Musée Carnavalet



Democratic Versus Social Revolutions: What do the Numbers Say?

Mark Beissinger is a political scientist who teaches at Princeton. His latest contribution titled The Revolutionary City surveys revolutions from 1904 to 2014. He finds that within this period, revolutions have started in the middle of the nineteenth century in cities. Think of 1848 waves against several European monarchies, and perhaps the most famous of all—the Paris Commune in 1871. Given the state’s capacity for lethally coercive power, revolutions have been ruralized. Most of these, Beissinger calls social revolutions: against absolute monarchs or for regaining independence. But by the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries, revolutions have relocated back to cities. True, unlike their antecedents, revolutions are now civic, understood as “a mass siege of an established government by its population with the goals of bringing about regime change.”

The relocation to the city presupposes the proximity of revolutions to the nerve centers of state power, a situation that has impacted—even sometimes dictated—not only the tactics but their scope. Fueled by the power of numbers or the capacity to mobilize huge crowds more than well-defined ideological convictions, urban revolutions are revolutions against corrupt and wasteful elites within the state. This logic of negativity specifies that, unlike social revolutions, urban revolutions are more likely to lead to less enduring achievements and legacies.

Because they tend to unfold in relatively shorter stretches: over weeks when compared with social revolutions which usually take years, activists must build consensus and forge coalitions. The problem with coalitions is how they cause urban revolts to eventually fail even when they succeed in ousting incumbent regimes. It is precisely when they oust their nemeses that urban revolutions become less likely to survive post-revolutionary scenarios. Beissinger reminds us that with social revolutions compromises are significantly less common, and often unthinkable.

Ukrainian woman during the Euromaidan protests
A Ukrainian woman during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv.

Unlike social revolutions, urban civic revolutions remain more often than not unable to bypass the societal cleavages animating urban revolutionaries and activists. Such cleavages translate into an inherent inability to stabilize society and smoothly lead it to meet its aspirations: good services and a functional economy. Urban civic revolutions are at heart geared toward anti-political movements. They display a deep distrust for political elites and frameworks.

The Revolutionary City lies in ten chapters. The statistical method builds on data from across the globe and covers the period between 1904 to 2014 with sensible projections beyond these dates. The text comes peppered with statistical illustrations, charts, and tables; they can be at first intimidating for readers who are unused to quantitative approaches. But lest these readers rush to prematurely close The Revolutionary City, it becomes particularly rewarding to note how numbers and statistics speak the truth and common sense regarding the uses and abuses of revolutions.

The razor-sharp distinctions do save scholars hailing from Marxist and phenomenological backgrounds from the lyricism regarding what revolutions are and how they propagate. This priceless data may look like heartless commodification of human lives and legitimate aspirations for better lives to the realm of quantifiable at the expense of the qualifiable. Readers again should resist the temptation to disengage from its findings or method because these numbers tellingly underline human experience.

The first chapter “A Spatial Theory of Revolution” underlines how the spatial relocation of revolution leads to the proximity dilemma. What is solved through galvanizing large crowds, the power of numbers is lost through the critical need for coalitions. The latter involves ideological dilutions that come to haunt urban civic revolutionists once they succeed in ousting the contested power in terms of murky performances, precipitating upcoming societal upheavals.

The second chapter “The Growth and Urbanization of Revolution” specifies an increasing frequency of revolutionary episodes around the world. He finds that the massive shift of people from rural areas to cities, the consolidation of states during the Cold War as well as the rise of unipolar world order dictate the rise of urban revolutions.

In the third chapter, “The Urban Civic Revolutionary Moment,” Beissinger sets the stage for his probabilistic approach. Instead of presuming causes, he proposes exploring factors that mark urban civic revolutionary episodes. He calls these factors “structural conditions.” Because conditions such as inequality, poverty, and underdevelopment are associated with social revolutions, Beissinger finds urban civic revolutions do not correlate with such conditions. Structural conditions explain the break between the unfolding of revolutions past and present. Meanwhile, the conditions crystalize the methodological cost when considering contemporary revolutions as a continuum of past ones.

