The PLEA: Revolution

The PLEA: Revolution

What is Revolution?

When we think of revolution, we often think of systems of governments being overturned. However, revolution—even in the political sense—has not always meant political change.

What is revolution? There are revolutionary cell phones. Revolutionary breakfast cereals. Even improvements in pantyhose have been declared revolutionary. The word is thrown around so much, it almost has no meaning whatsoever.

In politics and government, the word revolution is used a bit less loosely. It generally means the overturning of a government. However, even in political circles the precise meaning of revolution is still hard to nail down: it has been called an “elusive concept,” “one of the looser words,” and “ambiguous.” So to better-understand what a revolution is, we should look back at the word’s history and development.

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Karl Marx, perhaps the world’s most famous revolutionary.

History of the Word Revolution

The word revolution first appeared in 1393. Then, revolution only had one definition. It meant the apparent movement of the sun, moon, and planets around the earth. Shortly after, people began to apply the word revolution to other events where something returned to its original point. This led to revolution taking on the broader meaning of a completed cycle.

This definition of revolution—a completed cycle—soon found itself being applied to political events. When political events returned to where they began, it was a revolution. For example, in 1640 civil war broke out in England. King Charles I was overthrown and England went from being a monarchy to being a republic. While we would call this a revolution today, at the time this was not a revolution. It only became a revolution when Charles II restored the monarchy in 1660: the political cycle had returned to where it began.

However, at the same time a new political definition of revolution was emerging: the overthrow of the existing system of government in favour of a new one. By the late 1700s, the word revolution permanently took this new meaning. Political theorist Hannah Arendt even pegs the precise moment that this happened: July 14th, 1789. On that day an angry mob stormed the Bastille, a Paris fortress and prison. When King Louis XVI asked “c’est une revolte?” he was told “non, Sire, c’est une revolution.”

A look through works in political studies reveals countless definitions of revolution, all similar but all differing in fine details.

Defining Revolution Today

Since the word revolution became synonymous with political change, political theorists have tried to perfect the word’s definition. A look through works in political studies reveals countless definitions of revolution, all similar but all differing in fine details. It is impossible to say who has come up with the best definition of revolution. However, one recent definition stands out.

Political theorist Jack Goldstone examined hundreds of events characterised as revolutionary. In doing this, he found that revolutions share three elements:

  1. efforts to change the political regime that draw on a competing vision (or visions) of a just order,
  2. a notable degree of informal or formal mass mobilisation, and
  3. efforts to force change through noninstitutionalised actions such as mass demonstrations, protests, strikes, or violence.

Goldstone condensed these findings into a definition of revolution: “an effort to transform the political institutions and the justifications for political authority in a society, accompanied by formal or informal mass mobilisation and noninstitutionalised actions that undermine existing authorities.” This definition gives us an idea of what a revolution is, and tells us what needs to happen for something to be declared a revolution.

History has been witness to countless events that have fulfilled Goldstone’s definition of revolution. These events dramatically changed the course of history. For example, the American Revolution overturned the British supremacy in present-day North America. The French Revolution overturned the French monarchy and paved the way for a republic with a uniform system of laws. And the Cuban Revolution overturned the American-supported Batista dictatorship and replaced it with a socialist government.

There has never been a full-scale revolution on Canadian soil that has transformed our political institutions and the justifications for political authority. However, the Métis uprisings in 1869 and 1885 did have revolutionary aspects. We will look more closely at them on pages 6 and 7.

Neveshkin Nikolay/Shutterstock.

Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan leader instrumental in establishing South America’s independence from Spain.

What Causes Revolution?

Knowing what revolution is, we can now ask what causes revolution? There are many theories out there.

Relative Deprivation. One broad-reaching theory is relative deprivation. People in a society come to believe that they are being deprived of things to which they are entitled, such as money, justice, status, or rights and privileges. Often, these deprived people see others in their society who are not being deprived. This frustration makes them amenable to joining revolutionary movements.

Crisis of the State. Crisis of the state theory suggests that revolutions happen when the state is subjected to intensified outside pressures. These outside pressures could include industrial progress that alters the economic make-up of society, or repeated losses at war that weaken the state’s authority. When the state is unable to effectively respond to these outside factors, it can enter a crisis period. The crisis period opens the door for revolutionary movements to take hold.

Dis-synchronisation of Values. Dis-synchronisation occurs when society’s elite begin to hold values that are out-of-sync with the wider population. The elite can include politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders, intellectuals, and mainstream media. When society becomes dis-synchronised, people become confused and disoriented about what value system is best. This leads the masses to be open to conversion to new revolutionary movements.

These are just three theories about what causes revolution. Other theories exist, and no single theory offers a definitive explanation for why revolution begins. However, it does seem clear that if the state cannot or does not adapt to meet the needs of the masses (or simply stomps out discontent), revolutionaries will have the opportunity to overturn the state and reconstruct it in their vision.

Defining Ideology

When there is a revolution, a new ideology comes in to replace the old one. As political historian Isaac Kramnick said, revolutions are “a sustained and self-conscious effort to reconstruct society along theoretical principles provided by some vision of an ideal order, an ideology. This is what revolution has meant since the late eighteenth century.”

So then what is ideology? Political theorists generally agree that every ideology is made up of three elements:

  • Critique – a criticism of society as it exists
  • Ideal – a vision of a better society
  • Means – the method to achieve the better society

Together, these elements form an ideology. Take this simplified example: a traditional Marxist would critique society because workers (proletariat) are exploited by rich owners (bourgeoisie). Their ideal would be a society with no state and no private property, where workers—not the bourgeoisie—control the means of production. The means to achieve this is overthrowing the bourgeoisie and dissolving the state.

If a revolution is successful, then the laws, institutions, and very structure of society will change to conform to the new ideology.


  1. Look at the three suggested causes of revolutions: relative deprivation, crisis of the state, and dis‑synchronisation of values.
    1. Do you see any or all of these problems today?
    2. If these problems exist today, do you think that a revolution could break out in the near future? Why or why not?
  2. Revolution theorist Chalmers Johnson believes that successful revolutionary forces require a “general ideological appeal that will bring the revolutionary party the support of the people.” Why is general ideological appeal key to a successful revolution?
  3. Political historian Isaac Kramnick says “revolutionaries, much to the dismay of their sympathisers, have usually devoted as much time and energy debating the nature of revolution as they have in efforts to bring one about.” Why is it important to debate the nature of revolution before engaging in an actual revolution?

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