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The Revolutionary Idea In The Modern World

The idea of revolution, once invented by the French—Americans having for the most part disclaimed the patent—rapidly became the possession of the entire world. This was partly because the idea was carried on the bayonets of Napoleon's armies in the French bid to revolutionize the whole of Europe. But the defeat of Napoleon was no barrier to the further spread of the idea. All attempts to repress it only seemed to lend it strength. It inspired a whole series of later revolutions in France, the land of its birth, in 1830, 1848, and 1871. In 1848 practically the whole of Europe—Britain and Russia were almost the sole exceptions—was convulsed by revolution. The idea had a particular appeal for intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe, who embraced it with messianic fervor. In Russia in particular it found fertile soil, so much so that revolutionaries in Western Europe began to look to Russia to give the signal that would light the torch of revolution everywhere.

The idea of revolution as expressed by the French Revolution appealed because of its simplicity and universality. "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" could inspire populations from Brussels to Beijing, from Poland to Peru. Of course there remained the question of how to interpret and apply its terms. Here the main modification to the original idea consisted in seeking to realize liberty and equality in the social as well as the political realm. This was the contribution of the nineteenth-century socialists, supremely in the thinking of Karl Marx. For Marx, the French Revolution remained to be completed. It had freed the capitalists, the bourgeoisie, but at the cost of turning the mass of workers into exploited and propertyless proletarians. The liberal gains of the French Revolution—and Marx never denied that they were gains—had to be converted into the emancipation of the people as a whole. This would be accomplished by a socialist or communist revolution that would abolish private property and bring about the "free association of producers." In the final condition of communism, following the transitional "dictatorship of the proletariat," the state itself would "wither away," having no necessary function. In this vision of the future, the Marxist concept of revolution fused with that of the anarchists, who had particularly strong followings, through the teachings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) and Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1875), in France, Russia, Spain, and Italy.

It is fair to say that, in one version or another, the Marxist concept of revolution came to dominate not just Europe but the world beyond in the later nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. This was perhaps inevitable, given the massive disruption and distress caused by the relentless march of capitalist industrialization across the globe. The Paris Commune of 1871, which Marx hailed as the first truly proletarian revolution, can perhaps be taken as marking the divide between the older, more purely political, concept of revolution, and the later one that made social and economic transformation the heart of the revolution. Symbolically, the old revolutionary hymn of the Marseillaise was replaced by the new socialist anthem, the Internationale; the red flag of the socialists replaced the tricolor of the liberals. Not surprisingly, the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 gave a massive impetus to this socialist understanding of revolution, as did the later success of socialist revolutions in China (1948) and in Cuba (1958).

The Russian Revolution of 1917 became the type of twentieth century revolutions, especially in the non-Western world. It seemed to solve the difficult question of how to make a socialist revolution in conditions that, in a strictly Marxist understanding, were highly unpromising. Marx had expected the socialist revolution to begin in the advanced industrial societies, such as France, Germany, or Britain, where the industrial working class or proletariat made up the vast majority of society. Russia, like many other non-Western societies, was at the time of its revolution 80–90 percent peasant. It also had a relatively small and weak middle class. But in the main urban centers, such as St. Petersburg (Petrograd), it had a proletariat that, though small, was highly developed, well organized, and politically very conscious.

OLYMPE DE GOUGES (1748–1793)

Olympe de Gouges—the self-invented name of Marie Gouzes—was a playwright and pamphleteer who took an active part in the French Revolution. She agitated for the emancipation of slaves, divorce, and the rights of illegitimate children and unmarried mothers. After her own unhappy marriage she renounced marriage as such, proposing that the marriage contract be replaced by a "social contract" that specified the equal rights of the partners, including the right to end the union. Her best-known work is the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen (1791), a direct riposte and corrective to the more famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789. In it she strove to reconcile the abstract universality of that document, which she thought unreal and dangerous, with an acknowledgment of difference. Men and women were different, she argued, just as nature was variegated, but both were equally the bearer of rights, equally capable of agency and action. The Jacobins, like nearly all the leading French revolutionaries, were hostile to the claims of equality for women. They denounced Olympe's activities as "unnatural," and condemned her to death in 1793 for plastering the walls of Paris with posters opposing Jacobin centralization and in favor of the Girondist program of decentralized federalism.

The Russian revolutionaries, especially Lenin and Trotsky, elaborated a theory of socialist revolution in which, under the guidance of the proletariat, the mass peasant population would be induced to rise in rebellion and to take over the land, at the same time as the proletariat took over the factories. Together the workers and peasants would coordinate the socialist revolution, after suppressing their common enemies among the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Throughout a significant role was marked out for the worker's party—in this case the Bolshevik party—as the theoretical organ and directing force of the revolution. But it was always stressed that rule by the party was in the nature of a temporary, bridging, operation, mainly concerned with mopping up the remaining pockets of resistance and in preparing the workers for direct rule.

