Time is Short: Revolution or Devolution?

By Adam Herriott / Deep Green Resistance UK

In retrospect, all revolutions seem inevitable. Beforehand, all revolutions seem impossible.
—Michael McFaul, U.S. National Security Council

When I talk to people about the Deep Green Resistance (DGR) Decisive Ecological Warfare (DEW) strategy to end the destructive culture we know as industrial civilisation, I get comments like “So you want a revolution.” Some include the word “armed” or “violent” before “revolution.” I explain that DGR is advocating for militant resistance to industrial civilisation that will involves sabotage of infrastructure.  We we are not advocating for the harming of any human or non-human living beings.

There are a number of ways that groups can challenge those who rule: revolutions, coup d’etats, rebellions, terrorism, non-violent resistance, insurgency, guerrilla warfare and civil war. This article will explore what causes revolutions, the stages of revolutions, communist revolutions, anarchist revolutions, the automatic revolution theory, and if a revolution is likely now. In future articles, we will explore what we can learn from studying past and present insurgency, guerrilla warfare, and non-violent resistance.

Methods for Challenging Those Who Rule

In Coup d’etat: A Practical Handbook, Edward Luttwak describes a coup d’etats (coup) as a method that: “Operates in that area outside the government but within the state which is formed by the permanent and professional civil service, the armed forces and the police. The aim is to detach the permanent employees of the state from the political leadership, and this can not usually take place if the two are linked by political, ethnic or traditional loyalties.” [1] So it’s about separating the permanent bureaucrat machinery of the state from the political leadership. The top decision-making offices are seized without changing the system of their predecessors.

Luttwak makes a distinction between revolutions, civil wars, pronunciamiento (a form of military rebellion particular to Spain, Portugal and Latin America in the nineteenth century), putsch (led by high ranking military officers), and a war of national liberation/insurgency. He explains that coups use some elements of all of these, but unlike them may not necessarily be assisted by the masses or a military or armed force. Those attempting a coup will not be in charge of the armed forces at the start of the coup and will hope to win their support if the coup is going to be successful. They will also not initially control any tools of propaganda so can’t count on the support of the people. Luttwak is clear that coups are politically neutral, so the policies of the new government can’t be predicted to be “right”or “left.”

The political scientist Samuel P. Huntington identifies three classes of coup d’etat:
1. Breakthrough coup d’etat—a revolutionary army overthrows a traditional government and creates a new bureaucratic elite.
2. Guardian coup d’etat—The stated aim of such a coup is usually improving public order and efficiency, and ending corruption.
3. Veto coup d’etat—occurs when the army vetoes the people’s mass participation and social mobilisation in governing themselves.

A list of Coup d’etats from the present going back to BC 876 are listed here. Well known examples are the Nazis in Germany in 1933 and the Iranian Revolution, 1978-‘79.

A rebellion, uprising, or insurrection is any act by group that refuses to recognise, or seeks to overthrow, the authority of the existing government. They can use violent or non-violent methods. Any attempts that fails to change a regime are called rebellions. Uprisings are usually unarmed or minimally armed popular rebellions. Insurrections generally involve some degree of military training and organisation, and the use of military weapons and tactics by the rebels. [2]

DGR members would never consider carrying out or advocating for terrorism. Most governments conduct state terrorism on a daily basis via the police, army, and the prison system, and DGR members are working against this in our aboveground organising. In Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, Bard E. O’Neill defines terrorism as “the threat or use of physical coercion, primarily against noncombatants, especially civilians, to create fear in order to achieve various political objectives.” [3]

In Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, O’Neill defines Insurgency as a “struggle between a nonruling group and the ruling authorities in which the nonruling group consciously uses political resources (e.g. organisational expertise, propaganda, and demonstrations) and violence to destroy, reformulate, or sustain the basis of legitimacy of one or more aspects of politics.” Recent examples are in Iraq and Palestine. [4]

And guerrilla warfare is described by O’Neill as “highly mobile hit-and-run attacks by lightly to moderately armed groups that seek to harass the enemy and gradually erode his will and capability. Guerrillas place a premium on flexibility, speed and deception.” Examples include Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, and the Zapatistas in Mexico. [5]

