Chalmers Johnson On Revolution

Quotes reflect Johnson’s specific words

Revolution has two meanings in Chinese, Fanshen (turning over the soil) and “withdrawing the mandate from heaven.”

Aristotle on Revolution: “the universal the desire for equality, when men feel they are equal to others.” He emphasizes there must be some social order at the outset, that people are not satisfied with.

Revolution does not = social change. It is a form of social change.

Examples: all study of revos rises from the US revo, the French revo of 1789, the Russian Revo, and the Chinese revo, victorious in 1949.

In each case, peaceful reform failed.

Non-violent revolution is a contradiction in terms.

Hobbes: Society is rooted in violence.

For a revo to begin, society has to have become worse than war. A belief that a better society is possible, even if it takes war, is key.

Violence is nothing more than reason exasperated.

Revolutionary violence must attack the central seat of power. Decentralized violence often leads to reform.

Societies are rooted in coercion, forms of violence, applied inequitably in inequitable societies.

When hope vanishes, and people are just scavenging for food, revo may be at hand.

“The most important value system in a society is to legitimize the use of force.” 27

Talcott Parsons: 4 types of social control: inducements, invocation of power, use of persuasion, appeals to conscience.

The state, government, is the institutionalization of authority, coercion. However, the complete monopolization of coercion in the state would be a perfect definition of totalitarianism.

The key precondition of revolution is the loss of legitimacy, authority (mandate from heaven). Arendt. 33

Parsons: 4 sets of needs that must be met for social stability (1) socialization into members, especially youth, of the society’s value systems (deferred gratification for example), (2) adaption to the social environment and acceptance of specific roles, (3) each subgroup has goals (schools education, churches evangelize, mothers protect kids, businesses expand, armies win, etc), and (4) integration (teachers, preachers, etc) and social control (cops, military, etc).

Revolutions testify to incredible dissatisfaction with society. People are not inherently mutinous.

Social inequality does not necessarily bring revolutions.

Johnson: sources of change

1. External: world wide communications system, foreign travelers returning, international communist parties, external warfare, etc.

2. Internal: changes of values brought about by intellectual activity, scientific discovery, acceptance of innovations that are not incorporated into “normal” society.

Ideology, an alternative value system, plus much more, is key to revolution. In this sense, ideology would mean a program of values, a coherent or at least understandable method of analysis and plans of action: Grand Strategy, strategy, and tactics.

Such an ideology will “supply intellectually and emotionally satisfying explanations of what is wrong with the social system,” why, who personifies the prevention of change, promises some methods of suggesting that success of change is possible, some view of a better way to live.

Revolutionary ideologies, thus, offer a method of thinking, apply it to criticism of things as they are (the existing social order), produce a culture that shows how things can change, long term goals, and, during a revolutions, these ideologies often shift in order to explain deficiencies within them as social practice tests them.

Revolutionary ideologies are, typically, imminent. That is, they do not argue for postponing change but seek to hasten it.

High degrees of generality, or correctness in terms of explanation and practice, means that revolutionary ideologies can spread between and among dissident groups: solidarity grows.

Leadership is key. Machievelli offered three ideas about what leaders need: virtue, fortune, understanding necessity.

Fortune can be beyond control, but Machievelli also said,” when once the people have taken arms against you, there will be never lacking foreigners to assist them.”

Now, to causes of revolutions and what makes them win or lose?


*power deflation, dependence on more and more force.

*loss of authority, use of force seen as illegitimate

* accelerators: events that make armies mutiny, revolutionary leaders decide to move, etc.

In order to retain power, elites must do two things: recognize disequilibrium and move, convincingly, to act on it.

One common method to retain power is to coopt opposition leadership.

Incompetent leadership, corruption, nepotism, caste, dynastic decay, blocked channels of social mobility may not only isolate elites, but blind them from changing social conditions.

If an accelerator occurs during an elite-controlled reform effort, it may render that effort irrelevant.

Another way to keep elites in power, but to create an appearance of change, is for one elite to abdicate.

When a loss of authority is complete, and all that is left is violence, then the conditions for revolution are at the maximum.

When some event strips elites’ ability to use force, an event that demonstrates elites cannot hold back a revolutionary tide, then revolution comes.

Three kinds of ACCELERATORS: military weakness or disarray; sheer confidence of revolutionaries that they can defeat elites’ armed might, strategic action–the time is ripe, let us hit them. In addition, spontaneous incidents can serve as accelerators when there is a revolutionary movement, organized, that has a plan for subsequent actions.

