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Now out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989

  • Timur Kuran (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 June 2011

Like many major revolutions in history, the East European Revolution of 1989 caught its leaders, participants, victims, and observers by surprise. This paper offers an explanation whose crucial feature is a distinction between private and public preferences. By suppressing their antipathies to the political status quo, the East Europeans misled everyone, including themselves, as to the possibility of a successful uprising. In effect, they conferred on their privately despised governments an aura of invincibility. Under the circumstances, public opposition was poised to grow explosively if ever enough people lost their fear of exposing their private preferences. The currently popular theories of revolution do not make clear why uprisings easily explained in retrospect may not have been anticipated. The theory developed here fills this void. Among its predictions is that political revolutions will inevitably continue to catch the world by surprise.

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Baruch Fischhoff and Ruth Beyth , “‘I Knew It Would Happen’—Remembered Probabilities of Once-Future Things,” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 13 (February 1975), 116

Tismaneanu, “Personal Power and Political Crisis in Romania,” Government and Opposition 24 (Spring 1989), 193

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman , “Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability,” Cognitive Psychology 5 (September 1973), 207

James C. Davies , “Toward a Theory of Revolution,” American Sociological Review 27 (February 1962), 519

Timur Kuran , “Private and Public Preferences,” Economics and Philosophy 6 (April 1990), 126

Timur Kuran , “Spark and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolution,” Public Choice 61 (Aprf 1989), 4174

“Threshold Models of Collective Behavior,” American Journal of Sociology 83 (May 1978), 1420

Steven E. Finkel , Edward N. Muller , and Karl Dieter Opp, “Personal Influence, Collective Rationality, and Mass Political Action,” American Polit-al teence Review 83 (September 1989), 885903

Barrington Moore Jr., Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (White Plains, N.Y.:M. E. Sharpe, 1978

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman , “The Framing [of Decisions and the Rationality of Choice,” Science 211 (January 1981), 453

Elizabeth Teague , “Perestroika and the Soviet Worker,” Government and Opposition 25 (Spring 1990), 192

Said Amir Arjomand , “Iran's Islamic Revolution in Comparative Perspective,” World Politics 38 (April 1986), 383414

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World Politics
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