Why revolutions hardly ever represent the will of the people – and why we stubbornly think they do

Popular revolutions around the world have recently disappointed all those among us who are hoping for an expansion of democracy or civil liberties. They have either failed completely (Russia), produced governments that are hardly better than their predecessors (Egypt, Tunisia) or ended in a lengthy civil war (Syria). But this hasn’t stopped the Western public from getting its hopes up over the protests in Turkey. Our media portray the protests as an uprising of “the people”, presumably a uniform and freedom-loving entity, against an authoritarian ruler.

 This common equalization of protesters and people is perhaps at the crux of our misunderstanding of most revolutions. There are very few revolutions or uprisings in history that really saw a participation of “the people”. In most cases, revolutionaries were nothing more and nothing less than particular interest groups. If we recognize this, we have a far greater chance of understanding what’s going on in Turkey right now.

 The Turkish situation is perhaps most similar to the protests against the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin in Russia in late 2011. Back then, Western commentators were quick to spot an imminent revolution and an overthrow of the Russian ruling elite. Instead, Vladimir Putin won the Presidential election of 2011 by a landslide, without even having to cheat very much (as he had in the parliamentary elections). The simple truth that dawned on everyone was this: The protesters in Moscow had been educated, westernized and comparatively wealthy. As such, they were not the people, but only a small minority in a large population that has shown little interest in democracy to this date.

 Egypt is a similar case. During the protests western newspapers printed numerous portraits of young, urban Egyptians who demanded democracy and civil rights. In the end, Egyptians elected a repressive, Islamist president. As it turned out, those portrayed to us as “the people” were only a minority.

 But what about the classics – the Russian, French and American revolutions? The Russian February revolution of 1917 may have had popular backing in the sense that few people were content with the government, but it was essentially an urban affair, while the rural majority of Russia remained uninvolved.  The October Revolution is a more extreme example: It was an uprising of such a small part of the population that many historians prefer to call it a coup.

 The French Revolution of 1848 was dominated by radicals and took place primarily in Paris. When the revolutionaries held elections across the country, the rural majority elected conservatives who orchestrated a quick return to monarchy. The first French Revolution of 1789 was an uprising of “the people” only as long as the demands were some form of popular representation and land reform. When republicans overthrew the monarchy in 1792, they quickly found that they only had a part of the population behind them. A civil war followed.

 I could list a dozen more examples. In order to be successful, revolutions need a common purpose and some form of organisation (At the very least everyone needs to take to the streets on the same day). Both are very hard to achieve over an entire country, but easy to achieve among a comparatively homogenous and concentrated urban population. This is why it can hardly be surprising that most revolutions in history were backed by urbanites, but faced with a hostile or at least indifferent rural majority. Revolutions were more often oppressive than liberating.

 With this historical track record in mind, our first thought upon hearing about the protests in Istanbul should have been: Here is another progressive urban minority trying to impose its will on a predominantly conservative country. And yet we all instantly assumed that the protesters represented the popular will, that is to say the majority. Why is that?

 The explanation I propose is that we have unconsciously gobbled up the American myth. The American Revolution is the only major uprising I know of that actually represented the interests of the clear majority of the population. This has a lot to do with the modesty of the revolutionary agenda in 1776. Since parliamentary democracy was already in place in the colonies, the revolutionaries essentially said: We’ll keep everything the way it is, but let’s not pay taxes to Britain anymore. Who would oppose that?

Because of the character of its revolution, the American public consciousness has always equated “revolution” with “the people”. Everyone else has followed suit. Revolutionaries in other countries, from France to Russia, have always claimed to represent the people because it gives their cause legitimacy. Those who weren’t directly involved often equated the two terms because doing so turned a complicated situation into a nice and simple fight between good and evil.

 Our American perspective on revolutions and protests is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it gives us the comforting hope that mankind is progressive and heading in what we consider to be the right direction. But as long as we see revolutions not as what they are, but as what we want them to be, we need to be prepared for eventual disappointment.

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