You Say You Want a Revolution

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

“When the revolution comes….”

Photo of grafiti saying "revolution" in black text with "love" spelled backward in red embedded. A red heart is on either side of the word.
Crop of “Revolution – LOVE” by Arkadiusz Sikorski, CC BY-2.0

It’s a dream, a mantra, a prayer for some. I’ve heard it from the anarchists. I’ve heard it from the socialists. I’ve heard it from the communists. I haven’t heard it from the libertarians or the secessionists or the sovereign citizens, but that’s probably only because I know that sometimes I have to choose between the polite smile and actually listening.

I haven’t said it myself. I don’t expect I will. All impulses to burn everything down to the contrary, I’m a reformer at heart. Everything I’ve learned about revolution has reinforced that tendency. Even having revolutionaries near and dear to my heart and among the people I want to grow up to be hasn’t shaken me on this.

It does, however, make me want to explain why I believe revolution is a terrible idea in most democratic states.

Before I do that, though, what do I mean by “revolution”? I mean the transfer of governmental power within a state through extra-legal means, not merely rapid political change. If the mass of U.S. non-voters rose up next year and wrote in coordinated candidate slates at every level of government, the potential for change would be enormous. It would not, however, be revolution.

In a revolution, power is seized rather than granted. Additional changes to the political system are then required to maintain that power rather than have the upstarts thrown out and prosecuted. With enough backing, a revolution can be bloodless, but this isn’t the norm.

That’s what I mean when I talk about revolution. That’s generally what people mean when they talk about “the revolution” coming, though they may be hazy on the details of how it’s supposed to happen or how power is supposed to held and maintained under the new system.

There’s a good reason those details are hazy for most people who are pro-revolution. It’s because the process of a revolution is ugly. It’s ugly in the lead-up, ugly in the transfer of power, and usually ugly in the outcome.

Leading Up to Revolution

There are (simplistically) three main ways that a revolution starts. There are coups, revolutions from within a government. I’m not going to talk about these here, because it’s obvious to most people both that they can’t influence these and that swapping one part of a regime for another isn’t likely to get revolutionaries the changes they desire.

The two ways to start a revolution that most would-be revolutionaries dream of are violent populist revolt and mass nonviolent action resulting in loss of confidence in the current regime and a takeover by those who step forward to fill the vacuum. Power to the people in the most direct, literal sense.

Both of these scenarios require mass action by the ordinary inhabitants of a country. That’s a very rare thing for many reasons. People are tired after doing the minimum work to ensure that they and their families can survive. The brunt of injustice falls on relatively few people in any given political system, and the dominant culture encourages everyone else to blame those people for their own oppression rather than make common cause and risk the advantages they have. People believe that current inequities are an aberration and are amenable to change through the political process. People distrust the concept of government more than any individual regime. People don’t like risk.

Mass movements are hard. Hard to coordinate, but even harder to get started. The standard solution to this is supposed to be education, but that runs into its own set of problems. How do you get people’s attention? How do you gain their trust well enough that they listen to you when you challenge what they’ve learned all their lives? How do you convince them that you can turn their work and sacrifices into better lives for everyone? How do you make them believe that the risk of radical chance won’t all go horribly wrong?

Again, there are lots of reasons why education doesn’t usually lead to mass action. Many of them are good reasons. Despite what some folks trying to foment revolution will tell you, the problem isn’t that people are sheep. The problem that effective change on that scale is hard.

Because of this, instead of trying to build up to revolution, some would-be revolutionaries want to tear down to it. I can’t tell you how prevalent they are, but you’ve seen them. These are the people who want to see elections go to the worst possible choices in the hopes that the situation will get bad enough to drive people to revolution out of basic self-preservation.

I shouldn’t have to point out the problems with this, but I will anyway. First of all, people are not political pawns. If someone treats them as though they were, they will rightly do everything they can to oppose giving any more power to the people who don’t think they’re fully human. It’s both unethical and self-defeating as a means to power.

