Democratic Revolutions: Why Some Succeed, Why Others Fail

By Katz, Mark N. | World Affairs, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Democratic Revolutions: Why Some Succeed, Why Others Fail


Katz, Mark N., World Affairs


Since the latter years of the cold war, strong democratic revolutionary movements seeking the overthrow of authoritarian regimes have arisen in many countries. Such movements have succeeded in some areas, including the Philippines (1986), South Korea (1988), the countries of Eastern Europe (1989), Russia (1991), and Serbia (2000). On the other hand, in other countries strong democratic movements were crushed before they could take power, such as in China (1989), Burma/Myanmar (1990), and Algeria (1992).

In each of these cases, strong movements demanded the ouster of incumbent authoritarian regimes and their replacement by democratic governments. What, then, accounts for the success of democratic revolution in some of these cases and its failure in others? In this paper, I first will examine this question through an examination of some of the theoretical literature on revolution and then through a comparison of three cases of successful democratic revolution (the Philippines, Russia, and Serbia) with three examples of failed democratic revolution (China, Burma/Myanmar, and Algeria).

Certain theorists, including Crane Brinton and Timothy Wickham-Crowley, have argued that the role of the armed forces is the key factor in deciding whether a nondemocratic revolution succeeds or fails. If the armed forces protect the ancien regime, then the revolutionary opposition is unable to seize power. If, however, the armed forces do not protect the ancien regime, then the revolutionaries usually do come to power. I will argue that just as in attempts at nondemocratic revolution, the role played by the military is also a key factor in determining the outcome of democratic revolution. When the military is willing to use force to protect the ancien regime, democratic revolutionaries cannot prevail. It is only the refusal of the armed forces to use force that allows democratic revolutionaries to succeed.

What, then, determines whether the armed forces of an authoritarian regime will use force to suppress a democratic revolutionary movement? Using a comparison of the cases mentioned, I will argue that the decision by the armed forces not to protect an authoritarian regime is not the result of a democratic conversion on the part of the military as a whole, but that it results instead from an overwhelming desire to prevent conflict within the military. Thus, if even a small number of key commanders defect to the democratic opposition, this can neutralize the armed forces as a whole, even though most military leaders may be wary of, or even hostile toward, democratization. But if these key defections to the democratic opposition do not occur and the military remains unified, it is able to crush easily the democratic revolutionaries.

REVOLUTION: THE ROLE OF THE MILITARY

The literature on why revolution occurs is both vast and deep. No attempt to summarize this literature will be made in this article. For this study, it suffices to observe that many attempts at revolution have been made and that some of these have succeeded while most have failed. Differing theories have also been advanced about why this is the case (Kowalewski 1991; Foran 1997). Several scholars, however, have noted the key role played by the military forces charged with defending the existing regime in determining the outcome of attempts at revolution. In his classic The Anatomy of Revolution, Crane Brinton stated that "no government has ever fallen before attackers until it has lost control over its armed forces or lost the ability to use them effectively" (1965, 89). Brinton also pointed out how this state of affairs could come into being when he noted that "the nowadays common view that modern weapons have for the future made street-risings impossible is probably wrong. Modern weapons have to be used by police or soldiers, who may still be subverted, even in the atomic age" (1965, 88).

Other scholars have offered similar findings. …

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