Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

How to organize a revolution

Organizing a revolution is a delicate business. It’s a bit more than just coming to the streets en masse. Alas, it’s of so much importance these days that we would all benefit from some theoretical background of what makes a revolution successful.

In general, revolutions are rarely a good idea. They disrupt the cultural lineage (think of the communist revolutions) and give rise to dictatorship just as often as to equitable political regimes. But sometimes the government is so authoritarian and intolerably bad, that any change is better than the status quo.

In the past years, we’ve seen some unsuccessful revolutions. Protests and revolts driven by people, civil resistance, peaceful demonstrations. Those turn out to be terribly inefficient as the authoritarian regimes learn how to build up more arms. Look at Belarus in 2020, where half a million people protested on streets for almost a year, and achieved pretty much nothing. Other revolutions, such as Arab Spring uprisings of 2010s, may have technically succeeded but have given rise to an even bigger inequality in the long run. It’s quite an understatement to say that these cases are rather demotivating.

What went wrong? According to the political scientist Jack Goldstone, there’re five conditions necessary to create an ‘unstable social equilibrium’ that can lead to a successful revolution and a state breakdown. These factors are the following. The country has to be in a state of economic distress. The government needs to piss off military, economic, and religious elites. All social groups should resent the regime equally. There’s a need for at least some proto civil society with a more or less functional political opposition. The alternative political rhetoric should be circulating restlessly. And finally – the regime must be so bad that no foreign power would be willing to support it. Voila! The government is in a perfect position to be overthrown.

Can these conditions be accelerated? I think so! So let’s look at each of them and go through some historical examples of revolutions in Egypt, Nicaragua, Russia, Portugal, Cuba, Iran, and Czechoslovakia to get a better idea how these five factors interplay in practice.

Step 1. Make sure that the country is hit by an economic crisis

Not everyone’s born to fight for freedom and shout ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ after American revolutionaries of the 18th century (and not everyone has to!). For normal functioning, society mainly needs people who engage in economic activities, raise families, and perhaps pray in churches. Only when the normal order of things gets disrupted, the population gets frustrated enough to question legitimacy of the government.

Historically, most revolutions are triggered by some sort of an economic distress. It could be caused by a financial crisis, food shortage, or a long war. For example, the Portuguese Carnation revolution of 1974 was triggered by an economic crisis that followed after 13 years of inefficient overseas war campaigns. The 1979 revolution in Nicaragua began after a massive earthquake had destroyed its capital Managua. The Arab Spring revolts of 2010s started with a massive grain shortage and a huge unemployment that hit all demographic groups.

However, what’s interesting is that poverty is not necessarily a prerequisite for a revolution. In fact, many religions and ideologies justify it as natural and inevitable. So in order to turn economic distress into a trigger for social revolts, it should be considered a fault of the regime – something brought by its corruption or incompetence.

For example, what caused the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 was the extreme corruption of the Nicaraguan president – Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The dynasty of Somozas had been in power for more than 30 years, and eventually had become so corrupt that when the foreign powers sent international aid to rebuild Nicaraguan cities damaged by the destructive earthquake – Somoza just pocketed the money, sold reconstruction equipment, and left the cities decay in ruins. That was the last straw that opened the eyes of Nicaraguan citizens and urged them to support Sandinista revolutionary forces (FSLN) led by Daniel and Humberto Ortega.

Alas, the economic factor is one of the reasons why the authoritarian regimes of China or Saudi Arabia are not likely to collapse any time soon. And indeed, the Arab Spring revolts of 2010s had almost no impact on the Gulf monarchies – thanks to the plain fact that rich countries feed their people better. ‘Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?’ – American revolutionaries used to ask. Well, if the economy is doing well and the wages keep growing, a substantial part of population would be fine with such comfortable shackles.

Unfortunately, it’s a bad precedent when authoritarian regimes start falsely attributing economic growth to their own competence – instead of, say, income from oil exports. People still fall into the trap of mistaking correlation for causation. ‘We diligently prayed to Allah for 13 centuries so that he sent us oil as a reward’ is a really bad logical inference.

