Why Social Revolutions Are Not Democratic
Typically democracy enthusiasts think of revolutions as a positive development. They imagine ruthless dictators toppled through massive nonviolent protests. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan popularized the superior tactics of civil resistance as a means for regime change. More recently, Mark Beissinger emphasized how urban civic revolutions have proliferated and largely displaced the more violent and protracted social revolutions. However, social revolutions continue to fascinate us. They still represent major moments in world history. People recognize the Russian Revolution, Chinese Revolution, and the Cuban Revolution. In contrast, many urban civic revolutions lose their significance after a few short years.
Social revolutions involve more than a change of a political regime. They require a fundamental transformation of society. Communist revolutions changed class relations within society and remade the entire economy. Islamic revolutions involve an entire change of the law and the relationships between religion and the state. Social revolutions tear apart existing social hierarchies and consolidate power into the hands of the state. Indeed, radical social transformation is impossible without a complete consolidation of power within the state. In contrast, democratic political systems rely on pluralistic societies where social influence is widely diffused into different institutions. The diffusion of power and influence throughout society allows for different interests to emerge in political parties and even more broadly in civil society.
At the same time, the diffusion of influence and power throughout society also involves a transformation of society. The creation of new nations over time involves the construction of new forms of identity. So, the distinction between social and political revolutions is somewhat arbitrary. Still, some revolutions cannot provide the necessary conditions for democratization while others make it an almost inevitable outcome. Social revolutions, unfortunately, lay the foundations for durable authoritarianism even when they promise a democratic future.