Five Factors To ID A Country Susceptible To Revolution

All revolutions are impossible until they are inevitable. There, take that repackaged wisdom. It is a Leon Trotsky quote that has earned paraphrases from scholars in a variety of fields. I learned the line in a primer on revolutions written by Jack A. Goldstone, a George Mason University public policy professor. He wrote, “even though revolutions may seem inevitable in hindsight, they are usually seen as unlikely, even unimaginable, right up to the moment they actually occur.” A look at the structural factors that Goldstone identified as warning signs of revolution can tell us about what we can expect in the American environment.  

1917: Russian Jewish revolutionary Leon Trotsky (1879 – 1940), pseudonym of Lev Davidovich Bronstein. Original Publication: Russian Album, Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A stable society, in which the general population are either content or sufficiently oppressed, is less susceptible to the power of a public uprising. It can oppress or mollify its way out of almost any problem. Stability, according to Goldstone, means that there is popular participation in the market, the elites are respected by those below them and valued by their ruler, and the ruler provides security to the populace. Social agitation should have little effect under these conditions.

He identified five structural factors which can undermine stability.

“The first is national economic and fiscal strains”: These lead the government to raise taxes, and they make it more difficult for the public to pay for the necessities of their lives. They also help create a disaffected elite because the government will struggle to continue paying the employees of the State.

“Second is growing alienation and opposition among the elites”: This happens as the government is forced to choose between their favored elites. Different groups of elites will see their power or access to the ruler dissipate. Those who end up feeling disaffected may come to see revolutionary change through collaboration with the masses as their best strategic option.

“Third, revolutionary mobilization builds on some form of increasingly widespread popular anger at injustice”: The poor have always known they had no power. The popular anger discussed here comes from a sentiment that common people are losing their standing in society. He explained this with peasants losing their access to land or workers who cannot find sufficient work.

“Fourth, bridging various popular and elite grievances and demands, and linking and mobilizing diverse groups, requires an ideology that presents a persuasive shared narrative of resistance”: These narratives can be invoked with historical connection, and the language of religion and social justice. Goldstone quoted research that found that the narratives that work best are not specific prescriptions but, “vague utopian promises of better times ahead combined with a detailed and emotionally powerful depiction of the intolerable injustice and inescapable evils of the current regime.”

“Finally, a revolution requires favorable international relations”: Successful revolutionary movements generally benefit from either outside support, or the withdrawal of international support for the regime.

If all of these conditions exist it does not mean that the government will simply topple as the wind blows. There still needs to be an event to cause the equilibrium to fall out of balance. The existence of these conditions makes breaking the equilibrium easier. The problem with using these factors to predict revolutions is that it is difficult to measure all of the factors. The alienation of the elites might not be outwardly visible. The popular narrative of resistance might not be explicitly revolutionary. And popular outrage might be repressed until the right moment.

An interesting aside is that, according to the scholarship, revolutions do not come from the grassroots of the poor. They come when a formerly privileged group feels less privileged. This could be read as problematic. The idealistic goal of revolution is to overturn an unequal society to create an equal one. However, if it is disaffected elites and the middle class who cause these revolutions then they should not be trusted by those they are supposed to help. The alternative here would be a semi-revolution that seeks to empower the poor with community building and education, an example of this would be the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program.   

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