The Patterns of Revolution

(Adapted from A Preface of History by Carl Gustavson and modified by Terry Clayton)

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
~ John Kennedy

Revolution simply means a sudden, radical and complete change, especially in the social and political order. Revolutions have patterns or phases of behavior and no two are exactly the same. That said, they all go through similar patterns or processes of evolution. These types of revolutions go through six and sometimes seven stages.

Generally speaking, the first indication of upheaval is the activities of writers and others who use the available technology to draw attention to the bad conditions created by the existing government and substitute new ideas for people to choose over the old ones. Such examples would be Common Sense by Thomas Paine prior to the American Revolution, the Enlightenment writings prior to the French Revolution, or The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx before the European Revolution of 1848. By articulating these ideas provides focus and emotional bonding for the discontented.

In the second stage, if enough people agree, they show their dissatisfaction in civil disobedience or other acts that disrupt and undermine the confidence of the people in the government to effectively govern. Those in power strike out against this opposition in response, causing erosion of their legitimacy to rule. At the same time the government transfers their powers through repeated concessions to the opposition.

The third stage is marked by the old government transferring power to the new government that is formed. There are two types of transfer of power that are based on geography. One is when the transfer takes place within the society itself and the other is when colonies revolt against imperial control. If the transfer of power occurs within the country itself, as in the Russian revolution of 1917, the French Revolution of 1787, or in Arab nations throughout North Africa and the Middle East, repeated concessions are made until a real transfer of power takes place with little or no violence. By peaceful means, the reformers try to carry out their ideas. Often conditions have gotten so bad by the time the old government is removed the people are impatient for immediate reform. They have unreal expectation of what can be accomplished in the amount of time it takes to implement these reforms. When the reformers are unable to accomplish these goals, they are usually forced out by a more radical group. Both the Second Russian Revolution that established communism and the current Syrian revolutions are examples of the radicalizing of a revolution.

In the case of colonies of an imperial country, there will often be resistance, resulting in a war between the colonies and the imperial country. If the transfer of power occurs within the country itself, as in the French Revolution of 1787 or the Russian Revolution of 1917, repeated concessions are made due to the weakness of the government until a real transfer of power happens, usually with little or no violence. In other situations, the infrastructure of control by the state is strong enough (or external forces provide the necessary support) to maintain their control. An example of this is the Support of Assad of Syria by Russia. The result is always violent. However, if genuine reforms do not happen (and they usually do not), the results are the same; just postponed. The old regime is forced from power and the reformers try to carry out their ideas. Often conditions have gotten so bad by the time the old government is removed that the people are unrealistically impatient for immediate reform.

When a revolution happens in colonies, the result is usually war between the mother country and their independent-minded colonies. The imperialist government tries unsuccessfully to fight a conventional war against the rebels who are fighting an unconventional guerrilla war for, and on, familiar territory and for their loved-ones. The guerrillas are successful if they have the support of at least a plurality of the people. Often there is quasi-civil war as colonialists that are loyal to the mother country actively support resisting the change of government. During the American Revolution approximately 20% of the population, the Tories or Loyalists, supported the English. At the beginning of the American Revolution perhaps as many as half the population was neutral in the English colonies.

In a colonial revolution, and as tensions increase, many individuals who are originally neutral are forced to change to one side or the other. However, if the rebels are successful over time they are able to wear down the morale of the mother country to the point where the imperial power gives up because of the cost in material and lives. Their will to continue is drained. Both the American Revolution and the Vietnam War are examples of this type of transfer of power. These wars are as much political as they are military. There is often a civil war sub-plot with these types of revolutions where colonists loyal to the imperialist will country fights against the rebels on the side of the mother country. In the American Revolution the British recruited slaves of colonists by promising them freedom. They also recruited native Indians with promises to stop colonial westward expansion.