It’s also politically naive. People who say, “The revolution is surely coming. Look at how bad things are!”, grossly underestimate the amount of pain a political system can bear, perhaps because so little of the current pain is theirs. Nations have watched their children slowly starve to death without revolting. The U.S. remains intact despite more than a hundred years of legal chattel slavery and a century and a half of systems designed to mimic the effects as closely as the population will tolerate.

We have a greater capacity to endure pain than really bears thinking about. Beyond that, pain–chronic pain, intolerable pain–diminishes us. The work of living with that degree of pain leaves us with less capacity to better our own lives, much less overthrow a government. Pain won’t get us there any faster than education within a broadly democratic system. It will only add more pain.

In the Midst of Revolution

If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, then the concept of ‘state’ would be eliminated, and a condition would emerge that could be designated as ‘anarchy,’ in the specific sense of this word. Of course, force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state–nobody says that–but force is a means specific to the state. Today the relation between the state and violence is an especially intimate one. In the past, the most varied institutions–beginning with the sib–have known the use of physical force as quite normal. Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that ‘territory’ is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence.

–Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”, 1919

As many problems as there are with the state as an agent of violence and with the confusion of state violence with “legitimate” violence, the idea that Weber put forth a century ago has endured. Government maintains a monopoly on legitimate violence within its borders. When it doesn’t or cannot, a government loses some of its own legitimacy.

Conversely, when a government loses control of its territory, it loses that monopoly. When more than one group claims governmental legitimacy, both claim access to use violence legitimately. Each is also forced to deny legitimate access to violent action by the other in order to defend their claim to be the legitimate government of the territory.

What I’m saying here is that revolution–revolt always and sometimes even revolution that starts as nonviolent–involves fighting. That’s bad for your everyday inhabitant of the territory in dispute. Even when our targets are precise, our weapons are not. And that’s before you account for zealotry, for people who decide that followers of the old government or the revolutionaries are as dangerous as active, for people who treat their suspicions about people’s loyalty as truths. Anyone can be suspected of having dangerous loyalties.

Then there’s the opportunistic violence, the lawlessness that comes when the citizenry has no idea who is responsible for protecting them, and the political violence, sending a message about who is to be allowed to claim a share of power. Revolution is a dangerous place for many people for many reasons.

Revolution also brings a breakdown of the bureaucracy that people rely on to survive and thrive. If you require medical services provided by the state, does your nurse continue to show up when they don’t know who the state is? If you eat on governmental aid, how long can a revolution be before you starve? Who keeps the electricity on for your assistive technology? Who keeps the sidewalks passable if you can’t step over rubble or even garbage? Even a peaceful transfer of power puts all these things in doubt.

Why would we want any of this if there were any other way to reach our goals?

After the Revolution

That, of course, assumes that revolution is an effective means of getting the government we want. To be blunt, it isn’t. Again, there are several reasons for this.

Take a look at the series of protests leading to regime change that’s generally referred to as the Arab Spring here. In Tunisia, the immediate result of revolution was an Islamist government. That government has now been replaced, but that replacement happened through democratic elections, not a further wave of revolution.

In Egypt, an Islamist was elected to replace a corrupt leader. Later, the military overthrew the Islamist president after a second round of revolutionary demonstrations, and its general was elected president in a vote marked by low turnout and uncertain impartiality.

Libya is still arguably in the midst of civil war, as is Yemen. The instability throughout most of the rest of the region has opened opportunities for Islamist rebel groups, including ISIS, and displaced millions of refugees.

None of this was what the revolutionaries were looking for when they began, nor are the unusual outcomes except in the details unique to the region.

Even when revolution is successful, it doesn’t necessarily lead to lasting change. The best known revolutionary group of my lifetime was the Solidarity movement in Poland. I won’t downplay the effect national strikes had on the people of Poland, but they were undoubtedly successful at peacefully moving from single-party election to free elections, replacing their communist government in the process.

Today, 26 years later, a democratically elected right-wing party is moving to eliminate the checks on its power. What happens next is very much up in the air. It may require another revolution to remove them. That may not be enough in the country that elected them in the first place.

