Major disruptions in world history follow a clear pattern. What can upheavals of the past tell us about our own future?
David Potter is Francis W Kelsey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Roman History and Arthur F Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. His books include Constantine the Emperor (2013), Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint (2016), The Origin of Empire: Rome from the Republic to Hadrian (2019), and Disruption: Why Things Change (2021).
On 3 April 1917, a crowd gathered to meet a train arriving from Helsinki at Petrograd’s Finland Station. The train carried Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. He greeted his audience with a speech calling for the overthrow of Russia’s government – and, six months later, he made this happen. The world changed.
Lenin, who had been living outside of Russia for more than a decade, was known as a theorist on the fringe of Russian political society, shaping Marxist thought to support his own theory of change. Karl Marx had envisioned a number of ways for a society to move to a system in which workers controlled the means of production. But Lenin saw only one way: through the violent overthrow of the existing government, organised by a dedicated group of professional revolutionaries. Lenin brought this scheme with him to Petrograd (now St Petersburg). There, his party took charge of the worker’s organisation that had been sharing power with a provisional government since the abdication of the tsar. But it would be more than five years before Lenin’s party secured absolute power in Russia. Millions died along the way.
Lenin’s theory of change was a theory of social disruption, of imposing a shift so radical that a society could not go back to the way it had been. Such disruptions don’t just happen randomly. There is a set of conditions required to launch them, and there are particular circumstances in which the initiators of the disruption tend to succeed in their aims.
The core characteristics of the kind of disruption I’m describing, as we’ll see in the historical episodes that follow, are that it: 1) stems from a loss of faith in a society’s central institutions; 2) establishes a set of ideas from what was once the fringe of the intellectual world, placing them at the centre of a revamped political order; and 3) involves a coherent leadership group committed to the change. These disruptions are apparent in, but not synonymous with, some of the events commonly called revolutions. Disruptions don’t always change who is in charge – they are, in fact, sometimes necessary to preserve a government that is on the verge of failure. But they will at the very least change the way that a governing group thinks and acts.
Disruptions bring a profound shift in people’s understanding of how the world around them works. They contrast in this way with less radical societal changes, based on an existing thought system: for example, the English ‘revolutions’ of the 17th century, which changed the balance of power between king and parliament without altering the basic system of government. Ideological change is crucial for major societal change, such as that pursued by Lenin, because societies promote ideologies that support their way of doing business – and if the way of viewing the world doesn’t change, the way of doing business isn’t going to change either. It’s easy enough to look to the past to find discarded ideas that were once central, such as the theory that kings rule by ‘divine right’.
Importantly, periods of challenge that have similar causes will not always have similar ends. One could argue – as Barrington Moore Jr did in his 1966 study of the social origins of dictatorship and democracy – that a change of political system will occur in a society where there is a serious disjuncture between coexisting modes of economic activity, such as traditional agriculture and capitalist enterprise. Or one could argue that a split between those who drive economic activity and those who hold political power is a precondition for change. But there is a lot of room for leaders to make choices in such circumstances that will shape very different outcomes. The first of these scenarios could quite reasonably be taken as describing both the United States and Russia at the turn of the 20th century, but there was no US equivalent of Lenin’s seizure of power…