People’s Revolutions: More Than the Will of the People

The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, and many other historical turning points. We were taught that they were primarily due to the people’s success. While the role of the people is certainly noteworthy, it is necessary to know that revolutions are much more than just their will. They don’t appear to be the determining factor for success, unlike the loyalty of the circle to an authoritarian leader. Here, money available to the leader plays a crucial role.

The role of money

Even the most absolute dictators, à la Louis XIV, do not rule solitarily. Ideally, they need a small circle of confidants to maintain their power and run the country. To keep them loyal, the dictator rewards them with financial support. His power depends on them, so his end typically approaches when he does not support them enough. But that is not immediately true of his people, hence the meager support he offers them. That is why autocracies generally consist of a large poor population and a small wealthy elite. That is not out of contempt for the people, but it follows from the autocratic system that forces leaders to act this way.

An autocratic leader must deal with this perpetually during his administration. If a particular group or person is no longer crucial, he should stop his support toward them or him immediately. Redundant money-grubbers can be the death knell for a leader who will always have a limited revenue stream. The moment the people begin to demonstrate or someone wants to challenge his rule, he will regret that he supported these superfluous people while neglecting his security services, like the police and military. He must not fear rearranging his circle during his reign in light of changing circumstances.

Julius Caesar

A historical example of someone who made a mistake in this regard is Julius Caesar. The familiar story goes that the people suspected him of becoming king, after which the conspirators “took responsibility” and killed Caesar for the good of the republic. That, however, is a fallacy since the Roman people were already used to dictators during that time. Earlier, Sulla had seized power, and so would Augustus after Caesar. Both were dictators, loved by the people, and politically successful.

We must attribute Caesar’s fall to his political blunders, mainly his actions that displeased the elite. He tried to increase his popularity with the people by implementing reforms such as handing out free land, lowering taxes, and relieving debts. Although this increased his support among them, it led to unrest and discontent among the elite. Caesar seemed to have little regard for their interests, possibly because he saw few rivals that could contest him. With a quick campaign, he could take out anyone as he did earlier with Pompey. So the elite saw only one option to improve their situation: To personally eliminate Caesar whenever he was outside the protection of his army.

The Russian Revolution

It is 1917. After years of war, famine, and poverty, people begin to demonstrate in the Russian Empire. They demand better living conditions and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. That is remarkably similar to the events of 1905 when the people voiced similar demands in mass protests during the Russo-Japanese War. But what made 1917 different from 1905 that made Nicholas fail now? First, were the people not united enough? Not angry enough? Had they changed tactics? The answer to each question is no.

The crucial difference lay in the money available to Nicholas. In 1905, he could still provide sufficient support for his henchmen. In particular, he paid his army commanders and police commanders well enough to provide personal protection and put down protests. After making small concessions, most of which he eventually withdrew, he survived the demonstrations.

The situation in 1917, however, was different. The impact of World War I on the Russian economy was huge, plunging Russia into a financial crisis. That eventually resulted in a political crisis since Nicholas no longer had the money to pay his henchmen. They ultimately abandoned him for this reason and no longer protected him. Finally, some of his soldiers stopped the train he was on and demanded his abdication. The result was a successful revolution coupled with his downfall. After a chaotic period, Vladimir Lenin and his Communist Party came to power. They brutally massacred Nicholas and his family a few years later.

The French Revolution

Let us now return to the French Revolution of 1789. France had shortly before supported the Americans in their fight for independence from the British. That turned out to have been a big strategic mistake, as they had helped other people overthrow their government, giving their people ideas. In a way, the French felt akin to the Americans because they shared the same concerns, such as excessive taxes.

But more importantly, France had depleted its treasury by supporting the Americans (while their economy had already taken a big hit from the Seven Years’ War a few years prior). Finance Minister Jacques Necker tried to persuade King Louis XVI to stop the aid but in vain. Louis felt that the American Revolutionary War was too popular with the French people to stop aid and also saw a clear opportunity to weaken the British.

Finally, he didn’t have sufficient resources to fund his circle adequately and quickly lost control of part of his army, which joined the revolutionaries. His incompetence exacerbated the problem as he misspent what little money he had left. He neglected his army and preferred to spend money on extravagant, elite parties at the palace. The part of the army he had left did almost nothing to stop the masses. Louis was finally captured and left life under the guillotine on Jan. 21, 1793.

Some elitists joined the revolutionaries long before the revolution began, which was crucial to its success. Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, for example, wrote a pamphlet advocating the needed representation of the third class in government. The involvement of the third estate would no longer allow the king to impose his will, resulting in a more ceremonial monarchist system like the one in Britain at the time.

I do not mean to insinuate that Sieyès did not sincerely support revolutionary ideas. But should he have felt supported by Louis, he wouldn’t have attacked the status quo by publishing the pamphlet.

The Iranian Revolution

Let’s discuss a slightly more recent revolution. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, was overthrown in 1979 by Ruhollah Khomeini and his supporters. That the Iranian people wanted the Shah gone was understandable. He ruled like a tyrant, his secular policies were unpopular, and the people did not benefit from oil revenues. Those revenues flowed directly to the Shah, his circle, and foreign agencies. The people protested the situation in Iran for decades. Why did it only become successful in 1979?

Here, it was slightly different. Although Pahlavi’s henchmen were still well paid, they no longer protected him since the Shah developed cancer and became increasingly ill in the last years before his deposition. A dead leader cannot pay his circle. As leaders know this can cause unrest within their circle, they often try to keep illnesses secret.

The adverse for Pahlavi was that his sickness leaked out. Ruhollah Khomeini was in exile, but when he heard this news, he began calling on the people to demonstrate louder and more. He returned to Iran, realizing there was a unique opportunity for his long-held revolution to succeed. With the people and army behind him, he triumphed.

The stable guarantee of income that a leader can provide is crucial. That is especially true of a leader who has been firmly in power for a long time and has shaped his circle to his liking. These people will not be so quick to leave him if he can guarantee financial support, even though there may temporarily be a competitor who can offer more. It is usually not worth the risk to defect for some extra money in light of the stability you gain in the current situation.

Conclusion and a contemporary example

Availability and guarantee of financial support can determine the willingness of the close circle around a leader to remain loyal. That is a crucial factor in the success or failure of a revolution. The role of the people is undoubtedly vital, but protests alone are often insufficient. The circle around a leader remains loyal because of the benefits they enjoy by helping to run the country; in other words, keeping the leader in power. Loyalty ceases when that is no longer the case and political change looms. The political world turns out to be less ideologically driven than people think.

That explains why President Lukashenko of Belarus is still in power despite significant protests in recent years. The people did their job by mobilizing millions to the streets, but unfortunately for them, Lukashenko also did his job. Using Putin’s money, he always seems to have his circle firmly under control. As long as Russian support continues through subservience to them, Belarus will remain his garden. A man like Lukashenko will do anything to keep power by pursuing this way, even if he has to suppress the Belarusian language and culture and replace it with Russian, as we have been able to witness.

I encourage readers to delve into this matter, as the scope of this analysis does not allow me to go more in-depth and give more examples.

[Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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