In the last few years, many people have come to believe they have a formula for overthrowing authoritarian governments and putting democracy in their place. The method is mass peaceful demonstrations, persisting until they draw huge support, both internally and internationally, intensifying as government atrocities while putting them down are publicized by the media. This was the model for the “color revolutions” (orange, pink, velvet, etc.) in the ex-Soviet bloc; for the Arab Spring of 2011 and its imitators; further back it has roots in the US civil rights movement.
Such revolutions succeed or fail in varying degrees, as has been obvious in the aftermath of the different Arab Spring revolts. Why this is the case requires a more complicated analysis. The type of revolution consisting in the righteous mobilization of the people until the authoritarians crack and take flight may be called a tipping point revolution. It contrasts with the state breakdown theory of revolution, formulated by historical sociologists Theda Skocpol, Jack Goldstone, Charles Tilly and others, to show the long-term roots of major revolutions such as the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russia Revolution of 1917, and that I used to predict the 1989-91 anti-Soviet revolution. Major revolutions are those that bring about big structural changes (the rise or fall of communism, the end of feudalism, etc.). I will argue that tipping point revolutions, without long-term basis in the structural factors that bring state breakdown, are only moderately successful at best; and they often fall short even of modest changes, devolving into destructive civil wars, or outright failure to change the regime at all.
Tipping Point Revolutions with Easy Success
Tipping points revolutions are not new. Some of the early ones were quick and virtually bloodless. For instance the February 1848 revolution in France: There had been agitation for six months to widen the very restrictive franchise for the token legislature. The government finally cracked down on the main form of mobilization-- a banqueting campaign in which prominent gentlemen met in dining rooms to proclaim speeches and drink toasts to revolutionary slogans. The ban provided a rallying point. The day of the banquet, a crowd gathered, despite 30,000 troops called out to enforce the ban. There were minor scuffles, but most soldiers stood around uneasily, unsure what to do, many of them sympathetic to the crowd. Next morning rumours swept through Paris that revolution was coming. Shops did not open, workers stayed home, servants became surly with their masters and mistresses. In the eerie atmosphere of near-deserted streets, trees were chopped down and cobble-stones dug up to make barricades. Liberal members of the national legislature visited the king, demanding that the prime minister be replaced. This modest step was easy; he was dismissed; but who would take his place? No one wanted to be prime minister; a succession of candidates wavered and declined, no one feeling confident of taking control.
Mid-afternoon of the second day, just after the prime minister’s resignation was announced, a pumped-up crowd outside a government building was fired upon. The accidental discharge of a gun by a nervous soldier set off a contagious volley, killing 50. This panicky use of force did not deter the crowd, but emboldened it. During the night, the king offered to abdicate. But in favor of whom? Other royal relatives also declined. The king panicked and fled the palace, along with assorted duchesses; crowds were encroaching on the palace grounds, and now they invaded the royal chambers and even sat on the royal throne. In a holiday atmosphere, a Republic was announced, the provisional assembly set plans to reform itself through elections.
In three days the revolution was accomplished. If we stop the clock here, the revolution was an easy success. The People collectively had decided the regime must go, and in a matter of hours, it bowed to the pressure of that overwhelming public. It was one of those moments that exemplify what Durkheim called collective consciousness at its most palpable.
This moment of near-unanimity did not last. In the first weeks of enthusiasm, even the rich and the nobility-- who had just lost their monopoly of power-- made subscriptions for the poor and wounded; the conservative provinces rejoiced in the deeds of Paris. The honeymoon began to dissipate within three weeks. Conservative and radical factions struggled among the volunteer national guard, and began to lay up their own supplies of arms. Conservatives in the countryside and financiers in the city mobilized against the welfare-state policies of Paris. Elections to a constitutional assembly, two months in, returned an array of conservatives and moderates; the socialists and liberals who led the revolution were reduced to a small minority, upheld only by radical crowds who invaded the assembly hall and shouted down opponents. In May, the national guard dispersed the mob and arrested radical leaders. By June there was a second revolt, this time confined to the working-class part of the city. The Assembly was united against the revolution; in fact they had provoked it by abolishing the public workshops set up for unemployed workers. This time the army kept its discipline. The emotional mood had switched directions. The provinces of France now had their own collective consciousness, an outpouring of volunteers rushing to Paris by train to battle the revolutionaries. Within five days, the June revolution was over; this time with bloody fighting, ten thousand killed and wounded, and more executed afterwards or sent to prison colonies.
