views updated May 17 2018


Jeremi Suri

Many observers have noted the surprising resilience of certain ideas in American history. "Liberty," the belief that individuals should live free from most external restraints, is one particularly powerful American touchstone. "Enterprise," the virtue of hard work, business acumen, and wealth accumulation, is another. The belief that all people should share these ideas has prohibited Americans from ever accepting the world as it is. The assumption that individuals will, when capable, choose these "self-evident" propositions has made the nation a force for revolution. America's foreign policy has consistently sought to remake the external landscape in its own image.

As early as the eighteenth century, New World influences helped inspire revolutionary upheavals throughout the old empires of Europe. This pattern continued in the nineteenth century as thinkers from diverse cultures studied the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to guide modern state building. During the first half of the twentieth century, American soldiers fought to undermine authoritarian regimes and revolutionize the workings of the international system. By the end of the twentieth century, American cinema, music, and fashion challenged traditional values in all corners of the globe.

Self-confidence and ignorance of the wider world fed the nation's revolutionary aspirations. These qualities also made Americans intolerant of the diversity of revolutionary experience. The imagery of the thirteen colonies' fight for independence from British rule in the late eighteenth century provided a template for acceptable foreign revolutions that became more rigid over time. The whole world had to follow the American revolutionary path. Heretical movements required repression because they offered destructive deviations from the highway of historical change.

Enthusiasm for revolution, in this sense, produced many counterrevolutionary policies. These were directed against alternative models, especially communism, that violated American definitions of "liberty" and "enterprise." In the second half of the twentieth century this paradox became most evident as the United States employed revolutionary concepts like "development" and "democratization" to restrain radical change in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. "Globalization" came to reflect the dominance of the American revolutionary model, and the repression of different approaches. Paraphrasing French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, America has forced much of the world to be free, but only on American terms.


Decades before Americans contemplated a break with the British Empire, influential figures planned to promote a revolution beyond the boundaries of the original thirteen colonies. French, Spanish, Russian, British, and Indian groups uneasily interacted with one another in what eighteenth-century observers called the "western territories," then comprising more than two-thirds of what would later be the U.S. mainland. French and Indian encroachments on British settlements, in particular, threatened to encircle the residents of the colonies, imperiling their security and economy. Assembling in Albany, New York, between 19 June and 10 July 1754, representatives from seven of the colonies (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York) responded to these circumstances. They outlined an agenda for the future political unity and diplomatic expansion of American society. Although never officially implemented, the socalled Albany Plan created the foundation for a future revolution on the North American continent and abroad.

Benjamin Franklin, the charismatic Pennsylvania entrepreneur and politician, drafted much of the Albany Plan. He began with a call for unity among the colonies, under the leadership of a president general. This figure would work with a grand council of colonial representatives to "make peace or declare war with the Indian Nations." Beyond issues of territorial defense, the president general would also purchase lands for new settlements outside of the original colonies. On the expanding American frontier, the president general would "make laws" regulating commerce and society. Franklin and the other contributors to the Albany Plan devoted little attention to the interests of the Indians or the French. This was a scheme designed to make the residents of the "western territories" live by American (and British) laws. Trade would be organized according to American customs of contract. Settled farming and industry would replace the migratory livelihoods of many indigenous communities. Most significantly, land would be apportioned as personal property, demarcated, and defended with government force.

The historian Richard White has shown that before the second half of the eighteenth century, the various groups encountering one another in the western territories engaged in a series of careful compromises. European traders negotiated with Indian communities as mutual dependents. They exchanged gifts, accommodated their different interests, and intermixed culturally. White has called this the "middle ground" that naturally existed where diverse peoples, each with expansionist aims, came together.

The Albany Plan was one of the first instances when Americans acted self-consciously to convert the middle ground into clearly American ground. Benjamin Franklin and his successors would not tolerate the uncertainty that came through constant compromise with diverse interests. They rejected a strategy of balance among various groups. The Albany Plan sought to remake the frontier in America's image. It marked a revolutionary application of liberty and enterprise beyond America's then-limited boundaries.

Franklin's 1754 proposals set a precedent for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and subsequent policies that unified the territories later comprising the United States as a single economic market, under a single set of "civilized" laws. Liberty and enterprise became the touchstones for legitimate authority in lands previously occupied by peoples with different traditions of political organization.

Americans had clear economic and security interests in the West, but they also felt a sense of racial and cultural superiority that was exemplified in Franklin's references to "savages" on the frontier. In the next century these assumptions would find expression in an asserted American manifest destiny to revolutionize the "backward" hinterlands.

American policy after 1754 emphasized westward expansion and the export of revolution. This translated into explicit territorial occupation, forced population removals, and the extension of a single nation. Before independence these ideas were recognizable. They became most evident, in North America and across the Atlantic Ocean, at the dawn of the nineteenth century. American support for revolutionary activities would soon extend far beyond the nation's western frontier.


In the months following the first clashes between American and British forces at Lexington and Concord, the nascent United States made two surprising efforts to convert its struggle into a broader international movement. On 28 July 1775 the Continental Congress, representing the colonies in rebellion, addressed "the people of Ireland," similarly subjects of British imperial rule. According to the Americans, King George III's ministers had converted the citizens of colonial lands "from freemen into slaves, from subjects into vassals, and from friends into enemies." Members of the Continental Congress asserted that they shared a "common enemy" with the Irish population. They expected a "friendly disposition" between the two peoples, and a similar struggle for freedom: "God grant that the iniquitous schemes of extirpating liberty from the British Empire may soon be defeated."

This call for international revolution was much more than idle rhetoric. As they struggled to raise the forces necessary to challenge the British military on the eastern seaboard, American soldiers attempted to carry their revolution beyond their borders. On 4 September 1775 an army of two thousand men invaded British-controlled Canada. In the middle of November, they occupied Montreal. The Americans did not rape and pillage the Canadian population but instead created a "virtuous" government that would allow the people to elect their leaders ("liberty") and protect their commerce ("enterprise"). Many residents of Montreal and other surrounding areas welcomed this imposed revolution.

American expansionism in 1775 reflected naive but serious enthusiasm for radical international change. Despite their relative weakness in relation to the British Empire, the former colonists felt that their revolution marked a turning point in world history. They believed that their cause would inspire men and women in Canada, Ireland, and other areas. Encouraging radical change abroad was not altruistic, but necessary for what the Continental Congress called the "golden period, when liberty, with all the gentle arts of peace and humanity, shall establish her mild dominion in this western world." The historian Joyce Appleby has demonstrated that even skeptics of political idealism like John Adams were "profoundly influenced by their belief in the unity of human experience and the general application of universal truths."


The failure of the Irish population to rise in response to foreign overtures, and the rapid British success in recapturing the invaded areas of Canada, forced American leaders to rethink their tactics for securing independence. Men like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson continued to believe that their cause was international in scope. They also understood that revolutionary ends called for pragmatic means. This required revolutionary realism: a willingness to make compromises and exhibit patience without corrupting ideals.

In February 1778, American leaders concluded a treaty of amity and commerce with the kingdom of France. This alliance brought the revolutionary colonists together with the conservative ancien régime of Louis XVI for the purpose of defeating British power. The French monarchy surely had no interest in seeing the cause of revolution spread beyond the British dominions. Nonetheless, most historians agree that without French aid the American Revolution might not have reached a successful conclusion. Paris supported American independence to promote its self-interest in the larger European balance of power.

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson recognized the necessity of maintaining friendly but distant relations with unsavory regimes like that of France. Americans traded and procured aid from monarchical states. They generally avoided close political collaboration with these governments for fear of corrupting America's revolutionary principles. This explains, in part, the tradition of U.S. diplomatic aloofness, often termed "neutrality," that carried from the late eighteenth century up to World War II. While Americans sought to conduct profitable commerce with societies of all varietiesincluding France and Britain in the late eighteenth centurythey attempted to remain separate from the politics of the conservative Old World.

President George Washington articulated this point of view in his Farewell Address, published on 19 September 1796. He called upon citizens to spread the virtues of commerce while avoiding "permanent alliances" that might threaten the new nation's security. American leaders like Washington were realistic enough to understand that they could never afford to isolate themselves from the international system. Through commerce and calculated political detachment from the powerful European monarchies, they hoped to protect their revolution, patiently spreading their principles abroad as opportunities opened.

The outbreak of revolution in France during the summer of 1789 offered Americans one of their first and most extraordinary opportunities. Louis XVI's attempt to increase his international power by supporting the American revolutionaries had the paradoxical effect of bankrupting his monarchy and opening the door to upheaval in his society. Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson came to symbolize for many French thinkers the enlightened possibilities of liberty and enterprise, unfettered from the chains of despotism. As violence spread and the monarchy crumbled, revolutionary leaders and propagandists in France looked to the American government for support.

Jefferson, then serving as America's minister to France, encouraged the initial spread of unrest against the ancien régime. Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense (1776) had inspired many Americans to join their independence struggle, also traveled (in an unofficial capacity) to Paris to support the cause of revolution. Jefferson and Paine were the most eloquent American exponents of the ideals embodied in popular French attacks on monarchy, aristocracy, and political tradition. The two advocates of revolution were not, however, unique in their sympathies. French revolutionary figuresparticularly Edmond Charles Genêt, a diplomat from the new regimereceived the adulation of American crowds throughout the United States. Even early skeptics of the events in France, notably John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, sympathized with those who wished to throw off the repression of the Bourbon regime and replace it with a society of liberty and enterprise.

Adams, Hamilton, and other members of the Federalist Party in America differed from Jefferson and Paine in their fear that the French Revolution would careen out of control. They perceived the violence in Paris and other cities as a threat to the very ideals the revolution wished to serve. They also understood that revolutionary chaos during the Jacobin period after the execution of the king would open the door for dictatorship, which is what occurred, first in the hands of the Directory and later under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Jefferson, Paine, and the early Republicans were slower than their Federalist counterparts to see these dangers. When they did, in the mid-1790s, they also separated themselves from the extremism of the French Revolution. Both the Federalists and the Republicans supported a revolution against the ancien régime, but the two parties came to despair the violence, anarchy, and seeming irrationality of events in comparison to America's less disruptive experience.

Federalists and Republicans exaggerated their differences over the French Revolution to gain support from different domestic groups. Northern merchants generally felt threatened by French revolutionary attacks on their commerce. Southern planters, in contrast, expected new opportunities for export to France under a revolutionary regime that denounced mercantilism. These sectional differences contributed to partisan acrimony in the late eighteenth century.

The breakdown in the American political consensus during this period reflected little change in attitudes toward revolution. Americans supported the overthrow of monarchy in France. They applauded appeals to liberty. They exhibited suspicion of excessive violence and social disruption. Most importantly, they denounced revolutions that appeared more radical than their own.


During the first decades of the nineteenth century, the United States established itself as a dominant power in the Western Hemisphere. This was no small accomplishment for a young nation with fragile unity and a minuscule military. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe exploited Europe's preoccupation with the Napoleonic wars and the relative weakness of potential rivals in North America. They constructed what Jefferson called an "empire of liberty" that combined force and commerce with a sincere commitment to enlightened government in "savage" lands.

America's self-confidence in the righteousness of its revolutionary model motivated many of the bloodiest massacres and dispossessions of native communities during this period. For Jefferson in particular, those who resisted democratic government and economic penetration threatened the American cause. Resistance justified temporary repression and, when necessary, brutalization. Nonwhite races received the most violent treatment. They appeared "immature" and "unprepared" for the blessings of liberty. Americans defined themselves as paternalists, caring for blacks and Indians until these groups were ready (if ever) for democratic self-governance. In this curious way, American sincerity about revolutionary change inspired more complete domination over nonwhite communities than that frequently practiced by other, less ideologically imbued imperial powers.

The American acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 doubled the size of the country. It allowed Jefferson to make his "empire of liberty" a reality. With full control of the Mississippi River, the United States could conduct commerce along the north-south axis of the continent free from European interference. Exploring, apportioning, and eventually settling the vast western territories, the United States would now "civilize" its surroundings, as envisioned in Franklin's Albany Plan of 1754. Foreign powers and Indian communities had, in American eyes, prohibited the spread of liberty and enterprise. By sponsoring a famous cross-continental "journey of discovery" directed from 1804 to 1806 by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Jefferson provided a foundation for altering the West with the creation of national markets, state governments, and, very soon, railroads. The transformation of the territories acquired with the Louisiana Purchase involved the rapid and forceful extension of America's Revolution.

During this same period, residents of French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies in the Western Hemisphere revolted against European authority. While Americans remained wary of revolutions directed by nonwhite peoples, the U.S. government supported independence in Haiti, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and other former imperial possessions. Nonwhite revolutionaries, like Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, received aid, goodwill, and, most importantly, inspiration from Americans.

Fearful that the European powers, including Russia, would attempt to repress the Latin American revolutions, President James Monroe and his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, worked to exclude this possibility. On 2 December 1823 the president announced what later became known as the Monroe Doctrine in his annual message to Congress. It explicitly prohibited "future colonization by any European powers" in the Western Hemisphere. The doctrine asserted the predominance of U.S. interests. The president and his secretary of state believed that the security of American borders, trading lanes, and revolutionary principles required freedom from Old World intervention.

Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, the British navy enforced the Monroe Doctrine in order to weaken London's European rivals; American words and British seapower sheltered revolutionaries from their previous imperial oppressors. At the same time, the United States stepped into the place of the colonial empires, assuring that political and economic change followed its model. Americans intervened south of their border to support revolutions that promised democratic governance and free trade. They repressed revolutions that entailed extreme violence, limitations on commerce, and challenges to U.S. regional domination. As in their policies toward France during the late eighteenth century, Americans welcomed rapid change throughout the Western Hemisphere, but only on their own terms.


The year 1848 witnessed a string of upheavals throughout most of the major cities in Europe, including Paris, Naples, Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna. In a matter of weeks, urban revolutionaries forced the French king Louis-Philippe and Austrian prince Klemens von Metternich to flee from power. Inspired in part by the example of the American Revolution, many citizens of Europe were poised for a bright new democratic future.

Americans rejoiced at this prospect, as illustrated by the frequent parades and proclamations on behalf of popular liberty in Europe. Foreign revolutionaries, particularly the Hungarian nationalist Lajos Kossuth, emerged as national celebrities. Their names replaced the previous names for many towns throughout Indiana, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Ohio, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania, areas with large recent immigrant populations from the European continent. Small groups of Americans organized themselves for possible military action overseas on behalf of their revolutionary heroes. While most of this private militia activity came to very little, a small contingent of U.S. citizens joined the failed rebellion in Ireland. As in 1775, Americans believed that the long-term success of their Revolution was connected with events in Europe, and Ireland in particular.

At the highest levels of government, the United States supported the European uprisings with diplomatic means short of force. In May 1848, John C. Calhoun, the former secretary of state and prominent U.S. senator from South Carolina, used his connections with the Prussian minister-resident in America to encourage the formulation of "constitutional governments" upon the "true principles" embodied in the American federal system. The construction of new political institutions on this model, according to Calhoun, was necessary for "the successful consummation of what the recent revolutions aimed at in Germany" and "the rest of Europe." The White House also indulged in revolutionary enthusiasm. On 18 June 1849, President Zachary Taylor sent a special envoy, Dudley Mann, to support and advise Kossuth. When the ruling Habsburg government learned of the Mann mission, it protested to Washington. Secretary of State Daniel Webster publicly defended American action on behalf of the European revolutionaries. In response, Vienna severed its connections with the United States. Americans accepted this temporary break in their foreign relations for the purpose of articulating their sympathies with the brave men and women who hoped to overturn the old European political order.

These revolutionary hopes, however, failed to reach fruition. By the end of 1849 the established monarchies of Europe had reasserted their control over the continent. When necessary, they used military force to crush the reformers who had taken to the streets. Dismayed by this course of events, but conscious of its inability to affect a different outcome, the U.S. government reaffirmed its commercial relations with the conservative regimes. Americans condemned the brutality in Europe, but they took advantage of postrevolutionary stability to increase cotton and other exports across the Atlantic. This was another case of America's revolutionary realism: sympathy and support for political change overseas, but a recognition that compromise and patience were necessary. The United States took advantage of opportunities to push its ideals, and it also exploited existing markets to sell its products. This was an unavoidable balance.

After 1848 many Americans worried about the implications of their nation's failure to support the cause of revolution more concretely. A faction of dissatisfied Democrats came together at this time to form a group identified as Young America. In using this name they meant to differentiate their interventionist program from the caution of their party's so-called Old Fogies. Young America argued that the nation could only secure its ideals through more forceful "expansion and progress." Stephen A. Douglas, the U.S. senator from Illinois who would run against Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, became the leading political figure for citizens who wished to make America a more effective beacon of revolution overseas. Douglas, however, failed to win the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency in 1852. Another Democrat, Franklin Pierce, was elected to the White House that year after making numerous appeals to Young America sentiment. Pierce advocated U.S. expansion for the purpose of opening markets and spreading American principles. The Democratic Party platform explained that "in view of the condition of popular institutions in the Old World, a high and sacred duty is devolved with increased responsibility upon the Democracy in this country." Americans believed that the vitality of their ideals required more effective support for political and economic change overseas. The spread of liberty and enterprise across the globe became more important as the United States suffered a profound crisis of identity in the years before the Civil War.

For American advocates of what the historian Eric Foner has identified as the ideology of "free soil, free labor, and free men," the post-1848 repressions in Europe threatened to reinforce unenlightened policies at home. This appeared most evident in the case of southern slavery. Transforming monarchies into democracies and liberating human beings from bondage became part of a single project. At home and abroad, free labor promised increased productivity, higher wages for workers of all races, and more democratic politics. Support for monarchy overseas and slavery in the American South constrained markets, depressed wages, and empowered conservative families.

Agitation around Young America in the 1850s, and broader attempts to foster the spread of liberty and enterprise, contributed to the American Civil War. The bloodshed between 1861 and 1865 resulted, at least in part, from a Northern attempt to enforce radical socioeconomic change in the South. Slavery and the South's "peculiar" precapitalist structure, according to Eugene Genovese, hindered the development of industry and democracy. The period of Reconstruction after the defeat of the Confederacy is, not surprisingly, called by many historians America's second revolution, when southern institutionsincluding slavery, voting restrictions, and property concentration in a landed aristocracywere all radically dislocated by an interventionist Union government.

