• Peripheral Histories

Seven Mysteries of Revolution

Updated: May 8, 2018

A century ago, the events that would later become known as the Russian Revolution were well underway. Street protests, generated in part from breadlines and in part from an organised general strike, had flowered into an uprising that brought down the Romanov monarchy. This period of unrest would later lead to the rise of the Bolsheviks to power – a development that would challenge all major global power structures and determine the character of the twentieth century.


Yet one hundred years later, we are almost as ignorant about revolution as we were back then. Despite a century of scholarship on the subject, the most fundamental questions but revolutions remain unanswered. This brief essay will explore seven of these questions in the hopes of capturing interest and generating discussion among the scholars that will write the historical works of the current century.

1) What is a revolution?

What do we mean when we speak of ‘revolution’? This is a problem, because ‘revolution’ is one of the most politically abused terms on earth. The French Revolution, for example, is probably a clear-cut example of a revolution. However, an episode in England which had many similar characteristics is known as the English Civil War, largely due to British historians’ horror at developments in France and their wish not to identify themselves with it. The February Revolution of 1917, which brought down the Tsarist government, was undoubtedly a revolution by most counts. But the events of October, where Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia with the help of armed supporters, would be better described as a coup. However, Bolshevik legitimacy rested on the Marxist doctrine that a bourgeois revolution would be followed by a communistic one, and therefore, this episode would be henceforth known to Soviet historiography as the October Revolution.

Perhaps when we speak of ‘revolution’, we mean the overthrow of old rulers and political institutions and their replacement by new ones. This simple definition would seem to cover most cases that we understand to be revolutions, but it still leaves the historian with uncomfortable problems. By this definition, the extraordinary demonstrations in Egypt that led to the fall of Mubarak would not count as revolutions, since they resulted in another secular military government that is democratic only in name. The Civil Rights movement, which was commonly called ‘the Negro revolution’ at the time, and the feminist movement – both of which resulted in a vast shift in cultural attitudes and laws in all Western nations – would not be included under the definition. By this definition, the conquest of China by Mao Zedong and the declaration of the People’s Republic in 1949 would count as a revolution. But the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which saw social, political, and economic institutions attacked and uprooted across China, vast populations deported into re-education camps, and an uprising emulating the Paris Commune in Shanghai, would not count as a revolution.

Theda Skocpol provided modern Western scholarship with perhaps the strongest and most exclusive definition of revolution: a deep upheaval of social and economic classes along with a dramatic change in the political order. For her, only great revolutions count as revolutions: she used China, France, and Russia as her main examples. Yet this definition excludes many episodes that we call ‘revolutions’. For Skocpol, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 in France, which did not result in deep social upheaval, would not count as real revolutions. The English Civil War, which resulted in the regicide of Charles I and the supremacy of parliamentary power on the British Isles, would not count as a revolution either. The American Revolution, which was a modest reconfiguration of existing institutions and a firm assertion that they were locally controlled, would also not count as a real revolution. So perhaps this definition of revolution is too narrow.

An Egyptian friend of mine, while discussing the 2013 coup that brought down the government of Mohammad Morsi in Egypt, told me, ‘they called it a coup, but it was a revolution’. He then proceeded to show me a video shot by helicopter of the streets of Cairo, with throngs of people – filling every street and every bridge – all calling for the end of the regime. So what we remember as a ‘coup’ can actually be a revolution, just as what we remember as a revolution can actually be a ‘coup’.

The wave of mass demonstrations that brought down the socialist governments of Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991 were referred to by observers as ‘velvet revolutions’. But in Russia in 1991, street protests were tiny by comparison. There was a coup, and tanks on Red Square – and a small group of brave souls demonstrating in Moscow in support of Boris Yelstin, who defied the coup – but nothing compared to Petrograd in 1917 or Cairo in 2011. At a key moment, the leaders of the coup asked each other if they wanted to put down Yeltsin’s show of defiance by force, and realised that none of them really had the will. Their decision not to use violence saved Russia from a bloodbath. It also may have saved Russia from what two decades later would happen in Libya and Syria: in these countries, when the army was asked to fire on civilians, its morale collapsed and the army itself fragmented, bringing on civil war.

But this brings us to a puzzling phenomenon: the difference between a peaceful transition of power and a full-blown revolutionary war sometimes rests on the decision of a small group of individuals to use or not use violence. As historians and social scientists,  it would be imprudent to create two entirely different sociological categories for situations that could go either way.