The tipping point mechanism did not tip this time; instead of everyone going over to the victorious side (thereby ensuring its victory), the conflict fractured into two opposing camps. Instead of one revolutionary collective consciousness sweeping up everyone, it split into rival identities, each with its own solidarity, its own emotional energy and moral righteousness. Since the opposing forces, both strongly mobilized, were unevenly matched, the result was a bloody struggle, and then destruction of the weaker side. In the following months, the mood flowed increasingly conservative. Elections in December brought in a huge majority for a President-- Napoleon’s nephew, symbol of a idealized authoritarian regime of the past-- who eventually overturned the democratic reforms and made himself emperor. The revolutionary surge had lasted just four months.
Tipping Point Revolutions that Fail
The sequence of revolts in 1848 France shows both the tipping point mechanism at its strongest, and the failure not so far downstream to bring about structural change. Modern history is full of failed revolutions, and continues to be right up through the latest news. I will cite one example of a tipping point revolution that failed entirely, not even taking power briefly. The democracy movement in China centered on protestors occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing, lasting seven weeks from mid-April to early June 1989. Until the last two weeks, the authorities did not crack down; local police acted unsure, just like French troops in February 1848; some even displayed sympathy with the demonstrators.
The numbers of protestors surged and declined several times. Initially, students from the prestigious Beijing universities (where the Red Guards movement had been launched 20 years earlier) set up a vigil in Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of a reform-oriented Communist leader. This was China’s center of public attention, in front of the old Imperial Palace, the place for official rituals, and thus a target for impromptu counter-rituals. Beginning with a few thousand students on April 17, the crowd fell to a few hundred by the fourth day, but revived after a skirmish with police as militants took their protest to the gate of the nearby government compound where the political elite lived. Injuries were slight and no arrests were made, but indignation over police brutality renewed the movement, which grew to 100,000-200,000 for the state funeral on day 5. Militants hijacked the ritual by kneeling on the steps of the ceremonial hall flanking Tiananmen Square, in the style of traditional supplicants to the emperor. The same day rioting broke out in other cities around China, including arson attacks, with casualties on both sides. Four days later (day 10) the government newspaper officially condemned the movement-- the first time it had been portrayed negatively; next day 50-100,000 Beijing students responded, breaking through police lines to reoccupy the Square. So far counter-escalation favored the protestors.
The government now switched to a policy of conciliation and negotiation. This brought a 2-weeks lull; by May 4 (day 18) most students had returned to class. On May 13 (day 28), the remaining militants launched a new tactic: a hunger strike, initially recruiting 300; over the next 2 days it recaptured public attention, and grew to 3000 hunger strikers. Big crowds, growing to 300,000, now flocked to the Square to view and support them. The militants had another ritual weapon: the arrival on May 15 of Soviet leader Gorbachev for a state visit, then at the height of his fame as a Communist reformer. The official welcome had to be moved to the airport, but the state meeting in the ceremonial hall flanking Tiananmen was marred by the noisy demonstration outside. On May 17, as Gorbachev left, over one million Beijing residents from all social classes marched to support the hunger strikers. The militants had captured the attention center of the ceremonial gathering; the bandwagon was building to a peak. Visitors to Tiananmen were generally organized by work units, who provided transportation and sometimes even paid the marchers. A logistics structure was created to fund the food and shelter for those who occupied the Square. The organizational base of the Communist regime, at least in the capital, was tipping towards revolution. Around the country, too, there were supporting demonstrations in 400 cities. Local governments were indecisive; some Communist Party committees openly endorsed the movement; some authorities provided free transportation by train for hundred of thousands of students to travel to Beijing to join in.
The tipping point did not tip. The Communist elite met outside the city in a showdown among themselves. A collective decision was made; a few dissenters, including some army generals, were removed and arrested. On May 19, martial law was declared. Military forces were called from distant regions, lacking ties to Beijing demonstrators. The next four days were a showdown in the streets; crowds of residents, especially workers, blocked the army convoys; soldiers rode in open trucks, unarmed-- the regime still trying to use as little force as possible, and also distrustful of giving out ammunition-- and often were overwhelmed by residents. Crowds used a mixture of persuasion and food offerings-- army logistics having broken down by the unreliability of passage through the streets-- and sometimes force, stoning and beating isolated soldiers. On May 24, the regime pulled back the troops to bases outside the city. But it did not give up. The most reliable army units were moved to the front, some tasked with watching for defections among less reliable units. In another week strong forces had been assembled in the center of Beijing.
