A Remark on the Occurrence of Revolutions

William James Sidis

Foreword by Boris Sidis

Journal of Abnormal Psychology1918, 13, 213-228.



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        The following paper is timely and interesting from a scientific point of view in general and from a psychological standpoint in particular. The present European war is well termed a world war, the greatest war of nations on the records of history, a war shaking social organizations with their conflicting instincts and passions to the very foundations. This world maelstrom in which nations, large and small, are caught unawares is fraught with events no one can foresee, with consequences no contemporary can conceive. We have the good fortune of living in one of the greatest epochs in the history of mankind. Revolutionary changes are taking place on a gigantic scale under our very eyes without our realization of their trend and significance. We are in the midst of the mad whirl of this raging world hurricane so that our mental vision is obscured, our mind is paralyzed by the very magnitude of the furious struggle of frenzied social and psychic forces. No scientist, no statesman can forecast any of the consequences, or estimate the meaning of the profound and extensive transformations rapidly taking place in the nature of society and man. This much we seem to feel and know, that humanity is in labor with big events which are far beyond our ken, that society is in the throes of a new social order the character or even the outlines of which cannot be discerned in this infernal confusion of supreme struggle of social elements and human passions. Man and society are now being forged into new forms, hammered by Vulcan blows of war and revolt.

        If, however, things appear dark as to the outcome of this great upheaval, some of its causes may be within our grasp. Any ray of light, coming from whatever quarter, should be welcome. In this respect the present contribution may add its mite in regard to some of the proximate contributing causes of one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of humanity. The merit of this contribution is that it advances in a general, though tentative way, one of the contributory causes of revolts and revolutions, referring them to fundamental economical conditions and psychic states, famine and cold, fear instinct and self-preservation, which in turn are traced to variations of one central, cosmic source, to variations of solar energy.

        When social forces become charged with revolutionary ferment the governments under ordinary favorable conditions keep those forces in check by means of force exerted on the fear instinct, but the pangs of famine and the distress of cold with their results of disease and epidemic counteract the fear of force, arousing the fear instinct of death and the fundamental instinct of self-preservation, throwing the social organism into convulsions of riots, revolts and revolutions. All this the author traces to variations of the central source of all terrestrial energy―to variations of solar activities.

        The writer, however, warns the reader not to take this cosmic source as the sole cause of revolutions, but only as one of the contributing factors, helping to turn the scale when social discontent has accumulated, and revolutionary forces are being ripened in the subconscious depths of social life. The cosmic factor is the trigger for the explosion and for the release of social, revolutionary forces.


        The general subject of revolutions is an interesting one for us at the present time. We have all been reading in the newspapers enough contradictory reports about the state of affairs in Russia to arouse a widespread interest in the recent revolution in Russia. We read every now and then of a new outbreak of revolt in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; an extensive revolt took place in the enemy countries only last winter; and the prospect, brought up by those events, of an actual revolution in Germany and Austria-Hungary, involve the possibility of a complete change in the face of the present war.

        Such being the present interest in the subject, I venture to make a few remarks concerning the time when revolts and revolutions usually take place. I was led to my view on this subject by Taine's explanation of the French Revolution of 1789 in "Les Origines de la France Contemporaine." I take the liberty of quoting from this book: "L'hiver vint et fut le plus dur qu'on eut vu depuis 1709. Des le printemps de 1789, la famine etait partout, et, de mois en mois, elle croissait comme une eau qui monte. . . . Plus on approchait du 14 juillet, dit un temoin oculaire, plus la disette augmentait. . . . Pour avoir du pain de chien, le people doit faire queue pendant des heures . . . De toutes parts, en mars, avril et mai, l'emeute eclate." ("The winter came and was the severest that had been since 1709. From the spring of 1789 on, famine was everywhere, and, from month to month, it increased like a rising flood. . . The closer one came to July 14, the more the famine grew, said an eye-witness. . . To get a dog's bread, the people must stand in line for hours. . . From all sides, in March, April, and May, riot broke loose.") This suggests that the real cause of the French Revolution coming in the summer of 1789 was not the dissolution of the States-General, but rather a general famine accompanied by a prevailing "inflammation of the throat and intestinal pain," caused in turn by the bad bread resulting from a poor crop due to summer hail and a cold winter. In other words, the French Revolution took place in 1789 rather than four or five years earlier or later, because the winter of 1788 was extremely cold.

