This essay’s main theme concerns revolution.
The year is 154 BCE. The location, China. Seven princes of the Han dynasty are plotting a revolution. They are resisting the centralization of the government. (One might consider this a “state’s rights” issue.) The princes were creating their own laws, minting their own coins, and collecting their own taxes. They pretty much ignored the imperial government’s authority. The rebellion failed after only three months. Several of the rebellious princes were killed or committed suicide.
It’s the year 17 in China and the Xin dynasty is on its last legs. A famine gripped the land – made all the worse by corruption and incompetence of government officials. This sparked an agrarian rebellion. The rebellion had some success and eventually armed rebels exceeded 50,000 in number. As the rebellion became more successful – as is often the case – its leaders’ aims changed from getting the government to improve to becoming the government: In other words, to replace the current government leaders with themselves. They also began to squabble with each other. Nonetheless, a successful government general eventually declared himself to be emperor, replacing the former emperor (who was killed in the process) in the year 25.
In the year 184 there was another agrarian or peasant rebellion. Again, a famine combined with governmental interference sparked the revolt. The famine forced migration, which generated a labor surplus that was exploited by the large landowners who amassed great fortunes. At the same time taxes were increased to build fortifications along the Silk Road and the military. The rebels favored equal rights for all people and equal distribution of land. This rebellion was finally suppressed after 21 years. Many thousands of people died in the wars and many people were impoverished and left homeless. The economy over great sections of the state was left in ruins. Disorganized chaos and bandit organizations ruled the day in many parts of the country. The result was that fifteen years later the Han dynasty completely collapsed: so sooner or later everybody lost… one way or another.
Wikipedia lists about 20 rebellions for China beginning before 1000 BCE and those were just the major rebellions. So China has a long history of attempts to overthrow the government. The three I selected to list here show some patterns typical of revolutions in general. Some rebellions are staged by one set of powerful persons attempting to unseat some more powerful persons and take their place. England’s Wars of the Roses provide an English language example if you like reading history. Other revolutions are due to governmental incompetence combined with economic failures like famines. Revolutions that may start from uprisings of the common man hoping to correct government failures do not usually end that way, because leaders of such movements invariably decide that this is their chance to take over government themselves. And finally, after much suffering and destruction, things are seldom better after the fighting stops.
I used these examples from China not because I am an expert on Chinese history (because I am not), and not because China has more rebellions than other nations: So far as I know China has about the same rate of revolutions as other nations. I used these examples to show that revolutions are not a Western quirk, and that revolutions and rebellions in China seem to operate very much like uprisings in Europe and the Americas.
Let’s look at some other famous rebellions in history. Perhaps you know the origin of the phrase “crossing of the Rubicon” meaning something like a point of no return. If you cross the Rubicon you are committed, there’ll be no turning back. That meaning is derived from Julius Caesar’s crossing of the northern Italian river (a small one) in the year 49 BCE. It seems that the Republic of Rome had as one of its laws that a general was not to ever cross the Rubicon River into Italy with a standing (active) army. This law was intended to prevent civil war. So Caesar committed treason to the Roman state by bringing his army back from Gaul (what is now France) in that year. In effect his action was the beginning of the civil war that would convert Rome from a Republic into an Empire. It was a revolution. You will note the similarity to the Han dynasty rebellion in 184 BCE. In Gaul Caesar ruled. He was supposed to be subject to the Senate in Rome but for all practical purposes, since he controlled the army in Gaul it was his province to do with as he liked. He did get quite rich in Gaul. Once in Italy, Caesar won the ensuing war but was assassinated shortly after taking power.
Caesar instituted many of the laws which were foundational for the Empire but his assassination soon resulted in more civil wars. The main result of this particular Roman rebellion (there were several before Caesar) was that the Republic of Rome ceased to exist and the Roman Empire was born under Octavian later to be known as the Emperor Augustus.
As you probably know, these wars killed thousands and spent huge amounts of money and all they settled was who would rule the Empire. So the rebellion really made little positive difference in the lives of the typical Romans. This is also like those rebellions in China. The successful rebellions result in squabbling over “spoils” of war and few actually benefit from the sacrifices and suffering of thousands.
