Inner Dynamics of Revolutions

tl;dr: make sure you have a good supply of popcorn.

I grew up with revolutions; my father is a historian and his specialty was the evolution of absolutism under Louis XIV and the lead-up French Revolutions that culminated in the big one and the terror.

SDS revolutionaries Columbia U 1968

SDS revolutionaries Columbia University, 1968

Dad also crossed path with revolutions during the student protests when he was a newly-minted professor at Columbia during the 60s. I was a 5, growing up on the steps of Low Library when the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) occupied the building and the president’s office. Dad appears briefly in “The Electric Kool-Ade Acid Test” described something like “Professor Ranum climbed in the window like some kind of bat man in cap and gown and engaged some of the students in debate.”* It was the debate that I remember him talking about; he said one of the students had some actual understanding of Marxist dialectic and could do a passable defense of their actions, but the others were mostly incoherent, angry, and eager to do something.

The few times he told this story, he’d usually shake his head and say, “I lost them when I asked ‘Suppose your revolution succeeds, how will you prevent it from turning into a dictatorship? How will you prevent the next Stalin?'”

trumppatriotIf you follow my maunderings here, you’ve probably noticed I’m fairly fond of attacking the legitimacy of governments and the nationalist system – but I am not exactly a proponent of revolution. Because I can’t answer my dad’s question any more than Mark Rudd could.** Isaiah Berlin was dogged by this same question, and tried to explain liberty in two forms: the liberty to act without interference (negative liberty) and the liberty to act in ways that you wish to, to enhance your life (positive liberty) – the question revolutionaries have to answer is fundamentally whether you can impose liberty on someone.

If you don’t understand immediately why this is an important question, you have only to consider Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s a huge problem with revolutions – which the French experienced too, namely that not everyone is in agreement that the state must be overthrown, so ultimately you wind up flipping the stack so that the oppressor is now oppressed and the oppressor’s supporters are disempowered; the new power structure immediately consolidates and if you have a Robespierre or a Stalin in the room, the period of freedom resulting from the revolution is just a brief interlude before a tragedy.



But there’s a more complicated inner dynamic to revolutions: the proponents of the revolution are usually against something, not for something. This is why they fail: the participants in the revolution are all agreed that the establishment must fall, so they accomplish that, and then they discover there is no agreement about what to replace it with. Then you have Marat, Danton, and Robespierre killing eachother off because they can’t agree about anything other than that the establishment should fall. Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin – same routine: the czar must fall, but can we agree on what kind of state should replace the monarchy? Usually, instead of agreement, you get “the last man standing.”

Let me repeat that a different way: it’s already hard to build a sufficient coalition to overthrow the state, so revolutionaries tend to cooperate with anyone and everyone who wants to overthrow the state, too. And when they succeed, they discover that they’re cheek to cheek with fascist skinheads who want an ethnically cleansed fatherland, libertarians who want to be left alone, anarchists who just want to overthrow states, and religious fringers yelling “Deus Vull’t!” and it’s impossible to politically encompass all that – so the great falling-out begins. Basically, the coalition only ever agreed on one thing and that was temporary anyway.

So, break out your popcorn. Trump’s ascent to power was not a movement to build a specific new thing, it was a coalition to tear down what was perceived as an establishment.

The people who voted for Clinton were often voting against Trump. Meanwhile, Trump was also an anti-establishment protest vote against business as usual. What we just saw was a relatively peaceful revolution against the existing two-party establishment, but nobody was actually revolting in favor of anything. Which is why it’s going to get interesting: Trump’s coalition is a whole lot of anti- and not a whole lot of pro-. That means there’s going to be disappointment, vicious backstage infighting (my money’s on the professional politicians) It’s going to be an insane game of musical chairs and defenestration*** as Trump’s coalition of the deplorable tries to figure out what it’s actually in favor of. A lot of turds are going to float to the top, while others sink.


I’ve read a lot of people in various places talking about revolutions, as if the US is ripe to switch to a dictatorship. All I can suggest is that anyone who thinks that, should study the degree of political misery and social inequality that had to exist in France and Russia before there were revolutions. Popular revolutions generally require deep popular misery. That’s compared to coups – when one form of the establishment takes over from another (as happened in the North American colonies in 1776) it’s the elites and the military that you’ve got to watch out for, because they already know the reins of power and how to manipulate them. If anything like that happens in the US, it’ll look more like Erdogan in Turkey. I’d be more concerned if Trump’s team seemed highly competent and plugged into the police state. I don’t rate either Clinton or Trump as much of a likely leader of a coup, but of the two, Clinton was probably more capable and had more loyal and unified subordinates.


(* I can’t find the exact reference…)

(** Some shameful things happened as a result of my dad’s pricking youthful male egoes. Described here.)

(*** I tried to think what the Latin form of “throw someone under a bus” would be but I couldn’t do it. Anyone?)

