The Psychology of Revolution

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Author: Gustave Le Bon

3. Revolutions Effected by Governments.—Examples: China, Turkey, &C.

Governments almost invariably fight revolutions; they hardly ever create them. Representing the needs of the moment and general opinion, they follow the reformers timidly; they do not precede them. Sometimes, however, certain governments have attempted those sudden reforms which we know as revolutions. The stability or instability of the national mind decrees the success or failure of such attempts.

They succeed when the people on whom the government seeks to impose new institutions is composed of semi-barbarous tribes, without fixed laws, without solid traditions; that is to say, without a settled national mind. Such was the condition of Russia in the days of Peter the Great. We know how he sought to Europeanise the semi-Asiatic populations by means of force.

Japan is another example of a revolution effected by a government, but it was her machinery, not her mind that was reformed.

It needs a very powerful autocrat, seconded by a man of genius, to succeed, even partially, in such a task. More often than not the reformer finds that the whole people rises up against him. Then, to the contrary of what befalls in an ordinary revolution, the autocrat is revolutionary and the people is conservative. But an attentive study will soon show you that the peoples are always extremely conservative.

Failure is the rule with these attempts. Whether effected by the upper classes or the lower, revolutions do not change the souls of peoples that have been a long time established. They only change those things that are worn by time and ready to fall.

China is at the present time making a very interesting but impossible experiment, in seeking, by means of the government, suddenly to renew the institutions of the country. The revolution which overturned the dynasty of her ancient sovereigns was the indirect consequence of the discontent provoked by reforms which the government had sought to impose with a view to ameliorating the condition of China. The suppression of opium and gaming, the reform of the army, and the creation of schools, involved an increase of taxation which, as well as the reforms themselves, greatly indisposed the general opinion.

A few cultured Chinese educated in the schools of Europe profited by this discontent to raise the people and proclaim a republic, an institution of which the Chinese could have had no conception.

It surely cannot long survive, for the impulse which has given birth to it is not a movement of progress, but of reaction. The word republic, to the Chinaman intellectualised by his European education, is simply synonymous with the rejection of the yoke of laws, rules, and long-established restraints. Cutting off his pigtail, covering his head with a cap, and calling himself a Republican, the young Chinaman thinks to give the rein to all his instincts. This is more or less the idea of a republic that a large part of the French people entertained at the time of the great Revolution.

China will soon discover the fate that awaits a society deprived of the armour slowly wrought by the past. After a few years of bloody anarchy it will be necessary to establish a power whose tyranny will inevitably be far severer than that which was overthrown. Science has not yet discovered the magic ring capable of saving a society without discipline. There is no need to impose discipline when it has become hereditary, but when the primitive instincts have been allowed to destroy the barriers painfully erected by slow ancestral labours, they cannot be reconstituted save by an energetic tyranny.

As a proof of these assertions we may instance an experiment analogous to that undertaken by China; that recently attempted by Turkey. A few years ago young men instructed in European schools and full of good intentions succeeded, with the aid of a number of officers, in overthrowing a Sultan whose tyranny seemed insupportable. Having acquired our robust Latin faith in the magic power of formulae, they thought they could establish the representative system in a country half-civilised, profoundly divided by religious hatred, and peopled by divers races.

The attempt has not prospered hitherto. The authors of the reformation had to learn that despite their liberalism they were forced to govern by methods very like those employed by the government overthrown. They could neither prevent summary executions nor wholesale massacres of Christians, nor could they remedy a single abuse.

It would be unjust to reproach them. What in truth could they have done to change a people whose traditions have been fixed so long, whose religious passions are so intense, and whose Mohammedans, although in the minority, legitimately claim to govern the sacred city of their faith according to their code? How prevent Islam from remaining the State religion in a country where civil law and religious law are not yet plainly separated, and where faith in the Koran is the only tie by which the idea of nationality can be maintained?

It was difficult to destroy such a state of affairs, so that we were bound to see the re-establishment of an autocratic organisation with an appearance of constitutionalism—that is to say, practically the old system once again. Such attempts afford a good example of the fact that a people cannot choose its institutions until it has transformed its mind.

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Chicago: Gustave Le Bon, "3. Revolutions Effected by Governments.— Examples: China, Turkey, & C.," The Psychology of Revolution, trans. Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859 in The Psychology of Revolution (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831), Original Sources, accessed August 17, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5AETNNAEWI9IFTB.

MLA: Bon, Gustave Le. "3. Revolutions Effected by Governments.— Examples: China, Turkey, & C." The Psychology of Revolution, translted by Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859, in The Psychology of Revolution, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831, Original Sources. 17 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5AETNNAEWI9IFTB.

Harvard: Bon, GL, '3. Revolutions Effected by Governments.— Examples: China, Turkey, & C.' in The Psychology of Revolution, trans. . cited in 1831, The Psychology of Revolution, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 17 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5AETNNAEWI9IFTB.