Stage four often manifests in violence. Civil war occurs when the original regime and/or their supporters (those in power in stages one and two), now out of power, attempts to regain control of the government. Often those who are kicked out of power have the support of powers (nations) that want to maintain the status quo. Two examples of this were The Concert of Europe, where European monarchies fought against the French Republic that led to the control of France by the Jacobins, and when Napoleon became the French dictator. A more recent example would be the United States government under the presidency of Ronald Reagan supporting the Contras who were fighting the revolutionary government of Nicaragua.

Stage five often manifest as a civil war, as the radicals either take power or increase their power by eliminating all those who oppose them in the attempt to bring into realization their utopian society. Many innocent people are killed, maimed and displaced. Examples are the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, the Cultural Revolution in China under Mao, or ISIS in the Middle East today. During the American Revolution in the United States, the country was fortunate in that it was isolated from potential rival powers by the Atlantic Ocean; there was no effective outside threat and therefore radicals never had the opportunity to gain power.

Stage six occurs when the radical leaders die, are killed, or otherwise are eliminated. There is a return to normalcy. People are fatigued and long for more normal conditions. More pragmatic leaders take power. This was the ‘Thermidorian Reaction’ during the French Revolution. Similar struggles happened in China with the death of Mao followed by a period of chaos and the normalization and moderation with some democratization by Deng Xiaoping

In some revolutions there is a seventh stage, imperialism. If the new and transformed government made a successful transition there is sometimes an additional set of activities as the new society and government in their zeal begin to conquer or ‘liberate‘ other societies in the name of their successful revolution. The French conquest of much of Europe under the leadership of Napoleon, the conquest by Nazi Germany under Hitler during World War II, and Eastern Europe by Stalin of the Soviet Union after that war are all examples of this. Today, China under Xi Jinping is flexing its power by reinforcing its control of Tibet and western China and putting aggressive pressure on Taiwan, South China Sea by claiming they are all part of China. In some cases the new society/government expands into new territory by eliminating the societies that are there at the time. They also rationalize what they are doing in the name of a higher cause. An example of this in the United States was the westward expansion of the United States, justifying doing so for spreading a superior culture and religion.

The Challenge of Democratic Transition

It is possible to have revolutions that create structures where future revolutions are unnecessary, as long as they stay true to their principles. The English revolutions that resulted in Common Law with Parliamentary structure, as well as the Constitution of the United States of America, are prime examples that. The years of reform that come periodically in democratic societies do allow for the gradual shifting in the domestic balance of power. Reflected in the nation's laws and institutions, these shifts can occur without disrupting the equilibrium or provoking violence in those who are in opposition.

The United States is once again undergoing a democratic transition. The disruption we are experiencing has roots in the schizophrenic nature of the American Revolution (1765-1791). Unlike other historical revolutions, this one was conservative in that it was organized and led by the wealthy elite, the merchant class in the New England colonies and the Southern plantation and slave owners. It was unique in the fact that the technology of the time did not allow Great Britain or other European nations to effectively support it. In order to garner support from the masses, the American leadership had to sell it as a democratic revolution, concerned with the rights of man, equality, and other appeals to the disenfranchised. These oligarchs were brilliant. Their strategy was effective albeit inconsistent and contradictory. At the heart of the revolution was power, freedom from foreign economic and political control. They weren’t peddling lies exactly; their fundamental reasons were sound. What they effectively did, however, was to create a blueprint for dynamic tension between pragmatic oligarchic interests and the interests of democratic governance that is still with us today.

Since the American Revolution, the US has gone through cycles of democratic reform after periods of exploitation by oligarchies. What has changed over the past 40 years is the subversion of democratic institutions with no reform. During that time, the oligarchs have recognized that to control the oligarchic system, the political structure has to be controlled vertically from the grass roots. This is done through rhetoric -- blaming democratic decision making and underclasses for all the problems created by oligarchic greed -- as well as dismantling the organizational systems that comprise the platforms of democracy, such as voting rights. We see this dynamic tension coming to a head currently in the US. The actual experiences of the people are increasing in discord with the rhetoric and politics of the elites, whose recourse is resorting to selling lies.