Step 2. Divide the elites (preferably – inspire them for coup d’état)

Poverty alone is not enough. Students, farmers and workers, no matter how poor and desperate, cannot compete with professional military forces protecting the regime. Peaceful protests don’t work when the regime is backed up by loyal military (you know what these tanks did to people on the Tiananmen Square, right).

To make it work, ordinary people need to be supported by more powerful groups: such as political and economic elites. Theoretically speaking, elites function as intermediaries between the government and the population by ‘reinforcing existing beliefs and behaviors’. In a traditional society, those are the castes of guards, priests, and merchants. In a modern society – these are heads of political parties (political elites), oligarchs and election campaign supporters (economic elites), spiritual and intellectual influencers that provide guidance to the population (clergy and media), police and military commanders (military elites). Elites are loyal to the regime as long as they receive political and material rewards in exchange for their loyalty. So in order to subvert the government, elites need to become alienated from the regime and divided into factions.

Historically, the fastest and most efficient revolutions happen via military coups. Indeed, if the government owns a monopoly on violence on a given territory, and the military force is an agent of this violence, who else holds the ultimate power if not the military?

A classic example of a successful military coup is the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. It was primarily caused by the frustration accumulated at the corrupted King Farouk. First, Egypt failed miserably in the 1948 war with Israel – which people considered king’s personal fault. Second, the king was loyal to the British Empire – during times when Arab nationalism was on its rise! But what made the most difference is that policemen held grudges against the king. So when anti-imperialist riots gained momentum in 1951, police officers quickly stepped on the side of insurgent nationalist groups. For instance, in January, when several British officials were killed in riots, the police refused to hand over suspects to the government (of course, not without costs: in response, British army killed as many as 50 Egyptian police officers – the day that‘s now commemorated as the national Police day in Egypt).

Egyptian military had its insurgents too: a group of military officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser (who would later become one of the most famous presidents of Egypt) organized a coup, arrested the army commanders, and took leadership of the military. Which was sufficient for a power transition. They quickly informed Winston Churchill about the coup d’état, who accepted it as Egypt’s private matter, and supported the new leadership. The corrupted king Furuk went in exile to Italy and the new Egypt republic was established. This case shows how important it is to have police and military forces on the side of the revolution. Even the Egyptian revolution of 2011 started on the same day – the Police day!

Another famous example of a successful military coup was the the so-called Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974 that marked the end of the Portuguese empire, as well as 40 years of authoritarian rule by the conservative Estado Novo regime, while paving a way to democracy. The coup d’état was organized by the so-called Movement of the Armed Forces – the military officers (mainly General Spinola, a man with an outstanding monocle) who criticized the government’s ways of overseas politics in the colonies of Guinea, Angola and Mozambique. The overseas wars led by Portugal had been lasting for 13 years, had a huge financial cost, massive conscription, and were widely disapproved by the UN which ultimately led to Portugal’s international isolation (if you’ve ever been to Lisbon you must have seen the massive ‘Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar’ at the Tagus shore that commemorates those wars’ losses).

Indeed, does it make sense to preserve the empire at the cost of a permanent war? The insurgent officers thought that it doesn’t. So on the day of the revolution, the radio broadcasted a popular song from 1974 Eurovision – which was a secret signal for the military officers to take over strategic government posts. The transition was smooth and bloodless. To support the military, citizens gathered at the flower market, with lots of carnation flowers (hence the revolution’s name). The premier Marcelo Caetano surrendered, and the coup d’état was officially completed.

Lesson learnt: military commanders may lose loyalty to the regime if they dislike some particularly bad war strategies led by the government, or in case they find new ideologies (such as nationalism) more appealing than the old ones.

And while military commanders may control armies and guns, economic elites can be just as powerful at staging a revolution – since they own immense economic resources. Historically, economic elites were especially eager to overthrow governments that pushed some questionable economic agenda – such as socialist reforms. For instance, this was the case during the Chilean coup d’état of 1973, where Chilean economic elites felt threatened by the president Salvador Allende – who aimed to nationalize industry, increase taxes, and redistribute land to the poor. Similar thing happened during the Bolivian National Revolution of 1952: the economic elites raised to restore their power, undermined by the socialist reforms of the president Victor Paz Estenssoro that reduced the power of landowners and planned to redistribute their wealth.

