Study Guide for HIST362: Modern Revolutions

Unit 1: What is Revolution?

1a. Explain different meanings of the word revolution

  • Define revolution.
  • Define and compare mass uprising, coup d'etat, and rebellion with revolution.
  • Describe different types of social revolution, such as the agricultural revolution, the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution

Revolutions come in many forms, but generally involve dramatic political change accompanied by varying degrees of violence. We typically associate revolution with drastic, significant, and violent change, where a new government or thought process replaces the established order with modernity and progress.

In this course we explore revolution from a multidisciplinary perspective (sociology, political science and history) and study their causes and the ideologies that spark them. 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 and economic paradigms, and revised cultural and social norms. In sociology, revolution refers to a fundamental and drastic change in the societal structure.

In Latin, the word revolution literally means to turn around. However, keep in mind that revolutions do not always focus on political or governmental change. Some, such as the scientific or industrial revolutions, focus on revisions that affect culture, ideas, and society.

A mass uprising 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 popular mass uprisings are usually spearheaded from below, such as by the peasant or lower classes, small groups of members of the social elite typically initiate coup d'etats. These highly-organized affairs may, or may not, have popular support. For example, during a military coup chosen military staff may suddenly replace political leaders with a violent revolt, such as the coup d'état in 1952 where Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew Egypt's King Farouk.

Rebellions combine aspects of mass uprisings and coups. They involve large numbers of participants and a high degree of planning and organization. The leaders typically have a clear vision for the future and enlist action from a large percentage of the population. Examples include the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1956. 

During social revolution, such as the agricultural, industrial, and scientific revolutions, new ideas and discoveries challenge prevailing thought, traditions, and behaviors. These "revolts" often take much longer to play out than political revolution. Nevertheless, they can still disrupt the very fabric of society with fundamental structural change brought about by class struggle, scientific advancement, and technological change.

Review three types of political change in:


1b. Analyze various types of revolutionary change

  • Define revolutionary change.
  • List some characteristics of rebellion against established traditions and conventions of Western thought in the late 1800s.
  • Compare intellectual and political revolutionary change.
  • Define a velvet revolution.

While revolutionary change occurs in different ways, events often share similar characteristics. For example, Europe saw several rebellions against the traditional political environment from 1850 to 1900 when the forces of modernization and Westernization created violent mass upheaval.

Revolutionary change may be intellectual or political. Political change involves government overthrow, such as when the colonists in the United States (1765–1783) and the citizens of France (1789–1799) rebelled against monarchical power to support democracy. Intellectual change occurs when individuals challenge beliefs about the way the world functions, such as when scientists and philosophers questioned the natural order and religious traditions during the Scientific Revolution after Nicolaus Copernicus published De revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) in 1543.

Not all revolutions are violent. For example, many dubbed Czechoslovakia's revolution in 1989 the "velvet revolution" because the mass protests were essentially nonviolent. Leaders made multiple compromises to avoid mass violence, which led some to argue that it was not a true revolution at all. If violence is an essential component of a revolution, how do we define a peaceful transfer of power?

Review the first lecture of World Revolutions by Thomas O'Brien (27:36) and the article Velvet Revolution: The Prospects by Timothy Garton Ash.


1c. Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of four important theoretical models which historians use to interpret revolutions

  • Describe eight analytical interpretations of the causes of revolution:
  1. Conflict and social class theory (Karl Marx).
  2. State and political centralization (Alex de Tocqueville).
  3. Natural history or evolution (Crane Brinton).
  4. Social equilibrium theory (Chalmers Johnson).
  5. Globalization (Leon Trotsky).
  6. State and international affairs (Theda Skocpol).
  7. Nationalism (Benedict Anderson).
  8. Peasant revolutions (Barrington Moore).
  • Define the alienation of the intelligentsia.
  • Define thermidor and social equilibrium.

Karl Marx (1818–1883), the 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 and wrote about a rising struggle between the lower and upper classes over control of the means of production. Marx advocated 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 that 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.

Alex de Tocqueville (1805–1859), the French political historian, believed that revolution will result when monarchies and other state agencies come to 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.

Crane Brinton (1898–1968), the 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 coalesce 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 erupt and the revolutionary cycle occurs yet again.

Chalmers Johnson (1931–2010), the American author, argued that revolution results when the social equilibrium, social order, or sense of balance 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.

Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), the Russian revolutionary and Marxist theorist, argued that revolution has a strong international or global component. Revolution results from uneven or unequal development due to the demands of a modernizing capitalist state. Governments with agrarian economies that want to modernize or industrialize, such as Russia in the early 1900s, must impose severe demands on their communities to succeed. Immanuel Wallerstein (1930– ) describes three categories of development: a central core of countries is fully-modernized and industrialized, a second outer ring of countries have rising or newly-industrialized economies, while a periphery of countries have experienced little if any industrialization. Revolutions occur when countries in the two outer areas try to catch up with the core countries to integrate into the world economy.

Theda Skocpol (1947– ), the contemporary American sociologist, argues that the traditional elite will eventually oppose the expensive, disruptive efforts of agrarian, bureaucratic states to compete militarily and diplomatically to achieve status on an international level. Tim McDaniel, agrees that revolution can occur in these types of autocratic states.

Benedict Anderson (1936–2015), the American sociologist, argues governments often provoke revolution when they enflame 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.

Barrington Moore, Jr. (1913–2005), the American sociologist, argues that revolution occurs when the feudal order breaks down, when the aristocracy leaves the land for the city and the peasants have to produce food, their landlord, and the marketplace. This leaves them exposed to market forces.

Review Theory and History, World Revolutions by Thomas O'Brien (begin at 27:36).


Unit 1 Vocabulary

  • Agricultural revolution
  • Alex de Tocqueville
  • Alienation of the intelligentsia
  • Barrington Moore, Jr.
  • Benedict Anderson
  • Chalmers Johnson
  • Communism
  • Coup d'etat
  • Crane Brinton
  • Democracy
  • Industrial revolution
  • Intellectual revolutionary change
  • Karl Marx
  • Leon Trotsky
  • Mass uprising
  • Political revolutionary change
  • Progress
  • Rebellion
  • Revolution
  • Revolutionary change
  • Scientific revolution
  • Social change
  • Social class
  • Social movements
  • Theda Skocpol
  • Thermidor
  • Velvet revolution