• Course Introduction

        • Time: 85 hours
        • Free Certificate
        In 1970, the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai was asked to assess the outcome of the French Revolution of 1789. He responded that it was "too soon to say". While this story has questionable authenticity, it captures a fundamental truth about how revolutions have shaped our world. Their legacies are difficult to evaluate.

        In this course, we study some of the most important political revolutions that took place between the 17th century and today. We explore 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 are critical to this process.

        We begin with a theoretical analysis of revolutions and a careful examination of pre-revolutionary Europe and the Enlightenment. Next, we examine:

        • the English Revolution of the 17th century;
        • the American and French Revolutions, which many describe 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
        • the Eastern European revolutions of 1989, which brought about radical change with less recourse to violence.

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

        First, read the course syllabus. Then, enroll in the course by clicking "Enroll me in this course". Click Unit 1 to read its introduction and learning outcomes. You will then see the learning materials and instructions on how to use them.

      • Unit 1: What is Revolution?

        How do we define revolution? Historians have debated the definition since the great political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Most scholars 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, we examine various types of revolutions and evaluate theoretical models that seek to explain the cause and consequence of revolution. We consider how to use these theoretical models to help make sense of history and how they sometimes hinder understanding.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 4 hours.

      • Unit 2: Revolution and Modernity

        Many historians believe the "modern age" began with the French Revolution. While 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, we 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.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 8 hours.

      • Unit 3: 17th Century England: Revolution or Civil War?

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

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 8 hours.

      • Unit 4: The American Revolution: Ideas and Experience

        By the mid-eighteenth century, Britain had colonies and trading posts across the globe. It emerged victorious from the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), but the war had pushed it to impose new taxes on its American colonies. Resistance from the colonists eventually led to revolution and the creation of the United States when they replaced their calls for greater local control of trade and taxes, with demands for independence and democratic institutions that would help govern a new nation.

        While the American Revolution (1775–1783) brought complete separation from Britain, the colonists struggled to agree on which institutions and values should structure the newly-independent state. During the revolution their leaders debated the nature of freedom and government, the best way to structure the state, the proper relationship between religion and politics, and other important topics. Their views reflected their fundamental beliefs and assumptions about human nature. In this unit, we explore the American revolutionary experience, the creation of the United States, and the ideas and ideals that helped shape this time of rapid political and social transformation.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 9 hours.

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

        Many argue the French Revolution was the most important modern revolution. In this unit, we analyze its causes, dynamics, ideologies, and legacies. The revolutionary leaders abolished the monarchy and altered most of France's social and political institutions to make them more rational and 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 revolutionaries, however, rejected their 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 this unit, we examine the ideas that inspired the revolutionaries, the logic of revolutionary idealism and violence, and the relationship between Napoleon and the revolution. We also consider how a European struggle, that began in France in 1789, continued through the 1870s.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 12 hours.

      • Unit 6: Revolutionary Mexico and Legacies of Colonialism

        The Mexican Revolution of 1910 represented a culmination of a century of political and social conflict in Latin and South America, following independence from Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule. Ostensibly, Mexico became a democracy when it separated from Spain, but wealthy elites came to dominate its political, economic, and social institutions. Lower and middle-class Mexicans had little political power and faced constant subjugation from corrupt landlords and political officials.

        The Mexican Revolution began as an upper-middle-class political conflict between Porfirio Diaz, its long-time president, and Francisco Madero, his political rival, but eventually encompassed all classes of Mexican society. The conflict led to Diaz's fall from power, and a series of coups and counter-coups that prevented a return to stable government.

        Poor farmers and the indigenous population took advantage of the revolutionary chaos to challenge the political and economic power of wealthy landlords and local officials. In the early 1930s, President Lazaro Cardenas restored political and social order by implementing several social reforms to address extreme social and economic inequalities in the nation.

        In this unit, we analyze the origins of the Mexican Revolution and examine how it affected all aspects of Mexican society. We also explore the broader consequences of the revolution for the Mexican people, the country's political institutions, Latin America, and South America.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 10 hours.

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

        The Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 reshaped the country's political institutions and led to a century of conflict with the West. During the 1905 revolution, Russian liberals challenged the absolute authority of the Russian tsar, when a coalition of workers and middle-class Russians used economic and political means to demand democratic concessions. While their gains were temporary, they inspired the future Bolshevik revolutionaries.

