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.

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?

  • inconspicuous detective

    they’re completely possible to ignore though. a protest is a protest is a protest, peaceful or not it makes no difference. saying something like “peace is a means to a successful revolution” ignores the reality that has been our past. revolution is brought about maybe by 3.5%, but hardly ever in a peaceful way. the reason for this is simply because no revolution is a perfectly divided 50/50 split of the nation against eachother. rather, it’s a small percentage vs. a larger one, but with a very large middle ground.

    the whites vs reds in russia pre soviet era were not all russians engaged in conflict.

    a significant portion of america did not fight or bother with the revolutionary war

    point being, a peaceful protest only goes so far as the middle ground of the nation is willing to take it. that’s why you don’t see it happen very often. you need people on your side who aren’t from the group to make it work.

    • Jimmy

      It would also depend on which people made up the 3.5%. If they were all peasants then they would have a lower chance of success than the 3.5% that makes up the armed forces.

      • Mithrandir

        Good point. During the EDSA revolution in the Philippines, 2 million people flocked the streets of Manila. Most of them are from the working class, but they did have substantial backing from the media, the Catholic Church, defectors from the military, and opposition leaders. All the same, it was a relatively peaceful revolution. Maybe it’s the idealist in me but, a peaceful revolution might just be a better example for the world. India, Berlin, the Philippines, they all showed that you can kill monsters without being a monster yourself.

        • Jimmy

          Yes, I agree. It’s a lot harder to put down a peaceful rebellion than one with violence because when you lose your humanity you lose the fight.

  • inconspicuous detective

    another thing is this silly notion that we should rid the world of assad. that’s naive. he might not be the best of leaders, in fact he’s a dictator at its finest, but he’s up against the same people who enjoy burning american flags, who cheered for the boston bombings, and who would have given themselves up to take down the trade center. personally, up against those odds i’m not sure how people wanna get rid of one of the more stabilizing forces in the middle east. let assad keep power. it keeps terrorism down.

    • Khadaffi also kept terrorism down. Just like Pinochet kept socialism down. Man, all the people that need to be suppressed in the interest of the western world … don’t you think that growing anti western sentiments have anything to do with that? Your anger with attacks on the USA and American symbols does not justify any dictatorship. Syria may turn into the Wild East without a dictator catering to our interests, but in the end its up to the Syrians. It’s their country. Damn it, have you learned absolutely nothing from the Cold War?

      • Jimmy

        The problem is that not all the anti-Assad groups are Syrian citizens trying to improve their lot. There are trans-national groups who are fighting to impose a different kind of dictatorship. Besides it may be their country but as a whole we tend to think that some countries shouldn’t be given free reign to do what they like. Countries like China, Burma and North Korea regularly get told off for acting nastily and Russia got a lot of flak for their anti-gay views. Clearly you agree that those actions were wrong so why should the Syrians be an exception?
        There is also evidence that Gaddafi didn’t keep terrorism down but actively funded it which is why Libya was an outcast from the international community until a few years before their civil war.

        • Good points there. When it comes to Russia and China, the corruption of the governments, the oppression of all kinds of minorities, the censorship and – in both cases- the support of Assad, I criticise that. But still, in the end, it’s their country, it’s up to the Russians and the Chinese to deal with their own affairs. Same goes for North Korea, albeit that everything I hear about that country makes me understand the feeling of wanting to take up arms, travel the world and fight a tyrant. The question remains: should a country’s sovereignty, a people’s democracy be sacrificed to protect us from terrorist groups? Enough young democracies have been surrendered to dictators in the recent past – all to protect us from communism. I pray such horrors will never occur again. In the meantime, what’s going on in the Ukraïne … you know there are nazi-like groups & psychotic religious terrorists there too, trying to take over. When two dogs fight for a bone, a third will try to walk away with it. Should we now join Russia and support the Ukrainian government against the people?

