Revolutions often involve a delicate balancing act. Revolutionary vanguards require popular support while at the same time they must harness and guide their followers’ energy and passions. Additionally, popular movements fail without leadership, spokespersons, and an ideological plan.
‘Occupy Wall Street’
Passions aroused can create disruptions. Revolutionary leaders are needed to articulate a common strategy and advance an agenda.
Take, for example, the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States after the financial markets crisis and following recession of 2008 and 2009.
In September 2011, a group of protesters gathered at Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park to condemn the inequity in economic power that divided the world into the fabulously wealthy 1% and the 99% to which everyone else belonged. In rejecting top-down structures and the control of the many by the few, the movement eschewed leadership and became a ‘laboratory for participatory democracy’, according to The Washington Post. This message resonated across the country and across the world.
However, the protesters lacked leadership and concrete plans for action. It was an uprising, not a revolution. And so, Occupy Wall Street eventually fizzled.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Promoting Progressive Political Agendas
Still, Occupy’s message about the vast inequities that capitalism has been unable to solve made its way into progressive political agendas.
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders—a self-described socialist from a small state—was in his mid- and late-70s when he waged two national presidential campaigns, appealing to many young Americans. Would he have been able to do so without the consciousness-raising Occupy Wall Street movement? Probably not.
Occupy Wall Street didn’t dismantle the American capitalism nor the US political system, but it did attract the media and national attention. It became a social phenomenon.
Attracting Mass Support through Media
Of course, attracting media attention is part and parcel of any successful revolutionary movement. Successful revolutions require mass support. The message needs to go viral.
This aspect of revolution predates Twitter and Facebook by a few hundred years. Before the American colonies declared independence from Britain, revolutionary journalists and pamphleteers such as Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams first had to convince other colonists of the wisdom, and righteousness, of the independence cause.
The media often serves a pivotal function in convincing an otherwise complacent public to risk everything for a cause. And so, revolutionaries use the media, or themselves distribute propaganda, to spread their message.
Dramatic tales are told to prompt those sitting on the sidelines into action. The righteousness of the revolutionaries is juxtaposed against examples of the corrupt, repressive state. Protests, demonstrations, proclamations, and exploits gain power through such exposure. Silence and inaction become tantamount to complicity. Awareness breeds action.
The World Is Always Watching
Political propaganda was the lifeblood of the Russian revolutionary movement for decades before it unseated the autocratic system of the tsars in 1917. In the United States, civil rights activists relied upon media coverage of sit-ins, freedom rides, and peaceful demonstrations, to achieve social and legal changes during the 1960s.
Journalist Mark Kurlansky has said that if there is a march or a sit-in and it is not covered by the press, then it might just as well not have happened.
International press coverage played a significant role in Mahatma Gandhi’s push for Indian independence during the 1940s, as it did in the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s.
Conversely, international opposition to a revolution that comes from negative publicity can thwart popular action, as in Guatemala in 1954, or fuel a new violent stage, as it did in the French and Cuban Revolutions.
It’s no small task to transform the world, a nation, or even a political system. And it’s never quick. Although revolutions are typically commemorated on a specific date, they tend to be long-running disruptions that snake through several stages and can extend over many years.
This points up the fact that national independence days—and other commemorative dates—tend to be both highly selective and subjective. Stated otherwise, how a revolution is remembered can vary tremendously over time.
Indeed, the ways in which individuals, groups, and states remember and commemorate a revolution tell us as much about the present political situation as it does about the past. A revolution might be a triumph or tragedy; a success or horrible failure. Some revolutionaries are heroes. Others are villains, traitors, and terrorists.
Liberty Leading the People
Revolutions are messy and chaotic. As we explore the progress of revolutions in the modern era, we should remember the painting Liberty Leading the People by the French artist Eugène Delacroix. It depicts the revolution that overthrew King Charles X .
The artist wants us to focus on the cause of liberty and the heroic triumph of the people. And we should. Still, we should not avert our eyes from the bodies lying strewn about in the foreground of the painting, nor from the rubble out of which Liberty rises. They are as much a part of the revolution as the triumph is.
We must acknowledge not only the winners but also the losers who fall along the way. When we do, revolution becomes more than a caricature. It becomes more than a symbol. It becomes more than a singular moment that is celebrated annually. It becomes part of history and an essential element of the human experience.
Common Questions about Elements of a Successful Revolution
The Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States took place after the financial markets crisis and following recession of 2008 and 2009. The protesters gathered at Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park to condemn the inequity in economic power that divided the world into the fabulously wealthy 1% and the 99% to which everyone else belonged.
The media often serves a pivotal function in a revolution by convincing an otherwise complacent public to risk everything for a cause. And so, revolutionaries use the media, or themselves distribute propaganda, to spread their message.
Eugène Delacroix’s painting, Liberty Leading the People, depicts the revolution that overthrew King Charles X. The artist wanted to focus on the cause of liberty and the heroic triumph of the people.