This second revolution went hand in hand with a more assertive U.S. foreign policy in Europe and Asia. Like Reconstruction at home, American activities abroad sought to eradicate "peculiar" obstacles to liberty and enterprise. "Free soil, free labor, and free men" was a global worldview that required U.S. supported revolutions in the most tradition-bound empires, especially in Asia.

Between 1840 and 1870, American envoys forced China and Japan to open official contacts with Washington. In 1844, Caleb Cushing, U.S. representative from Massachusetts and longtime advocate of U.S. expansion, negotiated the Treaty of Wanghia with the Chinese emperor. This agreement guaranteed American trade access to key ports in Asia. Equally important, the treaty protected the legal rights of missionaries proselytizing on the mainland. For Cushing and his contemporaries, relations with China promised both wealth and the spread of America's "Christian" ideas of liberty. Commodore Matthew Perry's mission to the then-closed kingdom of Japan in 1853 served similar purposes. In 1858, Perry's successor, Townsend Harris, negotiated a treaty to open Japan for U.S. trade and ideas.

The upheavals in China and Japan during the second half of the nineteenth century were influenced significantly by these inroads. In both societies, Americans sought to undermine traditional political and economic institutions. Missionaries argued for new restrictions on monarchical authority. Merchants emphasized personal profit and private property. Intellectuals extolled the virtues of a learned and participatory citizenry. In all of these ways, the expansionist ideology of Young America encouraged U.S. style liberty and enterprise to take root in some of the world's oldest civilizations. American ideas undermined conservative worldviews.


The historian Walter LaFeber wrote that the decades after the Civil War marked the beginning of modern American diplomacy. The dominance of northern and western economic interests, America's expansionist ideology, and the nation's growing industrial might made the United States a truly global power during this period. In the Philippines, Midway Islands, Hawaii, and Alaska the nation formed in a struggle for independence became, despite significant domestic opposition, a colonial overseer. The United States built an imperium that soon rivaled the empires of old.

The American empire was not only "new" in its chronology, according to LaFeber. It was also "new" in its structure and governing ideology. This was an empire predicated on the assumption that all of the world could become like the United States. William Henry Seward, secretary of state from 1861 to 1869, envisioned an almost unlimited expanse of liberty and enterprise. Railroads, ships, and other government-sponsored projects would allow for the free movement of people and products. Education and the rule of law would protect the freedom of the individual and the property of the merchant. Most importantly, Seward believed that America's model of a democratic society would improve the lives of citizens across the globe, even if it required violence and repression in the short run. This was a revolutionary vision that, like others, required sacrifice (usually most burdensome for non-Americans) on behalf of a higher cause. Democracy and markets were the perceived wave of the future, uprooting traditional hierarchies in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and other continents.

Seward's revolutionary vision served America's material and strategic interests, but it also had sincere racial and religious roots. Belief in an Anglo-Saxon mission to "Christianize" the world came through in one of the most widely read books of the postCivil War years: the Reverend Josiah Strong's Our Country. Published in 1886 on behalf of the American Home Missionary Society, the first edition sold more than 130,000 copies (an astronomical figure for the time) and was serialized in countless newspapers. Like Seward, Strong affirmed the importance of expanded American influence throughout the world. Industrialization had brought the world closer together, Strong argued. Nations had to prepare for more intense international competition. Strong affirmed Seward's vision of a democratic and market-driven empire. He also elaborated on the importance of this imperial turn for America's "Anglo-Saxon Christian mission." In language that appealed to the prejudices of many readers, Strong asserted: "There is no doubt that the Anglo-Saxon is to exercise the commanding influence in the world's future."

Struggling as he saw it against "heathen" influences in Asia and other parts of the globe, Strong assured readers that "I cannot think our civilization will perish. I believe it is fully in the hands of the Christians of the United States, during the next ten or fifteen years, to hasten or retard the coming of Christ's kingdom in the world by hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years." For Strong and his many thousands of followers, the Anglo-Saxon "race" was uniquely suited to bring civilization to the rest of the world. Our Country contained extended "scientific" discussion about the superiority of Anglo-Saxon physiques, the adaptability of settlers from this stock, and, most importantly, the positive influence of Protestantism. Free from the oppression of a Roman Catholic Church, an emperor, or any superstitious deities, Anglo-Saxons developed unique qualities of liberty and enterprise. They were self-governing and capable of creative production, according to Strong. Our Country tapped into popular anxieties that the growth of competing empires, the migration of "inferior races," and the spread of industrialization in the second half of the nineteenth century threatened Anglo-Saxon virtues. In this context Strong wrote that "the destinies of mankind, for centuries to come, can be seriously affected, much less determined, by the men of this generation in the United States." A global American empire would protect the essential qualities of Anglo-Saxon civilization by remaking the rest of the world in the U.S. image. Racial characteristics were inherited, according to Strong, but they could be overcome by the socializing qualities of Christian doctrine. Converted believers in far-off lands could receive grace from God. American expansion and colonization in places like Hawaii and the Philippines promised, in Strong's words, to "mold the destinies of unborn millions."

This was God's revolution on an international scale. Strong's words reflected a popular American disposition to dislodge "heathen" elites overseas. Businessmen claimed they were doing God's work when they seized local resources and established trading posts in formerly closed societies. Missionaries asserted divine sanction when they disregarded local traditions and proselytized their beliefs to native citizens. Most significantly, U.S. military forces in Asia, Latin America, and other areas argued that violence was a necessary means of building God's kingdom. Citing Charles Darwin on the "survival of the fittest," Strong claimed that resisting populations would be routed in a contest "of vitality and of civilization." As on the western frontier in earlier years, after the Civil War Americans built an extensive new empire, employing brutality for the sake of revolutionary ends.


The Spanish-American War of 1898 was, according to Walter LaFeber, a natural outgrowth of America's revolutionary expansion in prior decades. When Cuban residents revolted in early 1895 against Spanish rule, the government of President Grover Cleveland offered support for the aspirations of the island's citizens. Cleveland did not advocate immediate Cuban independencehe condescendingly believed that the dark-skinned inhabitants of the island were unprepared for self-rule. However, the president pushed the Spanish government to initiate political and economic reforms that would make Cuba more like America. Cuban exiles residing in the United States and labor union leadersespecially Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Laborwent beyond Cleveland's caution, advocating an immediate revolution against Spanish authority. By 1897 newspaper publishers picked up on these sentiments. They demanded a U.S. war aimed at destroying the Spanish empire.

Simultaneously, an uprising against Madrid's rule in the Philippines attracted American attention. In this case, American interest did not derive from geographical proximity to the United States but instead from the Philippines' location near China. As Britain, France, Germany, and Japan divided up the economic markets of China, businessmen and policymakers in the United States worried that they would be excluded. The United States lacked the imperial springboard that Hong Kong, for example, provided to the British. A revolution in the Philippines promised, in many American eyes, to create a regime both friendly and compatible with the nation's economic interests in China. Secretary of State John Hay expected that a Philippine revolution against Spanish rule would ensure the continued spread of liberty and enterprise in Asia. This was the basic assumption of Hay's famous Open Door Notes (18991900), which connected American interests with assured access to the people and markets of foreign societies.

Drawn into the Cuban and Philippine uprisings, the United States went to war with Spain in April 1898 to expand its "new empire" and assure that revolutions overseas followed the American model. This meant the destruction of monarchy and other inherited authorities. U.S. occupation armies replaced traditional institutions with free markets, personal property protections, and promises of democratic self-rule. Racist American fears that nonwhite populations would not properly govern themselves if left to their own devices meant that, in practice, democratic reforms were virtually nonexistent in Cuba and the Philippines after 1898. While the Caribbean island attained nominal independence, the Platt Amendment of 1901 (named for Connecticut senator Orville Platt) guaranteed American military and economic dominance. In the Philippines, the United States did not rely upon informal mechanisms of control. The archipelago became an American colony, where U.S. soldiers fought a bloody four-year war against Filipino rebels. America supported revolution in Cuba and the Philippines, but it also suppressed revolution when it challenged core assumptions about liberty and enterprise.

Washington would not tolerate radicalism that jeopardized markets and assumptions about just government. Americans remained revolutionary thinkers, as they had been since before 1776. Their nation continued to inspire unprecedented social transformations across the globe. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Americans encountered numerous competing revolutionary models. These included the nationalism of many independence fighters (especially the Chinese Boxer rebels of 1900), the anti-industrialism of peasant activists, and the socialism of international-minded thinkers.

None of these forces was new. All three, particularly socialism, gained momentum from the disruption that accompanied heightened rivalries among the European imperial powers and the emergence of the United States as an important international player. Americans could begin to build a truly global empire of liberty and enterprise after 1898, but they quickly became aware of contrary, more radical tendencies throughout the world. For the United States the twentieth century was a struggle to spread the American Revolution and repress alternatives. Cuba and the Philippines were preludes to what lay ahead.


On 15 March 1917, Czar Nicholas II, fearing the spread of domestic revolution, abdicated from the throne of imperial Russia. A provisional government, led by a recently formed party known as the Constitutional Democrats, asserted authority over the country. Inspired by British and other European liberals, the Constitutional Democrats promised to replace centuries of near absolute monarchy in Russia with a democratic society. They hoped to copy the social-market economies of western Europe that mixed industrial enterprise and private property with guarantees of basic public welfare.

The United States was far removed from events in Russia, but the nation and its leaders immediately expressed sympathy with the liberal revolution against the czar. Many immigrants in cities like New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago had come to America as a refuge from czarist tyranny and the frequent ethnic violence encouraged by the old regime. In earlier years these groups had pressured President Theodore Roosevelt to protest against Russian pogroms. In 1917 they applauded the overthrow of the czar and supported friendly American gestures toward the revolutionaries now in power.

President Woodrow Wilson and his closest advisers shared much of this sentiment. On 22 March 1917, only seven days after the czar had abdicated, the United States officially recognized the legitimacy of the new government. Wilson was one of the first leaders to make this move because he hoped to encourage the spread of American-style liberty and enterprise in Russia and other areas emerging from long histories of autocratic rule. He followed the counsel of his confidant, Colonel Edward M. House, who explained that by supporting "the advancement of democracy in Russia," Wilson would accelerate "democracy throughout the world." Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels recorded in his diary that the president spoke of the Russian Revolution as a "glorious act."

Wilson's vision of American-supported "democracy throughout the world" permeated his declaration of war against Germany on 2 April 1917, less than a month after the "glorious" Russian Revolution. After more than two years of bloody conflict on the European continent, accompanied by increasing attacks on American shipping, the president announced to Congress that "autocratic government," like that in Germany, was more than just distasteful to U.S. sensibilities. Autocratic militarism, repression, and economic nationalism had become profound threats to the life of democracy. Without the spread of American-style liberty and enterprise, the historian Frank A. Ninkovich has explained, Wilson feared the degradation and destruction of his society. World revolution on the American model was necessary for U.S. survival. This is what Wilson meant when he proclaimed that the "world must be made safe for democracy." The future of "civilization" had reached an apparent turning point. The president's Fourteen Points, announced on 8 January 1918 in a speech to Congress, outlined a program that sought to revolutionize the basic structure of international relations for the purpose of spreading democracy. Emphasizing the liberated "voice of the Russian people," Wilson called for political openness, free trade, disarmament, "independent determination" for oppressed peoples, and a "general association" of peace-loving nations. Liberty and enterprise, not balance of power or divine right, would govern the international system. Affairs between nations would evolve to look more like the relations among citizens in the United States.

In late 1917, just as the first American soldiers began to arrive on the European continent, a small group of communist, or Bolshevik, revolutionaries overthrew the new government in Russia. Under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the Bolsheviks pledged to destroy capitalism and American-style democracy. Liberty and enterprise, according to Lenin, allowed for the strong and the wealthy to repress the weak and the poor. A global proletarian revolution, starting in Russia, would create a new international structure guaranteeing equality and individual welfare, not the empty promises of bourgeois democracy. In order to establish their regime, the Bolsheviks made many short-term compromises, particularly the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany on 3 March 1918, but they were as serious as Wilson in their aspiration to revolutionize the international system.

This second, Soviet phase of the Russian Revolution elicited reactions similar to those inspired by the Jacobin period of the French Revolution more than a century earlier. Americans sympathized with Russian citizens who sought to overthrow the czar, but they recoiled from the sight of violence, property confiscation, and civil war. Wilson believed that his program for a democratic peace after World War I was the only one worth pursuing. Lenin's contrary vision challenged basic assumptions about liberty and enterprise. The Bolsheviks promised to make the world profoundly unsafe for democracy on American terms. Russia's communist revolution endangered the American revolution.

On 6 July 1918, Wilson authorized a small American expeditionary force to join British, French, and Japanese soldiers supporting the anti-Bolshevik White armies in Russian Siberia. This intervention followed a model that the president had applied, more than any of his predecessors, throughout the Western Hemisphere during his two terms in office. Small groups of U.S. soldiers entered a foreign country to assist favored revolutionary elements against their opponents. In Siberiaas in Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Central American statesWilson hoped to ensure the kind of political order that would allow liberty and enterprise to take shape. N. Gordon Levin, Jr., has explained that the president and his advisers convinced themselves that they were not threatening Russia's self-determination because the U.S. force was so small. Wilson viewed limited American intervention as the action required to nurture legitimate revolutionary impulses threatened by domestic competitors and foreign predators.

In this context historians have noted the conservative implications of the president's revolutionary rhetoric, especially at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The Versailles settlement negotiated by the victors in World War I broke apart the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, as well as the German imperium outside of Europe. It established self-determination for the Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, and other longrepressed peoples. It also created a League of Nations that the United States, despite Wilson's efforts, refused to join. These constituted significant changes in the international system, but they paled in comparison to what the Versailles settlement left intact. Fearful that Bolshevism and other nonliberal revolutionary movements in places like Germany, Hungary, and China would create anarchy, Wilson and his counterparts allowed the major world empiresBritain, France, and Japanto grow. American influenceformal and informalalso expanded, especially in Asia. Local elites in China, Korea, and Indochina found their expectations for national independence under the terms of Wilson's Fourteen Points disappointed. Through military and economic means, the great powers worked to constrain political change that challenged basic liberal-capitalist assumptions.

Wilson carried the paradox of Jeffersonian politics into the twentieth century. American leaders and citizens naturally applauded the overthrow of old regimes, particularly those of King Louis XVI and Czar Nicholas II. They expected that governments ensuring liberty and enterprise on the American model would replace centuries of despotism and autocracy. Because of his young nation's relative weakness, Jefferson had to rely largely on rhetoric to support overseas revolution. Wilson, in contrast, matched emotional words with extended military commitments.

When the revolutionary visions of Jefferson and Wilson encountered more radical ideas, especially Jacobinism and Bolshevismthese two men proved intolerant of diversity. They worked to repress rivals and eliminate the conditions that produced uncertainty instead of orderly change. Away from the American continent, this involved mostly rhetoric for Jefferson. Wilson, however, took advantage of his influence at the Paris Peace Conference to bolster efforts aimed at repressing challengers to American-style liberty and enterprise. In the early twentieth century, the United States had the power to enforce its worldview throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in parts of Europe and Asia. Wilsonianism revolutionized these areas by making them more like America and less like other revolutionary alternatives. U.S. policy followed this Wilsonian pattern in succeeding decades, albeit with important variations.


The 1920s are traditionally identified with alleged American "isolationism." Recent scholarship has shown that this picture is far too simple.

Wilson's successors in the White House avoided foreign military commitments, but they pursued a consistent policy that the historian Emily S. Rosenberg has called "liberal developmentalism." This ideology, shared by U.S. leaders and citizens, assumed that "other nations could and should replicate America's own developmental experience." Businesses, philanthropic groups, labor unions, and government figures worked together after World War I to spread the "American dream" in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. This included encouraging the development of free markets, democratic institutions, and popular culture on the American model.

The last element of this triad proved most revolutionary. Manufacturers and advertisersoften working with government subsidiescontributed to a global diffusion of American-style automobiles, radios, and movie technologies, among other products. Rising criticisms of Americanization during this period attested to the ways in which U.S. cultural influence revolutionized foreign societies. The new popular culture made the nation of Jefferson and Wilson a focus of global attention. It disrupted social hierarchies by appealing to the desires of the average individual. Most significantly, it undermined traditional values by glorifying liberty and enterprise.

Contrary to the "isolationism" often associated with the White House during this period, American presidents shared public enthusiasm for the cultural spread of the American revolution abroad. As secretary of commerce and later as president, Herbert Hoover encouraged investment overseas, creating the foreign infrastructure and dependence that would guarantee access for American products and ideas. Instead of assuring fair competition among a variety of firms, the U.S. government supported the foreign expansion of near monopolies like J. P. Morgan, Standard Oil, and General Electric. These companies exerted strong influence over Republican presidential administrations. They also acted as "chosen instruments" for America's policy of supporting overseas revolution through economic and cultural means. Spreading the American dream in the 1920s promised massive profits and radical changes in the ways foreign societies functioned. Historians have generally avoided the temptation to glorify Americanization, but they have recognized that the nation's liberal developmentalism revolutionized international society.


During the Great Depression of the 1930s American culture lost some of its glow. In addition to Soviet communism, fascism emerged as a powerful challenger to America's revolutionary model. Scholars have long debated whether fascism constituted an alternative revolutionary paradigm or an antimodern regressive influence. Regardless of their position on this issue, historians agree that it sought to smother the influence of American-style liberty and enterprise in countries like Italy, Germany, Spain, and Japan. In all of these nations, fascists condemned the decadence of imported cars, radio programs, and movies. Fascist leaders sought to create more nationalistand often racialcultural forms.

Unlike the citizens of many European and Asian countries, Americans never showed much sympathy for fascism. As early as 1933, prominent figures, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, expressed strong distaste for the "uncivilized" behavior of the Nazis in Germany. Mired in an economic depression, the United States offered little material support to antifascist fighters, but the leaders of the nation consistently criticized the violent infringements on individual liberty and free enterprise that accompanied the policies of dictators like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Americans hoped for a string of antifascist revolutions.

