Unit 1: The Glorious Nature of Revolution
How do we define political revolution? While debated, most historians define revolution as a transformation of a political system that is often accompanied by violence. However, the fundamental factors that cause revolutions are still debated. In this unit, we examine the nature of revolution, the Enlightenment in Europe, and how this led to the Glorious Revolution of the 17th century.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 8 hours.
1.1: What is Revolution?
While revolutions come in many forms, they generally involve dramatic political change accompanied by varying degrees of violence: as a new government or thought process replaces the established order. In Latin, the word revolution literally means to turn around. This course explores revolution from a multidisciplinary perspective (sociology, political science, and history). We will study their causes and the ideologies that spark revolution.
From a political science perspective, revolution refers to a drastic and profound change of political power. Most major historic revolutions are multidimensional and bring about new political systems, economic paradigms, and revised cultural and social norms. In sociology, revolution refers to a fundamental and drastic change in the societal structure.
The key to understanding revolutions is that they have an effect beyond the initial mass uprising. A mass uprising or protest occurs when a local population protests or resists their government, in a relatively spontaneous manner, often in violence. Participants are less concerned about planning changes to the societal structure than other types of political rebellion. Examples of mass uprisings include the German Peasant Rebellion from 1524–1525 and the Sioux Ghost Dance of 1890. While the masses revolted, they did not fundamentally change the socio-political structure.
1.2: Ideologies of Revolution
Revolution was a topic of great debate from the 17th to 20th centuries when prominent scholars helped define what revolution means, why it occurs, and its impact. Let's explore the ideologies of some key theorists and philosophers.
Alex de Tocqueville (1805–1859), a French political historian, believed that revolution was an inevitable outgrowth of tyranny. It will result when monarchies and other state agencies centralize all power and decision-making in their own hands. The elite, nobility, middle, and merchant classes will eventually rise up in protest to oppose these centralizing efforts that interfere with their liberties and privileges, such as excessive taxation and interference in their ability to own and control their private property. The elite prompts revolution to protect their own interests.
Karl Marx (1818–1883), a German philosopher and revolutionary activist, is known for his views on social or class conflict within society. He witnessed the extreme poverty that capitalist practices caused during the industrial revolution. He wrote about a rising struggle between the lower and upper classes over control of the means of production. Marx advocated that the working class (the Proletariat) should rise up in revolt against the upper classes (the Bourgeoisie) to support better working conditions. Marx predicted society would become more stable and equal once capitalism fails. Communism is the solution Marx predicts in which property becomes publicly owned. According to his political philosophy, each individual will work as much as they are able and will be paid according to their need. Marx's ideologies of revolution, in contrast to Tocqueville, arise from the bottom in which the Proletariat rises against the Bourgeoisie to replace the class system itself, in addition to the government.
Crane Brinton (1898–1968), an American historian, argued that revolution is simply part of the natural order of human development – a "fever" rages through the body politic and causes certain symptoms when intellectuals become alienated and stop believing in the political system. The intellectuals may merge with other groups, such as the middle, working, or peasant classes, to remove the old order through revolution. These coalitions often fall apart, with complaints about how the revolution was "betrayed", meaning it failed to follow the agenda of the first protesters. Thermidor refers to the period of reaction that follows revolution, when moderates resume or regain control, to overcome the radicals and restore stability. Brinton believed that growing societies may have to endure a revolutionary fever until a "normal" and "healthy" state of social equilibrium is restored until the next round of protests erupts and the revolutionary cycle occurs again.
Chalmers Johnson (1931–2010), the American author, argued that revolution results when the social equilibrium, social order, or sense of balance that stable communities exhibit is disrupted. Disequilibrium results from social change or dysfunction, such as industrialization, mass urbanization, or the rise of new social classes. Revolution results when the people at the top – an intransigent elite – refuses to adapt, adjust, or reform in response to the new environment. Samuel Huntington (1927–2008) presents a variant of this theory by saying revolution results when societies fail to cope with modernization and mass mobilization.
Benedict Anderson (1936–2015), an American sociologist, argued that governments often provoke revolution when they inflame nationalist sentiments to create a new nationalist identity. Modern ways of thinking undermine the old universal belief structures, such as the traditional ties to religion and multi-ethnic empires.
1.3: Paving the Way to Revolution
In this course, we focus on modern revolutions. Most historians think about modernity as a historic, social, economic, and political phenomenon that occurred after the Middle Ages and is associated with progress, reason, and science. Historians and sociologists (1950-70) embraced this concept of modernity which encompassed the processes of industrialization and the creation of nation-states.
This shift to modernity was characterized by a change in socioeconomic class structures and revolution.
Francis Bacon (1561–1626) saw the rise of a bourgeois class in Europe as merchants began to accumulate capital and concentrate wealth. Cracks in the edifice of feudalism emerged, and power re-oriented around a life that centered in court around the monarch. The European printing press allowed individuals and intellectuals to organize their thinking and share information with each other.
Capitalism, industrialization, and secularization took hold in the 18th century, creating fundamental changes in class structure that would lead to uprising and revolution. Throughout this period, exploration and colonialism allowed financial capital to accumulate in Western Europe that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution.
1.4: The Glorious Revolution
The English Civil War, which predated the Enlightenment, is also called the English Revolution. It was a period of armed political and social conflict that occurred from 1642 to 1660 and resulted in the creation of a constitutional monarchy. In early 1640, intellectuals met to discuss the ideas of liberty and individual rights.
The "levellers" and "diggers" championed principles of political freedom and equality. They published and distributed pamphlets to spread their ideas that inspired future intellectuals in France and the American colonies to revolt against their own governments.
The English Civil War saw a radical shift in social relationships that came to support a free-market capitalist system that did away with feudalism. In 1648, the army purged Parliament of its conservative members, Charles I (1600–1649) was executed in January 1649 due to his resistance to change, and Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), the leader of the army, was installed to rule over the Parliament as the leader of the new commonwealth from 1653 to 1658. Based on our definition, were Cromwell's actions a revolution or a coup d'etat?
1.5: Government, Citizens' Rights, and Religion versus the State
The English Parliament introduced the Bill of Rights (1689) to denounce King James II (1633–1701), the last Roman Catholic monarch of Great Britain, for abusing his political power. Political and religious tensions were high: Protestants and Catholics were in conflict, as did Parliament and the monarchy.
The primary goals of the English Bill of Rights were to:
- Condemn the abuse of power by King James II;
- Detail civil freedoms in 13 articles;
- Clarify the rules of succession to the throne; and
- Reinforce the principles of the two founding documents of England's constitutional monarchy: the Magna Carta (1215) and the Petition of Right (1628).
The Magna Carta (1215) was the first charter to support the "rule of law" and civil liberties in Europe: it declared the King was not above the law and could not deprive anyone of their "land, castles, liberties, or rights" without "the lawful judgment of his peers". The Petition of Right (1628) reinforced the legal principles of the Magna Carta and added that the King could not impose his will on Parliament, tax without parliamentary approval, or support a standing army.
Unit 1 Assessment
- Receive a grade