Category Archives: Anatomy of a Revolution

The Hunger Games/Anatomy of a Revolution

I just finished reading The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, that very popular trio of young adult books by Suzanne Collins that are also being devoured by large numbers of adults. The citizens of Panem (which means bread) live in twelve districts ruled by one person, President Snow. This is a story of oppression and revolution. President Snow starves the people in the districts outside District One, each group getting successively hungrier until you get to the people in District Twelve who must scrape for a living. All citizens except those in District One can get rice and oil by registering to be chosen to compete in the Hunger Games held and televised once a year. The more times they register the more grain and oil they receive for their families, but the chances get greater that they will be chosen for the Hunger Games, a fight to the death between two “contestants” from each district. Katniss, our heroine, is not chosen for the Hunger Games but she volunteers to take the place of her sister, Prim. Katniss is a hunter who has hunted illegally outside the fence at District Twelve with her friend Gale. She is extremely skilled in the use of the bow and arrow which has helped her family by putting meat in their diet and which she is counting on to help her survive in the Hunger Games. But Katniss’s spirit is her greatest asset. She is compassionate and stubborn and a fighter all at the same time. As she learns more and more about the injustices that President Snow uses to control Panem she becomes more and more of a revolutionary simply by not doing what Snow expects her to do.

Suzanne Collins has not described a real place but she has a clear understanding of human societies and of how and why revolutions happen. She also captures the sort of classic trajectory of a revolution. I remember reading a book called Anatomy of a Revolution by Crane Brinton when I was in college. This is not a fiction book, it is an analysis by a historian of four revolutions in the real world: the British revolution of the 1640’s, the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. This is a fairly scholarly book with none of the easy readability or appeal of the Hunger Games trilogy, but the similarities are striking and might even strike a few chords with our current political situation (which we may need to get a grip on).

This is the way Wikipedia summarizes Mr. Brinton’s ideas although I have condensed the text somewhat:
Fall of the old regime
The revolutions begin with problems in the pre-revolutionary regime. These include problems functioning — “government deficits, more than usual complaints over taxation, conspicuous governmental favoring of one set of economic interests over another, administrative entanglements and confusions”. There are also social problems, such as the feeling by some that careers are not “open to talents”, and economic power is separated from political power and social distinction
Financial problems play an important role, as “three of our four revolutions started among people who objected to certain taxes, who organized to protest them
The revolutions’ enemies and supporters disagree over whether plots and manipulation by revolutionists, or the corruption and tyranny of the old regime are responsible for the old regime’s fall. Brinton argues both are right, as both the right circumstances and active agitation are necessary for the revolution to succeed. (p. 85-6)
At some point in the first stages of the revolutions “there is a point where constituted authority is challenged by illegal acts of revolutionists” and the response of security forces is strikingly unsuccessful.
Revolutionary regimes
In each revolution a short “honeymoon” period follows the fall of the old regime, lasting until the “contradictory elements” among the victorious revolutionaries assert themselves
Moderates and dual power
The revolutions being studied first produce a “legal” moderate government. It vies with a more radical “illegal” government in a process known as “dual power“, or as Brinton prefers to call it “dual sovereignty”.
The radicals triumph because they are
·         “better organized, better staffed, better obeyed,” (p. 134)
·         have “relatively few responsibilities, while the legal government “has to shoulder some of the unpopularity of the government of the old regime” with “the worn-out machinery, the institutions of the old regime.” (p. 134)
·         The moderate are hindered by their hesitancy to change direction and fight back against the radical revolutionaries, “with whom they recently stood united,” in favor of conservatives, “against whom they have so recently risen.” (p. 140) They are drawn to the slogan `no enemies to the Left.` (p. 168)
·         are attacked on one side by “disgruntled but not yet silenced conservatives, and the confident, aggressive extremists,” on the other. The moderate revolutionary policies can please neither side.
·         are “poor” leaders of the wars which accompany the revolutions, unable to “provide the discipline, the enthusiasm,” needed. (p. 144)
Radicals and “Reigns of Terror and Virtue”
·         In contrast to the moderates, the radicals are aided by a fanatical devotion to their cause, discipline and (in recent revolutions) a study of technique of revolutionary action, obedience to their leadership, ability to ignore contradictions between their rhetoric and action, and drive boldly ahead. (p. 155-60) Even their small numbers are an advantage, giving them “the ability to move swiftly, to make clear and final decisions, to push through to a goal without regard for injured human dispositions.” (p. 154)
·         The radical reign is one of “Terror and Virtue.” Terror stemming from the abundance of summary executions, foreign and civil war, struggle for power; virtue in the form of puritanical “organized asceticism” and suppression of vices such as drunkenness, gambling and prostitution. (p. 180) In its ardor, revolutionary “tragicomedy” touches the average citizen, for whom “politics becomes as real, as pressing, as unavoidable … as food and drink,” their “job, and the weather.” (p. 177)
·         On taking power the radicals rule through dictatorship and “rough-and-ready centralization.”
At some point in these revolutions, the “process of transfer of power from Right to Left ceases,” and groups even more radical than those in power are suppressed. (p. 167
Along with centralization, lethal force in suppression of opposition, rule by committee, radical policies include the spreading of “the gospel of their revolution” to other countries
“Thermidor”
The radical reign of terror, or “crisis” period, is fairly soon replaced by Thermidor period, a period of relaxation from revolutionary policies or “convalescence” from the “fever” of radicalism
Lasting results
Brinton finds the lasting results of the revolutions disappointing
Brinton concludes that despite their ambitions, the political revolutions he studied brought much less lasting social changes than the disruptions and changes of “what is loosely called the Industrial Revolution“, and the top-down reforms of Mustapha Kemal’s reforms in Turkey, and the Meiji Restoration or post-World War II MacArthur era in Japan. (p. 246)

OK, that may be more than you wanted to know about revolutions, but the way Wikipedia summarizes the ideas of Crane Brinton is the way I remember the theory as we discussed it in those long ago days. Hunger Games is a story about revolution but the inhumane ways that Snow’s government keeps citizens under control by starving them, scaring them and exploiting them for entertainment adds a whole other level of organized wrongness to this particular culture, reminiscent of the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, that makes us cheer for Katniss and Peeta and all of the other heroes who actually revolt against the tyranny that others have accepted for decades. Katniss also has the presence of mind to kill the person that Katniss perceives wants to be next in line with her ambition to become the new Panem dictator, President Coin, and thereby breaks the cycle of poor lasting results that Mr. Brinton says usually follow a revolution. For now the revolution has a happy ending, although the image of the children of our characters dancing in the meadow on top of a mass grave, may foreshadow a time in the future when there could once again arise a tyrant. George Orwell’s Animal Farm also reflects Brinton’s revolutionary trajectory.