The Crane Brinton Effect -- Why Revolutions Fail


Guy Burgess

August, 2020

BI/CRQ Discussion Graphic

For a long time, I have been teaching about something I call "the Crane Brinton Effect" because I first learned about this dynamic as an undergraduate student reading Brinton's Anatomy of Revolution, particularly his account of the French and Russian revolutions.

The Brinton Effect is not just an interesting piece of history, but rather it describes an insidious dynamic that prevents revolutions from successfully achieving their goal of replacing oppressive, authoritarian regimes with something better. It explains the failures of the post-Soviet revolutions; it explains the failures of the "Arab Spring" revolutions; and it could well determine the fate of the wave of leaderless protests.  It also explains why nonviolent, "political" revolutions of the kind proposed by Bernie Sanders are likely to face enormous obstacles.

The Crane Brinton Effect afflicts countries suffering under the oppressive and corrupt rule of an almost universally-hated regime. It starts when citizens of that country come to the widespread view that they "don't need to take it anymore." Since almost everyone hates the regime (often including much of the military and the police), a revolt can quickly garner mass support, leading to a period of optimism and even euphoria with the widespread belief that things really can be changed for the better. Under such circumstances, regimes can quickly collapse—often with minimal violence (since few want to publicly defend the regime.)  Since much of the society's executive, legislative, judicial, and even cultural institutions tend to be deeply entangled in the corrupt regime, they, too, are usually overthrown. 

The result is a gigantic governance (and cultural) vacuum. Decisions associated with the day-to-day functioning of the society have to be made and there are likely to be huge gaps in the institutions and processes that typically make those decisions.  This is likely to result in increasingly widespread governance failures and intensifying pressures to "fix things." But "things" can't be fixed because the government agencies that used to take care of "things" no longer exist, and nothing has yet been formed to take their place.

The revolutionary factions are also likely tend to quickly discover that the camaraderie that united them in opposition to the old regime does not extend to their beliefs about what should come next. This is likely to result in intensifying struggles for control among those with differing images of the revolution's priorities. 

These struggles are likely to be severely complicated by the actions of aspiring tyrants who are cleverly and ruthlessly looking for ways in which they can co-opt the power of the revolution and, hopefully, get the deposed tyrant's old job for themselves. In doing this, they may well be able to recruit support from the so-called "deep state" which is likely to be looking for a new patron or "front man" willing to leave them in their privileged positions.

Competition between aspiring tyrants and those who would like to see the revolution succeed is almost certain to result in an increasingly intense struggle for social control, resulting in stalemate, chaos, and/or social paralysis.

Post-revolutionary societies lack functioning dispute resolution mechanisms (which don't exist because government has been overthrown), disputes are likely to be resolved in favor of those who are most powerful and most ruthless and violent in the application of power.

Without functioning dispute resolution mechanisms (which also don't exist because government has been overthrown), disputes are likely to be resolved in favor of those who are most powerful, ruthless, and violent.  This is likely to result in an increasingly intense and violent struggle for dominance in which the most ruthless faction ultimately emerges victorious with others suppressed or, sometimes, exterminated in a reign of terror.  Ultimately, this is likely to result is a new, comparably (or even more) oppressive, authoritarian regime that exchanges the old elite for a new elite in a way that leaves pretty much everyone else in the same terrible situation that they were in before.  (In Brinton's book this is how the French revolution led to Napoleon and the Russian revolution led to Stalin.)

The only way to escape this terrible fate is for proponents of revolutionary change to understand the danger, commit themselves to some sort of interim governance structure with very strong mechanisms for preventing anyone from using illegitimate, ruthless, and violent tactics to secure dominant positions in the emerging society.  The ability to create such mechanisms, in turn, depends upon cultivating a broadly-supported vision for restructuring the society in ways that everyone thinks will do a better job of protecting their interests.  But this is seldom in place before the revolution, and is very difficult to develop in time to prevent the Crane Brinton Effect if it is not addressed until after the regime is overthrown. 

An alternative approach, which is usually (but not always) better than revolution focuses on reforming rather than overthrowing the existing regime—an evolutionary, not revolutionary, strategy.

An alternative approach, which is usually (but not always) better than revolution focuses on reforming rather than overthrowing the existing regime—an evolutionary, not revolutionary, strategy. The key, of course, is to find ways of making this work within in the face of sustained and often ruthless opposition from an established, oppressive regime.

These problems are not new. A great many societies have struggled (with varying degrees of success) to make the transition from authoritarianism to something better. The place to start is by reading about such efforts, listening to the people involved, and asking hard questions about what they've learned. While we don't have anything close to "the answer," the fields of nonviolent direct action, social movements, peacebuilding, and conflict resolution do have many valuable insights. 

What is needed now is to build on those insights in ways that generate evermore effective evolutionary (and sometimes revolutionary) strategies. Doing this is easier for societies that are only in the process of sliding into authoritarianism. Once authoritarianism becomes firmly established, reversing things becomes vastly more difficult.