The Five Stages of Revolutions | Interview with Aleksandre Mikaberidze23.09.2022 | 13 Min to read
What do we call a revolution nowadays, and how has the definition of this word changed since the French Revolution?
This essay is based on an interview with Dr. Alexander Mikaberidze, Professor of History at Louisiana State University-Shreveport and the Ruth Herring Noel Endowed Chair for the Curatorship of James Smith Noel Collection
Revolvere, the Latin root of the word revolution, means to revolve, and this is the meaning it was ascribed by medieval society, including Nicolaus Copernicus whose famous book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), uses the term in the sense of revolving. Two centuries later, however, the meaning of this word changed dramatically and it came to denote overhauling of the political, economic and social order. On July 14, 1789, when the population of Paris seized the Bastille, a symbol of royal rule, King Louis XVI supposedly asked, “So, is it a revolt?” In response, Duc La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt said, “No, sire, it is a revolution!” One may argue that it is then that this word acquired its modern meaning. The events that unfolded in Paris were not triggered just by the demand of the starving population but the consequences of the storming of the Bastille were felt promptly and across the kingdom. The king recognized the newly proclaimed National Assembly, which then embarked on reforming social and political order. The rest is history, as they say.
There are two opposing views on a revolution. On the one hand, it is often perceived as a heroic epic, a rebellion of the oppressed masses against unjust authorities that subjugate people and prevent them from asserting their freedom and dignity. Such a view often justifies the violence that tends to accompany a revolution, the one needed to dismantle an old order and lay the foundation for a new one. Such a clean slate requires sacrifice, the argument goes, since the revolution serve higher ideals. This vision, embraced by many champions of the American and French Revolutions, was later placed within clearer ideological boundaries by the new generations of revolutionary thinkers and leaders, especially by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, and others.
But there is also a different, and drastically opposite point view that asserts that a revolution is but a chaos that unleashes the mob and destroys everything in its way; rather than an opportunity to fulfil new political ideals and create a new society, the revolution, to quoting that famous adage, “devours even her own children,” creates unrealistic ideals, and brings about unjustified losses and destruction. This opinion was shared by the likes of Edmund Burke who famously condemned the French revolution in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” and argued that the revolution brings little good but instead rips the fabric of good society and destroys traditional institutions of state and society. Indeed, it is the debates over the nature and relevance of revolution that helped shape modern ideologies of liberalism and conservatism. The latter term was first used in a political context by French writer François-René de Chateaubriand who, like Burke, opposed the revolution and sought to roll back the revolutionary changes. Fearing the excesses of the popular violence, conservative thinkers like Burke and Chateaubriand rejected abstract, metaphysical rights and freedoms that the French revolutionaries advocated, and put the spotlight on the problems caused by revolutionary violence, including the mass killings of opponents and “suspects”. Later on, similar criticisms would be levelled against the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, which have indeed claimed the lives of millions of people.
Every revolution is a complex historical phenomenon, its beginning shaped by many factors and its outcomes oftentimes diametrically opposite to those intended. We have many examples of revolutionaries seeking greater freedoms and striving for better societies but ultimately finding themselves setting up tyrannies that were worse than the very government they had rebelled against in the first place.
To me, a revolution is like an earthquake. Geologists can observe a variety of weak ground motions, or tremors, which are often imperceivable to the rest of us but precede the major earthquakes. Studying these tremors, geologists can indicate approximately where the earthquake may occur but not the exact location or time. When studying revolutions, the historians are facing a similar dilemma— we can observe a wide range of events contributing to the outbreak of revolution, and amongst these ‘tremors’ we can discern transient changes and long-term ‘tectonic’ processes that accumulate to produce an eruption of pent-up frustration and anger, that is, a revolution.
