What are revolutions?

George Lawson writes in Anatomies of Revolution about two common but unhelpful ways that revolutions are viewed. Either as everywhere – on the streets in the Middle East, to describe new technology, in films and also to describe political leaders. The second is that they are minor disturbances and “irrelevant to a world in which the big issues of governance and economic development have been settled.” [1]

In Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction, Jack Goldstone describes two perspectives of revolutions. One is heroic, where the downtrodden masses follow their leaders to rise up and overthrow unjust rulers resulting in gaining freedom and dignity. The second is that they are “eruptions of popular anger that produce chaos” and result in the mob using violence with destructive results. He describes how varied the history of revolutions is: “some are nonviolent, whereas others produce bloody civil wars; some have produced democracies and greater liberty whereas others have produced brutal dictatorships.” [2]

I see revolutions as a radical system change or transformation of society to improve the lives of the majority of people. I think Goldstone’s definition of revolutions is useful “both observed mass mobilization and institutional change, and a driving ideology carrying a vision of social justice. Revolution is the forcible overthrow of a government through mass mobilization (whether military or civilian or both) in the name of social justice, to create new political institutions.” [3]

Revolutions also need to be understood in relation to other forms of social change such as rebellions, coups, and civil war. Rebellions are not strong enough to overthrow the state, coups are but replace one elite figurehead with another. Civil war is a situation where the central authority that is managing two or more competing factions demands fails resulting in the factions fighting it out. [4] Hannah Arendt describes in On Revolution the close relationship in history between war and revolution. [5]

Types of revolution

There are three broad categories of revolutions: political revolutions, social revolutions, a broad category including any instance of relatively rapid and significant change. Political revolutions can be described as “any and all instances in which a state or political regime is overthrown and thereby transformed by a popular movement in an irregular, extraconstitutional, and/or violent fashion.” Social or ‘great’ revolutions can be defined as including “not only mass mobilization and regime change, but also more or less rapid and fundamental social, economic, and/or cultural change during or soon after the struggle for state power.” The third broad definition including any instance of relatively rapid and significant change including the industrial revolution, agricultural revolution, academic revolution, cultural revolution, feminist revolution, technology revolution, etc. [6]

The social or great revolutions include the English, French, Mexican, Russian, Chinese and maybe the Cuban. The rest are political revolutions of one form or another. Marxist or working-class revolution will be covered in a future post.

The history of revolutions

The Revolutions podcast (also on iTunes) describes the major revolutions in good detail.

George Lawson’s framework to describe the global history of revolutions (or The historical experience of revolution see IR206 – Revolutions and world politics course guide 2016) includes:

  • The Atlantic ‘age of revolutions’  – including the English, Haiti, French and American revolutions.
  • Socialist revolutions – starting with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and all the revolutions this inspired
  • ‘Third World’ revolutions – starting with the Cuban Revolution of 1959, resulting in several revolutions ‘against the odds’ which were led by a rural peasantry rather than an urban proletariat. Cuban provided assistance for revolution in Angola, Bolivia, etc
  • The ‘last great revolution’ – Iran Revolution in 1978/9
  • ‘Colour’ revolutions – between 1989 and 1991, several revolutions removed Soviet control of Eastern and East-Central Europe, culminating in the end of the Cold War itself.
  • Arab Spring – uprisings and revolutions in 2011 in North Africa and the Middle East

Jack Goldstone in Revolutions: a very short introduction offers another framework:

  • Revolutions in the ancient world
  • Revolutions of the Renaissance and Reformation – including revolutions in renaissance Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the English Revolution.
  • Constitutional revolutions: America, France, Europe (1830 and 1848), and Meiji Japan
  • Communist revolutions: Russia, China, Cuba
  • Revolutions against dictators: Mexico, Nicaragua, and Iran
  • Color revolutions: The Philippines, Eastern Europe and USSR, and Ukraine
  • The Arab Revolutions of 2011: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria

Revolutionary waves are important historical events. There are a series of revolutions that occur in various locations within a similar period. A revolution or large scale rebellion in one country inspires uprisings and revolutions with similar aims in other counties. See here for a list.

Academic theory

There have been four generations of academic revolutionary theory. The first generation was in the first half of the 20th century and is based on Crane Brinton, who compared the stages of a social or great revolution to the symptoms of a fever. The second generation followed the Second World War and attempted to explain the relationship between modernization and uprisings in the Third World. Modernization led to rising expectations but economic downturns would result in frustration and potentially aggression leading to revolution. In the second half of the 20th century, the third generation developed in critical response to the second generation. This ‘structuralist’ approach argued that revolutions were caused by specific structural developments such as the commercialisation of agriculture, state crisis from international conflict and elite conflict, demographic changes destabilising social order by putting pressure on state finance’s, weakening government legitimacy, resulting in intra-elite competition. The fourth generation developed in the early 21st century and focuses on the factors that challenges state stability including: “how international factors such as dependent trade relations, the transmission of ideas across borders, and the withdrawal of support by a patron, along with elite disunity, insecure standards of living, and ‘unjust’ leadership”. [7]

Revolutionary theory can be broadly divided up into three phases related to how revolutions unfold: the study of the origins or causes of revolution, the process of the revolutionary event, and the outcomes [8]. For now, thinking about what causes revolutions is of most interest to me. Goldstone describes five conditions that can lead to instability in a society: “economic or fiscal strain, alienation and opposition among elites, widespread popular anger at injustice, a persuasive shared narrative of resistance, and favorable international relations.” [9]

 

Endnotes

  1. Anatomies of Revolution, George Lawson, 2019, page 1
  2. Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, Jack Goldstone, 2014, page 1/2
  3. Revolution: A Very Short Introduction page 4
  4. The Road Not Taken: How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution 1381-1926, Frank McLynn, 2013, page 516
  5. On Revolution, Hannah Arendt, 1963, introduction
  6. No Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements 1945-1991, Jeff Goodwin, 2001, page 9
  7. Within and Beyond the ‘Fourth Generation’ of Revolutionary Theory, George Lawson, 2015, page 2-6, download here

  8. Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, chapter 3
  9. Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, page 17-19