Sociological Eye on Revolutions

Successful revolutions provide the founding myths for the newly established order, and are accordingly glorified as the spontaneous uprising of the righteous and downtrodden against their oppressors and exploiters. Randall Collins, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, has turned his Sociological Eye on the realities behind the myths. The articles quoted below are just two examples for Collins’ rare but excellent posts, recommended for anyone interested in sober and well-grounded analyses of social processes.

Political Action

What motivates political action in the first place? Over time the prevalent explanations changed from personal ideals and other psychological attributes to the Marxist view that actions are determined by material interests. However, material interests are ambiguous motives: they do not directly translate into action, but are mediated by interaction rituals.

IRs that focus group attention and generate high levels of shared emotion create emotional energy – confidence and enthusiasm towards symbolically-defined goals. These shape the cognitive component of action – how people define their goals; who are their fellows and opponents in seeking them; and what tactics seem appropriate. I am not arguing for a dichotomy between material interests on one side, and “irrational” or “emotional” forces on the other; I am pointing out that material interests by themselves are too vague to determine specific courses of action in most situations.

Collins cites numerous examples of how the same material interests can coexist with very different intended beneficiaries, demands and strategies. The extreme manifestation is the most interesting: how were the successful Communist revolutionaries different from ordinary left-wing parties or unions? Basically, they held strong convictions which were reinforced by their own group rituals, yet could be opportunistically weakened or denied as necessary when dealing with out-groups.

The Communists maintained more long-term consistency, even throughout their tactical opportunism, because they had a dual inner/outer structure not found in other leftist parties: a core of dedicated, career-professional revolutionaries organized in a hierarchy of small groups, holding secret meetings where they encouraged and criticized each other, renewing their commitment not only to doctrine but to discipline as a group. […] What made the Communists strong was a conscious recognition that their organization was the key to victory, and that their ideological line was secondary.

These Communist cells, meeting frequently (often weekly or more) were also a discovery of political Interaction Rituals, carried out at the small-group level. They were successful IRs from all ingredients: the secret meetings excluding outsiders and keeping up a strong focus of attention; the shared emotions of revolutionary danger, of secrecy itself, and the immediate emotions of mutual criticism issuing in solidarity on their public line at the end of the meeting. This inner cadre organization had been created to fend off police agents, but it unexpectedly enabled the Communists to be successfully opportunistic. Where a parliamentary workers’ party might stray from their original interests by befriending bourgeois politicians and enjoying the perquisites of office […], Communists did not pal around with their erstwhile allies, at least not on the backstage. The Communists had a superior backstage that generated much more emotional energy, along with more solidarity and more commitment to their sacred objects and beliefs. But this was a sophisticated, two-level belief: what we are really doing, and what we are pretending to do temporarily for practical reasons, and this sophistication was built into their organization.

A similar unprincipled opportunism, although with a different organizational setup, also propelled the 20th century’s two most important fascist movements to power in Italy and Germany. Collins goes on to examine interaction rituals in greater detail, but I’ll jump to his latest article that continues the theme of revolution.

Successful Revolutions

Assuming a dissident group has ritualized some shared interest, what other conditions must exist for a revolution to succeed? The crucial difference lies between tipping point revolutions and state breakdown revolutions. Tipping point means the type of revolution consisting in the righteous mobilization of the people until the authoritarians crack and take flight. There are quite a few examples in history but the results are rarely satisfactory.

I will argue that tipping point revolutions, without long-term basis in the structural factors that bring state breakdown, are only moderately successful at best; and they often fall short even of modest changes, devolving into destructive civil wars, or outright failure to change the regime at all.

The series of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 exemplify tipping point revolutions that appeared to succeed quickly, yet just as quickly petered out with a restoration of the previous order. China’s 1989 uprising focused on Tiananmen Square did not even get that far before it was violently put down, despite the large number of participants and sympathizers. Moreover, the regime did not suffer any adverse long-term consequences from its brutality.

An authoritarian regime that is aware of the tipping point mechanism need not give in to it; it can keep momentum on its own side by making sure no bandwagon gets going among the opposition. Such a regime can be accused of moral violations and even atrocities, but moral condemnation without a successful mobilization is ineffective. It is when one’s movement is growing, seemingly expanding its collective consciousness to include virtually everyone and emotionally overwhelm their opponents, that righteous horror over atrocities is so arousing. Without this, protests remain sporadic, localized and ephemeral at best. The modest emotional energy of the protest movement is no rushing tide; and as this goes on for years, the emotional mood surrounding such a regime remains stable – the most important quality of “legitimacy”.

The Arab Spring provides the latest examples of tipping point revolutions with dubious results, such as the Islamist dominance in Egypt and the destructive civil war in Syria. What, then, was different about revolutions such as France 1789 or Russia 1917/1989 that did cause deep structural changes? Collins identifies three ingredients:

(1) Fiscal crisis/ paralysis of state organization. The state runs out of money, is crushed by debts, or otherwise is so burdened that it cannot pay its own officials. This often happens through the expense of past wars or huge costs of current war, especially if one is losing. The crisis is deep and structural because it cannot be evaded; it is not a matter of ideology, and whoever takes over responsibility for running the government faces the same problem.

(2) Elite deadlock between state faction and economic privilege faction. The fiscal crisis cannot be resolved because the most powerful and privileged groups are split. Those who benefit economically from the regime resist paying for it (whether these are landowners, financiers, or even a socialist military-industrial complex); reformers are those who are directly responsible for keeping the state running. The split is deep and structural, since it does not depend on ideological preferences; whoever takes command, whatever their ideas, must deal with the reality of organizational paralysis.

(3) Mass mobilization of dissidents. This factor is last in causal order; it becomes important after state crisis and elite deadlock weaken the enforcement power of the regime. This power vacuum provides an opportunity for movements of the public to claim a solution. The ideology of the revolutionaries is often misleading; it may have nothing to do with the causes of the fiscal crisis itself (e.g. claiming the issue is one of political reform, democratic representation, or even returning to some earlier religious or traditional image of utopia). […] The important thing is that the revolutionary movement is radical enough to attack the fiscal (and typically military) problems, to reorganize resources so that the state itself becomes well-funded.

Collins fits the above-mentioned and several other examples into this scheme. Except for coups d’état that merely replace one ruler with another, any successful revolutionary change usually requires the existing structures to be fatally weakened by some prior malady. This view may be somewhat depressing, but it matches history quite well and explains why the Soviet empire’s collapse was not followed by similarly quick and successful revolutions elsewhere.

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