A Primer on World Revolutions

Hong Kong protests (Photo: Axios)

All popular uprisings from the American Revolution to Gilets Jaunes to Hong Kong follow a classic pattern. They start out as brush fires until something or someone inspires them to grow, and then they fragment into chaos or form a core that turns into a coalition, resulting in a fury of unpredictable forces. In the case of the Hong Kong protests, we know we are at the beginning stages. While we can’t tell how it will end, according to my old history teacher, Norman F. Cantor, we do know how it will play out. I have noted Cantor’s primer on world revolutions below, and his reasoning can be profitably applied to any abrupt change in the status quo, from a new technology to a new ideology.

Nine Phases of Revolutions

Phase I: Rejection

The purpose of all revolutions, whether peaceful or violent, is to influence social change. World revolutions start with frustration and align their future to a new ideology. Change is manifested by a rising tide of rebelliousness in one or more of the 4 Gs: generations, geographies, gender, and groups (which can mean ethnic, race, and ideological groupings that may have been marginalized but now seek to rise above their status quo).

Phase II: Power

Revolutions start as radical fashion and end as convention. The purpose of revolution is to shift power. Society benefits because it gives new political, economic, and intellectual forces an opportunity to grow. But ultimately, all revolutions suffer from the same consequence, revolutionaries become the established elite. Then, there is a new revolution.

Phase III: Change

Each world revolution is motivated by perceived moral wrongs in the prevailing political, social, or religious system. However, the ultimate aim of the revolutionary ideologists is not the reform of the prevailing system but its abolition and replacement by a new order. Often the matters are closely connected to corruption and abuse and often the complainers have valid reasons.

Phase IV: Acrimony

At the early to middle stage of a revolution, violence is used to increase velocity. The response is often equally violent opposition from vested interests and sincere defenders of the old order. After many acrimonious disputes and a flood of propaganda, bitter and protracted warfare results. This leads to polarization into revolutionary and conservative sides. In this period, the definition of civil behavior falls apart and adherents condone it in the name of ideology. It allows the radicals to take even more extreme measures that result in a rapid power shift driven by fear.

Phase V: Violence

World revolutions call on extremists to do the dirty work. Motivations may not be zealous passion for the cause although that is usually the reason claimed. Instead, it might result from a lust for power or fame. For violence to be satisfying and acceptable it takes two to tango, and the belligerents generally fall into the camps: regime changers hoping to topple the vested interests arrayed against equally fanatical defenders or extreme reactionaries. Clear thinkers don’t get to lead revolutions because to keep the flame of resistance alive, there is a responsibility to be entertaining. For that, firebrands get the job done nicely.

Phase VI: Moderates

What the British call the ‘middlin’ way are uncommitted moderates who are the unheard voices in the pubs and coffee shops, expressing fluid sympathies like Americans at their first cricket match. They see right and wrong on both sides. The group does not use power effectively since they do not want to take sides until victory is assured, so they stand on the sidelines cheering or jeering until the direction is clear. The radicals respond to this by recruiting more aggressively and violently.

Phase VII: Radicals

In all revolutions, the sole purpose of the radical ideologists is a new world order, and in this aspect they are only partially successful. They rarely see or think beyond destroying the old system and, when they do, they find the new world is not a revolutionary utopia. This leads to two possible outcomes. They will resort to totalitarian tendencies because they are radicals bent on gaining and maintaining power. The second is that when the old world order capitulates, moderates pull away as they perceive the real aim of the radicals and their reckless disregard. Nobody wants to be the fall guy for atrocities. This is usually a time that radicals leave the stage by escape or exile.

Phase VIII: Consolidation

New leadership emerges. It is no longer a revolution but a constitution that is required. Depending on the breadth of fervor and popularity, the new regime may represent the will of the people or will be an instrument of discipline and control that vanquishes opposition.

Phase IX: Politics

This is the stage that politicians emerge. They represent the public’s desire for a pragmatic approach, getting down to the business of statehood. They try to reconstruct the shattered pieces of the old system with the achievements of the revolution into a new and workable synthesis. If they succeed, the revolution becomes the new status quo. The radicals retreat into academia, think tanks, and safe spaces for former extremists seeking sanctuary.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher Forbes

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