In War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare, Robert Taber describes a guerrilla fighter:

When we speak of the guerrilla fighter, we are speaking of the political partisan, an armed civilian whose principle weapon is not his rifle or his machete, but his relationship to the community, the nation in and for which he fights. Insurgency, or guerrilla war, is the agency of radical social or political change, it is the face and the right arm of the revolution. [6]

In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp defines nonviolent action as “the belief that the exercise of power depends on the consent of the ruled who, by withdrawing that consent, can control and even destroy the power of their opponent. In other words, nonviolent action is a technique used to control, combat and destroy the opponent’s power by nonviolent means of wielding power.” [7] Well known nonviolent campaigns include the Gandhi’s Salt March campaign in 1930 and the US Civil Rights Movement of 1954–68.

A civil war is a conventional war between organised groups in the same state, which can include conflict between elements in the national armed forces. Both sides aim to take control of the country or region.

What Causes Revolutions?

Each of these methods or a combination of all may lead to a revolution. I find the word “revolution” a tired and overused concept. Everyone has a slightly different understanding of what a revolution is. The online Oxford dictionary defines a revolution as: “A forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favor of a new system,” a complete change to the existing political system.

In Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction, Jack A. Goldstone defines a revolution “in terms of both observed mass mobilization and the institutional change, and a driving ideology carrying a vision of social justice. Revolution is the forcible overthrow of a government through mass mobilization (whether military or civilian or both) in the name of social justice, to create new political institutions.”  Goldstone describes two great visions of revolutions, the heroic uprising of the downtrodden masses guided by leaders to overthrow unjust rulers. The second vision is eruptions of popular anger that produce violence and chaos. He observes that the history of revolutions shows both visions are present and they are vary widely. [8]

Professor Crane Brinton’s 1938 book The Anatomy of Revolution compares the English Revolution/Civil War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. He identified a number of conditions that are present as causes for major revolutions. Many of the conditions are present now, including: general discontent; hopeful people accepting less than they hoped for; growing bitterness between social classes; governments not responding to the needs of society, and not managing their finances effectively.

Goldstone identifies five elements that result in a stable society becoming unstable, where the conditions for revolution are then favorable. These are:
1. poor management of finances;
2. alienation and opposition among the elites;
3. revolutionary mobilisation builds around some form of popular anger at injustice;
4. an ideology develops that mobalises diverse groups and presents a shared narrative of resistance;
5. a revolution requires favorable international relations.
In industrialised countries governments are clearly mismanaging their finances. This is combined with a general feeling of inequality in our society and the need for social change.

There still needs to be an event or events to lead to a revolution. Goldstone describes structural and transient causes. Structural causes are long-term and large-scale trends that erode social structures and relationships. Transient causes are chance events, by individuals or groups, which highlight the impact of longer term trends and encourage further resistance.

Structural Causes

1. Demographic change is a common structural change. Rapid population growth can produce large numbers of youth cohorts, who struggle to find work and are easily attracted to new ideologies for social change.
2. A shift in the pattern of international relations. War and international economic competition can weaken governments and empower new groups. Both of these causes can result in a number of states in a regional becoming unstable. Then if an event in one state results in a revolution, it can result in revolutionary outbreaks in others. These are known as revolutionary waves.
3. Uneven economic development. If the poor and middles classes fall noticeably far behind the elite, this may create popular grievances.
4. A new pattern of exclusion or discrimination against particular groups develops. For example if up-and-coming groups are excluded from joining the elite, they may look at other options.
5. The evolution of “personalist regimes” where the rulers hang onto power, relying on a small circle of corrupt family members and cronies. This will weaken or alienate the professional military and business elites.

Transient Causes

Transient causes are sudden events that push a society to become unstable. These can include: spikes in inflation, especially in food prices; defeat in war; and riots and demonstrations that challenge state authority. If the state is then seen to be repressing ordinary members of society with just grievances, it can lead to popular perceptions of the regime as dangerous, illegitimate, and unjust.

