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Theories of revolution are (or purport to be) causal explanations of revolution—they say that if certain sufficient conditions (the causes) occur, then revolution (the effect) will occur as well. But Revolution has different meanings, and theories of revolution do not all explain the same facts—different theories explain different facts as well as cite different causes. Before analyzing theories of revolution and the problem situation they address, therefore, one must distinguish between the different facts that those theories would explain—the different events that Revolution refers to.
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Some theories explain revolution mainly in the sense of a revolutionary movement—a concerted attempt to change government, regime, or society (or all three) by means of violence. Other theories explain revolution mainly in the sense of a revolutionary outcome—a successful change of government, regime, or society (or all three) by means of violence. Still other theories explain revolution mainly in the sense of a revolutionary situation—a contest for state power by means of violence that begins when insurgents claim sovereignty and ends when they overthrow, succumb to, or make peace with the government.
A revolution in one sense can occur without a revolution in the other senses occurring as well. A revolutionary movement can occur without a revolutionary outcome occurring because revolutionaries can fail. A revolutionary outcome can occur without a revolutionary situation occurring because the government in power can make a ‘revolution from above’ a la Stalin and because revolutionaries can take power legally a la Hitler. And a revolutionary situation can occur without a revolutionary outcome occurring because the government under siege can win. But neither a revolutionary situation nor a revolutionary outcome can occur without a revolutionary movement occurring because they each entail revolutionary violence, which takes concerted effort to commit.
The above deﬁnitions of revolution overlap with common social science usage, which calls a change of government by means of violence a coup d’etat, a change of regime (as well as of government) by means of violence a political revolution, a change of society (as well as of government and regime) by means of violence a social revolution, and a contest for state power by means of violence a civil war. Common social science usage can be misleading, however, especially when it suggests that the facts referred to are mutually exclusive. A coup d’etat can become a political revolution, and a political revolution can become a social revolution—if the new government decides to make a ‘revolution from above’ (Colburn 1994). Indeed, a social revolution is a change of state and society by means of violence that the new government mainly commits (Walzer 1998). And a civil war that gives not only radical revolutionaries but also parochial rebels a ﬁghting chance, and ends in victory for whichever side best combines what Machiavelli called irtu and fortuna, can start because conservatives revolt in order not to make a revolution but to prevent one.
In sum, theories of revolution that would explain a revolutionary movement or a revolutionary situation need not explain a revolutionary outcome, but theories that would explain a revolutionary situation, a revolutionary outcome, or both have to explain a revolutionary movement as well. And whatever the facts that theories of revolution would explain, those facts entail violence—the intentional inﬂiction of physical harm. The Bolshevik theoreticians who ridiculed nonviolent revolution as a contradiction in terms conformed to social science usage: no violence, no revolution—by any deﬁnition. All theories of revolution converge on the modus operandi—revolutionary violence. The question they all have to answer is what motivates revolutionary violence and what intended or unintended consequences follow from committing it.
Theories of revolution in Western social science date back to the Greeks, who viewed revolution as the worst kind of war. Thucydides blamed revolutionary situations (with or without revolutionary outcomes) on revolutionary movements or conspiracies, and blamed those conspiracies on hope of success. Plato agreed and blamed hope of success on weak government torn by faction, which he thought to eliminate from his ideal state by abolishing the family and private property among the rulers. Aristotle added (on the widest though not deepest comparative study) that since hope along with faction springs eternal, no regime is immune against revolution.