Having studied revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I have come to think of them as having inherent internal logic and structure, and I usually identify five stages that revolutions go through:
At the first stage, the existing social and political order teeters, because the elites are no longer able to maintain control and solve fundamental challenges facing the society. These may include a fiscal crisis, a disastrous war, widespread corruption, as well as fracturing of and internal confrontations within the elites, an unstable ideology, and so on. In a nutshell, we are dealing with a situation that Lenin famously described as “the lower classes not wanting to live in the old way, and the upper classes not being able carry on in the old way”.
At this stage, the revolutionary process may reveal many idiosyncrasies and is contingent on a variety of factors. Revolution do not erupt just because of poverty or mass disillusionment; indeed, economic hardship alone hardly ever causes a revolution—a riot or local rebellion – sure, but not a revolution. Even the infamous Great Famine in Ireland, which reduced the Irish population by a quarter, did not incite a revolution; in the same vein, extreme poverty triggered countless local riots and rebellions in the Russian Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, but none of them transformed into a revolution until 1917.
One of the interesting aspects of revolutions is that the initial call for change often comes from the elites, the very people who have vested interests in the existing state and society. This is what happened in the US, France, and other countries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I think one of the key reasons for this is that the elites have the luxury of education, time, and opportunity to voice their criticism while commoners, be they peasants or laborers, usually find it hard to self-organize, create the necessary network, develop an action plan, and—most importantly—rise up and resist armed forces mobilized to protect authorities.
A revolution erupts when alienation and internal discord reach the level of intensify to transcend the elites and involve the lower social strata, a significant portion of them either embracing revolutionary ideas or, at least, stepping aside and not resisting them. It probably would not be a mistake to assert that the greater the alienation of the upper strata from those in power, the easier it is for them to take advantage of public discontent to seek changes in political order to serve their own interests.
At this stage, a revolution may have many discrete reasons - such as economic stagnation or outright crisis, political repression, corruption, inequality, high unemployment, absence of prospects of a better future, etc. – but collectively they create an environment where popular discontent embraces a belief that all these problems are a result of unjust policies or actions of a given regime. The moment is accused of finger is pointed to the faults of an existing regime, the ‘people’ decide to act in order to bring about changes. This may take the form of spontaneously created social groups—such as peasant communes, workers unions, student or youth organizations, trade assemblies, nowadays online groups organized through social media —as well as of marches, demonstrations, and other forms of protest. We do not have to dig deep in the past to find examples of this – just look at the events of the Arab Spring, be it the Jasmine Revolution in Tunis or the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, when government corruption, economic stagnation, high unemployment, inflation, corruption, political repression, and overall poor living conditions combined to produce mass demonstrations, and ultimately, revolutions. The Arab Spring showed that, as in previous revolutions, the disgruntled parts of the elite may intentionally rally up masses against authorities.
Modernization has become a crucial factor in revolutions. The collapse of traditional order, relationships, and attitudes does not by itself trigger a revolutionary process; in fact, it is a double-edged sword, empowering some authoritarian regimes and shattering others. Prussia’s modernization, for example, resulted in the creation of a powerful empire instead of unleashing a revolutionary change. In modern China, modernization contributed to the emergence of a truly Orwellian state that uses cutting-edge technology to exercise unprecedented levels of surveillance and control over the population. Yet, in Japan in 1868 and China in 1911, revolutions broke out on the heels of modernization. In other countries, most notably in Eastern Europe in 1989-1991, the same happened sometime after the completion of modernization.
The final point about the inaugural stage of revolutionary chaos is about the emergence of revolutionary leaders who might have great zeal and revolutionary fervor but scant administrative or political experience. After coming to power, they pursue moderate policies and resort to measured governance methods—let’s call to mind the first two years of the French Revolution (1789-1791) or the ‘February Revolution’ that produced the moderate Provisional Government in Russia in 1917 - but fail to live up to the radical expectations of their comrades-in-arms and initiate a cycle of internal splintering, conflict, and strife.
