People who work in business schools are constantly offering courses on change: managing change, leading change, implementing the change agenda.  In more recent years, the theme of ‘disruption’ has become popular, which appears to be a twist on the idea that creative destruction is the path for industrial renewal.  When Joseph Schumpeter introduced this into management thinking (please note he was an economist, not a management guru!) he talked about the “gale of creative destruction”, describing the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one” [i]  It wasn’t a novel idea.  Marx had addressed the same theme in the Communist Manifesto, pinpointing what he saw as the process of accumulation and annihilation of wealth under capitalism.  Bold words about big ideas, but the business school agenda is not about destruction, of course, it is about competition and growth, and even ‘disruption’ is often nothing more than pursuing a new strategy, a novel business model.

However, there are times when we want more than mere change, but a real revolution.  Given the inadequacy of guidance from business courses, I have been puzzling over how we bring about radical revolutionary change.  As I see it, revolutions appear to come from one of two different sources:  they are either internally driven or are forced by external events.

For Europeans, there is little doubt that the French Revolution is seen as a paradigm case of a radical change brought about by citizens.  The story is well-known, with centuries of aristocratic rule overthrown by a bloody but highly effective revolution, even if the aftermath took many years to settle down.  Revolutionary change indeed.

This can be contrasted with a failed attempt at revolution some 150 years earlier in England driven by a similar desire to change the political system.  Claimed to be the first political party in modern Europe, the ‘Levellers’ (so named by their enemies on the basis they “wished to level men’s estates”) sought a radical alteration to the government during a time of major change in Britain, following the Civil War between parliamentary and royal forces.  The Levellers claimed that war had been waged in the name of the people, and, given this, they believed government should rest exclusively with the House of Commons.  They argued parliament should be elected by extending suffrage to all adult males, part of a program of reform also including equality before the law, the abolition of trading monopolies, an end to conscription, drastic law reform, and complete freedom of practice for religions.

Parliament didn’t like this approach, and as a result the Levellers turned directly to the people – and to the New Model Army under the command of Oliver Cromwell.  There they argued, in 1647: “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it is clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under”..[ii]  These could have been views offered during the French Revolution, but back then a revolution was a step too far, and the idea voting rights should extend beyond landowners was stamped out by Cromwell’s Army.  It was to take another two hundred years, until the time of the Third Reform Act in the UK (in 1884), before universal suffrage for men (but still not for women) was agreed.

What was the difference?  In one sense it was a contrast between the few seeking change, and the masses, protests versus revolution.  The Levellers were a small group, but the French who wanted to overthrow the crown were a huge group, an overwhelming number from the Paris population.  Certainly, history suggests that a massive movement of that kind is needed to create the necessary force for a revolution.  Since that time, revolutionary change has remained on the agenda, and in the 20th Century several massive popular uprisings to overthrow the political system took place in many countries, including Russia, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Egypt, Hungary, Iran and Mexico among others.

It is not just about numbers, however, as is clear when we look at what is happening in Hong Kong recently.  These have been mass protests, although protests can lead to revolution, of course.  For a month, huge numbers in Hong Kong demanded the withdrawal of a bill that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland This proposal caused considerable anger, as it was seen as yet another step undermining the protections that were promised Hong Kong when it returned to China as a Special Administrative Region.  Given the Hong Kong governments initial acceptance of this proposal (or demand?) from China, it also confirmed residents’ belief the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, was a pro-Beijing mouthpiece.

Protests can be dramatic.  Since early June, when it was claimed more than a million people attended the day to remember the Tiananmen protests and massacre of 1989, over half a million people had been taking part in peaceful protests making their way through parts of the city.  Then the protests turned uglier as what is claimed to be the biggest political crisis in two decades showed no sign of abating.  The police fired teargas at demonstrators and moved to disperse crowds after protesters stormed the legislative council building and raised the territory’s former colonial flag on the 22nd anniversary of its handover to China.

A revolution?  It may not be the case they wanted to overthrow the government.  “I don’t know whether this would work, but what other channels are there to make Carrie Lam listen to us?” said a male protester interviewed outside the legislative council building.  “We used to protest peacefully but it didn’t work, now we need to get out of this framework and tell them, we’re willing to try anything until you give us an answer.”  In protests, public sentiment is important.  Police issued several warnings and appeared to be gearing up for violent clashes, but left the protesters largely alone, even on the day a group tore up the inside of the legislative building.  Local TV footage showed police officers armed with non-lethal weapons in other parts of the government complex as the protesters broke in.  One lawmaker, Fernando Cheung, suggested to reporters that the inaction from police had been a trap, aimed at swinging public sentiment against the demonstrations with the help of violent and destructive scenes.  “They simply wouldn’t listen to me,” said Lam Cheuk-ting, another of the politicians. “The movement at large is peaceful, but some young people are overwhelmed by a strong sense of helplessness and they’re emotionally charged.” [iii]

While one group was causing trouble at the legislature, 550,000 people marched peacefully through downtown Hong Kong without any scenes of violence or chaos.  The organisers of that rally – the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) – issued a joint statement with democratic lawmakers placing the blame for the destruction at the legislative council, saying Lam had “ignored the demands of the people and pushed youngsters towards desperation”.  The CHRF repeated concerns over the controversial extradition law amendment bill; together with an investigation into police brutality; Lam’s resignation; the release of those arrested; and an end to describing earlier clashes as a riot.  Not yet a revolution, but a successful protest over growing fears China is stamping down on freedoms, aided by pro-Beijing leaders.

