The revolutionaries already look like Cossacks.
On an unusually cold March morning 92 years ago, thousands of Red Army soldiers left solid ground and charged across five miles of heavy ice to the fortress city of Kronstadt.
The citadel was held by the rebellious sailors of the Baltic Fleet, formerly the shock troop zealots of the revolution. During the 1917 uprisings, they'd executed their officers en masse and remained one of the Bolshevik's most reliable military forces.
But as Lenin and his crew centralized their power and became increasingly repressive, the sailors turned against them. They seized the fleet and issued their own manifestoes, declaring that "the hammer and sickle – has been replaced by the bayonet and the barred window."
The sailors were experienced fighters in a formidable position: they cut the Red Army down. Over 10,000 soldiers died during 10 days of fighting. But in the end, the government crushed the uprising. They finished devastating Kronstadt just in time to mark the 50th anniversary of the Paris Commune, destroyed by the troops of the fledgling French Third Republic.
In 1794, the leaders of the American Revolution called up their forces once again, this time to end a guerilla rebellion rather than start one. Western farmers had taken up arms rather than pay the whiskey tax that was part of Alexander Hamilton's plan to get the nascent national economy up and running without pissing off his mercantile allies too much. So President George Washington marched west at the head of 13,000 soldiers. There was no major bloodshed, but the message was completely clear: rise up and we'll destroy you.
Then there's the Irish Civil War, 13 Vendémiaire, the Satsuma Rebellion, the Hyderabad campaign, the Cultural Revolution, the 1993 shelling of Russia's parliament. It's a long, bloody list. Hell, in 1848 even Victor Hugo enthusiastically led troops to put down the same riotous Parisians who were his allies a few months before.
There's a mythology around popular revolution, one that informs what kind of politics we revere, that even determines what we consider possible in our wildest dreams.
This is its uncomfortable catalogue of heresies, an alternate timeline running parallel to the shinier canon of July 4, the storming of the Bastille, the Fall of the Iron Curtain. The same process happens across cultures, after violent revolutions and peaceful ones, perpetrated by regimes both tyrannical and democratic. Every time the troops crest the barricades, it poses a dirty little question: why do revolutions, based on the principle that rebellion is justified, end up ruthlessly ending rebellions?
The above doesn't fit the widely-held image of revolutions: the sudden overthrow of the existing order in a spontaneous outpouring of public rebuke. The falling statues and cheering crowds don't mesh with firing squads and ad-hoc tribunals.
But the time that matters most in a revolution isn't when the czar leaves; it's what happens afterwards.
To pull off an overthrow requires a lot of f'ing people. Never, ever is a single, unified political creed going to have that much support. So instead a coalition emerges, with some overlapping goals (usually centered around removing the current government) and a rough agreement to fight. The more unpopular the government, the bigger the coalition, and the less coherent it becomes.
Usually, by the time a regime's ripe for an overthrow, enough different groups are pissed off that this is doable. But then they win, and the much trickier questions of exactly what they should do emerge.
Not everyone's going to get what they want.
Here's where the little secrets get even dirtier. There's that sense of sheer potential when the government's crumbling; it's what's given everyone following hashtags and live feeds such a vicarious high over the last few years. Hunter S. Thompson elegized the feeling that "you could strike sparks anywhere" or, in more modern terms "it's kicking off everywhere."
The dirty secret is that revolutions — at least the ones anyone remembers — stop that shit real quick once they're done using it.
Revolutionary governments are by definition unstable, because lasting power structures are backed as much by habit as force. But when things are that uncertain, everyone thinks that they and their friends can march into the square and have a turn. Hell, the Chinese even have a proverb for this kind of time.
There's no way to get anything done in that kind of environment, much less overhaul society. Perhaps that's a betrayal of the original spirit: in every case, someone's thought so. Sometimes, like with Kronstadt, they're completely right.
But it misses the point: not everyone in a revolution fights for the same thing. When there's a bigger enemy, it's easy to say everyone is part of "the people." The day that immediate fight's won, it becomes a matter of which people. Someone gets angry at what's being done, mutters that they didn't bleed for this, and tries to go for a repeat.
So the revolution, now a government, calls out its forces. Sometimes the rebels fight, and sometimes they just go home. Rarely, they win (and face their own rebels later). But the end result is the same: the day is done when anyone can be king.
There's usually some real support for the government ending the rebellion: people are tired of all the crappy things perpetual upheaval brings, and want to go on with their lives under whatever new order's shaking out. Lost causes are only romantic in retrospect, for people who weren't facing bullets and starvation.
The popular mythology I mentioned earlier is incredibly powerful, and this reality is almost entirely absent from it. It's easier to diss "incrementalism" when one envisions a broad popular uprising as the endgame and the inevitable aftermath isn't even part of the discussion. It's easier to bash political skills, deal-making and organization building; sheer energy should suffice.
The fact that revolutions smash their own rebellions is a reminder that the realities of power never go away, and that even in the best possible future not everyone will win.