Moving right along we come to the Civil War in England in which the King Charles the first was executed by Cromwell’s successful rebellion. Of course this rebellion of the Parliament against the King was justified on many grounds but it was really about money and power, as you would expect. This war began as a person (King Charles) fighting against an organization (Parliament). The Parliament had several generals but the rise of Cromwell to be the head of the army was the reason for the success of the rebellion. Cromwell succeeded without any particular military training which just goes to show how poor the state of military theory was at the time.
The basic conflict over which the Civil War was fought was regarding taxes which only Parliament could levy. King Charles tried everything his ministers could think of to get funds for himself, but he would have his wars resulting mostly from his attempts to impose his religion on his subjects so of course the king had to have money for the military. The propaganda of the day emphasized religion and loyalty to the sovereign. It was a war over power, of course.
Estimates of the deaths from the three major and several minor wars of this period are in the neighborhood of 200,000 people out of a population of about 5 million among the English, about 60,000 in Scotland, and over 600,000 Irish deaths out of 1,500,000 before the wars. You will note that the Irish were “innocent bystanders” in the struggle between King and Parliament yet they suffered hideously. The public had few gains and Parliament, though victorious in the war, got a king by another name in Cromwell and then restored the monarchy in the person of Charles II. The wars made England and Scotland parliamentary monarchies in which the kings had powers but were much limited by the greater powers of parliament. Were these changes worth the cost? Did anything meaningful really change for the better for the average Englishman, Scot, or Irish citizen? As you can tell from the deaths the wars produced over an 11-year period, there was considerable destruction of property as well as lives lost.
Having considered the English Civil War, to be fair, we must also consider the French Revolution. Our own American Revolution (which we will consider later) helped to spark the revolution in France by bringing the government of France’s king to near bankruptcy. Bad harvests and high taxes, a standard spur to revolution, were important factors. It seems that the nobility were not taxed nor was the Catholic Church taxed. Since the common man (called the third estate) was all that was left, and since they had no power, they were taxed to the fullest extent possible. So the French monarchy used a very regressive tax system with few or no taxes for the wealthy and heavy taxes for the poor.
The financial emergency faced by the government forced them to call the Estates-General national assembly. The third estate representatives to that assembly broke off and started passing what was at the time considered radical legislation. They were joined by most of the clergy and a few of the nobles. They abolished feudalism in France, eliminated the seigneurial rights of the nobles and the tithes gathered by law by the Catholic Church. They specified equality of punishment for crimes; freedom to worship, and everyone was able to hold public office. This destroyed the existing aristocratic society. The old judicial system was abolished. You might also want to consider the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” Much of its ideals will sound very familiar.
The assembly also created a constitution for France. They passed a Civil Constitution of the Clergy which made all clergy employees of the state. There were many strenuous efforts to destroy the Church.
The French Revolution is famous for the Reign of Terror and for Napoleon. Naturally, our view of the French Revolution is colored by our speaking and reading English and the English propaganda against the French which included popular literature such as “A Tale of Two Cities” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel” as well as “Captain Horatio Hornblower.” But despite the fact that we have had anti-French propaganda on the Revolution, all reasonable historians agree that there was a considerable price paid by both the general public and the nobility of France. Millions died in the many wars associated with the French revolution. Perhaps more soldiers of other lands died than French soldiers but the French were fighting in many nations. France was not invaded by foreign armies very much especially in comparison with the invasions of other nations by French troops. But the French fought among themselves and oppressed their own people in a variety of ways. After all, there were revolts against the revolutionary government which killed hundreds of thousands of citizens. So the human cost of the French Revolution for Europe was high.
The ideals of the French Revolution included Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity – or brotherhood. Did the resultant governments live up to those ideals? Not at all. The Reign of Terror and the Emperor Napoleon give the lie to any such contention. The administrations of the government were hardly restrained in attempting to achieve their ends. Universal male suffrage which started in 1793 soon was replaced by limited suffrage based on owning property. Freedom of the press was suppressed. Taxes were replaced by plunder from other nations. Women’s rights were advocated for a time but squashed in the end by the Napoleonic Code.
