Palestine: The Middle East’s longest-running revolutionary struggle. (Credit: Joel Schalit/Flickr)
Palestine: The Middle East’s longest-running revolutionary struggle. (Credit: Joel Schalit/Flickr)

We are accustomed to thinking of revolutions in terms of great historical episodes of violent transformation that arose in the past: the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Chinese Revolution of 1949, Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979.  Since the 1980s, it has appeared that political change would take a softer form, with regimes shifting towards democracy by negotiation following peaceful protests (Lawson, 2004).

Such ‘colour’ revolutions, so-called because of the coloured banners used as symbols by peaceful protestors, occurred in 1986 in the Philippines, in 2003 in Georgia, in 2004 in Ukraine, and became a “new model” for revolutions (Beissinger, 2007).  It was thus a shock when the Arab revolutions, which began with a promising colour revolution in Tunisia, changed form as they diffused across North Africa and the Middle East, producing brutal counter-revolutionary regimes in Bahrain and Egypt, and murderous civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

The older type of violent revolution clearly had not faded into the mists of history, even though it had been joined by the alternative ‘colour revolution’ path. In fact, revolutions have changed form throughout human history, with new forms being added while older forms persist.

The elite revolution against the Tarquin kings that launched the Roman Republic was one early form of revolution, but the modality of elite leaders gathering a military force to overthrow a monarchy and create a new form of government appeared in the 17th Century in Britain and in the 19th Century in Japan.  The modality of urban crowds forcing a change in government by a mass uprising in cities appeared in Greek city-states during the Peloponnesian Wars, in the Renaissance cities of northern Italy, in Europe in the Revolutions of 1848, and again in the anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1989-1991.

The combination of peasants, townsmen, and professionals rising up to overthrow landed aristocrats appeared in the constitutional revolutions of Athens and Sparta, and of course in the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of February 1917, and the Chinese Revolution of 1911.  Communist revolutions that aimed to end private property were imagined in the 19th Century, implemented on a small scale by utopian communities in that era, and then transformed major nations in the 20th Century.  Revolutions that developed as drawn-out guerilla wars were an innovation of the 20th Century, being realised in China, Cuba, and the anti-colonial revolutions in Algeria, Vietnam, and elsewhere.  Revolution by a deliberate policy of non-violence was also a 20th Century innovation, beginning with the Indian Independence movement, and finding new expression in the anti-communist revolutions and colour revolutions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries (Ritter, 2015).

It appears that the vogue for communist revolutions (Colburn, 1994) has faded, but religious revolutions continue. Revolutions driven by a fervor for religious reform were common in the 16th and 17th centuries, arising in Scotland, Geneva, and Great Britain; they have returned in the 20th and 21st centuries with the Iranian Islamic Revolution, the Islamic State’s efforts to create a Caliphate from lands seized by rebels in Iraq and Syria, and the revolutionary movements of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, the Houthi in Yemen, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Nationalism has always been a strong factor in mobilisation for revolutions, and various forms of ethno-nationalism have driven numerous revolutions, from the Greek revolution against Ottoman rule in the 1820s and subsequent anti-Ottoman revolts to the many revolutions that developed from ethnic and anti-imperialist conflicts in Africa in the 20th Century.

Far from being a single ‘type’ of event that characterised a certain period in the past, revolutions encompass many kinds of events whose forms have emerged and shifted form according to local context over thousands of years.  One could say that ‘revolution’ is a genus with many species and sub-species.  What all revolutions have in common is a deliberate effort to change the structure of government by extraordinary actions in pursuit of a vision of greater justice.  Yet the particular actions taken, the visions pursued, the trajectories of events, the lines of conflicts, the methods and scope of mobilisation, and the changes achieved have varied greatly over time and space.

A brief survey of the last few decades would include the following revolutionary events arising since the end of the Cold War, even excluding the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union: In 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front drove the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam from power; the Kurdish uprising began the Kurds’ autonomous rule in northern Iraq; a popular uprising overturned the military regime in Mali; and Somali National Movement rebels established an independent Somaliland. In 1992, the Bosnian War of Independence shattered the Balkans, and 1994 saw the Zapatista Rebellion in Mexico and the first Chechen Rebellion against Russia, as well as the takeover of Rwanda by the Rwandan Patriotic Front.  That year also saw the triumph of the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa, with the installation of Nelson Mandela as president.

