By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
Riots, rebellions, and other forms of uprisings are inextricable parts of human history. But revolutions are something different. They are modern because they systemically alter the dynamic between the state, authorities, elites and the people; they attempt to fundamentally transform power relationships.
The ‘Revolution’ of the Beatles
In the turbulent year of 1968, the Beatles recorded the song ‘Revolution’ on their White Album LP. It celebrates revolutionary sentiment—and the need to fundamentally alter the world—while at the same time cautioning against going too far.
The Beatles rhetorically stated to a generation: “Well, you know we all want to change the world.” As the Vietnam War raged, and China’s cultural revolution ravaged even the faithful, Britain’s pop icons were urging restraint. One can look up the lyrics to see John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s reasonable-sounding caveats.
At a certain point, the Beatles told us, we could count them out. But as much as we love the Beatles, the problem with their admonition is that revolutions are inherently about destruction as well as construction.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Revolutions Arise from Crises
This brings us to an important point about revolutions. They don’t arise out of thin air. “For there to be a chance of revolution,” the historian Michael D. Richards says, “the state must, inadvertently of course, create a potentially revolutionary situation.”
Revolutions arise from crises. It can be a fiscal crisis, like the one in the United States and France during the 18th century; or a crisis brought about by war, as the one in Russia in 1917; or a governing crisis, like the one that occurred in Mexico in the early 20th century; or a crisis spurred by a power vacuum like those that materialized in the wake of decolonization in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Creating New Political Publics
One of the most common causes of crisis comes about due to a state’s attempt to modernize and reform. Now this might seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t a state’s responsiveness stave off revolution? Actually, no.
As Alexis de Tocqueville told us more than two centuries ago, “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is generally that in which it sets about reform.” The reason is that as a state reforms, an increasing number of citizens interact with it.
University of Chicago historian Steven Pincus explains: “This new contact with the state in everyday life encourages those for whom national politics was previously distant and largely unimportant to care deeply about the state’s ideological and political direction… [and so] modernizing states create new political publics.” In other words: “By announcing a break with the past,” Pincus observes, “modernizing states create an ideological opening” through which revolution can take root.
Revolution and Ideology
Take note of this word ideological. Ideology is indispensable for revolution. Ideologies guide political actions. They are proactive rather than reactive. A mere riot or rebellion is fueled by the rejection of a particular situation—be it short-term or long-lasting. But riots and rebellions don’t rely on systematic theories or aims.
In revolutions, by contrast, actions are guided by political or socio-political programs. Revolutions reject the status quo just as a rebellion might. But they also bring forward a vision. They present guideposts that are to be used to destroy the old and also to construct what the revolutionaries see as a new, improved system.
The American pamphleteer Thomas Paine stated in the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions that: “What we formerly called Revolutions were little more than a change of persons, or an alteration of local circumstances… But what we now see in the world… are a renovation of the natural order of things.”
Clarity of Purpose and Ideological Rigidity
A key element in this successful renovation of the natural order is unity of purpose. Having a singular message and a coherent platform allows revolutionaries to mount an effective attack against the old system.
Indeed, such clarity of purpose gives revolutionaries a powerful weapon against a state that failed to respond to society’s needs.
Problems arise, though, when ideological consensus breaks apart. Typically, that occurs once the former state or system is overthrown. Ideological purity is difficult to maintain over an extended period of transformation.
If revolutionaries split between those who maintain an ideological rigidity, and those who endorse flexibility, too often the doctrinaire faction will see the more flexible ones as heretical.
“It is always easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them,” said the early 20th century Austrian philosopher and psychiatrist Alfred Adler.
Another point about revolutions that might be surprising is that revolutions are not organized by the most downtrodden, the most desperate, or the most repressed groups in a society. Rather, individuals and groups who feel their existing or traditional privileges are jeopardized—or their positions insufficiently validated—are more likely to upend a system than are those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
Still, to undertake more than a coup d’état, the distressed elite must enlist a broader majority in some fashion. And so revolutionaries appeal to the pent-up anger of popular masses to provide the manpower, numbers, and threat of violence to impose a new public vision. And this is potentially hazardous. It’s no easy task to control the masses once they are aroused.
Common Questions about Why Revolutions Happen
Revolutions arise from crises. It could be a fiscal crisis, a crisis brought about by war, a governing crisis, or a crisis spurred by a power vacuum.
Having an Ideology is indispensable for a revolution. Ideologies guide political actions. They are proactive rather than reactive. In revolutions, actions are guided by political or socio-political programs. Revolutions bring forward a vision. They present guideposts that are to be used to destroy the old and to construct what the revolutionaries see as a new, improved system.
Surprisingly, revolutions are not organized by the most downtrodden, the most desperate, or the most repressed groups in a society. Rather, individuals and groups who feel their existing or traditional privileges are jeopardized—or their positions insufficiently validated—are more likely to upend a system than are those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.