The Ideology of Revolution: Revolutionary Legacies of the 20th Century

From the Lecture Series: A Brief History of the World

By Peter Stearns, PhD, George Mason University

While revolutions in the 20th century didn’t happen everywhere, they did occur as widespread as Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Today, the legacies of these revolutions live on.

A demonstration of workers from the Putilov plant in Petrograd (modern day St. Peterburg), Russia, during the February Revolution.
A demonstration of workers during the Russian revolution. (Image: By Unknown author – State museum of political history of Russia/Public domain)

This geographical spread represents a measurement of the extent to which activities that previously were regional now tended to become global. News of revolutions, news of the success of revolutionary regimes, inspiration from revolutionary leaders—could now spill into societies that were very different in terms of cultural and political tradition from the societies in which the revolutions occurred in the first place.

The Big Four

Photo of president Porfirio Díaz.
Revolution first broke out in Mexico in 1910–1920, after a period of authoritarian dictatorship under Porfirio Diaz. (Image: By Unknown- The World’s Work, 1903/Public domain)

There were four watershed revolutions in the 20th century. Three of them occurred in the second decade of the century, and one in 1979. Revolution first broke out in Mexico in 1910–1920. It reflected a variety of grievances and involved a diversity of groups. There were important middle-class liberals involved in the revolution, seeking mainly to concentrate on political and constitutional reforms after a period of authoritarian dictatorship under Porfirio Diaz.

There were peasant revolutionaries—Pancho Villa and others—interested in raiding and, in many cases, in fundamental land reforms. There were movements among urban workers.

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Mexico had, by this point, a significant, if minority, industrial sector. The goals of the revolution were quite varied, and not surprisingly, it took a decade of recurrent revolutionary activity for anything such as a settlement to be worked out. The revolution ultimately produced a limited series of land reforms affecting some regions but not the bulk of the country.

It also produced the installation of a one-party political system that provided political coherence: genuine but noncompetitive elections. The Mexican Revolution in one sense was somewhat unusual in having relatively little direct spillover. This was not a revolutionary contagion, but the example of peasant revolutionaries, the example of limited land reform, and moving peasant claims for access to land. This undoubtedly influenced other parts of Latin America, where peasant uprisings would occur some decades later.

The second great revolution of the second decade of the 20th century was the Chinese—truly historic. Beginning in 1911, a batch, initially, of middle-class revolutionary student intellectuals overthrew the imperial system. A system that had recurred in China for many centuries was now toppled.

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An initial effort attempted to establish a Western-style parliamentary democracy; it was hampered tremendously by the power claims of regional warlords and landlords, then hampered by the invasion of the Japanese and by key divisions among Chinese revolutionaries—between the nationalists, who were heirs to the parliamentary liberal tradition, although increasingly authoritarian in style, and the new Communist movement that was born in the early 1920s and would ultimately prevail. Essentially, the Chinese Revolution would run from about 1911 until the final Communist victory in 1949.

Photograph of the Nanjing Road during Xinhai Revolution taken in 1911
Xinhai Revolution (Chinese Revolution of 1911) in Shanghai, showing “Five Races Under One Union” flags. (Image: By Unknown in “Shanghai Celebrates the Reform of the Republic of China”, in Oriental Magazine, Volume 8, Number 11/Public domain)

The third great revolution, initially a sort of bellwether of the 20th-century revolutions, was the Soviet Revolution of 1917; there had been a foreshadowing in the Russian uprising of 1905. The Communist Revolution was certainly inspired by Russia’s hardships in World War I, but it was also fed from much-longer-standing peasant and worker grievances and from widespread concern about the police and authoritarian measures of the tsarist regime, which, despite a modest concession right after 1905, continued to repress political expression.

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Photograph of Revolutionaries protesting in February 1917
Revolutionaries protesting in February 1917 during the Soviet Revolution of 1917. (Image: By Unknown/Public domain)

A variety of resentments boiled over. There was a brief period of liberal rule, complicated by a liberal effort to stay in the ranks of the World War I powers, but finally, during 1917, the Bolsheviks took over and launched a period of significant political, social, and cultural upheaval.

Learn more about the Revolution of 1905

Photograph showing Tehran Ashura Demonstration, 11 December 1978
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was hailed at the time as possibly the first great Third World revolution. (Image: By domain)

The final great revolution was significantly different and occurred much later. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was hailed at the time as possibly the first great Third World revolution. It was a revolution not dependent on Western ideas of any sort—remember that Marxism, as well as liberal democracy, was Western in origin. The Iranian Revolution was an Islamic revolution in a predominantly Shiite country. It was a rebellion against undue Western influence, against an authoritarian and, in some ways, corrupt political regime.