During the early years of the Revolution the economy suffered due to financial problems exacerbated by inflation and price controls so output fell.
This Revolution did have major and lasting consequences even beyond the metric system. The nobility was destroyed and the Church lost its lands and tax free status. Many offices in the state and Church were made elective offices. As historian Francois Aulard wrote QUOTE “From the social point of view, the Revolution consisted in the suppression of what was called the feudal system, in the emergence of the individual, in greater division of landed property, the abolition of the privileges of noble birth, the establishment of equality, the simplification of life…. The French Revolution differed from other revolutions in being not merely national, for it aimed at benefiting all humanity.” UNQUOTE.
But what did not change? Was the government no longer an instrument of oppression? Were taxes fairly levied and collected? Did wealth no longer concentrate in the hands of a few? The previous wealth owners were struck down, and for a brief time wealth was much more evenly distributed. The result was small scale entrepreneurs flourished. But that was temporary. As always happens with our physical object money, (POM) wealth soon was concentrating in the hands of a few – just not the same few who had held it previously.
Next let’s look at one of our favorite revolutions, the American Revolution of 1776. In this case colonies revolted against the “mother country.” England has a long history of putting down the revolts of conquered territories. So England was practiced in putting down insurrections. England had the superior army and navy. England had far more people and far more wealth. England was the most industrialized nation on earth. Meanwhile, in the 13 colonies, only about a third of the people even actively supported the revolt, while about a third opposed the revolt, and the last third didn’t want to have anything to do with it either way. But most of the politically powerful supported the revolt and most of the wealthy favored revolution. As is typically the case, revolution followed and was motivated by government blunders and bad policies. The revolution was all about money, of course. The phrase “no taxation without representation” should sound familiar. A tax on tea was behind the Boston Tea Party. The Stamp Act was another attempt to tax. So what we had was the Crown trying to get enough money in taxes from the colonists to pay for the war with France that had ended a few years earlier in 1763. Now wars are expensive for governments and no one wants to pay for them. Naturally the voters in England were opposed to their tax money being used to pay for the support of the colonists – who were expected to labor, producing raw materials for the motherland and to then spend their money buying finished goods from “mother.” The money was supposed to go from the colonies to England, not the other way round. So the voters of England would not support a Parliament that didn’t try to get every penny it could from the colonists. For some reason, the colonists resented this attitude. Some were so angry about it that they were willing to kill people and to risk their own deaths in order to not have to give up that tax money. If you read about the high ideals of freedom and liberty and so forth in your studies of American history, remember that those ideals were actually just a cover for ordinary human greed. The American Revolution was motivated by money, was paid for by money, and resulted in the shortly-to-follow French Revolution, due to that nation’s government going broke.
If the Revolution had been about freedom and liberty there would have been no slaves after the war. If the conflict had been idealistic, the Continental Congress would have been able to levy taxes so they could provide supplies to the colonial troops. As it was, the colonists were unwilling to be taxed to support the revolution against being taxed by England.
The course of the war revealed that both sides were quite willing to commit crimes against humanity, just not on the scale of 20th century wars. Both sides lied, spied and cheated in every way they could think of. All of the armies pillaged and looted whenever and wherever the opportunity arose. In sort, people and war then were very much like people are today and war is today. And as in the other revolutions you will find in studying history, lots of innocent bystanders died for no purpose while boatloads of money was wasted by all sides.
What was gained by this successful revolt? That’s hard to say. The citizens of the colonies no longer had to pay taxes to England. But they did have to pay taxes to the states – and to the new national government.