The second stage involves bloodshed and violence. The initial small demonstrations, disturbance or rebellions expand as the government fails to deal with the situation and loses its grip on the population or particular territory. The opposition may control a very small area, but what is far more important here is its determination to resist and fight on. At this point, the government’s attempts to crack down on a demonstration or suppress a riot stumble; police cannot curb disorders, so the authorities are forced to involve armed forces, which results in escalation of violence, greater political agitation, and increase of revolutionary demonstrations; oftentimes, armed forces refuse to take decisive action, step aside, or even side with the revolutionaries—which, for its part, speaks to the weakness of the regime. Mass demonstrations thus start gathering in various towns and cities and, after a while, the government is toppled or forced to resign. There are many examples of such revolutionary upheaval, from the French Revolution to the so-called ‘Color Revolutions’ of early 2000s and the more recent ‘Arab Spring.’
At the same time, if revolutionary processes start on the periphery of a country or empire, the fight often lingers on for quite some time. Revolutionaries use mountainous or forested areas away from the country’s center to mobilize their forces and ideological or military struggle. With such prolonged civil confrontations, the opposition puts together a military force capable of defeating the government—for example, the American Revolution, the Chinese Communist Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, and others.
In the past few decades, we have also witnessed a new type of revolutionary process using nonviolent tactics with an emphasis on mass demonstrations, strikes, insubordination, and boycotting, which forces authorities to negotiate—for example, Poland's Solidarity Movement and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.
One of the key preconditions of a successful revolution lies in the wider international context, and especially in the prospects of support for the opposition or the authorities. More than one revolution has ended because of counterrevolutionary intervention. We can cite the Greek Revolution of 1820s on the one side and here the Polish Revolt of 1830 or the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849 on the other. In modern time, think of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 or the cross-national campaigns of counter-revolutionary support in South America in the 1970s.
At the third stage, revolutionary developments unfold at a dizzying pace as a new government comes into power and is confronted with a myriad of challenges. A large share of the population embraces the toppling of the old regime, but the honeymoon of the revolution, so to speak—and reveling in newly gained freedom—is usually short-lived, as the revolution starts to “devour her own children”. Such a development has numerous explanations: setting common objectives/goals for various strata of the population is a rather difficult task, for it requires developing a set of ideas, that is an ideology, that would formulate a convincing narrative and set ideals/goals that would acceptable across the revolutionary spectrum. Such a narrative may fall within either religious boundaries—for example, Puritanism in 17th-century England or Islamic radicalism in the contemporary world— or a nationalist liberation framework, or a combination of both. More broadly, such narrative must focus on the unfairness of the ‘old order’, the shared identity of the groups participating in the revolutionary change, and, more crucially, offer a vision for a new, fairer society. One of the most effective approaches involves appealing to the local past, shared traditions, and national/historical heroes—for example, the American and French revolutionaries frequently turned to Ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration and spoke of the fight against tyranny and injustice citing classical examples. Similarly, the modern national-liberation movements often employ imagery of medieval historical figures or events to rally popular support.
Yet formulating and sharing such narratives is no easy task, because we all have our own ideas, perceptions, and aspirations. Consequently, a splintering of public perceptions or opinion should come as no surprise, especially when we are talking about profound political or economic changes. In the context of the revolution, revolutionary leaders and groups must make numerous critical and complex decisions: What type of government to create? Where should the ‘line of equality’ be drawn? What kind of state structures to create? In whose hands would the power be concentrated? Who would control the army? What would the new social and economic reality be like? How should they treat the minorities? And so on.
