Why do revolutions happen?
14 December
10 January

As to where a revolution will happen next, I have no idea. But, I think you can look for signs. You might look for regimes that are overly reliant on a foreign backer, because if that foreign backer then lets them go, it might be that those regimes are more fragile than you think.

Another thing you might look at is regimes that rely overwhelmingly on what you might call despotic power or coercive power rather than infrastructural power. Infrastructural power means that you have lots of institutions that connect the state to civil society. So it’s something that democracies are very good at. If I’ve got an everyday grievance, if the bin man doesn’t collect my rubbish, then I can contact Islington Council. They might not do anything about it, but at least there’s someone I could ostensibly speak to.

An authoritarian regime lacks those kind of intermediary associations. Every crisis or every dispute becomes existential, so they rely overwhelmingly on despotic and coercive power to strike fear into their people rather than have these intermediary associations that channel grievances effectively.

"What determines a revolution’s success? A mistake often made by protestors is to think that you can simply replicate the last revolution and it will happen again here."

The third thing you might look at is more demographic. You might look at a young population where people don't get the jobs they think they're entitled to. One of the things that happened in the Arab world and North Africa is you get this demographic bulge where you get a bunch of young people that come through – they’re educated, they’ve at least finished high school, sometimes they’ve finished college, and they come out and there are no jobs. Middle-class people in those countries are less likely to have jobs than people who left school very young. And so those people might well think this is a corrupt regime, it’s personalistic, it’s nepotistic, it rewards its friends, but there’s no meritocracy going here, and if you can’t leave then you better fight and do something about it.

What determines a revolution’s success? A mistake often made by protestors is to think that you can simply replicate the last revolution and it will happen again here. You saw that very powerfully in the Arab uprisings, that once Tunisia happened, people thought, ‘We’ll just do the same thing – we’ll go and occupy a square and we’ll have these similar slogans, and we’ll set ourselves up with Western media, we’ll use social media to particular ends, and we’ll have these parallel slogans and the same kind of organisational makeup and it will work’.

"If a regime maintains its hold over the coercive apparatus, the military, the ministry of interior, the secret police and so on, it can actually survive a long time."

It turns out that actually authoritarian regimes are not stupid all of the time, and actually they’re quite astute at learning. So a really, really crucial point is less about the protesting side than the regime side, that if a regime maintains its hold over the coercive apparatus, the military, the ministry of interior, the secret police and so on, it can actually survive a long time.

Another big factor in a revolution succeeding or not is whether the regime has powerful foreign allies. Equally, if those allies give up on the regime then the thing can go up in smoke quite quickly – the big example of that is 1989 in Eastern and Central Europe when Gorbachev effectively says to his client states: ‘You’re on your own. We’ve backed you for so long, we’ve put down protests before, but now you’re going to have to generate your own form of popular sovereignty’, and regimes collapse within a year.


One should begin this question by thinking what constitutes a ‘revolution’. Is it a popular (i.e. exploited and popular classes) uprising that coincides with a change in government? Is it a coup d’état? Also, do changes in societal norms and values lead to revolution? Do deprivations ever cause revolutions? What is the relationship between violence and revolutions?

In thinking about these questions, we can realise immediately that revolution is only a term we give to a specific set of events that lead to change in government. So, ‘revolution’ is an analytical construction that pundits and scholars could use to categorise a series of events. Yet what is common to all students of revolution is that they all recognise that capturing the state is a central theme. And classifying an event as a revolution bears a crucial consequence for power wielding: legitimisation of capturing the state.

There are many ways to conceive of a revolution and its causes. This brief response only highlights some of the prominent approaches to analyse ‘revolution’. All of this depends on the selection and analysis factors and event(s) leading to the event we designate as ‘revolution’.

The ‘Idealist’ or ‘Liberal’ Approach

The first way to understand revolutions is to think about the ideas/values causing the revolution – we will refer to this as the ‘idealist’ or ‘liberal’ approach. Here, analysts are on the lookout for the ideas that people adopt and whether they correspond to that of the state. We can begin to investigate the role of intellectuals, education and culture to appreciate what values people adopt in the society under question. Under this schema, the role of intellectuals and ideologues – in social sciences this also known as ‘agency’ – is critical; because they are responsible for either ‘indoctrinating’ or ‘raising the awareness’ of the people. In the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 or the French Revolution in 1789 or even in the Arab Spring in 2010, for instance, one should analyse the works of Islamic ideologues, the Enlightenment intellectuals and the Internet activists influencing these revolutions. Ideas of the ‘old’ dominant system are put in conflict – via intellectuals – with the new ideology (or values). Tension, of course, results from the discrepancies between reality and fiction; that is, the role of the new ideas is to enlighten the people against the lies and atrocities of their tyrannical regimes.

This approach assumes that if individuals learned what the truth is, they would automatically rise in indignation against their tormentors. Here the people’s ‘false consciousness’ allegedly deludes them into thinking that their current situation is tolerable. But once the truth is exposed, there is no going back: the old regime cannot hold off the masses as it has lost its legitimacy. In this way, government legitimacy is tied to a social consensus on that government.

