Regime Change and Revolutionary Entrepreneurs

How does rebel violence foment revolution?

In many settings, campaigns of asymmetric violence appear to foment massive uprisings. For instance, the National Liberation Front’s terrorist campaign helped to spark the Algerian War of Independence. Violence by Aftentine guerilla groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to much larger-scale insurgency by the mid-1970s. Terrorist tactics and other forms of violent agitation by Russian revolutionaries helped set the stage for the “spontaneous” uprising of 1905 and 1917.

To account for this relationship, Bueno de Mesquita starts by imagining a citizen with anti-regime feelings who is considering joining a revolutionary movement. She wants to join only if the movement is sufficiently likely to succeed. Success depends on many people mobilizing. So this citizen is looking for information about how many of her fellow citizens feel similarly.

Into this setting steps a revolutionary vanguard. The vanguard wants to persuade citizens to join the fight. To do so, it must convince them that many other citizens will do likewise.

The tool the vanguard has at its disposal is insurgent violence, such as guerilla or terrorist attacks. The vanguard are, to paraphrase Mao, fish swimming in the sea of the people—depending on regular citizens for material support, safe havens, information, and recruits. As a result, acts of violence may be persuasive to a citizen considering whether to join the movement. If the vanguard is able to pull off many attacks, it must be that they have significant support and the revolution is likely to succeed. Hence, even relatively small scale vanguard violence facilitates mobilization and may spark seemingly spontaneous, large-scale uprisings.

In addition to providing a way to think about how rebel violence foments revolution, Bueno de Mesquita’s model contributes more broadly to ongoing debates about the origins of political violence. In particular, it has implications for empirical literatures attempting to assess the extent to which structural factors—e.g., regime capacity, international pressure, grievances, the economy—are “root causes” or political violence. The model also highlights a difficulty in assessing the efficacy of vanguards. While the model shows a mechanism by which vanguard violence might be efficacious, it also predicts the presence of selection effects. Revolutionary vanguards only emerge in societies that are already prone to regime change. Thus, even if vanguard violence is relatively ineffective, a society with a more active vanguard will be more likely to have a successful revolution (all else equal) than a society without one. Hence, a correlation between vanguard activity and high levels of revolutionary mobilization may not constitute evidence for the causal efficacy of vanguards.

American Political Science Review (2010)

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