Are there grounds for taking seriously the prospects of revolution in American society? One way to answer this question is to examine the variety of conditions that in the past have led to the creation of revolutionary situations and movements, and that have affected the subsequent fate of these movements. Then one can try to determine the extent to which such conditions may or may not apply, currently or in the future, to the situation in the United States.

It is hardly necessary for me to stress that the procedure cannot yield perfect answers. By the nature of the case, everyone interested in the problem, activist or observer, suffers in varying degrees from the same limitations. Revolutionaries themselves, like generals and scholars, march into the future facing resolutely backward. Puritan revolutionaries looked back to the Bible; the French to the Romans and the Greeks; the Russians to the French and to what Marx thought he saw of the future in looking at nineteenth-century capitalism, an imaginary world that was about as far from Russian conditions as could be imagined; latest of all comers, the Chinese Communists looked back to the Russians and again to Marx while they went ahead and did something that had very little to do with either of them.

To the extent that revolutionaries did succeed, they often did so in large measure by avoiding slavish adherence to past models and by displaying ingenuity in devising new social mechanisms and new policies for unprecedented situations. Granting the importance of these considerations I still think that historical reflection may help us to distinguish between rhetorical pipe dreams and real possibilities. Significant though the element of creative improvisation in politics may be, it never starts from scratch, and it always works within a set of limiting conditions.1 Finally, the past and the present provide the only possible evidence we can have in any effort to think rationally about these issues.

In previous patterns of revolutionary change it is possible to discern three sets of mutations that have occurred within the dominant classes prior to the outbreak of serious revolutionary violence. One of these Crane Brinton has named “the desertion of the intellectuals.” It is something much deeper than desertion: a challenge to the prevailing modes of thought and to the whole perception of the possible causes of and remedies for human suffering. In the modern world generally, we are at a point where both reigning orthodoxies, official liberalism and official Marxism, are subject to vigorous challenge. Neither one can any longer provide a convincing explanation of the causes of human misery in the twentieth century. The justifications for horrifying forms of cruelty and oppression that both liberalism and Marxism have put forward, in the service of great powers, have more and more discredited both ideologies. So far, on the other hand, no intellectual current has emerged as a clear alternative, certainly not in the sense that Enlightenment doctrines, for all their variety, came to constitute an alternative to traditional views of the social hierarchy.

A second mutation has been the appearance of very sharp conflicts of interest within the dominant classes themselves. In all major revolutions so far, the symptom has been apparently insoluble financial problems. Behind the symptom have been acute disagreements—insoluble contradictions might for once do as a meaningful empirical term here—over how to resolve stresses posed by the rise of new social relationships and, more specifically, over which social groups are to bear the costs of these new arrangements. This split in the dominant classes has quite different causes in successive historical epochs and in different countries. Hence there is little to be gained by efforts to reduce it to a single pattern of events. Whether such a split will occur in the United States depends upon how long and how satisfactorily the predatory solution of token reform at home and counter-revolutionary imperialism abroad continues to work. In my judgment the system has considerable flexibility and room for maneuver, including strategic retreat. There is even a slim chance of peaceful change within the democratic framework, or rather of recreating this framework with and through a limited amount of disorder that falls short of real revolutionary upheaval. Indeed, it is worth noticing that these two generalizations about the dominant classes apply, with only slight modifications, to non-revolutionary changes.

They cease to apply when we come to the third mutation among the dominant classes—loss of unified control over the instruments of violence: the army and the police. Where a section of the dominant classes breaks off and takes with it part of the armed forces, historians are accustomed to calling the result a Civil War. When the police and the armed forces refuse to obey, they are likely to call it a revolution. Actually, as in the Chinese Revolution, there can be a mixture of the two processes. In the United States now, there is no more than a hint that the decomposition of the military forces may be beginning. And without control or neutralization of the government’s armed forces, revolutionary movements do not have the shimmer of a ghost of a chance.


If we consider the lower classes, we find in general more variety in the patterns that experience so far has revealed. Here it is important to distinguish between revolutions whose main base has been in the cities and those in the countryside.

