There are a few things worth knowing about revolutions. Most people don’t participate in them, even if the history books often make it seem otherwise. Revolutions are thought up by small groups of people who then make it everyone’s business. Or alternately they don’t. And those are the revolutions that never happen.
Most people, at any given time and place, are dissatisfied with the government and believe, rightly, that whoever is in charge is guilty of stealing from them, oppressing them and making it impossible for them to live their lives in peace. And they also believe that things are not likely to get any better. Hope is a vanishing emotion that dissipates easily in the drudgery of ordinary everyday work. It may be taken out for a spin on historical occasions, but then it goes back into the barn where it sits for a while gathering dust until it is needed again.
There are however some known crossroads of revolution. A successful revolution usually doesn’t happen among the thoroughly repressed. Those people tend to lack the motivation and skills to face down a modern army. When the peasants revolt, they can often be tricked into going home with some false promises and free beer. It worked more often with the serfs in European history than you would think. It’s the middle class that you really have to watch out for.
People are not at their most dangerous when they’re eating bread crusts and hoping that they won’t die tomorrow. By then they’re often broken, perhaps not individually, but as a society. It wasn’t the people on the collective farms who challenged Soviet tanks in Moscow. Nor was it the Chinese farmers, now being bulldozed off their land, sometimes literally, who stood up to the tanks in Tienanmen Square.
The most dangerous people are the ones who have tasted enough freedom and prosperity to want to keep it. They don’t think their leaders are godlike and they have enough education and competence to think the heretical thought that just about anybody could do the same job as the king, the emperor, the czar or the president. They have experience enough upward mobility to understand that a man’s place in the world isn’t fixed. It can and should be changed. And that is what distinguishes them from the serf. That is what makes them so dangerous.
Authority works best when it isn’t challenged. Ceremony, whether it is that of an emperor or any lesser rank, invests authority with mystical force. Peer pressure and social conformity employ horizontal pressures to keep everyone in their place. Secret police and ranks of informers allow the regime to project an illusion of omnipotent force that seems to be everywhere at once. Reigns of terror create examples to intimidate anyone who might think of challenging the regime.
Revolutions strip away these illusions. The secret police run for cover or comically march out with clubs and guns against mobs, and get beaten to a pulp. The neighbor who rats on everyone sits home and stews in front of the television. And then the regime has no choice but to call on the army and hope that it still retains enough control over the officers and that the officers still have enough control over their men to do the bloody work of winning a civil war.
The army test is the acid test of a regime because it exposes the actual level of power of the regime, which relies entirely on its officer corps and its grunts to be willing to shoot people in the street. In Russia, the army proved unwilling to kill a bunch of civilians to protect a coup by their own superiors leading to the end of the Soviet Union and the fall of Communism.
After generations of worldwide terror, the great red beast was reduced to relying on the willingness of a handful of Russian kids in tanks to run over protesters. The kids, who had grown up on Western rock and roll, listening to old men preach about a coming revolution that was already older than the oldest man they had ever seen, while the echoes of capitalist dreams leaked through the Iron Curtain, chose to sit this one out. And Communism died in the streets of Moscow.
But where the Soviet Union fell, the Chinese Communist Party succeeded because they had men who were willing to run over other men with tanks. After all the great debates and posturing, the fate of hundreds of millions of people came down to the same things that all revolutions come down to, not cogent arguments or complex theories, but the willingness of some men to kill other men for a cause.
Communism also died in China. It had to. But the leadership class remained in power and their princes made it into a hereditary dynasty. In Iran, protests were pitted against the guns of the Revolutionary Guard. The regime won, but at the cost of shifting power to the Revolutionary Guard. In Syria, each side escalated, found foreign backers and is fighting a war in which the most ruthless bastards are winning. That is how the Communists ended up winning in Russia, but not after a long bout of murderous warfare in which all sides did horrible things and painted the land red. Any Russian naval officers with a sense of history watching the whole thing happen from a portside cafe are probably remembering how the same thing went down in the land of red snow.
It’s the aspiring middle class that begins revolutions, but when they turn bloody enough, then they usually aren’t the ones who inherit them. An ascending middle class begins revolutions to protect its privileges, only to see those revolutions hijacked by the fanatics, who to be fair, often began them, the lawyers who want to be executioners, the demagogues who fail at everything but street corner tirades and the psychopaths who drift in and then take over.
The American Revolution avoided being overtaken by these types of lunatics, though at times it was a closer thing than anyone realizes. If history had gone a little differently, Aaron Burr could very well have been our Robespierre. And General Lafayette could have been France’s George Washington. Instead the American Revolution stayed in the hands of the people who wanted peace and prosperity, rather than radical social change, and France descended into blood and chaos at the hands of those who thought that revolution was worthless unless it allowed them to completely transform society.