Recognising this, Jack Goldstone, one of Skocpol’s students, convened a grand study of every case of political instability in the world since 1955. This new definition, ‘political instability’, included not only revolutionary war and other forms of internal conflict, but also extraconstitutional changes of power. This expanded definition covers most of the episodes previously described: the French Revolution, the English Civil War, the February and October revolutions, and even the Cultural Revolution in China. It includes the 2011 and 2013 transitions of power in Egypt, but not the street protests in Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria of the same period that resulted in no change whatsoever. Just as no one would call the Occupy movement a case of political instability, we can see that this definition is valuable for what it excludes as well as what it includes.

While this definition successfully clarifies the similarity between certain episodes, it is still only a beginning of our understanding of what revolution is. It reveals that we usually use the term ‘revolution’ for dozens of complex situations, not all which are obviously similar. And it leaves out one fundamental category: profound changes of ideology and social opinion that leave political institutions largely intact. The Civil Rights and feminist movements in the United States and other Western nations were examples of this. Also, the sweeping ideological changes that occurred in Italy in the 1920s and Germany in the 1930s are perhaps not adequately captured by the definition ‘extraconstitutional change of power’. Adolf Hitler himself contended in a famous speech that he and the Nazi party had carried out a revolution as great as the French Revolution without shedding a drop of blood. In order to better understand what revolution is, we will have to look at some of its other characteristics.

2) When does a revolution begin?

Another great uncertainty in the historiography of revolution is the matter of determining when a revolution begins. Crane Brinton addressed this problem in his comparative study The Anatomy of Revolution. He says that the beginning of the English Civil War can be dated ‘somewhere between the calling of the Long Parliament in 1640 and the outbreak of war two years later’, and lists several possible start dates for the American revolution: the Stamp Act in 1765, the Boston Massacre in 1770, or the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775 was undoubtedly the first military action of the American Revolution, but this was an episode where British troops were sent to seize a secret storehouse of guns that the American colonists were saving to use in a coming insurrection. Therefore, revolutionary motives were clearly well advanced by the time the actual military struggle began.

I remember that in my initial studies of the French Revolution, I hungered to put my finger on the exact date, and the exact hour, when the Old Regime’s power was replaced by the new one. I found, to my surprise, that this was very hard to determine. The taking of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789 has long been debunked by historians as a symbolic act, rather than a truly meaningful one. So when was the moment that the revolution took power? When the king, the nobles and the clergy lost control of the Estates General? But the Old Regime still controlled the army and the entire administrative apparatus of France at the time. Was it the moment of the Tennis Court Oath, where the members of the Third Estate, threatened by the king’s troops drawing near to Paris, swore not to disperse until a Constitution had been given to France? But this was only the beginning of a long process of upheaval. It was certainly not the moment in 1792 when the King was guillotined, because he had long since lost the power to determine events and was at that point a prisoner of the Citizen Guard. I satisfied myself that the best answer to the question was the moment when a revolutionary mob took over the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) in Paris, tossed out the officials, and organized their own government called the Paris Commune. Yet this, the accession of a revolution to power, is far more easy to determine than the date the revolutionary process begins.

It is even unclear when the February Revolution in Russia began. One of the traditional dates is March 8th (February 23 in the old Russian calendar), which was International Women's Day. A strike began in several factories with largely female workforces and gradually came to involve more and more factories. Yet when did the street protests attain what we might call ‘critical mass’? The crowds did not involve hundreds of thousands of people until several days later, and only then did the officials of the government realize that the city was paralysed and that the Tsar would be forced to give up power. But a few days before Women’s Day, the labourers at the Putilov works had carried out a bitter strike action and protest that could also rightfully be called the ‘beginning’ of the revolution.

In Egypt, on Tuesday, January 25, 2011, there was a small and brave gathering of crowds, mostly youth, in Midan Tahrir in the centre of Cairo. This attracted some attention, and prompted the question of how the government would respond. Was this the beginning of the revolution? In late 2008 and early 2009, Midan Tahrir had seen even larger crowds, protesting the rise of the price of bread. But this incident is now forgotten. The gathering of youth in 2011 was only significant because of what happened after. By Friday, the Muslim Brotherhood had decided to act: during Friday noon prayers, imams across Cairo urged people to take to the streets. By that evening, the streets of Cairo were flooded with millions of people, and the next few days saw massive street protests in Alexandria and in cities up and down the Nile. The news cameras of the world became focused on Cairo, and it became clear to the government and everyone else that Egypt was in the midst of a revolution.