It urged a return to more fundamental Islamic political principles. It represented a statement by peasants and others that the country had moved off its proper moorings. The revolution was meant to inspire or, possibly, was held as capable of inspiring a wave of similar revolutions in other societies. In a literal sense, this has not yet occurred, but perhaps judgment should still be withheld.

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Worldwide Revolutionary Activity

In addition to these granddaddy revolutions, the 20th century, particularly after World War II, was peppered by other revolutionary surges in smaller areas. The 1950s, for example, saw a revolution in Egypt, Bolivia, and Cuba, and the 1970s saw one in Nicaragua. Vietnam constituted a revolution, as well as a war for independence—an interesting combination, but the revolutionary component was quite significant. The number of episodes that ought to be regarded as revolutions certainly is open to subjective judgment, but we’re dealing with a significant number overall in an important number of places.

With knowledge of earlier revolutions, such as the great French Revolution of 1789—and, for example, the Soviet experience, as well—big revolutions, major upheavals, take a long time to work out. The actual revolutionary years may be five or 10 years; the episode may be fairly short, but it takes years for revolutionaries to work out their goals; for different sectors of society to react, to adjust, and to internalize; and for initial revolutionary excesses or experiments to be whittled down into more manageable proportions.

For example, the French Revolution was not fully worked out in France until at least the 1870s. That’s a century after the initial rising. Some would argue that it took even longer than that for groups to finally reconcile themselves to a central revolutionary legacy. Revolutions of the 20th century, in some cases, are still working themselves out.

Implementing Change

Revolutions, of course, never change everything. Revolutionaries in the 20th century sometimes argue they would, but revolutions always manage to preserve, unwittingly at least, significant segments of the old regime. The Russian Revolution, for example, tossed up institutions that looked quite similar to the tsarist political police. The names changed, but some of the purposes and methods remained distressingly consistent. The Soviets also replicated some tsarist interest in territorial expansion, though under new rhetoric, and replicated tsarist interest and emphasis on heavy industry. Revolutions never change everything, but they do, if at all successful, change significantly.

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The core components of 20th-century revolutions add up to four basic points. Each revolution has its own imprint and its own biography, and it’s significant to spend some time on individual profiles. We can look at who the leaders were—leaders can have a tremendous role in shaping revolutionary dynamics—what the actual specific grievances were, and of course, what the outcomes were. For purposes of world history, however, it’s fair to go beyond the individual profiles and look at some general features, both in terms of causation and, even more significant, consequence.

The Fall of Vulnerable Regimes

Photograph of  Nicholas II of Russia
Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown in the Russian Revolution. (Image: By Unknown/Public domain)

Causes, first of all, include weak regimes. It’s a truism, perhaps obvious, that revolutions do not occur against regimes that are full of vim and vigor, even if they’re corrupt and unjust in other respects. Regimes that have the power and will to send the military against revolutionaries, in which military armaments are so superior to the weapons available to civilians, are not toppled.

Of course, they may be eroded by failed revolutionary efforts. A regime may be weakened over time, but one component of all the major 20th-century revolutions involves weak and vulnerable regimes.

A tsar who is inept and influenced by a crazy advisor is an invitation to a revolution, in a sense. A boy emperor in China, heir to the throne but not yet capable of really wielding power, is an example.

An aging dictator in Mexico, an aging shah in Iran, who is ill to boot—these are components of regimes that had previously been capable of effective repression but were losing their grip, and in which, characteristically, key segments of the military either refused to move against revolutionary dissidents or joined their ranks. Weak regimes are consistent in broad outline across the cases.

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Social Justice in the Countryside

Second, every revolution needs at least one large social group that has elements that are perfectly willing to engage in violence, who feel violence is justified to achieve legitimate social ends. In the 20th-century revolutions, the most consistent provider of this kind of revolutionary muscle came from the peasantry. The 20th-century revolutions were heavily peasant in composition and dynamics.

Peasants characteristically wanted greater access to land in a period in which population growth was pinching resources, as well as the abolition of the landlord class and their continued claims over peasant labor and peasant revenues. They wanted what they saw as social justice in the countryside. They believed that the land was legitimately theirs, that it was being taken from them, and they needed and could act with justice to redress the balance.

A demonstration of workers from the Putilov plant in Petrograd (modern day St. Peterburg), Russia, during the February Revolution.
Organized worker risings in St. Petersburg and Moscow played a significant role in the revolutionary outbreak during the Russian revolution. (Image: By Unknown – State museum of political history of Russia/Public domain)

Many revolutions in the 20th century also, of course, involved a working-class or proletarian component in the cities. Russia was sufficiently industrialized in 1917, and the workers sufficiently, if illegally, organized worker risings in St. Petersburg and Moscow that played a significant role in the revolutionary outbreak. Workers were also involved in the Mexican revolution. But the working-class component is a bit more of a variable. Peasant revolution is a core feature of 20th-century revolutions, at least in most of the major cases.

