Revolutionary Civil Wars Between the Cracks

By Colin J. Beck

That revolution can lead to civil war could be better known. We seem to have forgotten that the French Revolution of 1789 gave us the Vendée or that the Russian Civil War was a consequence of the October Revolution of 1917. More recently, the failure of the Arab Spring revolution in Syria created a civil war and the opportunity for the expansion of the Islamic State, and the successful overthrow of Yanukovych in Ukraine led to Russian intervention and insurgency in the Donbass. Revolutions are messy business. It should be no surprise that civil war can be a consequence.

But some civil wars under different circumstances could have been seen as revolutions. A 1979 coup in El Salvador precipitated a civil war between left-wing guerillas and the military. If the guerrillas had won, would this be known as the Salvadoran Revolution? This suggests that the difference between revolution and civil war might be semantic.

One way to approach this problem is to establish the contours of what we mean by revolution and civil war. Most sociologists of revolution use some version of Theda Skocpol’s definition of social revolution: rapid transformation of society and state carried out by mobilization from below. Civil wars are violent conflicts over governmental policy and control by organized groups, one of which is usually the state. Within these conceptions, there is plenty of room for overlap.

In my current project on knowledge accumulation in revolution, I have developed a list of all revolutions studied in a comparative fashion by social scientists since 1970. I compared this to the Correlates of War list of intrastate wars, i.e. civil wars. I found 72 revolutions since 1816 that corresponded to the list of civil wars. Almost 40% of revolutions involved civil war, but only 16% of civil wars had been considered as revolutions.

Now caveats apply. My list is not a list of all revolutions, rather it is a list of events studied as revolutions. (In fact, my analysis suggests that what we study does not well correspond to what is out there.) And I did not consider each civil war individually to look for traces of revolution. Even so, the overlap is notable—many revolutions have civil wars, and some civil wars are revolutionary.

Oddly, this has been known for quite some time. Charles Tilly proposed over two decades ago that we stop studying revolutions that were successful and consider those that failed or did not resolve in clear fashion. He offered the concept revolutionary situations, which occur when two or more blocs make effective and incompatible claims to control or be the state. All revolutions have a revolutionary situation, if only for a few hours, and all civil wars, by definition, would be revolutionary situations.

We thus might think of the overlap of revolutions and civil wars in line with set theory. Civil war and revolution are overlapping subsets of revolutionary situations. Their overlap thus might be termed revolutionary civil wars. The study of revolutionary civil wars would draw from both sides of the phenomenon, and incorporate both political science and sociology. Scholars would have to confront how states and the international order contribute to prolonged violence as well how mobilization dynamics allow for sustained contention. A civil war without violence is hardly a war, and a revolution without alternate ideas of political order is hardly a revolution worth having.

The current case of the Islamic State suggests why revolutionary civil war should be an object of study. Weak states in Iraq and Syria allowed the group to flourish even as the international community withdrew from Iraq and refused decisive early intervention in Syria’s civil war. The rise of the Islamic State then provoked the development of a proxy war among regional and international powers. The Islamic State evolved out of prior insurgency, and depends on ongoing, effective mobilization. Of course, some supporters are foreigners but many are indigenous to the conflict zone. The Islamic State’s social media campaigns and apocalyptic ideology receive much attention, particularly as it has spread to other countries and directed or inspired terrorist attacks elsewhere.

But look at these hyperlinks: news stories, op-eds, partisan commentary. Very little scholarship. If social scientists considered revolutionary civil wars as worth studying, we might place the partisan bickering over intervention within the context of the geo-political order and relevant historical comparisons. We might also cast a skeptical eye on a movement’s ideological claims, and not get caught up by the drama of how movements use new technology to disseminate their views. In short, to understand the Islamic State we would need to be scholars of both movements and states.

If revolutionary civil war is a potentially fruitful concept, why has it not made inroads into the scholarly conversation? My hypothesis is that disciplinary divides are a primary reason. Many political scientists seem to actively avoid calling revolutions revolutions, preferring to lump them under investigations of democratic transitions, state failure, and regime durability. And many sociologists of movements seem to prefer to examine those times when underdogs on the side of justice win, which leaves aside the messiness and violence of civil wars. I am as guilty of this as everyone. In my recent book, which surveyed the conjunction of movements, revolution, and terrorism, I left civil wars mostly aside seeing it as a disconnected literature in a different discipline. Of course, there are exceptions to this pattern. But it is fair to say that currently political scientists run the study of civil wars and sociologists focus on movements.

The Arab Spring provides a great opportunity for interdisciplinary discourse. These were clearly revolutions as well as revolutionary situations that have given us civil wars, and, indeed, democratic transitions, state failures, social movements, terrorism, and other forms of mobilization. Let us start here—by examining the causes and consequences of the Arab Spring, social scientists can advance the state of both sociology and political science.

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Filed under Civil Wars and Contentious Politics, Essay Dialogues, Uncategorized

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