        In February 1917, during the height of World War I, a coalition of Russian liberals and socialists challenged Russia's autocratic government and organized a series of general strikes and political protests which forced Tsar Nicholas to abdicate. The leaders created a weak provisional national government, while socialist officials organized local soviets (political councils) of Russian's industrial workers. These factions soon came into conflict.

        By October 1917, the Bolshevik Party, a communist organization led by 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 the local soviets. Throughout the 1920s, Lenin and his successor Joseph Stalin used violence and political control to impose communism on Russia's political, economic, and social institutions. Communist leaders also tried to export the revolution by supporting communist political organizations in Europe and the United States.

        In this unit, we study the Russian Revolution and examine its initial connection to Marxist theory. We will compare Russia's experiences with the revolutions we studied in earlier units, and examine the global impact of the 20th century communist revolution.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 11 hours.

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

        China experienced two revolutions in the 20th century which dramatically reshaped its social and political institutions. In 1911, nationalist forces overthrew the Qing Dynasty and established a republican government. Their 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 the Chinese nationalists for political control over major regions of the country. While they established a truce to respond to the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930s, they resumed their civil war when World War II ended in 1945.

        In 1949, Mao Zedong's communist forces defeated the nationalist forces and formed a communist government in China. As in Russia, the government imposed large-scale land reforms and dramatic industrial development. While these policies contributed to China's remarkable economic development, they also caused widespread suffering and the death of millions of Chinese citizens.

        In this unit, we investigate how China's 20th-century revolutions altered the nation politically, economically, and socially. We also evaluate the international consequences of these revolutions for global history.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 7 hours.

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

        The Islamic Revolution in Iran from 1978–79 shares many similarities with the 20th century revolutions we have studied, but in this revolution religion played a central role. 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. In 1978, they organized a series of strikes and demonstrations that forced the Shah to flee the country.

        After 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 any political or social dissent. He used state institutions to eliminate dissent and imposed a fundamentalist, socio-religious political system on the nation.

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

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 7 hours.

      • 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. Democracy advocates in several East European nations of the  Soviet Bloc began to openly challenge communist authorities and communist rule. While the governments initially tried to suppress the opposition, they recognized their efforts were futile. In 1989, a series of fundamentally non-violent revolutions swept Eastern Europe and ended communist rule in these Warsaw Pact countries. Provisional democratic governments took control to arrange free and open elections.

        The revolutions of 1989 helped mend relations with the West. In 1991, conservative communist officials in Russia staged a failed coup to regain control of the state. When the people of Moscow resisted these efforts, they revealed the declining power of the communist party. In December 1991 the Soviet Union officially disbanded and Russia's long experiment with communism came to an end.

        Meanwhile, advocates for democracy in China, inspired by the revolutions in Eastern Europe, staged a major protest in Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989. However, in China the government used police and military force to violently put down the democracy movement and reestablish firm communist control of the nation.

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

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 9 hours.

      • Unit 11: Revolution in Perspective

        In this unit, we take a "bird's eye look" at the revolutions we have studied in this course. How has revolution shaped the modern world? Is violence a necessary component of revolutionary change? How do revolutionary ideas and action connect? Do deteriorating economic conditions cause revolutionary unrest or do other factors take precedence?

        We trace commonalities, differences, and linkages among modern revolutionary movements. We also study historical essays that explore how to identify useful theoretical models of revolutionary change, in terms of the historical evidence. In conclusion, we identify and analyze how global contemporary politics exhibit traces of their revolutionary legacies.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 3 hours.

      • Study Guide

        This study guide will help you get ready for the final exam. It discusses the key topics in each unit, walks through the learning outcomes, and lists important vocabulary terms. It is not meant to replace the course materials!

      • Course Feedback Survey

        Please take a few minutes to give us feedback about this course. We appreciate your feedback, whether you completed the whole course or even just a few resources. Your feedback will help us make our courses better, and we use your feedback each time we make updates to our courses.

        If you come across any urgent problems, email contact@saylor.org or post in our discussion forum.

      • Certificate Final Exam

        Take this exam if you want to earn a free Course Completion Certificate.

        To receive a free Course Completion Certificate, you will need to earn a grade of 70% or higher on this final exam. Your grade for the exam will be calculated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you can take it again as many times as you want, with a 7-day waiting period between each attempt.

        Once you pass this final exam, you will be awarded a free Course Completion Certificate.