A revolution is no guarantee that the people undermining the current government will be able to step into power. It’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to hold it more than briefly, particularly if the transition is difficult. It’s also no guarantee that the population of the state will keep its eye on revolutionary goals once the initial crisis is past.

Rather Than Revolution

A few years back, I wrote a post addressing Second Amendment fanatics who believed that their guns were all that stand between them and tyranny. I had this to say about the practical difficulties of overthrowing a revolution then.

They would need to have a plan in place to keep the water flowing, the lights turned on and supplies coming in from outside. (Napoleon’s problems in Russia were nothing compared to our global, just-in-time supply organization.) They’d also need to be able to communicate that plan convincingly to the rest of the population. If they didn’t, the population would–rightly–view them as nothing more than criminals willing to sacrifice everyone else’s lives to further their own cause. The revolutionaries would very quickly be fighting on two fronts.

In other words, in order to be successful, any revolution would have to be so well-organized as to be the thing it wanted to replace. It would have to be a true revolution of the people, even if it were directed from above.

What would a popular revolution look like? In fact, I’ve seen one take hold during my lifetime. The regressive movement that sought to undo the cultural changes accompanying our switch from an agrarian to an industrial economy and to roll back the economic regulation designed to keep industrialization from reinstituting oligarchy showed the true shape of a modern American revolution. The conservative movement, as they prefer to be known, seized power in this country through the perfectly legal means of making sure they had representatives at every level of government, from schoolteachers to city clerks to the Supreme Court. Nary a gun in sight.

Sure, political and bureaucratic takeover isn’t as sexy as a cold, sleek piece of metal that makes noise and holes, but it’s the reality.

Nothing most would-be revolutionaries would recognize from their dreams, either.

Political and bureaucratic takeover also isn’t as sexy as showing up with your crew to demand the reins of power. Let’s be very real, though. The abdication of the unsexy work of governance is what led to today’s political mess, which inspires all these calls for revolution. And if we have what it takes to rule successfully after a revolution–to hold power, to maintain services, and to create lasting change on top of both–then we’ve got what it takes to do this all democratically.

If we have the resources and the will to work to make a dream revolution a reality, we have more than enough to shine as reformers. And reform is easier to initiate, easier to control, and easier to succeed at.

That’s why I’m a reformer.

Want to see more work like this? Support me on Patreon.

You Say You Want a Revolution

6 thoughts on “You Say You Want a Revolution

  1. 1

    While your arguments makes sense following your premises, I think you’re making a critical mistake in what constitutes a revolution. A successful revolution is not when the lasers of government or even the form of government itself changes, but there is a fundamental alteration in what groups of people have power in that society.

    The “conservative movement” revolution you mentioned did not accomplish this in the slightest. Egypt, as another example, went from a military dictorship to …. another military dictorship, and now has nominally democratic institutions that are still dominated by military/insturuals interests just like when Mubarak was in power.

    The American Revolution as a counter example, fundamentally shifted power away from hereditary nobility into the mercantile and small landowner class. And this could not have happened non-violently because the monoply of force the British Empire held over the colonies needed to be broken in order for democratic practices to take hold.

    There are a great many social problems that can be lessened through reform, certainly, and revolutions ARE almost always violent and temporarily at least destructive… though the 20th century revolutions in India and Norway (yes, Norway! Look at how the Labor party gain power in the 1930sand what they did with it) show that non-violently revolutions are possible in very particular situations.

    But the whole principle of reform is to agitate the people who currently hold power to institute change. If those changes are against the intersts of those groups who hold power, then those changes simply will not happen in a legal framework.

  2. 2

    Danielwilliams, when the groups that hold power are given the choice between working with reformers and dealing with revolutionaries, they reliably choose the former. This requires that the latter be sufficiently threatening, which could be due to their numbers and organization but isn’t necessarily.