When these upheavals failed to materialize and the regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan began to undermine neighboring democracies, President Roosevelt initiated a policy of antifascist intervention overseas. He used a mix of foreign assistance, trade embargoes, and military expansion to bolster American influence. This included close cooperation with Britain, and after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the USSR. Like the revolutionary realists of the eighteenth century, Roosevelt recognized that alliance with unsavory regimesin this case a communist statewas necessary to defeat a more pressing danger to American ideals.

On 14 August 1941 the president issued a public statement announcing what became known as the Atlantic Charter to guide the great powers during World War II and the postwar settlement. Negotiated during a three-and-one-half day meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland, this document pledged Washington and London (as well as Moscow, they hoped) to the Wilsonian principles of self-determination, free trade, disarmament, and a "permanent system of general security." In addition, the Atlantic Charter included promises of "improved labor standards, economic advancement, and social security" inspired by Roosevelt's domestic New Deal policies. The president sought to assure "that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want." This was an extraordinary moment in the history of great power diplomacy. Roosevelt had pledged to support Britain against Nazi Germany, but in return he had extracted concessions that would revolutionize what was then the world's largest empire. Self-determination, as outlined in the Atlantic Charter, justified independence movements in Britain's Indian, Southeast Asian, and East African colonies. Free trade undermined the imperial preference system that had formerly allowed London to dominate the economies of its empire. A "permanent system of general security," soon to be named the United Nations, diminished the global predominance of the European capitals. Most significantly, New Deal guarantees of economic security and social welfare included in the Atlantic Charter helped to legitimize human rights, only a nascent concept before 1941.

Like Wilson, Roosevelt brought the United States into World War II with the purpose of making the world safe for democracy. This involved bloody battlefields on two fronts, in Europe and Asia, with frequent compromises concerning strategy and principle. The war was "total" for Americans because they saw no alternative but to eliminate their fascist enemies completely. All alliances and compromises served this purpose. Under American tutelage, political life in Europe and Asia had to start anew, infused with the principles of liberty and enterprise that foreign elites had resisted for too long.

Total annihilation of enemies and a revolutionary reconstruction of society on American terms was, according to historian Russell F. Weigley, "the American way of war." Acting to destroy threats to their way of life, U.S. leaders conquered much of Europe and Asia. They followed the same pattern pursued when men like Jefferson and Lincoln annexed the western territories during the nineteenth century and defeated the South during the Civil War. Operating under the guidance of the Atlantic Charter, U.S. soldiers forced foreign societies to accept American ideas of liberty and enterprise. They followed the vision of figures like Josiah Strong, who had proclaimed a global mission to make the Old World new. World War II was, in this sense, a conflict fought by the United States for worldwide revolution on American terms.


If the Civil War was America's second revolution, the years after World War II marked a third revolution. Having created a new form of government and expanded it across much of North America, the United States now rebuilt western Europe, Japan, and South Korea from the ground up. Historians have devoted extensive attention to the vital role that local citizens and leaders played in charting new directions for these societies. This is undeniable, but the revolutionary impact of American policy deserves serious consideration as well. Men like George Marshall, Dean Acheson, John McCloy, Lucius Clay, and Douglas MacArthur forced the defeated societies to reconstruct themselves on America's model. In West Germany and Japan this meant the formulation of new constitutions that enshrined free speech, democratic elections, and capitalist markets. In western Europe as a whole, Washington pushed for regional integration along lines that resembled American federalism. Most importantly, through the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan, the United States provided societies devastated by war with the material resources to finance private enterprise and citizen welfare. Life for those vanquished by war in western Europe and Japan changed radically after 1945, largely along lines compatible with American sensibilities.

Americanization of this kind was revolutionary, but it also had conservative consequences. Washington chose to work with local elites that had strong anticommunist credentials. In many cases, this resulted in the repression of radical ideas. The Communist Party in Italy, for example, suffered electoral defeat in April 1948 after the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency provided the Christian Democratic Party and the Catholic Church with a large infusion of covert campaign funding. Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea were ripe for revolution after World War II, and the United States worked to make certain that these areas followed America's model. Democratic liberties and capitalist enterprise provided the foundation for U.S. directed reconstruction.

Soviet efforts to consolidate revolutionary change along communist lines in Eastern Europe, North Korea, and China inspired fearssome legitimate, some exaggeratedthat Moscow would subvert the states in America's sphere of influence. The clash between American and Soviet revolutionary models gave rise to what contemporaries called the Cold War. In this prolonged ideological struggle, the lands devastated during World War II became the battlegrounds where the superpowers competed to influence the course of future developments. Both Washington and Moscow believed that they could only make the world safe for their respective ideals if key strategic areas in Europe and Asia followed their particular model of political organization. Americans expected that a Europe of liberal democracies would ensure long-term peace and prosperity. Soviet leaders hoped that a Europe of communist states would provide the resources needed to build something approximating Karl Marx's vision of a workers' paradise.

The incompatibility of these visions made the Cold War a prolonged period of Soviet-American hostility. Following the often-quoted advice of George Kennanthe chairman of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff between 1947 and 1949Americans sought to protect their revolutionary ideals by containing the spread of communist influence. This meant increasing support for allies who appeared to share American sensibilities, while limiting the influence of dissidents. From a geopolitical point of view, it also required a permanent mobilization of force to deter Soviet incursions. The policy of containment, in this sense, militarized America's revolutionary influence overseas, adding to the nation's already evident distrust of diversity. It also created a short-term bias to the status quo. Social experimentation and cooperation with a devious enemy appeared too risky.

By the 1950s the Cold War had spread to what contemporaries called the Third World. These were former colonial possessions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that began to attain their independence in the aftermath of World War II. In general, the superpowers had limited strategic and economic interests in these areas. They drew extensive American and Soviet intervention, however, because they served as natural showcases for each government's revolutionary model.

The economist and policy adviser Walt Rostow was only one of many to argue for extensive U.S. sponsorship of Third World development in America's image. Prosperous markets and free societies, he explained, would increase the worldwide attraction of American-style liberty and enterprise. Otherwise, Rostow warned, newly independent states would fall prey to the "disease" of communist influence. On a strategic level, Rostow and others warned that Soviet advances in peripheral areas like Indochina would eventually jeopardize the survival of American-inspired values in critical strategic areas like Japan. This was the alleged threat of "falling dominoes."

Both Washington and Moscow used violence to reconstruct the Third World. In the American case, the Vietnam War was the clearest example of this phenomenon. Throughout the 1960s policymakers generally believed that they were bringing a positive revolution to the impoverished villagers of Indochina. Containment of communism and industrial development promised to create peace and prosperity, according to American assumptions. In pursuit of this vision, Washington deployed extensive military force to bludgeon local resistance.

Installing the American version of revolution in Vietnam involved the repression of all other varieties of revolution, nationalist and communist. The United States found itself destroying traditional villages and killing innocent civilians as it attempted, in vain, to build a new society in its own image. This was the perversity of American-sponsored revolution in the Third World. Many of the earliest and most consistent opponents of these policies were people who, like George Kennan, criticized the revolutionary and idealistic strains in U.S. foreign policy.

Throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America the United States frequently hindered the process of decolonization because nationalistslike Ho Chi Minhrefused to accept the American model of liberal capitalism. Ideological dogmatism, economic interest, and cultural condescension combined when Washington lent its support to imperial powers and local "strong men." There were the counterrevolutionary consequences of America's inherited revolutionary narrow-mindedness, magnified by Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. U.S. conceptions of liberty and enterprise tragically set the most democratic nation against the cause of national independence.


The difficulties of supporting overseas revolution during the Cold War contributed to a crisis of American confidence in the late 1960s. Citizens and leaders doubted whether they could make a world with nuclear weapons, ubiquitous protest movements, and profound economic inequalities safe for democracy. Many individualsincluding President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser (and later secretary of state), Henry Kissingerbelieved that inherited American sensibilities were out of touch with international realities. Radical critics condemned the nation's long-standing ideals for producing destruction and devastation instead of helping those most in need.

Nixon and Kissinger sought to curtail America's revolutionary ambitions. They emphasized an international balance of power rather than promises for positive change. Through a series of agreements with former adversariesespecially the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of Chinathey created a framework for great power cooperation that limited conflict between different revolutionary models. At home they discredited critics who called for a more idealistic foreign policy. This period, called the era of détente by contemporaries, was one of unprecedented American pessimism and retrenchment. Nixon and Kissinger's foreign policy cut against the grain of basic American assumptions regarding the virtues of liberty and enterprise. After the turmoil of the 1960s, citizens grew skeptical about the application of these values overseas. Americans, however, were also uncomfortable with the empty realpolitik of détente. A foreign policy guided by balance of power considerations, rather than principles, promised only permanent struggle. Americans could not escape their inherited belief in progress. The stability promised by Nixon and Kissinger was not enough. The period of détente ended in the late 1970s as the nation began, yet again, to pursue revolutionary aspirations abroad.

Despite their significant differences, Presidents James Earl Carter and Ronald Reagan embodied this return to revolution in the wake of détente. They promised a more open and democratic foreign policy, one that embraced human rights and condemned communist infringements on liberty and enterprise. They pledged to fight when necessary to make the world safe for democracy. Most importantly, these two presidents spoke of remaking foreign societies in America's image. This is what Reagan meant when he repeatedly claimed that it was "morning in America."

Reagan's popularity at home and abroad speaks to the power of this idealistic message. When the Soviet government began to loosen its grip on Eastern Europe and its own society after 1985, his affirmations of American-style liberty and enterprise contributed to a new period of international optimism. In contrast to the 1960s, the United States now appeared poised to bring democracy and wealth to long-repressed and impoverished lands. The world had reached, in the frequently repeated words of Francis Fukuyama, the "end of history." According to this argument, America's liberal capitalism embodied a system of values that would finally revolutionize the entire world.

Most observers understood that they had not reached anything like the end of history. American ideals remained highly contested. Their applicability in various environments awaited demonstration. Nonetheless, American citizens found themselves drawn to Reagan's rhetoric because it promised international revolution on U.S. terms. It affirmed the messianic quality of America's political model. All of Reagan's successors in the late twentieth century, especially President William Jefferson Clinton, repeated his rhetoric.


The twenty-first century offered a host of new opportunities and challenges for American foreign policy. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War made the United States an unmatched international power. Its technology, economy, and culture exerted influence in virtually all corners of the globe. American dynamism produced a startling trend toward the Americanization of food, fashion, music, law, and even language. American notions of liberty and enterprise revolutionized education, work, and entertainment in many societies, replacing traditional assumptions about hierarchy and status. U.S. influence provided many people with new hopes of freedom and wealth, but also new difficulties in protecting cultural particularity.

The latter consequence of America's revolutionary impact overseasinternational homogenizationhas inspired determined and sometimes violent resistance among groups who find their values under siege. The long list of Americanization's opponents includes farmers, environmentalists, labor union activists, religious believers, nationalists, and social democratsas well as terrorists like Osama bin Laden. For these groups, American-inspired liberty and enterprise have the effect of repressing contrary ways of life. American movies and other forms of popular culture, for example, undermine assumptions about religious piety and social roles in countries as diverse as Italy and Iran. The same can be said for many of Washington's claims about human rights. America's revolutionary presumptions may seem self-evident and universally beneficial to some, but they also appear self-serving and shallow to others.

Throughout their history, Americans have consistently emphasized the global virtues of their ideals. They have generally ignored the shortcomings and narrow-mindedness embedded in their political values. This duality has made the United States a far-reaching revolutionary force. Time and again, the nation has rejected ideological diversity. Instead, it has used persuasion, coercion, and force to impose its vision on others. Traditional points of view have appeared to Americans as fodder for radical change. Alternative revolutionary programs, especially communism, have suffered from extreme repression at the hands of freedom's advocates. Americans are revolutionaries because they wish to change the world in their own image, with very little compromise or variation. They are frequently dogmatic and self-righteous. There is little reason to expect these qualities to change in the twenty-first century.

Rousseau anticipated the paradox of America as a revolutionary power. Forcing freedom on the world, the United States has supported radical change while also repressing diversity. This paradox became more evident during the course of the twentieth century, but it surely dates back as far as Benjamin Franklin's Albany Plan of 1754. Even before they attained independence, Americans conceived of their revolution as an ongoing, global process of democratization. On the continent of North America, in the Western Hemisphere, and across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, this has meant the spread of individual freedoms and free markets. Americans have scoffed at foreign traditions and assumed that all human beings will attain happiness and wealth when their societies are governed by politically aware citizens and energetic business owners.

The steady growth of U.S. diplomatic power since the end of British rule allowed Americans remarkable success in remaking the world. The international system at the dawn of the twenty-first century was disproportionately an American system. It produced many benefits for citizens of the United States and other nations, but it also undermined the diversity upon which liberty, enterprise, and most other values must ultimately depend. Global American influence seriously limited the range of human experience. Like other revolutionaries in the past, Americans confronted the possibility that their achievements had become self-defeating.


Appleby, Joyce Oldham. Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination. Cambridge, Mass., 1992. A provocative discussion of how Americans have thought about revolution.

Brinkley, Douglas, and David R. Facey-Crowther, eds. The Atlantic Charter. New York, 1994. A series of thoughtful analyses of the Atlantic Charter and its legacy.

Cooper, John Milton, Jr. The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Cambridge, Mass., 1983. A superb comparative study that analyzes the politics of early twentieth-century America.

Curti, Merle E. "Young America." American Historical Review 32 (1926): 3455. Still a penetrating account of American thought regarding overseas revolution in the midnineteenth century.

. "John C. Calhoun and the Unification of Germany." American Historical Review 40 (1935): 476478. An insightful document on Calhoun's views of European revolution.

Davis, David Brion. Revolutions: Reflections on American Equality and Foreign Liberations. Cambridge, Mass., 1900. A probing series of lectures on American views of revolution.

DeConde, Alexander. This Affair of Louisiana. New York, 1976. A thoughtful account of the politics surrounding the Louisiana Purchase and American imperialism.

Dull, Jonathan R. A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution. New Haven, Conn., 1985. A concise account of the American Revolution in a broad international context.

Engerman, David C. "Modernization from the Other Shore: American Observers and the Costs of Soviet Economic Development." American Historical Review 105 (2000): 383416. An excellent study of how ideas about economic development influenced American views of the Soviet Union.

Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York, 1970. A penetrating account of American political ideology around the time of the Civil War.

Ford, Worthington Chauncey, et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 17741789. 34 vols. Washington D.C., 19041937. An indispensable source on early American revolutionary aspirations and foreign policy.

Fukuyama, Francis. "The End of History?" The National Interest 16 (Summer 1989). An extremely influential and controversial argument about the triumph of America's revolutionary vision around the world.

Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York and Oxford, 1982. The best analysis of the sources and implications of America's containment policy during the Cold War.

Gardner, Lloyd C. Safe for Democracy: Anglo-American Response to Revolution, 19131923. New York, 1984. A broad account of Wilson's opposition to radical revolution.

. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. Chicago, 1995. A provocative analysis of how American liberal ideas contributed to the Vietnam War.

Genovese, Eugene D. The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism. Cambridge, Mass., 1994. A provocative account of southern society before the Civil War, and its implications for American politics.

Gilbert, Felix. To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1961. An eloquent and thoughtful essay on the meaning of Washington's address for American foreign policy.

Hahn, Peter L., and Mary Ann Heiss, eds. Empire and Revolution: The United States and the Third World Since 1945. Columbus, Ohio, 2001. A useful survey of American foreign policy in the Third World during the Cold War.

Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution. 2d ed. San Diego, Calif., 1991. A classic account of how ideas about liberty and enterprise have dominated American politics.

Hogan, Michael J. The Marshall Plan: America, Britain, and the Reconstruction of Western Europe, 19471952. New York and Cambridge, 1987. A penetrating account of how the Marshall Plan reconstructed Western Europe on America's model.

Hunt, Michael H. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, Conn., 1987. A stimulating account of how American ideas about liberty, race, and revolution have affected foreign policy.

Iriye, Akira. The Globalizing of America, 19131945. New York, 1993. A compelling discussion of Americanization in the first half of the twentieth century.

Kaplan, Lawrence S. Jefferson and France: An Essay on Politics and Political Ideas. New Haven, Conn., 1967. A classic account of how America's preeminent revolutionary theorist grappled with the French Revolution.

Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. New York, 1992. The best late-twentieth-century account of Wilson's revolutionary foreign policy.

Labaree, Leonard W., et al., eds. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. 35 vols. New Haven, Conn., 19592001. An indispensable source on early American revolutionary aspirations and foreign policy.

LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 18601898. Ithaca, N.Y., 1963. A classic account of American ideas and expansion in the late nineteenth century.

. The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad Since 1750. New York, 1989. The best survey for the history of American expansionism.

Latham, Michael E. Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and "Nation Building" in the Kennedy Era. Chapel Hill, N.C., 2000. A stimulating discussion of how American ideas about development influenced foreign policy.

Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 1992. A rich account of how American values and fears of Soviet power drove foreign policy in the early Cold War.

Levin, Norman Gordon, Jr. Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America's Response to War and Revolution. New York, 1968. A classic criticism of Wilson's opposition to radical revolution.

Link, Arthur S., ed. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. 69 vols. Princeton, N.J., 19661994. An indispensable source on Wilsonian ideas and foreign policy.

Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 17651776. New York, 1972. An excellent discussion of the international context for the American Revolution.

McCormick, Thomas J. China Market: America's Quest for Informal Empire, 18931901. Chicago, 1967. A provocative account of America's expanding influence in Asia at the end of the nineteenth century.

Ninkovich, Frank A. The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1900. Chicago, 1999. A compelling account of Wilson's revolutionary influence on American foreign policy in the twentieth century.

Roberts, Timothy M., and Daniel W. Howe. "The United States and the Revolutions of 1848." In R. J. W. Evans and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, eds. The Revolutions in Europe, 18481849: From Reform to Reaction. Oxford, 2000. An excellent survey of how Americans perceived the European revolutions of 1848.

Rosenberg, Emily S. Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 18901945. New York, 1982. A thoughtful account of America's cultural and economic expansion between the two world wars.

