State-Breakdown Revolutions

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Tipping-point revolutions are too superficial to make deep structural changes, Randall Collins argues, but state-breakdown revolutions can make meaningful changes:

Three ingredients must come together to produce a state-breakdown revolution.

(1) Fiscal crisis or paralysis of state organization. The state runs out of money, is crushed by debts, or otherwise is so burdened that it cannot pay its own officials. This often happens through the expense of past wars or huge costs of current war, especially if one is losing. The crisis is deep and structural because it cannot be evaded; it is not a matter of ideology, and whoever takes over responsibility for running the government faces the same problem. When the crisis grows serious, the army, police and officials no longer can enforce order because they themselves are disaffected.

This was the route to the 1789 French Revolution; the 1640 English Revolution; the 1917 Russian Revolution; and the 1853–68 Japanese revolution (which goes under the name of the Meiji Restoration). The 1989–91 anti-Soviet revolution similarly began with struggles to reform the Soviet budget, overburdened by military costs of the Cold War arms race.

(2) Elite deadlock between state faction and economic privilege faction. The fiscal crisis cannot be resolved because the most powerful and privileged groups are split. Those who benefit economically from the regime resist paying for it (whether these are landowners, financiers, or even a socialist military-industrial complex); reformers are those who are directly responsible for keeping the state running. The split is deep and structural, since it does not depend on ideological preferences; whoever takes command, whatever their ideas, must deal with the reality of organizational paralysis. We are not dealing here with conflict between parties in the public sphere or the legislature; such partisan squabbling is common, and it may also exist at the same time as a state crisis. Deadlock between the top elites is far more serious, because it stymies the two most powerful forces, the economic elite and the ruling officials.

(3) Mass mobilization of dissidents. This factor is last in causal order; it becomes important after state crisis and elite deadlock weaken the enforcement power of the regime. This power vacuum provides an opportunity for movements of the public to claim a solution. The ideology of the revolutionaries is often misleading; it may have nothing to do with the causes of the fiscal crisis itself (e.g. claiming the issue is one of political reform, democratic representation, or even returning to some earlier religious or traditional image of utopia). The importance of ideology is mostly tactical, as an emotion-focusing device for group action. And in fact, after taking state power, revolutionary movements often take actions contrary to their ideology (the early Bolshevik policies on land reform, for instance; or the Japanese revolutionary shifts between anti-western antipathy and pro-western imitation). The important thing is that the revolutionary movement is radical enough to attack the fiscal (and typically military) problems, to reorganize resources so that the state itself becomes well-funded. This solves the structural crisis and ends state breakdown, enabling the state to go on with other reforms. That is why state breakdown revolutions are able to make deep changes in institutions: in short, why they become “historic” revolutions.

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