The Strange Secret Of A Successful Revolution

“A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having.” —V, V for Vendetta (2005)

In A Nutshell

Try and picture a successful revolution. What do you see? Most likely it is huge mobs of the population taking to the streets, AK-47s in hand, to deliver some rough, vigilante justice. But the reality is very different. According to recent research, peaceful protest by a mere 3.5 percent of the population is enough to topple any government.

The Whole Bushel

In January 2011, six young students organized a peaceful protest against Assad’s regime in Syria. One hundred people turned up. When the police broke up the meeting with violence, other anti-Assad protesters decided to respond in kind. What followed was a long and bloody civil war that continues to kill thousands of innocent people every day. But what if the protests had stayed peaceful? What if the country had responded to provocation by turning the other cheek? According to the latest research into revolutions, Assad might be gone by now.

It sounds insane, but it’s true. Political scientist Erica Chenoweth crunched the data last year and found that non-violent revolutions have a far higher success rate than their violent counterparts. Specifically, her latest data (from 2000–2006) showed peaceful revolutions had a success rate of over 50 percent. Violent ones, by contrast, succeeded just over 20 percent of the time. And the difference is becoming increasingly pronounced.

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But that’s not all she found. Her data also shows how few people are actually needed to topple any government. Rather than the previously accepted 5 percent of the population, it turns out you only need a mere 3.5 percent of all citizens onboard to rid yourself of a tyrannical leader. And the implications go further than merely ridding the world of despots. Stanford University lecturer Balaji Srinivasan has used the same data to argue that a small gathering of like-minded people could generate a “scientific utopia” where “cloud towns, then cloud cities, and ultimately cloud countries materialize out of thin air.”

Of course, all this ignores the painful realities of living in a state where the government will arbitrarily murder you for speaking out of turn. But it does raise interesting possibilities for the future of political activism that are impossible to ignore.

Show Me The Proof

Washington Post: Peaceful protest is much more effective than violence for toppling dictators
Scientific American: Can a Scientific Utopia Succeed?