Revolutions aren’t created. They come.
The best analysis of social revolutions is to be found in the work of Harvard professor Theda Skocpol. Her 1979 assessment of the causes and consequences of revolutions is stellar. She notes that while political revolutions are more common—England in the 17th century, the founding of the United States in 1776, etc.—social revolutions that upend the existing social structure are quite rare.
They come out of cataclysmic splits between the economic ruling class and the government as well as the people’s conditions, are prompted partly by outside factors, and—this is critical—rarely accomplish the stated goal for the ordinary person. France, Russia, China are the most obvious examples with Cuba perhaps and Algeria as ‘also rans’.
The massive segmentation between rich and poor is profound, poverty and utter immiseration are the lot of the many, the government is utterly corrupt and massively weak, and no one is able to contain or control the upheaval.
Social movements, however, do not and cannot create revolution. The causes of social revolution are structural and ultimately inevitable or the system adjusts and survives. Think the New Deal and the Great Depression. Adjustment and massive reform saved democracy and the nation. And thus revolutions that are seeking a massive alteration in wealth and class are not frequent because most nation states which are not inherently totally dysfunctional are capable of those reforms.
What ought to capture our attention is not just the causes, however, but the consequences. Social revolutions are always writ in the name of “the people”. They never once in human history have accomplished this task of improving the lot of the ordinary person. Not once. Not ever.
The aftermath of the French, Russian, and Chinese social revolutions has been horrific for the ordinary person. The government always has a role in stabilizing distribution of food and essential life goods. When that is destroyed, the people in whose name the Revolution has been waged are the first to suffer, even unto death. Hunger, massive dislocation, predatory crime, and huge instability are what follow.
Into that maw of desperation, what arises is a ‘people’s government’ that is always totalitarian. It does not exist to create beneficial supports for the many; it is to restore law and order at the sacrifice of everyone including the desperate—the very PEOPLE in whose name this chaos has originated. Regulating the poor is as much a part of restoring order as are the tumbrels taking aristocrats to the guillotine. If ever there was a case of “shock doctrine” it would be this—laws and regulations designed to create and stabilize the new revolutionary authority are as vicious and inhumane as any that emerge from the old order. People who were part of the original revolution – small land owners, shopkeepers, intellectuals—are suddenly demonized and often killed.
“Kulaks” in Russia weren’t wealthy—they were middling people. But when their land was taken and they were executed, what happened was predictablethe peasants were unable to work the land in collectives with which they had no real experience, and they became objectified enemies of the state. The revolutionary government of Russia created a new kind of corporatism, putting state before the people, demanding targets of production that were unattainable, and placing wrenching labor standards upon the people—once victims of Tsarist feudalism and now victims of state mandated production. Who benefited here?
China did some better for longer, but class hate arose in the early 60s when agricultural workers expressed anger at those who did not toil in the fields. Class warfare was increased, not diminished, by targeting well educated people as betrayers of the revolution. They were removed from their jobs and sent to be ‘re-educated’ in the glories of field work thus losing all the skills and loyalty that the original revolution had created. The violence of the Red Guard was unspeakable. But it was predictable. That manifestation of failed solidarity and respect for occupational differences was inevitable. Social revolutions are always driven by resentment. Class differences are not eradicated—people are.
To hear American millennials and leftover 60s radicals espouse the demand for Revolution is to listen to people who have willfully refused to learn from history. To espouse “socialism” begs us to know what the terms and definitions are.
Socialism does not exist as a viable way to create a functional society. It is the mirror image of corporatism in the private sector – absentee managers making decisions for the many regardless of the impact on those people’s lives. There is no such thing as democratic socialism. As a form of corporatocracy, the state will set its own wants and subordinate all to its superior will.
There IS democratic social welfare, and all the Western democracies embrace it including the USA. The difference is always degree, not kind. The Scandinavian nations are capitalistic, free market nations with a high degree of social welfare. The USA was once their peer, but GOP erosions are a major threat. NONE of these nations, however, is socialist economically, and none of them got where they are via revolution.
To hear a segment of American progressives extol both Revolution and Socialism is to send cold chills down the spines of both historians and sociologists who study these issues.
There is no romance in either—chaos and want and death and harm to the vulnerable are the outcomes of both. We are chasing a fool’s paradise if we think the USA is so dysfunctional that we cannot change—as Scandinavia and EU nations and even the USA have already done—via incremental gains.
The goal is improvement in the quality of human beings’ lives. As the Right is prepared to make cannon fodder of citizens in the pursuit of empire, it appears the Left is prepared to do the same in pursuit of a nebulous notion of economic equality. Both are utterly and despicably immoral sacrifices of other people in the name of some unattainable goal.
Those who understand that REAL progress comes step by step now are faced with an ever greater challenge to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for us all. From Left and Right we are being challenged with mythology of change. But history gives us a guidepost—and we ignore it at our peril. Revolutions are disastrous and just as likely to produce totalitarianism as sieges from the Right. We must remember history and take it to heart, or we will make the same errors our predecessors did, and we will not be the better for it.