10 Lessons From Real-Life Revolutions That Fictional Dystopias Ignore

10 Lessons From Real-Life Revolutions That Fictional Dystopias Ignore

Today’s genre books are full of future dystopias, which only have one weakness: teenagers. And everybody knows that most dystopias are kind of contrived. But here are 10 lessons from real-life rebellions against repressive regimes, that we wish the creators of fictional dystopias would pay attention to.

10. The Enemy of Your Enemy Is Not Your Friend

Politics makes strange bedfellows. It even makes some unacknowledged bedfellows. Any repressive government — any government at all, for that matter — will prohibit something. It could be hard drugs, or it could be booze, or it could be untaxed salt, or it could be books. It asbeen all of those things, at one time or another. And even though smugglers who deal in that contraband may seem to oppose their government, they’re actually part of a stable system. Once a book isn’t banned, there’s no money in printing it abroad and getting it across the border. When salt isn’t taxed, there’s no money in bringing it from a low tax area to a high tax area and selling it on the black market.

So that merry band of smugglers isn’t always going to be on your heroes’ side. At the most, they could be on the heroes’ side when the heroes are rebels, distracting government forces and making things easier for the outlaws. When the heroes are winning, and have every chance of dissolving the outlaws’ main source of income, things are going to change.

10 Lessons From Real-Life Revolutions That Fictional Dystopias Ignore

9. The Top Guy Isn’t Always the Problem

The evil dictator is great for aesthetics and narrative. The Death Star explodes, the Emperor goes toppling down a chasm, and the rebellion triumphs. There’s nothing wrong with the sort of mythic story in which defeating one evil dictator frees a people. But the top guy isn’t always the problem. Louis XVI, known today as the husband of Marie Antoinette but known in the 1700s as the king of France, was not a great ruler, but he did have some good ideas. At the very least, his ministers had the good idea that the French people might feel a bit more kindly towards him if he stopped taxing the peasants so much and started taxing the nobility a little. When he tried putting the policy into effect, the nobility blocked him at every turn.

There were, and are, plenty of dictators who brutally check every attempt at reform. There have also been kings who supported the cause of justice and attempted reform, only to be stopped by a large group of people who had enough power and wealth to topple the monarchy more quickly than peasants could. A lot of fight-the-power books ignore this. It’s so much easier to write a narrative in which the heroes defeat the Final Boss and then “win.” Trying to subdue a huge class of people, while sorting out byzantine tax law, is tough to describe in prose. Also, as much as popular culture likes nonspecific rebellion, genuine calls for class warfare tend to make a lot of readers irate.

8. Sometimes Making Concessions Leads To Rebellion

While we’re on the subject of Louis XVI and the French Revolution, at one point during the process, it became obvious to everyone that something had to be done to calm the people down. There was a policy in place to do just that. The Estates General was an ancient body, comprising the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. It hadn’t been called – or at least the commoners part of it hadn’t been called — since the 1600s. When the population was told they would get a voice in government, there was general rejoicing. There were also demands. Some of those demands were met. When the “third estate” cried out for more representation, their ranks were doubled.

10 Lessons From Real-Life Revolutions That Fictional Dystopias Ignore

Soon it became clear that some of their demands weren’t going to be met. No matter how many members were part of an estate, each of the estates counted as one vote. As the clergy and the nobility were against the commoners, the commoners had little more power than they’d had before. They did, however, have the power to organise and the power to freely express their views. People from all over the realm started seriously thinking of what they wanted out of their government and communicating it to each other. That alone set a framework for the Revolution.

There’s plenty of talk, in modern dystopian fiction, about how any crack in a dictatorship’s absolute control will precipitate disaster. And very little of it feels real. Authors are concerned with making dictators frightening, rather than frightened. Remember that sometimes a “reasonable response” is not actually a reasonable response. Dictators are morally wrong — but they might be, practically speaking, right not to compromise.