Finally, the religious elites, such as church and the clergy, could often be equally influential – as they have access not to guns and money, but to people’s beliefs.

Perhaps the most famous revolution led by religious leaders was the Iranian revolution of 1979. It was driven by a diverse mix of factors. First, in the 60s Iran’s Mohammad Reza Shah initiated a series of drastic reforms aimed at modernizing the country – giving women rights of vote, providing free compulsory education, etc. Shia clergy criticized secular education as a way to westernization and the loss of national identity. At the same time, a large proportion of peasant population moved to cities, where they were drawn to mosques run by priests that despised the government. Finally, nationalist sentiments were on the rise too, as the clergy criticized Shah for being too pro-western and too close to oil companies.

The anti-governmental agenda was propagated by the visionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini who formulated an ideology based on Islam, democracy and nationalism, as well as demonization of the US. Khomeini encouraged protests, first peaceful, then more violent, and deemed all victims as martyrs. ‘Happy are those who have died as martyrs. Unhappy am I that I still survived’, he claimed (the religion of death truly!). Workers went on strikes paralyzing the oil industry and economy, while the mass protests unfolded. Eventually, US criticized the regime for using too much violence in suppressing the demonstrations and withdrew its support of Shah, and he fled the country. To highlight the national identity, the revolution was undergoing under the slogan ‘Neither West, not East, but Islamic republic’. Alas, when the revolution eventually succeeded, the clergy pronounced democracy a Western concept, and commenced decades of authoritarian rule. Not all revolutions end up as planned!

Step 3. Unite diverse social groups and build a civil society

Revolts driven by one single category of population (such as young urban residents active on Twitter) are not significant in terms of their impact. As Goldstone writes, society is not just a uniform homogeneous structure, but millions of active people and groups whose actions ‘continually recreate and reinforce the social order’. So in order for a revolution to be successful, the protests need to engage as many social groups as possible: old and young, urban and rural, professionals and working class.

For example, during the Nicaraguan revolution of 1972, the Sandinista (FSLN) movement united workers, peasants, businessmen, and even the Catholic Church of Latin America (that actively leaned towards helping poor and improving human rights – the causes that the government had no interest in). Indeed, when the church is on your side, it’s hard to present revolutionaries as marginalized extremists!

However, it’s not sufficient to have protesters united by common frustration. They should be organized well. Revolutions without leadership and action plan are a road to nowhere. What helps to organize the population is the existence of local non-governmental organizations, workers unions, student movements, professional groups, opposition parties, as well as visionary leaders. In other words – there’s a need for at least some sort of a proto civil society.

For example, the Russian revolution of February 1917 succeeded thanks to the exceptionally good organization of society (which refutes the narrative that Russians are politically passive!). Between the years 1905 and 1917, there were dozens of organized political communities emerging from underground to later constitute the new provisional government. By 1917, the parliament had already consisted of very diverse groups: including liberals, left wing and right wing parties, and representatives of workers unions. The society was civil as hell. So when the monarchy eventually fell, all social groups became part of the new provisional government, from worker councils to committees of soldiers in army battalions. The new government changed its mix but always involved a key coalition of liberals and moderate socialists. Alas, half a year later, the power was taken over by communists in yet another coup d’état – which only proved that whoever is organized best, has the best chance of succeeding. But let’s skip that dark page of history.

Of course, it’s difficult for a civil society to emerge in countries controlled by dictators who prevent any opposition form arising and establishing itself. One sad example of this are the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010s. 

Originally, the revolts started in Tunisia and were triggered by self-sacrifice of Mohamed Bouazizi – a street vendor who set himself on fire after the police had harassed him and destroyed his fruit cart. He was the sole bread winner for a large family with 6 children. The story found wide resonance among diverse social groups: middle class, workers, students, professionals. Indeed, in a repressive police state of Tunisia under the president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali everyone felt equally powerless (like in ‘prison with a beach’). So during the subsequent revolts, millions of people went to the streets to demand less corruption, more democracy, employment, and security. Over the course of next few years, not only Ben Ali, but 3 other presidents were overthrown, and 6 more countries had significant political changes.

