The advent of Middle East uprisings in 2011 served as a spark that triggered a wide-reaching chain of campaigns, protests, skirmishes etc. Under the series of struggle spreading from Tunisia to Egypt, from harsh battles of Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Libya to the cautious reforms of the regional monarchies; the region endured tremendous mayhem. Not only did the popular discontent alter the course of politics in Middle East, but its ripples were also felt in South Asia, South East Asia and other parts of the world. Therefore, the implications were wider to be left unnoticed.
The scope and diversity of factors that have encompassed the determination of protesters to stay upright for their cause increased the interests of the academicians to study the processes of changing nature of revolts and the way they are carried out in global world of digital technologies. As a result scholarly writings on concepts theorizing popular uprisings, protests, revolutions leading to civil wars, coup d’état etc. have multiplied manifold. The causes, processes, and outcomes of revolutions have widened to an extent that its consequences stretch across many arenas. Understanding the significance of the need to understand revolution as a concept, a brief review of related scholarly notions is presented hereafter.
The term “Revolution” has been derived from the Latin verb revolvere, and is generally defined as ‘a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favor of a new system’. Revolutions have happened throughout in the history, varying widely in terms of methods, duration, motivating ideologies and their results. The earliest theories of revolution were probably expressed by Plato and Aristotle. Most of the political thinkers of classical and medieval period focused on finding out when the rebellion against tyranny begins, what are the properties of revolutions, and on systematic explanations of their occurrence. Explanatory theories of these eras can be divided into state-centred and society-centred approaches. From Alexis de Tocqueville (19th century), Crane Brint on (earlier 20th century) to Samuel Huntington(second half of the 20th century) all theorists focused on the inability of the state and its institutional incapacity to meet rising societal expectations, manage political demands and build up proper economic structure. In their perspective revolutions occur because states and their institutions break down.
Until 1960s, “great revolutions” of England (1640), France (1789), Russia (1917), and China (1949) were studied within the confines of above mentioned two approaches. However 1970s onwards, the world saw a host of revolutions which didn’t fall into the domains of state-centred and class-based understanding of revolutions. Contrary to Marxist conception, the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan Revolution of 1979 proclaimed themselves as religious struggles. In Nicaragua (1979) and in Philippines (1986); multi-class coalitions toppled dictators; in Eastern Europe and Soviet Union in 1989–1991, socialist and totalitarian societies supposed to be impervious to class conflict, collapsed amid popular demonstrations and mass strikes. Moreover, host of anti-colonial and anti-dictatorial revolutions in the Third World, ranging from Angola to Zaire, became so numerous and affected so many people that the parochial practice of defining revolutions in terms of a few cases in European history plus China became untenable.
In response, contemporary theories of revolution evolved in three directions. First, researchers sought to apply the structural theory of revolution to an increasingly diverse set of cases. These included studies of guerrilla wars and popular mobilization in Latin America, studies of revolutions and rebellions in Eurasia from 1500 to 1850, studies of the Islamic revolution against the Shah in Iran and collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Second, scholars called for greater attention to conscious agency, to the role of ideology and culture in shaping revolutionary mobilization and objectives, and to contingency in the course and outcome of revolutions. Third, a new literature on “contentious politics” developed that attempts to combine insights from the literature on social movements and revolutions to better understand both phenomena.
To illustrate the three directional evolutionary studies of revolutions, contributions of few theorists who have revolutionized the study of revolutions are highlighted as under. Political sociologists like Ted Gurr shifted the focus of study to motivational aspects of individuals and group arguing that relative deprivation leads to aggression, and if efficiently organized against a weak or inept state such motivations could lead to revolution. Charles Tilly theorized that the mobilization of resources was more important than deprivation in explaining revolution. Trotsky also held this point of view as he contended that poverty is not the cause of revolution if it would have been the case, the masses would have always been in a state of revolt.
Some theorists perceive that both state-centred and society-centred approaches function together to bring about revolutions. Barrington Moore sought to explain the patterns of the major revolutions of the modern world through a comparative focus on the class and political structures of agrarian societies, while his student Theda Skocpol holds the view that a combination of over-extension in international conflicts and internal social and fiscal crises explained the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions.
Relatively, there also exist explanations such as McAdam’s political process model that focuses on patterns of interaction between groups challenging state authority and the effect of the state’s response upon further mobilization; while Goldstone has been examining the relationship between population growth and the ability of states to meet increased demands for food production; whereas Ibn-e-Khaldun holds the credit for writing rich political and sociological account of revolutions in the Islamic world.
In sum, revolution is an everchanging concept in the field of academia. Over time, due to changes in its practical conduct, the concept has evolved from simpler understandings to complex interpretations. The discourse on what constitutes and causes revolution still continues. In the words of Mason Cooley, “A real idea keeps changing and appears in many places,” hence the change is advantageous.
Published by Pakistan Observer on February 28, 2015
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are no necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.