A revolution is any fundamental change in the social or political aspects of a state. Most revolutions are political, occurring when the citizens of a country try to oust the existing government and replace it with a new one. Political revolutions tend to be tumultuous, violent events. There is no clear-cut explanation as to why people revolt, but scholars believe that some or all of the following factors lead to revolution:

  • Injustice: Aristotle argued that the cause of revolution was the perception of injustice. If the underclasses feel that they are being treated unjustly, they will revolt.
  • Relative deprivation: Some scholars have argued that revolutions occur after a period of good times has ended. The citizens begin to expect a higher quality of life and feel cheated when they perceive a stagnation or decline in the quality of their lives.
  • State of the government: Revolutions are more likely to happen in countries with corrupt governments. If citizens believe in the efficacy of their government, then revolution is unlikely. But if a regime appears to exist solely to enrich the rulers, then revolution is more likely.
  • The military: As the strongest power in most states, the military frequently determines whether a revolution will occur and be successful. If the military backs the government, then revolution is unlikely. A turning point in many revolutions occurs when soldiers decide to stop obeying the government and decide to fight alongside the revolutionaries.

Revolutions in History

Although people have always rebelled against their rulers and governments, the modern area witnessed many significant revolutions. Since the sixteenth century, most revolutions have been attempts to overthrow traditional regimes in the name of liberty. In the twentieth century alone, there were important revolutions in Russia, China, Egypt, and parts of communist Eastern Europe, as well as countless others in smaller countries. Revolutions, and countering revolutions, were a driving force of foreign policy in the twentieth century. However, three revolutions in particular have served as models for most of the world’s revolutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:

  • American Revolution (1776–1783): Leaders of the American Revolution overthrew British colonial rule to establish an independent republic. These colonial leaders considered the revolution to be a necessary evil and restricted the use of violence. Although the revolution affected the lives of most Americans, there was little social upheaval.
  • French Revolution (1788–1799): The French Revolution began much as the American Revolution had but quickly turned violent. Tens of thousands of French citizens were executed during Maximilian Robespierre’s so-called Reign of Terror. Order was restored only when Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of the government.
  • Russian Revolution (1917): Russian revolutionaries sought both the removal of the monarchy and the complete restructuring of civil society in accordance with Vladimir Lenin’s version of communism. The second phase of the Russian Revolution served as the model for dozens of other communist revolutions.




Major Impact

English Civil WarEngland1642–1653Set the stage for limited monarchy, and eventually democracy, in England
Glorious RevolutionEngland1688Permanently ended absolute monarchy in England
American RevolutionUnited States1775–1783Created the first modern democratic state
French RevolutionFrance1789–1799Destroyed the old French monarchy, led to the creation of the French nation-state, and promoted nationalism around Europe
Haitian RevolutionHaiti1804Created the first free black republic
French Revolution of 1830France1830Permanently ended French monarchy
Mexican RevolutionMexico1910Overthrew the dictator Porfirio Díaz and created the modern Mexican state
Russian RevolutionRussia1917Ended czarist rule in Russia and created the first communist state
Spanish RevolutionSpain1936Turned Spain into a fascist state
Chinese Civil WarChina1949Turned China into a communist state
Algerian War of IndependenceAlgeria1954–1962Ended French imperial control of Algeria
Cuban RevolutionCuba1959Overthrew Batista and created a communist regime
Iranian RevolutionIran1979Overthrew the shah and created an Islamic regime
Nicaraguan RevolutionNicaragua1979Overthrew the despotic regime and brought Marxist Sandinistas to power
Revolutions of 1989Eastern Europe1989Ended Soviet and communist rule of many Eastern European states

Success and Failure

Revolutions are extremely difficult to achieve. For a revolution to succeed, many people must agree that the government needs to be overthrown, and these people must be willing to put themselves in danger and prepare for the possibility of civil war. Moreover, revolutions usually fail. For example, in Europe in 1848, democratic ideas and the free market spawned a series of revolutions across the continent. Most of them failed miserably, and perhaps the main impact of the revolutions of 1848 was the strengthening of authoritarian rule.

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