king could be God’s viceroy on earth. The Enlightenment delegitimized the aristocratic-monarchical regime in 18th-century France. The loss of faith in communism did the same for the old Soviet Union. The phrase movers and shakers may seem vague, but we all know who they are. · 6 minutes ago

    If I understand you correctly, then it’s the philosophy by which a regime justifies its right to rule that comes under question.  I will think on this more because it has implications for American democracy as well.   · 4 hours ago

    Yes, philosophy or, in some cases, religion. Consider the claim to legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood.

  15. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    genferei: But if the legitimacy of the CPC (the “mandate of heaven”) relies upon maintaining the integrity of the Chinese motherland — against foreign enemies and the internal forces of warlordism that are historically unleashed when the central authority is insufficiently strong — then there is, arguably, no crisis of legitimacy. One need only ask what the populace thinks of the history of Japanese interference with the mainland, or the rebel province of Taiwan, or the attitude of the US to the legitimate aspirations of the Chinese people, to see what generations of propaganda has wrought. · 3 hours ago

    True. But this was all the case at the time of Tiananmen Square — when the wheels nearly came off the bus.

  16. genferei
    Paul A. Rahe True. But this was all the case at the time of Tienanmen Square — when the wheels nearly came off the bus. 

    The dream (confused as it was) then was inflamed by glasnost. Now the Party has learned the lesson that indulging the agitators leads to more agitation. And the people have learned the lesson that glasnost didn’t work out too well. Hence the consistently tough line taken by subsequent central committees and the increase in belligerent foreign policy rhetoric. And action.

    Still, as they say, what can’t go on forever won’t. And when it stops, it’s going to be pretty awful…

  17. The Mugwump

    Professor, thanks for taking the time to answer my question.  I’ve got some reading and research to do now on this topic, but I’m already seeing some interesting possibilities.  It occurs to me that the process of delegitimization doesn’t have to be passive or born of deteriorating conditions.  In fact, as a tactic it’s not a whole lot different than class warfare.

    If you add a little Codevilla to your Tocqueville, you get something new.  The targeted class becomes the ruling oligarchy.  The key would be to delegitimize the claim that our two parties govern in the name of the people, when in reality both parties are beholden to special interests, and our elected officials are getting rich on filthy lucre.  The wedge issue would be corruption.

    There’s an opening here for the Tea Party.  The Republican party is no longer a legitimate champion of conservatism.  Maybe it’s time for the citizenry to reclaim at least half of our two party system.  A revolt by the electorate, similar to what happened in Italy during the 90′s, would have the advantage of being bloodless.  

          

  18. Keep_the_Change
    Scarlet Pimpernel:    To sustain itself, a regime must assimilate the better part of the best, brightest, and most virtuous in each rising generation

    Excellent point.  Last semester I taught a class on American culture to the CPC officials who run my university here in China.  They are the brightest, most personable students that I have taught in my short teaching career.  I consider them all friends as well as students.  They know that reform is necessary, and they embrace Xi’s reform-mindedness and the tradition of Deng.    

    My point is that we need to resist the temptation to consider “the regime” as this unchanging, exogenous force that imposes itself on the people.  The regime is made up of people, and it can renew itself through co-option as well as purges.

  19. Misthiocracy

    For what it’s worth, Heinlein discussed this topic quite a bit in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.