          • Jimmy

            In Ukraine it would be better for the West to side with the people because the people want to become closer with Europe and the West but the government wants to stay mates with Russia. I recognise your point that we could step in to stop the radical third parties but I don’t think you have to support the government to prevent the third parties from getting to much power.
            While I can see why you think we should just let them get on with it because it’s their problem, I feel that if we can help people then we probably should. I know it’s kind of an argumentative fallacy but it seems better to risk it getting worse than to allow it to carry on as bad as it is.

            Edit: I’ve only just realised that inconspicuous detective advocated keeping Assad in power. I didn’t mean to sound pro-Assad, just anti some of the anti-Assads. Looking at that sentence, I can see why it’s such a complex situation with different shades of grey. Maybe 49 or 51.

          • skybluemarky

            In the Ukraine most of the people want to stay close to Russia, only the people in Kiev and a few spots of Western Ukraine want to have closer ties to Europe. The “revolution” was a small part of the population, mainly neo-fascists, who were supported by the US and EU because they openly wanted to sever ties with Russia and join the EU, securing huge trade advantages to the Western world.

      • Chester

        Ya i have, i also learned alot from Roman history….Support the Strongest and pick up the scraps they leave.

      • inconspicuous detective

        arjan here’s the issue: i’m not saying we should keep them in power. on the contrary. i’m saying we shouldn’t get involved because it doesn’t benefit us to help either. a stable dictatorship is great. terrorism sucks. but who do you pick if one has to win?

        perhaps getting involved and ARMING these rebels is the problem, which came back to bit us in the ass on 9/11 and the subsequent two wars. just saying, the dictator is preferable.

        • the big un

          Yeah sometimes best to just keep ya beak out , specially the USA they ain’t exactly got a good track record in sorting shit out

      • C Legge

        May I be reminded what Qaddafi did besides interfere with US business interests?

    • Jimmy

      You’re right. A lot of the anti-Assad forces are radical Islamic militants and having them in power would not help the situation at all. They would probably just install a new regime of equal but slightly different terror.

    • UN

      that’s insane just imagine a level when they would hate west more…firstly when west is supporting a tyrannical govt that oppresses its people or when u allow them to choose their own fate…this is where western mistake lies they should let local people choose if they want Chavez or Ahmadinejad let them.

      • inconspicuous detective

        see that’s the issue though. you assume because i suggest that we let the dictator stay we openly offer support. nope. i would prefer the dictator but by no means do we need to be involved there.

    • OC

      What happens when Americans protest the Death profiteers?
      And allow me to quote Einstein (although this would be a much safer planet had he not lived): “a flag is just a dirty piece of rag on a stick”.

  • Nathaniel A.

    This article does have one glaring fallacy: peaceful protests are much easier to ignore/crush than violent ones. Many revolutions may turn out peaceful , but then inevitably turn violent.

    • Kenneth Browning

      The article has a fallacy? It’s based on someones research. You’re trying to argue against it, despite the fact the research shows a peaceful revolution is 2.5 times more likey to be successful than a violent one. The only fallacy is your comment: you brought no facts, just your opinion.

      • Nathaniel A.

        Research can be wrong or influenced by bias. Ever consider that?

        • GerbilActs17

          The numbers don’t lie, but the way they’re set up can be… misleading.

        • OC

          . . . and simple “definitions”. There are only TWO cases in history where people have freed THEMSELVES. Haiti. And the US. And the latter is really arguable.

      • Chester

        LOL oh ya….Name 3 times in the last 100 years a peaceful revolution toppled a government without Using India as 1 of your examples…Violence naked force, has settled more issues in history that has any other factor.

        • rincewind

          There are several but, as you only asked for 3, here they are, plus a bonus. To keep it simple, these few examples are from 1989, although others have occurred at other times as well:

          The Peaceful Revolution in the German Democratic Republic leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall

          The Velvet Revolution – the bloodless revolution in Czechoslovakia leading to the downfall of the communist government there.

          The bloodless revolution in Bulgaria that resulted in the downfall of the communist government.

          the Philippines – EDSA Revolution of 2001 (EDSA II), a four-day popular revolt that peacefully overthrew Philippine president Joseph Estrada in January 2001, self-organized through SMS messaging.