Unfortunately, democratic revolutions that seek to merely overthrow authoritarian regimes often lack their own constructive ideology – and therefore struggle with future leadership. Such revolutions often produce flawed democracies. Even though the Arab Spring revolts saw a remarkable unity across various social groups, the protesters failed to organize themselves into viable political force, political parties, they were divided and lacked leadership. For example, when Egyptian revolutionaries had overthrown the regime of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and the country held a round of democratic presidential elections, the candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood party Mohamed Morsi won the election – simply because it was the only well-organized political faction that had existed for decades. As a result, Morsi concentrated all power among Islamists – not the best outcome for a democratic revolution!

Lesson learnt: it’s important to build a civil society with well-organized political parties, and engage people into politics. Otherwise radical groups will take advantage of the post-revolution chaos: whether these are Bolsheviks or religious radicals from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Step 4. Propagate the resistance narrative

When it comes to politics, the battle of ideas is often more influential than battles fought on barricades – as the former provide foundation for the latter. Whether it’s the ideas of communism, religious fundamentalism, liberalism, or nationalism – spreading of new ideologies helps to inspire revolutions by giving protesters the sense of moral superiority. There has to be some alternative point of view circulating in society that would challenge the governmental propaganda.

In theory, every society under authoritarian rule consists of three groups of people: true believers (people who 100% support the regime), dissidents (rebels and protesters), and double thinkers (people who don’t have any strong feelings about either, usually the majority). The task of revolutionary leaders is to convince double thinkers to join the opposition side. An even more difficult task: to make ‘true believers’ doubt their beliefs. Think of policemen shooting at peaceful protesters and harassing people arrested at police stations. If such people don’t eventually buy the revolutionary rhetoric, the regime will retain its loyal defenders.

Historically speaking, the more idealistic the revolutionary narrative is, the better it works. It helps to frame the struggle not merely as a battle between two ideologies but a battle between two abstractions like good and evil (true Islam vs blasphemous polytheism, freedom vs intolerable oppression, etc). The more emotional, the better. Alas, history also shows that such narratives don’t necessarily need to include any precise political program for the future: ‘vague and utopian promises’ often lead to very upsetting outcomes when the new government all of a sudden turns into dictatorship.

It’s helpful when the revolutionary narrative is incorporated into some historical context. For example, during the Maccabean Revolt of 167 BCE, Jewish partisans fought guerrilla war against the Syrian dynasty of Seleucids that prohibited practice of Jewish rituals in the Jerusalem Temple. To promote their beliefs, the partisans were reciting the Biblical story of Joshua who liberated Canaan (Jewish people have always been great at preserving the tradition!). Eventually, the insurgents won and took over the Temple. The rest of the story is well-known: they lit the Temple flame, and even though it only had oil enough for a day, it burned for 8 days in total (hence the 8 candles in a menorah).

What are the modern-day revolutionary narratives? I would say we’re still under the influence of ideas of John Locke and the promises of constitutional revolutions of the 17-19th centuries. Republic, constitution, parliament. Guidance by reason, inspiration from the Roman senate. Natural rights, religious toleration, and consent of citizens to be ruled. Inspired by Locke, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, declaring that all people have natural rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Indeed, many famous documents, from the Declaration of Independence to Meiji constitution, were based on Locke’s idea of ‘universal rights and consent of the governed’. And the 21st century revolutions are just constitutional revolutions of 17th century that arrived with a delay.

Opposition rhetoric has to spread efficiently through broad communication channels. For example, the visionary leader of Egyptian revolution, Gamal Abdel Nasser, gained wide popularity thanks to extensive tours through the country and radio broadcasts of his charismatic speeches (inserted right after the concerts of popular Arab singers, such as Umm Kulthum who was singing about love, loss, and… Arab nationalism). The current revolutionary ideas, especially propagated by young educated people, spread through social media platforms such as Twitter. Which isn’t perfectly efficient as it would never reach the part of the population that is older, less urban and less online.