‘The Revolutionary City’ by Mark Beissinger. 592 pp. Princeton University Press
‘The Revolutionary City’ by Mark Beissinger. 592 pp. Princeton University Press

Chapter Four, “The Repression-Disruption Trade-off and the Shifting Odds of Success,” stipulates how the chances of revolutionary success have never ceased of augmenting thanks to urbanization and proximity to power centers. This does not mean that with each revolutionary scenario, the task of unseating regimes is more frequent and predictable than failures.

As outlined in the fifth chapter “Revolutionary Contingency and the City” it is challenging for both incumbent regimes and their contestants to steer the next move and respond to rapidly unfolding updates. Mistakes or missteps from either party become acutely magnified, with direct and often irreversible consequences. This is the impact of what Beissinger brilliantly underlines as “thickened history.” Mistakes, even outright blunders, used to be contained and remediable with social revolutions. It is never the case with urban revolutions.

The sixth chapter “Public Space and Urban Revolution” reiterates the far-reaching impacts of the unfolding of revolutionary work in cities and capitals. Cities, like Paris, were initially rebuilt to facilitate the quelling of revolts and popular movements. Beissinger in this chapter finds that the physical location and the symbolic value in the design of cities can be redefined to serve urban revolutions.

Beissinger, in the seventh chapter, “The Individual and Collective Action in Urban Civic Revolution,” finds participants widely diverse. That explains the fundamental disagreements once the contested regimes fall, and revolutionaries assume the steering wheels of the state apparatus. Limitations in leading smooth post-revolutionary scenarios underline how irrespective of massively circulating narratives and “judging from motivations mentioned by participants themselves, these were revolutions not for democracy, but against the corrupt and abusive rule.”

Prague Spring, 1968
The Prague Spring in 1968. (Libor Hajsky/Reuters)

Chapter eight “The Pacification of Revolution” finds that the available data from the past century indicates that even with the ever-increasing number of revolutions, revolutionary situations have become significantly less lethal. Urbanization ranks among the top causes of the decline of lethality. The decline should not lead us to assume that seating powers have grown ethical. Rather, regimes are mortally worried about the backlash from deploying pacification forces to control unruly or seditious crowds.

Chapter nine, “The Evolving Impact of Revolution,” contrasts the achievements of social revolutions against those of urban civic ones. Testable achievements are scaled down to five: political order, economic growth, inequality, political freedom, and government accountability. Orders emerging from urban civic revolutions last less in power than their counterparts from social revolutions. Even when they introduce a substantial increase in political freedom, urban civic revolutions fall short in delivering on economic growth or fighting inequality. These shortcomings—Beissinger finds—are never the fault of urban revolutions. The latter inherited the state with its embedded networks of corruption and nepotism.

The last chapter “The City and the Future of Revolution” concludes its historical perspectives by predicting that revolutions as they have substantially changed in style and delivery during the last three centuries will continue evolving. The Internet already displays new mobilization techniques as well as counterrevolutionary and surveillance potentials. In a nutshell, there is no end to the possibilities for revolutionary regime change.

Sometimes Beissinger’s designed abstention from qualification as with ‘coupvolution’ defined as “a mass siege of government aimed at regime-change that precipitates a military coup” sacrifices complexity for the smooth unfolding of a theory. For there are situations where revolutions and counterrevolutions are so close to each other and unfold in a confusing attire. Likewise, Beissinger’s approach, built on la coupure, or rupture between social revolutions and urban civic revolutions, can be deployed by counterrevolutionaries to rationalize historical discontinuity, that is, for discouraging people from looking at historical antecedents to carry out unfinished emancipations.

These two remarks aside, policymakers, as well as democracy activists, will find the book particularly rewarding. Busy readers may limit their engagement to the introduction since Beissinger has squeezed the gist of his book in a nicely accurate synthesis there. Even counterrevolutionaries will benefit from The Revolutionary City. Quite an irony but true! Indeed, the quantitative method convincingly explains why certain post-revolutionary situations such as Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya are stuck in loopholes.

Beissinger’s method leaves no space for self-flagellation (a path taken by several activists and pseudo-historians). Again, the method enables readers to register that every eventuality subscribes to the Hegelian logic of necessity where all that exists simply could not have not existed. The Syrian nightmare remains the exception that proves Beissinger’s case: the more time it takes to defeat the incumbent and the bloodiest the struggle, the more enduring will be the fruits for the proletariat.