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by John Spritzler

October 27, 2023

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The notion that revolutions or revolutionary-like uprisings only happen when people experience extreme material suffering, and cannot happen otherwise, is just flat out wrong, as history demonstrates. What makes revolution (and similar uprisings) happen is not suffering but confidence.


When a critical mass of people have sufficient confidence that they are joined by LOTS of other people who share their anti-establishment aim and who know it is morally right and who are willing to fight for it, THAT is when revolutionary struggles occur, regardless of how much or how little people happen to be suffering materially.

History shows that extreme suffering does not necessarily lead to revolution.

Jerome R. Mintz writes, in The Anarchists of Casas Viejas, pg. 273:

Observers have pointed out that revolutionary activity usually diminishes in periods of economic decline. What de Tocqueville noted concerning rising expectations preceding the French Revolution ("the evils that were endured with patience as long as they were inevitable") was also observed in Spain. Writing on the agitation on Cordoba, Dias del Moral commented:

Social quacks have always attributed Andalusian uprisings to hunger, when the truth is precisely the opposite. The movements always burst out during periods of relative prosperity: if collective hunger appears, the movements are arrested or die out...At the time of the 1919 uprisings there were landowners who ardently wished for a bad year in order to put an end to them.

Both workers and landowners, as Dias del Moral pointed out, recognized that hunger simply undermined the workers' power to resist.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French 19th century author of Democracy in America, said of the poor people's suffering prior to the French Revolution: "the evils that were endured with patience as long as they were inevitable." Thinking the "evils" inevitable leads to "enduring them with patience." It is believing it possible to end the evils that leads to revolution.

The "revolutionary 1960s" took place when suffering was at an historic LOW.


The radical upheavals in the United States in the 1960s occurred when unemployment was extremely low and economic equality was at an all time high (i.e., economic inequality was at an all-time low.) 


The 1968 French General Strike, that came close to making a revolution, likewise took place when the standard of living of French people was at an all-time high after finally recovering from the war-caused deprivations in the earlier post World War II years.

My personal experience about what causes people to rise up is recounted in my "What Causes a Political Sea Change." The 1969 uprising of Dartmouth College students against the Vietnam War included hundreds of students taking over the administration building and physically removing the deans from it, followed by a very large student strike in support of the students who were arrested during their building take-over, followed by an emergency meeting of the Trustees who voted to accede to the students' demand by abolishing the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) on campus. This uprising had nothing whatsoever to do with any extreme suffering by the students. It was driven by the students confident knowledge that the Vietnam War was immoral, and by their confident knowledge (as revealed by a recent huge student anti-war demonstration) that they were in the great majority in opposing the Vietnam War. It was confidence, not suffering, that made this revolt occur.

The Role of Organization

The task of revolutionaries is to help people gain revolutionary confidence in themselves collectively. This is the key purpose of organization. Organized people can do things that increase the people's confidence in themselves.


For example, organizing a large demonstration reveals to people that they are not alone in having some anti-establishment aim. Organized people can do things to build a movement for the revolutionary goal. The larger the movement, the more confident people become, and the more confident they become the more willing they are to devote energy and make sacrifices to build the movement even further.


Vietnamese peasants gave their lives to fight the French and American occupying forces for this reason. American college students risked expulsion and faculty risked getting fired for doing anti-Vietnam War acts that, in the absence of a large anti-war movement they would have considered as crazy and never have dreamed of doing.

Revolutionaries: Beware of thinking 'The worse, the better.'

When revolutionaries believe the false notion that revolutions happen, and can only happen, when the people are suffering much worse than normal, then revolutionaries fall into a trap. They end up thinking "the worse, the better": in other words that to achieve their revolutionary goal they must hope for suffering of the masses to INCREASE.


By this logic revolutionaries can end up thinking that revolutionaries should support policies and events that lead to MORE, not less, suffering. This is how revolutionaries become totally divorced from the people they aspire to lead, and even become the enemy of those people. They certainly accomplish nothing revolutionary this way.


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