Such questions inevitably breed debates, disagreements and discord between revolutionaries. In the process, the more vocal, more radically-inclined groups often replace moderate ones through coups or revolts, thereby splintering the revolution and creation new opposition groups. To remain in power and effect change, revolutionary authorities then find themselves in need of a repressive system that would bring them closer to fulfilling their revolutionary vision. Because of conflicts against internal or external enemies—which is quite characteristic of this stage—it becomes easy to justify a repressive machinery, following the broad principle of “if we fail to defend ourselves, we will lose what we have already gained”. The new security system further exacerbates the situation and often ends up being far more ruthless than the previous regime—we can cite here the events of 1792-1794 in France, where the radicalization of the revolution, against the backdrop of continued economic crisis and military defeats, caused the more radical-minded revolutionaries to overthrown their moderate colleagues and unleash purges and terror campaigns that targeted tens of thousands of people. This volatility frequently claims as victims the early leaders of revolution — think of Danton, Trotsky, Zapata, Lin Biao, Escalante, and others who, despite their initial roles in revolutions, found themselves derided, attacked, and eventually sacrificed on the altar of the revolution.
At the fourth stage, we often encounter idealistic, utopian visions that seek to transform society and even human nature itself. Think of Maximillian Robespierre’s famous speech about the Republic of Virtue, or the Bolshevik desire to mold the New Soviet Citizen, or Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, and so on. At this stage, revolutionaries are often convinced that any failure in achieving their visions stems not from their own mistakes or impracticability of their visions, but rather from insufficient commitment/ zeal on the part of society, which is why authorities spare no effort to root out ‘suspects’ and ‘traitors,’ to subdue the ‘wayward’ groups and to force the society to follow the new dictums and embrace changes. A foreign country is often cited as seeking to subvert the revolutionary process, and the revolutionary authorities spare no effort to identify the alleged ‘saboteurs’ and ‘conspirator’ who act on its orders within the host country. The government thus blames, individuals, groups, or organizations (in recent years, non-governmental organizations) as being agents of foreign powers and uses all levers of state machinery to prosecute them. In doing so, the government can shift responsibility for its own failures and mistakes on others, and cultivate a more homogenous public opinion that would be resolute in backing the state.
This policy may trigger deep economic crisis and social deprivation, even a civil or international war, something that claimed millions of lives in the last century.
At the fifth stage, the revolutionary spirit grows weaker and withers away. The excitement and passionate idealism of the early revolution is gone; weariness, fear, paranoia, and resentment set in. Revolutionary government remains in power thanks to repression that is, as a rule, more merciless than the preceding government’s. The revolution has essentially ended, and the revolutionaries are now part of the ‘conventional regime’ that is, in many respects, worse than the one they sought to overthrow in the first place. The Bolshevik and Chinese Communists’ experiences are a good example of this. The longevity of such regimes varies – the Bolshevik/Soviet system lasted for seven decades, but the Chinese Communists still endure at the helm of the Chinese state. Still, at some point in their existence, these formerly revolutionary regimes are confronted by a new set of questions, the most crucial of which is this: can their political elite solve the fundamental problems (inequality, economic stagnation, political repression, etc.) affecting their society? Finding an answer to this question leads us either back to stage one of the revolutionary process or it impels the authorities to seek major changes; the latter option often revives the ‘old’ ideals of the revolution—for example, Stalin’s collectivization campaign in the 1930s, Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and Lazaro Cárdenas’ reforms in 1930s Mexico.
I think this framework could be applied to most, if not all, modern revolutions.
And yet the American Revolution was nothing like the Russian or French Revolution.
The American Revolution differs from the French or the Russian Revolutions in one fundamental way – it produced profound political changes but not socio-economic transformations that the other revolutions achieved. Therefore, we may even say that the American Revolution was an incomplete one. In fact, during and in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, the American authorities, in fact, used army to suppress insurrections (think of the Whiskey Rebellion) and to uphold the institution of slavery; in 1781, just as he was celebrating his triumph at Yorktown, George Washington commanded his Continental Army to round up thousands of slaves who had fled to the British to escape a lifetime of bondage. Thus, the Continental Army was both revolutionary—after all, they defeated the British and secured political independence for colonies —and counterrevolutionary, if we look at its role from a socioeconomic angle. The challenges confronting the American Revolution are visible in the United States Constitution which promised to “provide for the common defense” and “to promote the general Welfare” but failed to abolish slavery and effectively enshrined political inequality until the 20th century. The French Revolution, on the other hand, brought about far more fundamental changes, including the abolition of slavery and adoption of a much more democratic electoral census.