          • Chester

            Ya try and use examples from before the Soviet Union Collapsed bud…Try the first Czech Revolution what happened..oh ya the soviets crushed it..You think for 1 second had the soviet union been as strong in 1989 as it was in 1979 any of those “revolutions” would have not resulted in massive bloodshed. Fact is all you listed where satelite soviet states that Russia pulled its military arm out of..Non Violence rarely works against any actual authoritarian regime..

          • rincewind

            Quote: “Ya try and use examples from before the Soviet Union Collapsed bud…”
            OK. Although it doesn’t mention the USSR in the above article, I give the requested 3 examples below (more are available) that occurred before the USSR collapsed:
            1974 – The Carnation Revolution in Portugal.
            1979 – The Iranian Revolution in Iran.
            1986 – The People Power (Yellow) Revolution in the Philippines, where the term people power was coined.

            Your usual bonus occurred in 1688, long before the USSR didn’t have any influence because it wouldn’t be created for another 250 years:
            1688 – Glorious Revolution. William of Orange became William III of England

          • Chester

            1974 Carnation revolution was a military coup..not peaceful protest,1979 wasnt peaceful The royal reign collapsed when guerrillas and rebel troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah in armed street fighting, bringing Khomeini to official power. P1986hilippines certainly wasnt there had been anti marcos guerrilla groups fighting him for years but it has more validation then your other points.

            Bonus 1688 was a bloody invasion by an army,,,not peaceful protest.

          • rincewind

            OK. Here are the facts. I remember the first three but the 1688 one was a bit before my time.

            1974 – The Carnation Revolution in Portugal.
            The revolution started as a military coup organized by the Movimento das Forças Armadas (Armed Forces Movement, MFA), composed of military officers who opposed the regime, but the movement was soon coupled with an unanticipated and popular campaign of civil resistance. This movement would lead to the fall of the Estado Novo and the withdrawal of Portugal from its African colonies.

            The name “Carnation Revolution” comes from the fact no shots were fired and when the population took to the streets to celebrate the end of the dictatorship and war in the colonies, carnation flowers were put into the muzzles of rifles and on the uniforms of the army. The Portuguese celebrate the national holiday of Freedom Day on 25 April every year to celebrate the revolution.

            1979 – The Iranian Revolution in Iran.
            Demonstrations against the Shah commenced in October 1977, developing into a campaign of civil resistance that was religious based (with secular elements) and intensified in January 1978. Between August and December 1978 strikes and demonstrations paralysed the country. The Shah left Iran for exile in January, 1979 as the last Persian monarch, leaving his duties to a regency council and an opposition based prime minister.

            There was a small amount of fighting but that was only to mop up the few remaining loyal troops – nothing to speak of.

            1986 – The People Power (Yellow) Revolution in the Philippines.
            The People Power Revolution was a series of popular demonstrations in the Philippines that began in 1983 and culminated in 1986. The methods used amounted to a sustained campaign of civil resistance against regime violence and electoral fraud. This case of non-violent revolution led to the departure of President Ferdinand Marcos and the restoration of the country’s democracy. It is also referred to as the Yellow Revolution due to the presence of yellow ribbons during the demonstrations following the assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr. It was widely seen as a victory of the people against the 20-year running authoritarian, repressive regime of then president Ferdinand Marcos and made news headlines as “the revolution that surprised the world”.

            1688 – Glorious Revolution. William of Orange became William III of England
            It wasn’t “bloody” at all, in fact it is also called the The Bloodless Revolution.

            Simply put, William was invited by English Protestants to get rid of the Catholic King James II of England.

            The Glorious Revolution was the overthrow of King James II of England (James VII of Scotland and James II of Ireland) by a union of English Parliamentarians with the Dutch stadtholder William III of Orange-Nassau (William of Orange). William’s successful invasion of England with a Dutch fleet and army led to his ascending of the English throne as William III of England jointly with his wife Mary II of England.

            King James’s policies of religious tolerance after 1685 met with increasing opposition by members of leading political circles, who were troubled by the king’s Catholicism and his close ties with France.