The Chinese Revolution is perhaps the hardest example of all to date accurately. In the Russian Revolution, the Tsarist government was overthrown in February 1917, the Provisional Government in October 1917, and the Russian Civil War continued until 1922, when most of the territory of the Russian Empire had been conquered by the Bolsheviks. But in China, the imperial monarchy was overthrown in 1911, and there ensued a ‘warlord period’ which only ended in 1949, when the Chinese Civil War came to a close and Mao declared the foundation of the People’s Republic. My investigations into Chinese history led me to date the beginning of the Chinese Revolution to 1850, which was the start of the Taiping Rebellion, a massive uprising that led to a wave of rebellions across China that lasted for two decades. As an emergency measure to put down these insurrections, the Emperor permitted local governors to raise their own armies and taxes to fund them – and by the time these rebellions had been put down, these local governors emerged as warlords at the head of their own personal militaries and were only nominally under the control of Beijing. So the state had lost all real power and had begun to disintegrate by 1850, meaning that the Chinese revolution was a process that took 99 years to complete. Most historians, however, date the Chinese Revolution as beginning in 1911, even though that episode was the formal overthrow of a government that was not really in control of the country. A Chinese historian friend of mine disagrees with my assessment, and insists that the Chinese Revolution began in 1920, with the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. But it seems improper to choose this date as the beginning of the revolutionary process just because the Chinese Communist Party happened to come out on top.

The question of when a revolution begins, or when the decisive hour arrives where one government loses power and another overtakes it, is very closely connected to the question of what a revolution is in the first place. There is a similar problem, as we shall see, in deciding when a revolution ends.

3) When does a revolution end?

After he became  the leader of Cuba, Castro traveled  to Egypt to meet Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had taken power in Egypt a few years earlier, and asked, to the latter’s great embarrassment, “when are you going to begin your revolution?” Nasser, a socialist who had aligned his government to the Soviet Union, assumed that the Egyptian Revolution that brought him to power had taken place in 1952, but to Castro, this was not a revolution. A revolution was a social upheaval that would bring equality to the working classes and abolish the privileges of the rich.

It was in virtue of this same idea that Mao began what would become known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. This was only the most spectacular and violent of several government campaigns to alter Chinese society. Mao had launched multiple campaigns against corruption, the Hundred Flowers campaign to encourage freedom of speech, and the subsequent anti-rightist campaign to shut down all free speech that was disagreeable to Party rule. After these, the Great Leap Forward, a process that Skocpol would describe as a revolution, collectivized agriculture, completely altered the economic structure of the country, and resulted in a terrible famine. The Cultural Revolution then overturned educational and social institutions, and traditional cultural attitudes that had long persisted in Chinese society. Should we say, then, that the Chinese Revolution ended not in 1949, but in 1976, when the Cultural Revolution came to an end? And if so, how would the restructuring of the Deng Xiaoping period compare to the restructuring of these earlier periods?

When did the Russian Revolution end? Popular protest did not end with the accession of the Bolsheviks – the same Krondstat sailors who had helped Lenin overthrow the Provisional Government broke out in armed rebellion a few years later, to protest the strict privations the government was forcing upon the country. Lenin and Trotsky put down this rebellion with brute force, but then instituted the ‘New Economic Policy,’ which permitted various forms of market activity in order to relieve the pressure on the government. During this time, the Civil War was still raging across the former Russian Empire, and the social structure of rural society would remain unchanged until Stalin collectivized agriculture years later.

When did the American Revolution end? The military side of the American Revolution was marked by George Washington’s unique military career: he lost nearly every battle but managed to keep the Continental Army together long enough to convince the British that they weren’t going to be able to reconquer the colonies. The Declaration of Independence in 1776 was certainly not the end of the Revolution. When peace with Britain was signed in 1783, the United States still had yet to create a Constitution and set down the rules of government for their new society.

When did the French Revolution end? The traditional date to end a history book on the French Revolution is with the coup of Napoleon Bonaparte—this is where Thomas Carlyle's classic history ended, and most historians recognize how dense and complicated the Napoleonic era was and follow this convention. Yet Napoleon himself claimed to be the champion of the French Revolution; his conquest of Europe was a continuation of the revolution through the liberation of the European peoples from the tyrannies of the Old Regime. France saw the Bourbons restored to power in 1814, and Napoleon took power again in a popular uprising in 1815. The monarchy was overthrown again in 1830, and another dynasty established, which ruled until another revolution overthrew it 1848. Later that year, Napoleon III, the old Emperor’s nephew came to power. He arrogated that he would  become even greater than his uncle, provoking Karl Marx’s scathing comment that history tends to repeat itself, ‘first as a tragedy, then as a farce’. In 1871, the Paris Commune rose in revolt. The Internationale was sung for the first time, the red flag was flown over the streets of the capital, and the Communards claimed they were completing the unfinished business of the original French Revolution that had begun nearly a century earlier.