The resistance narratives not only have to be spread widely, but also spread consistently. For example, that was the reason why Bolsheviks managed to take over the Russian government in October 1917 revolution. The first revolution of that year, the February one, succeeded at overthrowing the monarchy and left the society extremely politicized: everyone read political brochures and went to demonstrations, while various political factions competed for popular support. However, after nearly 10 months, people became less politically involved and more concerned by other pressing things: such as effects of WWI with its food and energy shortages, rising crime, etc. The political excitement was losing momentum, and everyone was getting passive – apart from the Bolshevik propagandists! For example, Vladimir Lenin was writing extreme amounts of texts per day (more than 30,000 pages in total) – trying to dominate public discourse and popular thought via articles and publications. Eventually, his efforts paid off: in October, communists ceased control of the government. Lesson learnt: don’t ever stop spreading your ideology to the masses – otherwise your enemies will take over. Plurality of political discourse is of paramount importance.

Fortunately, 70 years later, communist ideas lost much of their initial appeal. For instance, during the times of the Velvet revolution of 1989 in Czechoslovakia, the ideology of communism was already weakened to such an extent that neither government nor elites believed into it. The military was equally indifferent towards the government. Which created a room for new narratives: the network of underground groups, movements and worker unions (led by Vaclav Havel), as well as underground media were spreading popular liberal ideas from the countries around. Eventually, nearly everyone accepted the fact that there’re ideas out there better than communism that are worth pursuing.

Step 5. Wait for a favorable international environment

For better or worse, political communities don’t exist in isolation. Geopolitics matter. Even though many foreign powers claim to respect the principle of national self-determination, the reality shows that countries tend to pursue international politics in a way most beneficial to them.

Many oppressive regimes rely on foreign support. For example, half of all non-democratic regimes on the territory of ex-Soviet Union are backed by Putin’s government. Alas, that’s the reason that made massive 2020 protests in Belarus unsuccessful, as well as January 2022 revolts in Kazakhstan. Similarly, lots of authoritarian leaders in the Middle East and Latin America were historically backed by Western regimes that made democratic development of the region rather slow.

However, it’s not always bad – fortunately, foreign powers usually care about their international reputation. The dictators who overuse violence against civilians tend to quickly lose credibility in the international community. So when the foreign beneficiaries get dissatisfied with politics of the regime, they may withdraw their support, and even start aiding revolutionaries.

For example, it’s interesting to note that success of the Cuban revolution of 1959 was largely attributed to the good international environment – mainly by the fact that US had withdrawn support of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Previously, US controlled most of Cuban sugar exports through its large business holdings in the country, and Batista was supported by the US thanks to his loyalty to America and its business interests. When revolutionary momentum gained traction, with Fidel and Raul Castro as its leaders, Batista was not hesitating to use violence against the protesters, and executed hundreds of workers and students. Disapproving the violence, US president Dwight Eisenhower stopped supply of arms to the Cuban regime. That instantly weakened the government and allowed Castro with his small group of guerilla fighters to eventually seize the power.

What’s even more interesting is that later Che Guevara rationalized his theory of revolutions saying that the only thing that’s needed is a well-organized group of guerillas (a ‘foco’). Alas, the Cuban scenario was far from universal: guerilla revolutionaries failed in other countries with more powerful regimes backed by the US. And Che Guevara himself was executed while working with a group of guerillas in Bolivia. Lesson learnt: don’t fight a regime that is actively supported by much more powerful agents. At least wait until it compromises its reputation.

Similar way, the loss of foreign support screw the authoritarian regime in Nicaragua: during the most violent stage of 1979 revolution, president Somoza imposed the Martial Law and supplied National Guard forces with planes, tanks and artillery to shoot thousands of protesters who were barricading the cities. Only after the army ran out of US funding (due to the lost support of Jimmy Carter), the regime started to disintegrate and eventually collapsed, with Somoza fleeing to Honduras. Funny enough, when Ronald Reagan was elected American president in 1980, he saw Sandinistas as communist allies and decided to finance… the contra-revolutionary forces that destabilized the country for many years forward. You never know who the foreign powers will choose to back up!

