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Ted Gurr’s Fustration-Agression Approach and the Velvet Revolution

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Revolution and the causes behind it have been an important area of discussion with political theorists since the area of study was first invented.  Over the course of its study theories from other areas of social science have helped to understand the individual and group actions and reactions that lead up to political violence and in some cases revolution.  One such theory, the frustration-aggression approach, was taken from psychology scholars and applied to the study of revolutions by Ted Gurr.  The belief that prolonged frustration leads to aggression in individuals has been applied to collective units in politics to describe the rise of violence in determined situations.  Yet, the theory which was originally based on individual behavior, fails to explain non-violent revolutions such as that which took place in Czechoslovakia in 1989.  It is the purpose of this work to show how the Velvet Revolution highlights problems within Gurr’s theory and to pinpoint the areas that should be adapted to take a fuller perspective of violence and its causes into consideration.

The Velvet Revolution

The causes of the Velvet Revolution are most directly found in the suppression of a peaceful student demonstration by riot police in Prague on November 17, 1989.  It was this event that initiated a number of demonstrations that culminated in a two hour general strike on November 27th.  After a collapse in government and numerous street protests the Communist Part relinquished power.  The events that followed in Czechoslovakia and surrounding countries would move the world.  On December 10th president Gustáv Husák resigned and Václav Havel was named the first non-communist leader in the country since 1948.  Elections in June 1990 resulted in the election of the first non-communist party in power for over forty years.

            The revolution and the subsequent collapse of the communist government were caused by a series of factors.  Although the most notable of these are the rising discontent over the political, social and economic running of the country by the communist government, the opening of the Soviet Union through Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) in 1985 would be a deciding factor in how the government would respond to civil discontent.  In the past the communist party and its feared secret police were backed up by soviet might and dissidents were forced to publish home-made periodicals for fear of persecution (Ulc 335).  Ulc notes that, “the general public was afraid to openly support them” and that, “a person could be dismissed from his job or school. A writer or filmmaker could have had his/her books or movies banned for having a “negative attitude´´ towards the socialist regime” (Ulc 335).  Blacklisting and its rules were enforced in all schools, within the media and in businesses and were formidable weapons against dissidents.

            The weakening of the communist government in addition to the weakening of  communism worldwide provided the change in the balance of power between the government and dissidents, led on by student organizations, that would result in the peaceful toppling of the Communist government.  There are even some theories that go so far as to claim that dissention within the police force and the staging of the death of secret police agent Ludvík Zifcák helped the revolution along.   Ulc claims that, “It is not clear to what extent it was spontaneous vs. orchestrated by the secret police. For example, the incident with the “dead student” was staged by secret police provocateur Ludvík Zifčák, assisted with other secret agents” (338).  In addition, the Army and People’s Militia never received the order to attack demonstrators, although they were prepared to do so.

            The rift between different factions in the communist government also resulted in a government too weak to resist revolutionary forces.  Reformists and those hesitant of change clashed and popular unrest was a tool used by both that backfired.  The strength of Civic Forum combined with the charisma of its leader Václav Havel further weakened the disputing factions.  The forum had started out as a little movement that met in theatres but their power culminated in the speech at the Melantrich publishing house.  Havel would later state on that moment,

The powerful roar of the crowd as we appeared still echoes in my ears. Several hundred thousand people stood there cheering. My thoughts ran back twenty-one years to that May Day parade of 1968: I could compare this moment with nothing else. And that for me at least, closed the circle of historic events that had started in October 1967, when I launched the revolt against Novotný. So many things had happened — times of hope, times of defeat, times of patient resistance. Now I was standing on this balcony, at the side of a Czech dissident almost a generation younger than I, and we both knew that the crowd down there was giving us the power to bring the cause of freedom to its final victory in our country. (Shepherd 38)

The Frustration-Aggression Model

The relation between political violence and its actors has received considerable analysis in the past although the attention paid to the nature of political violence seems to have augmented with the rise in nationalist insurgencies in the previous years.  While various theorists have come to the forefront in an attempt to explain why people and groups are engaging in violence such as riots, coups and rebellions, past theories are being revived in the hopes that they might shed some light on political violence and its actors.  Ted Gurr and his psychological frustration-aggression theory are one of those most closely being examined.

