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Why revolutions succeed or fail (what sociologists say)

In the last few years, many people have come to believe they have a formula for overthrowing authoritarian governments and putting democracy in their place. The method is mass peaceful demonstrations, persisting until they draw huge support, both internally and internationally, intensifying as government atrocities while putting them down are publicized by the media. This was the model for the “color revolutions” (orange, pink, velvet, etc.) in the ex-Soviet bloc; for the Arab Spring of 2011 and its imitators; further back it has roots in the US civil rights movement.  

Such revolutions succeed or fail in varying degrees, as has been obvious in the aftermath of the different Arab Spring revolts. Why this is the case requires a more complicated analysis. The type of revolution consisting in the righteous mobilization of the people until the authoritarians crack and take flight may be called a tipping point revolution.  It contrasts with the state breakdown theory of revolution, formulated by historical sociologists Theda Skocpol, Jack Goldstone, Charles Tilly and others, to show the long-term roots of major revolutions such as the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russia Revolution of 1917, and that I used to predict the 1989-91 anti-Soviet revolution. Major revolutions are those that bring about big structural changes (the rise or fall of communism, the end of feudalism, etc.). I will argue that tipping point revolutions, without long-term basis in the structural factors that bring state breakdown, are only moderately successful at best; and they often fall short even of modest changes, devolving into destructive civil wars, or outright failure to change the regime at all.

Tipping Point Revolutions with Easy Success

Tipping points revolutions are not new. Some of the early ones were quick and virtually bloodless. For instance the February 1848 revolution in France: There had been agitation for six months to widen the very restrictive franchise for the token legislature. The government finally cracked down on the main form of mobilization-- a banqueting campaign in which prominent gentlemen met in dining rooms to proclaim speeches and drink toasts to revolutionary slogans. The ban provided a rallying point. The day of the banquet, a crowd gathered, despite 30,000 troops called out to enforce the ban. There were minor scuffles, but most soldiers stood around uneasily, unsure what to do, many of them sympathetic to the crowd. Next morning rumours swept through Paris that revolution was coming. Shops did not open, workers stayed home, servants became surly with their masters and mistresses. In the eerie atmosphere of near-deserted streets, trees were chopped down and cobble-stones dug up to make barricades.  Liberal members of the national legislature visited the king, demanding that the prime minister be replaced.  This modest step was easy; he was dismissed; but who would take his place? No one wanted to be prime minister; a succession of candidates wavered and declined, no one feeling confident of taking control. 

Mid-afternoon of the second day, just after the prime minister’s resignation was announced, a pumped-up crowd outside a government building was fired upon. The accidental discharge of a gun by a nervous soldier set off a contagious volley, killing 50. This panicky use of force did not deter the crowd, but emboldened it. During the night, the king offered to abdicate. But in favor of whom? Other royal relatives also declined. The king panicked and fled the palace, along with assorted duchesses; crowds were encroaching on the palace grounds, and now they invaded the royal chambers and even sat on the royal throne. In a holiday atmosphere, a Republic was announced, the provisional assembly set plans to reform itself through elections.  

In three days the revolution was accomplished. If we stop the clock here, the revolution was an easy success.  The People collectively had decided the regime must go, and in a matter of hours, it bowed to the pressure of that overwhelming public.  It was one of those moments that exemplify what Durkheim called collective consciousness at its most palpable.  

This moment of near-unanimity did not last. In the first weeks of enthusiasm, even the rich and the nobility-- who had just lost their monopoly of power-- made subscriptions for the poor and wounded; the conservative provinces rejoiced in the deeds of Paris. The honeymoon began to dissipate within three weeks. Conservative and radical factions struggled among the volunteer national guard, and began to lay up their own supplies of arms. Conservatives in the countryside and financiers in the city mobilized against the welfare-state policies of Paris.  Elections to a constitutional assembly, two months in, returned an array of conservatives and moderates; the socialists and liberals who led the revolution were reduced to a small minority, upheld only by radical crowds who invaded the assembly hall and shouted down opponents. In May, the national guard dispersed the mob and arrested radical leaders. By June there was a second revolt, this time confined to the working-class part of the city. The Assembly was united against the revolution; in fact they had provoked it by abolishing the public workshops set up for unemployed workers. This time the army kept its discipline. The emotional mood had switched directions. The provinces of France now had their own collective consciousness, an outpouring of volunteers rushing to Paris by train to battle the revolutionaries. Within five days, the June revolution was over; this time with bloody fighting, ten thousand killed and wounded, and more executed afterwards or sent to prison colonies. 

The tipping point mechanism did not tip this time; instead of everyone going over to the victorious side (thereby ensuring its victory),  the conflict fractured into two opposing camps. Instead of one revolutionary collective consciousness sweeping up everyone, it split into rival identities, each with its own solidarity, its own emotional energy and moral righteousness. Since the opposing forces, both strongly mobilized, were unevenly matched, the result was a bloody struggle, and then destruction of the weaker side. In the following months, the mood flowed increasingly conservative. Elections in December brought in a huge majority for a President-- Napoleon’s nephew, symbol of a idealized authoritarian regime of the past-- who eventually overturned the democratic reforms and made himself emperor. The revolutionary surge had lasted just four months... 

Read entire article at The Sociological Eye