What is a Revolution?

3 Conversations

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'revolution' thus:


• noun 1 a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system. 2 a dramatic and far-reaching change. 3 motion in orbit or in a circular course or round an axis or centre. 4 the single completion of an orbit or rotation.

— DERIVATIVES revolutionist noun.

— ORIGIN Latin, from revolvere 'roll back'.

The first two definitions above certainly serve some purpose in helping our understanding of what a revolution is, but they do not tell us what it is that defines a revolution. This Entry will attempt to make use of both the dictionary definition and the observations of historians to establish a working definition for use by other historians.

Many amateur historians would define revolution as 'a short period of of large changes.' This definition while not being essentially correct does pose some interesting questions. Just how long is a 'short' period? Months, years, decades? Also how do you define 'large changes'? Some historians will argue that revolution is more a form of forced evolution than, for example, a sudden uprising against an inept leader.

Karl Marx believed that history was cyclic and that revolutions were therefore inevitable. Marx also believed that revolutions were automatically violent, but if this is true why then do we talk about the 'Industrial Revolution'?

Do we refer to an 'Industrial Revolution' simply because revolution is such a buzzword nowadays, or was the Industrial Revolution as the Oxford English Dictionary definition suggests, 'a dramatic and far-reaching change.' Some would argue that the Industrial Revolution falls under that definition, but other historians counter that it was more an Industrial Evolution, rather than a revolution*.


Revolutionaries do not automatically mean there is a revolution. Also, one can revolt without it being revolutionary (i.e. largely impacting the whole in a meaningful way).
- an h2g2 Researcher
A revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, not every revolutionary situation leads to revolution.
- Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

These arguments come from two separate historians, but does this mean that a revolution must impact the whole in a meaningful way in order to be classed as a revolution? Some historians would argue that the American Revolution, for example, did little to change the lives of women or slaves, yet it is one of the most commonly cited examples of a revolution.

We call the move from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture the 'Neolithic Revolution' but all evidence points to it taking some 10 thousand years to occur.
- an h2g2 Researcher

Another researcher's take on the definition of 'revolution', but why is there so much debate over the use of this term? 'Why is it that when the English chop off their king's head, it isn't nearly as definitive as the French doing the same thing more than a century later?' The difference between the English Civil War and the French Revolution according to another researcher is this:

The English Civil War was actually along the same lines as the French Revolution albeit over 100 years earlier: overthrow of unpopular and authoritarian monarchy replaced by unstable republic due to power vacuum, replaced by de-facto dictatorship. The big difference is that the French 'Cromwell', Napoleon,became Emperor while the actual Cromwell in England died unexpectedly and his successor was ill-prepared to rule which led to the restoration of the republic proper and its instability which led to a restoration [of the monarchy]. The French had a restoration after Napoleon, but it proved unstable (as did the English restoration); the difference is that the English created a 'constitutional monarchy' (following what they ironically did call a revolution even though it wasn't a revolution so much as a coup d'état) whilst the French created an unstable 'citizen monarchy', then another republic, then another empire, then another republic which managed to stay (reasonably) stable.
- an h2g2 Researcher

Heading towards Revolution?

What in short makes a series of events a 'revolution'? Does the revolution have to be wholly or partly successful in order to be named as such? Again there is debate about this.

There are arguments against the suggestion that we are currently undergoing a revolution at the moment

I don't see any basis for or possible indication of a revolution. For a start, revolutions only happen in countries with constitutionally or de-facto unmovable governments and there isn't a single Western country with any such thing. Secondly, they require massive social/economic/political unrest and that isn't happening. There's some real chaos in the economic sphere at the moment but that's about it and, in the West at least, if it manages to create a massive shift in public political mood then the mechanism is there to change the government anyway. This has happened before - notably in Britain's election of a post-war socialist government.
- an h2g2 Researcher

So revolutions only occur when there is no system in place to replace the government. Does this hold true in the revolutions mentioned? France was under the control of a Monarchy system when the revolution put a republic into place. America was under the British Empire when they revolted to become an independent nation. This definition of Revolution would seem to hold true for our purposes, until of course we come to the industrial revolution. Being more a social and economic revolution than a political revolution makes it a bit of a fly in the ointment.

Maybe a revolution can only be really seen in retrospect.
Various editions of 'Newsnight'1 programmes of late and various people keep saying that what is happening at present in world stock exchanges is huge and once in a life time.
We can't really know at present the possible implications of what is happening and how it will eventually be viewed.
It is doubtful if in the early days of many so called revolutions it was properly realised what the historical implications might be.
But it is possible the early signs of revolution are there.

- an h2g2 Researcher

This is another response to the suggestion that we may even now be in the throes of some form of revolution. Any modern western revolution could be considered to be more of a social and economic revolution, rather than violent and political as the French and American revolutions were. This again raises the question as to whether a 'revolution' requires some element of forced change. The force may not involve lives of course, 'Forced Evolution' could here be a better definition of 'revolution' in the political climate of the early 21st Century.

No, things would have to get a lot more desperate than they are at the moment. It can be suggested only people with very little to lose get involved in revolutions, and for most of us, we have too much to lose and too big a stake in the society we live in. Most of the Socialist Workers and Workers' Revolutionary Party hard-liners of the 1980s have since succumbed to homes, families, children, careers... you don't hear so much glib talk about an all-out general strike from people who have to pay a mortgage bill on the fifteenth of each month!
- an h2g2 Researcher

New Revolutions?

An argument against the suggestion of a revolution in the early years of the 21st Century and quite a valid one in the opinion of some historians is this:

Seems to me there can be revolutions in several different aspects, economics and politics just being the most obvious ones as they probably involve violence. However a scientific revolution doesn't really involve any force as such.
- an h2g2 Researcher

There is a great amount of debate amongst historians the world over as to what does and does not constitute a 'Revolution'. Some definitions state that violence or force must be in some way present for any series of events to be classed as a 'revolution', others argue that a certain measure of change has to occur and that a certain percentage of the populace has to be affected before anything can be a revolution. The suggestion of a current revolution also brings up much debate, but to determine any series of events as 'revolutionary' the general consensus is that the benefit of hindsight must be used. As for the Oxford English Dictionary definition of revolution, it appears to sum up revolution just fine.

1 A BBC program which looks at current affairs and politics.

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