Revolution Research Paper

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The term ‘revolution’ has evolved from a general notion of political ‘turning-over’ to refer more specifically to a rapid, fundamental transformation of the state and social structure, accompanied by mass uprising from below. Theories of revolution that emphasize structural conditions tend to focus on the revolutionary seizure of state power, while theories emphasizing actor motivations view revolution as an open-ended process of social transformation. This research paper examines the definitions and alternative explanatory frameworks, and considers the future of revolution in a changing global context.

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1. Conceptualizing ‘Revolution’

The earliest studies of comparative politics noted recurring conflict between elites and populace, sometimes leading to power ‘revolving’ from one group of rulers to another within a society. After the French Revolution of 1789, the term ‘revolution’ took on new meaning as a radical overthrow of the social and political order itself (Goldstone 1998). The nineteenth century European challenges to monarchic authority by the rising bourgeoisie and the class conflicts of industrial capitalism, punctuated by Marx and Engels’ [1848] (1998) publication of The Communist Manifesto, focused attention on historical processes in analyzing revolution. After Lenin and Mao adapted Marxist theory to the Russian and Chinese revolutions, the decades following World War II saw a wave of national liberation movements against colonialism and neo-colonialism. Contrary to Marx’s expectation that revolution would occur in the most industrialized capitalist countries, led by the proletariat, revolutions in the twentieth century occurred in the global periphery through mobilization of peasants and artisan workers.

1.1 Common Usage

The eclectic ‘socialism’ of many Third World revolts and nationalist movements, and their use of unorthodox tactics of guerrilla warfare—analyzed by practitioners such as Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, and Vo Nguyen Giap—led those characteristics to be generically associated with ‘revolution,’ as in Regis Debray’s (1967) Revolution in the Revolution?. This usage was reinforced by Cold War counterinsurgency strategies aimed at forestalling radical change in national political systems, which were seen as extensions of the global East–West contest. The term ‘revolution’ moved away from this historically specific usage after the conservative religious turn in the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Eastern European uprisings against Communist Party states after 1989, and the end of the Cold War and other global power shifts.

Sometimes the term ‘revolution’ is used loosely to refer to any kind of paradigmatic shift, as in ‘the Industrial Revolution,’ ‘the Reagan revolution,’ ‘the behaviorist revolution’ in social sciences, or Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1997). In another variant usage, ‘revolution’ is contrasted with reformism to connote a radical political program, short time horizon, and willingness to use extreme (violent) means; as in Malcolm X’s call for African-American liberation ‘by any means necessary,’ or J F Kennedy’s warning that ‘those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable’ in Latin America.

1.2 Political Revolution And Social Revolution

The term ‘political revolution’ is employed to specify the application of the concept to a national political system. This usage does not include issue-specific social movements, nor all sudden changes of political power through coup d’etat or civil war. However, ‘political revolution’ can refer to a wide range of revolts, rebellions, and mobilizational seizures of power—including those led from above such as the Japanese Meiji Restoration of 1868, Nasser’s 1952 coup in Egypt, or the 1944–54 period in Guatemala—if they propose major lasting changes in the political order (Goldstone 1998). Skocpol’s influential work (1979, p. 4) proposed a more restrictive focus on ‘social revolution’:

Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures, and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below. Social revolutions are set apart from other sorts of conflicts and transformative processes above all by the combination of two coincidences: the coincidence of societal structural change with class upheaval, and the coincidence of political with social transformation.

Even accepting Wickham-Crowley’s (1997) substitution of ‘mass’ for ‘class-based’ to include ethnic and populist upheavals, this defines a relatively rare phenomenon. This definition is widely used by scholars of revolution.

2. Alternative Ways Of Understanding Revolution

Goldstone (1980) usefully grouped explanations of revolution into three generations of theory, with a fourth generation emerging since the late twentieth century. In the 1920s and 1930s, a first generation of ‘natural histories’ of revolutions used techniques of ‘thick description’ and inductive logic based on empirical observation of major Western revolutions. These efforts to identify key actors, factions, sequences, and patterns helped establish the phenomenon of revolution as a distinctive subject of comparative study; for example, Brinton’s (1938) classic, The Anatomy of Revolution.

2.1 From Description To Explanation

In the 1950s and 1960s, the upheaval associated with decolonization led to a second generation of ‘general theories of political violence.’ Some focused on the individual psychological motivations of people experiencing frustrated expectations, as in the ‘relative deprivation’ approach later refined in T R Gurr’s Why Men Rebel (1970). Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1965) interpreted political violence as redemption, healing the psychological wounds of colonization. Another branch of general theories sought explanations of political violence at the societal rather than individual level. Huntington’s (1968) influential work drew on modernization theory, attributing revolutionary upheaval to economic modernization in developing countries, which raised expectations faster than they could be accommodated by the lagging development of political institutions.