Rostow, Walt W. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. 3d ed. New York, 1990. One of the most influential books on the role of liberal capitalist ideas in Third World development.

Smith, Tony. America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1994. A provocative analysis of America's support for democratic revolution abroad.

Strong, Josiah. Our Country. 1886. Reprint, Cambridge, Mass., 1963. One of the most influential polemics about America's revolutionary "mission" overseas.

Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. New York, 1973. A compelling analysis of America's revolutionary approach to war.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 16501815. Cambridge and New York, 1991. The best account of relations between Americans, Europeans, and Indians in the eighteenth century.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 2d and enlarged ed. New York, 1972. One of the most important works on the history of American foreign relations, a penetrating discussion of economics, ideas, and expansion.

See also Cultural Imperialism; Imperialism; Isolationism; Realism and Idealism; Wilsonianism.


In early 1917 Russia's revolution against centuries of despotism excited Americans. President Woodrow Wilson hoped that the abdication of the czar on 15 March would elicit a period of worldwide democracy. He became one of the first foreign leaders to recognize the new regime, which was led by a party of Constitutional Democrats. Wilson imbibed the same faith in liberal revolution that had animated American thinkers like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and William Seward.

The appearance of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky in Russia defied Wilson's hopes. In late 1917 these men took control of the Russian government. They pledged to pursue an international revolution that would undermine the liberal individualism and free market capitalism at the core of American foreign policy. Communism in Russia was a revolutionary challenge to America's own ideas of revolution.

Like his predecessors in the White House, Wilson had little tolerance for dissent. He believed that both communist ideas on the political Left and conservative traditions on the Right undermined his hopes for global democracy. To save the American revolutionary model overseas from its detractors, Wilson dispatched a small expeditionary force to assist anti-Bolshevik groups fighting in Russia's Siberian region during 1918 and 1919.

Thus began a long century of American hostilities with the communist regime in Russia. Sincere revolutionary enthusiasm in the United States often produced counterrevolutionary policies. Events in 1917 followed an American pattern set in the eighteenth century.


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It is tempting to give a definition of revolution at the outset of an account such as this. This is a temptation to be resisted. The great sociologist Max Weber (18641920) was right to say that "definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study." Another great thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), declared that "only that which has no history can be defined." Both of these remarks are highly relevant to the concept of revolution. It is best to postpone any attempt to define it until one has inquired into its history. As a humanly made event, revolution cannot be seen as a timeless thing, lacking change and variety. Like all human artifacts it has a history, and that must mean change. Our understandings of revolution must be sensitive to those changes. There cannot be any "essentialist" definition of revolution, any account that assumes some permanent, unvarying meaning, stretching across space and time.

This does not mean, on the other hand, that revolution can mean just anything (except, that is, to advertisers and marketing people who announce every new model of a motor car as a revolution). The various European languages have naturalized the word revolutionrévolution, Revolution, rivoluzione, revolución to mean much the same thing. That is because Western societies have shared certain common legacies and certain common experiences. The concept of revolution has reflected that shared tradition. While we should not therefore expect revolution to carry one unequivocal meaning everywhere, we should at least expect what Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951) called "family resemblances" between the various uses and understandings.

Revolution, finally, is a European invention. The meaning that it has in the world today derives from European use and experience. As a particular species of change it had no equivalent in the non-European world. The theory and practice of revolution was carried, along with other European inventions such as industrialism and nationalism, by traders, missionaries, and colonizers along the paths laid out by the European empires, formal and informal. It was learned and studied by non-Western intellectuals in the cities and academies of the West. If, as is indeed the case, revolution has become a worldwide inheritance, that is because Western principles and patterns of politics have become the norm for much of the world.

That some of the meanings in the non-Western world differ from those in the West is only to be expected from a concept that has always, even in the West, been sensitive to particular contexts and particular histories. The Russian understanding of revolution has been different from that of the French, and that too from the English or American, which have in their turn differed from German or Spanish conceptions. So African, Asian, and Latin American ideas of revolution have shown characteristic variations reflecting their different cultures. Even here, however, it is possible to see the same family resemblances that are observable in the Western cases. The fact that revolution has a tradition of use and meaning explains its variability; but it also points to continuities and similarities. The Western origin of revolution has meant that, as an ideal and a practice, it carries a certain basic stamp that enables us to identify and study it as a coherent phenomenon wherever it appears. Not anything can be called a revolution, whatever the claims of either its adherents or detractors.

Classical and Christian Conceptions

Revolution is an invention of Western modernity. In its generally understood meaning today, it was unknown in the ancient world. Nor was it understood in our sense in the European Middle Ages, or in the early modern period. It was only in the eighteenth century, with the American and French Revolutions, that the word revolution acquired its modern connotation of fundamental and far-reaching change.

The ancient Greeks certainly had their fill of violent politics; but they had no word for revolution, nothing that truly corresponds to our modern understanding of it. The commonest terms, used by both Thucydides (d. c. 401 b.c.e.) and Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), were metabole politeias ("change of constitution"), and metabole kai stasis ("change with uprising, change due to factional strife"). Plato in the Republic uses plain metabole ("change"), or occasionally a phrase such as neoterizein ten politeian, usually translated as "to revolutionize (or renew) the state." But this translation, with its connotation of purpose and novelty, is misleading. Plato (in book 8 of the Republic ) is discussing the inevitable decline of the ideal state, first into a timocracy then, though a series of successively determined stages, into an oligarchy, a democracy, and so to tyranny. In this highly determinist pattern, there is no room for that consciously directed change that we associate with revolution.

The problem indeed is largely one of translation. Stasis, for instance, is regularly rendered by modern translators as "revolution." Thus book 5 of Aristotle's Politics is generally treated as a discussion of causes of revolution, while Thucydides, in various parts of The Peloponnesian War, is usually held to have given a brilliant account of the revolutionary condition of the Greek city-states at the time of the war (e.g., book 3, ch. 5: "Practically the whole of the Hellenic world was convulsed. Revolution broke out in city after city.").

The trouble is that, just as Plato is not speaking of revolution but of the predetermined turns of the political cycle, so Aristotle and Thucydides are not speaking of revolution but of faction or party, and the violent conflicts that spring from them. A condition of stasis is one of party warfare, one, moreover, where though there may be much noise and fury, there is little real change. Stasis derived from words meaning "standing still," "stationariness," "bring to a standstill," and in contexts (e.g., Plato's Cratylus ) where it is said to be "denial of movement." When applied to politics, it conjured up a picture of opponents locked in frenzied conflict, preventing, by the very violence and fanaticism of their mutual antagonism, any real change or any genuine resolution of political problems. In so far as revolution is concerned with fundamental change and the starting of new things, where there is stasis there cannot be revolution.

Similarly the widespread classical conception of revolution is of the turns of the political cycle, mirroring, or perhaps instancing, the cycles of growth and decay in nature. It excludes all ideas of true novelty, as well as of human agency. Plato had left the cycle incomplete. The degeneration of his ideal state ended with tyranny. It was left to the Greek writer Polybius, drawing explicitly on Plato, to complete the cycle, and to make tyranny pass back into the ideal state, when the cycle would begin all over again. What drove the cycle was Fate or Fortune (tukhe ). Revolutions were the turns of Fortune's impassively revolving wheelhence inevitable and irresistible, beyond human willing or control. "Such," wrote Polybius (c. 200118 b.c.e.), "is the course of political revolution (politeion anakyklosis ), the course appointed by nature in which constitutions change, disappear, and finally return to the point from which they started."

The importance of Polybius's contribution was his influence on Roman writers, such as Cicero (10643 b.c.e.), and through them the whole later classical and early Christian world. The standard termsmetabole and stasis from the Greek political lexicon were glossed in Latin as novae res, mutatio rerum, and commutatio rei publicae. But when it came to fitting these phenomena into a philosophy of politics Roman writers were apt to fall back on the Platonic idea of the cycle, as amplified by Polybius. For Cicero, for example, the "revolution" whereby Julius Caesar attained power was an instance of the natural cyclical process described by the Greek philosophers. It marked the turn of the circleorbis that described political change generally.

Christian writers of the Middle Ages were content to follow this respectable example, the more so as its Stoicism fitted in well with a cosmology that was even less inclined to allow freedom to merely human volition. By comparison with the cosmic "revolution" of Christ's coming, and the end of human history that it portended, all secular changes among humans paled into insignificance. Platonic conceptions, which in any case tended to disparage the things of this world, were highly suited to this view. The political cycles of the earthly city could be seen as the secondary counterpart to the predominant rectilinear pattern of Providential history, which was preparing the way for the consummation in the heavenly city.

It was in fact from the heavens that the word revolution descended to enter the earthly domain of politics. Astrology provided the link. The word revolutio from revolvere, "to roll back," "to come back," "to return in due course"was a late Latin coinage. St. Augustine of Hippo (354430) used it to refer to the migration of souls. It then came to be applied to the revolutions of the heavens, to the cyclical rotations of the planets and stars in their fixed orbits. The astronomical usage, as in Nicolaus Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), predominated until the late seventeenth century. But earlier it had already come to be applied to human society, through the widely shared astrological belief in the influence of the stars on human affairs. The revolutions of the heavens were the direct cause of revolutions among humans.

This confirmed rather than modified in any substantial way the concept of revolution as the turn of Fortune's wheel. For not only were the movements of the stars as independent of human agency as the dispositions of Fortune (cf. Hamlet's "Here's fine Revolution," as he muses on Yorick's skull). They operated according to the same laws of motion as the political cycles of the Greeks. Each movement was preordained and predictable, a step or phase in the complete orbital cycle that returned the star or planet to its original starting point. The revolutions of the stars were therefore as bereft of novelty as the revolutions of the seasons. As Hannah Arendt has written of the astronomical revolutio, "if used for the affairs of men on earth, it could only signify that the few known forms of government revolve among the mortals in eternal recurrence and with the same irresistible force which makes the stars follow their pre-ordained paths in the skies" (p. 35). The astronomical conception of political change dominated the uses of the term revolution from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The rivoluzioni of the North Italian cities of the fourteenth centurywhen the term first entered the political vocabulary to denote violent political changewere seen in the perspective of the cyclical conception derived from classical antiquity. Most commonly revolution was used in some sense of restoration, the return to a truer or purer or more original state of things. This was the meaning of its use in relation to the pro-and anti-Medicean revolts in Florence in 1494, 1512, and 1527. Widely called rivoluzioni by contemporary observers, the revolts were held by their supporters to bring back the better state of affairs displaced by their rivals. A similar meaning underlay the use of the term révolution to describe the conversion to Catholicism of the French king Henry IV in 1593. By so disarming his enemies, the Catholic League, and causing massive defections to his side, Henry was said both to have brought about an irresistible turn of the wheel of Fortune and at the same time to have restored the kingdom to an earlier condition of health (Griewank, p. 145). In this late sixteenth century usage one sees as clearly as anywhere the persistence of a concept of revolution in which the quality of novelty is conspicuously absent.

The Seventeenth Century

It has been common to see the seventeenth century as the source of the modern idea of revolution. Partly this is due to the fact that seventeenth-century Europe was profoundly shaken by a great wave of rebellions and civil wars. There were revolts in the Netherlands against Spanish rule; major rebellions in Francethe Frondeand in several of the territories of the Spanish monarchyCatalonia, Portugal, Naples, and Sicily; Scotland and Ireland rose against English domination. Above all there is the English Civil War of 16421649, seen by many, such as Karl Marx, as the first of the "great revolutions" of modern history.

Most historians agree that, however bloody the conflicts, most of these rebellions were just thatrebellions, not revolutions. These were traditional uprisings by traditional actors. There was no attempt to create anything new or different. Peasants, townsmen, and disaffected aristocrats appealed to "the ancient and fundamental laws of the kingdom," to customs, traditions, and the "good old ways"in other words, to the pastin their struggles with their rulers. The aim was to bring back or to confirm historic institutionsthe French parlements and Estates-General, the Spanish Cortes, the Catalan diputació, the English Parliament.

The English Civil War, however, has seemed to many a different kind of conflict, one deserving the name revolution in the modern sense. Did the English not execute their king, abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords, disestablish the Church of England, and proclaim a republic? In a more far-reaching way, did the English Civil War not clear the way for capitalist development, so launching England on the path that was to take it to the pinnacle of the world economy? Contemporaries called it "the Great Rebellion," but should we not be prepared to call it, with Lawrence Stone, "the first 'Great Revolution' in the history of the world" (p. 147)?

One needs to attend to the language of contemporaries, and to beware of imposing our often anachronistic interpretations on past events. In relation to the events that occurred between 1640 and 1660, and even to those of 1688, contemporaries largely avoided the newly coined political term "revolution." When they did use it, they gave it the meaning current in early modern political thought. That is, they employed it with the cyclical connotation derived from its astronomical usage. That is why it so often appeared in plural form, as when Robert Sanderson wrote in 1649 of "the confusions and revolutions of government," or Matthew Wren in 1650 of "those strange revolutions we have seen."

Most revealingly of all, what we call the "Restoration" of 1660 was widely hailed as a "revolution." It was so termed by Lord Clarendon, the first historian of what he called, referring to the events of the past twenty years, the "Great Rebellion." Thomas Hobbes, in his Behemoth (1668), was also clear that with the return of Charles II in 1660, a political cycle had been duly completed: "I have seen in this Revolution a circular motion of the Sovereign Power, through two Usurpers, from the late King to his Son." Nor was it just monarchists and conservatives who remained wedded to the traditional concept of revolution. What was later to be sanctified as the "Glorious" or "Bloodless" Revolution of 1688 was also at the time understood to be a revolution in the traditional sense of the word. The parliamentary Whigs, taking their cue from John Locke, here turned the tables on Clarendon and the supporters of the Restoration by arguing that not 1660 but 1688 was the true restoration, hence the true, final revolution. Charles II, and even more James II, had flouted the fundamental laws and violated the original constitution of the kingdom every bit as much as Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. All had plunged the country into a cycle of violence and oppressive but unstable regimes. Only with the restoration of a truly constitutional monarchy in 1688 had the cycle run its course.

One is entitled, for certain purposes, to argue that the men and women of the seventeenth century knew not whereof they spoke, that when they spoke of "restoration," we can quite properly speak of revolution in the modern sense. This claim has been especially made for the radicals of the English Civil War, the Levellers and Diggers, who are said to look forward to the socialist and communist revolutionaries of a later century. But why deny the reality to the radicals of the language that they used to describe their actions? When Levellers protested against "the Norman yoke," this represented to them a real usurpation of traditional English rights and liberties by an alien ruling class. When the Diggers proclaimed communism, this was because, as their leader Gerard Winstanley said, they wished to restore "the pure law of righteousness before the Fall," to make the earth "a common treasury again." Along with such groups as the Fifth Monarchy men, the Diggers believed that Christ's Second Coming, as foretold in the Book of Revelation, was imminent. With it would come "a new heaven and a new earth," Christ's millennial reign on earth. These were all convictions sincerely and powerfully held. On what grounds are we to say that they were deluded, that their actions really meant something else?

Millennial imagery and even doctrine are not foreign to modern concepts of revolution. It is even possible to argue, as Melvin Lasky does, that without this millenarian background, the idea of revolution is inconceivable. But revolution is no more religion than it is restorationnot, at least, in the senses that the term has come to hold for us. At some point revolution was stripped of its religious associations and launched on an independent career as a secular concept. This was the accomplishment of the American and French Revolutions of the eighteenth century. It is to them we must look for the birth of the modern concept of revolution.

Inventing Revolution: American and French Revolutions

The pull of the past is nowhere more evident than in the case of the American and French Revolutions. Repeatedly they made reference to the heroic deeds and figures of the past. Rome, the Rome of the Republic, was an inspiration to both revolutions. The revolutionaries frequently saw themselves in the guise of Gracchus or Brutus, opposing tyranny and striking a blow for the liberty of the people. Their painters and sculptors portrayed them in Roman costume. In their speeches they quoted the great Roman orators. They wished to revive the public spirit and civic virtue of the Roman Republic, to make citizens out of subjects.

The American and French Revolutions did in truth both begin with conservative intentions, or at least pretensions. The Americans wished, they said, to go back to the working arrangement that they had had with the British state since the seventeenth century, an arrangement upset by the "innovations" of the British Parliament; the French wished to restore power to the old institutions of the parlements and the Estates-General, in the face of a reforming and "modernizing" monarchy. In both cases the revolution rapidly went beyond these conservative premises, to the consternation of many who began the revolution. A new concept of revolution emerged in the course of these revolutions. Tom Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense (1776) saluted the American Revolution as "the birth-day of a new world," went on in The Rights of Man (17911792) to see the French and American Revolutions as jointly inaugurating a veritable "age of Revolutions, in which everything may be looked for."

"What were formerly called Revolutions, were little more than a change of persons, or an alteration of local circumstances. They rose and fell like things, of course, and had nothing in their existence or their fate that could influence beyond the spot that produced them. But what we now see in the world, from the Revolutions of America and France, are a renovation of the natural order of things, a system of principles as universal as truth and the existence of man, and combining moral with political happiness and national prosperity." (Paine, 1984 ed., p. 144)

Americans, increasingly dismayed by what many saw as the excesses of the French Revolution (though Thomas Jefferson was not one of them), progressively downplayed the significance of their own revolution, giving it a conservative interpretation that dominated all discussion until recently. In this they paid unconscious homage to the defining character of the French Revolution. Fairly or not, it is the French, not the American, Revolution that has come to be seen as the inventor of the modern concept of revolution.

The French Revolution is the model revolution, the archetype of all revolutions. It defines what revolution is. This is a matter of fact rather than of conceptual analysisor rather, it is a matter of the concept being shaped by the historical experience. For not only was it during the French Revolution that the concept of revolution unmistakably acquired its modern meaning. The French Revolution also established the classic pattern of revolution. It named the revolutionary experience, and wrote the script of the revolutionary drama. It showed, by its own example as well as its attempt to export its revolution, by its ideas as well as its armies, what it is a society must do to undergo revolution. In this sense the French Revolution was not simply the first great revolution. It can seriously be argued to be the only revolution. All revolutions subsequently were indebted to it. It was from the French that they borrowed their concept; it was the French Revolution whose practice they attempted to imitateeven when they hoped to go beyond it.