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The Ideology of Revolution

Along with weak regimes and a sense of real social entitlement, a third component involves an ideological buildup. Before the revolution—usually illegally, sometimes through activities in exile (a key factor in the Soviet Union and Iran)—ideologies are disseminated that help inspire many revolutionaries and, in particular, revolutionary leaders. It’s easy to stand up and pontificate about what revolutions involved. It’s important, however, to remember that dedicated revolutionaries risk a tremendous amount. They’re risking their freedom and their lives, and the inspiration of a guiding ideology is almost crucial.

They may be misguided and open to criticism in various respects, but one has to respect, in most instances, the sincerity, sometimes even the fanaticism, of the ideological principle. Various ideologies served in the 20th century. In Mexico and, to a certain extent, in early China and even early Russia, revolutionaries in some instances were inspired by liberal and democratic principles—the notion that regimes should provide political access to all peoples, protect individual liberties, and be constitutional.

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In the Iranian case, the dominant ideology, developed initially in exile, was a restatement of what people such as the Ayatollah Khomeini viewed as the fundamentals of Islam. The ideology came from the religion, although early in the Iranian Revolution there were liberal and even a few Communist components, as well, that quickly got shoved to the side. The dominant revolutionary ideology of the 20th century—operative in Russia and, ultimately, in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere—was, of course, Marxism.

Marxist analysis, developed in the 19th century, called for an understanding that Capitalism was creating a growing majority of oppressed working-class people, taking their wages to swell Capitalist coffers, and that justice called for an overthrow of the system. Marxist ideology also urged that revolution had, in fact, history on its side.

The ultimate course of revolution was predetermined by a larger historical dynamic, in which ruling groups would create their own antithesis and the antithesis would swell and grow and, ultimately, triumph. The sense of inevitability did not deter revolutionaries from feeling that they also needed to work for the revolution, but it provided some comfort. Marxism also provided a truly glowing view of the ultimate future of a revolutionary society.

After a period of adjustment, after a period of proletarian dictatorship in which the trappings of the bourgeois regime would be called out, a society would emerge in which people produced spontaneously what they could produce and took from society what they needed. The state would wither away. Inequalities against women would be eradicated. This was human perfection, and the process of history, once this perfection was achieved, would then stop. It’s a beautiful vision. We may dismiss it as unrealistic or even undesirable, but its beauty has to be acknowledged, at least in explaining why this ideology proved so inspirational in so many different settings.

Learn more about the factors that prevent industrial Europe from ever experiencing the revolution for which Marx calls

Confronting Western Influence

The fourth and final component in the 20th-century revolutions was some degree of concern about undue Western ownership and influence. The Iranian revolutionaries were concerned about American and European influence in the oil industry and other modernizing sectors in Iran under the shah. They wanted Iranian cultural values to be reasserted.

Mexican revolutionaries, far earlier, worried about the extent of American ownership of Mexican land and property. Russian revolutionaries, including ordinary workers, were inspired in part by concern about a large number of foreign owners in Russian industry and the kinds of profits that were being siphoned off. Concern about Western control and concern about signs of Western core economic activities, as well as cultural influence, provided a final spark for the revolutionary tinder.

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What did these revolutions accomplish? In general, 20th-century revolutions, first and foremost, uniformly produced authoritarian regimes. They might have intended otherwise, particularly in the early liberal days, but the result was authoritarian regimes.

Common Questions About Legacies of Revolutionaries

Q: What is the ultimate legacy of the American Revolution?

The legacy left by the American Revolution is one of pride, nationalism, and sovereignty against Europe as well as a sense of respect that they would fight for their freedom at all costs.

Q: What legacy did the French Revolution leave behind?

The French Revolution left many legacies including a sense of possibility for revolution, change across the world, and an end to feudalism. It gave rise to many revolutions after it, such as the American Revolution and even the Haitian Revolution. Additionally, a document called the Declaration of the Rights of Man was a landmark civil rights document created in the wake of the French Revolution.

Q: Did the Mexican Revolution leave a legacy?

Yes. All revolutions leave legacies and that is the intention. In the case of the Mexican Revolution, a Constitution was created separating church and state as well as defining labor rights and led to some diffusion of violence, even though violence continued after the new Constitution was made. 

Q: Were there any legacy benefits to the Iranian Revolution?

The Iranian Revolutions were many and were messy. The involvement of the CIA and Russia made for uneven ground and economic turnouts that benefitted both countries at the detriment to Iran. But the legacy amounted to Iran becoming a republic with better women’s rights.

Q: Did the Soviet Revolution result in positive outcomes as a legacy?

The legacy of the Soviet Revolution was largely negative: The spread of communism that resulted from the revolution led to World War II as well as the death of some 15 million people around the Bolshevik wars. Some of the positives were the creation of the eight-hour workday, free education for children, and the end of Czarist rule.

This article was updated on October 14, 2020

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