The Psychology of Power – Why Revolutions Fail

During Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was asked about the impact of the French Revolution. He famously replied that he thought it was too early to say. Although it appears that Zhou may have misunderstood the question, it was as one diplomat remarked, a misunderstanding that was ‘too delicious to invite correction’.

As is well known, the French revolution, like the Chinese revolution in which Zhou played a leading role, resulted in a prolonged period of death and destruction. Here are 8 reasons why revolutions often fail.     

  1. All uprisings begin with multiple and often contradictory aims.

The sight of hundreds of thousands of citizens taking to the streets in protest against injustice inspires a sense of unity of purpose amongst those taking part. In reality such unity of purpose seldom exists. In the Arab uprisings, for example, protestors were united in calling for the overthrow of corrupt leaders, but differed widely on issues as fundamental as democracy versus a single party state, secular versus religious government, and the status of women. Such divisions characterise most mass demonstrations that presage revolution.

  1. In every uprising there are ample opportunities for extremists to exploit public anger to further their own aims.

Within populations that have experienced decades of oppression and injustice, there is a natural well of anger and hatred against the former oppressor. Leaders can either stoke this anger or seek to dissipate it in the service of compromise. Violent revolutionaries such as Lenin chose the former path. Leaders such as Nelson Mandela chose the second. Unfortunately, hot-headed revolutionaries are much more common than consensus builders.

  1. Decisions taken early on by those in power can shape the conflict for decades to come.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland began as a peaceful civil rights movement in which Catholics demanded equal rights with Protestants within Northern Ireland. The violence directed at peaceful demonstrators, followed by the introduction of detention without trial aimed mainly at Catholics, empowered those who insisted that a united Ireland was the only solution, and shaped the conflict for decades to come. A similar dynamic is playing out in Bahrain, where the government reacted violently against peaceful protestors during the Arab Spring, and still denounces those striving for peaceful change as sectarian Shia terrorists.

photo credit: Mosa'aberising via photopin cc

photo credit: Mosa’aberising via photopin cc

  1. Extremists on all sides often join forces to eliminate moderates.

Moderates are those who are able to rise above the ‘them and us’ characterisation of the conflict and are willing to seek a compromise solution. Moderates may have broad appeal across the entire population and therefore pose a threat to the power base of extremists on all sides. Extremists therefore often collaborate to eliminate moderates.

This dynamic was clear in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, for example, when Marxists and communists sided with religious fundamentalists to eliminate democrats and secularists. When that was accomplished, the religious fundamentalists then turned on the Marxists and communists in an effort to marginalise them and secure power alone. [1]

  1. The outbreak of violence empowers extremists and further marginalises moderates.

As Hannah Arendt noted, violence changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world. The outbreak of violence empowers extremists. For this reason, extremists will often initiate violence. Amidst the chaos, those to whom violence comes easily then come to the fore. From their newfound positions of authority they recruit others and organise the brutalisation of their fellow fighters.

Violence also sucks in many former bystanders – both those whose relatives or friends have been killed, and those who empathise with the suffering of their community. Justice and empathy can both play a role in recruiting normal people to violence.

  1. Nationalism, religion, communism and ethnicity can all be used as tactics to increase the appeal of extremists.

Killing acquires a different meaning when it serves an ideological cause. From being a heinous crime, killing becomes an act of virtue. [2] A compelling ideology can mobilise mass support, disguise an extremist group’s true nature and intent, and serve to justify acts of mass violence. The more strongly the ideology resonates with the values and concerns of the population, the greater its value for extremists. Nationalism, religion, communism, ethnic identity – all can be used to urge followers to exact revenge by appealing to grand narratives of threat, humiliation and retaliation. [3]

  1. Atrocities – acts of micro-genocide – are present in many violent conflicts, whereby killing is accompanied by the total dehumanisation of the ‘enemy’.

Genocide is not simply about killing. The perpetrators of genocide are also intent on dehumanising their victims before the final act of murder. [4] Mutilation, raping children in front of their parents, forcing mothers to kill their own children, prolonged acts of torture: such atrocities are designed to totally dehumanise the enemy. Almost all violent conflicts – not only genocides – contain such atrocities. These acts terrorise the opposition and further radicalise the opposing sides, feeding the spiral of brutality.

  1. In this cycle of violence, psychopaths, people with paranoid personality disorder and people with narcissistic personality disorder – whose minds are structured for extremism – play catalytic roles in escalating and perpetuating conflict.

People can be violent by nature or by circumstance. Those impacted directly by violence may hit out violently in revenge. Others may take up arms to right a perceived injustice or out of empathy with those who are suffering. To say that ordinary people can commit acts of violence is to state the obvious.

The fact that ordinary people can kill should not blind us however to the leading role which people with psychopathic, narcissistic and paranoid personality disorders play in starting and sustaining violence. The fault line in violent conflicts does not run mainly between the West and Islam, say, or between communists and capitalists. The main fault line runs between the normal majority who are capable of empathy and compromise, and those with dangerous personality disorders whose minds are shaped for violence and extremism.


[1] Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty, Oxford University Press, 2006, page 95

[2] Mona Sue Weissmark, Justice Matters: Legacies of the Holocaust and World War II, Oxford University Press, 2004, page 11

[3] Evelin Lindner, Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict, Praeger Security International, 2006, page xv

[4] Evelin Lindner, Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict, Praeger Security International, 2006, page 8

2 thoughts on “The Psychology of Power – Why Revolutions Fail

  1. Excellent primer on extremist manipulation of popular anger. I suppose the message is sup with a long spoon. Thinking you can leverage an extremist group for short-term avantage against a ‘regular’ enemy is a very dangerous game.

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