With the French Revolution, the hesitations and ambiguities of earlier revolutions were swept aside. Revolution now acquired its distinctively modern meaning. It came to mean, not the turns of a recurrent cycle or the reversion to some earlier condition, but the creation of something radically new: something never before seen in the world, a new system of society, a new civilization, a new world. Moreover it lostthough never entirelyits connotation of something natural, inevitable, and irresistible, something occurring beyond the province of human agency or the possibility of human intervention. Revolution was on the contrary now something quintessentially man-made. It was the action of human will and human reason upon an imperfect and unjust world, to bring into being the good society. This was for the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel the great discovery of the French Revolution: "Never since the sun had stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around him had it been perceived that man's existence centres in his head, i.e. in Thought, inspired by which he build up the world of reality. This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn. All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch" (Hegel, 1956 ed., p. 447).

With the example of the French Revolution before them, it became possible for contemporaries to see earlier events as comparable in several important respects, and retrospectively to baptize them as revolutionsoften with a polemical purpose in mind. French revolutionaries such as the Marquis de Lafayette, who had fought with the Americans against the British, were quick to refer to "the American Revolution," by analogy with what they saw as the similarly heroic enterprise embarked upon by the French in 1789. The French historian and liberal statesman François Guizot, in his Histoire de la révolution d'Angleterre (1826), was the first to call the English Civil War a revolution in the modern, that is, French, sense, in his case with the cautionary purpose of championing English moderation against French fanaticism. Dutch historians began to discover in the sixteenth-century "revolt of the Netherlands" rather a "Dutch Revolution."

Nor did the comparisons remain solely in the political field. The technological and economic developments transforming England in the early nineteenth century were seen in the 1820s as "the industrial revolution." Later scholars were to speak of "the revolution of the Baroque" and of "the scientific revolution" of the seventeenth century, to refer to the thoroughgoing changes in artistic practice and in scientific thought in that period. They would also speak of "revolutions of humanity," such as the Paleolithic and Neolithic revolutions, or the "urban" or "agricultural" revolutions. Changes of an epoch-making kind routinely came to be called revolutions, as in "the Roman Revolution," which produced the principate out of the republic in the first century of the common era.

In all cases what gave the term its meaning was the analogy with what increasingly came to be designated "the Great French Revolution" of 1789. In whatever sphere it was employed, political, economic, or cultural, revolution meant dramatic, fundamental change, change in a radically new direction, a complete change of "paradigm," to use the term popularized by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. Whether, especially in the political realm, the change had to be accompanied by violence, as in the French case, remained a matter of dispute. "Violence is the midwife of the old society pregnant with the new," said Marx; but Vladimir Lenin, noting this, penciled in the laconic comment, "some births are difficult, others easy." What mattered in the end was not so much violence as the degree and intensity of the change. Revolution was a speeding up of evolution. It was an action by which men changed utterly the way they had traditionally done things. It looked to the future, not to the past.

In this respect, too, the future belonged to the French Revolution, as much as it inspired a renaming and reimagining of past episodes of change. Not the English or the American Revolution but the French Revolution became the inspiration of the revolutionary movement throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Marx called it "the lighthouse of all revolutionary epochs," and he remained indebted to its example in his conception of the future socialist revolution. In the understanding of revolutionaries and revolutionary theorists everywhere, to undergo revolution was to imitate the French. The French Revolution displayed the universal "logic of revolution," the stages or phases through which all revolutions must pass. There would be a "rule of the moderates" followed by "the rise of the radicals," Girondists followed by Jacobins. Terror would gave way to Thermidor, the point at which the revolution ceased its radicalization and tried to achieve a period of stability. As in the French case, this would often lead to a military dictatorship that claimed to safeguard the gains of the revolution. The symbolic dates of the French Revolution marked, for generations to come, the successive phases of the revolutionary process: the "Fourteenth of July" (capture of the Bastille and seizure of power), the "Ninth of Thermidor" (fall of Maxmilien Robespierre and the beginning of the period of stabilization), the "Eighteenth of Brumaire" (Napoleon's coup d'état and the inauguration of the dictatorship). If, as was claimed in the nineteenth century, le nouveau Messie, c'est la Révolution ("revolution is the new Messiah"), it was the French Revolution that had inspired these apocalyptic hopes.

The Revolutionary Idea in the Modern World

The idea of revolution, once invented by the FrenchAmericans having for the most part disclaimed the patentrapidly became the possession of the entire world. This was partly because the idea was carried on the bayonets of Napoleon's armies in the French bid to revolutionize the whole of Europe. But the defeat of Napoleon was no barrier to the further spread of the idea. All attempts to repress it only seemed to lend it strength. It inspired a whole series of later revolutions in France, the land of its birth, in 1830, 1848, and 1871. In 1848 practically the whole of EuropeBritain and Russia were almost the sole exceptionswas convulsed by revolution. The idea had a particular appeal for intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe, who embraced it with messianic fervor. In Russia in particular it found fertile soil, so much so that revolutionaries in Western Europe began to look to Russia to give the signal that would light the torch of revolution everywhere.

The idea of revolution as expressed by the French Revolution appealed because of its simplicity and universality. "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" could inspire populations from Brussels to Beijing, from Poland to Peru. Of course there remained the question of how to interpret and apply its terms. Here the main modification to the original idea consisted in seeking to realize liberty and equality in the social as well as the political realm. This was the contribution of the nineteenth-century socialists, supremely in the thinking of Karl Marx. For Marx, the French Revolution remained to be completed. It had freed the capitalists, the bourgeoisie, but at the cost of turning the mass of workers into exploited and propertyless proletarians. The liberal gains of the French Revolutionand Marx never denied that they were gainshad to be converted into the emancipation of the people as a whole. This would be accomplished by a socialist or communist revolution that would abolish private property and bring about the "free association of producers." In the final condition of communism, following the transitional "dictatorship of the proletariat," the state itself would "wither away," having no necessary function. In this vision of the future, the Marxist concept of revolution fused with that of the anarchists, who had particularly strong followings, through the teachings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (18091865) and Mikhail Bakunin (18141875), in France, Russia, Spain, and Italy.

It is fair to say that, in one version or another, the Marxist concept of revolution came to dominate not just Europe but the world beyond in the later nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. This was perhaps inevitable, given the massive disruption and distress caused by the relentless march of capitalist industrialization across the globe. The Paris Commune of 1871, which Marx hailed as the first truly proletarian revolution, can perhaps be taken as marking the divide between the older, more purely political, concept of revolution, and the later one that made social and economic transformation the heart of the revolution. Symbolically, the old revolutionary hymn of the Marseillaise was replaced by the new socialist anthem, the Internationale; the red flag of the socialists replaced the tricolor of the liberals. Not surprisingly, the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 gave a massive impetus to this socialist understanding of revolution, as did the later success of socialist revolutions in China (1948) and in Cuba (1958).

The Russian Revolution of 1917 became the type of twentieth century revolutions, especially in the non-Western world. It seemed to solve the difficult question of how to make a socialist revolution in conditions that, in a strictly Marxist understanding, were highly unpromising. Marx had expected the socialist revolution to begin in the advanced industrial societies, such as France, Germany, or Britain, where the industrial working class or proletariat made up the vast majority of society. Russia, like many other non-Western societies, was at the time of its revolution 8090 percent peasant. It also had a relatively small and weak middle class. But in the main urban centers, such as St. Petersburg (Petrograd), it had a proletariat that, though small, was highly developed, well organized, and politically very conscious.

Olympe de Gouges (17481793)

Olympe de Gougesthe self-invented name of Marie Gouzeswas a playwright and pamphleteer who took an active part in the French Revolution. She agitated for the emancipation of slaves, divorce, and the rights of illegitimate children and unmarried mothers. After her own unhappy marriage she renounced marriage as such, proposing that the marriage contract be replaced by a "social contract" that specified the equal rights of the partners, including the right to end the union. Her best-known work is the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen (1791), a direct riposte and corrective to the more famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789. In it she strove to reconcile the abstract universality of that document, which she thought unreal and dangerous, with an acknowledgment of difference. Men and women were different, she argued, just as nature was variegated, but both were equally the bearer of rights, equally capable of agency and action. The Jacobins, like nearly all the leading French revolutionaries, were hostile to the claims of equality for women. They denounced Olympe's activities as "unnatural," and condemned her to death in 1793 for plastering the walls of Paris with posters opposing Jacobin centralization and in favor of the Girondist program of decentralized federalism.

The Russian revolutionaries, especially Lenin and Trotsky, elaborated a theory of socialist revolution in which, under the guidance of the proletariat, the mass peasant population would be induced to rise in rebellion and to take over the land, at the same time as the proletariat took over the factories. Together the workers and peasants would coordinate the socialist revolution, after suppressing their common enemies among the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Throughout a significant role was marked out for the worker's partyin this case the Bolshevik partyas the theoretical organ and directing force of the revolution. But it was always stressed that rule by the party was in the nature of a temporary, bridging, operation, mainly concerned with mopping up the remaining pockets of resistance and in preparing the workers for direct rule.

Here then was a new model of revolution, though particularly appropriate for countries, such as Russia, that had not been through a "bourgeois revolution" and had not as a result enjoyed the benefits of liberal or constitutional rule. The proletariat, organized by the party, would in effect carry out a dual or twofold revolution. It would overthrow autocratic or authoritarian rule, here accomplishing the aim of the classic bourgeois revolutions, such as the English and French revolutions; and it would also push through, in a single, uninterrupted sequence, to the proletarian or socialist revolution. Both political and social emancipation would be achieved by the self-same agency, in the same act of revolution. No wonder that, whatever the misgivings about the course of the revolution in Russia, such a model proved so compelling to those many non-Western countries that saw themselves as standing in the same semi-feudal and backward condition as Russia on the eve of 1917.

But it would be wrong to overstress the differences between the socialist and earlier conceptions of revolution. For Marx the French Revolution of 1789 was always the model revolution, the one that provided the essential terms of revolutionary conflict as a conflict of classes. If the French Revolution was a "bourgeois revolution," the coming socialist one would be a proletarian revolution. It would differ in that the proletarian revolution would lead to general emancipation instead of the emancipation of only one class. But the form of the revolution, the conditions under which the proletariat would gather its strength and overthrow its oppressors were precisely modeled on the rise of the bourgeoisie in feudal society. Thus both in its formclass struggleand its intentionliberty and equality, now understood in social and economic as well as political termsthe socialist revolution could plausibly be presented simply as the continuation and completion of the enterprise started by the French Revolution. This was the claim of many prominent socialist revolutionaries. "A Frenchman," wrote Lenin to a French comrade in 1920, "has nothing to renounce in the Russian Revolution, which in its method and procedures recommences the French Revolution." Fidel Castro, in his defense speech at the Moncada trial of 1953 (1968), saw the very existence of an independent Cuba as an inheritance of the European revolutionary tradition, and he looked back to the French Revolution to justify his actions and to proclaim the inevitability of revolution in Cuba.

Of course there had to be modifications even to the socialist idea of revolution, especially as it moved beyond its European base and encountered different conditions and different traditions in the non-Western world. The most important amendments were provided by Mao Zedong in China, Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam, and Castro and Che Guevara in Cubaleaders and fighters as well as theoreticians. What especially concerned them was the role of the peasantry in what were overwhelmingly peasant societies. The predominantly urban tradition of revolution had to be rejected. "The city," observed Castro of the Latin American experience," is a cemetery of revolutionaries and resources." In place of the city and the urban workers they looked to the countryside and the organization of the peasantsin their traditional communities, if possible, in the form of mobile guerrilla bands if for whatever reasons this proved strategically dangerous (as for instance it appeared to do so in Cuba and Latin America generally). This was the revolutionary strategy that, often after decades of struggle, led to the success of the Chinese, the Cuban, and the Vietnamese revolutions. These in turn became the inspiration, the "model" revolutions, for other Third World societies. Socialist in form and rhetoric, they quite oftenas in many African casesembodied fundamentally nationalist aspirations in societies seeking to throw off colonial rule.

In the West too, changing conditions brought about modifications to the inherited concept of revolution. Revolution on the barricades began to appear increasingly unreal in societies where sophisticated firepower and counterinsurgency techniques gave states overwhelming power against potential insurgents. The fate of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 gave the clearest indication of this, as did, in a somewhat different way, the failure of the "Prague spring" of 1968. In the face of this, the student revolutionaries in Paris and elsewhere in 1968 turned away from direct confrontation with the state and invented subversive techniques based on ridicule and new forms of cultural opposition. "All power to the imagination"; "Be a realist: demand the impossible"; "I am a MarxistGroucho style"such were the slogans on the posters that the students plastered all over Paris in May 1968. Marx was still an influence, but it was Marx the philosopher of alienation rather than Marx the anatomist of the capitalist economy who continued to be an inspiration. In addition, and often taking over, were influences derived from the Dadaists and Surrealists, together with a radical reading of Sigmund Freud.

Revolution has not been a prominent feature of Western societies since World War Inot, that is, revolution as it has traditionally been understood in the libertarian, "left-wing," versions inherited from the French Revolution. There have been some who have spoken of the Nazi or the fascist revolution, and have tried to offer a "right-wing" concept of revolution. This has to struggle with a whole tradition of meaning derived from the European experience of the past two hundred years. Inequality, authoritarianism, and racismcentral elements of fascist ideologysimply have not been part of the revolutionary inheritance, whatever the practices of states, such as the Soviet Union, that claimed the revolutionary mantle. Condorcet's statement of 1793, that "the word revolutionary can only be applied to revolutions which have liberty as their object," aptly sums up the predominant and persistent meaning of the concept, as it has been elaborated by successive theorists since the French Revolution.

Nowhere was this demonstrated more forcibly than in the 1989 revolutions, the revolutions that overthrew communist rule throughout Central and Eastern Europe, eventually, in 1991, dissolving the Soviet Union itself. While in the same year the French and other Western Europeans, contemplating with a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm the bicentennial of the French Revolution, appeared disillusioned with the whole idea of revolution, Eastern Europeans embraced it with fervor. Crowds occupied the squares of Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, and Bucharest, forcing, in almost classic demonstration of the power of the people, their rulers to depart. If the West had forgotten its revolutionary heritage, the same had not happened in the East. Moreover, it was not, for obvious reasons, the Marxist or socialist idea of revolution that inspired the East Europeans. In a remarkable reversal, what they looked back to, what was evident in almost every demand they made, was the tradition of the eighteenth-century American and French Revolutions. It was individual rights, a free civil society, and a liberal constitution that were the centerpieces of the programs of 1989.

Do the 1989 revolutions mark the end of revolution in the West, as many have claimed? Are they the final deposit of the revolutionary tradition? This may be too shortsighted a view, even for the West and certainly from the perspective of the world as a whole. In November 2003 the people of Georgia, one of the former republics of the Soviet Union, rose up against a corrupt ruler in a classic display of revolutionary action. Elsewhere in the worldin China, in Latin America, in the Middle Eastthere are intermittent but persistent revolutionary stirrings. Many of these are now mixed with religion, following the example of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Revolution has always been a changing and many-sided thing. We can be sure there are many surprises in store for us still.

See also Cycles ; Evolution ; Liberty ; Marxism ; Scientific Revolution .


Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. London: Faber and Faber, 1963.

Blackey, Robert, ed. Revolutions and Revolutionists: A Comprehensive Guide to the Literature., 2nd ed. Oxford and Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio Press, 1982. A unique bibliography of over six thousand books, articles, and eyewitness accounts covering past and present revolutions.

Brinton, Crane. The Anatomy of Revolution. Rev. and expanded ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1965. Still a first-rate introduction to the comparative history of revolution.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1984. A classic statement on the significance of the French Revolution, even though couched in hostile terms.

Castro, Fidel. History Will Absolve Me. London: Jonathan Cape, 1968.

Donald, Moira, and Tim Rees, eds. Reinterpreting Revolution in Twentieth-Century Europe. London: Macmillan, 2001.

Draper, Hal. Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution. 2 vols. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978. The fullest account of the most influential theory of the twentieth century.

Dunn, John, Modern Revolutions: An Introduction to the Analysis of a Political Phenomenon. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Fehér, Ferenc, ed. The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Goldstone, Jack, ed. Revolutions: Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical, Studies. 3rd ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2003.

Griewank, Karl. Der Neuzeithliche Revolutionsbegriff. 2nd ed. Frankfurt-am-Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1969. The best account of the history of the concept. Nothing in English like it.

Halliday, Fred. Revolution and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of History (18301831). Translated by J. Sibree. New York: Dover, 1956.

Hobsbawm, E. J. Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Keddie, Nikki R., ed. Debating Revolutions. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. An influential account that has important implications for the idea of revolution in general.

Kumar, Krishan, ed. Revolution: The Theory and Practice of a European Idea. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971. Classic statements documenting the evolution of the idea of revolution.

Kumar, Krishan. 1989: Revolutionary Ideas and Ideals. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Lasky, Melvin. Utopia and Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Packed with fascinating, hard-to-find material on the ideology and imagery of revolution.

Lintott, Andrew. Violence, Civil Strife and Revolution in the Classical City. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Paine, Tom. The Rights of Man (17911792). Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1984. The best riposte to Burke's attack on the French Revolution, and in general a stirring affirmation of the epochal significance of the French and American Revolutions.

Palmer, R. R. The Age of the Democratic Revolutions. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970. Still the fullest and most stimulating account of the eighteenth-century revolutions, seen as having world-historical significance.

Parker, Noel. Revolutions and History: An Essay in Interpretation. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2000.

Porter, Roy, and Mikulés Teich, eds. Revolution in History. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Rice, E. E., ed. Revolution and Counter-Revolution. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991.

Skocpol, Theda. Social Revolutions in the Modern World. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Tilly, Charles. European Revolutions, 14921992. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993.

Tocqueville, Alexis de, The Old Régime and the French Revolution (1856). Translated by Alan S. Kahan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. The best book, not just on the French Revolution, but on revolution in general.

Wheatcroft, Andrew. The World Atlas of Revolutions. London: H. Hamilton, 1983. The best single source of detailed accounts, complete with maps, of the major revolutions from the eighteenth to the late twentieth centuries.