An urban revolutionary mass provided the main destructive impetus in the French Revolution; in the continental revolutions of 1848, particularly in the most important upheavals in Paris; in the Paris Commune of 1871; in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 (both February and October) in Russia; and in the abortive revolution of 1918 in Germany. One process is common to these events: the transformation of a more or less atomized and diffuse urban plebs or of a proletariat into a politically active revolutionary mass.2 These were all revolts of desperation, certainly not of rising expectations as some liberal theorists of revolution might lead one to anticipate.3

Contrary to what one might expect on the basis of Leninist theory too, there is almost no evidence that prior organizational work and propaganda played a significant role, and a good deal of evidence to the contrary. (Bolshevik organization did play a part in the October revolution of 1917 in Russia, but not in the more important February revolution that overthrew the Tsar and inaugurated a period of disorder upon which the Bolsheviks were able to capitalize.) Though the influence of prior forms of social organization, pre-existing habits, and general outlook is a topic that requires further investigation, I have come to suspect that it too plays a much less important role than immediate circumstances in creating a revolutionary mass. However, organization does play a part in sustaining revolutionary élan and making the mass politically effective, a state that apparently can be sustained for no more than a few years at most. (The Great Cultural Revolution in China, about which we know very little, might just possibly disprove this generalization.)

The main factors that create a revolutionary mass are a sudden increase in hardship coming on top of quite serious deprivations, together with the breakdown of the routines of daily life—getting food, going to work, etc.—that tie people to the prevailing order. The grievances of man as a consumer appear to be more important than those of man as a producer in providing fuel for such explosions. However, their proximate cause is the general breakdown of the flow of supplies into the city. If there are no goods upon which to work, artisans cannot go to their workshops nor factory workers to their factories. (Or if they do, as in Petrograd in 1917, it may be mainly to stir each other up.) The final spark that sets off the conflagration among floating groups of desperate men (and sometimes more desperate women, who face even more directly the problem of getting food and keeping the household going) is likely to be some punitive act or threat by those in authority. If the authorities are already quarreling severely among themselves, the result may be a revolutionary upheaval, especially if the police and the army have ceased to be dependable. Otherwise there may be no more than a brief period of bloody disorder.

Hence in an urban lower-class population the creation of revolutionary solidarity resembles what happens when a bolt of lightning fuses into a single mass some chunks of metal that happen to be lying close to one another. Dramatic threat overcomes the atomization that the proliferation of different occupations creates in the city. This type of rapidly created solidarity breaks up again rather easily as individual interests reassert themselves. Such a breakup is not a matter of individual versus collective interests, at least not in any metaphysical sense. When a person joins a revolutionary crowd or even goes to a dramatic political demonstration, as an individual this person gains certain psychological satisfactions by seeing that other people have similar passions and by merging his own with those of the crowd.

Under such circumstances there is a release of inhibitions, an opportunity to vent feelings of moral outrage, sentiments of moral superiority toward those in authority to whom respect is ordinarily due, in other words a whole set of pleasures whose indulgence is ordinarily unsafe and imprudent. But the revolutionary crowd does not and cannot provide an adequate social mechanism for meeting the individual’s other needs for food and shelter on a regular and recurring basis. Therefore the solidarity of the urban mass sustains itself only so long as it promises results. When all the food stores have been pillaged,4 to speak metaphorically, the revolutionary crowd may turn on its own leaders or desert them. That is a theoretical extreme point, rarely approximated in real life, where revolutionary solidarity dissolves of its own accord.


More often solidarity dissolves as more and more people return to the search for a private and more familiar everyday solution to their problems. There is a drift back to work. In the meantime a new authority armed with revolutionary legality may speed up the process with a judicious application of terror, accusing the leaders of the revolutionary crowd of anarchist and counterrevolutionary tendencies. Or, as happened in 1848, the forces of the old order may retain control of the army and be able to defeat the revolutionary crowd in bloody pitched battles at the barricades—real confrontations instead of symbolic ones. In either case, whether revolutionary solidarity evaporates of its own accord or suffers violent suppression—or some combination of the two—once destroyed it is impossible to recreate it for at least a generation.

