Classic Revolutions: Marking the ‘First’ in History
Popular imagination has long been captured by the classic revolutions of history, and those very dates have become iconic: 1776 (America), 1789 (France), 1917 (Russia), and 1911 (China). These events astonished the world by overthrowing hereditary monarchies that had been dominant in their realms for centuries. By replacing those monarchies with republics or party-states, and ending the dominant role of privileged aristocrats in such societies, these events not only changed the governments of these states, but appeared to suddenly destroy traditional patterns of social organization and launch these societies into the modern age.

Since then, the currency of revolutions seems to have become debased. The term ‘revolution’ has been appropriated for dozens of events, ranging from anti-colonial revolts (Vietnam, Algeria, Mozambique), campaigns of guerrilla war, and popular protest that brought down modernizing dictatorships (China [1949], Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, the Philippines) or one-party regimes (Poland, USSR, Czechoslovakia, E. Germany). The term has even been applied to urban protests that embodied aspirations for change that went far beyond their actual consequences (the ‘Cedar Revolution’ in Lebanon, the ‘Tulip Revolution’ in Kyrgyzstan). A recent book on 20th century revolutions in developing nations (John Foran’s Taking Power, published in 2005) identifies no less than 39 events as ‘revolutions.’

Two distinct but important questions can be asked regarding this proliferation of events labeled as ‘revolutions:’ (1) Do the course or consequences of these events justify describing them as revolutions, that is, as social events of the same genus as the classic revolutions of history? And (2) Can academic theories of revolutions – developed mainly to account for the political upheavals and social transformations in those classic revolutions – be applied to these modern events to explain their causes and outcomes?

We should first note that the degree of change wrought by the classic revolutions is often overrated; the impression of a sudden break with traditional order and the creation of a modern world is something of a fabrication by nationalist historians who sought to glorify these events. In America, while elected state governors replaced royal appointees and a federal republican government replaced the British monarchy as sovereign, the leadership of the new republic remained controlled by the same social and political elites – mainly landholding and slaveholding white males – who had dominated colonial society. In France the traditional aristocracy retained most of its property and much of its influence throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed long after the revolution, France was led by self-proclaimed “Emperors” who ruled with the same pomp and style as aristocratic monarchs; stable republican government did not take root until 1871. In Russia, it was the Tsarist monarchy that had ended serfdom, developed railroads and factories, and initiated representative assemblies (the Dumas). Although the Tsars and aristocrats were destroyed, it was not the proletariat, but the middle-ranking elites of the old regime – intelligentsia, lesser civil and military officials, professionals and their offspring – who dominated Russia after 1917. Finally, although in China Sun Yat-sen sought to create a modern republic in place of the hereditary imperial regime and its Confucian-trained social and political leaders, what followed 1911 were decades of traditional warlordship, as in previous eras of imperial decline in China. A modernizing nationalist government did not emerge until Chang Kai-shek’s ‘nationalist’ revolution in 1927.

Then why did these revolutions – 1776, 1789, 1917, 1911 – assume such iconic status? The answer lies less in the realm of political or social transformation than in the shift in the ruling ideas in these societies, for in each case the principles on which power rested were dramatically and permanently transformed. In each case, the claims of individual merit against inherited rank to determine a person’s place in society – and especially to determine the rulers of that society – finally triumphed. Citizens (or comrades) claimed legal equality in place of the subordinate role of subjects, and rationally-designed constitutions replaced religious or military authority as the basis of government. Elites came to see themselves as leaders of the people, rather than servants of the state or Crown.

In this regard, each of these revolutions also marked a ‘first’ in world history. The American Revolution was the first large continental state to recreate itself as a republic, rather than a monarchy, and the most successful republic since ancient times (Switzerland, though long a democracy, was more a federation of self-governing cantons than a large republic; and both the Polish elected monarchy and Cromwell’s experiment in Commonwealth, the latter never having produced an elected chief executive, were considered failures by 1700). France was the first large European state to take the same steps, establishing a rationally-designed constitutional state and administrative system in lieu of traditional religious/monarchical authority. China was the first large state in Asia to follow in this path, overthrowing its traditional Emperor to proclaim a constitutional republic, and Russia was the first state to replace its traditional regime with an even more radical innovation, the vanguard party-led state and socialist economy.