Zagorin, Perez. Rebels and Rulers, 15001660. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A comprehensive and invaluable survey of a controversial period in the development of the idea of revolution.

Krishan Kumar


views updated May 17 2018


The causes of revolution

The phases of revolution

The personnel of revolutions

Success or failure of revolution


Consequences of revolution

Doctrines of revolution


Revolution in its most common sense is an attempt to make a radical change in the system of government. This often involves the infringement of prevailing constitutional arrangements and the use of force. “Revolution” may also mean any fundamentally new development in the economy, culture, or social fabric—that is, in practically any field of human endeavor. In its modern (political) sense, the term was first used in the Italian city-states in the late Middle Ages, when it referred mainly to ecclesiastical reforms. The word first entered the English language in about 1600; under Cromwell, paradoxically, it came to mean the restoration of the old order. Traditional Spanish or Latin American pronunciamentos, Middle Eastern coups d’état, and the frequent upheavals in which one ruling clique replaces another, merely substituting one king, colonel, or courtier for another, without otherwise affecting the system of government or the fabric of society, cannot be considered revolutions unless, as has happened in a few cases, such upheavals are transformed into movements that bring about radical social change. On the other hand, it would be misleading to confine examination of the subject to the French and Russian revolutions, regarding all others as merely precursors of, or deviations from, these “classic” types.

Modern revolutions are usually carried out, according to their leaders, on behalf of the popular forces against despotism, corruption, and an outworn social and political order, and under the banner of progress, freedom, and social justice. Social movements, however, have to be judged not only by intentions, ideological declarations, and promises, but also by their actual performance. Some of those who take revolutionary action in the name of freedom and social justice are demagogues or impostors; others sincerely believe in these ideals but as a result of their actions may bring about a state of affairs that is a complete negation of their beliefs. Thus it is not always easy to distinguish between revolution and counterrevolution. The rise of totalitarianism has further obscured what was in the nineteenth century a seemingly clear-cut conflict between left and right. Condorcet’s dictum that only movements striving for freedom can be truly revolutionary has become less and less tenable.

The causes of revolution

Despite the different patterns revolutions have followed, it is possible to trace certain features common to all. They usually follow the complete or partial breakdown of the old order caused by the inefficiency of the governing class or by economic crisis, war, or similar happenings. Yet a “revolutionary situation” per se does not necessarily result in revolution; it may just as easily lead to anarchy or to a nonrevolutionary dictatorship if the revolutionaries (usually a conspiratorial group better organized than their rivals) are not capable of swift and decisive action.

The incident that sparks a revolution may be trivial : the performance of an opera of Daniel Auber’s in Brussels in 1830; a student’s cane dropping into the orchestra pit from a balcony in Munich in 1848; or the punishment by bastinado of a group of merchants in Tehran in 1905. The deeper causes, of course, go further back in time, and are more complex. Temporary economic crises have played a certain part in the outbreak of revolutions (the French famine of 1788, the bread riots in Petrograd before the February Revolution in 1917). However, left-wing French historians (Jean Jaures, Georges Lefebvre) have doubted whether the economic crisis alone would have induced the masses to participate actively in the revolution of 1789, and communist historians, commenting on the year 1917, have attributed more importance to antiwar feeling than to food shortages.

War appears to have been the decisive factor in the emergence of revolutionary situations in modern times; most modern revolutions, both successful and abortive, have followed in the wake of war (the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian revolution of 1905, the various revolutions after the two world wars, including the Chinese revolutions). These have occurred not only in the countries that suffered defeat. The general dislocation caused by war, the material losses and human sacrifices, create a climate conducive to radical change. A large section of the population has been armed; human life seems considerably less valuable than in peacetime. In a defeated country authority tends to disintegrate, and acute social dissatisfaction receives additional impetus from a sense of wounded national prestige (the Young Turks in 1908, Naguib and Nasser in 1952). The old leadership is discredited by defeat, and the appeal for radical social change and national reassertion thus falls on fertile ground.

Established elites and ruling classes have, however, also fallen in times of peace, for such reasons as sheer ineffectiveness, corruption, general boredom, or inability to adapt themselves to changing conditions. Corruption or extreme conservatism by itself, however, does not produce revolution. Despotic governments are often overthrown, not when they are being most tyrannical, but rather when the established elite loses its self-confidence and starts making halfhearted attempts to become more liberal. The French Revolution of 1789 broke out after the States-General had been called; the revolution of 1848, after the unpopular Guizot government had fallen; the Hungarian revolution of 1956, after the surviving victims of extreme tyranny had been released. A united elite with a firm belief in the rightness of its cause has hardly ever been overthrown, regardless of the extent of its political, military, or economic setbacks. On the other hand, a comparatively minor reverse may prove fatal to an otherwise successful and reasonably competent elite that has lost its self-confidence and its will and ambition to rule.

A frequent source of revolutionary tension is the social unrest that may occur when a section of the population or a social class does not receive the political rights which it feels correspond to its value in society, when it faces a rigid structure or elite, or when its social and economic demands are not fulfilled. Oligarchies tend to defend their own privileges and to ignore the demands of a newly emergent sector or class, and as a result the “outsiders” despair of the possibility of gradual, peaceful change and conclude that only the complete overthrow of the old order will give them their rights and restore justice. In this context all revolutions, from the secessio plebis and Marius in ancient Rome to the French and Russian revolutions, are simply the culmination of long-drawn-out social processes; not the result of some sudden dissatisfaction of part of the population, but the last phase of a process of long duration.

In a similar way the rebellion of colonies against the metropolitan country and their eventual secession is a revolutionary process, made possible by the social, economic, and political development of the colony and the gradual evolution of a local elite.

Revolutions have a tendency to spread. Events in 1848 and 1918–1919 provide the best-known examples, but this generalization is also true of comparatively minor revolutionary uprisings. The Spanish revolution of 1820 (Rafael del Riego) indirectly provoked uprisings in Portugal (Bernardo C. Sepulveda), Naples (Guglielmo Pope), and Piedmont. The French revolution of July 1830 had repercussions in Belgium and Poland. Many Asian and African countries gained independence after India had won hers in 1947. A revolution in one country frequently acts as a stimulus to revolutionary activity in another.

The phases of revolution

The stages of a modern revolution vary according to time, place, and the character and aims of the revolutionary group. The activities of a group that has set itself limited aims, as in Mexico in 1910, differ from those of a party that stands for the total transformation of society, as in China in 1949. There are, however, certain features common to all but a very few revolutions.

Prerevolutionary outbreaks

Few revolutions come as a bolt from the blue: demonstrations, strikes, meetings, outbreaks of violence, a partial or total breakdown of law and order usually foreshadow the shape of things to come.

Initial moderate stage

After it has come to power, a revolutionary movement, being a coalition of various groups and parties, often assumes a moderate character. The exceptions are revolutionary movements that have come to power after a prolonged civil war and have decimated their enemies and rivals as a result of that war (e.g., Yugoslavia in 1945, China in 1949). Once the leadership of the former regime has been overthrown and the outstanding symbols of its rule removed, the new revolutionary regime is interested above all in “business as usual,” in other words, the restarting of essential services, work in factories, shops, and on the land. A total breakdown would not be in the interest of the revolution, which usually lacks the qualified manpower to fill all key positions with its own candidates and therefore needs the cooperation of a substantial number of supporters of the old regime. Some genuine revolutionary movements fail at the first stage; Chu Yüan-chang came to power in 1368 as an agrarian revolutionary, yet could not carry out any radical reforms because he needed the assistance of the wealthy landowners to pay his army. Batista’s Cuban uprising in 1933 differed from the traditional Latin American coup d’état and had the makings of a genuine revolution, since it placed sergeants over officers; yet its sole achievement was to enable the newcomers to share the spoils of the old system.

Radical phase

Revolutionary movements that outlast the first phase—both those which have more ambitious plans and those which are driven forward by the sheer logic of events—tend to adopt more radical measures in the second phase. At the same time the coalition of parties usually splits up, and the more radical elements (Jacobins, Bolsheviks) emerge as the sole possessors of power. Within the ruling group power passes into the hands of a very small number, often into the hands of a single individual. This process may be hastened by counterrevolutionary activities and/or foreign intervention, but it may also happen irrespective of such opposition. Every major revolution has destroyed the state apparatus it found and eventually replaced it by setting up another, generally stronger bureaucratic organization in its place. This centralizing dictatorial trend has been marked in every modern revolution.

In many revolutions there are two distinct phases: the overthrow of the upper aristocracy in the English Civil War, for example, was followed at a later stage by the emergence of the middle and lower classes. The February Revolution of 1917 was followed by the Bolshevik seizure of power. Once the main revolutionary measures have been carried out and a certain normality re-established, there is frequently a change of guard. Some of the revolutionary heroes and leaders succeed in adjusting themselves to the new administrative and organizational tasks facing them; others do not and are cast aside, giving way to managers and bureaucrats. In the struggle for power that often ensues, it is by no means always the most radical leader who triumphs, but the better tactician, the man with the most support within the ruling group, the army, the police, or other power base.

Postrevolutionary situation

How do revolutions end? Some revolutionary movements fail at a very early stage or are beaten by the forces raised against them. Some of those that last longer peter out because a key leader dies (Oliver Cromwell) or because internecine strife undermines the revolutionary party (e.g., France in 1794). Others evolve over a long period of time and gradually change their character. Certain revolutionary achievements are maintained; others are slowly eroded, although the phraseology of the revolution is usually preserved. There are unlimited variations on this theme.

The personnel of revolutions

The typical nineteenth-century or twentieth-century revolutionary is of middle-class or lower-middle-class origin— student, young lawyer, or junior army officer. Elderly and very rich people or those with conservative inclinations are unlikely to lead or engage in revolutionary activity. There are, as usual, exceptions: the Brazilian revolution of 1889, which led to the downfall of the monarchy, was a movement of protest by leading hacienderos against the abolition of slavery. The railroad disturbances in China in 1911, which led to the deposition of the Manchu dynasty, began as a protest of the principal railroad shareholders against nationalization. On the whole a revolutionary mentality is unlikely to flourish in such circles, although a number of aristocrats were on the side of the tiers état in 1789. The majority of leaders of socialist movements and of proletarian revolutions have been of middle-class origin; this fact suggests that the feeling of frustration, the quest for power, the sense of injustice, and various idealistic aspirations are of greater importance in the formation of a revolutionary than is economic discontent. Oppressed nationality is occasionally an important factor (the high percentage of Jews, Latvians, Armenians, etc., in the initial stage of the Russian Revolution, the prominent part played by national minorities in revolutionary movements in the Balkans and the Middle East, the role of Poland in 1848, and so on).

In those parts of the world where grave social and political problems exist, higher education acts as a powerful stimulus toward revolution. The illiterate masses may be quiescent, however miserable their lot, but higher education provokes a “revolution of expectations” that cannot be fulfilled. Students and high school pupils have played a very prominent part in both the Russian and Chinese revolutions and in revolutionary movements in Latin America, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia and Africa; the fact that these were or are countries with a high proportion of unemployment or misemployment of university graduates is not accidental. The conflict of generations is another factor of considerable importance (the revolution of the tenentes in Brazil in 1939; of young army officers in Venezuela in 1945, in Egypt in 1952, and in Iraq in 1959).

Some revolutionary movements have been led and supported by one specific class or group (for instance, peasant revolts), but the major revolutions have had a broader basis both as to leadership and rank and file. Intellectuals have played a leading part in most revolutionary movements in Europe since the eighteenth century, while in many countries outside Europe young army officers have had a conspicuous role. The army as such in these countries is no more revolutionary in spirit than the police or the civil service, who on the whole play a passive part (or a waiting game) and regain importance only after the victory of the revolution; but as the principal source of physical power, the army is the most obviously effective instrument of revolution. Young revolutionaries in the Middle East and in Latin America have often chosen to become army officers because this career was the most likely to give them power and thus bring about political and social change.

Since, as a rule, a revolution can succeed only if preparations for it are kept secret, these have usually been confined to a small revolutionary high command. In the era before modern political parties came into being, an important part was played by secret societies, such as the clubs in France on the eve of 1789 or the Chinese secret societies, which traditionally had great political influence (the White Lotus in 1775, the Society of Heaven’s Law in 1813). A certain amount of conspiracy is involved in every revolution, but its ramifications are often exaggerated (the “hidden hand,” the “conspiracy theory” of history) and undue importance subsequently attributed to certain bodies (the Illuminati, the Freemasons), attributing causal or organizational connection to events that were in fact quite unconnected. Apart from what is planned, there is in each revolution a spontaneous element, which is sometimes far more decisive. The revolutions in Germany and Austria in 1918 were neither foreseen nor planned by any revolutionary high command.

Revolutionary uprisings undertaken by the army are usually prepared by a single commander or a small group of officers (junta) having the support of a substantial part of the army. The garrison of the capital or the units stationed nearby are usually of decisive importance in this context. Twentieth-century revolutions in the more highly developed countries need a mass basis; the army may be essential for the initial stage, but different instruments are required to hold power and to carry out the changes deemed necessary. The more ambitious military usurpers have therefore tried either to collaborate with some of the existing political parties or groups or to create a political mass movement of their own (Peron, Nasser, etc.).

Success or failure of revolution

The factors determining success or failure in revolution are as various as the factors that generate revolutionary activity in the first place. The most frequent causes of failure are lack of support or active resistance by the bulk of the population and disunity or lack of purpose on the part of the leaders. In all modern revolutions the support of a militant minority and the physical seizure of some vital points d’appui (such as the seat of government, the army and police commands, the means of mass communication—radio, press, etc.) are decisive. These steps are carried out by a comparatively small minority and stand a good chance of succeeding if the group has mastered the elementary technique of the coup d’état, if the enemy is disorganized and incapable of counteraction, and if the bulk of the population is at least neutral. In the decisive first hours or days of revolution a few hundred, or at the most a few thousand, revolutionaries can achieve success even in a large country. (In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the pace was usually more leisurely.) Once a strong revolutionary dictatorship has been established, a comparatively small minority can retain power for a considerable time, provided that its policy does not antagonize all of the people for most of the time or permit the antagonized to organize. Technical progress in transportation and communication has made it much easier for such a regime to influence the whole population and control the entire territory, whereas in the past there was always a danger of counterrevolution breaking out in a remote part of the country.

The timing of a revolutionary attempt is of crucial importance; so are the personalities of its leaders. It is doubtful whether the October Revolution of 1917 would have succeeded without Lenin and Trotsky or indeed whether it would have been undertaken at all. The Bolshevik uprising succeeded, whereas communist or left-wing extremist revolutions elsewhere in Europe (Budapest, Munich) failed. Lenin’s party was numerically stronger and better organized than the rather amorphous groups that supported the Bavarian and Hungarian revolutions; the ruling class was weaker and more discredited in Russia than in central Europe. In addition, counterrevolutionary action by foreign powers was, for geographic reasons, less effective in Russia than in Hungary and southern Germany.

A number of revolutions have failed because their leaders lacked the will and ability to persevere in a revolutionary course of action after the first demonstrations or fighting had taken place (Germany in 1848); they feared anarchy and radicalism in their own ranks more than they feared their enemies. Other revolutions failed because they were betrayed before the planned coups were carried out; since preparation is by necessity limited to a fairly small group, the arrest of some leaders can mean a lasting setback for a revolutionary movement.


Groups of people adversely affected (or likely to be so affected) by a revolution often band together to try to avert it or, if it has already occurred, to overthrow it. Support for counterrevolutionary movements in the nineteenth century usually came from the aristocracy, the clergy, or the higher ranks of the army—all those with a vested interest in preserving the old order. Toward the end of the century, however, and in particular after World War i, certain important changes took place. Since revolutionaries were appealing to the mass of the people and trying to establish, wherever possible, a mass basis of support for their activities, the counterrevolutionaries had to adapt to the new conditions. To have any political influence at all they were compelled to accept a part (sometimes a large part) of the revolutionaries’ program and to adopt their tactics. In Europe only those counterrevolutionary movements that have done so have enjoyed success for any length of time, although overwhelming outside assistance may serve as well. The counterrevolutionary movement usually restricts itself at first to mere demagogic phrasemongering; but gradually it spreads and gains a momentum of its own. The trade unions founded by Colonel Zubatov of the Russian police in 1900 were originally meant to combat the revolutionaries, but in the competition for popular support they gained a measure of independence, and their sponsors lost control over the movement. The fascist and national-socialist movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s usually began as counterrevolutionary movements; but the majority of their leaders did not belong to the old order and had no intention of restoring it. In their extreme forms these movements were quasi-revolutionary in character (National Bolshevism in Germany; Mussolini’s Republic of Salò, etc.) or nihilistic (Hitler), rather than reactionary. The traditional categories of “revolutionary” and “counterrevolutionary” continued perhaps to make sense when applied to the more rudimentary forms of European fascism, but they became irrelevant in regard to its more advanced forms and to the totalitarian state in general. The Hungarian revolution of 1956 has proved this beyond reasonable doubt.

Consequences of revolution

It is characteristic of a revolution (in contrast to a mere coup d’état) that it has far-reaching political, social, and sometimes economic or cultural consequences. Revolutions have frequently been the “locomotives of history”; just as frequently they have been quite senseless, causing much unnecessary suffering. Revolutions have liberated peoples and elevated classes; at the same time some of the greatest crimes in history have been committed in the name of revolution. It has been argued that the emancipation of the third estate in France and the transformation of Russia into a democracy were already under way in 1789 and 1917 and that the revolutions merely gave a spectacular acceleration to an inevitable historical process. Since force begets force, however, violent revolution, though intended to overthrow despotism, very often culminates in a new tyranny. Since the idealism and devotion inherent in revolutionary movements thus serve to bring about a new despotism, the movements can hardly be regarded as great successes in terms of what they set out to do. Against this it is argued that the lasting “social achievements” of revolutions are more decisive than any short-lived “political distortion” or terrorism.