When it comes to revolutions, I can’t miss making a comment that mention of China suggests:  the country is an example where leaders can be just as revolutionary as citizens in creating change.  There have been several times in China’s history when an emperor decided to destroy the culture and traditions that preceded him, to start again. In that history, the most famous example was Emperor Qin, often called the first emperor, who unified China and, in his short rule (from 221-210 BC) unified the written language, suppressed the variety of philosophies in favour of legalism, and generally imposed a bureaucratic system on the country.  It appears he felt a unified China rested on his revolutionary approach.

Two thousand years later, Mao Tse Tung took a similar path following the unsuccessful Great Leap Forward, (the one which had introduced a communal production system for the country).  In 1966 he announced the Cultural Revolution, which ran for ten years.  Its core was described as the destruction of the ‘four olds’, old customs, culture, habits, and ideas.  [iv].  The Red Guards acted as the agents, destroying various historical sites throughout the country; libraries full of historical and foreign texts were destroyed; books were burned; temples, churches, mosques, monasteries, and cemeteries were closed and sometimes converted to other uses, or looted, and destroyed.  Revolutionary leadership again!

Other revolutions occur through external forces.  At one extreme, during the history of our planet, there have been massive changes that appear to have been caused by external events:  for example, the disappearance of dinosaurs has been linked to an cataclysmic episode some 66 million years ago when a meteorite impact caused extinctions both directly (by heat from the meteorite impact) and also indirectly (from a worldwide cooling when matter ejected from the impact crater drastically reduced the quantity of solar thermal radiation reaching the earth). Although the speed of extinction isn’t clear from the fossil record, models suggest it was extremely rapid, possibly down to hours rather than years. Revolutionary change?

Similar events have been deduced as impacting on the earth at other times.  However, not all the events claimed have proved true.  For example, Immanuel Velikovsky acquired temporary fame for his book Worlds in Collision which described wars in the ‘celestial sphere’ that took place in historical times.  The book proposed that around the 15th century Venus was ejected from Jupiter as a comet, which passed near the Earth, changing its orbit and axial inclination, causing innumerable catastrophes, events he claimed as the source of various myths and legends.  These were taken as the facts which Velikovsky used to support his claim that “Venus was expelled as a comet and then changed to a planet after contact with a number of members of our solar system” [v]  Completely nutty, but the book was fun!

Are we about to enter a period of revolutionary change?  There are two reasons to suggest that revolutions may not only be possible, but actually desirable, despite the misery and destruction such events entail.  If the prospect of millions, or billions of people dying is too extreme to contemplate, I think you might not want to read on.  However, they are scenarios that deserve attention, and the only way I can see to resolve some dreadful situations.

The first is a revolution resulting from an ‘external’ event, but in this case not a comet flying by, or a rock smashing into the Earth from out space.  This situation is one we have created, climate change.  A disturbing picture is easy to draw of future events and their aftermath.

Let us suppose that increased production of carbon dioxide has continued, and unchecked climate change results in Antarctic ice melting quickly.  Eventually a huge ice sheet slips off Antarctica into the ocean during the southern hemisphere winter, immediately displacing water and pushing up sea levels.   At the same time, temperatures in the northern hemisphere continue to rise, increasing demand for electricity and provoking regular blackouts across the globe.  Flooding in low lying areas affects the water table in areas close to the sea, reducing the availability of drinkable bore water, and overwhelming some of the salt water treatment plants.  The ongoing refugee crises that have affected many areas grow rapidly, with people living in low lying areas joining overseas refugees converging on inner urban areas.  Looting commences, and within a short time lawless chaos is apparent everywhere.  The final blow is when diseases start to spread from more isolated areas, including the upper Amazon and parts of Africa.  Quickly the death rate accelerates, millions dying every day.

In this scenario, the outcome is a paradox.  On the one hand, the world’s population is reduced, severely.  On the other, the use of oil products drops dramatically, as refineries stop working, coal transportation slows down.  Less people, less energy, a reduction in climate change.  As for governments, perhaps this is the trigger to see a new political order appear …

The other possible revolution, 171 years late, is the uprising Marx had envisaged, but not the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie, but the poor against the 1%.  Inadequate health care, failing schools and disappearing jobs turn millions to desperation.  To begin with, it seems the 1930’s depression has returned.  Lines of poor and under-nourished families march on major cities, lines of despair.  Then younger people begin to be more vociferous.  They look at the success of earlier protests from Hungary to Hong Kong, and decide violent action is required.  The police and armed forces are told to protect the rich and defend the offices of major corporations, but, behind the scenes, many sympathise with the protestors, sneaking out information, and letting protesters in by side doors.  Once the killing starts, the unity of the police begins to waver, and then the same is true for many in the armed forces.

Everyone understands where the real problems sit.  This is about capitalism.  What had Marx said?  “The bourgeoisie, [today we would say capitalism] wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. … The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”  Got that right.  The result of this revolution: oligopolies toppled, oligarchies tossed aside, democracies restored.  All achieved with a lot of property destruction and even more lives lost.

Real and massive change comes from revolutions, not strategic plans drawn up by businesses or governments.  Revolutions are nasty, destructive activities.  Both climate change and our inequitable capitalist business/government complex require revolutionary change.  I hope I am wrong, but I can’t see any alternative to a violent overthrow.  Nor could Marx:  he thought the time had come, but it hadn’t.  However, it was, and is, just a matter of time.

[i] Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. London: Routledge,1942, pp.82–83.

[ii]  An Agreement of the People, Anonymous, 1647


[iv] Wang, Nianyi, Period of Great Turmoil: China between 1949–1989, p. 66 [citation from Wikipedia]

[v] Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, 1972, page 182