Comparing Modern Revolutions
Do other modern ‘revolutions’ compare in these regards? Yes, some definitely do, although they have not been appreciated for various reasons. The overthrow of the Ottoman sultanate/caliphate by the Young Turks and then Kemal’s secular Turkish Revolution similarly replaced a centuries-old imperial regime claiming absolute authority based on religious and hereditary principles with a modern secular republican government. Yet perhaps because of the tragedies for Greece and Armenia – two Christian societies with historic ties to the West – that accompanied these events, the Turkish Revolution has never been seen as a great classic revolution in the West, even though the Turkish people themselves regard Kemal Attaturk as their Napoleon or Washington, and see the Kemalist revolution as the great break or turning point in their history.

In Japan, the Meiji Restoration of 1868 was a far more radical political and social transformation than any of the European Revolutions of 1848, and was more comparable to the classic social revolutions. It destroyed the centuries-old authority of the shogun and daimyos, abolished the hereditary privileged order of the samurai, and replaced them with a formally egalitarian, republican, and meritocratic regime. Yet this event too is only rarely treated as one of the great revolutions of history, in part because the leaders of the Restoration deliberately sought to downplay the change. For reasons of nationalist strategy, they preferred to portray themselves as reasserting loyalty to the Japanese emperor (a nationalist figurehead under both the shoguns and the Meiji regime), and bringing down the shogun in the name of restoring the Emperor’s traditional authority. Thus a radical modernizing revolution was cloaked in kimono robes, and made to seem more meek and traditional than it was.

As yet another example, we could point to the 1918 Revolution in Germany, which overthrew a centuries-old aristocratic/imperial regime of the Hohenzollern rulers and their Junker military and civil officers, and replaced it with a constitutional republic. Yet the revolutionary nature of these events too was clouded by accidents of history – the Hohenzollern regime had already begun to compromise with popular claims to citizenship after the Revolution of 1848, while the unsuccessful attempts of German socialists to use the revolution to create a socialist state imbued the 1918 revolution with an air of failure. Moreover, the Weimar republic that emerged was overshadowed by its collapse and the Nazi regime that followed.

Another reason that the classic revolutions are iconic is that, as global or regional ‘firsts,’ they served as models for later imitators. The American and French revolutions were the most influential models for constitutional revolutions throughout the Americas and Europe; China’s break with imperial authority paved the way for challenges to similar authorities in Korea and Vietnam; Russia’s revolution became the model for communist party-led revolutions across the globe. Still, other modern events also have claims to being global ‘firsts.’ The Nasser Revolution in Egypt can claim to be the first nationalist revolution to replace monarchist rule among Arab states, leading to similar revolutions in Iraq and Syria; and the Iranian revolution of 1979 can justifiably present itself as the first revolution to blend modern and Mahdist principles to create a regime designed as an Islamic republic. Perhaps most important, the Chinese Communist and Cuban Revolutions, as the first guerrilla-led revolutions in their regions, spawned further guerrilla-led efforts at communist revolution in their areas, including successes in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Nicaragua.
Different Models in Modern Revolutions
But how should we classify the dozens of other events that have claimed the mantle of revolution, without manifesting either stunning social change or ideological originality? Among these are many popular revolts against dictatorial or colonial regimes, such as those in Mexico, Bolivia, Algeria, Cuba (1898), Indonesia, Vietnam, Congo, Guatemala, East Timor, Portugal, Serbia, Romania, Zanzibar (later Tanzania), and Nepal. These events are indeed revolutions in the formal sense of being popularly-assisted changes of political power achieved by non-institutionalized means, resulting in a new regime with a different structure and justification of authority. They were often important, even crucial, events in the history of the countries in which they occurred. Many of them also drew on the romance of heroes of the people – Zapata and Pancho Villa in Mexico, José Martí in Cuba, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania – to enhance their affinity to the classic revolutions of the past. Yet these were not events that created new or widely imitated frameworks for political development, or marked turning points in the history of their regions or the globe. Thus they should perhaps be called ‘national revolutions,’ but not numbered among the ‘great’ revolutions of world history.