So far, then, urban revolutionary movements have been very short-lived, even if very important, agents of social change. There has never been any such thing as a long-term revolutionary mass movement in an urban environment. That is, there has not been a movement with a mass basis that has sustained a revolutionary impetus for more than a generation. A fortiori there has never been a long-term urban revolutionary movement that has succeeded. Sooner or later, urban movements that start off with the aim of revolutionary change either turn into reformist movements or succumb in competition with reformism and pure trade unionism. That is what has happened in England, France, Germany, the United States, even to a great extent in Tsarist Russia.

Among the many reasons for the failure of revolutionary movements to take deep root in an urban setting, the following seem to be the most important: 1) the very great division of labor and consequent atomization that work produces in the urban setting; 2) at least in industrial societies, a rising productivity that makes it possible to grant substantial benefits to the working classes, easing their social, legal, and cultural incorporation into the larger society; 3) the overwhelming political and economic power of the dominant group that closes off the prospect of revolutionary changes so long as this group remains reasonably united. All these factors drive urban revolutionary movements in a reformist direction.

The situation is, or rather can be, different in a rural setting, especially the kind conducive to successful peasant-revolution. Though our concern here is with America, it is worth pointing out where the differences lie because an important current in American radicalism tries to apply, in an urban setting, strategy and tactics taken from rural movements.

The essential feature in peasant revolutions is the establishment of what are often called liberated areas. The Chinese Communist movement is the only one that has so far used this strategy successfully. It is actually a modernized version of one that has deep roots in specifically Chinese history and institutions.5 The Chinese Communists were able to make a liberated area into what some American radicals might call a genuine counter-community. It was a place that provided real protection and security for its members. Here the peasants were free from the demands of the more rapacious tax collectors and landlords. In this fashion the liberated area provided the same kind of protection that a trade union does in a capitalist society. But, unlike the capitalist trade union, a liberated area undermines the prevailing “legal” order instead of supporting it. The liberated area can do this because it is self-sufficient, territorially independent of the legal central government, and more attractive to the mass of the population. As a matter of daily routine its members do not depend on anything except one another for food and for work. They are not tied to the existing order by depending upon it for jobs and through jobs for practically everything else.

Because of their stake in better conditions within the liberated area, peasants are likely to be more willing to furnish recruits to revolutionary armies than to government forces. Chinese experience demonstrates once again the independently crucial importance of revolutionary control over military force. Liberated areas, especially in the early stages, are not strong enough to defend themselves on their own. Both Harold Hinton’s and Jan Myrdal’s accounts give convincing evidence about the peasants’ fear and hesitation to commit themselves to the Communist cause because they were afraid Chiang’s troops might return, and about the temporary demoralization that occurred when government troops did return. Without their isolation (the result of the Long March) and the fact that the Communists were able to detach a part of Chiang’s army at the very beginning, the Communist liberated areas probably could not have survived at all.

It is easy enough to see that the essential conditions of a successful peasant revolution are almost impossible to reproduce in an urban setting. The long period of prior disruption upon which the Chinese Communists built is something no industrial society would be likely to tolerate. The creation of a liberated area that is really independent culturally, economically, and politically would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible. To sustain itself, any oppositional political movement needs to be able to obtain for its members day-to-day benefits and protect them against reprisals. In modern industrial societies this necessity has so far always led to compromise with the existing order, to working within it to achieve piecemeal benefits. That is very clear in the history of trade unions. The same process has eroded the militancy of communist parties in western countries, turning them into what amounts to social democratic parties.

It is also precisely this need for protection and continuing benefits that New Left semi-revolutionary movements cannot provide through such symbolic gestures as offering sanctuary to draft resisters or “liberating” a university through a student riot. Neither of these is a step toward setting up a real working community, a base from which influences can be expected to spread outward and transform the existing social order. Such a strategy could be successful only if processes in the larger society rapidly created a “surplus” population of utterly hostile irreconcilables immune to the blandishments of the affluent world. Such groups have barely begun to put in an appearance, mainly as a result of the war in Vietnam. It seems to me highly unlikely that they can create and sustain a revolutionary sub-culture on any significant scale.

Finally, it seems to me highly unlikely that a revolutionary subgroup can establish itself and get a solid start without some form of military shield to protect it in the beginning. Those in authority are not so stupid as to fail to be aware of what is at stake. And the mass of the underlying population, especially in an industrial society, has enough fear of the prospects of liberation (and suppressed desires for it) to make excellent recruits for “spontaneous” violence and pogroms, which would make the Spanish Inquisition look like a Boy Scout picnic.

