What is the difference between insurgency, revolution, and civil war? Whatever the difference, it is not moot. Societies sinking into an era of civil strife will experience different and sometimes very distinct conflict phases and dynamics. Yet each of these is a part of the whole, and the whole represents a battle over the nature and direction of change itself: Over where society and its constitutional order are going, and how the legitimacy of rule, in its essence, is to be defined.
Hence, insurgency, in the Big Story, is the initial phase, the first significant challenge to the Old Order, that explicitly seeks to overthrow it, and impose a new constitution on society. This means two things: 1) That insurrection is not about redress of grievances, but rather a call to revolution, and 2) That the rebellion is new and growing, and yet not quite capable of toppling the ruling establishment.
Civil War, in contrast, is the actual Battle Royal. Whatever form violence takes, civil war is a term of art announcing that 1) Legitimacy is up for grabs, 2) The opposing parties each have the potential to defeat the other, so that 3) The issue is still in doubt, and yet unresolved.
Revolution, thus, is the resolution. It is both the declaration of change, the enactment of change, and the legitimation of change. A new constitutional order is consecrated and a new — congress, junta, committee, soviet — takes over the offices and the edifices of a now Ancien Régime.
Yet these phases of violent change are by no means locked into sequence. For example, revolution can precede civil war, and even, insurgency.
Call this, the coup d'état dispensation. In 1789, Parisian Progressives effectively overthrew the informal constitutional order — that had held sway since the Sun King — by invoking the formal ruleset of the Three Estates, fallen into disuse, thus creating revolutionary change without battle.
Yet such dispensation did not preclude a fight. That came later, following the execution of Louis XVI, in the form of a swarming invasion by Old Order monarchies, and insurgency also reared its gory head in the blood-soaked insurgency in the Vendée.
Likewise, in Spain, revolution was quickly set in train by the election of 1936. The Republican collectivization — a first move in the reordering of society — created the hysteria that pushed the Army to insurgency against the state. Franco’s Golpe de Estado de España de julio de 1936 quickly pushed insurgency into civil war.
However, America’s two civil war eras keep to this sequence: Insurgency, Revolution, Civil War.
Insurgency began with public outcry against the Stamp Act, but moved into violence with the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, and the First Continental Congress. In Massachusetts, the militia had mobilized in massive numbers — a year before Lexington.
Northern states initiated aggressive insurgent activity in the 1850s. Many defied the law of the land — The Fugitive Slave Acts and the Dred Scott decision — effectively renouncing the legitimacy of a constitutional order defending slavery. A few followed up, moreover, with overt terrorism in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Such “terrorism” reached its peak in John Brown’s attempted coup de théâtre in Harper’s Ferry.
Insurgency was followed shortly by revolutionary acts:
After Lexington and Concord, revolution was almost instantly embraced. Within six months, British authority had been overthrown in all 13 colonies. The succeeding Declaration of Independence was signed seven years before war, finally, formally, ended.
After the election of 1860, Southern states quickly, hastily, seceded from the Union, pledging the lives and sacred honor to a new nation, in homage to their former loyalty, now shattered. This was indeed a revolution, and so all Southern firebrands declared. The revolution in the North would evolve during the course of the war. There was an emancipation proclamation, to be sure, but also, the new precedent of an overarching Federal state.
The Civil War, in both cases, was a real, or at least, classical war, decided by battles and sieges and parlays and treaties. What is intriguing about both earlier American civil wars is this:
Classical battle did not solve anything. The British were ready to take us down from the 1790s all the way to their debacle at New Orleans. They only, finally, accepted the United States as a separate and fully autonomous nation in 1815.
The bitter “War Between the States,” or “The War of Rebellion,” was only solved when the North (meaning Northern elites) decided to fully embrace the former enemy, for the sake of national unity. This meant, simply, an embrace of the Southern way of life — even in the North — and this way of life has a single word: Segregation.
What do we get from all this history?
First, the United States has been locked in a pre-civil war for some time. With the 2016 election, a Blue insurgency phase began. What was loudly trumpeted as “The Resistance” was effectively an insurgent assault against the new administration’s legitimacy. What was once known as the “loyal opposition” screwed itself entirely to the task of deposing a sitting president.
The important distinction here is that the Blue insurgency (2016-2020) has had no counterpart in traditional “party out of power” norms in American politics. Blue has been literally at war with Red since 2016, as an insurgent force seeking to overthrow Red by whatever means necessary. Hence, this insurgency was extended seamlessly through the election event. The consequence of declared ruthlessness has been a fatal undermining of public trust in the integrity of our democratic process itself.
A history-shaking precedent has been set.
Hence, for the foreseeable future, the party thrown out of power by force will approach the winner as illegitimate, and perhaps worse, as a criminal usurper. This collective understanding will impose a brittleness on the entire constitutional order — that by definition cannot last.
Blue’s hope in the 2020 election was seizure of the executive and both legislative branches of Government. This would have allowed the execution of a revolutionary program of change in American society. Pending the results of senatorial contests in Georgia, a revolutionary program is yet in abeyance.
It must be stressed, however, that the Blue vision is one of revolutionary change, which may or may not be yet within reach. The entirety of Red energy, in contrast, seeks to forestall such transformation.
A dead heat, tie finish would postpone Blue hopes for revolutionary change, while keeping Red hopes alive, that old traditions and ways of life might yet survive.
Hence, it is quite possible that the revolution might be postponed a bit, but at the cost of bitter civil war renewed. In other words, a stalemate of two (existentially opposed) visions will mean an intensification of combat — initially in veiled guerrilla form — as both Red and Blue marshal forces for the 2022 election. However, if voting confidence is not restored, this already shaky event may trigger more theatrical violence and strife.
Our nation, tragically, is now hoist to its own petard. We are literally on the hook that we have hung ourselves on: That of irresolvable conflict. Moreover, with the weight of our passions pushing us down on the hook, we have no way to get off.