Skip to main content

Although I know that Bernie Sanders only means major change rather than violent overthrow when he calls for "revolution,” I still cringe when he uses that term.

I cringe even more when opponents of gun controls argue that people need guns to overthrow our government if it became tyrannical. In that event, guns would be the worst possible weapon, guaranteed to make a bad situation worse.

For years I taught about the USSR. Students frequently asked if a revolution could overthrow the Communists. I answered that another revolution would be a terrible idea in a country that had finally begun recuperating from the disastrous 1918 Communist takeover.

Revolutions---even against terrible regimes---destroy any progress towards civilized government that had gradually occurred. They set things back to a "state of nature" where life, as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) described it, is “nasty, brutish, and short." Revolutions are reactionary.

Replacement governments must use extreme violence in order to establish themselves. I couldn't wish this on the long-suffering people of the Soviet Union.

When students asked about another revolution, the U.S.S.R. had benefited from several reforms. With one exception, after Josef Stalin's death in 1953 former leaders weren't executed and retired peacefully.

Revolutions - even against terrible regimes - destroy any progress towards civilized government that had gradually occurred.

Censorship continued, but they no longer jammed foreign radio stations. After Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in 1985 Pravda began reporting things that were formerly covered up---plane crashes, mining disasters, and the like.

Voters still only had a "choice" of one candidate in "elections." But things were moving in a positive direction. There was even talk of "the rule of law,” always a step forward from arbitrary state power.

My 1961 B.A. thesis at Willamette University had examined whether peaceful reform was possible in totalitarian systems like the Soviet Union. It found two possible strategies for people seeking to reform rather than overthrow such systems:

1. Become a writer, writing politically acceptable works, then increasingly "subversive" things that put censors in an awkward position: where do we draw the line?

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

2. Join the ruling Communist Party, worm your way up to the powerful top position, then introduce radical reforms from the top.

Time validated my thesis. Alexander Solzhenitsyn took the first route until he went too far for the censors and got deported. He did a lot of good even when he was in exile.

Alexander Dubcek tried the second strategy in Communist Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s. But he lost power when the USSR invaded and set up a more reliable local puppet.

After Czechoslovakia, my students and I wondered what would happen if a "Dubcek" were to come to power in the U.S.S.R. Who would invade to "rescue" the U.S.S.R. from its reformer?

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev turned out to be a Dubcek. Unfortunately, his principal reform, glasnost---free speech---unleashed independence movements in the 15 union republics (states) that comprised the country. In 1992 the U.S.S.R. disintegrated.

The Soviet crackup caused ten years of economic destitution, ruined many lives, and set back progress made during the previous 38 years. Although not a violent revolution, it produced many of the same bad consequences that revolutions do.

Vladimir Putin, the current Russian leader, experienced the chaos after the U.S.S.R. fell apart. So he is understandably deeply hostile to revolution, and not just because he fears that one could overthrow him.

Americans to whom "revolution" sounds like a good idea should ask themselves in which sense they are using that term.


If they only mean it in the sense of big change brought about peacefully, then fine. But I wish they would stop calling for revolution and speak instead of major change.

If, on the other hand, they really contemplate the possibility of overthrowing our government, I invite them to think again.

History tells us that such a "cure" would be worse than the disease.

Paul F. deLespinasse