Revolutions and Counterrevolutionary Reaction

Revolutions and Counterrevolutionary Reaction
Anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army in South Russia, January 1918

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Revolutions and Counterrevolutionary Reaction

Successful revolutions depend on counterrevolutionary reaction. Without counterrevolutionary response a revolutionary regime fails to establish the foundations for a durable long lasting regime. It’s absolutely counterintuitive, but makes perfect sense for those who study social revolutions. Counterrevolutionary reactions force revolutionary regimes to lean into their extremist inclinations. It creates a sense of fear that leads to reckless behavior. Counterrevolutionary responses lead to wars where the revolutionaries must fight for the survival of the regime. This leads to elite cohesion and a loyal coercive apparatus. Moreover, the revolutionaries tear down any alternative sources of power that might challenge the regime.

In contrast, some revolutionary regimes make accommodations to counterrevolutionary reactions. At first glance this is a more intelligent strategy that should give the regime time to build strong foundations. However, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way note, “Measures aimed at accommodating powerful domestic and international actors may help ensure regime survival in the short-term, but they do little to inoculate the revolution against standard threats (elite schisms, coups) that imperil most authoritarian regimes.” Ultimately, they lead to fragile regimes rather than the durable authoritarianism of countries like China, Iran, and Cuba.

Of course, some revolutionary regimes follow a reckless course, but still collapse. Cambodia is possibly the best example of a revolutionary regime that did not establish durable authoritarianism. The initial period of recklessness where revolutionary forces consolidate their regimes is dangerous. Some regimes do collapse, especially when revolutionary recklessness threatens its neighbors.

At the same time, one can argue social revolutions nearly always fail, because they never produce the utopian governments they hope to achieve. Instead, the best they can hope for is a repressive government that lasts a long time. This isn’t what revolutionaries hope to achieve. So, in that sense even successful social revolutions fail.

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