Here then was a new model of revolution, though particularly appropriate for countries, such as Russia, that had not been through a "bourgeois revolution" and had not as a result enjoyed the benefits of liberal or constitutional rule. The proletariat, organized by the party, would in effect carry out a dual or twofold revolution. It would overthrow autocratic or authoritarian rule, here accomplishing the aim of the classic bourgeois revolutions, such as the English and French revolutions; and it would also push through, in a single, uninterrupted sequence, to the proletarian or socialist revolution. Both political and social emancipation would be achieved by the self-same agency, in the same act of revolution. No wonder that, whatever the misgivings about the course of the revolution in Russia, such a model proved so compelling to those many non-Western countries that saw themselves as standing in the same semi-feudal and backward condition as Russia on the eve of 1917.

But it would be wrong to overstress the differences between the socialist and earlier conceptions of revolution. For Marx the French Revolution of 1789 was always the model revolution, the one that provided the essential terms of revolutionary conflict as a conflict of classes. If the French Revolution was a "bourgeois revolution," the coming socialist one would be a proletarian revolution. It would differ in that the proletarian revolution would lead to general emancipation instead of the emancipation of only one class. But the form of the revolution, the conditions under which the proletariat would gather its strength and overthrow its oppressors were precisely modeled on the rise of the bourgeoisie in feudal society. Thus both in its form—class struggle—and its intention—liberty and equality, now understood in social and economic as well as political terms—the socialist revolution could plausibly be presented simply as the continuation and completion of the enterprise started by the French Revolution. This was the claim of many prominent socialist revolutionaries. "A Frenchman," wrote Lenin to a French comrade in 1920, "has nothing to renounce in the Russian Revolution, which in its method and procedures recommences the French Revolution." Fidel Castro, in his defense speech at the Moncada trial of 1953 (1968), saw the very existence of an independent Cuba as an inheritance of the European revolutionary tradition, and he looked back to the French Revolution to justify his actions and to proclaim the inevitability of revolution in Cuba.

Of course there had to be modifications even to the socialist idea of revolution, especially as it moved beyond its European base and encountered different conditions and different traditions in the non-Western world. The most important amendments were provided by Mao Zedong in China, Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam, and Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba—leaders and fighters as well as theoreticians. What especially concerned them was the role of the peasantry in what were overwhelmingly peasant societies. The predominantly urban tradition of revolution had to be rejected. "The city," observed Castro of the Latin American experience," is a cemetery of revolutionaries and resources." In place of the city and the urban workers they looked to the countryside and the organization of the peasants—in their traditional communities, if possible, in the form of mobile guerrilla bands if for whatever reasons this proved strategically dangerous (as for instance it appeared to do so in Cuba and Latin America generally). This was the revolutionary strategy that, often after decades of struggle, led to the success of the Chinese, the Cuban, and the Vietnamese revolutions. These in turn became the inspiration, the "model" revolutions, for other Third World societies. Socialist in form and rhetoric, they quite often—as in many African cases—embodied fundamentally nationalist aspirations in societies seeking to throw off colonial rule.

In the West too, changing conditions brought about modifications to the inherited concept of revolution. Revolution on the barricades began to appear increasingly unreal in societies where sophisticated firepower and counterinsurgency techniques gave states overwhelming power against potential insurgents. The fate of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 gave the clearest indication of this, as did, in a somewhat different way, the failure of the "Prague spring" of 1968. In the face of this, the student revolutionaries in Paris and elsewhere in 1968 turned away from direct confrontation with the state and invented subversive techniques based on ridicule and new forms of cultural opposition. "All power to the imagination"; "Be a realist: demand the impossible"; "I am a Marxist—Groucho style"—such were the slogans on the posters that the students plastered all over Paris in May 1968. Marx was still an influence, but it was Marx the philosopher of alienation rather than Marx the anatomist of the capitalist economy who continued to be an inspiration. In addition, and often taking over, were influences derived from the Dadaists and Surrealists, together with a radical reading of Sigmund Freud.

Revolution has not been a prominent feature of Western societies since World War I—not, that is, revolution as it has traditionally been understood in the libertarian, "left-wing," versions inherited from the French Revolution. There have been some who have spoken of the Nazi or the fascist revolution, and have tried to offer a "right-wing" concept of revolution. This has to struggle with a whole tradition of meaning derived from the European experience of the past two hundred years. Inequality, authoritarianism, and racism—central elements of fascist ideology—simply have not been part of the revolutionary inheritance, whatever the practices of states, such as the Soviet Union, that claimed the revolutionary mantle. Condorcet's statement of 1793, that "the word revolutionary can only be applied to revolutions which have liberty as their object," aptly sums up the predominant and persistent meaning of the concept, as it has been elaborated by successive theorists since the French Revolution.