            He was cheered by the English people as he made his way to London.

          • Chester

            Ughhh ok here we go

            1974…There were NO DEMONSTRATIONS…It was a Military Coup perpetrated by left wing officers…After the military coup in Lisbon on April 25, 1974, power was taken by a military junta, the National Salvation Junta, and Portugal went through a turbulent period, commonly called the Continuing Revolutionary Process ), this isnt peaceful protesting it is a coup…

            1979 Iran. On 19 August, in the city of Abadan, four arsonists barred the door of the Cinema Rex movie theater and using chemical agents set it ablaze. In what was the largest terrorist attack in history prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks,[101]422 people inside the theater were burned to death. Movie theaters had been a common target of Islamist demonstrators, and over 50 had been burned down already in “symbolic acts of destruction”. The main crowd that was marching reached Jaleh Square in central Tehran,
            when they discovered that armed soldiers and tanks were blocking their
            path. The army warned the crowds by megaphones
            to disperse, which they failed to do. What happened next is disputed,
            but several armed members hiding among the crowd began firing weapons
            and killed several soldiers. Both sides claimed that the other fired
            first.[13][17][17][24][92][92] The soldiers (who were conscripts and had little experience in crowd control) fired wildly into the crowd, killing 64 unarmed protesters.[13][17][92] In other parts of the capital, protesters set up barricades and threw molotov cocktails
            at troops, with the additional clashes between soldiers and the
            opposition bringing the death toll to 89. The day would become known as Black Friday…NOT PEACEFUL PROTEST..Once again this was a Military Coup.

            1688- The events of 1688 are known as the “Glorious Revolution” but since an
            intensified historical interest due to the third centennial of the
            event, some academics have portrayed the “revolution” as a Dutch
            invasion of Britain.[94]The “Glorious Revolution” fulfils the criterion for revolution, being
            an internal change of constitution and also the criterion for invasion, because it involved the landing of large numbers of foreign troops. The events were unusual because the establishment of a constitutional monarchy (a de facto republic, see Coronation Oath Act 1688) and English Bill of Rightsmeant that the apparently invading monarchs, legitimate heirs to the
            throne, were prepared to govern with the English Parliament. It is difficult to classify the entire proceedings of 1687–89 but it can be seen that the events occurred in three phases: conspiracy, invasion by Dutch forces and “Glorious Revolution”. It has been argued that the
            invasion aspect had been downplayed as a result of a combination of British pride and successful Dutch propaganda, trying to depict the course of events as a largely internal English affair.[95]…Once again it was a Bloody (not literally) Invasion.

          • rincewind

            That’s OK. I have given you the facts and I hope this has helped you, Chester.

            I note that you have used wikipedia, as you have left the reference numbers in the text. This is OK as long as you already know the subject, ie, it should only be used for checking. Wikipedia is unreliable – always use at least one other source, preferably books.

            It is getting late here now and I am getting bored. As I have said, I hope I have helped you but you must accept new ideas. You wont get very far in life with them. There’s nothing special about this info – just common knowledge surely (especially if you remember the actual events taking place).

            I suggest you ask your teacher. I am sure that she will be able to help you further.

          • Chester

            Wikipedia..unreliable yup ok..Just because it basically disproves your statement its unreliable, but if it were to prove your statement itd be good?? Ask a teacher what…how to use google lol??

          • Chester

            Our whole criterion for this was 1.Peaceful Protest leading to change in regime..non of these fit the bill…you are correct about the Fall of the Soviet block ones.

          • C Legge

            They still work, get enough people to step out of line and stay out of line the government can’t do jack about it. They can’t kill everybody, they still need slaves to do their bidding you know.

        • OC

          Power yields nothing without blood, it never has. It never will.

      • rincewind

        Agreed. How soon has the fall of the Berlin Wall been forgotten: 1989 was only 25 years ago… There has been many over the years, even the centuries.
        In fact, I believe the Yellow Revolution in the Philippines (Ferdinand Marcos) coined the term “People Power”!

