Topic outline

  • Course Introduction

    In the 1970s, the Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai was asked to assess the outcomes of the French Revolution of 1789. He supposedly answered: "It is too soon to say.” Though this story has a somewhat apocryphal status, it captures a fundamental truth about the world in which we live: it is a world which has been shaped by revolutions, and their legacies are always difficult to evaluate.

    In this course, you will gain a better understanding of the modern world by studying some of the most important political revolutions that took place between the 17th century and today. You will seek to understand the causes of each revolution, analyze the ideologies that inspired the revolutionaries, examine revolutionary uses of violence, and consider how historical revolutions still shape contemporary politics. Close and critical readings of historical sources will be crucial in this process.

    The course begins with a theoretical analysis of revolutions and a careful examination of pre-revolutionary Europe and the Enlightenment. Subsequent units examine the English Revolution of the 17th century; the American and the French Revolutions, which are often described as the crucible of modernity; the Mexican Revolution, which changed the history of Latin America; the Russian and the Chinese Revolutions, which sought to create Marxist states; the Iranian Revolution, which created an Islamic Republic; and finally, the Eastern European revolutions of 1989, which brought about radical changes without recourse to violence.

    By the end of the course, you will be able to identify commonalities and differences among these revolutions and understand how--individually and collectively--they transformed the modern world.

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  • Unit 1: What is a Revolution?

    This unit will seek to answer the seemingly basic question: what is a revolution? Historians have debated this question since the great political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Most scholars will agree that dramatic transformations of political systems of a nation, often accompanied by violence, qualify as a revolution, but few agree about the fundamental factors that cause revolutions. In this unit, you will examine various types of revolutions and evaluate theoretical models that seek to explain the causes and consequences of revolutions. You will consider how such theoretical models help to make sense of history and how they sometimes hinder understanding.

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  • Unit 2: Revolutions and Modernity

    It is a commonplace among historians that the 'modern age' began with the French Revolution. Though there were revolutions in the ancient world, many argue that something radically new appeared in history at the end of the eighteenth century. In this unit, you will explore the connection between revolutions and modernity by focusing on the following questions: What was the western world like before modernity? What ideas inspired the French Revolution, and what was modern about them? Your analysis of pre-revolutionary Europe will also give you a point of comparison for later units, which turn to non-western revolutions.

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  • Unit 3: Seventeenth-Century England - Revolution or Civil War?

    In this unit, you will study the English Revolution, or rather several waves of revolutionary events between 1640 and 1688, events which became an important inspiration for Enlightenment thinkers and for revolutionaries in America and France. The English Revolution was, however, an incomplete one in that it established a constitutional monarchy and not a republic. You will analyze the differences between civil war and revolution, the political and symbolic significance of beheading the king, and the hugely influential documents produced by the English revolutionaries.

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  • Unit 4: The American Revolution - Ideas and Experience

    By the middle of the eighteenth century, Britain had colonies and trading posts throughout the world. It emerged victorious from the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), but the war pushed it to impose new taxes on the American Colonies. This, in turn, provoked the colonists' resistance, which eventually led to revolution and the creation of the United States. With time, the initially limited goals of greater local control over trade and taxes were replaced by calls for independence and creation of democratic institutions which would help govern the new nation. The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) brought about complete separation from Britain, but there was no consensus regarding the institutions and values which should structure the newly independent state. As the Revolution proceeded, its leaders debated the nature of freedom and government, the best ways of structuring the state, the proper relationship between religion and politics, and other fundamentally important topics. Their views about all of these issues often reflected their fundamental beliefs and assumptions about human nature. In this unit, you will explore the American revolutionary experience, the creation of the United States, and the most important ideas and ideals which helped shape this time of rapid political and social transformation.