1997 brought the Kosovo Rebellion that led to the declaration of independence for Kosovo a decade later, and the overthrow of President Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo, followed by the Indonesian Revolution of 1998.  In 2000, Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Yugoslavia was overturned by the Bulldozer Revolution, the first of five ‘colour’ revolutions that would unfold in the next six years. Next was the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, followed by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and then the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Violent revolutionary movements arose as well: the Darfur rebellion broke out in Sudan in 2003, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram emerged the same year.

The next decade began with the second Kyrgyz Revolution in 2010, followed by the ‘Arab Revolutions’: beginning in Tunisia in 2010 then spreading to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen in 2011.  In 2012, the long-ruling Central African Republic regime of François Bozizé was overthrown by rebels, while a major Taureg rebellion seized over half of Mali.  Two years later, in 2014 the EuroMaidan Revolution in Ukraine drove Viktor Yanukovych from power while the Burkinabé Revolution brought democracy to Burkina Faso.  In total, 31 revolutions in the 24 years 1991-2014, not to mention numerous unsuccessful lesser uprisings and nationwide protests.

We are thus still living in an age of revolutions.  To be sure, some of these events have been far less violent than the great social revolutions, or the guerilla wars of revolutions past.  Yet some, such as the Hutu-Tutsi struggle for power in Rwanda, or the Syrian civil war, rival any past conflict for sheer violent horror. These facts are the basis for the question that serves as the title of this essay: Why have so many revolutions occurred in recent years, and are they likely to continue to occur in the future?

Theories of revolution and their timing in history

The last few decades have been a graveyard, not only for a wide variety of regimes but for many theories of revolution (Beck, 2017).  Both Marxism and modernisation theory claimed that revolutions were characteristic of a particular stage of economic development – the onset of capitalist industrialisation, which would bring new classes and new conflicts to the fore.  Yet we have seen revolutions overturn the regime of one of the world’s industrial super-powers (the USSR) as well as governments in poor rural nations (Burkina Faso, Zaire, Rwanda) and in middle-income semi-industrialised ones (the Arab Revolutions).

Modernisation theory further suggested that traditional monarchies and empires would be overthrown by revolutions and replaced by constitutional or party states; yet in the Arab Revolutions, it was traditional monarchies in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the Emirates that remained stable while the modernising party-states in Egypt and Syria faced revolutionary tumult.

The most famous theory of revolutions of the 1970s and 1980s, advanced by Theda Skocpol (1979) to explain great social revolutions, argued that such events arose when countries faced the dual pressures of competition with more advanced external adversaries and opposition from autonomous internal elites, leading to a state crisis that was catalysed into social revolution by peasant uprisings from rural communities under weak local control.  Yet such a theory could not account for the Iranian Islamic Revolution, which arose in the most powerful nation in the Middle East and was catalysed by massive urban protests.  Nor could it account for the revolutions which overthrew communism; for while the external pressures of competition with the West were surely a cause, it was the core leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev that orchestrated the reforms and elections which led to communism’s decline, again with the catalysis of massive urban protests.

Indeed, for the great variety of revolutions since 1979, from Iran and Nicaragua up through the Arab Spring, the most common pattern is that of a ruler forfeiting elite support through corruption and cronyism, with mostly urban popular mobilisation spurred by aspirations for greater accountability, freedom, and prosperity, and anger at pervasive oppression and economic frustration.  Skocpol’s theories about the great revolutions of the past thus hardly suit the new modalities of current revolutions.

The theories that do seem to have held up better are the notion of Barrington Moore, Jr. (1978) – that revolutions are at base a struggle against injustice – and some of the work I have developed on various aspects of revolutions. These works argued that revolutions are a struggle for greater justice, but that their forms and trajectories vary, that demographic pressures play a role, as do international trends and international interventions, and that revolutions increasingly resemble and overlap with social movements in their development (Goldstone 1998, 2009, 2014, 2016; Goldstone and Ritter, 2018).