  3. 4


    I’m not sure what point you are trying to get across, it seems to be that in some circumstances, revolution is necessary or something. I think that is trivially obvious, so I don’t know why you think it needs to be said. You present no case arguing that we (or anyone else) are presently in such circumstances, however.

    Also, your idea of the “principle of reform” so limited that I kind of doubt you read the last bit of Zvan’s article:

    the perfectly legal means of making sure they had representatives at every level of government, from schoolteachers to city clerks to the Supreme Court.

    That isn’t an example of agitating the people who currently hold power to institute change. That’s becoming the people who hold power to institute change.

  4. 5

    [Sorry for the ramble.]

    I very much agree with some of this. But I would quibble with the characterisation of any current polity as “democratic” (although, to be fair, this is modified later in the post to “broadly democratic” which may be fairer). I mean, if democracy means that people have a voice in the political processes that affect their lives, then the current world-system of national borders and gross inequality of power between nations makes democracy impossible. When a rich country’s citizens vote for tougher immigration laws, the refugees and migrants (and potential refugees and migrants) suffering and dying as a direct result of those laws don’t get a vote. When British people vote to build a new airport runway for Britain’s economic benefit, the people in poor countries currently facing famine or natural disaster due to climate change don’t get to vote. And so on. Rich countries wield enormous power over everyone in the world, and the only people who get to vote on the exercise of that power are those born citizens of rich countries, who exclude others through the large-scale apparatus of brutal state violence that enforces rich countries’ immigration laws. What we have is an oligarchy, where those born citizens of certain countries are a global aristocracy who enjoy far higher living standards than everyone else, at the expense of everyone else, and who protect that privilege by voting for policies that benefit them. This is tangential to the point of the post, but it’s important, because I’m always unhappy at characterisation of the current system as democratic and the consequent perception that its decisions are legitimate or that we ought to respect them. (Though perhaps the word “democracy” has always described just another form of oligarchy – that was certainly true of the term’s origins, and I don’t think a polity that is democratic on my definition has ever existed for long or on a large scale. But if that is so, we should stop using “democracy” as a byword for legitimacy.)

    That said, I agree that just hoping for The Revolution is a completely useless political strategy, though perhaps not for entirely the same reasons as set out in the post. Firstly, we are never going to have a communist / anarchist / workers’ revolution in Britain, where I live (still less in America) because there is no kind of mass revolutionary consciousness in either country, and leftists are a small and unpopular minority in both countries. So it’s a waste of time hoping for the revolution rather than doing something to make incremental change now within the existing system. Secondly, I agree with the point that most popular revolutions don’t in fact lead to lasting improvement (and of course most aren’t leftist in character or led by leftists). I’d go further than the OP does about both Egypt and Libya – Libya is now in a full-blown civil war and has been at least since the fall of Tripoli in 2014, with a vast humanitarian crisis and far worse conditions for most of its people than existed under Gaddafi. And in Egypt the overthrow of Morsi by the military and the installation of al-Sisi has led to unprecedented violent repression on an appalling scale (against the Muslim Brotherhood and its perceived supporters), much worse than prevailed under Mubarak prior to 2011. (I’m very familiar with these situations as an immigration and asylum lawyer.)

    Thirdly, I strongly agree with the post’s point about the importance of doing the actual work of governance, whether in a post-revolutionary situation or otherwise, and designing and building stable political and bureaucratic institutions. It is important to have a coherent and realistic vision about what political institutions we want in a socialist society and how they should be organised, and that holds true whether they’re achieved through reform or revolution. Just saying “smash capitalism destroy it all fuck the police” doesn’t take us to the end of the road.