There might be just a chance for the growth of liberated areas or communes, or something similar, in the American setting if the process proceeded slowly and quietly and managed to establish communities with considerable autonomy and more attractions than either the black ghetto or the rat race of so-called normal white society. Some such goal may well be worth working for in its own right. There remains, nevertheless, the question whether it is possible to change the larger society in this fashion.6 The movement toward a distinct form of community might easily become and remain distinct, but only in trivial ways, such as dress, eating habits, tastes in art and music—perhaps even sexual practices where deviance now scarcely threatens the status quo. The result would be to leave the new forms of social life as tourist attractions that don’t change anything. The surrounding society could proceed serenely in its normal path of growing investment in destruction. In modern industrial society the counter-community is likely to remain parasitic upon the larger society. Even if it grows at the expense of its host, it is unlikely to be able to strike at the instruments of domination or to undermine them in the ways that liberated areas succeeded in doing in a peasant revolution.

So far we have been discussing revolutionary and near-revolutionary forms of change in American society based on the creation of mass support for these changes prior to some kind of violent outbreak and the collapse of the existing order. We have seen that it is vastly more difficult to build this support within a modern industrial society than it is in at least some varieties of a peasant society, that the embryo of a new social order cannot easily form within the womb of the old one under modern conditions. We have also noticed the crucial part that the military forces and the police can play, that no violent transformation can possibly take place unless the insurgent elements can neutralize or gain control of the instruments of violence.

There remains at least one other possible contingency: a major breakdown or collapse of the political apparatus without prior mass support for serious social changes. Such a collapse might provide the opening for a revolutionary takeover in quasi-Leninist fashion by some tiny but resolute minority. Though by no means an immediate prospect, such an eventuality does seem to me a distinct possibility. In the light of obstacles to other forms of change, including those within the democratic framework, there is even some reason for suspecting that collapse without prior mass support could be the most likely possibility. It is also one that a segment of young American radicals apparently seeks, though perhaps not explicitly nor consciously. In any case this kind of collapse constitutes the maximum goal of the tactic of radicalization through disruption.

There are some good historical and sociological reasons too for holding that such a collapse might both occur and permit a revolutionary takeover. As pointed out above, in an urban setting the creation of a revolutionary mass is a quite rapid transformation. Fundamentally it comes about through the breakdown of the supply of goods and services upon which a city is dependent. In recent years there have been numerous partial breakdowns from a variety of causes that have nothing to do with revolution as ordinarily conceived, such as strikes or near-strikes by key city employees: police, fire, sanitation workers, teachers. They have exposed the vulnerability of the city to disruption.

One of the most threatening and sociologically interesting possibilities is a repetition of the electrical power failure that affected much of the Northeast not so long ago. Beneath the good humor of the last blackout there was an undertone of anxiety, not necessarily eased by frequent broadcasts to assure the population that the Pentagon was functioning normally and that it felt sure there was no emergency. Electricity means even more to a modern city than the supply of wheat meant to eighteenth-century Paris. France in May, 1968, demonstrated the vulnerability of a whole modern industrial state to spontaneous and yet concerted disruption. But it also demonstrated some of the obstacles that stood in the way of carrying through to a revolutionary conclusion. Though a revolutionary mass can form in a modern industrial society and can paralyze the society briefly, it cannot take power on its own. For a revolution to take place there must exist some group, such as the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917, that knows what it wants to accomplish and is willing to seize power in the midst of chaos and exercise it ruthlessly to restore order.

It would be a curious historical irony if the anarcho-syndicalist dream of the general strike and revolution somehow came true, several generations after the theory behind it had passed into the museum of social history, and in a country such as the United States where it has flourished only very briefly. It is not out of the question that further attempts along these lines may be made and even that one attempt on a big scale might induce some form of temporary collapse. But it seems to me highly unlikely that the attempt could turn out the way its proponents wish. It is almost certain to have quite the opposite result.