Above all, it is important to recognise that revolutions are varied, innovative, and emergent phenomena.  They recur in some ways but appear novel in others. The key conditions that combine to create a revolutionary situation – state weakness, elite conflicts, popular discontent, a narrative of injustice, and international support – may not combine often, hence revolutions are rare. But these elements, and their combination, are bound to no particular time or place, no particular kind of regime, and no specific stage of economic or political development.

To determine whether revolutions are likely to be more or less frequent in the future, we need to ask whether any global or regional forces are likely to drive these factors in combination to significant levels.

A world in disarray

Several global trends and events are making revolutions frequent occurrences. The end of the Cold War was supposed to create a more orderly world, with the US supporting an increasingly open and liberal global order.  More colour revolutions to spread democracy might occur, but violent conflicts and ideologically-driven revolutions were supposed to be things of the past (Fukuyama,1992).

Things did not work out this way.  First, the collapse of communism invigorated the business community around the world to push for an unfettered capitalism that pursued only profit. ‘Socialist’ efforts to shift national income to public goods and welfare diminished, support for labour organisation shrivelled, and people were left on their own to compete in open global markets.  For those who had scarce and marketable skills, huge fortunes could be had as China, Brazil, India, Turkey and other emerging markets grew rapidly, and hundreds of millions emerged from poverty to become consumers.

However, aspirations grew apace, and those who did not gain as expected – the highly educated in the Arab world, where education far outran the growth in white-collar jobs; the lower-middle classes in developing countries who lacked scarce skills and college educations; and businesspeople, urban workers, and professionals everywhere who found their way blocked by corruption and cronyism – laid a foundation for opposition to exclusionary regimes.

Second, the dominance of the US in the immediate post-Cold War years led the US to aggressively promote Western ideas and products in a way that produced a backlash, especially in the Middle East, where fundamentalist Islamists, who had been fighting to assert themselves for decades, stepped up their terrorist attacks against US forces and facilities. The devastating attack on New York and Washington, DC by al-Qaeda in 2001 produced massive but largely ineffective and disruptive US interventions in Islamic countries, first Afghanistan and then Iraq.

These US interventions, despite high costs and decades of effort, did not provide stability or peace; instead, they revealed the vulnerability of the US to asymmetric warfare and the insensitivity of the US to local culture.  The resulting ‘Global War on Terror’ placed the US in the position of propping up corrupt dictatorships that aided the US against terrorism, while diverting US attention and resources from any effort to build global liberal institutions. These dictatorships lost local legitimacy not only for their corruption but for being seen as tools of the West.

Third, the spread of better health and medical care continued to fuel a rapid rise in population in the Middle East, parts of south and central Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. This produced youthful populations and huge cohorts of educated youth in exclusionary and crony-capitalist regimes (Goldstone, 2011; Korotayev and Zinkina, 2011).

Finally, the global recession of 2007-09, plus the climate-change-driven spike in wheat prices and drought in 2009-2010, put great pressures on regimes in the Middle East to cope with the costs of subsidies and the movement of people out of withered agricultural areas. Particularly in the Middle East, regimes that had claimed legitimacy based on subsidy programmes for wheat and other basic necessities under ‘Arab socialism’ had already been reducing subsidies because of the difficulty of staying abreast of population growth.

The economic and climate crises of 2009-2010 exacerbated this problem. At the same time, the austerity policies adopted in Europe and the long period of recovery in the US suppressed global growth rates and increased pressure on states and populations who traded with Europe throughout the following decade.

In addition to these factors, the spread of cable television and social media created new channels for communications among protestors and across nations. Regimes were often surprised by the impact of these new channels and the ability of protestors to use them strategically to build support and tactically to orchestrate specific protest actions.

Demographic disequilibrium and the return of populist ethno-nationalism

Looking to the future, there are two more factors that will make revolutions likely in the future.  The first is what I would describe as demographic disequilibrium within and across nations.

Research in political demography has established powerful associations between stages of the demographic transition and regimes (Cincotta, 2008/2009; Cincotta and Doces, 2012; Urdal, 2006; Weber, 2013; Wilson and Dyson, 2017).  In the early stages of the transition, when populations are youthful and growing fast, regimes are rarely democratic and tend to have high levels of violence and civil conflict.