The theory that people attempt revolution because they have hope of success, and have hope of success because they think the government is vulnerable, lived on in classic political sociology as an explanation of what to avoid and how to avoid it. Machiavelli, who wrote in effect the ﬁrst handbook on counterinsurgency, told new rulers who had just seized power how to use force and fraud in order to avoid being overthrown. Hobbes, trusting more to organization than to statecraft, designed a regime that would prevent revolutionary movements and revolutionary situations (which he called sedition and civil war) by repressing faction. The Federalist took Hobbes for granted, but held that checks and balances could avert faction and insurrection as well as tyranny. Burke—who excoriated the French Revolution already in its ‘liberal’ phase and predicted the regicide 2 years, the Terror 3 years, and the military dictatorship 9 years in advance (O’Brien 1993)—observed that the revolutionary parliament usurped a king busy making concessions. As Tocqueville summed up the whole line of thought: ‘The evil that one suffers patiently as inevitable seems unbearable as soon as one conceives the idea of escaping it.’
Not all theorizing on revolution was counterrevolutionary. ‘Violence is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one,’ wrote Marx, though his instant histories of revolutionary situations autopsied abortions, and his class-conﬂict theory of revolutionary movements and their abortionists proved false— street ﬁghters on both sides of the June 1848 revolutionary situation in Paris, for instance, not only had the same class background, but were a cross section of the manual work force (Traugott 1985). The theory explained history no better elsewhere—industrial workers neither launched the revolutionary movement nor achieved the revolutionary outcome that the theory predicted. In Germany they did not try, and in Russia they acquiesced as a revolutionary movement of Marxist intellectuals achieved a revolutionary outcome in their name by a military coup d’etat—the October Revolution was so low-proﬁle that the author of Ten Days That Shook the World slept through much of it—followed up with Red Terror and Civil War (Moore 1978, Pipes 1991, 1995). But for the vicarious, posthumous prestige Marx got from that muchimitated revolutionary outcome, whose official ideology-cum-state religion made him a household word, no one except social scientists might have heard of him today (Kolakowski 1978).
Whether counterrevolutionary or revolutionary, however, theories of revolution were handmaidens to political sociology and historiography before the twentieth century, when—after the revolutions attending World War 1, World War 2, and decolonization— they hived off as a cluster of answers to the why question of revolutionary violence. The chief theorists were not activists but academics because activists (even successful ones) propounded only trite theories of revolution consisting mainly of prophecy and propaganda. Where activist theories rose above agitprop to consider strategic means and ends, they rehearsed the classic wisdom in reverse—they advised revolutionaries to play on faction in order to weaken the government and thereby raise hope of success. Some activists became revolutionary dictators, but more academics became theorists of revolution and launched a social science growth industry (Rule 1988, O’Kane 2000).
Academic theories of revolution, in the standard pilgrim’s progress view, went through three stages of development since the 1920s. First there were natural histories explaining recurrent sequences of similar events in ‘great’ revolutions by the reasons that experts say motivated the people who made them, but not generalizing the reasons as a causal theory. Then there were general theories explaining revolutionary violence by discontent, but accounting for history ad hoc if at all. Now there are comparative-historical theories explaining social and political revolutions by ‘structural conditions’ of state and society cogently enough that older theories look passe (Skocpol 1979, 1994, Goldstone 1986, 1991, Goldstone et al. 1991).
The standard view is not far wrong, though it ignores continuities of theory and method. All theories of revolution cite a short list of sufficient conditions or explanatory causes and validate, or rather illustrate, the explanation with factual evidence consisting of case histories and statistics arranged to show by the comparative method that where the explanatory causes occur, revolution (by some deﬁnition) occurs as well, and that where the explanatory causes do not occur, revolution (by that deﬁnition) does not occur either.
Grouped by the explanatory causes they cite, theories of revolution form four families: psychological, functional, structural, and political theories. As a rule, psychological and functional theories explain revolutionary movements—they explain why people attempt to change government, regime, or society (or all three) by violence; structural theories explain revolutionary outcomes—they explain why people successfully change government, regime, or society (or all three) by violence; and political theories explain revolutionary situations—they explain why people ﬁght civil wars for state power. Psychological and functional theories that explain revolutionary movements mostly leave revolutionary situations and revolutionary outcomes over to historians, whereas structural theories that explain revolutionary outcomes also explain revolutionary situations and revolutionary movements along the way, and political theories that explain revolutionary situations also explain revolutionary outcomes and revolutionary movements at least in passing.