Yet there are exceptions. One can make a case for at least two other sets of recent revolutions that they did create new frameworks for political development and do mark such turning points. First, the Polish Solidarity revolution and the USSR anti-communist revolution led by Boris Yeltsin (which were inextricably intertwined) were the first successful popular revolts against the authority of communist parties. The Polish Solidarity revolt was the first movement led by intellectuals and workers to wrest power from a communist government; it thus led the way for anti-communist revolutions throughout Eastern Europe. The anti-communist revolution in the USSR, which began with Gorbachev’s reforms and elections intended to modernize and strengthen the communist party, but which resulted in its collapse, marked a turning point in world history – both the end of Communism as an ideological and political system with the power to challenge the West, and the end of Russia’s imperial control of Eastern Europe, the Baltic, central Asia, and the Caucasus, with the formation of new and independent states in the latter regions.

The second set of recent revolutions that marked such a change was the ‘Yellow Revolution’ in the Philippines in 1986 and the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Czechoslovakia in 1989. Together, they created a new template for revolutionary change, based on non-violent but massive displays of political mobilization and popular will, and emblematic symbols of unity and opposition. In both cases, authoritarian regimes were brought down not by rural revolts, guerrilla struggles, vanguard party-mobilization, or civil war, but chiefly by peaceful urban demonstrations manifesting popular unity and opposition to the regime. In the Philippines, the supporters of the opposition to President Ferdinand Marcos adorned themselves with yellow badges and ribbons, and their sustained demonstrations in Manila led to splits in the army. The ensuing confrontation forced Marcos to flee, and the struggle became known as the Yellow Revolution or the People Power Revolution, to honor the colors worn by the opposition and the pivotal role played by urban protesters. In Czechoslovakia, the peaceful yet sudden recapitulation of communist party leaders in the face of mounting popular demonstrations in Prague left people grasping for words to describe events; the term ‘velvet revolution’ was coined to describe a revolution exceptionally free of armed strife or indeed any kinds of widespread violence.

Ironically (and sadly) these ‘new model’ revolutions were marked by weakness and failures of the new regimes. Czechoslovakia was soon riven by new nationalisms, and split into the separate countries of Slovokia and the Czech Republic. The Philippines were marked by continued instability, with repeated attempted coups and rampant corruption shaking the government, which was unable or unwilling to undertaken major social and economic reforms. It appears that the price to be paid for a relatively peaceful revolutionary process was that a ‘hardened’ new regime did not emerge; instead varied factions survived and continued to challenge the new rulers over the direction and control of the new government.

Nonetheless, the new model of ‘color revolutions’ or ‘electoral revolutions’ spread, influencing events in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, and – as I write this – in Kenya. In all these cases, revolts against unpopular regimes shaped themselves mainly as urban popular mobilization against authoritarian regimes, often in the wake of the latter’s efforts to falsify election results. As with the originals, events in these latter ‘color revolutions’ have led to weak governments that continued to be riven by conflicts, rather than powerful new regimes. Nonetheless, they have managed (as the originals) to hang on to democratic governance, however troubled, rather than (with the possible exception of Kyrgyzstan) reverting to their pre-Revolutionary ways.

Thus it seems clear that even if we believe that true revolutions are more than merely popularly-assisted regime changes, but a major turning points in world history or a presentation of new models of political development, then at least some recent revolutions do deserve that term.
New Theory for New Revolutions?
This finding enhances the importance of the second question: do these new major revolutions follow the same theoretical lines as their predecessors? Can their causes, unfolding, and outcomes be explained in similar terms, or do we require new vocabularies and theories of change?

The current theory of revolutions in comparative sociology stresses four elements whose conjuncture is necessary for a revolution: a state that is financially weak or economically uncompetitive with its major rivals; elites that are internally divided and act to resist or reform the state; popular urban or rural groups who are organized by parties or neighborhoods or other associations or communities to engage in popular protest against the regime; and an ideology – whether traditional or novel, domestic or from abroad – that justifies radical rebellion by showing why the current regime is grossly unjust or obsolete. Some scholars have added that modern revolutions are particularly likely to occur in states with neo-patrimonial, personalist leaders.

