Q&A: Non-Violent Revolution

I’m writing a story about how four characters react to a clash between the revolutionary movement and military in their society. How could one of the characters prevent all out war while also overthrowing the government?

Not easily. My department chair in college focused on non-violent revolutions when he was getting his doctorate. His comment at the time was that there’s virtually no (scholarly) literature on the subject.

Avoiding violence in a revolution requires two things: You need to convince those in power not to use violence to enforce their authority and you need to convince everyone in the opposition from resorting to violence and deliberately escalating the situation.

The former is very difficult, the latter is nearly impossible.

When you’re looking at the factors that create a revolution, you’re primarily interested in oppression, exclusivity and capacity.

Oppression is fairly self explanatory, but the fact remains, if a government is not mistreating its citizens, or the vast majority of the population considers the system just, then you won’t have people rising up in revolt. People are stirred to action when they feel wronged. Normal bureaucratic malaise doesn’t cut it.

More disturbingly, it can be incredibly difficult to detect oppression, depending on how it is presented. If the population doesn’t feel oppressed, then they’re not going to rise up, even as members of society are being put down brutally and executed in the streets.

Exclusivity is the ability for private citizens to affect the government. An exclusive government is one that does not allow the civilian population to influence policy. It may also be highly nepotistic, with many key positions filled by family members of the head of state, or by close friends.

As with oppression, exclusivity is highly dependent on public perception. A dictator that frequently takes public input under advisement and acts on it wouldn’t be an exclusive system, even if their entire cabinet is made up of family members and close personal friends. Likewise, a state with rigged elections, and no public input wouldn’t be perceived as exclusive, unless the voter fraud is exposed.

It’s also worth pointing out, a state can be oppressive and exclusive, but still be perceived as the protector of its population. In these cases, you won’t see a revolution because people believe the state has their interests in mind. Of course, if the illusion shatters, everything else follows.

Capacity is the ability for a government to enforce its will. In the context of revolutions, we’re normally interested in its ability to inflict violence on the population.

Again, if a government has the capacity to kill everyone involved in ther evolution they’ll hunt them down as a warning to any future rebels. Remember, when we’re talking about what the government can actually do, not what it should hypothetically be capable of if everything goes according to plan.

Capacity rises and declines based on a number of factors. Their available manpower, their financial and material resources, the quality of their intelligence. Prolonged warfare, military dissent, economic unrest, technical obsolescence, counterintelligence, deteriorating public support and espionage (among other possible factors) can all whittle away at a state’s capacity.

What you’re looking for in a revolution is an oppressed population who cannot influence government policy and a weak state. If any of these three elements fail, then your revolution can’t happen, at least not normally.

A non-oppressive totalitarian regime sounds weird. It’s a kind of political philosophy unicorns that keeps coming up in hypothetical discussions on governance. From Plato to Machiavelli, the idea refuses to die.

A powerful and oppressive regime with public access is also, surprisingly, hard to unseat. There have been plenty of examples of these without associated revolutions.

Well funded and equipped, totalitarian regimes are, sadly, something we have plenty of examples of. A number of these did eventually fall to revolutionary forces, but it only came after the state’s capacity was undermined or decayed.

Under normal circumstances, you have a state that’s subjugating it’s population, an isolated elite pulling the strings, and a government that can’t actually wipe out a potential rebellion before it gets rolling, and recruiting real numbers, and engaging in actual combat operations.

In a non-violent revolution, you need to convince the state to sit down and listen to your grievances without resorting to violence. The reason I described this as “very difficult,” is because, you need to sit down with someone and get them to agree with you, when their first impulse is going to be to toss you in prison and wash their hands of the problem.

This can happen. When the threat of violence, and a painful death appears imminent, and your revolutionary is offering a way out that doesn’t end with the city in flames and the roads coated in blood. Managing to actually do this is truly impressive stuff, and most of the people who have attempted this in the real world ended up imprisoned and/or tortured.

Your revolutionary can’t step in earlier, because the state won’t listen,
and once the situation has degenerated into outright warfare, it’s too late.