As I have shown (Goldstone, 2002, 2016), high rates of population growth can lead to heightened intra-elite competition, easier mass mobilisation, and strains on state capacity, especially if economic growth lags. This means that those regions of the world that remain stalled in the earlier stages of the transition, with high population growth rates and youthful populations, mainly sub-Saharan Africa but also Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, and parts of Central America, will be prone to revolutions in the coming decades, especially if economic growth is weak or distorted by corruption.

Yet as global economic growth slows (see below) and countries resist migration and engagement in Africa, while climate change continues apace, economic growth in Africa is likely to face challenges.  If regimes continue to be corrupt and afflicted by ethnic and regional conflicts, then economic growth will remain weak, distorted, and sporadic in many nations.  Combined with demographic pressures, this will create prime conditions for revolutions.

Meanwhile, political demography also shows that countries in the later stages of the democratic transition tend to be democracies. In these later stages, countries have older populations, tend to be more urbanised, and to have richer and more complex economies. Gaining autonomy and seeking more accountability and personal freedom, mature populations tend to reject dictatorships and seek representative government (Inglehart and Welzel, 2005).

Today, there are a few glaring exceptions to this trend, notably in China, Cuba, Belarus, North Korea and Russia. In all of these countries, revolutionary leaders or parties established themselves and relied on nationalism, the provision of economic security, and the fear of foreign enemies – all amplified through media control – to sustain popular and elite support. Yet they are ‘out of equilibrium’, and leaders in these countries appear quite fearful of experiencing ‘colour revolutions’ such as those that toppled authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and South Korea.

As long as these regimes can sustain unified elites, solid economic performance, and tight media control they can remain in power. Yet their ability to do this may not be easy to sustain indefinitely. United elites are easier to sustain in strong military or party governments where overarching organisations can discipline individuals and provide clear paths for succession. They are much harder to sustain in personalist or sultanist regimes, where a particular individual takes all power in his hands and relies on a tight circle of loyalists to shield him from enemies while persecuting all perceived opponents.

To varying degrees, all of these countries have moved in the direction of becoming sultanist regimes. North Korea, Cuba, and Belarus have long relied on family or individual rulers who dominated their societies (the Kims, the Castros, and Lukashenko). Vladimir Putin in Russia, since returning to power in 2012, and Xi Jinping, since the Party Congress of 2017, have been paving the way for themselves to remain in power indefinitely, with no significant opposition or accountability. Should any of these countries encounter a major economic crisis or humiliating military defeat, or a crisis of succession, there is an excellent chance that elites and the population will seek to free themselves from autocratic rule by an all-powerful czar or emperor-like figure.  To be sure, given the age maturity of their populations, this is much more likely to take place by relatively peaceful colour revolutions than by violent ideologically-driven struggles. But the forces leaning in the direction of regime change are significant.

It is also important to note that Western countries have been deeply affected by the revolutions in the Arab world. The fear of disorder and terrorism, compounded by anxieties regarding immigration from Muslim countries, has led to a surge in ethno-nationalism in Europe and the US. These countries are also in the very late stages of demographic transition, with ageing and stagnating labour forces hampering productivity and economic growth.

This has led to defensive attitudes making it very unlikely that either Europe or the US will be open to migration from the rapidly-growing African countries seeking a safety-valve for their ambitious youth. Nor are these countries likely to increase their support for military, diplomatic, and welfare measures to aid stability in the fast-growing but conflict-prone countries of Africa and the Middle East.

As Europe, the U.S., and China all face ageing populations and stagnant labour forces, it will be more difficult for them to generate economic growth.  Adopting a defensive posture, they are unlikely to raise their spending on foreign assistance. There is thus little reason to expect that international interventions will offset the rising pressures producing revolutionary conditions in the vulnerable regions of Africa and the Middle East.

