You say you wanna revolution

I had a funny thought the other day.  Image you were a twenty year old in Turn-of-the-Century Russia.  You were at the peak of that time in your life when you see everything that’s wrong in the world and you want to change it.  You’re living under and oppressive Emperor who opposes democratic change and cares nothing for his own wealth.  You know what’s really sad?  Unless you were blessed with an extremely long life, that was a good as life was ever going to get for you.

I’ve never been a fan of this song.  It’s just too long.

But it does have a great line

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

The song is a pessimistic view of violent revolution that came out at a time in history where there was a loud minority in the USA proposing such a step.  My only problem with the MTNBSATOB* line is that it doesn’t go far enough.  In lots of places, if your new boss was no worse than the old boss, you got off easy.

Being a part of the punk rock scene for a couple decades now, I’ve heard plenty of people claim that a leftist revolution is that solution to our problems.  A leftist revolution in the USA is highly implausible.  Also highly implausible is the revolution that certain right-wing extremists call for.

But let’s say for a second that one of these were possible. Would it be advisable?  Say there were tens of millions of armed, mohawked vegan punx out there ready to Smash the State and start over with something, would violent revolution be a route to consider?

The long answer:

The short answer:

I’d love to see the plan!  Please put it in writing and I’ll be glad to forward it to the FBI.  For real, I’m snitchin’ on you. 

No, hell no, I don’t want to smash the state.  I don’t want to overthrow the government and replace it with one that follows the exact letter of the Constitution.  I don’t want to devolve power into self-governing units of voluntary associations.  I don’t want to abolish private property.

At most I want to make a few tweaks.  There’s no need for a revolution for that.

Like I said, I’ve spent years considering my thoughts on this, and I’ve read up on the Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Mexican and several African revolutions.  I’ve read about many of the resulting dictatorships.  I have a BA in Classical Studies, so I don’t want anyone to think is my field- it’s not.  Just something I’m interested in.  So take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

War of Independence vs Revolution

People who want to overthrow the government like to claim that the government is illegitimate, or better yet, foreign.  Because the most difficult problem for revolutionaries is dealing with all the people who supported the previous government.

The government that you want to overthrow may or may not have been elected, but it’s a simple fact that governments can’t exist without some degree of consent of the governed.  That doesn’t mean it’s tremendously popular, it may mean nothing more than the fact that people are resigned to the devil they know.  They might not like it if you just up and replace it with something they don’t know.  Or they may like the general direction of the government, but they don’t think it goes far enough in the direction it’s going.  Or maybe only 30% like the government, but those people really love it and will be very angry if you destroy it.  At any rate, lots of people aren’t going to be happy with rapid change.

So what does a revolutionary do with those people?  Here’s where the difference between a violent and non-violent (or mostly non-violent) revolutionary becomes important.  The Fidel Castro or the Mao Zedong has already shown that he can shoot his countrymen for his cause.  He’ll have to protect the revolution’s gains.  If he has to shoot some more people he will.  That’s not a good way to start out.

Also, there’s the problem of defining goals.  If the goal is “throw the other country out”, that’s not hard to define.  You make it tough enough, they’ll leave.  If the goal is to overthrow this dictator who took power through extra-legal means and hold elections, that’s harder, because like it or not, some people did support that guy.  If the goal is upend the whole social order and create something totally different… how do you know when you’ve reached that goal?

That’s if the revolution succeeds.  If you cause too much trouble, the population can turn against you and pick someone even worse than the guy you started fighting against to lead them.  That’s not good either.

 Is it really that bad?

Because it could get worse.

If it’s that bad…

Say you’re in Stalin’s USSR.  How much worse could it get?  Probably not much, right?  But on a personal level, it could get a lot worse for you.  And more importantly, it could get a lot worse for everyone who joins your rebel squad so you’re going to get few takers.  And among those who do join your crew, there are going to be at least a few that are excited to sell you out and send you off to Room 101 to be eaten alive by rats.  Good luck getting that revolution going.

The lesson I take away from places like China, Russia, North Korea and Cuba is that once a totalitarian regime gets in power, they’re going to hold it for as long as they feel like.  If the elites decide that holding power isn’t worth ruling over an economic basket case, they might be like China and change course.  Or maybe some foreign power will swoop in and take the guy out.  But the worst dictatorships rarely face existential threats from within.  People have grown into old age in North Korea, waiting for the Kim regime to end.  With Kim Jong Un being a mere 31 years old, and giving no indication that he’s going to be anything different than his father and grandfather, we might be talking several generations that live and die there.

Of course North Korea is maybe a bad example since North Korea’s dictatorship was mostly just installed by the Soviet Union.  Or maybe it’s not, because that takes us all the way back to that young man in turn-of-the-century Russia who was joining up to overthrow the Emperor.  Thanks a lot buddy.


*Trying to start a meme here



  1. The problem with revolution is that the government that follows usually is worse than the one it replaces. Is that necessarily true? Obviously not … we were lucky in this country … but where else did a violent revolution actually improve the government of the people? I can’t think of any place.

    I always liked that song. It was cynical and it was very much of its time.

    1. I’m just not a big fan of 70s Who. 60s Who I like a lot.

      I think there was one important reason why the USA was able to at least appear more successful than other revolutions. We were kicking the British out- nothing brings people together like having a “foreign” enemy. Because of that we were able to paper over a lot of differences that otherwise would have come to the surface (and did later, the Civil War was a revolution of sorts). George Washington stepping down after two terms was a key moment too. Maybe one of the most important things any president ever did.

      A place where a violent revolution improved the government? If it we are talking about a war of independence, then a lot of Central and South American countries did better, at least in the short term- Spain was pretty awful to its colonies. East Timor is probably better off on its own, but it might be too early to tell.

      The only countries I can think of that had a violent revolutions that weren’t breaking away from anywhere, but ended up better off were Eastern Bloc countries at the end of the Cold War. But that was kind of a unique era in history. Otherwise, drawing a blank.

      1. Typically they replace one vicious dictator with another vicious dictator. We had some intelligent guys on our team for the American revolution. And as luck would have it, a genuine national distrust of kings and dictators.

        Our founding fathers knew we’d end up having a war over slavery. They just decided it was better to compromise and postpone the reckoning until after they were dead. Whether or not they were right is still a matter for argument.

        It’s pretty hard to figure out what countries are better after a revolutionary war. When revolution is bloodless, I think they have a better chance. The more blood is spilled, the worse it seems to be post-revolution.

      2. I need to read up more about the Founders, it’s a huge gap in my knowledge.

        Non-violent revolution is definitely the way to go. It doesn’t always work, but it rarely makes things worse. At the very least there’s no one around trying to get revenge. Violence just empowers the zealots.

      3. There are some really super books on the writing of the constitution — David McCollough’s “John Adams” is a pretty good place to start, but there are others from different perspectives, less renowned but as good. To me, this is riveting stuff. The most riveting being the realization that they ALL knew — every one of them — there would be a bloody war over slavery. It was already THE line drawn in the sand in 1789. If they hadn’t made The Great Comprimise — a pact with the devil himself — they would never have gotten the southern states to vote for the constitution and there wouldn’t be a United States as we know it. It was an evil compromise and no one was under any illusions that slavery was right or just. They merely thought forming a nation was more important.

        Were they correct? Probably, though I hate admitting it. The process by which they finally managed to come to a temporary truce on the biggest issue of the times is fascinating.

      4. I’ll have to check that out. John Adams has always interested me, and also his son, John Quincy, one of the most committed abolitionists of that era.

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