“If men were angels,” James Madison famously wrote in the Federalist 51, “no government would be necessary.” But governments were human institutions from top to bottom, so, in the words of Madison, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in next place oblige it to control itself.” That is one of the fundamental challenges of any revolutionary process, but especially one where there is a stark difference in views on what this control entails. Or, more fundamentally, what did equality, a staple of revolutionary ideals, stand for in the early modern period, did it entail the abolition of slavery? Granting equal rights to women? Was there any room for political restrictions based on property and poll tax? Answering these and other similar questions meant granting a political voice to the ever-growing number of people, to those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” in the words of Emma Lazarus; and, naturally, many were not ready for this. And neither are they ready today - social and economic factors continue to determine shape the extent of equality in many democratic societies.
The spirit of national liberation or struggle against colonial dominance often puts in place a powerful impetus for a revolution. For example, let’s call to mind the Greek Revolution (1821), the Belgian Revolution (1830) or the Philippine Revolution (1896) or Indonesian National revolution (1945), not to mention Georgia’s own experiences, in which the national spirit played such a decisive role. In revolutionary processes, however, the lofty rhetoric of ideals and aspirations lasts only so long, and socioeconomic challenges are experienced far more painfully. We can talk a lot about abstract freedoms and rights, but—at the end of the day—people have basic necessities that need to be satisfied. The revolution’s inability to provide safety, order, and stability could be one of the core factors in its undoing, since revolutions are shaped not only by its participants’ spirit and zeal, but also public’s lethargy and fatigue. If a new government is unable to overcome the present obstacles facing it, there will be a constant threat of unrest, with the resultant misery that might prompt people to follow leaders promising them immediate results. Thus, after a decade of revolutionary chaos in France, the French society went along with a military coup that installed an authoritarian government into power. The same can be said of the events in Italy in 1920s and Germany in 1930s. And the same is true of Russia, where the public may have welcomed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but grew weary of the continued turmoil and crisis of the 1990s and tacitly accepted the rise of Putin’s authoritarian state that dangled the vision of stable and orderly future.
The last three decades have been remarkably turbulent for Georgia, which has become a country of constant ‘revolutions.’ Since 1989, the country is enduring an unrelenting series of protests, marches, rallies, and demonstrations. As yesterday's revolutionaries ascend to positions of power, they face the urgent realities of governance and oftentimes repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. We have yet to learn how to coexist with different opinions or views, and we are still playing the zero-sum game of politics. Thus, over the past three decades, one political force has consistently trying to obliterate another, the state machinery continues to grow and become more controlling while the society has become more polarized and weary; many of our compatriots are politically apathetic and more concerned with their daily needs than some grand vision for the nation as a whole, which understandably in light of profound social and economic strains. Besides, the national slant remains very powerful in our politics and not necessarily in a positive way. Our society is still in the process of nurturing the seeds of civic mindedness and citizen awareness. But how we would address the issues of ethnic and religious minorities remains to be seen.
Similarly, no civil society and institutions operate in Russia today, so I see no signs of revolution there either. The authoritarian system that Putin has created over the past two decades, is now working at full throttle, effectively controlling society through security system, courts, and state-controlled media outlets. Even if Putin himself is gone tomorrow, these structural problems will endure in Russia, and so will the vast state apparatus — which is more intrusive than Stalin’s ever was— that employs (and benefits) millions of people, including those in the enormous state security structure be it police, FSB, penal system, and online surveillance. For these people, the survival of this system of governance is quite convenient because it means employment and steady revenue. The Russian public has not reached the point where its majority decides that it is time for change.