    Taine's explanation of the French Revolution bears a remarkable resemblance to that of the Russian Revolution contained in the first official bulletin of the Petrograd Soviet, issued March 13, 1917. This bulletin begins: "The old regime has reduced the country to complete ruin, and the people to starvation. It was impossible to endure it further. The population of Petrograd went out into the streets to demonstrate their discontent. They were met with bullets. Instead of bread the Imperial government gave the people a stone." The Russian Revolution was, according to this, based on a hunger strike.

        This suggests the idea that revolutions and revolts in general (a revolt being a revolution that has not quite succeeded) are connected in some way or other with direct, obvious, physical discomfort, especially hunger, and possibly lack of clothing and fuel. Not that I wish to be interpreted as saying that this is the cause of revolutions; the causes are quite different. A match will cause an explosion in a powder magazine, but not in a tank of water; and similarly a famine will bring about a revolution in a society where the underlying conditions are such as to favor the spread of such ideas and where other proper circumstances are present.

        Now, all such matters as lack of nutrition and lack of heat are dependent in great degree on the climate. In a cold country, a severe winter is directly a cause of physical discomfort; people freeze in such weather. Further, the early frosts preceding a cold winter lessen the crop, transportation becomes difficult, and generally a famine is more likely to result in such a year. In a warm country, a similar result occurs when the summer is excessively hot, the heat parching and drying the crops so that food is scarce.

        It may be interesting to note that Professor Jevons has advanced a meteorological theory to explain the periodicity of industrial crises. Industrial crises usually appear about once in ten years. Jevons ascribes this to a periodicity in the climate, causing, in cases of cold years, poor crops, and therefore a failure of everything dependent on the crops, including the banking system, and through that, the whole industrial system. This periodicity in the crops, which would directly concern the subject of this article, Jevons ascribes to a well-known periodicity in the number of spots on the sun.

        To explain this, I may say that sun spots are rifts in the surface of the sun, exposing a lower layer. This lower layer gives less light and heat than the surface, and therefore, the more spots there are on the sun, the less heat the sun will give, and the cooler will be the climate. Now, astronomers have kept records of the number of spots on the sun since the early part of the last century, and it has been found that this number of increases and decreases in a period of eleven years approximately. For example, there was a maximum in 1905, a minimum in 1911, and a maximum again in 1916. Jevons' theory was that the maxima of sun-spots cause cold weather, and, therefore, poor crops, resulting in industrial crises.1

        The essential feature in this theory is that there is a periodicity in the crops corresponding to the sun spots, this period being eleven years. This suggests the following question: If the weather and the crops follow the number of sun-spots, might we not expect the occurrence of revolutions also to be connected with the sun-spots? The best way to answer this is by comparing the dates of revolutions with the dates of maxima and minima of sun-spots.

        Since the record of sun-spots was kept only for about a century, I have tried to select only revolutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, since previous revolutions cannot easily be compared with the sun-spots. I have included in my list the great revolts that have taken place, and even the first Balkan war, which somewhat partook of the nature of a revolt. The list contains 33 revolts, of which seventeen occurred nearer the minimum of sunspots than the maximum, and sixteen occurred nearer the maximum. This looks unsatisfactory at first sight, and as though there was no connection at all between revolts and sun-spots. But if we take separately the revolts that occurred near the maximum of sun-spots and those that occurred near the minimum different results are obtained.2 
For example, the list of revolts occurring near the minimum of sun-spots:

