02 April 2009


We discussed the Communist Manifesto in class today. The thing that most intrigued me was the potential explanation for why some revolutions "work", meaning that they accomplish what they set out to do without causing more problems than they solve, and some fail. This is something that's puzzled me at least since high school. We had the American Revolution, which is considered one that "worked." Then, roughly a quarter century later, we had the French Revolution, which was a miserable failure in terms of its goal of improving people's lives.

One of the key differences is which group of people was revolting, and how much did they have to lose? Essentially, the American Revolution was not being run primarily by "radicals." It was being run by people with property, land, business interests. Yes, there were radicals, but it was not the radicals calling the shots. The ones calling the shots had a vested interest in not upsetting the existing society too much. They had something to lose if the entire social order were overturned.

Contrast that to the French Revolution. That one was being run by the radicals, by the extremists, by people with nothing left to lose. They had no interest whatsoever in preserving anything of the previous social order. It had brought their lives to utter misery, so there seemed to be no reason to keep any of it. Starting over from scratch, however, is very difficult to do well, particularly for something as complicated as an entire country.

This idea would also suggest that, if you want a successful revolution, you need to get the middle and upper classes involved. They'll have a better perspective for what parts of the system really do work well enough, and which parts can just be disposed of. The people at the bottom of the scale, with the most reason to revolt, are less likely to be able to recognize, or even care about, such issues.

It's interesting stuff to think about. While it seems unlikely that this is the only factor influencing the success of a revolution, it does seem like an idea worth applying and examining. I don't know of any counter-examples, but I'm hardly a historian. I would also suggest that this gives a reason even for those who claim to act solely for their own self-interest to avoid driving any segment of society to the point where it feels that it has nothing left to lose. There are other, better, reasons, of course, but here's one more.


Paul said...

Good analysis! I can't think of any single issue more important than the one you've uncovered. Something else to consider, though: Many of the leaders of the American Revolution had experience in the colonial legislatures. They possessed a practical knowledge of government. In most other revolutions, however, the leaders have had little or no practical experience before being called upon to run a country. I think that difference may account for something of the difference we see in outcomes.

Qalmlea said...

That's certainly another point worth considering. And I should have credited the analysis to my professor, Pelletti. I ran a bit further with it than we did in class, but the initial idea I got from him.