      • OC

        Well he’s not claiming to be a statician. One of the first core classes I had was Statistics. The teacher made us read was ‘How To Lie With Statistics’. You can prove a connection between my headache and Global Warming with numbers.

        • Chester

          “Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of people know that” Homer Simpson.

          • OC

            There you go. I don’t watch cartoons. Well, Toy Story. Ratatouile (?) I’m going to get the Lego movie.
            Remember that researcher who, based on a SINGLE faulty example, had nearly everyone throwing away their aluminum pots because it could be “a factor” in Alzheimer’s?”

          • Chester

            yup, or the climatologists who havnt updated thier climate models for 20+ years and are still using algorithms and models developed on 1990 Macintosh computers lol.

          • OC

            I was about to say Amazing – but that kind of thing is routine. Wow.

  • Kenneth Browning

    Two comments trying to refute this article and using no sources to back it up, despite the fact the research in the article says the exact opposite.

  • Scott

    I’m glad you included that last bit. All this does sort of rely on the assumption that the government isn’t going to respond with violence, which they almost certainly will.

  • Armando Gonzalez-Bolufe

    That doesn’t apply to castro-educated tyrants like Maduro in Venezuela right now, rework those numbers.

    • OC

      What’s your real problem with Castro?

      • Armando Gonzalez-Bolufe

        Well, I have a lot of problems with Castro, I lived under his iron fist for 35 years and I know first hand what communism feels like, do you have any experience…?

        • inconspicuous detective

          can’t complain about the healthcare though. ;D

          • Armando Gonzalez-Bolufe

            How do you know about the real quality of the much hyped cuban healthcare system without having experienced it first hand like I did..?? I think you should stop consuming Michael Moore’s crap.

        • OC

          Explain the “iron fist”. Don’t use platitudes. He sent his criminals and sociopaths and molesters here too.

          • Armando Gonzalez-Bolufe

            Well, that’s working towards explaining my point. Why any country should send its criminals and sociopaths to other one..?? Any social cleansing using USA as a dumping ground here..?? If you don’t realize the meaning of iron fist by now brother, you have a big problem in your hands.

  • OC

    I am not a believer in that researcher’s number crunching. But neither am I a historian. Wonder what they define as a “revolution”? Of the list here, I would bet my meager savings that the body count was HIGH:'état_and_coup_attempts
    Haiti? When Gaddafi toppled the Monarchy? The Revolutionary War? WWII, when both Germany and Japan sought to make the remainder of the planet their slaves? South Africa? Flies in the face of all we know, and have seen.

  • OC

    I want to thank the writer of this article though. It’s interesting. I was thinking that if all it took to change a society was, “a small gathering of like-minded people (that) could generate a “scientific utopia” where “cloud towns, then cloud cities, and ultimately cloud countries materialize out of thin air” — well we’d all be like the Amish now.
    Probably it’s true that “a small gathering” of truly evil individuals, even within one family in Texas, or NY, can transform the planet into a hotbed of mayem and bloodshed.

  • Hillyard

    This seems some what iffy. Although a number of former Soviet satellites managed this, most notably E. Germany, killing 3.5% of your country’s population doesn’t seem like a hard decision for most dictators. It would be nice if all transitions from dictatorship to democracy could be peaceful. Currently not holding my breath.

  • Guest

    peaceful revolution never really changes the elites running the country, it might have been quicker to topple governments, but on a long term, real social change goes to the bloody revolutions rather than peaceful ones.

  • ddd

    peaceful revolution never really changes the elites running the country, it might have been quicker to topple governments, but historically and on a long term, real social change goes to the bloody revolutions rather than peaceful ones.

    • C Legge

      But they do work, because when violent revolutions occur, mortal enemies are created, and those enemies stay as such even after the revolution ends those enemies stay at each other;s throats. Thus violence perpetuates itself in an unending cycle of revenge, spite and misery. So on the whole, peaceful revolutions work much much better,

  • Varian Sol

    You have to have violence to kill off the millions of personnel, eradicate and destroy infrastructure. People that advocate non-violence are state-appointed hacks.