  5. 6

    My dad’s a history professor, who spent a lot of his career studying the French Revolution(s)… When I went through my “burn it all to the ground!” stage in late high school, I read “The electric kool-ade acid test” and was surprised to learn that my dad had gotten stuck in the middle of the SDS/Weathermen occupations at Columbia (I’d have been a toddler then) and he managed to annoy the students enough that they burned his office and urinated and shat on a manuscript he was working on. Anyhow: the way he annoyed the students, and later me, was by asking them “if your revolution succeeds, what will you replace the establishment with?” That’s the problem revolutionaries seem to trip on: for one thing there’s always a Stalin waiting in the wings, with a cloud of Berias and Himmlers ready to see them into and maintain them in power. Or a Robespierre. Or a Bonaparte. Or a Washington. Or a Hamilton. Power vacuums attract really horrible people, usually worse than what they displaced. By all accounts Louis XVI was much more innocuous than Robespierre(**), and Alexander was a gentle if baffled sort compared to Stalin. So the students couldn’t answer his question, debated with him a bit more, and bravely took revenge behind his back after he left.

    I’ve been thinking about this problem for a long time and I don’t have any answer, either, except that the 2nd amendment idiots are idiots: we should not fear government that is monopolizing violence (*) we should fear government that gets too efficient. We don’t need to have guns so we can shooty shooty bang bang against the military industrial complex – we need to structure our society with an awareness that we sit across the government’s supply lines. If we need to do insurgency we have to stop supplying our oppressors the fuel and ammo they are going to use against us. Put another way: “I don’t mind Big Brother as long as he’s stupid and slow.” Because it seems to be in the nature of government that it will try to expand to become Big Brother in order to maintain its bureacratic parasite-load, if for no other reason. You can see this in the US, how the military/industrial complex is now driving foreign policy.

    Isaiah Berlin wrote some very sensible stuff about how hard it is to give someone liberty at the point of a bayonet. Really, it’s true, and it’s one of the reasons I always think “libertarian” politicians are sort of oxymoronic. Political systems don’t handle a presidential candidate whose platform is “I will destroy the power of my office, then resign.” My only contribution to political philosophy is the observation that power has no value unless you abuse it.(***) Consequently, anyone who wishes to access power is going to use it against you, someday. Political systems should be constructed with the equivalent of dead man switches built into them – you’ll notice that such laws are fairly quickly removed by … politicians. For example, how would US politics change if the rules were that, if congress didn’t pass a budget within the alloted time, last years’ budget would automatically kick in, less 2%. There is a great deal of political power to the default “do nothing” option; most of the dangerous mistakes governments make involve doing something dumb rather than not doing something at all.

    Like most American kids I was raised drinking the kool-ade that our founding fathers were great political visionaries who blah blah blah democracy freedom. It slowly dawned on me that they were a bunch of mutually suspicious oligarchs, smugglers, land speculators, and slave-traders who came up with a power-sharing arrangement that made it hard for any one of them to declare themselves king and lord it over the others. That’s it. That’s all. That’s the great innovation. When I read Howard Zinn’s “people’s history” after 9/11, I realized that it’s been obvious all along.

    I don’t think it’s hopeless, though. I believe it would be possible to construct workable governments with more intermeshed checks and balances and dead-man switches in critical places. I do not buy Churchill’s(****) facile “Democracy is the worst political system… except all the others” We don’t explore the options because the establishment(s) don’t want us to. So – yeah – if you want to have a revolution, you should first outline the structure of the government you want to create, and then start building barricades. The way I think it should happen is that, instead of rebelling and tearing the whole thing apart, governments should be constructed as mutually opposing processes that can be selectively disempowered (debudgeted) with sunset provisions throughout. If you think you’ve got a run-away military/industrial system, just argue and debate while the pentagon’s clock runs out. That’s OK. The current system doesn’t have enough cut-outs and the politicians have realized that they can weaponize the threat of government shut-down against the people. Why do we allow that epic bullshit? Montaigne’s great friend DeBoetie wrote “on voluntary human subjection” and asks “why is is that a useless asshole is able to control an entire country, which vastly outnumbers him?” (slightly paraphrase) That is the political question we need to answer, before we can talk about a revolution.

    (* Paul Wolff argues that that’s really all governments are and I think he has a point)
    (** He actually had a pretty good agenda of reforms, but they were too late)
    (*** “leadership” is something else. By “power” I am referring to authoritarian executive power.)
    (**** What a horrible human being that was)

Comments are closed.