Transient events occur regularly in many countries and do not result in revolutions. Structural causes are needed to create the underlying instability, which allows the transient event to cause people to turn against the state more openly and in large numbers. [9]

The Stages of Revolutions

Brinton identifies revolutions having four stages: the Old Order, the Rule of the Moderates, then the Reign of Terror, and finally the Thermidorian Reaction (return of stability).

Goldstone also identifies four similar different stages: state breakdown, post revolution power struggle, new government consolidation, and a second radical phase some years after.  He observes that strong and skillful leaders are needed to take advantage of the structural and transient causes if a revolution is to be successful. He identifies visionary and organisational leaders. Visionary leaders are prolific writers and generally brilliant public speakers, who articulate the faults of the old society and make a powerful case for change. Organisational leaders are great organisers of revolutionary armies and/or bureaucracies. They work out how to put the visionary leaders’ idea into practice. In some cases individuals act as both the visionary and organisational leader. [10]

Communist Revolutions

Revolutionary socialism is a view that revolution is necessary to transition from capitalism to socialism. This is not necessarily a violent event, but instead it is the seizure of political power by mass movements of the working class so they control the state. Social/Proletarian revolutions are generally advocated by socialists, communists, and some anarchists. Revolutionary socialism includes a number of social and political movements that may define “revolution” differently from one another.

A communist revolution is a proletarian revolution, generally inspired by the ideas of Marxism  to replace capitalism with communism, with socialism as an intermediate stage. Marx believed that proletarian revolutions will inevitably happen in all capitalist countries.

Chapters 22 and 23 of Robert B Asprey’s War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History give a very useful summary of the Russian Revolution from 1825 to the October Revolution in 1917, then up to the end of the Russian Civil War in 1922. The Russian people had suffered many years of terrible conditions resulting in protests, uprisings and then harsh repression by a number of Russian Czars. Following Russia’s disastrous involvement in World War One, a St. Petersburg army garrison mutinied, leading to February Revolution and the end of the monarchy. A Provisional Government formed that continued Russia’s involvement in the war. The people had no desire to keep fighting but the new government did not seem to understand this. The October Revolution followed when the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, took over the government. A civil war followed until 1922, with Lenin’s Red Army fighting to regain control of Russia against the Imperialist White armies and regional guerrilla dissidents, who were supported with troops from Britain, America, France and Italy. By 1922 the allied forces had left Russia and the White armies had been defeated. Lenin was left with a devastated Russia, industry at a standstill, inflation, agriculture at an all-time low and large peasant revolts in 1920-‘21. Droughts caused widespread famine in 1921-‘22, and it’s estimated that five million people died from starvation. [11]

There is a clear pattern of communist revolutions resulting in authoritarian, repressive governments. And most communist states have eventually had to give into Capitalism. The World Revolution that Marx dreamed of looks very unlikely.

Anarchist Revolutions

Anarchism is a political philosophy that aims to create stateless societies often defined as self-governed voluntary institutions. The International Anarchist Federation (IFA) fights for “the abolition of all forms of authority whether economic, political, social, religious, cultural or sexual. The construction of a free society, without classes or States or frontiers, founded on anarchist federalism and mutual aid. The action of the IAF—IFA shall always be based on direct action, against parliamentarism and reformism, both on a theoretical and practical point of view.”

Insurrectionary Anarchism is based on belief that the state will not wither away: “Attack is the refusal of mediation, pacification, sacrifice, accommodation and compromise in struggle. It is through acting and learning to act, not propaganda, that we will open the path to insurrection—although obviously analysis and discussion have a role in clarifying how to act. Waiting only teaches waiting; in acting one learns to act. Yet it is important to note that the force of an insurrection is social, not military.” [12]

Michael Schmidt’s recent book The Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism describes five waves of Anarchism. [13] He describes a number of Anarchist Revolutions: the Mexican Revolution 1910-‘20, the Anarchist uprising against the Bolsheviks 1917-‘21, Ukrainian Revolution and Free Territory/Makhnovia 1917-‘21, Manchurian Revolution in Northeast Asia 1929-‘31, Spanish Revolution 1936-‘39, and the Chiapas conflict/Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico 1994.

