A Revolutionary Episode Part II: Some theories on revolutions

Here I wish to offer some theoretical perspectives on the study of revolutions.

First of all, I provide a summary from McAdams, Tarrow and Tilly’s book Dynamics of Contention where they attempt to identify recurring mechanisms and processes that play a role in contentious politics by doing a comparative study of a set of historic examples of contentious events. The seventh chapter is concerned with the analysis of 2 revolutionary situations, China and Nicaragua, and also here they try to bring forward recurring mechanisms in revolutionary movements. Then I have a look at Goldstone’s article Rethinking Revolutions, where he discusses the stages revolutions tend to go to. Finally, I’d like to shortly have a look at the factors which have constituted to the stability of the pre-2011 republics and monarchies in the Middle East, as according to two Norwegian scholars, Kjetil Selvik and Stig Stenslie.

Revolutionary Trajectories

Generations in studies of revolutions

First generation: focus on “national histories” –> rigid stages

Second generation: “structural strain” –> origins of revolutions deduced directly from underlying social strains Third (Goldstone’s) generation: a comparative approach which pays attention to the role of structural factors in the origins of revolution; political, economic, and demographic changes for a large part undermine the stability of regimes

“This third generation … accomplished much, but also left much to accomplish”

  • a ‘fourth’ generation emerged, which emphasises the role of human agency and cultural construction
  • the problem with this fourth generation is that it fails to look at revolutionary situations which do not produce revolutionary outcomes
  • the huge majority of the revolutionary situations that have occurred in history failed, (Tilly (1993): of 709 only a score were successful ; Wickham-Crowley (1992): of 11 only 2 (in Latin America))

The authors feel that a full theoretical accounting of revolutions requires answers to three progressive questions:

  • under what conditions and through what processes do viable contenders to state power emerge?
  • under what conditions and through what processes do those contenders succeed in displacing the incumbent regime?
  • under what conditions and through what processes does the ongoing struggle for control of a new state result in a social movement?

Trajectories of revolutions

Revolutionary situations have three elements

  1. appearance of (coalitions of) contenders who advance exclusive competing claims to control of the state (parts)
  2. a broad citizen-wide commitment to these claims
  3. incapacity/unwillingness of rulers to suppress the alternative coalition and/or commitments to its claims

Jeff Goodwin 1994: First, most of these studies demonstrate how repressive or disruptive state practices, including putatively well-intentioned ones, may have the unintended consequence of both concentrating or fusing disparate popular grievances and focusing these on the state itself. … Second, all of the studies examined suggest that one type of authoritarian regime is especially vulnerable not only to the formation of strong revolutionary movements, but also to actual overthrow by social movements, namely, autonomous, corrupt, and respressive personalist dictatorships. … By alienating elites and middle strata as well as popular classes [he concludes] these dictatorships have become te target of broad, multiclass protest movements.

Mechanisms in revolutionary contention identified in two cases

Nicaragua (1986 revolutionary episode –> successful)

  • infringement of elite interests: after a December 1972 earthquake Somoza exploited the situation and gave the full benefits of construction to himself and some cronies, excluding the bourgeoisie/elite –> organisation, representing elite business interests, of elite against Somoza
  • suddenly imposed grievances: singular events that dramatise and heighten the political salience of particular issues. In Nicaragua: the assassination of Chamorro (important figure in elite and popular opposition to the regime) –> many took to the streets and a crossclass coalition formation flowed from it
  • decertification: the withdrawal of validation of actors/performances/claims by key certifying claims (both national and international). Nicaragua: Costa Rica, Venezuela, Panama, Mexico and US decertified Somoza
    • cuts to foreign aid by states — also leading to retreat of foreign investors–, this persuaded Somoza to try to get in favour with Carter, so he lifted a state of emergency giving increased freedom to mobilise
    • support of rebels by Costa Rica, armed shipments as well

China (1989 revolutionary episode –> failed)

  • factional conflict within Party/political elite between the Maoist and the more reform-minded in the early 1970s
  • popular discontent: the death of Party official Zhou (pragmatist) and the labelling of Zhou after his death by the Shanghai Daily as a “capital roader” lead people to take to the streets
  • elite struggles for powers had close link to popular displays due to the Maoists taking measures to decrease power pragmatists –> “In seeming to embrace popular democratic action, Party pragmatists not only delivered a stinging rebuke to their Maoist enemies within the Party, but gave aid and comfort to those who hoped to see Deng’s fiscal measures matched by limited political reforms. Ironically, the symbolic end of one conflict marked the beginning of another, this one pitting Party pragmatists against an embryonic democratic movement set in motion by Deng’s reforms and his opportunistic embrace of popular protest” (212)
  • the different democratic forces in China became more organised more the years (from 1970-1980s)
  • the democratic episodes from 1976 to 1986 lead to the 1989 movement’s organisation, but where the previous events were shaped and encouraged by Party struggles, the student protests of 1989 did not have any sizeable form of elite/Party/Military defection necessary to create the destabilising factors where a revolutionary situations can turn into a revolutionary outcome
  •  also China leadership aimed at prevents suddenly imposed grievances, or treated events that could turn into that result with much caution
  • no massive decertification in the aftermath of the violence came from abroad