In the first place, even if black and white radicals in America could work together long enough to get the process started, it seems highly unlikely that in this country they could persuade workers in essential services to join them. There is the even smaller likelihood that they could neutralize the police and the army. There is a less obvious and perhaps even more important consideration. Should disorder somehow proceed far enough to create a revolutionary mass, would its temper and objectives be at all similar to that of the sans-culottes in eighteenth-century Paris, or Russian workers and—for a brief moment—central European workers at the end of World War I? The urban masses in these situations had undergone considerable hardships for some time. When the bonds of the status quo snapped under sudden additional strains, there were many in the mass who were already angry at what was clearly to them an oppressive social order. They were emotionally ready to try something new, to support leaders who promised something new, though the evidence we have indicates fairly clearly that the masses had no more than very vague notions about what the new society should be.

It is conceivable that the black population, the real masses in many major American cities, might display a similar temper in the course of a general collapse. The white population, on the other hand, while it might get very angry, would be rather more likely to be angry at disorder and chaos, to throw its support to whatever person or group promised to get the electricity turned on, the gas pumps and television sets working, the stores open. By and large it seems safe to predict that the groups interested in disruption would be on opposite sides of the barricades: police and other city employees on the one side, blacks, student radicals, a few intellectuals on the other.

Hence any such major disruption would very likely result in martial law or worse. Unless events and trends that no one can now foresee intervene to generate both widespread support for a revolutionary break and a more passive willingness to go along with it, any temporary collapse within the next twenty or thirty years would probably have utterly tragic consequences. Even if it succeeds in taking power, a revolution that tries to remold society against the mores and folkways of the mass of the population must turn to terror and propaganda on a gigantic scale in order to stay in control. In America a black dictatorship of the proletariat or even a black and white version—something as far as I am aware no one takes very seriously—might claim to have poetic justice on its side, but practically nothing else. It would almost certainly be a failure.

What is it that we mean by the success or failure of a revolutionary movement? I have deliberately saved this question for the end. Actually there is no such thing as complete success or complete failure, only differences of degree. Yet these differences of degree have decisive importance. A revolution that is crushed by its enemies we can call a failure even if its legend survives as an inspiration (perhaps a thoroughly misleading one) for later generations. On the other hand, taking power and even staying in power for a couple of generations are not by themselves sufficient grounds for us to call a revolution successful. In the longer run it is necessary to define success as making some lasting contribution to human freedom.

So far, I think it is fair to assert that no radical revolutionary movements have made such contributions on their own, at least not yet. They have made them only as part of the “bourgeois” or “liberal” revolutionary movements—the great surges of the Puritan and French Revolutions and our own Civil War, which belong to an historical epoch that is now drawing to a close. The first revolution that took power mainly as the result of a radical movement, the Bolshevik Revolution, turned into a vicious form of oppression that has yet to be shaken off. In China the issue is still doubtful. I believe very firmly that unless future radical movements can somehow synthesize the achievements of liberalism with those of revolutionary radicalism, the results for humanity will be tragic.

Given a commitment to minimizing the social causes of human misery and allowing human beings to obtain happiness in a variety of ways, some form of democratic and humane socialism may well be the most desirable social arrangement. But the obstacles are enormous. Where socialism has come to power by revolutionary means it has done so in backward countries and under conditions that have largely destroyed what humane aspects there were in the original tradition. In its effort to achieve power by peaceful and legal means in advanced industrial countries, socialism has had to compromise so deeply with the crimes of law and order that it has lost its capacity for bringing about fundamental change. The collaboration between the German socialists and the General Staff during the First World War was only one of the more dramatic instances of this general trend. Communists too have become parties of law and order, most notably in France. In American society the prospects for any synthesis between the liberal and radical traditions are dim. The prospects for any transformation of American society by purely peaceful and democratic means are dimmer still.

These are the reasons behind a very somber sense of the world to come. A somber view is not, on the other hand, a passive and fatalist one. One task of human thought is to try to perceive what the range of possibilities may be in a future that always carries on its back the burden of the present and the past. Though that is not the only task of the intellectual, it is a very important and very difficult one. No one can do it with complete success. Only those with a religious conviction of the infallibility of their own beliefs can take seriously notions of inevitable catastrophe and inevitable utopia. To give up such consolations is to become really serious about a very deadly and very serious world.

This Issue

January 30, 1969