The people are revolting – and succeeding

Blue army: Hundreds of Chelsea fans gathered to protest the formation of the new league. © Getty

Does people power always win? Spontaneous protests by football fans have ended British involvement in the Super League, showing how passion can triumph over formidable opposition.

The Chelsea fans waving blue and white flags outside Stamford Bridge were jubilant. Just two days after the announcement of the Super League, the six British clubs involved had decided to withdraw from it. “Defeat of greed,” trumpeted the Daily Mail. “Super League crumbles as clubs bow to fan fury,” declared The Times. “Cheerio! Cheerio! Cheerio!” shouted The Sun.

Though the competition’s organisers insist that it will still go ahead, the withdrawal was a devastating blow to its prospects. Its lawyers had been confident that they could see off challenges by UEFA and the Premier League in court. But they had not reckoned with the anger of ordinary people who believed that the game and clubs they loved were being betrayed by those whose only concern was making money.

In the 19th Century, Thomas Carlyle put forward the “great men” theory of history, which holds that the world had been shaped by extraordinary individuals. But it is equally possible to argue that a critical mass of men and women – and, as Greta Thunberg has shown, children – can have a decisive impact.

There is no shortage of examples. In 1773, participants in the Boston Tea Party set the stage for the American War of Independence by throwing tea into the sea with cries of “No taxation without representation!” Sixteen years later, the French Revolution gained unstoppable momentum when a mob stormed the Bastille.

At the start of the last century, the Suffragette movement in Britain won votes for women. In 1989 Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution was one of several uprisings that brought an end to Communist rule in Europe.

On the other hand, many popular movements have ended in failure. The Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 won promises of concessions from Richard II, only for him to go back on them and execute the leaders. The Luddites in 1812 failed to halt the Industrial Revolution by attacking the machines that threatened their livelihoods.

The Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989 were bloodily suppressed and changed nothing. The Arab Spring which began in 2010 has brought few of the improvements that those involved hoped for.

According to the political commentator Robin Lustig, the success or failure of such movements is determined by two things: “the readiness of the old regime to deploy overwhelming military force… and the involvement of neighbours and regional powers.”

But two American academics, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, take a different view. After studying 323 campaigns of civil resistance between 1900 and 2006, they concluded that once 3.5% of the population started to play an active part, success was inevitable.

The examples they cited included the Velvet Revolution, which had 500,000 participants, and the People Power campaign which overthrew the Marcos regime in the Philippines, and attracted two million. They also found that nonviolent protests were twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.

Does people power always win?

Demos and democracy

Some say, no. Even Chenoweth and Stephan acknowledge that nonviolent campaigns only succeed 53% of the time – and for violent ones, the figure is half that. If the authorities are willing to ignore world opinion – and kill people – protestors have no chance. Military force is key: though the French Revolution overthrew the monarchy, Napoleon was later able to install himself as emperor.

Others argue that popular movements which initially fail often win in the long term. Though the Peasants’ Revolt was suppressed, it probably hastened the end of feudalism. The Luddites were a first step towards trade unionism in Britain. The Communist regimes that ruthlessly put down pro-democracy campaigns in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were eventually defeated by them.

You Decide

  1. What cause would you campaign for even if you risked imprisonment?
  2. Is direct action by a minority a betrayal of democracy?


  1. In teams, choose a subject for a campaign. Decide on your roles in it, devise a strategy and design banners, handbills and T-shirts to promote it. Make a presentation to persuade the rest of your class to join the movement.
  2. In pairs, choose a participant of a popular movement from history. Conduct an interview with him or her in front of your class with one of you playing a contemporary journalist.

Some People Say...

“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862), American philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that there is some truth in Thomas Carlyle’s theory of “great men”, since popular campaigns are most likely to succeed when they have charismatic leaders. Mahatma Gandhi in India, Emmeline Pankhurst in Britain, Martin Luther King in the US and Nelson Mandela in South Africa were all key to the movements they led. The Arab Spring mobilised large numbers of people but failed to produce the outstanding individuals needed to direct them and negotiate with their opponents.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether today’s pro-democracy movements are likely to achieve anything. Protests in Hong Kong have simply led to the stripping away of more democratic rights by China. Demonstrations in Russia have done nothing to save Alexei Navalny from imprisonment. The military regime in Myanmar has shown no qualms about killing peaceful demonstrators. Belarus’s parliament is in the process of passing new laws to restrict freedom of expression and assembly.

Word Watch

Stamford Bridge
Chelsea’s home ground. It is also the name of a battle in what is now Yorkshire, in which King Harold defeated his brother Tostig and King Harald of Norway in 1066.
Super League
A proposed breakaway football league of 20 teams including England’s “big six”.
Thomas Carlyle
A Scottish historian best known for his history of the French Revolution, published in 1837.
Boston Tea Party
A protest against tax – in this case on tea – being imposed on the colonists by Britain’s parliament.
A fortress in Paris which was used for detaining political prisoners.
A country created from former Austrian territories in 1918, it split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.
Velvet Revolution
The 1989 movement was named for its lack of violence.
Peasants’ Revolt
A protest against heavy taxation and inequality, the rebellion culminated in the capture of the Tower of London.
Workers who worried that new machinery would make them redundant. The name is now jokingly applied to people who oppose new technology.
Tiananmen Square
A huge open space in the middle of Beijing. Estimates of how many protestors were killed range from several hundred to 1,000.
Arab Spring
Starting in Tunisia as a protest against corruption, it spread to more than a dozen other Middle Eastern countries.
Ferdinand Marcos was president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. The uprising was a response to government corruption and the murder of one of his political opponents.

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