Minimum of 1811


Tyrolese revolt



Revolt in Mexico

Minimum of 1822


Revolt in Spain



Revolt in Italy



Revolt in South America



Revolution in Mexico

Minimum of 1834


Carlist revolt in Spain

Minimum of 1856


Revolution in Mexico



Indian Mutiny

Minimum of 1867


Revolution in Japan

Minimum of 1889


Brazilian revolution

Minimum of 1900


Cuban Revolution



Revolt in Spain

Minimum of 1911


Portuguese Revolution



Mexican Revolution (Madero's)



Chinese revolution



Balkan Wars


        Compare these with the revolts taking place near the sun-spot maxima, as follows:

Maximum of 1828


Revolution in France



Revolt in Poland



Belgian Revolution

Maximum of 1850


Insurrections in Austria



Revolt in Prussia



Chartist Uprising in England



Revolution in France



Tai-Ping Rebellion in China

Maximum of 1872


Paris Commune

Maximum of 1905


Rebellion in Russia

Maximum of 1916


Russian Revolution



Rebellion in Germany



Dublin "Sinn Fein" Insurrection



Rebellion in Germany



Rebellion in Austria Hungary



Uprising in Quebec


        To the last list I would add others; as, for instance, the French Restoration in 1815 (maximum of 1816); the Italian and Russian Uprisings of 1914 (maximum of 1916); and the American Civil War (maximum of 1861).

        If we examine the two lists, we will find that most of the revolts in the first list occurred in warm countries, while most of the revolts in the second list occurred in cold countries.

        This would seem to indicate that there is actually an eleven-year period for revolutions corresponding to the sun-spots. In fact, if we take the above list of revolts in northern countries, and try to calculate from that what sort of period they could be fitted into easiest, the method of least squares gives us that period: 11.07 years. The period of sun-spots has been estimated at 11.1 years. The average time of occurrence would be given, for example, October 3, 1905; May 27, 1850, etc. I may add that, in 1905, the most and largest sun-spots were visible in September and October. The average deviation in the case of a period of 11 years would be slightly over three years.

        Similarly with the other revolts on the list. The average period is found in the same way to be about 11.2 years, with the average time of occurrence at various dates down to April 8, 1911. Thus it appears that revolts and revolutions take place in warm countries near the minimum of sun-spots, and in cold countries near the maximum of sun-spots; in each case, when the weather is such as to tend to poor crops.

        However, I do not wish to be understood as saying that the sun-spots cause revolutions. An appearance of sun-spots could not, by itself, produce revolution unless other circumstances are already such as to cause the revolution. All such revolutions would occur anyway, even without the sun-spot variations; but these sun-spot variations super-add natural extremes of climate, causing not only physical discomfort but danger to life and health, thus hastening a revolt that might otherwise have waited for a very long time.

        A government not based on the will of the people must, in the nature of things, rule by fear, by keeping the people inconstant subjection; and the people will be kept in subjection as long as they can be made to fear. The tendency of such oppression is to exasperate the people and excite them to desperate measures, especially if the oppression affects their means of livelihood. But if circumstances suddenly become such that many lives, or the health of many people, are seriously threatened as by extreme cold, famine, &c., this super-adds the instinct of self-preservation, and the fear is entirely counteracted. The power of the government to keep the people in subjugation is weakened, and the rebellious tendencies come to the foreground, resulting in open revolt. This will happen especially, if there is a poor crop; and this probably takes place every eleven years, in accordance with the sun-spot variations.

        In order to have a revolution at the proper time in the sun-spot cycle, the revolutionary tendency must be there already. This alone would produce rebellion, if left to itself for maybe a generation or more; but the sun-spot cycle always comes in and hastens it, so that a rebellion would usually occur at sun-spot maximum in colder countries, and at a sun-spot minimum in warmer countries.

        This rule would, therefore, apply only to the date of the beginning of a revolt; therefore all revolts included in my list were dated from the time of the outbreak, and not of the culmination.