Nowhere was this demonstrated more forcibly than in the 1989 revolutions, the revolutions that overthrew communist rule throughout Central and Eastern Europe, eventually, in 1991, dissolving the Soviet Union itself. While in the same year the French and other Western Europeans, contemplating with a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm the bicentennial of the French Revolution, appeared disillusioned with the whole idea of revolution, Eastern Europeans embraced it with fervor. Crowds occupied the squares of Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, and Bucharest, forcing, in almost classic demonstration of the power of the people, their rulers to depart. If the West had forgotten its revolutionary heritage, the same had not happened in the East. Moreover, it was not, for obvious reasons, the Marxist or socialist idea of revolution that inspired the East Europeans. In a remarkable reversal, what they looked back to, what was evident in almost every demand they made, was the tradition of the eighteenth-century American and French Revolutions. It was individual rights, a free civil society, and a liberal constitution that were the centerpieces of the programs of 1989.

Do the 1989 revolutions mark the end of revolution in the West, as many have claimed? Are they the final deposit of the revolutionary tradition? This may be too shortsighted a view, even for the West and certainly from the perspective of the world as a whole. In November 2003 the people of Georgia, one of the former republics of the Soviet Union, rose up against a corrupt ruler in a classic display of revolutionary action. Elsewhere in the world—in China, in Latin America, in the Middle East—there are intermittent but persistent revolutionary stirrings. Many of these are now mixed with religion, following the example of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Revolution has always been a changing and many-sided thing. We can be sure there are many surprises in store for us still.


Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. London: Faber and Faber, 1963.

Blackey, Robert, ed. Revolutions and Revolutionists: A Comprehensive Guide to the Literature., 2nd ed. Oxford and Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio Press, 1982. A unique bibliography of over six thousand books, articles, and eyewitness accounts covering past and present revolutions.

Brinton, Crane. The Anatomy of Revolution. Rev. and expanded ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1965. Still a first-rate introduction to the comparative history of revolution.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1984. A classic statement on the significance of the French Revolution, even though couched in hostile terms.

Castro, Fidel. History Will Absolve Me. London: Jonathan Cape, 1968.

Donald, Moira, and Tim Rees, eds. Reinterpreting Revolution in Twentieth-Century Europe. London: Macmillan, 2001.

Draper, Hal. Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution. 2 vols. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978. The fullest account of the most influential theory of the twentieth century.

Dunn, John, Modern Revolutions: An Introduction to the Analysis of a Political Phenomenon. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Fehér, Ferenc, ed. The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Goldstone, Jack, ed. Revolutions: Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical, Studies. 3rd ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2003.

Griewank, Karl. Der Neuzeithliche Revolutionsbegriff. 2nd ed. Frankfurt-am-Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1969. The best account of the history of the concept. Nothing in English like it.

Halliday, Fred. Revolution and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of History (1830–1831). Translated by J. Sibree. New York: Dover, 1956.

Hobsbawm, E. J. Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Keddie, Nikki R., ed. Debating Revolutions. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. An influential account that has important implications for the idea of revolution in general.

Kumar, Krishan, ed. Revolution: The Theory and Practice of a European Idea. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971. Classic statements documenting the evolution of the idea of revolution.

Kumar, Krishan. 1989: Revolutionary Ideas and Ideals. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Lasky, Melvin. Utopia and Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Packed with fascinating, hard-to-find material on the ideology and imagery of revolution.

Lintott, Andrew. Violence, Civil Strife and Revolution in the Classical City. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Paine, Tom. The Rights of Man (1791–1792). Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1984. The best riposte to Burke's attack on the French Revolution, and in general a stirring affirmation of the epochal significance of the French and American Revolutions.

Palmer, R. R. The Age of the Democratic Revolutions. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970. Still the fullest and most stimulating account of the eighteenth-century revolutions, seen as having world-historical significance.

Parker, Noel. Revolutions and History: An Essay in Interpretation. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2000.

Porter, Roy, and Mikulés Teich, eds. Revolution in History. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Rice, E. E., ed. Revolution and Counter-Revolution. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991.

Skocpol, Theda. Social Revolutions in the Modern World. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Tilly, Charles. European Revolutions, 1492–1992. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993.

Tocqueville, Alexis de, The Old Régime and the French Revolution (1856). Translated by Alan S. Kahan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. The best book, not just on the French Revolution, but on revolution in general.

Wheatcroft, Andrew. The World Atlas of Revolutions. London: H. Hamilton, 1983. The best single source of detailed accounts, complete with maps, of the major revolutions from the eighteenth to the late twentieth centuries.

Zagorin, Perez. Rebels and Rulers, 1500–1660. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A comprehensive and invaluable survey of a controversial period in the development of the idea of revolution.

Krishan Kumar

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Revaluation of values: to Sarin Gas - History And Global Production Of SarinRevolution - Classical And Christian Conceptions, The Seventeenth Century, Inventing Revolution: American And French Revolutions, The Revolutionary Idea In The Modern World