Revolutions are bloody. ‘Death thus raged in every shape, and as usually happens in such times, there was no length to which violence didn’t go’, described Thucydides the revolution in the Greek polis of Korkyra. However, the more blood a dictator sheds to suppress the revolts, the more likely other countries are to step in. For instance, that was the case of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in Libya, where the president Muammar Gaddafi used so much violence against the protesters that it ultimately triggered a civil war. As a result, UN agreed to intervene to protect the civilians and imposed an embargo on arms. Gaddafi fled the country in August, and was later murdered in October. Alas, it didn’t end the civil war, which continued with one faction of Libya’s government supported by UN and Turkey, another – by Egypt and Russia. Foreign interventions can go bad. But could the UN intervene in every messy situation? No. First of all, Libya didn’t have nuclear weapons (alas, countries with weapons of mass destruction have more sovereignty!). Second, Gaddafi didn’t have much political support even among the closest regimes in the region. For instance, all 22 members of the Arab League had unanimously opposed Gaddafi – just like they did with Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait. I wish one day the world would unanimously oppose a few more dictators… especially the ones who love to invade independent Eastern European nations for no reason.

In any case, the international environment matters. It’s important who your friends are, and how much wealth and power they have. For instance, support from the powerful friends is what helped Bahrain monarchy to stay in power in 2011. Inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the Shia majority of Bahraini population went to the streets to protest and request more democracy. Alas, the ruling dynasty of Bahrain are Sunnis, just like all other monarchies of the Gulf, so the the king Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa simply asked other monarchs for support via the Gulf Cooperation Council. Happy to defend fellow Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait intervened militarily, while UN didn’t dare to. So even though Arab Spring inspired massive protests across the Arabian peninsula (for example, Oman witnessed the largest demonstrations in history), all Gulf monarchies easily survived. Not only because wealthier countries feed people better, but because fellow monarchs help each other via guns, troops and money lending.

What to do after the revolution?

So that’s how to organize a revolution in a nutshell. But, unfortunately, overthrowing existing government is one thing and creating a new stable democratic regime is another. What follows after the revolution are endless decisions about conduct of elections, writing new legislation, setting up taxation, decisions about centralization or decentralization of power, revival of economy, revaluation of existing allies, etc. All these disputes may easily trigger post-revolutionary power struggles, with many groups emerging and fighting for power – and the more radical they are, the higher chances they hold. Vaclav Havel didn’t expect nationalists to emerge and split Czechoslovakia. Russian liberals didn’t expect that the country would be taken over by bloody communists and kept this way for more than 70 years.

Many countries that underwent revolutions end up with weak governments prone to corruption and authoritarianism. It takes time to build strong democratic institutions and a good governance. And it’s hard to do it when a country has no previous history of democratic rule.

One educational example of this was the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. After the collapse of Soviet Union, Ukraine ended up with president Leonid Kuchma, who quickly became criminal and corrupted. To stay in power, he nominated the prime minister Viktor Yanukovich to become a new president and poisoned the popular opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. The subsequent election was obviously rigged, and the large protests unfolded – with military forces and Supreme Court supporting opposition. Luckily, the new elections took place, and the opposition candidate won the majority of votes. The revolution had technically succeeded. However, what happened next was far from successful. Yushchenko proved to be a notoriously bad president, who spent most of his presidency fighting with his ex-ally Yulia Tymoshenko. As a result, at the next elections in 2010, Yushchenko got miserable 6% votes, while Yanukovich was re-elected, this time voluntarily – as if no revolution took place whatsoever!

So did millions of people protest in vain? Not entirely. In 4 years, yet another wave of protests would shake Ukraine during its 2014 Maidan revolution – which would prove to be highly successful and leave the country with a proper democratic regime. Once the people taste power, it’s hard to go back and accept the authoritarian rule.

Even unsuccessful revolutions have long-term consequences.

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