Orest Ranum: The Fronde, a French Revolution – a 5 year-long tax insurrection in 1648. There were about 9 revolutions in France before the big one. My favorite has always been the judicial revolt: the judges refused to hear any cases, which seriously jammed things up!

Stanford Philosophy Library: Positive and Negative Liberty (Per Isaiah Berlin)

Chronicle of Higher Education: The Night they Burned Ranum’s Papers


  1. sonofrojblake says

    the participants in the revolution are all agreed that the establishment must fall, so they accomplish that, and then they discover there is no agreement about what to replace it with

    Reminds me of the Joyce Grenfell monologue, where in character as some old wife of an Oxbridge vice chancellor, you hear just her side of a conversation with an angry young man who has importuned her in her house and favours “total anarchy”, to which she responds kindly enough that that’s fine, but who will take care of the “dwains”.

  2. says

    I make a lot of mistakes with WordPress when I am tired; in this case since I had just returned from a red-eye back from LA (followed by a 4hr drive home from the airport in DC) I started this posting and fell asleep face-down in the keyboard. Somehow I managed to hit ‘Publish’ instead of scheduling. There’s more I wanted to say but maybe it’s OK that I didn’t.

    Fascist coups – not that such a thing could happen in the US – are Pro- something. What’s interesting to me about them is that they’re almost always pro- some fiction or other. “Make Italy great again!” – Mussolini. “Make France great again!” – Bonaparte. And so on, endlessly. In a revolution, popular discontent boils over against the establishment – it’s an Anti- establishment political movement. In a fascist coup, the popular delusions of the masses are harnessed to a “Forward into the past!” pro- something movement, almost always a better world. It’s when that better world fails to materialize that the coup begins to disintegrate from its inner tensions. Of course, the leaders of the coups are seldom idealists (like Trotsky or Guevara) and they’re usually purged once their idealism becomes awkward.

    Trump appears to be setting out for a new frontier: putting his family (probably about the only people he hopes won’t knife him in the back) in places where he can rely on them. The same trick might have worked for JFK, except, well, it didn’t. It didn’t work very well for Bill Clinton, either. As the situation evolves, I think the nepotism angle will be interesting.

  3. says

    John Morales@#1:
    Thank you for digging up the google books reference to the original description of the encounter. I started reading Wolfe and maybe that’s what knocked me out. (That book should have been written by Hunter Thompson…)

    Tom Hayden is mentioned as the “outside agitator” in the scenario; I believe he’s the one dad said was deploying the marxist rhetoric (dad is generally very kind; I suspect he’s being generous, from what I’ve seen of the quality of the SDS’ political thought, e.g.: the port huron statement)

    The story about dad wearing cap and gown makes it sound like that was done special. Actually, dad’s a bit of a weirdo – he always felt that cap and gown is the uniform of a professor, so whenever he was on campus in an official capacity, he was in uniform. He used to lecture in cap and gown, too. I’m going to have to ask him a bit about that when I’m down for thanksgiving; there are probably fun details there I should know. Like I said, I was 5 – but I’m perfectly sure that dad didn’t go “harrumph!” and put on his uniform to go tangle with the students. His office was in Low Library and he was on his way to work (in uniform) and going in the window was practical because the doors were blocked. My dad and I have a long history of climbing in windows doing “urban exploration” – he’s utterly fearless and I’ve seen him climb homemade ladders 5 stories leaning against crumbling stone staircases in medieval castles. “You’re lighter – you can go first” never made me feel any better about it.

  4. cartomancer says

    Well, obviously buses as we know them didn’t exist in any society where Latin was still a spoken language. Probably the closest you’ll get is “currus” – a wheeled vehicle, chariot or wagon, or “carrus” – a heavy goods wagon (the two words are cognates, the latter being more popular in the Middle Ages). Stick the sub- prefix on the front for the sense of going under and change it to a verb and you’d have “subcurration” or “subcarration”, either of which would work if all else were equal. However, there is already a Latin verb “subcurrare”, meaning to run under, support or sustain (it’s the root of our “succour”), so “subcarration” it is.

    You could also use the actual Latin verb “subicere” – to throw under – with the bus element implied (not to be confused with subiacere – to lie under). But we’ve already anglicised that (from its perfect stem subieci) into “subject”, which is slightly different in meaning. I suppose you could prise apart the sub- and the -iacere and re-anglicise it as “subjact”. That would sound very Georgian – 18th century English gentlemen loved that sort of thing.

    But that’s all trying to Latinise a modern American-English idiom. How would actual Romans have expressed such a sentiment? The example that springs to my mind is Cicero’s comment on Octavian in Ad fam. 11.20 “Laudandum adulescentem, ornandum, tollendum”. It’s playing on two different meanings of “tollendum” – either “raised up” or “got rid of” – “the young man ought to be praised, decorated and then advanced/cast aside”.

  5. says

    so “subcarration” it is

    Uploaded to my vocabulary!! Thank you!!