In 2007 a group calling itself the Invisible Committee released The Coming Insurrection. It describes the decline of capitalism and civilisation through seven circles of alienation: self, social relations, work, the economy, urbanity, the environment, and civilisation. It then goes on to describe how a revolutionary struggle may evolve through “communes” – a general term to mean any group of people coming together to take on a task – to form into an underground network out of sight and then carry out acts of sabotage and confrontation with the state.

Automatic Revolution Theory

Ted Trainer’s recent article [14] encourages the Transition movement to think more radically and describes the “automatic revolution” theory: “If more and more people join in gradually building up alternative systems, then eventually it will all somehow have added up to revolution and the existence of the new society we want to see.”

This sums up the majority of the liberal environmental movement very well; a sort of blind faith that if enough positive stuff is done and the movement gets enough people on board, it will lead to a sustainable society. It doesn’t seem to consider the ongoing, wholesale destruction happening to the natural world or that we are fast approaching—or may have passed—the point of no return for runaway climate change. Most liberal environmentalists want a new sustainable society with all the comforts and conveniences that they currently have. So, by default, they want to reform the current system, which is nonrevolutionary. Reformists aim to change policies that determine how economic, psychological, and political benefits of a society are distributed. That’s not going to work for the environmental crisis.

To have a truly sustainable society, industrial civilisation needs to end.  Otherwise, it will consume all resources that can be extracted from the earth and result in a devastated world that can not support life. The wars, death and suffering in the medium term will be horrific. Also it’s not that it’s just going to get hot—and it is going to get hot, even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases now—but climate change is going to cause the seasons to become erratic, and that’s a serious problem for growing food.

Revolution now?

A number of writers, journalists and celebrities are now calling for revolt or revolution in response to the environmental crisis. Of course each has their own interpretation of what “revolution” means. Naomi Klein recently observed that how climate science is telling us all to revolt. Chris Hedges argues that the system is unreformable and our only choice is mass civil disobedience. Comedian Russell Brand is now talking about the need for a revolution.

Robert Steele, former Marine and ex-CIA case officer, believes that the preconditions for revolution exist in most western countries: “What revolution means in practical terms is that balance has been lost and the status quo ante is unsustainable. There are two ‘stops’ on greed to the nth degree: the first is the carrying capacity of Earth, and the second is human sensibility. We are now at a point where both stops are activating.”

DGR Strategy—Decisive Ecological Warfare (DEW)

Where does DGR’s Strategy Decisive Ecological Warfare fit into all this? First, are the preconditions for revolution present? Well it depends where you look. If we focus on the industrialised world and work from Brinton and Goldstone’s criteria, and Steele’s analysis, then yes, that’s where we’re heading. What form might it take—violent or nonviolent, mass movement or guerrilla warfare?

Noam Chomsky believes that if a revolution is going to be possible then “it has to have dedicated support by a large majority of the population. People who have come to realize that the just goals that they are trying to attain cannot be attained within the existing institutional structure because they will be beaten back by force. If a lot of people come to that realization then they might say well we’ll go beyond,  what’s called reformism, the effort to introduce changes within the institutions that exist. At that point the questions at least arise. But we are so remote from that point that I don’t even see any point speculating about it and we may never get there.”

We in DGR would agree with Chomsky that in the West, we are far away from a large majority of people calling for a just, truly sustainable world and accepting the radical consequences of this. The environmental movement has been trying to tackle the issues using a range of nonviolent methods for decades and is failing. So we urgently need to look at what other methods could work.

Militant Resistance—Sabotage

In 1960 Nelson Mandela was tasked by the ANC in setting up its military wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). I find his thoughts on the direction MK could take very useful:

In planning the direction and form that MK would take, we considered four types of violent activities: sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution. For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining any public support it might otherwise garner. Guerrilla warfare was a possibility, but since the ANC had been reluctant to embrace violence at all, it made sense to start with the form of violence that inflicted the least harm against individuals: sabotage.

Because Sabotage did not involve loss of life, it offered the best hope for reconciliation among the races afterwards… Sabotage had the added virtue of requiring the least manpower.