        To illustrate the sun-spot periods from recent history. The recent sun-spot variations have been: 1900, minimum; 1905, maximum; 1911, minimum; 1916, maximum. Following a variation of three years in some cases from the exact date or the maximum or minimum, as the case may be, we will start with three years before the minimum of 1900, that is, 1897. At this time we may expect revolts to take place in warm countries, and this sort of period lasts till 1903. After a hot summer, revolt broke out in Cuba in the fall of 1897. The proximity of Cuba to the United States brought about American intervention in the shape of the Spanish-American War of 1898. The Philippine Islands, which were annexed by United States, revolted in 1902. Even in 1903, revolt broke out in Panama. But now, we are getting to the period of revolt for the northern countries, approaching 1905. In 1903 the two branches of the Social Democratic Party of Russia, the Bolsheviki and the Mensheviki, were organised, revolts were threatening in 1904, and the Czars government, threatened by this, proceeded to throw its people into a fight against Japan. This attempt was unsuccessful, and in 1905, at the time of the sun-spot maximum, a revolutionary organisation was established in Russia, only to be crushed. The last traces of this revolt were, apparently, stamped out in Western Russia by the aid of the German Government in 1906.

        Now the scene shifts once more to the south, We now see uprisings in Turkey in 1908, in Portugal in 1910, in China (starting in the south) in 1911; Mexico also started a revolution in 1911, the year of the sun-spot maximum and of an unusually hot summer. In 1912 the attempt at liberation of the Balkans resulted in the Balkan wars.

        A year later, the end of 1913, was the time midway between the minimum and maximum of sun-spots, and it was to be expected that the scene would suddenly shift back to the northern countries. In the spring of 1914 a general strike of a political nature (demanding abolition of the three-class system of voting)  took place in Belgium, forcing the Belgian government to appoint a commission to revise the electoral laws. The Socialists in Prussia made similar demands, and, when met with the usual Prussian disdain, replied "Wir werden belgisch reden" (we will talk Belgian). The German Socialists began to show openly their contempt for the Kaiser,
3 and the prospect of a German revolution loomed near, The Irish were arming. There was also strong tendency toward revolution in many other European nations.

     In the mean time, the supposedly suppressed Russian revolt suddenly appeared. The President of France was visiting Russia when the revolt broke out, and everything pointed to general European uprising unless something unusually desperate was done. The only measure in sight was to start a general European war, and the ruler most threatened, the German Kaiser (for the revolt in Russia was getting under control), took the step.

        Even that was a doubtful step. Socialists of all countries were opposed to war, and they were very strong in Germany and neighboring countries. Would they fight? It was known that they intended to convene on August 23, to decide definitely what to do in case of war; and it was the middle of July before the actual magnitude of the danger of revolution became obvious. War had to be started, if at all, within a month. The result was, that war broke out with hardly any preliminary negotiations, many 24-hour and 48-hour ultimatums were sent, and the war spread over almost all of Europe within the space of one week.

        The sun-spot maximum, however, was not due till 1916, and 1916 was still to come. In 1916, there was a revolt in Ireland―a small beginning, but one which showed that the revolutionary period had not yet ended. In 1917, at the end of a long cold winter, revolutionary activity in Russia revived and was finally successful; after that Germany and Austria were shaken with a great number of revolts. There being about a year more before the sun-spots were due to settle down to their average activity, the revolutionary period in northern countries is not yet over, and there is still a possibility, if not a probability, of an Austro-German revolution within the coming year or so.

        This illustrates the relation of the sun-spot period to current events. A discontented people can be kept cowed by fear, by the use of force, as a general rule, in normal times; but when the instinct of self-preservation is aroused by hunger, cold, &c., the people are much more ready for revolt, and a previously existing discontent will break out openly. This is brought about by extremes in weather and failure of crops which take place in cold countries at the sun-spot maximum, and in warm countries at the sun-spot minimum.



1 For various reasons I need not here specify, I do not agree with the theory of industrial crises advanced by Jevons.
2 Table of sunspot variations:

Maxima Minima
1816 1811
1828 1822
1839 1834
1850 1845
1861 1856
1872 1867
---- ----
1894 1889
1905 1900
1916 1911

3 See Prince, "The Psychology of the Kaiser."

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