America could be on the verge of revolution. I think the United States in 2020 displays some disturbing similarities to France in 1789 (the year of its revolution).
Observers as diverse as Rod Dreher, Michael Moore, and Brett Weinstein note the revolutionary nature of the events on American streets. In particular, the burning of police stations, seizure of areas of cities, and toppling of statues is the behavior of a revolutionary mob, not a protest.
For instance, one if the first events of the American Revolution in New City was the destruction of a statue of King George III. On 9 July 1776, a mob of patriots celebrated the newly signed Declaration of Independence by pulling down and smashing a statue of the King on the city’s Bowling Green.
The patriots melted most of the statue down to make bullets for George Washington’s troops to fire at the King’s soldiers. However, Untapped New York claims pieces of the statue still exist.
Is it a Revolution?
We need to fear attacks on statues because revolutions are revolts of the powerless. Revolutionaries attack statues of dead leaders because they are symbols of power.
Revolutions begin when some group realizes it is powerless or fears it is powerless. The American Revolution, for instance, began when the colonists realized they were powerless in the British Empire.
Likewise, the American Civil War broke out because Southerners feared they could soon lose their power in the United States. Similarly, groups who believe they are powerless; including blacks, leftists, and the young, lead today’s American revolution.
Yes, it looks Like a Revolution
Hence, Dreher and Weinstein’s claims that the events unfolding in our streets are the beginnings of a revolution hold some truth. The so-called protesters are acting like revolutionaries.
However, history shows such uprisings do not always lead to revolution. France experienced a massive uprising in May 1968, for instance. In 1968 France, there was a student uprising led to riots, protests, barricades in the streets, and a national strike.
The chaos of May 1968 temporarily drove President Charles De Gaulle out of the country. Yet the French government did not collapse. Conversely, many French people view the disruptions of 1968 as the beginning of modern France.
Therefore, massive uprisings are not always the beginning of a revolution. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell if revolution is breaking out until everything falls apart.
The Characteristics of Revolution
Thus it is an excellent time to look at some historic revolutions and identify the characteristics of a revolutionary uprising. We need such analysis because most of the popular myths about revolution are wrong.
First, the most effective and destructive revolutions are spontaneous and unexpected. In fact, revolutions often take everybody by surprise, even professional revolutionaries.
In 1917, for example, Vladimir I. Lenin thought a Russian Revolution was improbable. In fact, Lenin was reputedly planning to move to the United States to begin a permanent exile in 1917. Ironically, by the end of the year, Lenin was the head of a revolutionary Russian government.
Likewise, nobody in America in 1774 expected a revolution or war with the British. In France, in the 1780s, there was no indication that a revolution was imminent.
Revolutions can Occur without Revolutionaries
Another popular myth is that leaders or movements launch revolutions. Historically, many revolutions have no obvious leaders or organizers.
Both the Arab Spring of 2011 and the May 1968 uprising in France were leaderless and disorganized. Instead, both revolts began as spontaneous protests against unpopular regimes and oppressive policies. Ultimately, the Arab Spring and May 1968 failed because no leaders emerged.
However, successful revolutions often have chaotic beginnings. In America, in 1775, there was no organized revolutionary movement.
The American Revolution began with the Shot Heard Round the World on 18 April 1775. Yet, the Continental Congress did not gather and organize a government for months. In fact, the Congress did not issue the Declaration of Independence until July 1776, over a year after fighting began.
No Leader is Necessary
Similarly, the French Revolution began with the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. Yet a true revolutionary government did not take power in France until the National Convention formed the Committee of Public Safety in April 1793 almost four years later.
Revolutions often break out without leaders or organizers. Instead, new leaders arise during the upheaval. Sometimes established leaders move to take advantage of the situation. For instance, Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917.
Hence, a leader is unnecessary for a revolution. In fact, the French Revolution went on for over a decade before a dominant leader; Napoleon I, arose. Similarly, in the American Revolution Washington did not emerge as the primary leader until late 1776.
Revolutions can Take a Long Time
Another popular myth is that revolutions occur over night. Conversely, history shows revolutions can take a long time.
The French Revolution did not peak until the Reign of Terror in 1794 – five years after the Storming of the Bastille in 1789. Moreover, you can argue the French Revolution lasted for over 10 years. Perhaps the Revolution ended when Napoleon overthrew the Directory (Republic) on 9 November and 10 November 1799.
In America, the Revolution lasted for 12 years. America’s revolutionary upheaval began with the Shot Heard Round the world in April 1774 and ended with the Constitutional Convention in 1787. They held the Constitutional Convention in summer 1787, three years after the Revolutionary War.
Interestingly, the founders held the Constitutional Convention in response to a fresh wave of revolutionary violence, including Shay’s Rebellion. They held the Constitutional Convention because the Continental Congress proved incapable of governing and controlling that violence.
Thus history shows America’s current revolutionary violence may not lead to dramatic changes. Likewise, history shows the uprising could last for a long time and usher in an age of chaos.
Revolutions have unexpected Results
Revolutions often fail and sometimes backfire. The Spanish Revolution of the 1930s led not to socialism but to Francisco Franco’s bloody authoritarian dictatorship.
Similarly, in 1861 the Confederacy revolted against the United States to save slavery. The Revolution (Civil War) the Confederates began destroyed slavery.
Practically, there is no difference between a revolution and civil war. Generally, it is a revolution when the people you support win, and a civil war when those you hate win.
For instance, Leftists speak of the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. Both Franco and Lenin were revolutionaries who overthrew legal governments and established brutal dictatorships.
A Revolution is a Civil War
However, most leftists hate Franco’s authoritarian Catholic politics and admire Lenin’s Marxism, so they call the Generalissimo’s revolt a civil war. Yet, history shows Franco had more popular support in 1936 Spain than Lenin did in 1917 Russia.
Franco and Lenin succeeded because they were ruthless and aggressive leaders with effective military forces. In addition, both Franco and Lenin faced disorganized foes who were more interested in fighting among themselves than winning the war. Both the White Russians and the Spanish Republicans had no leaders and fatal divisions.
Thus most revolutions are civil wars. The French Revolution, for instance, included a destructive guerrilla war between the Royalist Catholic peasants of the Vendée and the Republic.
Nor does organization guarantee victory in Revolution or Civil War. The Confederacy was probably the best-organized revolutionary movement in history, yet it lost the American Civil War. For instance, the Confederacy fielded several large armies, and organized a fleet, a government, a congress, and even a national bank.
Is America Facing Revolution?
America is undergoing a disruptive upheaval, but it is too early to tell if it is a revolution. However, Americans need to fear because history teaches revolutions are bloody, chaotic, and often produce unexpected results.
One final thought, history shows revolutions catch everybody involved; including the revolutionaries themselves, by surprise. Remember Lenin’s failure to anticipate the Russian Revolution.
Thus, if there is a Second American Revolution, it will catch most Americans by surprise. Hence most people will be unprepared for a Second American Revolution.
An interesting thought experiment here is to imagine time travelling back to France in 1788. Once there, you could stop the average French person on the street and ask, “do you know that in a few years the people will overthrow the monarchy and execute the King?”
The ordinary French citizen will probably reply, “you are insane. We love our King and will never hurt him.” Five years later on 21 January 1793 an enormous crowd assembled in Paris’s Revolution Square (today’s Place de la Concorde) to watch the execution of King Louis XVI.
You need to keep that thought experiment in mind when some pundit says a Second American Revolution is fantastic and unrealistic. Few people in France in 1788 expected a destructive Revolution that changed Europe beyond recognition. Yet such a Revolution broke out.