Now out of never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989 (Article Summary)

A. Main Hypotheses

Dynamics of Transition

Current scholarship on political revolutions fails to explain how rapidly and unexpectedly the 1989 revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe developed.

Individual decisions to support the opposition eventually create a snowball effect. The people that join the movement as it grows will later portray themselves as long-time members of the opposition and encourage even more people to switch over. Thus, preference falsification is both the source of a regime’s stability and its downfall. This phenomenon makes it difficult to track anti-government sentiment in repressive regimes, which is why revolutions come as a surprise but seem to have been inevitable.

B. Summary

United In Amazement

The revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe challenged the view that communist totalitarianism is more stable than ordinary authoritarianism.

In retrospect, it all appears like an inevitable consequence of multiple factors (bad leaders, bad economy, and no freedom.) But at the time, academics, statesmen, diplomats, journalists, futurists, and other experts all did not see it coming, and were astounded when it did.

Received Theories of Revolution and their Predictive Weaknesses

Kuran offers a critique of the current literature related to the hypothesis.

-          Structuralist theory: A revolution occurs when: 1) a state’s evolving relations with other states and local classes weaken its ability to maintain law and order, and 2) the elites harmed by this situation are powerless to restore the status quo ante yet strong enough to paralyze the government. This theory doesn’t rely on subjective factors like religion, etc.

-          Standard theory (Rational-choice): An individual opposed to incumbent regime is unlikely to participate in efforts to remove it, since personal risks outweigh benefits of the movement’s success. He or she will let others make sacrifices to kill the regime, and will still benefit since revolution is a “collective good.”

The standard theory explains why revolution is so rare but not why the 1989 ones occurred, and fails to explain why some people do make the irrational choice to challenge the regime and risk their lives. The structuralist theory explains why conditions were ripe for revolution in Soviet Union, but does not explain why old order collapsed so suddenly at once and why 1989 revolutions were so unexpected.

Preference Falsification and Revolutionary Bandwagons

According to Kuran, “a mass uprising results from multitudes of individual choices to participate in a movement for change; there is no actor named ‘the crowd’ or ‘the opposition.’” (p. 16)

The distinction between an individual’s private and publicly expressed preference is preference falsification.

-          Thus, the individual’s choice to join the opposition is based on a trade-off between internal and external payoffs – the internal psychological cost of preference falsification vs. the benefits and harms of siding with the opposition.

-          As the opposition grows, the external cost of joining becomes lower than the internal cost of not joining. Everyone has a different revolutionary threshold (i.e. “intellectuals” are less susceptible to social pressure) but even one individual shift to opposition leads to many others, creating a revolutionary bandwagon.

-          Since private preferences and thresholds are unknowable, this snowball effect means that society can quickly and quietly reach the brink of revolution.

-          Unanticipated revolutions seem predictable in hindsight because once individuals switch to the opposition after the snowball effect, they will claim they were always opposed to the old regime even if they were not. This perpetuates preference falsification and biases post-revolutionary opinions and analysis.

Gradual and abrupt changes in preference are part of a single unified process:

-          When public opinion changes enough that people start to think a revolution could be possible, the speed at which people join the bandwagon will accelerate.

-          Pressure groups and unorganized groups complement each other in efforts to overthrow the regime. “Where a small pressure group fails to push a bandwagon into motion a slightly better organized or a slightly larger one might.” (pg. 25)

East European Communism and the Wellspring of its Stability

Although oppression under Communism prompted a tiny number of citizens to express dissent through Western and independent publications, uprisings were rare and the few that did occur in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Berlin were quickly crushed. Most people living in Eastern Europe were tolerant of and submissive to the regime. According to Kuran, this was due to 1) official punishment of regime opponents, 2) the need to publicly support the regime, and 3) ignorance of how many people internally shared their antipathy. State propaganda reinforced individuals’ perceptions that they were alone in their dissent. However, once people stopped trying to prove their loyalty and started challenging communism, the regimes began to unravel. Thus, preference falsification is “the wellspring of stability” for Eastern European regimes, which would likely have fallen before 1989 were it not for this phenomenon.

The Revolution

The regimes of Eastern Europe were more vulnerable than publicly expressed opinion made them seem. Even genuine support for the regime was very thin; they could easily be swayed by an alternative to socialism if they thought enough people would support it.

Soviet policies of perestroika and glasnost pointed to growing dissatisfaction with communist leadership, which opened up the possibility of a coup by more hard-line Party leaders. Life under communism had reinforced peoples’ fear of change.

While in retrospect it seems like Gorbachev had engineered the liberalization and ultimate revolution in the Soviet Union, in reality these events occurred in spite of him. Kuran argues they were ignited by several other factors:

-          The massive rise in expressed discontent during glasnost lowered everyone’s revolutionary threshold.

-          Individual decisions to keep anti-Communist movements nonviolent were crucial to their cohesion and ultimate success.

-          Success of anti-government demonstrations in one country inspired them elsewhere, and emboldened those who were on the fence about joining. Each successive revolution took less time to complete.

-          Small government concessions, such as in Czechoslovakia, encouraged protesters to make greater demands for freedom.

-          Communist officials acquiesced to the opposition. The pressure to not support the status quo is an example of preference falsification in the opposite direction, contributing to the regime’s demise.

The Predictability of Unpredictability

Revolutions that come as a surprise are the product of a long period of gestation. The rapid growth of mass movements is due to interdependent public preferences – it is the result of many rational individual decisions undertaken based on changing incentives. Even though the confluence of so many variables is unpredictable, we can still gain insight into the general processes by which revolutions form. However, it is difficult to gauge peoples’ revolutionary thresholds, especially when state censorship and regulation of public opinion polls makes this information unavailable.

C. Comments

Kuran’s argument about the “element of surprise” in revolution supplements PDT’s framework for understanding the causes of regime change, although he does not tackle the question of differentiating successful revolutionary outcomes from failures once the initial government turnover occurs. Additionally, his analysis of revolution in Eastern Europe shows that seemingly stable authoritarian regimes can actually be on the brink of revolt and thus vulnerable to internal and external pressure. This supports PDT’s idea that boosting a state’s civil society will influence more people to publicly express their internal dissent, giving the opposition movement the strength needed to successfully challenge the regime.

Summarized by Shelli Gimelstein. July, 2013.

Source: Timur Kuran, “Now out of never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989,” World Politics, Vol. 44, No. 1, October 1991, pp. 7-48


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