Psychological theories explain revolutionary movements by frustration (alias relative deprivation or discontent) deﬁned as a discrepancy between what people want and expect and what they get. These theories all assume the frustration-aggression principle that people who are frustrated commit aggression against the perceived source of frustration, but they disagree about what social facts cause frustration— one blames steady improvement followed by a sudden setback that raises expectations and reduces attainments; another blames rapid social change that raises expectations beyond attainments; yet another blames whatever raises expectations, lowers attainments, or both. Few psychological theories explain revolutionary violence by frustration alone, however; most add insurgent strength and government weakness to their short list of sufficient conditions.
Functional theories explain revolutionary movements by dysfunction (alias strain or disequilibrium) deﬁned as a discrepancy between socially prescribed ends, goals, or values, and the available institutional means or procedures for attaining them. When social change creates a gap between ideology and experience that the government omits to close with reform, people turn to revolutionaries for salvation. If the government looks weak or loses control of its armed forces, or if revolutionaries think they can overthrow it, revolutionary violence erupts.
Structural theories explain revolutionary outcomes piecemeal—they explain ﬁrst why elites subvert governments, then why subalterns rebel, then why radical vanguards seize power, and then why new rulers reconstruct state and society. The ﬁrst two events make up revolutionary situations; the last two make up revolutionary outcomes. Each event depends on the one that precedes it—no subversion, no rebellion; no rebellion, no power transfer; no power transfer, no reconstruction. All these events comprise collective actions and reactions, which the theories explain as rational efforts to satisfy interests under structural constraints like government weakness, subaltern community organization, vanguard politico-military organization, and geopolitical exigency. Ideology is a cover for interest—the motivating constraints are structural.
Political theories likewise explain revolutionary situations piecemeal—they explain ﬁrst why insurgents claim sovereignty, then why certain people support them, and then why the government fails to repress the insurgency. Revolutionary situations do not all have revolutionary outcomes, but some do, and political theories also explain these outcomes piecemeal—they explain ﬁrst why government supporters defect, then why insurgents gain armed force, then why government forces waver or desert, and then why insurgents take power. All these events comprise collective actions and reactions, which political theories explain as rational efforts to satisfy interests under political and strategic constraints like organization, armament, threat, and opportunity. Ideology again is a cover for interest—the motivating constraints are political and strategic. Whether and to what extent new rulers reconstruct state and society is another question, which political theories mostly pass over.
These family portraits of theories of revolution are not just composite sketches, they are caricatures, though caricatures accentuate real features. Thankfully, competent accounts of the theories as well as internecine debates among the theorists are legion (Rule 1988, Goldstone et al. 1991, Skocpol 1994).
Theories of revolution are contentious. Advocates of structural theory point out that psychological and functional theories explain neither revolutionary situations that occur because elite inﬁghting paralyzes the government nor revolutionary outcomes that see new regimes more bureaucratic and tyrannical than the old (Skocpol 1979, Goldstone 1991). Advocates of political theory point out that revolutionary outcomes depend on the fortunes of war in revolutionary situations—structural irtu proposes, political fortuna disposes (Tilly 1993). And skeptics add that since revolutionary outcomes owe to actions that vanguards take because they expect these actions to yield beneﬁts that often do not materialize, no theory that downplays ideology can explain revolution cogently (Aya 1990). How else to explain strategic decisions like Lenin’s based on false expectations of imminent world revolution, the rage for socialism in poor countries ruled by revolutionaries, and the resort to mass terror by revolutionary governments in proportion to the innovation they attempt (Pipes 1991, 1995, Colburn 1994, O’Brien 1993).
Though theories of revolution are contentious, few of them disagree with Thucydides that revolutionary movements owe to hope of success or with Plato that hope feeds on weak government torn by faction. The wisdom of the ages is no less wise for being ancient.
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