            Gurr’s most notable contribution to the understanding of political violence can be found in his book Why Men Rebel (1970).  At the book’s heart is the explanation of political violence using the psychological theory of frustration-aggression which holds that the human propensity for violence is found in the frustration-aggression mechanism.  The theory hypothesizes that if frustration in an individual is prolonged and experienced deeply it will lead to the eventually rise of violence within the individual.

            For Gurr frustration can appear under the context of “relative deprivation.´´  Relative deprivation explains the discrepancy between what a human has in life and what they perceive they are rightfully entitled to, or more succinctly put between value expectations and value capacities.  Gurr explains that, “Value expectations are the goods and conditions of life to which people believe they are rightfully entitled. Value capabilities are the goods and conditions they think they are capable of getting and keeping” (17).  For example if a man does not have access to a political right such as the vote and he perceives that he should have this right than frustration may result.  This feeling of deprivation when it is shared by a group may augment until violence erupts.  Gurr claims that, “The potential for collective violence varies strongly with the intensity and scope of relative deprivation among members of a collectivity” (24).  He summarizes his theory by stating,

the primary source of the human capacity for violence appears to be the frustration-aggression mechanism. Frustration does not necessarily lead to violence, and violence for some men is motivated by expectations of gain. The anger induced by frustration, however, is a motivating force that disposes men to aggression, irrespective of its instrumentalities. If frustrations are sufficiently prolonged or sharply felt, aggression is quite likely, if not certain, to occur. (36-37)

Gurr’s theory is both easily digested and understandable.  We have all experienced frustration when we have felt that our perceived rights have not been established, whether it is by an individual or by an organization who holds power.  That this frustration can multiply when it is re-enforced by group solidarity over the matter is easily comprehended, although Gurr does concede that collective violence and its potential can differ to a large extent taking into consideration different groups, their intensity and the level of relative deprivation they reach” (18).

So how can individual frustration evolve to cause collective political violence?  Through Gurr’s analysis this can come about through a three prong effect: relative deprivation, frustration, and finally aggression.  The most important link comes between an individual analyzing what they deserve and what the end conclusion will be.  If they believe that they can come out with a greater amount of what they deserve there is a chance of rebellion.  As Gurr claims, “one of the most potent and enduring effects of “revolutionary appeals´´ is to persuade men that political violence can provide value gains commensurate to or greater than its cost in risk and guilt” (215-216).  But Gurr also believes this to hold true in situations where an individual’s needs will not be met.

For Gurr the same holds true with groups, where it is just as easy for frustration to end in aggressive behavior.  He postulates that

To conclude that the relationship is not relevant to individual or collective violence is akin to the assertion that the law of gravitation is irrelevant to the theory of flight because not everything that goes up falls back to earth in accord with the basic gravitational principle. The frustration-aggression mechanism is in this sense analogous to the law of gravity: men who are frustrated have an innate disposition to do violence to its source in proportion to the intensity of their frustrations (36-37).

Gurr recognizes to some extent that cultural, societal and political variables can influence a groups decision to resort to violence.  When there is an atmosphere where the current leadership is seen as unfit or lacking in legitimacy political violence has a far greater propensity of occurring.  So we have a chain of necessary factors.  First there is a feeling of relative deprivation that forms with the input of both individual perceptions and societal perceptions.  This deprivation then causes increased frustration, which when shared by a group can lead to collective violence.  For Gurr the next step is the politicization of violence where violence is justified and legitimated by a group.  Out of these two will usually come political violence as an act, whether through manifestations, coups or rebellions.  These acts can be influenced by the perceived power of both those holding the reigns of power and the challengers to this power.

            Gurr and the Velvet Revolution

By using the lens of the Velvet Revolution it is possible to highlight the weaknesses in Gurr’s theories on political violence, most notably revolution.  We now know that through Gurr’s theory political violence is seen to arise through a series of events and factors which include: frustrations caused by relative deprivation, the existence of justifications and legitimizations for violence and finally the ability by dissidents to challenge the current power in charge.  Yet, does this description accurately describe the events surrounding the Velvet Revolution?  As the revolution did not end in violence we must conclude that there is some missing link in Gurr’s theory that disallows for the peaceful resolution of a situation that has, under his definition, all the potential for violence.