Momentum was swinging back the other way. Student protestors in the Square increasingly divided between moderates and militants; by the time the order to clear the Square was given for June 3, the number occupying was down to 4000. There was one last surge of violence-- not in Tiananmen Square itself, although the name became so famous that most outsiders think there was a massacre there-- but in the streets as residents attempted to block the army's movement once again. Crowds fought with stones and gasoline bombs, burning army vehicles and, by some reports, the soldiers inside. In this emotional atmosphere, as both sides spread stories of the other’s atrocities, something on the order of 50 soldiers and police were killed, and 400-800 civilians (estimates varying widely). Some soldiers took revenge for prior attacks by firing at fleeing opponents and beating those they caught. In Tiananmen Square, the early morning of June 4, the dwindling militants were allowed to march out through the encircling troops.
International protest and domestic horror were to no avail; a sufficiently adamant and organizationally coherent regime easily imposed its superior force. Outside Beijing, protests continued for several days in other cities; hundreds more were killed. Organizational discipline was reestablished by a purge; over the following year, CCP members who had sympathized with the revolt were arrested, jailed, and sent to labor camps. Dissident workers were often executed; students got off easier, as members of the elite. Freedom of the media, which had been loosend during the reform period of 1980s, and briefly flourished during the height of the democracy protests in early May, was now replaced by strict control. Economic reforms, although briefly questioned in the aftermath of 1989, resumed but political reforms were rescinded. A failed tipping point revolution not only fails to meet its goals; it reinforces authoritarianism.
If the Chinese government had the power to crack down by sending out its security agents and arresting dissidents all over the country, why didn't they do so earlier, instead of waiting until Tiananmen Square was cleared? Because this was the center of the tipping-point mechanism. As long as the rebellious assembly went on, tension existed as to which way the regime would go. If it couldn't meet this challenge, the regime would be deserted. This was in question as long as all eyes were on Tiananmen. Once attention was broken up, all those security agents could fan out around the country, picking off suspects one by one, ultimately arresting tens of thousands. That is why centralized and decentralized forms of rebellion are so different: centralized rebellions potentially very short and sudden; decentralized ones long, grinding and much more destructive.
We like to believe that any government that uses force against its own citizens is so marred by the atrocity that it loses all legitimacy. Yet the 1990s and the early 2000s were a time of increasing Chinese prestige. The market version of communist political control became a great economic success; international economic ties expanded and exacted no penalty for the deaths in June 1989; domestically Chinese poured their energies into economic opportunities. Protest movements revived within a decade, but the regime has been quick to clamp down on them. Even the new means of mobilization through the internet has proven to be vulnerable to a resolute authoritarian apparatus, which monitors activists to head off any possible Tiananmen-style assemblies before they start.
The failure of the Chinese democracy movement, both in 1989 and since, tells another sociological lesson. An authoritarian regime that is aware of the tipping point mechanism need not give in to it; it can keep momentum on its own side by making sure no bandwagon gets going among the opposition. Such a regime can be accused of moral violations and even atrocities, but moral condemnation without a successful mobilization is ineffective. It is when one’s movement is growing, seemingly expanding its collective consciousness to include virtually everyone and emotionally overwhelm their opponents, that righteous horror over atrocities is so arousing. Without this, protests remain sporadic, localized and ephemeral at best. The modest emotional energy of the protest movement is no rushing tide; and as this goes on for years, the emotional mood surrounding such a regime remains stable-- the most important quality of “legitimacy”.
A Contested Tipping Point: The Egyptian Revolution
Egypt in January-February 2011, the most famous of the Arab Spring revolutions, fits most closely to the model of 1848 France. Egypt took longer to build up to the tipping point-- 18 days instead of 3; and there were more casualties in the initial phase--- 400 killed and 6000 wounded (compared to 50 killed in February 1848) because there was more struggle before the tipping point was reached. Already from day 7, troops sent to guard Tahrir Square in Cairo declared themselves neutral, and most of the protestors’ causalities came from attacks by unofficial government militias or thugs. By day 16, police who killed demonstrators were arrested, and the dictator Mubarak offered concessions, which were rejected as unacceptable. On the last day of the 18-day revolution, everyone had deserted Mubarak and swung over to the bandwagon, including his own former base of support, the military. This continuity is one reason why the aftermath did not prove so revolutionary.