The revolutions in Poland, the USSR, the Philippines, and Czechoslovakia all fit this pattern. In Poland, the economic weakness of the regime, and its dependence on shipbuilding to earn foreign exchange, is what made the defiance of the shipworkers union led by Lech Walesa possible, a key early element of the solidarity struggle. Intellectuals and religious leaders joined the workers, and helped organize communities – especially through Church networks – for demonstrations and strikes. The ideologies of Polish nationalism and western freedom together eroded whatever appeal communist ideology might have had for both the Polish people and many of their leaders.

In the Soviet Union, economic stagnation since the 1970s, especially in contrast to advances in Europe and North America, led to Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the regime. These efforts prompted a sharp divide among the elites of the USSR, with many choosing to lead movements for independence of various regions from Moscow, and a faction led by Boris Yeltsin and supported by the intelligentsia appealing for Russia to separate itself from the Soviet Union and end communist rule. Yeltsin’s democrats were supported by miners who organized strikes in the Urals, and by urban demonstrations in the major cities of Russia and the Baltics. Appeals to ethnic nationalism and western-style liberties led to the collapse of both communism and Russian control of the Baltic, Caucasus, and Central Asian SSRs (Socialist Soviet Republics).

In the Philippines, with the economy visibly weakening after 1980, President Ferdinand Marcos called elections to reinforce and extend his rule. Yet members of the political elites, who had previously been scattered and divided in their opposition, united behind Cory Aquino to contest the elections. When Marcos tried to falsify the election results to secure his victory, urban protests were organized by the opposition party to contest the falsified election results. Ideals of popular sovereignty and nationalism (targeting US influence) spurred elites and protestors to fight against Marcos’s efforts to retain power.

In Czechoslovakia, the growing economic weakness of the regime compared to Western European rivals, especially compared to its European and North American rivals, undermined its authority. Intellectuals and religious leaders again led the opposition, organizing massive urban demonstrations. Appeals to both ethnic nationalisms and western ideals of freedom, as in Poland and the USSR, provided a dual blow to the legitimacy of communist rule.

So far, so good. Yet in regard to the unfolding and outcomes of revolutions, these cases took directions unexpected by current theories of revolutions.

The classic revolutions underwent a series of well known stages: rule by moderate elites, a struggle for power that is won by radicals, a stage of ‘terror’ or ruthless attacks on regime opponents and former supporters, and the emergence of a new, more powerful central regime.

Of these revolutions, only the collapse of the USSR followed this pattern. If we take the revolution as starting when Gorbachev was elected as “President of the USSR” instead of relying on his position as Secretary-General of the Communist Party as his basis for power, and undertook his perestroika and glasnost reforms, the rest of the events follow familiar lines. The effort at reforms provoked both an attempted counter-revolution by conservatives in the party and military in 1991, and a radical democratic and Russian nationalist movement led by Yelstin. In the confrontation that followed, Gorbachev and the moderate path to reform was marginalized, and Yeltsin and the radicals, supported by break-away factions in the military, took power. There was no ‘terror,’ to be sure, but Yelstin’s armed attack on a recalcitrant parliament was a modern variant. And Yeltsin’s radicals, as the French Jacobins before them, gave way to a stronger, renewed authoritarian regime under Vladmir Putin.

The Polish, Philippine, and Czechoslovak Revolutions, however, took a different path. In each case, the initial moderate regime (respectively the Solidarity Party, the Aquino Presidency, and the joint Czechoslovak regime) passed from the scene without becoming either institutionalized or overthrown by radicals. Instead, these regimes accepted, and were eventually pushed aside by, conventional opposition parties. The result was troubled and divided but still democratic rule, what appears to be gradual revolution to becoming a ‘normal’ modern state. The color revolutions in George and Ukraine appear to be on a similar path.
We thus have a striking assessment: there have indeed been major revolutions in the modern world, and their causes are still reasonably well accounted for by the prevailing theory of revolutions. But in their process and outcomes, several of these modern revolutions do present something new: a novel path of political development distinct from that of past classic revolutions. This new path continues to be influential; and while it is less dramatic in its unfolding and consequences, it may yet produce more desirable social and political outcomes.