The underlying assumption of this approach is that politics can be a battle between good and evil. If one party wants to maintain power, then it must be fair and respectful to its citizens. This overemphasis on ‘truth’ suggests that most people (those who form the social consensus) cannot help but be captivated by the ‘truth’ that is presented about the old system. Nonetheless, those exposing the old regime are themselves political agents, who plan to capture the state. This approach then introduces the new ideas as if they were conceived (by the public) as real and true. At the end of the day, liberals emphasise that revolutions can be avoided only if governments and intellectuals fulfil their roles vis-à-vis the society – this implies a liberal democratic form of government.

Class analysis

Another way to understand revolution is through class analysis. This focuses on issues related to material interests and conflicts between classes. In this analysis, the world is divided between the ruling class and the poorer classes. The revolution here represents a corrective mechanism that ensures social justice and the reorganisation of the society along leftist terms.

In this Marxist formulation, one must distinguish between the ruling class and the state. The state, with all its apparatuses, serves the ruling class. The latter, through the state, has a variety of tools to keep the population at bay. This includes the armed organs of the state – the military and the police – and cultural tools such as law, media, education, art and religion. This creates status quo under which everyone is happy with where they are. How then do revolutions happen?

Because of rapid modernisation, social changes such as internal migration lead to a disruption of the former socio-economic relations, leading to popular discontent. The prominent Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, would add that for the exploited groups to rise against the ruling class a dual strategy is needed. Gramsci understood that the ruling class maintains its dominant position by restricting the exploited classes through educating them about the social world and their positions. He also recognised that the state is not merely a matter of ‘belief’ or ‘ideology’. But the ruling class can also wield physical violence through the coercive organs of the state. As such – based on one reading of Gramsci – this dual strategy rests on both a cultural campaign and physical attacks against the state. The cultural campaign would aim to unify the dominated groups, and would include a formulation of a new ‘common sense’ for the masses away from that of the ruling group. (This Gramscian approach stresses that deprivations on their own will not lead to a revolt. But only the sustained message could unify the masses against the exploiters). The other part of the campaign includes physical attacks on the state, with the aim of crippling it. Only the combination of these two strategies results in a revolution that installs a new government.

As we can see above, this analysis places causality at the tensions between classes. What determines revolution is the organisation (both militarily and ideologically) of the poorer classes against the rich one. But this determination leads many to criticise Marxist thought. An important critique is that the modern state has different interests than those of the ruling class. So, while the state is indeed interested in material gains, the latter is also bound by its own institutional needs such as the maximisation of power through the rightful monopoly on physical violence and meaning.

The Realist Approach

This last sentence takes us to the last way to explore revolutions in this short response: realism. Realism, another tradition to understand revolution, emphasises that politics is the domain of endless struggles for power. The state entitles its captors to wield power efficiently due to that the state is the sole legitimate wielder of power in its physical (police and military) and symbolic (culture) forms. Through the state, a unified national culture can be imposed – any deviation from that culture can be called out as ‘unapproved’ or ‘illegitimate’ with serious consequences (e.g. exclusion and punishment).

The struggle for power is regulated by the state. But the inability of the latter to manage leads to ‘regime change’ rather than ‘revolution’. Here the state is not a unified actor. Instead, the state is conceived as a constellation of partner institutions that vie against one another for domination. Again, in 1979 Iran, the Shah (ruler) dominated the scene alongside powerful businessmen and security chiefs. The Shah was paranoid and had little trust in his partners. Throughout the uprising (1977-1979), the Shah refused to increase the power of his security apparatus, effectively weakening his own regime. On the other hand, another player – the clerics – realised this opening. The clerics launched attacks and organised the masses against the crippled Shah. At the end, the Shah was removed from power only to be replaced by the clerics, who called for an Islamic Republic (i.e. a new hierarchy of power).

But referring to this event as ‘regime change’ does not mean that the role of popular mobilisation is unimportant. The clerics were tactically allied to a large coalition of political actors who could mobilise their followers despite the repression of the Shah’s security forces. Due to the limitation on the repressive abilities and the scale of the uprising (because of the organisation of the clerics and their allies), the Shah’s security apparatus was ineffective.

In a word, this approach emphasises the causality of the power dynamics between the different fields that compete for domination (security apparatus, the Shah, businessmen, clerics…etc.). When one dominates, this success is not final or absolute. But what is ultimate in politics, because of power struggles, is regime change.

There are of course other ways to understand ‘revolution’. But these three prominent traditions are useful for us to think of socio-political events. After all, the reader (or the investigator) is required to make a choice about what they believe to adopt one tradition or the other. If you believe conscious ideas dictate what individuals do, then idealism/liberalism should inform your analysis. If you think that conflict between social classes determines our reality (understanding causes of change in the world in terms of material interests) then a leftist stance may be suited for you. Finally, if you think that the world of politics is dominated by unconscious and conscious decisions about power struggles, then realism is best positioned for this analysis. All these choices come down to this question: how do you think the social world works?

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