7. Two Downtrodden Groups Will Usually Be Fighting Each Other

The American Civil War is now called a rebellion, and some even claim that their ancestors were “rebels.” Today, rebellion is a cool concept. At the time, “rebel” was an insult. Citizens of the Confederacy saw themselves as a sovereign nation, and believed they were conducting a revolution, much like the American Revolution. For the first two years, both the North and the South rode high on patriotism. By the third year, after a horrifying death toll, people weren’t so eager to volunteer.

10 Lessons From Real-Life Revolutions That Fictional Dystopias Ignore

Both the Union and the Confederacy passed conscription acts. Exceptions to both conscription acts were contingent upon wealth. Those on the Union side could pay to keep from joining the army. Confederate men were excused as long as they owned a certain number of slaves. Wealth was, then as now, tied to political power, meaning that the wealthy people had steered the course to war in the first place. The wealthy also had a say in the parameters of the conscription acts. The war itself would yield unequal benefits to the rich and the poor. For the Union, holding the United States together most directly benefited the powerful and wealthy, whose dealings crossed state lines and depended on the integrity of the nation. The Confederacy was formed to ensure the continuation of slavery (Yes. Yes it was.), and only the wealthy could own many slaves. As the saying at the time goes, the Civil War was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.”

Most dystopian fiction has their heroic rebels and revolutionaries battling robots, or brainless clones, or elite fighting forces made up of the privileged. But a lot of wars consist of their respective sides’ poorest, most powerless, and most downtrodden populations being forced to kill each other. A lot of heroes will be fighting people as miserable and unwilling as they are.

6. Never Neglect the Practicalities

Standing up for the freedom to express oneself, or the desire to resist constant surveillance, or the cessation of a grievous abuse of human rights, is important. Having something to eat is also important. Women rioting for bread got the ball rolling on both the French and the Russian revolutions. During the French revolution, women marching to Versailles forced the king and the royal family to semi-imprisonment in Paris. The second bread riot snowballed into an insurrection which forced the Tsar to abdicate. Over a thousand miles and a hundred years apart, people needed the same thing. Science fiction novels tend to focus on ideals and advanced techonology because authors want to draw parallels with the problems they see in their own societies. Surveillance and freedom of expression and privacy are hotter topics than bread. Maybe they shouldn’t be.

5. New Regimes Come With Crazy Ideology

10 Lessons From Real-Life Revolutions That Fictional Dystopias Ignore

In order to work, a revolution has to bind together a large group of people. Although they may all share the same core ideals, they will all interpret those ideals in different ways. This is why new regimes don’t just come with a new way of distributing wealth or running the government. They come with a whole host of ideas that must have seemed like a good idea to some lunatic and his lunatic buddies. In some cases, these ideas are confusing but funny, like when the new citizens of France decided to change to metric time, or to hire a poet to name each day of the year after concepts. They ended up with days like, “fog,” “pasture,” or “germination.”

Sometimes these radicalization plans are horrific, like China’s Great Leap Forward. The program was meant to modernise the nation, but was planned and executed by non-experts. As a result the modernisation plans included asking farmers and urban neighbourhoods to make steel in “backyard furnaces,” build aqueducts with no training, and kill every sparrow. The resulting insect plague and irrigation disaster caused a food shortage that resulted in between 18 and 45 million deaths.

Whatever new group of ragtag rebels inhabit your book, they will come to power with more than just a plan to pass out more money and change the drapes. They’re trying to remake the world, and they will have a lot of ways they want to do that. Some of them will be funny. Some will be tragic. Some will just be strange.

4. Revolutions Take Place on a World Stage

When Americans rebelled against Britain, they didn’t do it alone. The French enacted devastatingly effective naval warfare against the British, committing 32,000 sailors to the cause. They also contributed soldiers, supplies, and money. Which made it awkward when France underwent its own revolution, and both the royalists and the republicans expected the United States to be on their side. France’s revolution, and the excesses of the Terror, caused Catherine the Great of Russia to reject not just French political overtures but the concepts of the French Enlightenment, becoming more of a conservative despot in her own country. And America, of course, has become infamous in the modern era for either suppressing or instigating revolutions in East Asia and South America.

