History Of Revolutions Research Paper

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This brief article on the general problems of studying revolutions is divided into five sections. The first will discuss the term ‘revolution’ as an historical phenomenon which has changed its meaning over time with important consequences. The second will discuss the issue of taxonomy or classification, attempting to exclude upheavals which are not really revolutionary, and to distinguish different types of genuine revolution. The third will discuss etiology or origins, examining the attempts of historians, political scientists, and sociologists to find common causes of revolution. The fourth will discuss morphology or the possibility of finding a paradigm. This section will discuss the problems of drawing a graph which has validity for the all of the great revolutions of modern times. This subsection will question the appropriateness of trying to place the course of major revolutions on a grid showing extreme right, right, center, left, and extreme left. The fifth subsection will make some concluding remarks.

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1. The Evolution Of The Term Revolution

Only a handful of historians and social scientists have paid much attention to the history of the term ‘revolution,’ despite the fact that this history casts light on important developments since the Renaissance. The term emerged from an obscure Latin word meaning the periodic return of a moving object to its point of origin. Throughout the Middle Ages it was used in its Latin, French, and English forms to describe the supposed cyclical movement of celestial bodies around the Earth. Then it was popularized by heliocentrics following Copernicus’s On the Revolution of the Heavenly Orbs in 1543. Galileo and his followers used the term repeatedly. Contemporary dictionaries reflected the domination of the term by scientists. In his famous French–English dictionary published in 1611, Randle Cotgrave defined the word as ‘a full compassing; rounding, turning back to its first place, or point, th’accomplishing of a circular course.’ Significantly, he gave no non-scientific meanings.

Gradually the meaning of the term began to expand. Poets and playwrights had already begun to appropriate the word. In The Compleynt of Mars, (1.03), written c. 1378 Chaucer speaks of ‘hevenish revolucioun.’ Then at the beginning of the seventeenth century Shakespeare pre-empted the word to describe his view of death. In Hamlet, when the grave-digging clown unearths a skull, the prince of Denmark reflects that it might have belonged to a politician, a courtier, or a lord: ‘here’s a fine revolution, an we had the trick to see’t (v.1).’ Shakespeare thus used the word to mean the return to one’s original condition, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

While literary men were using the term ‘revolution’ to mean a cycle, political commentators were already using it to mean a political upheaval. Several Italian authors used the word during the Renaissance to describe political turns of fortune, the replacement of one prince by another, in the city-states of Italy. Then in 1674 Alessandro Giraffi published a book entitled Le Rivolutioni di Napoli to describe the rebellion of the Neapolitans against the Spanish viceroy. Another Italian and a Frenchman used the term to describe the same event. Moreover, Giraffi’s book was translated into English within a few years.

In the UK most writers referred to the struggle in the middle of the seventeenth century between parliament and the king as the Great Rebellion, but some authors on both sides referred to it as a revolution, for instance the radical parliamentarian Anthony Ascham and the royalist Matthew Wren. In a letter to the Earl of Dorset in January 1646, the royal historiographer James Howell used the word to mean both a political upheaval and the cycle of the years: ‘for within these 12 years there have been the strangest revolutions and the horridist things happen’d not only in Europe, but all the World Over, that have befallen mankind, I dare say since Adam fell, in so short a revolution in time’ (James Hollowell, 1890. Epistolae Ho-elianae, Bk. III, 512). His contemporary John Milton also used the word in these two senses (Paradise Lost, II, Lines 597–603; VIII, lines 15–31).

Although the radical parliamentarians in mid-seventeenth-century England claimed that they were restoring ancient rights, they already had some inkling of a new beginning. After the overthrow of the monarchy they spoke of Year I of Liberty, Year II, Year III, and so on for a few years. Some radicals even had a vision of society completely transformed. ‘But why may we not have our Heaven here,’ Gerrard Winstanley asked, ‘and Heaven thereafter to?’ (Sabine, 1941, p. 409). Nevertheless the idea of reversion persisted: even Winstanley was thinking of a return to a primitive simplicity. The royalists also used the word to mean a return to a previous state. For William Temple the return of the Stuart dynasty in 1660 and the Orange dynasty in The Netherlands in 1672 were revolutionary events in the cyclical sense of the word. Although in the second of his Two Treatises on Government, published in 1690, Locke defended the right to revolution, he used the word only twice, each time to mean a return via the state of nature to a previously existing constitutional position (1964, Cambridge edn. Paragraphs 223 and 225, 432–3).