If we look at today’s situation in industrialised countries, guerrilla warfare and open revolution are not possible and terrorism is not acceptable, which leaves sabotage. The DEW strategy is made up of four phases, with an aboveground movement and underground network working in tandem. The aboveground groups indirectly support the underground network, although there is no direct contact between the two. The aboveground movement is made up from many groups working on land restoration, ending oppression, legally working to stop environmental destruction, community resilience including meeting basic needs and alternative institutions. An underground network would be made up of a variety of autonomous cells to carry out acts of sabotage against destructive infrastructure. The fossil fuels need to be left in the ground and the destruction of the natural world needs to stop. (include stuff about veterans saying DEW could work).

We do not believe there is any way to reform this insane culture. DGR is calling for revolutionary, systemic change. We would prefer a nonviolent transition to a truly sustainable society, but because this looks unlikely industrial civilisation needs to end and the most effective way to do this is through the sabotage of infrastructure by an underground network. If successful, DGR’s devolutionary strategy will indirectly result in a complete change to the existing political system, a reset. It is indirect because we are not advocating for armed militancy to overthrow any governments like past revolutions or for a strategy of attrition. But instead for underground cells to strategically target infrastructure weak points to cause system disruption and cascading system failures, resulting in the collapse of industrial activity and civilisation. It’s time for all environmentalists to decide if they want systemic change or to keep trying to reform the unreformable.

Finally, I’d like to quote Frank Coughlin’s description of the Zapatistas idea of revolution:

It is based in the “radical” idea that the poor of the world should be allowed to live, and to live in a way that fits their needs. They fight for their right to healthy food, clean water, and a life in commune with their land. It is an ideal filled with love, but a specific love of their land, of themselves, and of their larger community. They fight for their land not based in some abstract rejection of destruction of beautiful places, but from a sense of connectedness. They are part of the land they live on, and to allow its destruction is to concede their destruction. They have shown that they are willing to sacrifice, be it the little comforts of life they have, their liberty, or their life itself.


1.  P19 – Luttwak, Edward. (1988) Coup d’etat: A Practical Handbook. Cambridge, USA. Harvard University Press.
2. P8 – Goldstone, Jack A. (2014) Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction, New York, Oxford University Press
3.  P33 – O’Neill, Bard E. (2005) Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse. 2nd Ed. Washington, D.C. Potomac Books.
4.  P15 – O’Neill, Bard E. (2005) Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse. 2nd Ed. Washington, D.C. Potomac Books.
5.  P35 – O’Neill, Bard E. (2005) Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse. 2nd Ed. Washington, D.C. Potomac Books.
6. P10 – Taber, Robert. (2002) War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare. Washington, D.C. Potomac Books.
7. P4 – Sharp, Gene. (1973) The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston. Porter Sargent Publisher.
8. P1 – Goldstone, Jack A. (2014) Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction, New York, Oxford University Press
9. P20 – Goldstone, Jack A. (2014) Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction, New York, Oxford University Press
10. P26 – Goldstone, Jack A. (2014) Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction, New York, Oxford University Press
11. P284 Asprey, Robert B. (1975) War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History. New York. Doubledday & Company, Inc.
12. From Do or Die Issue 10. http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no10/anarchy.htm. Also read more about Insurrectionary Anarchism here: http://www.ainfos.ca/06/jul/ainfos00232.html).
13. Schmidt, Michael. (2013) Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism. Oakland. AK Press. Anarchist Revolutionary Waves. The First Wave 1868-1894, Second Wave 1895-1923, Third Wave 1924-1949, Fourth Wave 1950-1989 and the Fifth Wave 1989 to the Present
14. Ted Trainer article – Transition Townspeople, We Need To Think About Transition: Just Doing Stuff Is Far From Enough! http://blog.postwachstum.de/transition-townspeople-we-need-to-think-about-transition-just-doing-stuff-is-far-from-enough-20140801
15. Mandela, Nelson. (1995) Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. London. Abacus.

Time is Short: Reports, Reflections & Analysis on Underground Resistance is a biweekly bulletin dedicated to promoting and normalizing underground resistance, as well as dissecting and studying its forms and implementation, including essays and articles about underground resistance, surveys of current and historical resistance movements, militant theory and praxis, strategic analysis, and more. We welcome you to contact us with comments, questions, or other ideas at undergroundpromotion@deepgreenresistance.org

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