In addition to these demographic disequilibrium conditions, which suggest a future of violent revolutions in sub-Saharan Africa, and colour revolutions in ageing and increasingly personalist autocracies in Eurasia, there are strong international trends that may be building up revolutionary conditions in the future. Throughout history, revolutions have tended to occur in great waves that spread across regions. From the city-state revolutions that spread across Greece during the Peloponnesian Wars, to the urban revolutions that swept northern Italy in the Renaissance, the revolutions that spread across Europe in the crisis of the 17th Century, the Atlantic revolutions of the late 18th Century, the European Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the constitutional revolutions of the early 20th Century, the anti-colonial revolutions of the mid-20th Century, the anti-communist revolutions that spread all across eastern Europe and central Asia in 1989-1991, and the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011, revolutions do not occur in isolation (Beck, 2011; Goldstone, 2014, 2016; Katz, 1997; Lawson, 2004; Parker, 2013).

Such waves arise not only because broad conditions in demography or the global economy or climate create pressures for change, but also because regional clusters of regimes tend to adopt forms that have similar vulnerabilities. Regimes in a given region often evolve together, and from competition or dynastic connections or imitation adopt similar political institutions. Such regimes, being similarly vulnerable when a widespread shock occurs, tend to fall in rapid succession once the first regime collapses, and the example inspires others by demonstrating that change is possible.

Since the weakening of western regimes in the 2007-2009 recession and the growth of global ethno-nationalism, ‘strong-man’ regimes have come into fashion. Even the president of the US, Donald Trump, has expressed half-joking admiration for China’s Xi Jinping’s ability to remove term limits and other constraints on his authority. The number of nations with governments that are increasingly sultanist – with a single family or individual having a predominant and largely unchecked hold on power – has been growing. Such regimes proved extremely vulnerable in the Middle East and North Africa, where it was precisely such rulers – Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Ghaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria, and Saleh in Yemen – who became the targets of revolts. Yet we are seeing this type of rule spread, with Turkey, Venezuela, Azerbaijan, and the countries of central Asia all leaning towards this kind of repressive personalist regime. As their populations grow more mature, and their economies become more urban and more complex, their disposition to become democracies will increase. Strong leaders with good economies, external support, and united elites can put off such change for decades, but probably not indefinitely.

The current global shift towards personalist rule, most notable in Russia and China but spreading widely, means that should an economic or climate or other shock lead one of these regimes to fail, this will likely trigger a wave of revolutions in similarly governed states. While it is impossible to know precisely how far such a wave will spread or on which countries it will break, the number of such similarly structured and vulnerable regimes means that revolutions, as in the past, are unlikely to be isolated in the future.

What is certain will be the surprise

One last characteristic of revolutions in history that is worth recalling is that they have seemed to come out of nowhere, precisely where and when they seemed least likely. The anti-communist revolutions of 1989-1991 came just as observers were concluding that party states were far more durable than military or personalist dictatorships, and took most observers by surprise (Kuran, 1995). The Arab Revolutions occurred after observers had developed theories to explain Arab exceptionalism and the deep stability of Middle Eastern autocratic regimes (Brownlee, 2002).

It thus is almost certain that the next wave of global revolutions will also come when least expected; perhaps when China seems strongest or when African countries have been making short-term progress. Then a shock will come that reveals an unseen vulnerability and multiple regimes will tumble. It will be explicable in hindsight, of course, but will almost certainly come as a surprise as to the precise timing and location where it begins.

What should not be a surprise, however, is that revolutions will occur in the future, and they will occur in waves that will rile entire regions. It is also certain that they will reveal some innovations in methods, patterns, and outcomes, as the nature of revolutions continues to develop and seek new modalities. Even though social media and cable and satellite news have become far better controlled by regimes seeking to stifle opponents, still newer technologies may emerge.

For example, artificial intelligence is being developed by repressive regimes to aid identification of opponents and social control. Yet if history is any guide, regime opponents may figure out ways to turn that technology to their purposes, perhaps by using bots to overwhelm state control networks, or by using a digital equivalent of Guy Fawkes masks to fool facial recognition and allow surreptitious organisation and coordination.

When will revolutions fade from history? Only when most countries have developed political and social systems that provide their citizens with an assured sense of justice, accountability, security, opportunity, and dignity; where elites are open but united; and states have extricated themselves from dangerous levels of debt and conflict with other nations.  In other words, not anytime soon.


Jack Goldstone

Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University



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