Critics of modernization theory in the late 1960s and 1970s pushed general theories of political violence in new directions. Tilly (1978) challenged the assumption that social systems were in natural equilibrium, arguing that conflict was normal, so explanations of political violence should focus on the relative resource mobilization capacity of power contenders. Moore (1966), in a sweeping macrohistorical comparative work, showed that there is no single, unilinear process of modernization. Extending Marx’s class analysis to a more detailed classification of landlord–peasant relations, he combined this variable with distinct political forms of class struggle in agrarian societies undergoing commercial modernization, to map out different possible revolutionary outcomes.

Moore’s (1966) work was the point of departure for Skocpol’s (1979) ground-breaking study most associated with a third generation of ‘structural theories’ of revolution (see also her critique of Moore in Skocpol 1994). Shifting from the actor-centered focus that characterized general theories of violence, these theories highlighted the structural relations between units that created revolutionary opportunities. They built multicausal explanations based not only on class dynamics, but also on other aspects of the structures of society, the state, and the international system. Structural theories identified revolutionary conditions in the combination of administrative breakdown of the state, dissident elite political movements, a permissive world context, and widespread rural rebellion. Some like Skocpol and Goodwin 1994 focused on the types of state structures most vulnerable to revolutionary overthrow, including politically exclusionary authoritarian regimes, neopatrimonial dictatorships, and directly ruled colonies. Goldstone (1991) examined the interaction of factors such as population growth with political institutions and social structure, developing quantitative indicators of revolutionary conditions. Structuralists defined revolution in terms of successful outcomes, distinguishing revolutionary seizure of state power from cases in which one or more necessary conditions were absent (Wickham-Crowley 1992).

2.2 Structure vs. Agency: Emerging Fourth- Generation Theory

An alternative to defining revolution as a set of structural conditions is to conceptualize it in terms of distinct systems of ideas and beliefs that subjectively mobilize actors. An emerging fourth generation of ‘actor-centered’ theories of revolution emphasize the defining role of ideology, culture, and identity of the subjects who make revolution. To borrow Mao’s metaphorical observation that a single spark can ignite a prairie fire, these theorists shifted attention from the wind, temperature, and dryness of the grasslands to the spark itself. This contrasts with Skocpol’s (1979) quotation of Wendell Phillips’s statement that ‘revolutions are not made; they come.’

Fourth-generation theories inspired new debates about whether revolutions can be accurately predicted on the basis of structural conditions (Keddie 1995), particularly in light of the surprising developments in the Iranian and Eastern European revolutions of the late twentieth century. Structuralists began re-examining the role of ideology in revolutions and the interaction of states with other domestic and international structures (Skocpol 1994). New insights from cultural studies and feminist theory challenged the more state-centered concepts of revolution (Foran 1997). These new perspectives defined revolution not as an outcome achieved by overthrow of the state, but as an ongoing process of transformation of society, involving both the institutionalization of a new order and the consolidation of a new ideology, guided with different degrees of success by different styles of leadership (Selbin 1999). As the Central American revolutions moved from armed conflict to a new dynamic of mobilization and negotiation, the idea of a revolutionary outcome or endpoint seemed less useful than the concept of revolution as process.

2.3 Rethinking Revolution In The Context Of Globalization

The emergence of late twentieth century movements that both resembled and differed from earlier waves of ‘revolution’ suggested a need to rethink the concept. Some interpreted uprisings such as the Philippine ‘people’s power’ movement and the Czech ‘velvet revolution’ as part of a new, democratic revolutionary wave. Others drew on world-systems theory to suggest that revolutions should be defined not as discrete phenomena of nation-states, but rather as transformations in the world system (Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000). Thus the ‘world revolution’ of 1989 might be seen as an outgrowth of the shift in the capitalist world system, from the Fordist regime of capital accumulation based on industrial mass production to a regime of flexible accumulation, now regulated by global institutions governed by neoliberal ideology.

When Nicaragua’s revolutionaries made history by turning over the state power they had won through insurrection in 1979 after losing elections in 1990, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega vowed they would ‘govern from below.’ This vision, albeit unrealized, suggested a new way of thinking about where the essence of a revolution is found. The demise of state socialism fueled the search for radical democratic alternatives, rooted in autonomous action within civil society. As globalization undermined territorial definitions of social and political organization, shifting decision-making authority to transnational structures, revolution seemed less about seizing state power. From the Internetsavvy Zapatista rebels of Chiapas, Mexico to the transnational antisweatshop movement and the 1999 Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization, there were intriguing signs of an emerging global civil society. These new forms of resistance against globalization stretched the boundaries of existing concepts of ‘revolution.’


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  2. Brinton C 1938 The Anatomy of Revolution. Vintage Books, New York
  3. Debray R 1967 Revolution in the Revolution? Grove Atlantic, New York
  4. Fanon F 1965 The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, New York 1965
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