Oddly enough it was not the Great Rebellion of mid-seventeenth-century England which made the word an important term in political vocabulary. Only after the Glorious Revolution in 1688 did lexicographers assign the word a political meaning. The use of the word to describe the overthrow of James II and the signing of the Bill of Rights by William and Mary gave the word a wider meaning. It was not quite a restoration of a previously existing order, rather it consolidated and advanced rights for which parliament had fought for the preceding century. Nevertheless, it was a very conservative event, entrenching the power in parliament of aristocrats, landed gentry, and rich merchants. Also, the Revolution was not seen as something with a universal application; it was viewed as English, unique, unrepeatable. The Bill of Rights of 1688 was not for all humanity.

Then in the last quarter of the eighteenth century the term came to mean a profound rupture with the past and the beginning of a new era. On the Great Seal of the US we see 1776 associated with the Latin motto No us Ordo Seclorum, ‘a new order in the ages.’ Then the French Revolution consolidated and intensified the idea of a new beginning in history. Like the Commonwealth-men earlier, they renumbered the years starting in 1789. When the Republic was established in 1792 they began to number the years Year 1 of the Republic and so on. Finally, in October 1793 the Convention introduced a new calendar numbering the years, not from the birth of Christ, but from the inauguration of the Republic on September 22 of the previous year. Even more significant was that the French revolutionaries believed that their ideals would have a universal appeal. The three Declarations of Rights—1789, 1793, and 1795—were to apply to all men, not just Frenchmen.

Because of the cluster of revolutions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries revolution became recognized as a recurrent phenomenon. This in turn led to the appearance of a new character on the world stage: the professional revolutionary. There was an apostolic succession of such characters—Filippo Buonarroti (1761–1837), Auguste Blanqui (1805– 1881), Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1867), Piotr Kropotkin (1842–1921), Victor Serge (1891–1947), Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), Mao Zedong (1893–1976), and many others. These life-long revolutionaries anticipated revolution, created organizations to bring it about, and formulated plans about what to do when it arrived. Thus was born the revolutionary political parties which changed the course of modern revolutions. Once such parties capture power, they are able to suppress opposition for very long periods. Until these parties are finally dislodged from power changes in policy can only take place by decisions within the party leadership.

2. Taxonomy

Many upheavals are labeled revolutions, but few actually qualify for the term. Most coups d’etat do not qualify since participation in them is limited and their result is often confined to a change in government personnel. So-called ‘palace revolutions’ usually involve struggles with factions or families within the government. Rebellions should probably be excluded, not only because they do not succeed, but also because they usually lack a clear program and are often led by nobles who do not really want to destroy the existing political and social order. Even wars of independence are dubious candidates for the term, contrary to conventional usage. Even the American Revolution scarcely deserves this title. Although the War for Independence saw individual rights entrenched, considerable exchange of property, and a large emigration, the internal institutions of the new states were not radically different from those of the former colonies. Some African struggles in the twentieth century against European imperialist powers had arguably deeper internal repercussions.

Even among upheavals which deserve the title there are many degrees of revolution. There are political revolutions such as the Revolution of 1830 in France, which produce a change in the groups enjoying power, but do not shake society up very much. The great vertical upheavals or social revolutions such as the French Revolutions of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, or the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949, have led to deep social changes. The latter two, however, are not only political and social revolutions, but socialist ones as well. The Babouvist Conspiracy of Equals in France in 1796 was probably the first case of a group, in which some members supported a primitive communist ideal, which actually tried to seize power. Genuine socialist revolutions, attempting to control and redirect the means of production, could obviously not occur until socialism developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Revolution in the deepest sense involves not only a change in the groups exercising power, profound changes in the social structure, and in modern times an attempt to change the control over the means of production, but also an attempt to change the way citizens think, feel, and act. There are glimmerings of such an attempt in the Hussite and Puritan Revolutions, but the French Revolution of 1789–1799 was the first to try to implement it in a large way. At the peak of the Revolution in Year II the gouvernement Revolutionnaire tried to ‘regenerate’ citizens through an attempted mobilization of all the existing media: art, architecture, festivals, music, newspapers, theatre, and children’s books and games. Such use of the media has since become a feature of major revolutions on both the left and right, such as Nazi Germany, Bolshevik Russia, and Communist China. Comparative studies of revolutions seldom discuss this added dimension to revolution.

