Why Most Revolutions Fail
As I watch all the hope and promise drain out of the Arab Spring, it got me thinking about why most revolutions fail. Not long ago the military regime of Egypt passed a series of laws that stripped the incoming president of all power and guaranteed their military dictatorship for years to come. Mubarak is looking pretty good right now by comparison and it was a sad day for the world and the people of Egypt. I believe Assad will fall from power in Syria, but what will replace him? With Russia a virtual dictatorship, as the kangaroo trial of the punk band Pussy Riot begins based on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” is the the world moving towards more freedom or less?
Historically, revolutions go something like this: economic shock, people starving, scattered resistance leads to organized resistance, leaders of resistance are united and promise a new day full of hope and justice for the people, revolutionary leaders get power, turns out they are not so united, dictatorship ensues. I’ve long thought this was the pattern behind it. Of course, scholars figured this out years ago. Take this quote from Anatomy of a Revolution, by Crane Brinton:
“financial breakdown, [to] organization of the discontented to remedy this breakdown … revolutionary demands on the part of these organized discontented, demands which if granted would mean the virtual abdication of those governing, attempted use of force by the government, its failure, and the attainment of power by the revolutionists. These revolutionists have hitherto been acting as an organized and nearly unanimous group, but with the attainment of power it is clear that they are not united. The group which dominates these first stages we call the moderates …. power passes by violent … methods from right to left.” (p.253)”
In America, we’re raised on a diet of revolutionary fervor. Our founding fathers won the day AND delivered democracy. As I get older, I realize just how remarkable this remains. The Anatomy of a Revolution looks at four major revolutions, the English Revolution of the 1640s, the American Revolution, the French and the Russian Revolution. He could probably include the overthrow of Communism by Russia and it’s return to dictatorship and “rule of men” under Putin. As we speak I’m writing a sci-fi novel about a Chinese Civil that follows a revolution so let’s throw the Communist Revolution into the mix here too. Of all these revolutions, only the American Revolution resulted in a democracy. The other four resulted in dictatorships or virtual dictatorships. Yet all of them started out with rhetoric built around freeing the people and bringing justice and equality to all. Mao Zedong used the term “the people’s democratic dictatorship” to describe what he wanted to achieve. He even enshrined that phrase in the Chinese constitution. During his youth he talked of elections and the will of the people. And yet here we are.
So what happens? I think it’s a few things. First it takes a rare person to rise up and not get changed by the events. The founding fathers were a unique breed. They didn’t really want to fight. They were generally well off folks, who stood to lose a lot from the coming war. Yet they fought anyway. I believe this trait is key. Men who want to fight often have a streak of dominance in them. That dominance, once they get into power, can take a turn for the worse. It’s not always the case, but it is no coincidence that the heroes of your favorite war sagas are generally people who don’t crave fighting. They fight because they have to. Again, there are exceptions, like Beowulf, but think of Harry Potter or Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings or Jason Borne, people who didn’t crave the fight, but had to fight anyway.
The founding fathers were also incredibly rare in that they did not change their fundamental beliefs as they were hardened by years of battles, pain and suffering. War changes all men. They lose their hope and their ideals. They lose their innocence. Sometimes what remains is only fear and a desire to avoid chaos and change. They find themselves wanting to control everything, to set it all in stone, so nothing can ever go wrong again. This leads to totalitarianism and at the very least major setbacks to the idea of rule of law and equality. The Generals in Egypt are a classic example. When the army rules, they believe in order above all things. An army must be willing to step to the side and be bound by the people, but when the Generals have control for too long, they don’t want to lose it, for fear that their society will fall into chaos again.
Another reason revolutions fail to deliver for the people is that the leaders of their revolutions never really believed in freedom at all. They believed in some illusory concept of freedom that can’t exist in reality. Or they just used the rhetoric of freedom and a new day and change to get people to go along with their will. They are opportunists. They see an opening, a chance to seize power for themselves and they will say anything and do anything to get it. And you better believe, once they get it, they are not giving it up and they will turn the rule of law into a perverse parody of itself, writing vague all encompassing laws that let them do whatever they want. Putin recently passed a series of laws that outlaw hooliganism, brands pretty much any freedom of speech a potential terrorist act and he’s using those laws to punish dissent in any form.
In the end, revolutions fail because of human nature. It’s hard to let go and let things happen. It’s hard to let the markets do what they want, the people say anything and for the people in power to let it go. This is just the way of things. It’s hard to let these things happen because sometimes things go badly wrong. The markets crash. The people make dumb decisions. Sometimes you want the politicians in power to stay because they are good, but when you allow them to stay longer, you set it up so the worst people can stay in power later to. The best way in all things is to allow change and turn over to happen. Of course, that is easier said than done, when unemployment skyrockets, people starve and protests start to happen every day. Human nature will always be human nature.