Of peasant rebellions, and why they fail

These peasant rebellions are not always led by an educated member of the middle class.  But it is a rare thing for a peasant rebellion to succeed for long.   They can hold off the inevitable defeat by several years, but defeat remains inevitable.

A short article caught my eye while reading through discussions on political theory.  This was from blogger Sisyphus, who posts nice gems of thought from time.   In this article, he described rebellions as coming from “the bourgeois, the nationalist and religious fanatics, and the common criminals.”   He explained that only the bourgeois have the time and the wealth to wage a successful rebellion against any establishment.

This seeming paradox is becomes more clear when one considers that true poverty engenders nothing so much as a struggle for immediate survival. Undercover activity, costly as it is in time and treasure, requires both the leisure and the funds that only the well-to-do classes can supply.

This is a general rule for rebellions: they are waged by those who have the guns and the opportunity.   This is often the educated middle class or the military, who themselves belong the same caste.   That is not to say, however, that peasant rebellions have not erupted from time to time.   Peasant rebellions explode when the situation has turned dire, and they are forced to desperation.   Rebellions of this nature have broken out, for example in Czarist Russia, when famine or heavy taxation have squeezed the peasants dry.   This has also been the case in Imperial China, with similar grievances.   There have even been notable peasant rebel leaders who managed to create fiefdoms for themselves apart from the establishment.   For example, in the Philippines there is the years-long Dagohoy Revolt, led by a Francisco Dagohoy who rose when the Church refused to bury his brother who died in a duel.   There is also the Spartacani revolt, led by the slave-gladiator Spartacus.   He and his fellow gladiators merely turned their swords of sport to swords of rising.

These peasant rebellions are not always led by an educated member of the middle class.  But it is a rare thing for a peasant rebellion to succeed for long.   They can hold off the inevitable defeat by several years, but defeat remains inevitable.  Peasant rebellions usually have controllable grievances, and are not driven by nationalistic ambitions.   They are shaped by simple needs: food for the day, and a roof on their heads.   Like Dagohoy, it could even be as slight as the paying of respects to a dead brother.   Their grievances can be negotiated, and the rebels paid off.   And peasant rebellions are generally disorganized, with little to no access to military arms.   They do not have the power or influence to have access to members of the military ranks, and they are not educated to be better organized.   They also do not have the experience of warfare, or the training for combat.   The best they can rely on is the instinct of survival, but even the most cunning of leaders cannot long lead an inexperienced mass.  Peasant rebellions, then, are quelled easily and brutally.

Peasant rebellions, however, can be hijacked by the educated middle class or the, military.   The rebellions against the oppressive serf-state of Czarist Russia could suddenly transform into a “nationalistic struggle between the proletarian and the bourgeois”, lead naturally by the educated Marxists.   The peasant rebellions of feudal Japan can suddenly be supported by the daimyos, who sense that the present establishment—the Tokugawa, for example—is weakening in power.    Generally when rebellions are taken by these upper classes then they acquire an ideological character.   And their grievances are less negotiable.

Take for example the year-long series of risings in the Middle East and North Africa that has been dubbed “The Arab Spring”.   It began due to oppressive policies by the then-Tunisian President Zine Ben-Ali.   The rebellions had concrete grievances, but it was emotional in character.   Suddenly the self-immolation of a man makes a martyr for a cause, and the rebellion begins to gain a national character.   The minor grievances become a national call for the resignation of Ben Ali.   Nationalist sentiments attract the students and the idealistic middle class.   It is no longer a peasant rebellion.

And neither is the rebellion that spreads through other countries a peasant rebellion.  The leaders of the various countries all promise reform but that is no longer the grievance of the “new” rebels.   The educated among the rebels inject ideology into the mix, and suddenly the concept of “freedoms” are bandied around.   The ideological rebellion becomes the darling of the liberal West, who see democratic ideology possessing the rebels.    Later, the military hijack the rising in Egypt, and the Western nations hijack the rising in Libya.

And this is often the magic ingredient to the success of any rebellion: once it is supported by the middle class funding is generally funnelled to the cause.   Once members of the military give support, arms becomes available.   This is enough to begin a successful rebellion.  Unfortunately for the peasants, the bourgeois revolution is to the benefit of the bourgeois.   They take the reins of leadership; naturally they dictate the course of the rising, and the aims of the rising.  It is no longer a struggle to have food for every day, but a struggle for ideology.

Middle class rebellions and revolutions sometimes involve social restructuring, far above the heads of the peasantry.   Sometimes it rallies around political change, calling for a structure of government and politics acceptable to the revolutionist.   Generally (though not all), rebellions seek to overthrow.   Always it is to the benefit primarily of the leaders of the revolution.   The French Revolution was hijacked by the educated Jacobins and Girondins.   The educated Marxists took the reins of the Cuban revolution, taking the cue from the Chinese model.   All promise a better life for the peasant, while taking power away from them.  They become the new masters, who shape policies to “negotiate” the grievances of their proletarian followers or not at all and suppress opposition.

Peasant rebellions, then, prove that not all rebellions are instigated by the middle class.   But they do not last long: they are either bloodily suppressed by the establishment, or suppressed by the educated bourgeois, who take control and make it a totally different uprising.


3 Responses

  1. willshakespeare says:

    It gets worse when you think that the world is largely run by the bourgeois bureaucrats, and the ideologies and causes are generally sourced from the bourgeois (Democracy, for example). So it is hard to insert the small causes of the poor when they have neither the capacity nor the voice to be noticed.

  2. Sisyphus says:

    Thank you for the nice mention. You go into quite a bit more detail than my quick thought covered, and you are entirely right that peasant rebellions do happen but are rarely successful in their own right. Now and then, an exceptional leader has emerged, like, for example, Bogdan Kmelnitsky, who has the personal ability to turn a spontaneous rising into an organized movement. We see this pattern less and less these days, as the apparatus of response to rebellion grows more sophisticated and the resources required for success increase. So you are quite right to say that the so-called Arab Spring rising, where successful, have been hijacked. We see a similar pattern in Syria now, as the native discontent is funded and urged on by Turkey, Saudi, and, less directly, by the States.

  1. May 20, 2016

    […] revolutions are the classic examples of a previously discussed idea that successful peasant rebellions do not remain in peasant control.    The peasants do not have adequate organization, a long-term aim, and a radical demand.   […]

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