Tipping Points in Politics and Life

We have all heard of the theatrical cliche of the actor who achieves “overnight success”, having in fact worked hard against all the odds for years. The same is often true of writers, painters and other artists. Not forgetting scientists. It was Edison who, on the failure of his (supposedly) 2,000th lightbulb experiment, is said to have said: “I have not failed. I have just discovered the 2,000th way not to invent the incandescent lightbulb.” At a later time, he of course succeeded. Many things follow the pattern: a long period of non-movement, then sudden success (or sudden failure of something, often after long stagnation).

One can call this a tipping-point, or characterize it by some other metaphor. The aircraft which suddenly fails by reason of metal fatigue, the ship which finally turns over after ice has built up on its external structure in Arctic waters, the huge empire which “suddenly” staggers and falls. On the other hand, there is that actor with his “overnight” success, that composer whose works suddenly find favour, the small political group which “suddenly” rises to prominence and power.

The Bolsheviks were a small group of societal rejects mostly living in internal or external exile, or in prison. Many were not even Russian. Jews predominated in their higher councils (despite forming only 10% of the entire membership), but there were also Georgians and others. In fact, the Bolshevik Party only had 8,400 members in 1905 and, though that increased to 46,100 by 1907, by 1910 the numbers had slipped back to about 5,000. Few would then have imagined either that the mighty Russian Empire would collapse or that the tiny faction of Bolsheviks could seize control of what was left. We know the rest: a failing war and an impoverished population, an initial attempt by others at “moderate” revolution and then a coup d’etat by one small group in one corner of a vast empire.

The lesson: a small and marginalized group, disciplined ideologically and practically, can both seize power and institute an entirely new form of society, once that tipping point or crisis point has been reached.

In post-WW1 Bavaria, Adolf Hitler became the 7th member of the German Workers’ Party [DAP], which may also have had an unknown number (estimates vary from mere dozens to as many as 15,000) of loose supporters in the beerhalls of 1919 Munich.

By 1923, this tiny and marginalized group was able to attempt the Beer Hall Putsch [aka Hitler-Ludendorff-Putsch], but it is important to note that, despite the support of Ludendorff and a few other notables, the actual number of putschists involved was small: the main march headed by Hitler was only 2,000-strong (immediately after the putsch failed, 3,000 students from the university also marched in support and to lay wreaths). Indeed, even had the putsch succeeded, Hitler would only have taken power in one city of one region within the German state as a whole.

The membership of the NSDAP grew steadily, reaching 108,000 by 1928. Electorally, however, the NSDAP was doing worse in 1928 (receiving only 2.6% of the national vote) than it had done in 1924, no doubt a reflection of the growing prosperity in the intervening years (i.e. since the infamous hyperinflation finished in 1924). Despite that poor showing, once the Great Depression started to affect Germany after 1929, the NSDAP was able to gain the trust of ever-more voters: the vote in 1932 was 37% and then 33% (in the two elections of that year), growing to 44% in 1933. Adolf Hitler then took full power, having been appointed Chancellor in 1932.

A different example: UKIP grew from a few people in a pub in 1991 to a peak in the 2012-2015 period, but has not the ideological discipline or revolutionary intent to “seize power” even by electoral means. It missed its chance and will probably not get any further. Still, its growth, in the UK context, is interesting. Its founder, Alan Sked, was a former Liberal candidate who stood as “Anti-Federalist” candidate for the seat of Bath in 1992 (i.e. after UKIP had been formed), receiving 117 votes [0.2%].

UKIP had virtually no members until the late 1990s, though by 2015 the membership had grown to nearly 50,000 (now 30,000). As for its vote share, that grew to nearly 13% by 2015, but the UK’s unfair “First Past The Post” [FPTP] electoral system meant no gains.

FPTP voting itself illustrates the “tipping point” idea, as happened in Scotland: the SNP had fairly good support for decades, but few MPs until the tipping point was reached. Now it has 50% support, but almost 100% of Westminster seats. Why was the tipping point reached? Cultural identity rising, living standards falling, entrenched Labour failing. The point was reached–and the Labour vote collapsed.

UKIP has the same problem. So long as it has only 10% or even 15% of votes, it cannot get more than one or two MPs. Were it to get to 25% support, the situation would tip and UKIP would have perhaps 100 MPs. Except that that will probably not happen…

In fact, the Bath constituency mentioned above is instructive: Alan Sked got only 117 votes (0.2%) in 1992; in 2015 the UKIP candidate received nearly 3,000 votes (over 6%), but was still only 5th (Sked came in 6th in 1992)


The difference between UKIP’s situation and that of the Bolsheviks or NSDAP is that UKIP has no really firm ideological or organizational structure. Even if society came to a political tipping point, UKIP might well be unable to take advantage of that.

A new and properly-run social nationalist party could take most of the votes of UKIP as well as those which formerly went to the BNP and others. That however, could only ever be a foundation for electoral success. That success itself would depend on the rising star of the new party meeting the fading star of the old parties. It is a question of timing and of Fate. The tipping point for the whole society would be key.


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