  • certain political events produce sudden and unpredictable decisions, high levels of uncertainty and new combinations of threat and opportunity

Revolutions are not A Single Thing. A rounded account of contentious dynamics in the Beijing episode requires us to pay simultaneous attention to long-term structural shifts, to the cultural framing of each players’ interpretations of opportunity and risk, and to the short-term strategic interaction around contingent events. But structure, culture, and strategic calculation are not outside of the mechanisms of contention but the raw material for their action and interaction.

  • mechanisms fueling revolutionary trajectories:
  1. disregard/infringement of elite interests by political leadership
  2. suddenly imposed grievances: decisions by leadership which mobilise the mass and the elite
  3. decertification: the withdrawal of support of leadership by elite and international actors

Rethinking Revolutions – Jack A. Goldstone

Goldstone identifies 12 stages that constitute revolutionary processes. This is the list.

  1. Elite defection and the formation of opposition
  2. Polarization and coalition building
  3. Mass mobilization
  4. Initial regime change
  5. Further polarization
  6. Counterrevolution
  7. Civil war
  8. International war
  9. Radical regime change and “terror”
  10. Revolutionary moderation
  11. Renewed radicalism and “terror”
  12. Regime consolidation

However, he goes on to say that these phases tend to overlap, in some cases one or more of these phases are absent or manifest themselves in different degrees of intensity.

The first three stages are the initiating phase of the actual revolutionary episode. When some of the social classes manifest their discontent to the policies of the regime through demonstrations and protests, yet the elite takes no interest in enforcing this discontent, then the regime will most likely quell the protests and things ‘turn back to normal’. Elite participation and defection is necessary to organise the mass mobilisation that could bring down a regime. Goldstone’s line of argumentation is captured in this quote,

To overturn a government, an organized opposition must exist that is capable of persuading the military to desert the regime or of raising an alternative force capable of engaging the military. The opposition leaders must also find a way to combine the anger of various groups, each pursuing its own protests and grievances, into a national movement against the regime. This inevitably requires the skills of elites who can formulate a persuasive vision of a better society, undermine the credibility of the existing rulers, and organize sufficiently large-scale popular protests, or sufficiently strong armed forces of their own, that then can challenge the government.

Goldstone talks about the oft sudden nature of the fourth stage, the initial regime change. The rulers overestimate their hold on the people and believe that they have the situation under control. However, when the realisation comes that the opposition has to upper hand, it can be a matter of days where the whole regime snaps. Immediately after the authoritarian ruler leaves the floor, there are widespread celebrations and a sense of unity — “We made it!”. Yet, in the months that follow the opposition groups divert and disagree on the course of action the country is to take. This leads to a further polarisation, this time among the influential opposition party. However, the degree to which this polarisation manifests itself can vary a lot.

In most of the revolutionary episodes, radical parties play one role or another; in many their role initially is only minor, but some factors tend to constitute to the rise in the influence of these radical parties: counterrevolution, civil war, international war and revolutionary terror. The (rather long) quote from Goldstone’s article captures the ‘traditional’ sequence of revolutions — of whice the credits go to Crane Brinton

After a honeymoon period and an initial regime of moderates, there follows conflict with emerging radicals. The victory of the radicals then leads to a “reign of terror” in which radical policies are forced through and implemented by coercion, moderates are purged from the government, and domestic enemies of the revolution are vigorously attacked. The radicals’ efforts to overthrow common patterns of authority lead to counterrevolutionary movements both inside and outside the country, provoking civil and international wars. These wars allow military commanders to rise to the heights of power and to take leadership of the revolution. These military commanders, needing to end disorder and restore national strength, suppress the radicals. Eventually, often with the help of returning moderates, a stable and bureaucratic government emerges to lead the nation. Many of the revolutionary ideals and acts may be preserved, but the new regime now seeks to live alongside other nations and put its citizens to ordinary work, rather than devote itself to making and spreading revolution.

However, Jack Goldstone highlights that this need not be the trajectory of a revolutionary episode per se. He differentiates between colour revolutions and radical ones — the former is more likely to bring about a weak form of democracy, whereas the latter (the classical revolutions) bring about the rise of the military under an authoritarian leader, yet with its own periods of moderation.