Elites who have full control of the armed forces are impregnable. Thus, a study of the troops is important.

*What kind of military is it: caste? Military elites? Conscripts? Ethnic subgroups? Volunteers (rare)? Mercenaries? Will the military attack a domestic revolt? Is there a distinct group in the military that will attack mutineers? DO THE RANKS AND THE OFFICERS HAVE PROFOUNDLY DIFFERENT VALUES AND INTERESTS?

*Are troops cut off enough from civilians that they will accept order unconditionally? Do troops fraternize with enemies, or potential enemies?

*Are elites in the military divided from political elites over strategy and tactics, leading to indecisiveness?

*Is there sharp dissension in the ruling class itself?

Of all the accelerators, highest is military defeat in war: Russian and Chinese revolutions, for example. Unsuccessful wars dissolve militaries.

A second accelerator is the belief that the armed forces can be undone if some plan is followed.

It is common for revolutionaries to launch their actions under legal banners, demonstrations, etc, in order to test the resolve of the troops.

Wallace on Revolutions:

Require an ideology
Seek to build a base, converts

Arendt: Revolution as Liberation

Passionate hatred of masters, longing for freedom
But revolutions must possess a purpose, an idea for the future

Kinds of Revolutions:

Revolutions are not rebellions.

They are modern occurrences, by most accounts. I (RG) would list just a few: maybe the US in 1778, France in 1789, Russia, 1917, and China 1949. Revolutions win. Insurrections don’t.

A few revolutions, like the ones above, not only sought to transform social class relations, but to upend values, law, culture, everything–to create new kinds of people: as with “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” (Marx).

Strategies of Revolutionary Movements:

Coups–sudden seizure of power that is accepted by masses of people and the military’s base. Note, after their coup, the Bolsheviks had to organize a military and fight a civil war. Typically, the coup is achieved by infiltrating the military and elites, building a prior base among the people who are witnessing a deflation of power/authority.

This requires a revolutionary party. The Leninist type is the classic model. Hierarchical. Largely secret. Professional revolutionaries. Cellular units.

In “Left Wing Communism,” Lenin describes the “united front” methods of the party. The united front links the left with more legitimized movements for the purpose of, first, getting a hearing, and later, throwing them over. “We support them like a rope supports a hanging man.” (Lenin).

It is likely, however, that the party being “used” is well aware of its status. Chiang Kai Shek turned on his communist allies and nearly destroyed them, several times.

Guerrilla Warfare –some lose (Philippines), some win (China, Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, Yugoslavia).

*Turning the strengths of the elites’ army back against itself, forming the growing guerrilla sector committed to a long, long struggle.
*This requires remarkable singleness of purpose.

Mao Tse Tung (1929): “The enemy attacks, we retreat. The enemy camps, we harass. The enemy tires, we attack. The enemy retreats, we pursue.”

The guerrilla movement is typically weaker, smaller, technologically inferior to its enemy. It compensates for this by fighting only when victory is assured (splitting the enemy forces and attacking smaller units, ambushes, etc).

The guerrilla movement is political (wants the population to see and accept its goals), military, moral (must hold the moral high ground).

The population, for the guerrilla, is the sea of the people and the guerrilla the fish. For the enemy, the population becomes the swamp. So, the guerrillas must have the support of the people.

Again, ideology becomes key—to win the will of the people.

Nationalism, against invaders, has so far held the greatest appeal for the people who back guerrilla movements. It has also been the burial ground of many guerrilla goals about equality and democracy.

Use of terrorism (bombs replacing a mass, conscious, movement) indicates the population is basically opposed to the guerrilla’s goals. However, terror is sometimes used to draw in an enemy invader, provoking nationalist backlash.

Later stages include the formation of a revolutionary base area. Within this necessarily militarized zone, the guerrillas seek to form the basis for an alternative government. This removes land and people from elite control, weakening them.

The revolutionary movement must field an army of some sort. At first poorly trained, but dedicated, the revolutionary soldiers must be educated to the goals, strategies, and tactics at hand.

The guerrillas must not be bandits, but retain the support of the people–active support.

The guerrilla movement, following Mao, will concentrate in its tactics: “Our strategy is to pit one against ten but our tactic is to pit ten against one.”