The other kind of revolution, the Bastille kind, has managed to catch up with us. A vast territory and technological revolutions held it at bay for the longest time, but it was the aspiring middle class that eventually allowed itself to be seduced into mortgaging its political power, national integrity and economic freedom to gain an illusory peace and security in the form of a powerful government. And if there to be another revolution against it, it will once again come from the ranks of the middle class.
The American middle class can feel itself sinking. Its prosperity has been stagnating and the jobs are drying up. The educational revolution isn’t doing what it was supposed to, for most, instead it saddled much of the country with even more debt. Debt is the watchword of the present, as it was of France before the Revolution. Everything is in debt and mortgaged to the hilt for everything else. International financial systems have made it possible to spread the pain and bury it in complicated financial transactions and speculation, but that just means the debt is bigger and badder than ever.
The pre-revolutionary middle class can choose between two sets of villains, big government and big business. Both are big, and thus meet the criteria for being worth revolting against, but the choice of villains often comes down to a choice of professions.
The college student who owes insane amounts of money to a complex network of financial institutions for a degree of dubious worth and a credit card whose interest rates are more complicated than the subject she was studying, is likely to sympathize with Occupy Wall Street’s bank baiting. The small businessman who feels like he spends all day filling out forms in order to get other forms to fill out, while seeking his profits being sucked up by the government and its institutions, feels a tug toward the Tea Party.
It’s the anarchist who is closest to the mark when he notes that there really isn’t that much of a distinction between the two. The government bails out the banks with bad money and the banks bail out the government with fake money. Governments and corporations, are run by the same people with the same phony mantra of social justice, that really means showy philanthropy and profitable regs. But then the cynics usually tend to be closer to the mark because faults are easy to find.
The American middle class is caught between two rebellions. One by an urban middle class elite that would like a more closed and regulated society and another by a rural middle class that would like a more open and less regulated society, with the suburbs split in the middle.
Having the cities is not absolutely mandatory for a revolution. The modern American city is a drain that produces very little except bureaucracy and culture. And while the power of those two should not be underestimated, if every major American city were to vanish tomorrow, some of the sciences would be hard hit and the bureaucracy would become decentralized, but most other things would continue on as before.
During the American Revolution holding on to the cities proved next to impossible, because of British naval power and the large concentrations of Loyalists. Even during the Civil War, most Northern cities leaned rather close to the anti-war side. Urban Democrats may lionize Lincoln now, but many of them thought of him, the way that their descendants thought of George W. Bush, as a war criminal with the brain of a monkey who was obsessed with oppressing the common man. Even some liberal Republicans thought of him that way.
But underestimating culture is dangerous. The sort of culture that we have is mostly worthless, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. There is a great distance between Beethoven’s Eroica and Katy Perry singing for Obama, but unlike Beethoven, few modern liberal writers and artists would have the integrity to rip up the title page on learning that their messiah had feet of muck. The Soviet Union fell in part because it lost that sense of cultural momentum, clinging to the Western Canon, while being overwhelmed by the pop trash that now rules Russia. And though it may be trash, cultural innovation creates a sense that we are moving forward. Those on the side of the newest trend seem like they have the answers to the future. Those who aren’t, end up looking like Brezhnev.
Revolutions can be won without that cultural momentum, but it’s harder than ever because culture carries with it that tang of prosperity, that sense that the good times are out there for those who want them. And revolutions tend to fall on the side of prosperity, on the side of an aspiring middle class looking to the future. Culture can be beaten, but it is best beaten with culture. Successful revolutions make their ideas compelling and appealing, not just in words, but in attitudes, in music, in literature and in art. France had Marat and America had the Death of Jane McCrea,
A revolution is part anger and outrage. It is that sense that you are being unfairly treated and that the life you had or could have had is slipping away from you. It is that breath of freedom that you once took and the belief that life on the other side of the wall must be better. It is a narrative, a story that rejects the authority of those in power on moral grounds and on practical ones.
Revolution works best when the authorities are weakened by a transition period, when they were once oppressive, but have been liberalizing, or where they are asserting a new level of authority that the people are not used to. It is in these transition points that revolutions are most effective because the authorities are not ready to cope with them and the people are made bold and desperate by the uncertainty.
Revolutions are not easy, until they begin rolling, and then it seems in retrospect as if they were always inevitable, the way that big things are. It is that explosion of kinetic energy born out of the potential energy of large numbers of people discovering their strength that fills the air with energy. That ionization is what most people associate with freedom, with the inevitable collapse of an old order and the rise of a new order.
At first a few people begin to push against the wall, and then more and more, their numbers growing as wall-pushing suddenly becomes the thing to do, and suddenly the sober men and women who never held with it, who put their faith in protests and petitions, join in. The wall shakes and then it falls.
This is revolution.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century. He blogs at Sultan Knish.