    Are you saying:
    “the young man ought to be praised, decorated and then advanced/cast aside”.
    it should be called “The Ciceronian Principle” instead of “The Peter Principle”?

    This stuff is fascinating. You should do a blog!

  6. cartomancer says

    And while we have the dynamics of revolution and Cicero’s comments on the future Augustus together, I think the transition of the Roman Republic into the Principate is worth considering in this context. It is possible to call the tumultuous events of the mid 1st Century BC a revolution, though in their cultural conservatism and desire to see the Principate as a continuation of the spirit of the Republic many Romans would not have done so. Some might see Julius Caesar’s takeover, and Augustus’s eventual one-man rule as a more of a coup. In fact I think the Roman example shows us that there is a third form of violent political transformation – the civil war caused by a gradual breakdown of political cohesion and estrangement of military and civil power. To some extent the English Civil War of the 17th century is another good example.

    Nobody used the rhetoric of overthrowing the Roman Republic as their rallying cry during its collapse – quite the opposite in fact. It was what you claimed your rivals were trying to do. They were tyrants intent on turning Rome into a despicable Eastern-style monarchy, you were simply trying to restore the Republic to its original virtue. Sulla, Caesar, Antony, Octavian – none of them claimed to be tearing down a stale and unworkable political order, even though that’s exactly what they were doing. The thing about Rome was that the Republican system was designed to serve a medium-sized local city state, not the capital of a Mediterranean empire. Dealing with imperial problems meant putting more and more military power in the hands of individual promagistrates, who could build up loyalty and support from their troops. Add in an ad-hoc military pensions scheme where generals were responsible for giving their retiring soldiers land to settle and greedy land-grabs by wealthy speculators, and the last century of the Republic was beset by disorder as nobody could solve the systemic land and service problems that had arisen until the great generals did so by force.

    At home ambitious tribunes of the plebs such as the Gracchi and Saturninus began to establish long-term political agendas, rather than the usual annually-rotating interests of the consuls from the great families. This led to rioting and factional strife as the traditional elites organised mobs to protect their interests. Generals like Sertorius with a sympathy for their provincial auxiliaries established breakaway republics in places like Spain and had to be brought to task by other generals. Italian provincials gathered and conspired with disaffected and indebted Roman politicians like Catiline to overthrow what they saw as a burdensome Imperial oppressor. Slave revolts such as that of Spartacus reveal further tensions.

    The “Roman revolution”, when it happened, happened almost without anyone trying to make it happen. It was the result of business-as-usual infighting, civil war, factionalism and strife gradually ramping up in severity over four decades. We might call Rome a failed state during this period. Eventually the changes to the political system happened more because everyone was so weary of civil war and wanted to see it stop than because anyone was burning with ideological passion. Augustus was indeed the “last man standing”, but he was very young when he achieved total power and had grown up knowing nothing but civil war. Augustus’s reforms were cast in as traditional a mould as possible, and he was fortunate in being able to head off his rivals and enemies every time.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the proponents of the revolution are usually against something, not for something.

    Which brings us, as all things eventually must, to a Terry Pratchett quote:

    ‘… I’m sorry if this offends you,’ he added, … ‘but you fellows really need us.’ … ‘Oh yes. We’re the only ones who know how to make things work. You see, the only thing the good people are good at is overthrowing the bad people. And you’re _good_ at that, I’ll grant you. But the trouble is that it’s the _only_ thing you’re good at. One day it’s the ringing of the bells and the casting down of the evil tyrant, and the next it’s everyone sitting around complaining that ever since the tyrant was overthrown no-one’s been taking out the trash. Because the bad people know how to _plan_. It’s part of the specification, you might say. Every evil tyrant has a plan to rule the world. The good people don’t seem to have the knack.’

  8. militantagnostic says

    I am sure Halliburton (and other American oilfield service companies) will be pleased about pissing of the Middle East oil producing countries by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem /sarc. I expect it won’t happen.

  9. says

    It’s going to be interesting.

    Since he’s contradicted himself a bunch, it’s not possible that he’s going to be able to make all of his followers happy. If he’s unfortunate, one of them will be angry enough to shoot him. I think his allies, confronting disillusionment, are going to be a bigger threat to his presidency than anything else. He pandered to pretty much everyone except the constitutencies he knew he was going to lose; he’s not going to be able to make them all happy any more than Danton could make the ci-devant and the jacobins both happy.

  10. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#10:
    PTerry was one amazing observer of human nature. After all, he wrote a whole lot about human experience, and lifted out the silly bits and shone a light on them. It must have been hard to be so right about so many things.

  11. says

    The Parti Quebecois was a political revolution that arose after the FLQ terrorist acts of 1970. The PQ were anti-English separatists, a one-platform political revolution of disparate groups. But unlike the other examples you gave, they succeeded and remained a cohesive and evolving force because their members had common ground on a lot of other issues (e.g. pro-labour) once they achieved power. There have been disagreements and factions within the party, but forty years on, they’re still a political force in Quebec, though separatism is now all but dead.