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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

In our earlier discussion of different kinds of rebellions (and why worldbuilders may benefit from expanding their mental models of rebellions beyond Robin Hood and Parisian riots), we arbitrarily defined four types: violent contention, secession, coups, and revolutions. We then briefly discussed the first two. Now, let’s finish our list by talking about coups and revolutions.

Neither violent contention nor secession intends to totally overthrow the existing government (necessarily); the rebels want to better their own condition or to break away, but to leave the rest of the society more or less as it was. In coups and revolutions, on the other hand, the point is indeed to overthrow the ruler. The difference between them lies in who is doing the overthrowing, and whether they mean simply to take control of the regime or to demolish it and put some other regime in its place.

We’ve discussed before the selectorate model of regimes, in which a subset of the populace is the selectorate, meaning that they could possibly be part of the ruling coalition. In a coup, members of the selectorate decide to replace the current ruler with another one better to their liking, usually so that they themselves have more power within the new ruling coalition. However, they typically do not want to destroy the structures of the government in their coup; rather, coups typically happen swiftly, aiming to paralyze the ruler’s supporters long enough for the plotters to seize the ruler’s person, and then declare their victory a fait accompli. (This is why in most modern coups, the coup plotters will try to capture the country’s media stations—both to present the impression of overwhelming control, and to prevent regime loyalists from coordinating a response.) Then, after a bit of reshuffling and the odd loyalty purge, the bureaucracy and the army are meant to fall in line, and life will go on.

For a coup to work, the ruler and perhaps large parts of his ruling coalition would have to have weak legitimacy and little loyalty among the military; that way, few will object too much if they are replaced. However, the selectorate itself should either still have prestige in society or at the very least enough raw power to stay on top. So for example, if King Gunther the Mad were quietly removed to an asylum by a cabal of noblemen, and replaced by his infant son Rudolph the Tiny (with Chancellor Grise acting as regent, of course!), the plotters might settle scores with a few of Gunther’s supporters; but fundamentally, they do not challenge the idea that noblemen should rule society. Why would they? They are noblemen themselves!

In a coup, the government might change, but the regime persists—the system of elites and state institutions that sustains the power of the government. This is not the case in a revolution. Here, the regime itself has decayed so badly that a broad popular uprising is able to sweep it away entirely. Old elites are dispossessed or killed, old justifications for state power become obsolete; a new group of elites arises at the head of the revolutionary mass, claiming power. 

In a revolution, the old selectorate is replaced by a new selectorate, justified by a new principle of legitimacy (the new selectorate might nevertheless include some of the same people as the old one, but not always). All the old relations between classes and social groups are upended, and new relations form. This is the distinguishing mark of a revolution in the comparative-politics sense. (Which is part of why I prefer to think of the American Revolution as more of a secession; yes, the idea of breaking free of the king was fairly novel, but within American society it was the existing elites who took over.)

For a revolution to succeed, the entire elite stratum has to be losing its grip. In pre-revolutionary France, for example, the French monarchy was deeply in debt and had ceded much of its authority to tax farmers, who harshly oppressed the populace. Worse, the nobility had largely retreated into decadence instead of paying attention to the society around them, where dangerous new ideas about democracy and enlightenment (not to mention the execrable Rousseau, whose philosophy set the stage for modern totalitarianism) were taking hold among the growing middle class, inspired by the example of the United States. A few nobles even became important revolutionaries, such as the lamented “Philippe Égalité,” otherwise known as Louis Philippe II, Due d’Orleans. (This is a common pattern in revolutions: their leaders are often part of the old elite, usually embittered with the old regime and upholding new ideals, or marginalized and seeking more power or personal meaning as part of a revolutionary vanguard.)

Importantly, because the regime is falling apart, several different types of revolutionaries usually spring up to fill the void—and they may not like each other much. In the 1979 Iranian Revolution, not only Khomeinist Islamists rose up but also communists, trade unions, liberals, and business groups. Indeed, Khomeini’s faction seemed to be among the weaker ones, and few expected that they would end up taking power. However, if all of the state’s institutions crumble, power ends up in the hands of whoever is most ruthless. The initial hopes of a new age of Persian freedom were dashed by the rise of Khomeini, who quickly massacred the non-Islamist revolutionaries and imposed a brutal theocracy.

Similarly, the initial group of humanists and liberals who led the French Revolution were quickly displaced by vicious absolutists like Robespierre, driven by fantastic visions of a perfect society and willing to spill rivers of blood to get there. Before long, the overthrow of the monarchy, the nobility, and the Church (the old elites) became only the first stage of a ruthless war by the new French state against its own citizens, where today’s ruling clique became tomorrow’s victims of the guillotine. (You can read a fascinating account of one dimension of the revolutionary madness in the free book Fiat Money Inflation in France—which is also interesting in its own right because of when it was written, when it was republished, by whom, and in what context. But I digress.)

Revolutions usually end badly, because the idealists who begin them are usually replaced by ruthless murderers who smell the chance for power and take it. A similar process, although slower, can happen in the course of some longer revolts such as secessions or violent contention; the history of the Autodefensa movement in Mexico is a good example. (In the famous phrase of Eric Hoffer, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”) To me, it seems that the only way to reliably defend against the ascension of the vicious is for the rebels to build strong institutions of governance early, and to sustain them over the course of the revolt. This, I think, is the main reason that the American Revolution was so successful in the long run: because the colonial legislatures had a long heritage and political tradition that could resist the rise of extremism. Gestures toward a true revolution such as Shays’ Rebellion never got past the stage of violent contention, and were quickly put down.


Authors can consider questions such as: What is the goal of the rebels? Is the regime stable enough to defend itself? Are things likely to snowball out of control and become much larger? Who among the rebels is most ruthless, and would they impose themselves on the others? Is this revolt a contest between different groups of elites, or between the elites and groups out of power? Do any of the elites join the rebels anyway? Do the rebels have a competing political principle to justify their rule instead of the existing regime, or several conflicting principles?