Goldstone rethinking revolutions

The author gives a nice example of the manifestation of the last three phases it his 12-staged revolutionary process. The return to moderation happened in Iran after the Iran-Iraq war which bankrupted and devastated both country. In the aftermath of the war, Hashemi Rafsanjani became president of Iran. He sought international economic support to be able to get Iran out of the dire economic state it was in. This following nearly a decade of radical nationalist and religious rule.

In his own concluding words:

In sum, revolutions in the future seem more likely to produce weak democracies rather than radical authoritarian regimes. This is good news for those hoping that peaceful revolutions will be the wave of the future. Yet it also suggests that more research needs to be done to learn how these weak democracies can best be helped to find their footing and to avoid the kind of confrontations and conflicts that could yet produce more radicalized patterns of change.

Stability and Change in the Modern Middle East

Thirdly, I would like to have a short look at the factors that, according to Selvik and Stenslie’s book Stability and Change in the Modern Middle East, constitute to the stability of the regimes in the Middle East.

The first stabilisers are aimed at preventing popular and elite mobilisation. Corporatism is the process of encouraging membership into social organisations, like labour unions, to give the perception of some degree of having a voice, though in fact these organisations are controlled by state institutions. If members in these social organisations protest without state support they are believed to act “against national interest”, and they will face suppression and will be banned. And clientelism is a “form of exercise of power whereby persons in influential positions offer their services to less centrally placed persons in return for political support.” Corporatism is more aimed at keeping the mass in check, whereas clientelism is a valuable tool for the regime to quell the business elites and middle classes.

Another method of stability is the promise of reforms. This can take three forms — economical, political and technological– and are clearly signs of survival politics. Economic liberalization failed as the regimes were protecting themselves against instability through clientelism. The political liberalisation of some regimes took the form of allowing some form of parliamentary plurality; however, when these parties would become too critical of the establishment, they would be banned.

The regimes in the Middle East have allowed for some limited, though increasing, presence of Islamism in society and legislation. Also this is survival politics; for it seems to be one of the most important ‘freedoms’ that many of the people in the region value the most.

The republics of the Middle East rest their loyalty/clientelism on the argumentation that if you want to climb up the social and economic ladder, loyalty and party membership are a must.

The monarchies in the Middle East with large oil and gas production, income from these resources facilitated their survival; by (1) developing into modern state systems with a large bureaucracy and security apparatus, (2) providing citizens with cradle-to-grave welfare benefits and (3) using corporatism and clientelism to co-opt potential political rivals.

On a concluding note to the factors of the stability in the Middle East, Selvik and Stenslie also devote a chapter of their book to the breakdown of the republics/monarchies in the region. Indicators of state failure are the grave signs of poverty, large population growth and authoritarianism — all of which are unsustainably high. An interesting and relevant question is: for who and how has the state in question failed? Different interest groups have different conceptions of this. The general triggers for the collapse of a state are external intervention and the disappearance of ‘strong men’.

With this, I conclude the second part of my three-part post. The last will turn the attention back to Egypt and will seek to use the theoretical tools outlined above on Egypt. The aim is to get some practical insights on the revolutionary process in Egypt through the application of theory onto practice.

Thanks for the time you took to have a look at the post and feel free to give me some feedback, and to like and share my post if you enjoyed the read.


4 thoughts on “A Revolutionary Episode Part II: Some theories on revolutions

  1. Libya, Egypt, Syria… ? Are they “democratic revolutions” or are they just more “political coups” in favour of the old-new power elite and an old-new tyranny?
    The “Russian October Revolution”, Comandante Che, the Arab revolutions – they have all been surrounded by a golden aura of epic heroism and people’s hopes; however an outdated governance paradigm dooms true freedom fighters to failure before they even start, and yet again everything turns full circle. But why?
    A democratic revolution should be seen as a new stage of humanity’s development, primarily a new way of thinking and innovation in a system of social relations and governance. If it fails to do that then it is merely yet another ‘palace coup’ bringing grist to someone else’s mill. In the absence of the revolutionary idea arab democratic revolutions (“Arab spring”) were doomed to failure even before they started. Replacing leaders doesn’t alters the system allowing arbitrariness. And the political systems based on the principle of “the one is the winner, the rest are the losers” are unjust from the start and will never be able to bring freedom, peace and stable equilibrium to a society. Therefore protests and coups are repeated now and again …

    A new, MULTIPOLAR political system as a real Democratic Revolution.
    A working multi-party system within the government guarantees multiculturalism, tolerance and social stability within community.

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  4. Pingback: Thinking politics | Egypt in its next phase of a revolutionary episode

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