And about those ideals of the American Revolution which we have all been taught: No one gained his liberty as a result of that war to my knowledge. Certainly all the slaves who did not escape were still slaves. Liberty was not extended to the slaves. Women were still second-class citizens. The “Native Americans” were still not given full citizenship status. Limitations on who could vote meant that many were still being taxed without representation. The Bill of Rights eventually was added to the Constitution and we can consider that an outcome of the war even though it wasn’t until several years after the war had ended. But were those rights respected by the new government any more than they had been under English colonial rule? I think you would have been hard-pressed to find much difference. If you think that things are far different because of the Revolution than they would have been, show me how Canada is far different in its freedoms, liberty, and rights to vote. They were our neighbors and fellow colonies and they did not revolt. I can’t see that they have suffered much (if at all) as a result of remaining subjects of England’s King. Despite the propaganda we have all been exposed to, the American Revolution didn’t really accomplish much.
But there was a second major American Revolution fought in the early 1860s between the northern states and the southern states. This was called the Civil War by the victors and a number of other things by the losers. The motives for going to war on the part of the southern states were monetary. They owned slaves and were afraid of losing them. A plantation without slaves was nearly worthless. To cover their greed with a blanket of innocence, the South claimed to be champions of states’ rights. The North claimed to be trying to save the Union. But they were both really trying to protect their investments and their access to the sea via the Mississippi. You see, by 1860, war required the buying of lots of military gear. Perhaps in 1770 the Minutemen could grab their muskets and fall into line with the local militia, but by 1860, the military had whole trainloads of materials to support the troops. In other words, the industrialists of the North were making millions by selling things to the government. They may have started into the war reluctantly, but once the fighting got going, government spending increased dramatically and there were lots of profits to be made.
This war killed over 700,000 people with at least 600,000 of them being in the military. As is common in war, deaths due to disease, starvation, and hypothermia from exposure were a major contribution to the casualty lists for the military and accounted for many of the civilian deaths as well. “Collateral damage” which kills so many innocent bystanders in the modern world was not as common in those times though it did happen frequently. The destruction of economic resources, particularly in the South, was huge. What did the war change? We all know that the war ended slavery in the U.S. as we knew it. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the rebel states’ slaves – though not the slaves in the Northern states. Then the Constitution was amended to eliminate all slavery by that name, though involuntary servitude continued in the prison chain gangs, tenant farms, and “company store” debt. But we did not often call these kinds of involuntary work slavery. The ending of legal slavery was a big change. But strangely enough, although they were now free, most of the former slaves somehow continued to be poor agricultural workers living in conditions of abject poverty and oppression. They briefly had the vote but that did not last long. The lyrics of “Old Man River” still applied to most of those former slaves. They did achieve literacy, however. By the 1890s literacy among the Black population was over 95% of the adults. Literacy for slaves had been illegal before the War.
We have an entire essay on slavery if you want to understand why that “peculiar institution” has been so common in nations since nations first evolved.
The rights of the states in comparison with the powers of the federal government have continued to diminish over the 150 years since the Civil War ended. (That anniversary is coming up soon.)
There have been many other revolutions in many nations around the globe. In the 20th century Communist revolutions were popular, starting in Russia with China joining in. Many of us remember the Cuban revolution with Castro as the star player. I am confident that as I speak there are several revolutions in progress around the world. It would be pointless to try to name even all the revolutions of the 21st century. If I have left out your favorite revolution, please accept my apology and remember the role money played causing and conducting that revolution. I think my generalizations apply equally well to all of them.
We can conclude that violent political revolutions are rather pointless, stupid, expensive, destructive, and immoral. Does this mean that I approve of totalitarian governments which oppress the public and would calmly and casually accept my family living under such a regime? Not at all! But let’s look at how violent political revolutions happen.
Successful revolutions involve organized opposition to the government and use violence. The organization is hierarchical and top-down. The rebels are recruited or conscripted and paid – if only by plunder. Those who disobey are likely to be killed. If the rebels win, they put down opposition by force and attempt to eliminate those who would participate in a counter revolution. (The American Revolution sent lots of loyal subjects of the king out of the country.) They attempt to seize control of the mass media. They set up courts and promulgate laws with accompanying enforcement agencies. In other words, they set up the apparatus of government oppression all over again. The use of violence in the revolution creates frightened enemies. Violence begets violence. Violence creates the expectation of a violent reaction. If you punch someone in the face, do you expect them to fight back? If you punch someone, have you given them a motive to do you harm? Revolutionaries expect a violent reaction by the government they oppose. But what do revolutionaries have to offer, except different people operating a government? Successful revolutions fear the revenge of those they have attacked and fear the very people they have freed from the oppression of that old government.