The major revolutionary movements of modern times have claimed a world-wide mission and have been expansive in character. The French Revolution in the years 1789–1815 undoubtedly helped spread civil liberties throughout Europe; some of its reverberations were felt in Europe and the rest of the world long after. Yet the attempt to bring the blessings of civil liberties forcibly to other countries produced a chauvinistic, antiliberal reaction in some parts of Europe, which had fateful consequences. Revolutions that set themselves limited objectives may succeed in achieving genuine reforms if they represent the aspirations of the majority of the population. The more violent a revolution, the greater the amount of coercion applied, the more likely that dictatorship, ostensibly established for a short “transition” period only, will be perpetuated. Revolutions that aim at a total transformation of society claim to act in the interests of the majority, but since the majority does not realize where its own best interests lie, it is left to a small avant-garde to make the decisions for it. In consequence it is more than likely that a society will emerge in which severe repression seems to be permanently built in. Such a state may achieve striking results in various fields, such as the national economy or national defense, but to judge from past experience, it will not succeed in building a freer and more just society.

Doctrines of revolution

The modern conception of revolution as a fundamental transformation dates back to the eighteenth century, although it is not quite correct to argue that the idea of a radical new beginning was altogether alien to ancient times. However, until the late eighteenth century the advocates of Utopian societies were, with some notable exceptions, not revolutionaries, and revolutionaries were not utopians. Ordinarily, the revolutionaries fought against absolute monarchs or tyrants in the name of a natural order that the latter had violated. This tradition was expressed in the American War of Independence and the early stages of the French Revolution. The French Revolution produced an immense amount of theorizing on the subject, and the discussion received fresh fuel from the many revolutionary outbreaks of the nineteenth century. The famous exchange between Burke and Paine set the pattern for an argument which has continued to the present day. The conservative viewpoint rests on the belief that political and social continuity are essential prerequisites for an orderly society; that abstract rights and model constitutions count for little in practice; that revolutions are at best destructive and only replace one despotism by another—if they do not result in a period of general anarchy. The nineteenth-century conservative regarded the revolutionary movement as inherently sinful, its leaders as misfits and criminals, and its followers as the deluded dregs of society.

Revolutionary theory in its more extreme forms, on the other hand, held that revolutionaries were only the most consistent fighters for freedom, justice, and the other ancient ideals of mankind and that therefore in the long run they could do no wrong. If conservative and liberal doctrine was largely based on a fear of violence, revolutionary theory belittled the significance of violence and terror and almost totally ignored the realities of political power in a modern society.

In recent decades the Marxist-Leninist doctrine of proletarian revolution has all but monopolized discussions on the subject. It claims to be a scientific doctrine and regards history as proceeding according to ascertainable laws. Revolutions fulfill a crucial function in the development of society: they overthrow the old social order, which has outlived its usefulness, and establish a new order; in this process power passes from the hands of one class (which is reactionary) to another (which is progressive in character). According to Marxist theory, the productive forces of society at certain stages of their development clash with the existing relations of production. The existing social order begins to impede their further development, and an epoch of social revolution begins. The basic problem in each revolution is the question of state power; through the class struggle power passes from one class to another. The class struggle may lead to civil war; its very highest form is revolution. All revolutions before 1917 only brought about the replacement of one form of exploitation by another; only the socialist (communist) revolution puts an end to man’s exploitation by man. This is the final revolution, for in a socialist society there can be, by definition, only “nonantagonistic conflicts,” conflicts that can be resolved in a peaceful way.

The historical fate of Marxist-Leninist doctrine is of great importance. It has been very successful, but not where it expected to succeed—in the industrially developed countries of Europe and North America. Instead it became the ideology of an industrial revolution in backward countries. The revolutionary situation that Marx had expected to develop in western and central Europe failed to arrive. In the underdeveloped countries, on the other hand, the Western impact produced strains that made for a different kind of revolutionary situation. These revolutions were not proletarian in character; neither in China nor in Cuba did the working class take a prominent part in the revolution. These revolutions, however, brought to power regimes that were either communist from the first (China) or that soon adopted a “Marxist-Leninist” viewpoint (Cuba).

These historical fortunes of the Marxist-Leninist theory of revolution made various ideological mutations and adaptations necessary. The socialist parties of Europe became democratic in character; some of them continued to pay lip service to revolution, but their practice, and gradually their theory, became “revisionist.” In the late 1950s several European Communist parties also began to show what some observers regarded as reformist inclinations. In Russia, Trotsky and others had propagated the idea of the permanent revolution, the doctrine that a “bourgeois revolution” in Russia (or a similar country) would immediately be followed by the establishment of a “proletarian dictatorship” and that an upheaval in one country would inevitably lead to revolution on a wider scale. The world revolution failed to materialize, however, and in the Soviet Union there developed what has become known (though never defined in detail) as the Stalinist concept of the “revolution from above.” Revolution no longer meant the liberation of society from outworn political and spiritual fetters. Now it stood for the reshaping of society by a dictatorial regime controlling a centralized state apparatus and an all-pervading party organization. The “revolution from above” established communist regimes in eastern Europe; abortive revolutionary uprisings from below (Berlin in 1953, Poznan and Budapest in 1956) were later directed against these regimes.

Revolutionary movements continue to exist in the underdeveloped parts of the world; the revolutionary potential of these countries is far more pronounced than that of the industrially advanced nations. Revolutionary doctrine in these areas has absorbed some elements of the Marxist-Leninist theory, but to a very considerable extent it springs from other sources, such as resentment against the white nations that ruled the colonial world for so long. Attempts to organize the former colonies and underdeveloped countries into one united front against the metropolitan countries can be traced back to the 1920s, and in a somewhat modified form the idea has found new proponents in the 1960s; they argue that the underdeveloped countries are the “proletarian nations,” the only truly revolutionary force on a world scale.

According to the Chinese communist thesis, revolutions (and wars of liberation) would and should continue regardless of consequences, whereas most Russian and European communists maintain that in the nuclear age any large-scale wars of liberation could cause as much destruction as an imperialist war and have therefore become self-defeating as means of achieving political results. They argue that peaceful revolution has become possible as a result of a shift in the global balance of power and the growing attraction of the ideas of communism; the Chinese have violently attacked such views as revisionist.

The historical role of the Marxist theory of revolution has been enormous. With its emphasis on social and economic factors, it helped to put into wider perspective events that previously had been interpreted almost exclusively from a political angle; it has also been more useful than “static” interpretations as a guide to revolutionary situations. However, with the end of the epoch that produced it, this doctrine gradually ceased to be relevant; it ceased to be so in the communist countries because these faced, in the postrevolutionary situation, problems that could not be foreseen in the nineteenth century; it ceased to be relevant in the Western countries because there was virtually no likelihood of a revolutionary situation arising. In the tiers monde it continues to be of relevance as a doctrine of industrial revolution—one in which, however, national or local characteristics are of growing importance.

Walter Laqueur

[See alsoInternal Warfare; Marxism; Social Movements.]


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Lenin, Vladimir I. (1917) 1964 The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution. Volume 25, pages 381–492 in Vladimir I. Lenin, Collected Works. 4th ed. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Lichtheim, George 1961 Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. London: Routledge; New York: Praeger.

Mannheim, Karl (1939–1943) 1950 Diagnosis of Our Time. London: Routledge.

Marx, Karl; and Engels, Friedrich (1848) 1959 The Communist Manifesto. London: Allen & Unwin. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by Washington Square Press.

Marx, Karl; and Engels, Friedrich (1848–1898) 1962 Selected Works. 2 vols. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

MÜhlmann, Wilhelm E. 1961 Chiliasmus und Nativismus: Studien zur Psychologie, Soziologie und historischen Kasuistik der Umsturzbewegungen. Berlin: Reimer.

Paine, Thomas (1791) 1951 The Rights of Man. New York: Dutton.

Tocqueville, Alexis De (1856) 1955 The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Garden City, N.Y.: Double-day.

Trotsky, Leon (1930) 1962 The Permanent Revolution. London: New Park Publications.


views updated May 21 2018






Revolution as applied to social change originally referred to the overturning of a government but not to changes that ushered in a new age. From the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries, Europeans spoke of revolutions when one form of government gave way to another, as when a monarchy was overthrown or restored or a citystates government shifted between republican and aristocratic rule.

The notion of political revolutions as overturning tradition, creating a new era, and thereby bringing about progress was first used toward the end of the eighteenth century to describe the overthrow of monarchies and the founding of national republics in the United States in 1776 and France in 1789. Inspired by the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment, which aimed to make reason the arbiter of governing and social institutions, opponents of traditional authority saw these events as breaking the shackles of tradition and ushering in a new era of freedom under rationally conceived political institutions. Thomas Paine, in The Rights of Man (1791), referred to both the American Revolution and The French Revolution in this manner.

Since the eighteenth century, the notion of revolution as marking a major break with the past, destroying old ways, and bringing progress has been applied to numerous historical and intellectual events. Archaeologists call the prehistoric onset of agriculture the Neolithic Revolution. In economics, the shift from agricultural to industrial economies is called the Industrial Revolution. In science, major shifts in leading theories are commonly labeled scientific revolutions, such as the Darwinian Revolution or the Copernican Revolution, while the term Scientific Revolution is used to denote the shift from traditional natural philosophy to experimental science that occurred from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. More recently, agronomists have used the term Green Revolution to describe the widespread adoption of high-yield grains and artificial fertilizers in East Asia. In military tactics, the introduction of stealth, satellite, and laser technologies has been labeled the revolution in military affairs. Almost every area of human endeavor thus has come to use the term revolution to mark relatively sudden, progressive change.


The most common use of the term revolution in the social sciences is to designate major, sudden changes in political regimes, especially when carried forward through mass demonstrations or popular revolts and accompanied by attacks on government officials or elites, on public or private property, or on symbols of elite status or political authority. Such events are called political revolutions when they alter government institutions but leave much of the economic and social structure of society intact; they are called social revolutions (or great revolutions) when they alter not only government structures but also the organization of the economy, the social hierarchy, the role of religion, and major symbols and beliefs regarding authority and national identity.

Revolutions are a form of internal political conflict, related to popular rebellions, civil wars, or coups détat. Revolutions usually include one or more of these events; but these events, by themselves or in combination, do not constitute a revolution (or attempted revolution). What defines revolution is not merely challenges to political authority or contests for power but efforts to change a societys major political or economic or religious institutions.

Although the term is relatively new, revolutions can be identified in history as far back as ancient Egypt, where the Old Dynasty was overthrown amid popular revolts and the pharaoh was replaced by committees of notables. In classical Greece and Rome, and in medieval European city-states, political conflicts often led to a monarchy being overturned and replaced by a republic, or a republic being overthrown and replaced by a monarch or tyrant. Another form of revolutionary movement that arose in many parts of Europe, Asia, and Africafrom the early days of Christianity to the White Lotus rebellions in eighteenth-century Chinawere religiously inspired movements that sought to replace secular authorities with rule by a charismatic savior or a community of saints.

The distinctively modern idea of revolution that developed in the eighteenth century was to see revolutions as permanent and progressive changes in the entire social order, changes that replaced outmoded and unjust political, economic, religious, and social institutions with a new social organization based on reason. This kind of revolution has since taken several forms.

Constitutional revolutions sought to replace traditional monarchies or empires with republics bound by newly written rules that would limit state power, end the privileges of hereditary elites, and confer rights and responsibilities on citizens. Major examples include the American Revolution (1776); the French Revolution (1789); the Revolutions of 1848 in France, Germany, and Austria; the Turkish Revolution of 1919; the Iranian Revolution of 1905; and the Chinese Republican Revolution (1911).

Anticolonial revolutions aimed to end rule by foreign countries, drawing on nationalist identities to inspire resistance and the foundation of new institutions of local self-rule. In many cases, nationalist traditions were in fact newly developed by elites, and in some cases self-rule became rule by local elites rather than citizen-based democracy. Major examples include the Latin American revolutions (18081828), the Vietnamese (1954) and Algerian (1962) revolutions, the Indian independence movement (1949), and the Mozambique and Angolan revolutions (1974).

Fascist revolutions also drew on nationalist traditions but used them to mobilize mass support for the replacement of weak monarchies or republics with authoritarian regimes. Major examples include Italy (1921) and Germany (1933).

Communist revolutions, inspired by the historical theories of Karl Marx, aimed to overturn existing regimes and replace them with one-party states that abolished private property. They created dictatorships that destroyed economic elites in the name of the people. Major examples include Russia (1917), China (1949), and Cuba (1959).

Antidictatorial revolutions, provoked by the excessive corruption or depredations of modernizing dictatorships, aimed to create new regimes based on constitutions or one-party states. Major examples include Mexico (1911), Nicaragua (1979), and the Philippines (1976).

Some revolutions combined these features; for example, the Vietnamese revolution was anticolonial and Communist. Other revolutions were distinctive and fit none of these categories; examples include the South African anti-apartheid revolution (1994), which replaced a racially exclusive regime with a multiracial democracy, or the Iranian Islamic Revolution (1979), which replaced a modernizing dictatorship with an elected government that was overseen by nonelected religious leaders.

The last several decades have seen the emergence of yet another kind of revolution, the people power or color revolutionsso termed because popular demonstrations toppled dictators, not by mass violence, but instead by rallying huge crowds around symbols of national unity and popular opposition, which were mainly colored symbols such as yellow or orange ribbons, roses, or tulips. Examples include the Philippines (1976), Ukraine (2004), Georgia (2003), and Kyrgyzstan (2005). Other examples include the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (1989) and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon (2005).


Despite their varied nature, social and political revolutions have been generally rooted in a similar set of causes. These are: (1) a crisis of state authority, often rooted in fiscal problems, military pressures, a succession crisis, or severe corruption, though it can also reflect the rise of religious or nationalist grievances against the ruling regime; (2) major divisions among and defections by the official, military, economic, and/or religious elites of the state, weakening the state and providing leadership to the opposition; (3) economic conditions that are perceived as unjustly imposing hardships on workers or peasants, and that the state is held responsible for causing or failing to ameliorate; and (4) a broad culture of opposition, which unites different social and political groups around a set of ideologies and symbols that produce antistate coalitions among diverse groups and that justifies and encourages efforts to oppose the regime. Such a culture of opposition generally draws on both historical memories of resistance and modern ideologies that depict the injustices of the current regime. In some cases, a fifth condition is important: international conditions, alliances, or conflicts that weaken the power of the ruling regime and offer opportunity or support to opposition movements seeking to challenge state power.

The presence of these conditions is rarely, if ever, created simply by the efforts of revolutionary movements. Rather, such movements create some conditions, exacerbate some conditions once they begin, and take advantage of others. In many cases, the ruling regime itself creates the conditions for revolution by blundering into military or fiscal crises, alienating elites, and forging a culture of opposition by engaging in repression of opponents that is widely seen as unjustified or excessive. Revolutions thus often arise unexpectedly, as neither states nor revolutionaries expect to create all these conditions; rather, a combination of actions by state leaders, elites, and revolutionary movements, plus shifting international or economic conditions, creates the necessary conjunction.

Once a revolution begins, the process of revolution can be long drawn out. Even where the central government collapses quickly, the conflicts that ensue among moderate and radical groups contesting for power, or between the new revolutionary state and recalcitrant regions or groups, can lead to civil war, as in France, Russia, and Mexico. It thus may be a decade or more before a stable revolutionary government is established.

Alternatively, revolutionary movements may gradually establish themselves in remote regions of the countryside, patiently winning allies and extending their zones of control, and waiting for weakness and defections from the ruling regime. In such cases, although the revolutionary regime may take years or even decades to come to power, once the central government has fallen the new regime is often battle-hardened and ready to suppress its remaining foes and quickly take control of the country. This was the pattern in the Chinese and Cuban Communist revolutions.

Where the process of revolution involves drawn-out struggles for power, such processes generally favor the rise of more extreme, radical groups. These groups are often more ruthless in attacking their enemies and better able to rouse popular support by claiming more truly to embody new national identities and to be more devoted to popular demands for rapid change. Revolutions thus typically begin with a mix of moderate and radical groups in opposition to the regime; yet in the course of struggles for control of the new revolutionary state, more extremist groups tend to win out and banish or destroy the moderate opposition. Eventually, however, the regime becomes more stable and conservative, seeking mainly to conserve its power and privileges.

In some cases, the conflict between moderates and radicals persists, leading to a second phase of radicalism. In this phase, radicals come to worry that the original revolutionary impetus has been lost and that current officials in the revolutionary regime have become conservative; they therefore launch a renewed set of radicalizing policy initiatives. This often takes place one or two decades or more after the onset of the revolution. Examples include the Jacksonian Revolution in the new United States, the Proletarian Revolution launched by Mao Zedong in China, the radical and nationalizing policies undertaken by Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico, and the radical foreign and nuclear policies backed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in modern Iran.

The process of revolutionary conflicts can thus stretch over many decades. In France one can argue that the conflicts among republicans and monarchists were not settled until the defeat of Napoleon III by Prussia in 1870, almost a century after the French Revolution had begun. In China, the conflicts among republicans, warlords, Maoist radicals, and economic moderates lasted from 1911 to at least 1989.

While the causes of political and social revolutions are basically similar, the outcomes of revolutions vary greatly. In some cases, revolutionaries start with, and maintain, relatively moderate and focused goals of political change. Examples include the American Revolution (1776), the Latin American Revolutions (18081826), and the Philippines Revolution (1996). In other cases, whether through internal or external struggles in defending their revolutionary program or through ideological inspiration, revolutionaries come to embrace a more radical program of economic and social transformation, as occurred in Russia, China, Cambodia, and Cuba.

The political nature of revolutionary regimes also varies. In some cases, revolutionary leaders have been genuinely committed to achieving democracy and guided their new regimes to that goal. Examples include the United States, South Africa, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Philippines. In other cases, revolutionary leaders placed a higher value on staying in power or maintaining the revolutionary regime in the face of powerful threats; in these cases revolutionary regimes swiftly moved toward one-party or personal dictatorships. Examples include France, the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Mexico, and Algeria. In some cases, the revolutionary outcomes remained mixed and unclear for some time, as with Russias anti-Communist revolution of 1981 (first moving toward, then away from democracy), or Nicaraguas Sandinista Revolution of 1979 (first moving away, then toward, democracy).

In sum, once begun, revolutions have a wide variety of lengthy trajectories and varied outcomes. It is rarely possible to be certain in advance what those outcomes will be; instead, domestic and international struggles to defend the revolutionary regime almost inevitably reshape it, so that eventual outcomes are more a result of continuing processes and struggles than of a prior plan or the conditions of the former regime.