Is the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 over? Was the 2013 upheaval a separate revolution? Or was it part of the same process of political turmoil that persisted until Egypt established a stable government? It is unclear whether or not Egypt’s government is even yet stable. If Sisi fell tomorrow, would we call it a distinct  revolution or consider all of these episodes part of a single, continuous revolutionary process? Like the start date of a revolution, the end date depends on our definition of what a revolution is in the first place—a definition that has proven to be remarkably elusive.

4) Where are the geographic boundaries of a revolution?

While it is difficult to periodise revolutions , it is equally difficult to establish the geographic boundaries of revolutions. If a revolution continues over borders, is it still the same revolution?

The Haitian Revolution of the 1790s was unquestionably triggered by the French Revolution. The Haitians only learned of the French Revolution in September of 1789: news of the events in France was delayed for the time it took for French ships to cross the ocean. Shortly after the news arrived, there was a confused insurrection where poor, white mobs rose up in defiance of the colonial regime and the metisse landlords whom they resented and envied. Masses of Haitian slaves rose up in their turn, certain that the promise of liberté applied to them. The Haitian revolution could thus be seen as a continuation of the French Revolution in the colonies, but a revolutionary episode that took on a uniquely Haitian character as it progressed.

Most major revolutions produce echo revolutions in societies far beyond their geographic boundaries. The American, French, and Haitian Revolutions inspired many independence movements in Latin America, which broke out in revolution after Napoleon conquered Spain and forced the Spanish monarchy to its knees. The 1848 revolution in France was followed by the Springtime of Nations, a wave of nationalist revolutions against monarchical power across Europe. It was this wave of unrest that inspired Marx to write the Communist Manifesto, and prophesy a great wave of revolution that would overthrow the capitalist system across the world.

The Russian Rebellion of 1905, which was called by Trotsky a  ‘dress rehearsal’ for 1917, was echoed by great strike movements across the European continent. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was echoed by a communist revolution in Hungary. Groups of communists, inspired by events in Russia, began to fight for control of governments across Europe. Communist rebellion in Italy in the interwar period led Mussolini to take power in a coup and to create the world’s first fascist government. Street fighting between communists and nationalists in Berlin led the new government to withdraw to the city of Weimar to organize a republic. It was the communist risings of this period that inspired a young Adolf Hitler to create a counter movement to revive Germany, and there is no question that this leftist unrest was the reason that his movement found such widespread support. The Spanish and Chinese Civil Wars were both continuations of the Russian Revolution onto foreign soil.

There are also more modern, less violent examples of echo movements. A wave of protests swept the globe in 1968: there were student protests in Paris that paralysed the city, protests against West German governmental hypocrisy, protests after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in the USA, and the Prague Spring. The Arab Spring began with a revolution in Tunisia, and  later spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. There was also notable unrest in Jordan, Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. Later in 2011, a protest movement arose in Quebec called “le Printemps Erable”, which is French for “the Maple Spring” – this movement drew its name from the Arab Spring (“le Printemps Arabe”) but modified it to reflect  Quebecois identity. The Occupy movement, which arose in the US, Canada, the UK, and several other Western countries in the same year, was arguably a continuation of the Arab Spring into Western societies.

Can we consider the above examples to be separate, distinct revolutions? Or should we consider them contiguous phenomena that traverse societal boundaries? If revolutions can be said to cross borders, it follows that they can cross into societies with very different power structures than those in which they originated. These different conditions unquestionably lead to very different outcomes – Libya tore itself apart, for example, but neighbouring Algeria, whose people vividly remember the horror of their civil war in the 1990s, decided to cancel the insurrection. But whatever the consequences, it is undeniable that the mass psychological phenomena that produces uprisings in one society can induce the very same mass psychological phenomena in others.

To be able to better judge whether or not a revolution can be said to be the same revolution or a different one when it crosses social and geographical boundaries, we will have to investigate the identity of a revolution: we will have to look at its psychological, moral, and ideological character.

5) What is the character of a revolution?

Whenever mass protests against a regime or social system begin, the question immediately asked by all sides – politicians, news reporters, pundits, and the regime’s own military commanders – is ‘what do the people want?’ It is always imagined that there is a single, simple answer to this question, even when the revolution is long past and is being contemplated by historians. The reality, however, is much more complex.

