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.

2 responses to “The Problem with Revolutions”

  1. 1: You’re a very good writer.
    2: I’m about to tear this apart.
    3: (Kidding.)

    Wait, so are you insinuating that hanging out in a crowd of fellow unsatisfied passive-aggressive people in downtown Manhattan is not going to lead to a narrowing of the income gap, a cleansing of corrupt financial institutions, or just generally a better government or a better life, even if we hold up really clever signs?

    I agree, of course. But I will add attempt to add a subtle layer.

    Reality may be too complicated to plan and then execute a revolution, but that is not the same as saying that reality is too complicated for revolutions. If a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia can cause gale-force winds in Colorado, or something, then so could cutting off the head of a metaphorical snake theoretically cause a change in the way day-to-day life is conducted in certain places.

    The problem, it seems to me, is that we think we are smarter than we really are. We think we can predict which snake head should be decapitated at which time in order to cause the change we desire, without of course any of those damned unintended consequences.

    But to ask people to perceive reality as complicated, where we don’t in fact have full control over our fate, where villains and heroes occupy not only the same institutions but the same bodies, where “good” and “bad” are a bit squishier than we are comfortable admitting, is kind of asking a lot, isn’t it? In other words, why should we ask people to be “realistic” about their potential for causing revolutionary change when asking them to do so is asking them to confront something a bit more troubling than their capacity for revolutions? Look at you, David, you’re out here asking us to be realistic but you’re bumping up against our fundamental unrealism. I don’t know whether to call it a “need” or “unrelenting desire” or “evolved psychological survival mechanism” or whatever but there’s one thing I do know: Whatever the hell it is, I’ve got it and I’m pretty sure you’ve got it – it just may not show up until we step away from our keyboards.

  2. It’s not Occupy Wall Street that spurred this, actually; I think many of those people realize that revolutions don’t work. And I think OWS is an admirable if ineffectual way to shape the public conversation and push it ever so slightly in the direction of recognizing and worrying about income inequality, et al. Long slow social movements DO work. That’s what Ghandi, King, and Mandela represent, and why they’re so revered. But they’re the opposite of “a revolution”; they’re a slow march of education and empathizing and bringing people to truly grasp the nature of the reality they so long ignored. (Those things said, I’ve seen more than a few people at those gathering arguing for revolutions, and obviously I’d like them to realize the foolishness of such arguments.)

    The chaos theory bit is taken, but I think your point about how little it can be predicted is precisely my point. Is it conceivable that the untimely death a single bureaucrat could change the lives of millions of Latin Americans whose trade deal no longer has some unreasonably obstinate and powerful man blocking it? Yes. Is anyone calling for revolutions against disproportionately powerful bureaucrats struck within some monolithic system whose prevailing attitude on a topic has changed but for that one odd hold-out? Not at all. (At least as I phrased that, it strengthens the point about how much they’d actually be benefitting from broad slow changes in opinion than quick, sharp revolutionaries.)

    To your final point, this is my campaign. My long slow quest that will probably take longer to achieve than I’ll live. There is no revolution I can perpetrate that will make the world realize that the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man, that how you relate the world has a much stronger effect on your opinion of it than the world you inhabit, etc. I’m writing pieces like this not for the revolutionary moment when 100,000 people read it and see this single point is right and join the forces of sanity, but to help people already some distance down the road to carry on, to know that they’re on the right track, and that this twilight struggle toward enlightenment is still worth the effort. (Which is to say nothing for its value as simple rhetorical practice. Nor of the somewhat absurd grandiosity of that sentence.)