3. Etiology

There has been great attention to the question of the origins of revolution. If it were possible to establish common causes for revolutions, it would greatly simplify the study of the great revolutions since the seventeenth century, each of which has produced thousands of studies. Once common causes were identified, this knowledge would also be useful both to those anxious to promote revolutions and those intent on preventing them. The hope of applying social science for such purposes has produced such books as Michael Velli’s Manual for Revolutionary Leaders published in 1972, and on the other side the collection edited by Harry Eckstein (1963), intent on curbing such internal violence.

Since Aristotle there has been wide discussion of the etiology of upheavals, rebellions, and revolutions. Most historians, however, do not find the literature comparing revolutions of much use in understanding the revolutions in which they specialize. Many of them point to the problem of assessing the weight to be given to various factors at work, before and during revolutions. Unlike scientists who can run experiments in which all factors except one are held constant, historians cannot rerun events to test the role of certain factors. An historian, for example, cannot demonstrate precisely how the closing decades of the eighteenth century in France would have been different if reformers had been able to solve the financial problems, if those problems had not been exacerbated by intervention in the American War for Independence, if there had been a different King from Louis XVI, if he had not called royal troops into Paris in July 1789, if he had not tried to flee the country in June 1791, if the Girondins had not led the country into war in 1792, or if Robespierre had never been born. Similar questions can be posed about all subsequent revolutions. Specialists try to weigh various factors by getting as deeply as possible into the complexities of each upheaval.

Aristotle argued that rival concepts of justice led to upheaval. Modern theoreticians such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, Pitirim Sorokin, Lyford Edwards, Jaroslav Krejci, Mark Hagopian, Peter Calvert, Chalmers Johnson, and host of others have focused on increasing tensions in societies leading to revolutions, provided there are precipitants and triggers. These tensions are described in various way including class conflict, other contradictions of various kinds, frustration of the expectations of certain groups, dissynchronization between social development and existing values, and other sources of disequilibrium. The fact that there have to be severe tensions in society in order to have an internal war seems a truism. The difficulty with such generalizations is in applying them to very different circumstances. Take, for example, the varying role of war. The American Revolution was made possible in part because the threat of invasion from French territories to the north had been removed by British victory in the Seven Years War. France was not at war when revolution broke out in 1789. In contrast, the government in Russia had been severely undermined by war by 1917. Also in China the long struggle with Japan contributed to the collapse of the Guomindang and the Communist victory in 1949.

Another important variation among revolutions is their very different objectives. As was mentioned earlier, there were no socialist revolutions before the twentieth century. Twentieth-century revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba, and elsewhere have attempted to seize and redirect the means of production. Related to this has been the attempt of countries such as Russia, China, and North Korea to force development in order to catch up with Western Europe and North America. Such a drive was not present in the Hussite, English, or French Revolutions, in fact the hope for a sudden increase in productivity could scarcely have arisen before industrialization, stream power, electrification, and the internal combustion engine. Comparing revolutions over five or six centuries seems to minimize new ideologies, in fact novelty in human history.

One way of looking at the objectives of various revolutions is to study how they were symbolized. In the French Revolution the dominant symbols were the figure of Liberty, which gradually evolved into the figure of the Republic, the Liberty Bonnet, and the Liberty Tree, none of which reappeared in the Bolshevik Revolution. Russian revolutionary symbolism featured giant figures of workers holding Hammers and Sickles, workers depicted as part of industrial machinery, electric lights in modernized villages, and of course red stars and flags. In Maoist China there were no symbols of liberty, but thousands of images of Mao like a red sun in the sky, numberless little red books of Mao’s writings, and endless images of peasants using muscular power to create terraced hillsides, build dams, canalize rivers, and irrigate the lands. In fact their terraced hillsides became a symbol of using intensive labor to ‘conquer nature.’ Machinery was relatively inconspicuous until after Mao’s death in 1976. The figure of Liberty was absent until students made her prominent briefly in the abortive democracy movement of 1989. Comparative studies of revolution have so far largely ignored different allegorical figures and symbols.