Guerrilla fighting has one specific purpose: to wear down the enemy over time, to defeat the enemy politically, morally, militarily, economically. It is an all-sector assault, usually understood by the enemy as a war, only (RG).

Guerrilla warfare must be seen by the population as humane, logical, tolerable, necessary–thus the resort to violence as no other means will work.

Johnson says guerrilla movements should never happen. They reflect incredible stupidity on the part of elites who should institute reforms that mollify the population.

Guerrilla movements that come to power through violence are likely to meet others who do not then hold power and urge violence.


Again, (RG) seeks to replace a mass conscious movement with a bomb.

Innocents are often the targets of terrorist who hope to inspire anxiety, fear, out of proportion to the damage done or risks taken.

“Terrorism is the use of violence against insignificant people in order to influence significant people.”

Four types of Terrorism: political, state terror, non–political, and pseudo.

Political terrorism designed to create fear for political purposes. It seeks to show a population that elites cannot rule, their monopoly of force is broken, that wavering people can come over, as the regime cannot protect them, forcing regimes to turn to militarism from democracy. Urban political terror rarely works: Shining Path, Tupemaros, Weathermen. Terrorism is usually self defeating (and it brings down counter-terror on real revolutionaries–rg).

Political Terrorist seeks an audience of elites and rank and file. In some instances, it gains an international audience. The “democracies” have not been hardened against terror and are vulnerable, especially vis a vis airliners (Johnson wrote this in 1966, updated it in ‘72)

Some nation-states have supported and supplied terrorists in other countries, to their own ends.

Terror typically splits terrorist groups. Nothing has done more to discredit and defeat revolutionary movements than the use of terror.

State terrorism as a term originates from the Jacobins in the French Revolution, on through the Nazis, Stalin, China, the Khmer Rouge. State terror is rarely overturned by revolution from within as the terror atomizes people, inhibits ideas of revolution from circulating, prevents organizing.

Non-political terror: the Manson gang. Jamestown.

Pseudo-terrorism: taking hostages with a pretense of politics during what really is a criminal bank robbery.

Theories on Revolution

Theda Skocpol:

Revolutions take place when nations are under international stress and, secondly, peasant revolutions take place when elites are distracted by international problems outside, or in.

The central result of a revolution must be the replacement of one form of government by another that is far more widely accepted.

Revolutions have, more often than not, become what they claimed to set out to oppose (RG).

China, Russia, France, etc. Clearly, advances were made in science, technology, that is, within the system of capital which Russia and China (and to a lesser degree France) but that system has never been fully transcended by a government (although, for example, in the Chinese Red Army it appears to have been overcome for a time, during the long revolution).

Movements that seek a radical, to the root, change, must demonstrate that the existing order is not a mandate from heaven, but created by people whose interests are not the same as the masses of people.

When truly authoritarian regimes relax their control, it is commonplace for the people, who have known no avenues of redress, to “go too far,” to make revolution.

Frequently, revolutions are spurred by dissent within the ruling class (Brinton). “When numerous and influential members of such a class begin to believe that they hold power unjustly, or that all men are brothers...or the beliefs they were raised with are silly, or “after me the deluge,” they are not likely to resist successfully any serious attacks on their social, economic, and political positions.”

The desertion of intellectuals is another signal. Intellectuals have weak class loyalties and “make Cassandra-like” predictions about social problems.

Note, the US experienced defeat in foreign wars, urban rioting, deserting intellectuals, financial crises, racial and ethnic conflict, and terrorism, in the sixties and seventies but there was no revolution. Why?

Lenin “demanded that his revolutionary organization have the ability to adapt itself immediately to the most diverse and rapidly changing conditions, an ability to renounce a fight against overwhelming odds and concentrated forces, yet capable of taking advantage of the awkwardness and immobility of the enemy and attack at a time and place where he least expects attack.”

Mao: his concept of primary and secondary contradictions allowed his party to avoid dogmatism.

Once collective action has been initiated, it can gain a momentum of its own. It even becomes a festive, creative activity that overcomes boredom, frustration.

Johnson: Three levels of the process of revolution

1. Level of structural distortion
2. Level of conscious political choice
3. Level of strategies and tactics.

A government may so thoroughly over-react to resistance that only stagnation is possible (South Africa) and frequently foreign conquest results.

Once revolutionaries resort to violence, they lose flexibility and make themselves and their goals known to all.

If the resort to violence is supported by sectors of the military, civil war comes.