10 Lessons From Real-Life Revolutions That Fictional Dystopias Ignore

When one of the most repressive and extreme dictatorships in a world is about to topple, or an intergalactic empire hangs in the balance, consider what this means to the world outside of that dictatorship. Does no foreign government have cause to arm the rebels? Does no corporation have a stake in continuing the status quo? Is no bank anxious about the idea that they will be left holding IOUs from a country that no longer exists?

3. Violent Conflicts Keep Cropping Up From Within

Every revolution starts out by employing the “we are all brothers and sisters” ideology to get people on board. It’s not that simple. Revolutions include earnest student intellectuals, middle class dabblers, workers, the desperately poor, those persecuted for religion or ethnicity, and, of course, women. Many of these groups never have encountered each other before and will have seriously differing points of view. Of course they’re going to fight. And they will continue fighting as long as the political situation keeps changing. This effects not just them, but everyone around them. As one group rises and falls in power, half a nation can rise and fall with them.

This can result in far more bloodshed than the original revolution. Wenguang Huang describes in his book, The Little Red Guard, his life in Communist China in the 1970s. His father would go to work, every day, at a factory where people from different factions would literally commandeer different buildings and shoot at each other. As a student, Huang laughs at his father’s concern when his father begs him not to get political and make waves. Different groups have disagreements, but reprisals don’t happen anymore, Huang explains. Except, as soon as the internal balance of power shifts again, he learns that they do.

10 Lessons From Real-Life Revolutions That Fictional Dystopias Ignore

2. Fear Alone Can Precipitate the Explosion

It doesn’t always matter what the rebels or the establishment do. Sometimes it only matters what one thinks the other is going to do. And it’s not always the establishment that strikes first. The French revolution was exported from Paris to the provinces because peasants, coming off a bad harvest and looking forward to a good one, were worried that their local nobility would sabotage their food supply in retaliation for the goings-on in Paris. Terrified, they took to the country houses, demanding food, cash, and rights. They took the Revolution nation-wide not because any particular event sparked retaliation, but because they feared it soon would.

1. Afterwards There Will Be Mythology for the Losing Side

There are very few regimes so terrible that they can’t be romanticized. This is especially true after they have been defeated. It’s easy to be sentimental about something when nobody has to deal with it anymore. Sometimes regimes can even come back. There is a British monarchy today because, after executing the British king and establishing his own supremacy, Oliver Cromwell died and left management of the land to his ineffectual son. A royal family began looking pretty good.

10 Lessons From Real-Life Revolutions That Fictional Dystopias Ignore

And if a whole family can’t be deified, perhaps one member of it can. The myth of the young Anastasia surviving the deaths of her royal family lingered for decades – and spawned multiple impostors and multiple movies so people could ooh and ah over the lost world of Russian royalty.

Even if there’s no single person to rally around, there can be a “cause.” The idea that the Civil War was fought over “states rights” and not slavery resulted from a sort of PR campaign that began only fifteen years after the end of the war. Aware that they were on the wrong side of history, advocates explained that it was never about subjugating people, but about interpretations of the Constitution. And about hoop skirts and languidly sipping a mint julep on the veranda.

If a dystopian story ends with triumphant dancing in the streets as the statues topple, the lingering ghost of the past isn’t going to be an issue. But if a story continues past the first day of victory, someone is going to be pining for the opulence, the elegance, the wildness, or perhaps just the supposed ideals of the horrifying regime that the band of rebels desperately fought to topple.

[Via The Civil War’s Common Soldier, Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, The Great Famine, The Franco-American Alliance, The Little Red Guard.]