Again, honeymoon did not last long. By day 43, women who assembled in Tahrir Square were heckled and threatened, and Muslim/Christian violence broke out in Cairo. Tahrir Square continued to be used as a symbolic rallying point, but largely as a scene of clashes between opposing camps. Structural reforms have not gone very deep. The Islamist movement elected in the popular vote relegated to a minority the secularists and liberals who had been most active in the revolution. President Morsi bears some resemblance to Louis Bonaparte, who rose to power on the reputation of an ancestral movement-- both had a record of opposition to the regime, but were ambiguous about their own democratic credentials. The analogy portends a reactionary outcome to a liberating revolution.
Bottom line: tipping point revolutions are too superficial to make deep structural changes. What does?
State Breakdown Revolutions
Three ingredients must come together to produce a state-breakdown revolution.
(1) Fiscal crisis/ paralysis of state organization. The state runs out of money, is crushed by debts, or otherwise is so burdened that it cannot pay its own officials. This often happens through the expense of past wars or huge costs of current war, especially if one is losing. The crisis is deep and structural because it cannot be evaded; it is not a matter of ideology, and whoever takes over responsibility for running the government faces the same problem. When the crisis grows serious, the army, police and officials no longer can enforce order because they themselves are disaffected.
This was the route to the 1789 French Revolution; the 1640 English Revolution; the 1917 Russian Revolution; and the 1853-68 Japanese revolution (which goes under the name of the Meiji Restoration). The 1989-91 anti-Soviet revolution similarly began with struggles to reform the Soviet budget, overburdened by military costs of the Cold War arms race.
(2) Elite deadlock between state faction and economic privilege faction. The fiscal crisis cannot be resolved because the most powerful and privileged groups are split. Those who benefit economically from the regime resist paying for it (whether these are landowners, financiers, or even a socialist military-industrial complex); reformers are those who are directly responsible for keeping the state running. The split is deep and structural, since it does not depend on ideological preferences; whoever takes command, whatever their ideas, must deal with the reality of organizational paralysis. We are not dealing here with conflict between parties in the public sphere or the legislature; such partisan squabbling is common, and it may also exist at the same time as a state crisis. Deadlock between the top elites is far more serious, because it stymies the two most powerful forces, the economic elite and the ruling officials.
(3) Mass mobilization of dissidents. This factor is last in causal order; it becomes important after state crisis and elite deadlock weaken the enforcement power of the regime. This power vacuum provides an opportunity for movements of the public to claim a solution. The ideology of the revolutionaries is often misleading; it may have nothing to do with the causes of the fiscal crisis itself (e.g. claiming the issue is one of political reform, democratic representation, or even returning to some earlier religious or traditional image of utopia). The importance of ideology is mostly tactical, as an emotion-focusing device for group action. And in fact, after taking state power, revolutionary movements often take actions contrary to their ideology (the early Bolshevik policies on land reform, for instance; or the Japanese revolutionary shifts between anti-western antipathy and pro-western imitation). The important thing is that the revolutionary movement is radical enough to attack the fiscal (and typically military) problems, to reorganize resources so that the state itself becomes well-funded. This solves the structural crisis and ends state breakdown, enabling the state to go on with other reforms. That is why state breakdown revolutions are able to make deep changes in institutions: in short, why they become “historic” revolutions.
Reconciling the Two Theories
Tipping point revolutions are far more common than state breakdown revolutions. The two mechanisms sometimes coincide; tipping points may occur in the sequence of a state breakdown, as the third factor, mass mobilization, comes into play. In 1789, once the fiscal crisis and elite deadlock resulted in calling the Estates General, crowd dynamics led to tipping points that are celebrated as the glory days of the French revolution. In 1917 Russia, the initial collapse of the government in February was a crowd-driven tipping point, with a series of abdications reminiscent of France in February 1848; what made this a deep structural revolution was the fiscal crisis of war debts, pressure to continue the war from the Allies who held Russian debt, and eventually a second tipping point in November in favor of the Soviets. But state breakdown revolutions can happen without these kinds of crowd-centered tipping points: the 1640 English Revolution (where fighting went on through 1648); the Chinese revolution stretching from 1911 to 1949; the Japanese revolution of 1853-68. Conversely, tipping point revolutions often fail in the absence of state fiscal crisis and elite deadlock; an example is the 1905 Russian Revolution, which had months of widespread enthusiasm for reform during the opportunity provided by defeat in the Japanese war, but nevertheless ended with the government forcefully putting down the revolution.
A tipping point mechanism, by itself, is a version of mass mobilization which is the final ingredient of a state paralysis revolution. But mass mobilization also has a larger structural basis: resources such as transportation and communication networks that facilitate organizing social movements-- sometimes in the form of revolutionary armies-- to contend for control of the state. If such mobilization concentrates in a capital city, it may generate a tipping point situation. But also such mobilization can take place throughout the countryside; in which case the revolution takes more the form of a civil war.