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  • Unit 5: The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity

    The French Revolution was perhaps the most important of modern revolutions. In this unit, you will analyze its causes, dynamics, ideologies, and legacies. During the course of the revolution, its leaders abolished the monarchy and altered most of France's social and political institutions in order to make them more rational and more modern. They proclaimed a republic, instituted parliamentary elections, introduced educational reforms, created a new revolutionary calendar, and reorganized France's electoral districts to make representation more democratic. The revolution, however, turned sharply away from its initial ideals when the new government began to use violence and terror to maintain its hold on power. By 1799 the revolution succumbed to Napoleon's dictatorship. In what follows, you will examine the ideas that inspired the revolutionaries, the logic of revolutionary idealism and violence, and the relationship between Napoleon and the Revolution. You will also consider ways in which the struggle that started in France in 1789 continued in Europe in the 1830s, 40s, and 70s.

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  • Unit 6: Revolutionary Mexico and the Legacies of Colonialism

    In many ways, the Mexican Revolution of 1910 represented the culmination of a century of political and social conflict in Latin and South America, following independence from Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule. While Mexico had ostensibly become a democracy after it separated from Spain, the nation's political, economic, and social institutions were dominated by wealthy elites. Lower and middle-class Mexicans had little political power and constantly faced oppression by corrupt landlords and political officials. The Mexican Revolution initially began as an upper-middle-class political conflict between the nation's long-time president, Porfirio Diaz, and political challenger Francisco Madero, but it gradually expanded to encompass all classes of Mexican society. The conflict eventually led to Diaz's fall from power, but a series of coups and counter-coups prevented the return of stable government. Poor farmers and indigenous peoples also took advantage of revolutionary chaos to challenge the political and economic power of wealthy landlords and local officials. Political and social order was gradually restored to Mexico by the early 1930s, after Mexico's new president Lazaro Cardenas implemented a number of social reforms designed to address some of the extreme social and economic inequalities in the nation. 

    In this unit, you will analyze the origins of the Mexican Revolution and examine how it affected all aspects of Mexican society. You will also explore the broader consequences of the revolution for the people and political institutions of Mexico, Latin America, and South America.

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  • Unit 7: Revolutionary Russia – Marxist Theory and Agrarian Realities

    The revolutions of 1905 and 1917 reshaped Russia's political institutions and led to nearly a century of conflict with the West. During the 1905 revolution, Russian liberals challenged the absolute authority of the Russian tsar. A broad revolutionary coalition of workers and middle-class Russians used economic and political means to demand democratic concessions from the Russian state. While these gains were temporary, they served as an inspiration for later revolutionaries. At the height of World War One in 1917, a coalition of Russian liberals and socialists once again challenged Russia's autocratic government. Through a series of general strikes and political protests in February of 1917, they forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Liberal leaders established a weak provisional national government, while socialist officials organized local soviets, or political councils, of workers in Russia's industrial communities. These political bodies soon came into conflict. By October of 1917, the Bolshevik Party, a Communist organization under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, staged a revolution against the provisional government and seized control of the state. The Bolsheviks used military force to consolidate power and establish control over local soviets. Throughout the 1920s, Lenin and his successor Joseph Stalin imposed Communism on Russia's political, economic, and social institutions. Communist leaders also attempted to export the revolution to the West by supporting Communist political organizations in Europe and the United States. 

    In this unit, you will study the Russian Revolution and examine connections and conflicts between Marxist theory and events that took place in 1917. You will make comparisons between the Russian Revolution and other revolutions you studied in earlier units, and examine the global impact of the Communist Revolution in the 20th century. 

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  • Unit 8: Two Revolutions in China - Liberalism and Marxism in a New Context

    In the twentieth century, China experienced two revolutions which dramatically reshaped its social and political institutions. In 1911, nationalist forces overthrew the Qing Dynasty and established a republican government. The experiment with democracy did not last long and the nation soon fell into anarchy. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the revolutionary Chinese Communist Party battled Chinese Nationalists for political control over major regions of the country. Both sides agreed to a truce in order to respond to the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930s, but the Communists and the Nationalists resumed their civil war following the end of the Second World War in 1945. In 1949, Mao Zedong's communist forces defeated the Nationalist forces and established a communist government in China. Communist policies resulted in large-scale land reforms and the government instituted dramatic industrial development initiatives. While these policies contributed to China's remarkable economic development, they also resulted in the suffering and death of millions of Chinese citizens. 