It is helpful to first sum up the common links between Gurr’s theory of frustration-aggression and events surround the revolution.  We do know that frustrations surrounding the political, economic and social environment led up to the revolution.  We can also claim that dissident’s felt relatively deprived of many things, most notably civil liberties.  This feeling of relative deprivation led individuals to form groups that justified and legitimated the use of manifestations.  Yet, it is here were we find our first glitch.  The manifestations, rather than being violent were proposed as peaceful.  It was in fact government forces who initiated violence through repression.

After so many years of relative deprivation why would a group which is growing in power and which perceives its power in relation to that of their rival’s (the last of Gurr’s conditions necessary for political violence) not see violence as the correct way of wrestling control from that rival?  One of the reasons is provided by Dugan who claims that Gurr, “does not look to a more absolute or objective indicator of deprivation as the source of political violence.”  Additionally, “People can become inured to a bad state of affairs, even one that offers so little access to life-sustaining resources that members of the group are starving or dying of remediable diseases or exposure”


            While Dugan’s observation is important is not the most plausible when discussing the Velvet Revolution.  Van Inwegen provides a description of the differences between velvet revolutions and violent revolutions that sheds more light on this particular circumstance (176).  The author claims that non-violent revolutions most often occur when there is an interaction between the dissidents and the state that promote non-violent means as a solution.  He postulates in his theory on dynamic models that successful velvet revolutions occur when one of the following occur: rivals are committed to peaceful means of ending conflict, rivals are well organized and hold a position within society that disallows those in power of successfully repressing rivals as well as affecting their ability to initiate reform (185).  Dugan’s theory holds true in the case of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.  The Civic Forum was committed to peaceful methods of inciting change and the communist government was weakened both by the decline in communism abroad and the split within the party, disallowing it to affect reform within the country.

            Rummel claims that under Gurr’s approach frustration results “from inability to gratify just wants” and that “this frustration creates the potential for collective violence (aggression)” (5).  Yet what happens when, as in the case of the Velvet Revolution, frustration leads to non-aggression?  It is for this reason that Rummel claims that Gurr has failed to note that aggression is not necessarily irrational as the author supposes, and which leads us to conclude that his theory is unable to recognize peaceful revolutions.  Indeed Rummel claims that rather than irrational aggression our needs can lead us to participate in non-aggressive movements or on the other hand, movements of higher causes such as God, country or freedom.  He states, “Collective violence then may be instrumental, a conscious choice of a means to improve one’s lot, not necessarily an automatic, emotional, and irrational aggressive response to frustration” (5). Rummel concludes that deprivation is extremely subjective and depends to a large extent on an individual’s perception or their needs in addition to the knowledge they the hold on their position in relation to others.  He claims that, “To nail deprivation to an objective or absolute lack of something such as freedom, equality, or sustenance, is to ignore that definitions of these shift according to historical period, culture, society, position, and person” (5).

Conclusions and Solutions

Clearly not all revolutions are violent.  Yet, under Gurr’s frustration-aggression approach to revolutions they would have to be.  In Gurr’s approach frustration leads directly to relative deprivation and then to violence.  Yet, many individuals, organizations and political entities use a myriad of non-violent means to deal with their frustrations aggressions.  Under a leadership such as Havel’s a people that has been severely deprived of their civil liberties for forty years, in addition to living in declining socio-economic conditions, found a rational and peaceful way to formant a change in government.  While the ability to do so may have been in part to the weakened condition of the communist government it also had to do with the way in which the organization handled their feelings of frustration.  If the theory could include more completely other factors at play such as individual needs, temperaments and social instruction before the final phase where frustration leads to irrational violence, it would be a more complete one.

Works Cited

Dugan, Máire A.  “Aggression.”  Beyond Intractability  July 2004


Gurr, Ted, R.  Why Men Rebel. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Rummel, Rudolph, .J.  “Frustration, Deprivation, Agression and The Conflict Helix.”

   Understanding Conflict and War: Vol. 3: Conflict in Perspective   Beverly Hills,

   California: Sage Publications, 1975  Found at


Shepherd, Robin, H.E.  Czechoslovakia: The Velvet Revolution and Beyond.

   Houndmills: Macmillan, 2000.

Ulc, Otto.  “Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Divorce.”  East European Quarterly  30 (1996): 331-


Van Inwegen, Patrick.  “Velvet Revolution: An Actor-based Model.”  Peace & Change

   31 (2006): 175–203.

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