The second problem is that revolutions are not homogenous entities that operate as a single coherent organization. They’re a coalition of groups who are unified by one common belief, that the state needs to be replaced, and not much else. They can agree that the guy in power needs to go, but not what the shape of the new government will be, after it’s over.

In case you’re wondering, you can’t really skip the coalition building phase of getting a revolution off the ground. Having a single, ideologically unified group to overthrow the government would be ideal, but reality is rarely so accommodating. Finding enough people to actually overthrow the government means making unlikely allies, and working with people you normally wouldn’t want to talk to. They have live bodies, and together you’ve got enough to turn the tide. “Stand together or die alone,” and all that.

Keeping everyone non-violent before the revolution is hard enough. You’ve got a lot of people who have a grudge against the existing government. These are people who feel strongly enough about their grievances to die for them. Finding enough people who are willing to do that is hard enough. Finding enough people who are willing, are smart enough to realize that there might be a way out of this without killing, and are also okay with a non-violent solution to the situation is nearly impossible.

A revolutionary leader who can hold their movement together on sheer force of will, and can inspire people into a unified cause can, potentially knit their revolution together to prevent this. Someone who is very careful in how they bring people in, and how their revolution operates can, potentially, keep this from becoming a problem.

After it’s over is the nearly impossible part. When all of these different factions united by one common goal have achieved that, the only thing they have left is a desire to reshape the state to suit their image of how things should be. Far too often, this translates into purges and civil war.

In a non-violent revolution, overthrowing the government is the easy part. Keeping all of the different political factions, which were oppressed under the previous regime playing nice while you try to build a new state is the hard part.

The most dangerous thing after the revolution is someone more ruthless than you. Revolution is not a pleasant business. It destroys the idealists and rewards the pragmatic and ruthless. The process of running one is a crucible. No one who goes in will come out exactly the same person. After the revolution, if you’re not the most ruthless person in the room, you’re not long for this world.

Keeping a coalition together after a revolution isn’t impossible. There are historical examples, including the United States, but it is an exceedingly difficult bar to hit. It’s far more common for the victors to begin by purging remnants loyal to the old regime, and then work their way through various minor factions who aided them, but are no longer necessary, and have become a potential liability. This can be framed any number of ways. It can be carried out covertly, it can be framed as remnant loyalists, it can be treated as normal criminal arrests.

In cases where the prior regime was supported by a foreign power, these purges are often couched in terms of removing foreign agitators or spies.

In fact, it’s very easy to end up exactly where you started, or worse off.

The best case examples are probably Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Mandela kept South Africa together by instituting policies that kept members of the Dutch government as members of the new integrated government, and pushed hard for a policy of no retribution. This, arguably, did a lot to keep South Africa intact. In contrast, while Gandhi managed to remove the British from India without resorting to violence, he did see his nation break apart into separate states.

Even if your revolution manages to hold themselves together, and don’t turn on each other, they’ve created a serious problem. They’ve destroyed their state’s capacity, creating a power vacuum. Other factions that may not have participated in the revolution are now in a far better position to exploit the current situation. This could include groups like organized crime, or even foreign powers, who aren’t above using the chaos to opportunistically grab a few bits for themselves.

Non-violent revolutions aren’t a panacea against this either. Even simple political instability can open the door for an aggressive foreign power to move in, “in order to ensure the peace” and annex anything that’s not nailed down. It also allows organized criminal enterprise to become more brazen; even under the best circumstances, you’ve removed the checks that were holding them in place, and any less oppressive policies will be viewed as a practical invitation.

A military junta isn’t off the table either. This is especially true if the previous regime kept the military under control because of close personal ties, and the transition to the revolutionary government would diminishes the military’s political influence. They may even view this as an act of self defense. Sadly, the term “military junta” is an established phrase because this exact kind of coup has happened many times before, including cases where there was a democratic regime change, and not an actual revolution.

So, how would someone walk into all of this and keep it from degenerating into a bloodbath? Search me. You’re talking about a very singular kind of character, and they could still end up splattered across the pavement because of a fanatic.

-Starke

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