4. Morphology

There are similar problems with the attempt to find common patterns in the course of revolutions. One of these is that most historians, sociologists, and political scientists give much more attention to the origins of revolutions that to the inner dynamics which drive them forward, producing the curves so dear to social scientists. A further problem is how long a period one considers a curve. Jaroslav Krejci extends the Hussite Revolution over 50 years, the English Revolution over 60 years, and the French Revolution over 100 years. Can one speak of a single French Revolution over a century which saw two empires, three forms of monarchy, five revolutions (if one considers 1792 a revolution within the revolution of 1789–99), and numerous coups? Also, if you compare his graphs of the six revolutions that he covers—the Hussite, the English, the French, the Russian Bolshevik, the Turkish, and the Chinese Communist Revolutions they vary considerably from each other (1983, pp. 35, 67, 82, 117, 149). Moreover, his curves vary considerably from those published by Mark Hagopian (1974, p. 245). Also it is strange that Hagopian shows the Chinese Revolution dipping in 1958, the precise date of the Great Leap Forward. Obviously reducing great revolutions to scientific-looking graphs is a risky endeavor.

A further problem arises from placing revolutions on a grid marked extreme right, right, left, and extreme left. These terms arose from the accidental seating of conservative deputies to the right of the speaker in the Constituent Assembly in the French Revolution of 1789. In the liberal democratic revolutions in Europe and North America the left has usually meant those who supported genuine parliamentary government, political opposition, and defense of human rights. Can one, however, put the English, the American, and the French Revolutions on the same right-left grid as the Russian, Chinese, and Cuban Revolutions? Placing modern communist revolutions on the left distorts the original meaning of the term. These twentieth-century revolutions have introduced single-party regimes, have created assemblies which approve decisions already made by the leaders, and have violated human rights. In fact the way they have operated is very similar to governments on the extreme right, ‘les extremes qui se touchent,’ as the French put it. This is another example of the perils of applying the same grid to revolutions with very different objectives and consequences.

5. Conclusion

While it seems very difficult to establish a common taxonomy, etiology, and morphology covering all the major revolutions in the last five centuries, this does not mean that the comparative study of revolutions is not worthwhile. The history of the term ‘revolution’ demonstrates that it has taken on important new dimensions since it first became politicized in Renaissance Italy. The taxonomy of revolutions can exclude upheavals that are not full revolutions and can distinguish among political, social, and socialist revolutions, or combinations of all three. The etiology of revolutions is particularly problematical because the conditions that occur vary widely, nevertheless the idea that disequilibrium of some kind precedes revolution seems a valuable one. In many cases revolutions occur when society is changing while the regime stands still, but in the case of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 the reverse seems true, disequilibrium resulting from a westernizing shah moving more quickly than powerful conservative groups, especially religious ones, were willing to accept. On the other hand the collapse of the satellite Communist regimes in eastern Europe after 1989 seems to be the result of the failure of those governments to satisfy the needs of their citizens and the weakness of systems imposed by external force. As for establishing a common pattern or morphology, the differences in the graphs which scholars have produced warn of the dangers in such attempts. Those historians, however, who steep themselves in just one revolution, are very unlikely to recognize what is unique about the particular upheaval in which they specialize.

Since revolution has been a recurrent phenomenon, and may be so in the future, social scientists will doubtlessly attempt to reach general conclusions about them. In such future attempts more attention needs to be given to the internal dynamic of revolutions once they have broken out. The idea of attempting to create a new citizenry by mobilizing all the available media, which has marked revolutions since 1789, deserves further study. So too does the use of symbols, allegorical figures, and political images which have distinguished revolutions in modern times. Moreover, graphs based on a left-to-right scale need to be modified because the meaning of left and right has shifted drastically over time. Finally, the comparison of revolutions must bring out the unique dimensions of each revolution instead of focusing mainly on similarities.


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