Now there is a different kind of revolution which is not political and is not violent. Remember the industrial revolution? It began sometime around 1650 or so in England and has spread around the world. The industrial revolution has fundamentally changed the social fabric of the industrialized nations. This is why the radical fundamentalist Muslims so hate the Western world and its culture. Science, which has made that industrialization possible, has been developing at the same time. Science also has non-violent revolutions. Of course, there has been some violence associated with industrialization as in the clashes between labor unions and management and the colonization of resource-rich areas of the world. There has even been violence associated with the development of science though that violence has mostly been violence against scientists and engineers.
What can we learn from these so-called, revolutions? The first thing is that they change the context, the circumstances in which people choose to act. Violent political revolutions rarely do that. But with industrialization, a person can change occupation and productivity per hour of labor and achieve an improved, healthier and more comfortable lifestyle. With industrialization comes migration and the changes that migration brings to the family. With industrialization comes freedom, liberty, and rights: Ideas which were not considered before. The very idea that people could be considered to be equals comes from industrialization.
These changes come from evolution rather than revolution. Evolution brings about fundamental changes and offers the possibility of improvements and betterment. Revolutions bring suffering, death, and destruction. Revolutions substitute one set of rascals for another. (Yes, there were rascals among the Founding Fathers.) Today we are far closer to equality of persons and rights than we were 200 years ago in the U.S. Far fewer categories of people are denied the vote than 200 years ago. Slavery is less common than 200 years ago. Lifespans are longer and living conditions are healthier in many ways. Going to a doctor is more likely to prolong your life than end it. These improvements evolved. They were not imposed by a revolution.
We can easily see that our physical object money, our POM brings about and makes possible all the horrors of political revolutions. We can see that the improvements to our lives over the last 400 years have been despite our use of a POM. So if we want to end POM and enjoy a brighter future using a non-POM how can we bring that about?
I suggest to you that changing from a POM to a non-POM economy cannot be brought about by a violent political revolution. Violence is not a path to a non-POM economy. Violence by advocates of non-POM will utterly fail. Non-POM must evolve and evolve peacefully.
Picture, if you will, an army of non-POM advocates seizing power in nation X (there aren’t any nations whose names start with “X” are there?). They must be organized and paid using POM. They must arm themselves using POM to buy weapons. Why would their leaders give up all that POM they have seized? Wouldn’t the revolution drive the economy down and put people on the verge of starvation and homelessness? Non-POM requires plenty of the basic necessities. Revolution tends to create shortages of the necessities. More importantly, how would such a movement gain such a large amount of POM? Could they do so ethically? It seems unlikely. If they ask for contributions, won’t that pile of money prove to be a great temptation? Won’t its use provide other unethical temptations? I don’t really see how one can use a large amount of POM to bring about non-POM. Oh I am paying for this computer and internet service but I think you know what I mean. Educating people about the dangers and harms of POM is one thing, instituting a non-POM economy is another thing entirely. Educating people about how a non-POM system would work is something that can be done without violence. Imposing a non-POM system by force simply will not work. Non-POM economies do not initiate force. No one can be forced to do any kind of work in a non-POM economy. So starting a non-POM economy cannot be done by the use of force. All the POM techniques of employing force cease to exist when a non-POM economy begins.
For example, let’s imagine that army of non-POM advocates again. They have just declared victory and are riding tanks and armored personnel carriers through the capital. They declare that POM is no longer money and that non-POM is the new medium of exchange. But that requires a couple of years of preparation. How will the transition be handled? To keep the economy going in the meantime requires POM be continued. So are these new rulers going to give up their wealth and power? I don’t think so. The only reasonable transition from POM to non-POM is a peaceful, purposeful, planned and expected transition. People have to know what’s going to happen and why. They have to accept a new context for their lives. Non-POM cannot be imposed by force.