The Problem with Revolutions

Revolutions are an appealing idea. On their face, they present the opportunity to start fresh. To wipe away the old order and replace it with one that is clearly better in all aspects. Whether at the level of countries and politics, or your life and your habits, they are massively appealing when first encountered.

But any deep inquiry into the nature and course of revolutions should quickly lay bare some very critical roadblocks. First and foremost, any revolution must inherently govern the same territory that was managed by the old regime. People think they can start fresh on New Year’s Day, forgetting that they’ll still have the same basic thought patterns, tendencies, and mental habits they had before. The brain is malleable, but like with soft soil your habitual paths will have made a noticeable groove; it takes hard work to wear away old trails. It will not be easy-going the first time you endeavor to cut across all the old ruts.

At the world-level, it’s easy to miss the fact that any revolution that cuts off the metaphorical head of the snake will still exist within the environment the snake inhabited. In more traditional language: allies, interest-groups, and citizens will still have the same basic interests in a new world order that they had in the old one. Businesses will still want a stable and friendly regime, the military will still want its power and toys, etc. The reason the military is currently prevailing in Egypt is that the military previously prevailed in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak may have been the head of the snake, but the tree upon which he rested remained in place available for anyone who it likes to climb.

The language of revolutionaries is easy. It is nice, and clear-cut, and simple. Those things are bad and these things are good. Because of this, it’s a terrible way to actually see the world, but a great way to misunderstand it. The soft revolution that Barack Obama promised in the 2008 election never materialized because one cannot make a new world by words alone. The only way to truly forge a new order is to systematically disassemble all the interest groups that made up the old order. To do this quickly (that is: in a revolutionary way) almost always requires either killing people or making them scared for their life and safety.

And that’s a thing I absolutely abhor. All sane freedom-loving people similarly abhor it. But those revolutions that succeed require a strong force of violence–either physical or psychological–to carry them through. And this is certainly no guarantee of long-term success. China was a brutal and suppressive state for much of the mid-twentieth century, making it one of the most durable and ideologically pure communist revolutions carried out. While it still exists in name, anyone who thinks that the Chinese Communist Party today rules over a country that the party’s founders would have appreciated is a fool.

The “revolutions” that succeed, and are looked upon fondly even after the newness have worn off, are barely revolutionary. The only notable revolution I can think of that one could meaningful call a success in the fullness of time is the American. But it’s worth making clear that the American Revolution was only revolutionary insofar it it was a revolt against a very small feature of the existing power structure. The Americans were largely satisfied with the basic political landscape in which they existed, they just didn’t like the nature of the head of the snake. Nothing about the day-to-day life of Americans changed much after the revolution, save for the location from which taxes were applied and protections offered.

Other revolutions, the Eastern European “revolutions” of 1989 come to mind, which eschew violence and succeed are held against feeble regimes. I’d even argue that it makes less sense to think of 1989 as a revolutionary moment, than as when it finally became clear that the Bolshevik revolution could not last. The militaristic psychological control exercised by Communist bureaucrats to keep themselves in power–the only thing that made it appear to last–had run out of believers to enforce it.

In the fewest words possible, the anti-revolutionary case is this: revolutions do not work. They are enticing, they are exciting, and they have no ability to forge lasting change. Neither in personal nor political life will any sensible person ever ask for a revolution. Because sensible people know that the world is complacent, lazy, and uncomfortable with change. Sensible people know the world is too complicated for revolutionary language, revolutionary ideas, or revolutionary soldiers to achieve a lasting and praiseworthy impact.