Although there were many national and anticolonial revolutions in the twentieth century, these events occurred against a backdrop of general, globalizing change. Some of these changes include substantial gains in life expectancies around the world, huge rises in living standards in developed countries, and vast increases in the flow of people, goods, capital, and information across and within national boundaries.

One result of these changes has been a revolution of rising expectations. This refers to a major shift in how people in poor regions consider their own circumstances. In earlier times, most poor people considered how they lived in comparison to that of their parents, grandparents, and immediate neighbors. How wealthy landowners, nobles, or businessmen lived was of little concern. However, rapidly rising material wealth in developed countries, plus the flow of information and communications in the form of television, movies, CDs, and travel, have made poorer regions cognizant of the much higher living standards and the progress of democracy elsewhere in the world. This has led to a revolution of rising expectations, such that even poor people in developing countries now expect their governments to bring material improvements to their locale and provide access for participation.

This revolution of rising expectations can, in some circumstances, feed into political movements of rebellion and revolution as well. Where governments are perceived as actively blocking improvement, as unjustly repressing political expression or social or economic opportunities, then oppositions may mobilize for rebellion. When such states are weakened, elite defections occur, and international conditions are favorable, revolutions in ideas can fuel revolutions in politics. Thus, the age of revolutions is likely far from over.

SEE ALSO American Revolution; Battle of Algiers, The; Coup dEtat; Cuban Revolution; French Revolution; Guerrilla Warfare; Haitian Revolution; Hungarian Revolution; Internet; Media; Political System; Protest; Resistance; Revolution of Rising Expectations; Revolutions, Latin American; Russian Revolution; Sandinistas; Violence


Foran, John. 2005. Taking Power: On the Origins of Third World Revolutions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Goldstone, Jack A. 1991. Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goodwin, Jeffrey. 2001. No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 19451991. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Selbin, Eric. 1999. Modern Latin American Revolutions. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jack A. Goldstone


views updated May 14 2018


REVOLUTION . Throughout the course of history, religion has functioned as a source of social solidarity, and this fact is undoubtedly related to the very essence of religion, which provides a set of basic values for the regulation of human life on earth and guidance in the search for meaning and salvation. Since in all traditional societies both nature and society were regarded as part of the same cosmic universe controlled by gods or spirits, a religious legitimation of the social order developed as a matter of course.

The integrative role of religion has been known for a very long time. The eighteenth-century rationalist Voltaire assured his noble pupil, Frederick the Great, that a "wise and courageous prince, with money, troops, and laws, can perfectly well govern men without the aid of religion," but most rulers of humankind and the sages counseling them have preferred not to take any chances on the firmness and sway of political authority. In his Discourses (1517) Machiavelli called religion "the most necessary and assured support of any civil society," and he exhorted princes and heads of republics "to uphold the foundations of the religion of their countries, for then it is easy to keep their people religious, and consequently well conducted and united." The duration of empires, argued the French conservative Joseph de Maistre, writing after the French Revolution, "has always been proportionate to the influence that the religious principle has acquired in the political system." The emphasis on the importance to society of a sense of shared values endeared de Maistre to his fellow countryman, the sociologist Émile Durkheim, probably the best-known modern spokesman for the view that the primary function of religion is the preservation of social unity.

But religion has often also functioned as an agent of revolutionary mobilization. Religion involves transcendent moral standards that define an ideal against which human performance can be measured. Hence those who are dissatisfiedpolitically, economically, socially, or spirituallymay find in religion strong support for their attack upon the status quo. Religion can be a powerful agent pushing the thoughts of leaders beyond tradition; it may become the spiritual dynamic of revolution that Georges Sorel called the "social myth." As the judicious Richard Hooker observed in the sixteenth century, during a period of great religious and social upheaval, when the minds of leaders are once "persuaded that it is the will of God to have those things done which they fancy, their opinions are as thorns in their sides, never suffering them to take rest till they have brought their speculations into practice." Religion can provide individual with the zeal of true believers who know that they are right and who act with fortitude since they carry out God's will and count on God's helping hand.

While some religious ideas, such as the conception of sacred kingship to be found in many premodern societies, have reinforced a pattern of political subservience and quietism, most religious views of rulership have not had such unequivocal political consequences. The ancient Chinese doctrine of the mandate of Heaven, for example, legitimized the rule of the emperor, the Son of Heaven, who traced his title to deified ancestors upon whom Heaven, the supreme deity, had conferred the right to rule. And yet, the mandate of Heaven was not seen as granted in perpetuity or unconditionally. Heaven demanded righteousness and good government and deposed rulers who abused their exalted office. Hence, just as the concept had apparently come into being to justify the seizure of power by the Zhou dynasty (around 1028 bce), which claimed a divine mandate for overthrowing the Shang, so the mandate of Heaven could later be invoked by new aspirants to the supreme rulership. Indeed, in Chinese a revolution is called ge ming "breaking of the mandate."

The Christian ideas of divine providence and of the divine origin and sanction of rulership also have had diverse results: They have helped shore up and sanctify political authority, but they also have been used to justify rebellion. In the deterministic worldview of Augustine of Hippo, nothing could exist without divine approval. Divine providence has arranged things in such a way that every evil in the world is directed to some good. God appoints rulers according to the merits of the people, and in view of his omnipotence and justice tyrants must be considered God's retribution for the perversity of the people. Both just kings and cruel tyrants reign by God's providence; none may be resisted.

This gospel of submissiveness, a justification for a theologian desirous of obtaining secular support for the suppression of heresy or for a Martin Luther in need of assistance from the princes of the Holy Roman Empire, was a burdensome handicap for Christians eager to fight the pretensions of absolute temporal power. Hence, in the later sixteenth century, in particular, the doctrine of divine providence was reinterpreted so as to make possible certain political actions. Theodore Beza, a disciple of Calvin, conceded that nothing can exist without divine approval and that God uses the evil deeds of sinners to punish other sinners. But, he asked, why could it not be God's will that tyrants be punished by the people rather than people by tyrants? During the Puritan Revolution (English Civil War) the Christian humanist John Milton rejected the suggestion that God had put the English nation in slavery to Charles Stuart and that only God, therefore, could be relied upon to release it. If God can be said to give a people into slavery whenever a tyrant prevails over a people, he asked, why ought God not as well be said to set them free whenever people prevail over a tyrant?

But this kind of politically useful theological reasoning did not originate with either Beza or Milton. Around 1110, Hugh of Fleury had taught in his De regia potestate that God punishes bad princes by the insubordination of their people, and the same idea is found in Eastern Christendom. The Kievan chronicler considered a revolt of the citizens against their prince an act of God's will, punishing the prince for his misconduct. More recently a pastoral letter issued in 1967 by "Sixteen Bishops of the Third World" declared that "Christians and their pastors should know how to recognize the hand of the Almighty in those events that from time to time put down the mighty from their thrones and raise up the humble." Needless to say, the impressment of God for the cause of rebellion is today no monopoly of the political left. After the military coup of 1964 in Brazil, a group of Brazilian archbishops and bishops thanked God for having listened to their prayers for deliverance from the communist peril. Divine providence, they said, had made itself felt in a tangible manner.

Other contradictory consequences of the doctrine of divine providence must be noted. The acceptance of the omnipotent role of the deity can lead to fatalism and inaction, but it can also spur people to mighty effort because of the conviction that God is on their side. Thus the early Jewish apocalyptic writers counseled complete reliance upon God's direct intervention, which would redeem Israel, whereas the later Zealots, engaged in eschatological war against Rome, believed that God would usher in the new age of freedom and justice only if pious Jewish warriors actively participated in the realization of the divine plan. Here strong faith in the certainty of divine assistance acted to inspire superior exertion and fortitude and gave the struggle against Rome the character of a holy war. Revolutionary action merged with messianic utopianism and led to an utter disregard of Rome's overwhelming might, a realistic appraisal of which would have discouraged any hope of success.

The fact that most religious doctrines are protean in character and are open to different readings does not mean that the doctrinal content of a religion is entirely irrelevant to politics. Though all religions have both quietistic and revolutionary potentials, the relative proportions of these differing political implications vary. Considering the phenomenon of revolutionary millenarianism, for example, we see that certain religious traditions are more conducive to expectations of a coming age of bliss than others. The cyclical view of history in Hinduism and Buddhism, providing as it does for perpetual flux and endless repetition of the cosmic drama, appears to discourage millenarian ideas, just as the linear theory of history and the expectation of a final salvation of humanity in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam provide inspiration for the millenarian dream of eternal terrestrial redemption.

The leadership of religious organizations or movements is often of considerable importance in determining that group's political posture. A charismatic leader of a millenarian movement is a potent agent of radical change. As the bearer of chiliastic prophecy, he is not just a champion of felt needs or a catalyst but also a cause of the movement he is heading. The millenarian prophet's ambitious and challenging vision of what the world ought to be increases expectations and dissatisfactions, which can lead to a revolutionary situation. The limited success of conscientização, the attempted "raising of the consciousness" of the subservient peasant population of South America by various radical groups, shows that this enterprise encounters serious difficulties when entrusted to persons of ordinary and secular cast.

In sum, religion can be both a prop for the established institutions of society and a revolutionary force, since it includes elements for integration as well as for radical change. Religion can defuse social conflict by devaluing earthly concerns and emphasizing happiness in the world beyond, but its promise of divine intervention in human affairs can also strengthen the hope that a better life is possible here on earth. Hence many times different groups within one religion will line up on opposite sides of the barricades. God's will, when seen through the lenses of human desires and interests, can be, and in fact usually is, read in several different ways.

Whether religion discourages or promotes revolution depends on variables such as the relationship of the religious institution to the state or the presence or absence of a forceful leader. All religions known to us can assume both roles, though the intellectual and organizational traditions they hold will incline some more in one direction than in the other. Situational factors, such as the relative chances for success of a revolt, will also be important. In all there are four ways in which religion can assume a revolutionary posture:

  1. Millenarian revolts occur (a) when situations of distress or disorientation develop, and the causes are not clearly perceived or appear insoluble by ordinary and available remedies; (b) when a society or group is deeply attached to religious ways of thinking about the world and when the religion of that society attaches importance to millenarian ideas; and (c) when an individual or group of individuals obsessed with salvationist fantasies succeeds in establishing charismatic leadership over a social movement.
  2. Militant religious nationalism arises among colonized people in situations of awakening national consciousness. Religion supplies a sense of national identity; it becomes a symbol of self-assertion against the colonial regime, which is usually indifferent, if not hostile, to the native creed.
  3. The leaders of religious bodies with a developed ecclesiastical organization support a revolutionary upheaval because they are sympathetic to the aims of this revolution, or because they are protecting the interests of the religious institution. These interests can be temporal or spiritual or both. They can involve the defense of worldly possessions or the protection of the mission of the religious institution as the channel of divine grace to humanity.
  4. Individual theologians or laymen support a revolutionary movement to give a concrete social and political meaning to the transcendent elements of their faith, as in the Christian "theology of revolution." Such religious revolutionaries often work in concert with secular revolutionary movements and many lose their identity in them.

Just as in earlier times religion was often used to support the status quo, religion has, in many parts of the world today, become the handmaiden of revolution. The cross of Christianity, the crescent of Islam, and even the peaceful prayer wheel of Buddhism have been enlisted to shore up revolutionary movements and regimes, which are often identified with liberation, modernization, and progress, although, as especially in the case of Islamic revolutionary movements, the radical and far-reaching change instigated by revolution can entail fighting modernization and restoring the old ways. Whether this new positive relationship of religion and revolution will indeed promote human liberty and happiness is, of course, a question nobody can as yet answer. Religion has its part in this celebration of heroic ruthlessness and violence. It continues to inspire killing in Northern Ireland as much as on the Indian subcontinent and in the Philippines, demonstrating once again that religious zeal can be a powerful force for love but also an important force for hatred and cruelty. The various theologies of revolution make people slight the cruelties and the hatreds that commonly accompany revolutionary upheavals. What the theologizing of revolution cannot do is to establish the progressive character of such revolts. That judgment is reserved to future generations, who will have the opportunity to live with the consequences.


The classic study of the integrative role of religion remains Émile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York, 1915). On the phenomenon of revolutionary millenarianism, see Magic and the Millennium (New York, 1973) by Bryan R. Wilson and Millennial Dreams in Action, edited by Sylvia L. Thrupp (1962; reprint, New York, 1970), especially the essay by Norman Cohn, "Medieval Millenarianism: Its Bearing on the Study of Millenarian Movements." For the political manifestations of Christianity, consult Ernst Troeltsch's The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, 2 vols. (1911; reprint, London, 1931), and for the important sixteenth century, see John William Allen's A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century, 3d ed. (London, 1951). For a fuller treatment of the subject of this essay and further bibliography, see my own work, Religion and Revolution (Oxford, 1974).

New Sources

Elbaum, Max. Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che. New York, 2002.

Ellul, Jacques. Anarchy and Christianity. Translated by Geoffrey Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1991.

Holloway, John. Change the World without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. London, 2002.

Olsen, Gerald Wayne, ed. Religion and Revolution in Early-Industrial England: The Halévy Crisis and Its Critics. Lanham, Md., 1990.

Vaage, Lief, ed. Subversive Scriptures: Revolutionary Christian Readings of the Bible in Latin America. Harrisburg, Pa., 1997.

Guenter Lewy (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 29 2018


A sudden, tumultuous, and radical transformation of an entire system of government, including its legal and political components.

In many instances, revolutions encompass society as a whole, bringing fundamental change to a culture's economic, religious, and institutional framework. Fundamental change that is incrementally wrought over time is more properly considered evolutionary rather than revolutionary. A revolution also should be contrasted with a coup d'etat, which generally involves the violent ousting of a particular regime or its leaders, but which otherwise leaves intact the culture's political, legal, and economic infrastructure.

In many ways law and revolution occupy polar extremes in a political system. Law serves as one of the principal edifices upon which social order is built. Revolutions, on the other hand, seek to dismantle the existing social order. Legal systems are established in part to replace private forms of justice, such as self-help and vigilantism, which can lead to endless cycles of revenge. Revolutions, conversely, depend on persons who are willing to take law into their own hands.

At the same time, law can serve as the motivating force behind revolutionary activity. In writing the Declaration of Independence, thomas jefferson explained that it had become necessary for the colonies to dissolve their formal ties with Great Britain because the king of England had abused his autocratic power by denying Americans their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights, Jefferson said, are guaranteed by an unwritten natural law. The American Revolution, then, was fought to restore the rule of law in the United States, which was not fully accomplished until the power of government was subordinated to the will of the people in the state and federal constitutions.

Along these same lines, john locke, in his Second Treatise of Government (1690), postulated the right of all citizens to revolt against tyrants who subvert the law and oppress the populace through the wanton use of force and terror. Such tyrannical abuse of power, Locke said, may be resisted because every person is born with the rights to self-defense and selfpreservation, which supersede the laws of a despotic sovereign. However, neither Jefferson nor Locke prescribed a formula to determine when governmental behavior becomes sufficiently despotic to justify revolution.

The traditional meaning of the term revolution has been watered down by popular culture. Every day Americans are inundated with talk of revolution. The fitness revolution, the technology revolution, the computer revolution, and the information revolution are just a few examples of the everyday usage of this term. Such common usage has diluted the meaning of revolution to such an extent that it is now virtually synonymous with benign terms such as change, development, and progress.

Yet traditional revolutions are rarely benign. The French Revolution of 1789 is historically associated with the unfettered bloodletting at the guillotine. The twentieth-century revolutions in Russia, Southeast Asia, and Central America were marked by the mass extermination and persecution of political opponents.

These revolutions demonstrate the tension separating power from the rule of law. Following a revolution, members of new regimes are inevitably tempted to "get even" with the leaders of the ousted regime to whom they attribute the commission of horrible acts while in office. Now holding the reins of sovereignty, the new regime has acquired the power to impose an expedient form of justice upon members of the old regime. This form of justice has many faces, including the confiscation of property without a hearing, forcible detention without trial, and the implementation of summary executions.

However, the rule of law requires governments to act in strict accordance with clearly defined and well-established legal procedures and principles. The rule of law disfavors arbitrary and capricious governmental action. Thus, every revolutionary regime faces a similar dilemma: how to make a deposed regime pay for its tyrannical behavior without committing acts of tyranny itself. The identity and ideological direction of a revolutionary regime is often determined by the manner in which this dilemma is resolved.

further readings

Berman, Harold. 1983. Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.

O'Kane, Rosemary H.T. 2004. Paths to Democracy: Revolution and Totalitarianism. New York: Routledge.

Wood, Gordon. 1991. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books.


Anarchism; Communism; Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich; Marx, Karl Heinrich.


views updated Jun 11 2018

rev·o·lu·tion / ˌrevəˈloōshən/ • n. 1. a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system. ∎  (the Revolution) the American Revolution. ∎  (often the Revolution) (in Marxism) the class struggle that is expected to lead to political change and the triumph of communism. ∎  a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people's ideas about it: marketing underwent a revolution.2. an instance of revolving: one revolution a second. ∎  motion in orbit or a circular course or around an axis or center. ∎  the single completion of an orbit or rotation.DERIVATIVES: rev·o·lu·tion·ism / -ˌnizəm/ n.rev·o·lu·tion·ist / -nist/ n.


views updated May 11 2018


views updated May 29 2018

rev·o·lu·tion·ar·y / ˌrevəˈloōshəˌnerē/ • adj. engaged in or promoting political revolution: the revolutionary army. ∎  (Revolutionary) of or relating to the American Revolution. ∎  involving or causing a complete or dramatic change: a revolutionary new drug.• n. (pl. -ar·ies) a person who works for or engages in political revolution.


views updated Jun 11 2018

revolution In a political sense, fundamental change in values, political institutions, social structure, and leadership brought about by a large-scale, successful revolt. The totality of change distinguishes it from coups, rebellions, and wars of independence, which seek to achieve only particular changes. The term is also used to indicate great economic and technical changes, such as the Industrial Revolution or the Agricultural Revolution. See also American Revolution; French Revolution; Russian Revolution