    In this unit, you will investigate how China's 20th-century revolutions altered the nation politically, economically, and socially. You will also evaluate the international consequences of these revolutions and their broader implications for global history.

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  • Unit 9: Revolution and Religion - The Islamic Republic of Iran

    Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979 shared similarities with other 20th century revolutions, but religion played a central role in the revolutionary events. In the late 1970s, a broad coalition of religious leaders, students, workers, and middle-class Iranians challenged the political power of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran's secular, autocratic leader. A series of strikes and demonstrations in 1978 forced the Shah to flee Iran. Following his departure, Iran's theocratic leaders appointed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the new supreme religious leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khomeini consolidated power by arresting and persecuting members of the secular political groups that had initially supported the revolution. As with the Shah, Khomeini did not tolerate political or social dissent. He used state institutions to eliminate dissent and impose a fundamentalist, socio-religious political system on the nation. 

    In this unit, you will study the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and compare the Iranian Revolution with earlier revolutions in the United States, France, Mexico, and Russia.

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  • Unit 10: 1989 – Nonviolence and the End of The Cold War

    In the mid 1980s, the Soviet Union underwent extensive political and economic reforms known as Glasnost and Perestroika. During this time, democracy advocates in many East European nations within the Soviet Bloc began to openly challenge communist authorities and communist rule. The governments initially attempted to suppress this opposition, but many gradually recognized the futility of the effort. In 1989, a series of mostly non-violent revolutions swept the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe and effectively ended communist rule in these countries. Provisional democratic governments took control and began making arrangements for free and open elections. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1989, Chinese democracy advocates, inspired by the revolutions in Eastern Europe, staged a major protest in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government eventually used police and military forces to violently put down the democracy movement and reestablish firm communist control of the nation. For the Soviet Union, the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 led to a gradual thawing of relations with the West. In 1991, conservative communist officials in Russia attempted to stage a coup and regain control of the state. The people of Moscow successfully resisted their efforts, but the coup attempt revealed the declining power of the party. In December of 1991, the Soviet Union was officially disbanded and Russia's long experiment with Communism came to an end.

    In this unit, you will examine the factors that led to successful democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe and analyze the broader social and cultural changes that came about in Eastern Europe and Russia after 1989.

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  • Unit 11: Revolutions in Perspective

    This unit provides a critical overview of the revolutions examined in this course. It returns to broad questions about revolutions and contemporary realities: how have revolutions shaped the modern world? Is violence a necessary component of revolutionary change? What are the connections between revolutionary ideas and revolutionary action? Are deteriorating economic conditions the most important cause of revolutionary unrest or can other factors take precedence? Approaching the material in this unit with these questions in mind will help you trace the commonalities, differences, and linkages among modern revolutionary movements. By studying the historiographical essays and analyses included in this unit, you will also return to the problem of identifying useful theoretical models of revolutionary change and confronting these with existing historical evidence. Finally, you will identify and analyze ways in which contemporary politics throughout the world still show traces of revolutionary legacies.

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  • Course Evaluation Survey

    Please take a few moments to provide some feedback about this course at the link below. Consider completing the survey whether you have completed the course, you are nearly at that point, or you have just come to study one unit or a few units of this course.

    Link: Course Evaluation Survey (HTML)

    Your feedback will focus our efforts to continually improve our course design, content, technology, and general ease-of-use. Additionally, your input will be considered alongside our consulting professors' evaluation of the course during its next round of peer review. As always, please report urgent course experience concerns to contact@saylor.org and/or our Discourse forums.

  • Final Exam

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