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Revolutions Are Violent

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

A long time back, on one of our regular trips home from college, Michael C and I gave a ride home to one of my fellow environmental activists. Somehow, we got on the subject of revolutions, and why we should start one at UCSB. Michael asked my friend, “And what do you expect to happen when the bloodshed starts?”

Michael was arguing a point that we haven’t argued enough on this website: revolutions are violent.

Which may seem obvious. Except that extremists from both sides of the political spectrum casually endorse revolutions, like my liberal activist friend endorsing a revolution--a revolution, it is safe to say, the vast majority of the population didn’t endorse--to solve the environmental crisis. Like Occupy Protesters who just love revolutions, idealized, romanticized and fantasized through Che Guevara T-shirts, Youtube videos of street protests, and Guy Fawkes masks. Like Tea partiers make a point of bringing guns to political rallies, in case they need to overthrow the government. Both sides casually endorse violence, from Tea Party candidates to Occupy speakers.

(We should make it clear that by “revolutions”, we mean revolutions that overthrow the existing power structure, not social or technological revolutions like the industrial revolution, the digital boom or the green revolution.)

The Arab Spring, as our most thought provoking event of 2011, should remind would-be-American-revolutionaries what a revolution really is: the break down of society and order, a revolution in power, which (mostly) results in violence. In this pan-Arab/north African revolution we have seen a few civil wars (Yemen, Syria and Libya), a military invasion (Saudi Arabia into Qatar), authoritarian crackdowns with unlawful arrests (Qatar, Eqypt, Syria and Yemen) and protesters generally arrested or attacked throughout. It is safe to say, to those who advocated revolution, violence followed.

This completely fits into the larger narratives of the history of revolutions. The American Revolution (Historians debate over whether this qualifies, I believe it does; it threw out the entire power structure.) cost one in every hundred males his life. The American Revolution is the second deadliest conflict in American history, percentage wise, with only the Civil War beating it, itself its own kind of revolution.

Meanwhile, France’s revolution is symbolized by the guillotine, an industrial means of execution. The Russian Revolution lead to the deaths of literally millions of people. The revolutions that wracked Europe throughout the nineteenth century always included violence and death. When I studied Latin America history in high school, my notes read, “Colonialism. Revolution. Dictator. Revolution.” It applied to every country.

Violence always coincides with the outbreak of revolutions, for a few reasons:

First, instability. Inherently, revolutions are unstable, by definition an overthrow of the existing power structures. When this happens, chaos ensues. Food shortages, lack of security, a breakdown of the social order. The best explanation for this is our blog’s namesake, On Violence, by Hannah Arendt, that argued that violence and power are opposites. Thus, when the power structure disappears--as in France or Russia or Libya--violence fills the gaps.

Second, vengeance. Most revolutions have a very legitimate basis: people feel discriminated against, or suffer from severe economic inequality, or chafe under colonial rule. When the masses revolt, they take their vengeance against their previous oppressors. Look at what happened in the French revolution. Or what happened to Moammar Ghaddafi. Or Saddam Hussein.

Third, civil wars. They happen when revolutionaries disagree, or the over-thrown don’t want to leave so easily. Take the above groups advocating revolution, the Occupiers and the Tea Partiers. They don’t agree on anything. So if one side starts a revolution, they’ll basically have to go to war with the other side. Boom, you’ve got a civil war. This is what is happening in Syria.

Are there counter-examples? Sure. The Revolutions of 1989 were relatively peaceful. So was the later Orange Revolution. But the idea of “peaceful revolutions” is a relatively new one; clearly it isn’t at work in north Africa.

The point of this post, the “So what?” if you will, is that revolutions often end in severe, uncontrollable violence. And often then transition to authoritarianism. Extremists on both sides of the political spectrum in America casually throw around the Jefferson quotation (behaving properly) that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” without really understanding what this means or implies.

four comments

Some thoughts, cause we debated a lot of the points in this article.

First, I don’t think ALL revolutions are violent, just most revolutions. I think they tend to be violent, for the reasons we described. And actually, in writing and researching peaceful revolutions, there are just a handful before 1985, and then after that mostly countries leaving communism, which I’m not sure counts, because I’m not sure they all overthrew the power structure.

Second, Michael C didn’t want this included because he doesn’t think it counts as “violence” but a lot of revolutions end in dictatorship or authoritarianism. Russia, France, Vietnam, Afghanistan. A lack of stability, chaos, forces people to desire security. It’s why, as we wrote about before, Afghans welcomed the Taliban; anything was better than the warlords.

Basically, this is just another reason to be wary of revolutions.


see also

Rethinking Revolution: Reconstruction posted today

The statement that Revolutions are violent would seem self evident, but this is a great analysis of that fact. Change on any scale with regard to government can be difficult (it’s much easier to promise than to enact). As far as the peaceful revolution, I wonder whether they are actually revolutions or simply the crumbling of institutions that were unsustainable.

As a counter point I think an important observation to note is that the reason most free societies even exist today is because of revolutions. Revolutions have primarily been a vehicle used to put an end to or contest authoritarian regimes which have dominated most societies at the dawn of civilization, or at other times colonial regimes (as in Vietnam, the boxer rebellion, or many African nations). Normally it is the only option to contest a truly authoritarian regime. Have some of them ended up in installing equally or even more repressive regimes? Sure, look at Iran, or the USSR.

Ghandi´s idea of a peaceful revolution is a 20th century phenomenon. It is true of course even if the revolutionaries are themselves nonviolent the power structure(s) which they threaten often engage in violent repression (case in point: Khudai Khidmatgar).

Of course with a broad sweeping generalization like “revolutions are violent” you´re bound to have quite a few exceptions (as in eastern europe).

This is particularly true if a significant portion of military or police forces who are given the responsibility for engaging in violent repression have conflicting loyalties between their command and possible sympathy to the grievances and/or goals of the revolutionaries (as well as possible personal and family ties). That is how bloodless revolutions occur (or atleast revolutions with violence on a significantly smaller scale as in Egypt).

Of course power vacuums create an opening for violence to take a foothold (that is true regardless of how a power vacuum is created), but if the goals of the revolutionaries are clear, they do succeed, and there is a smooth transition from one regime to the next (so that there is not a significant amount of time with a power vacuum) than the likelihood of “Red October” events are greatly diminished.

The original idea of a modern democracy (this isn´t counting Classical Greece) was to be a continual nonviolent revolution, where if you have grievances with one regime you vote a replacement regime into power. The utility of this in a 2 party left/right dichotomy where most institutions remain the same (or change at the rate of continental drift) regardless of the election is debatable however.