Tipping Point Revolutions and Imitative Revolutions
At times, waves of revolution spread from one state to another; the success of one igniting enthusiasm for another. It is the mass mobilization of the tipping point, the huge crowds and the widespread feeling of solidarity in the pro-revolutionary majority, that encourages imitations. We can see this because some of the famous ignition-revolutions were not very effective in making changes, but they were still imitated. One such wave was in 1848, spreading from Switzerland and Sicily to the fragmented states of Italy, and most spectacularly to France. Soon after news propagated of events in Paris, Europe’s most famous city, crowds demanded constitutional reforms in Vienna, Berlin, and most of the German states and in the ethnic regions of the Austrian Empire. Some rulers temporarily fled or made concessions; troops mutinied; parliaments and revolutionary assemblies met. All of these were put down within a year and a half. Some were extirpated by the intervention of outside troops, as conservative rulers supported each other in regaining control. Of these revolutions, hardly any had a permanent effect.
The wave of Arab Spring revolts began with a successful tipping point revolution in Tunisia, imitated with temporary success in Egypt; but failed in Bahrain; had little effect on an ongoing civil war in Yemen; led to a full-scale military conflict in Libya that was won by the rebels only through massive outside military intervention with airpower; in Syria generated a prolonged and extremely destructive civil war sustained by outside military aid to all factions. The lesson is that if tipping point revolutions themselves are not very decisive for structural change, further attempts to imitate tipping points in other countries have even less to go on. Regimes may or may not be removed but the downstream situation does not look very different, although there may be a prolonged period of contention amounting to a failed state.
The major exception would appear to be the wave of imitative revolts from 1989-91, as the Soviet bloc fell apart. The states of eastern Europe overthrew their communist regimes one after another; some with relatively easy tipping point revolutions as in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and East Germany, and bloodier battles in Romania and eventually Yugoslavia. A second round of revolts began in 1991 as the USSR disintegrated into its component ethnic states. Here was indeed a structural change, dismantling communist political forms and replacing them with versions of democracy (some continuing control by ex-communist elites), and shifting the property system to capitalism. But this series of revolutions were not mere tipping points alone; they were all effects of a deep structural crisis in the lynch-pin of the system, the Soviet empire, that underwent a state breakdown revolution. Revolts can spread by imitation; but what happens to them depends on what kinds of structural conflicts are beneath the surface.
The Continuum of Revolutionary Effects, from Superficial to Deep
If we use the term “revolution” loosely to mean any change in government which is illegal-- outside the procedures provided by the regime itself-- there are many kinds of revolutions. They range from those with no structural effects at all, through those which change the deepest economic, political, and cultural institutions.
Coup d’etat is the most superficial; there is no popular mobilization, only a small group of conspirators inside the circles of power, or in the military, who replace one ruler with another. Often there is not even the pretence of structural change or appeal to the popular will.
Tipping point revolutions are more ambitious; emotional crowds who are at the center of the mechanism for transferring power are enthusiastic for grand if often vague ideological slogans. But such revolts often fail, if the government is not itself paralysed by a structural crisis. When tipping points succeed, the new regime often has only ephemeral support, and may peter out in internal quarrels, civil war, or reactionary restoration.
State breakdown revolutions have a less ephemeral quality. The state cannot come back into equilibrium until its own organizational problem is solved; and since this means its fiscal, military, and administrative basis, reforms must go deep into the main power-holding institutions. Whether or not the same ideological brand of revolutionaries continues in office, these structural changes lay down a new order that tends to persist-- at least until another deep crisis comes along.
Today: the Era of Tipping Point Revolutions
After the fall of the Soviet Union and its empire, there have been many repetitions of tipping point revolutions (Ukraine 2004, Georgia 2003, Kyrgyzstan 2005, Serbia 2000) mixed with personal power-grabs that are little more than coups masked as popular revolutions. The Arab Spring revolts have relied heavily on the tipping point mechanism. Where the government has had a strong faction of popular support, tipping point attempts have brought no easy transition; the result has been full-scale civil war (Syria), or defeat of the revolutionary mobilization by a mass counter-mobilization (the Green uprising in Iran 2009). The popularity of tipping-point revolts, as in the anti-Islamist uprisings in Turkey and Egypt, appear to have all the weaknesses of their genre.
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“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City
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