The ‘Arab Spring’ was the name given to the Arab uprisings by Western journalists and leaders in an effort to compare it to the Springtime of Nations (the nationalist democratic revolutions of 1848) and the Prague Spring, a liberal socialist movement in Czechoslovakia that defied hardline Soviet rule. Much of the Western media later asserted that ‘the Arab Spring failed’, because it produced only one ‘democracy’ (Tunisia), three warzones (Libya, Syria, and Yemen) and one military state with an extra democratic coat of paint (Egypt). But this perceived ‘failure’ of the ‘Arab Spring’ was only the result of the West’s application of its idea of the ‘character’ and ‘intentions’ of a revolution to societies that it did not fully understand.

To be sure, millions of Egyptians believed the same thing: that the objective of the Arab uprisings was to produce democratic societies. These people protested the restrictions and heavy-handedness of the Mubarak regime, and genuinely wanted an open democracy on the constitutional model. But if these Egyptians imagined that they represented ‘the Egyptian people’ in general, they were mistaken. Many of those who came out in protest on that fateful Friday wanted the Mubarak regime to fall to make way for an Islamic society. And we also have to allow that probably further millions of protestors had no clear idea of what sort of government they wanted: they simply hated the corruption and hardship of the ruling regime. The only thing that produced unity among these disparate groups was their hatred of Mubarak, and that unity collapsed the instant he was removed from power.

The same confusion about the ‘intentions’ of crowds of millions is present in every revolution and every mass protest. The Taiping Rebellion, which challenged the Chinese imperial government, began as a quasi-Christian religious movement. The leader, Hong Xiuquan, was animated by the sincere belief that he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother. He initiated a social program under which families shared their wealth in common and women and men lived a life of total abstinence in separate camps. As his movement swelled, it took on the character of an anti-Manchu rebellion, since the Taipings defied Manchu rule and even grew their hair long, rejecting the humiliating queue hairstyle imposed on them by the Manchu emperor. The Taiping movement ended as an ailing kingdom that had discarded the  idea of holding all property in common for practical reasons, and had even instituted the imperial examination system like all traditional Chinese empires. The other revolutions that broke out in China in the same period took on characters of their own: two were Muslim revolts, and others seemed to have no political or ideological program, but were rather centred around armed bands that despised the imperial government.

The Russian Revolution began as hatred of the Tsar. There were multiple political parties operating in Russia at the time: several of them wished for a constitutional government. Many of the people in the streets were overly frustrated at the economic situation. The strikers from the factories wanted workers’ rights and higher wages. The peasants wanted the land to be parceled out among them. But it was ultimately the Bolsheviks who took over, fought a civil war, and then educated the largely illiterate Russian population in retrospect about why the revolution happened. A similar situation occurred in China: Chiang Kai-Shek’s government lost all support because of its overuse of the printing press as a source of government funds, and the subsequent runaway inflation – the Chinese Communists who came to power later promulgated the idea that it had been an enormous class struggle. Famously, the Shah’s government in Iran was toppled by street protests involving millions of people – many of whom genuinely wanted democratic reforms – and that revolution was subsequently dominated by Shia Islamic fundamentalists.

In the debate about the ‘true character’ of a revolution, it is easy for some historians to argue that a revolution was ‘stolen from the people’ or  ‘betrayed’, and for others to contend that the victors represented the genuine desires of ‘the people’ and that the revolution accomplished precisely what it ‘intended’ to. Pipes and Figes, attack  Lenin’s character and lament the ‘real’ revolution of ‘the people’ that could have been, just as French historians bewail the reign of Napoleon and his ‘theft’ of the ‘legitimate’ the French Revolution. Persian exiles lament the ‘theft’ of their revolution; Egyptians lament the ‘theft’ of the 2011 revolution by the Muslim Brotherhood and the subsequent ‘theft’ of the 2013 revolution by an autocratic President Sisi. To the government in Kiev, the Ukrainian uprising of 2014 was a liberation struggle against the oppressive power of Moscow, and the subsequent rebellions in the Crimea and the Donbass were carried out by evil Russian agents. To the government in Moscow, the Ukrainian uprising was a product of the wicked machinations of the United States and the rebellions in the Crimea and the Donbass were genuine popular refusals to follow the dictates of the new Western puppet government.

The Occupy movement was marked by a wave of condescending news reports claiming that the crowds ‘don’t even know why they’re protesting’. Well, who ever does? The ‘intention’ or ‘character’ of an uprising is nearly impossible to ever establish, for both the historian of past revolutions and the observer of current ones. What signifies the intentions of the masses? Slogans? Red flags? Shoes held in the air? Does the organization of well-directed individuals that takes control afterward really lead ‘the people’, or are they ‘hijacking’ a wave of misplaced discontent?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. As Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, it is not the ideology of the party that matters, but its discipline. The most disciplined party during a time of insurrection ends up winning the revolution. But this problem of whether it is ‘hijackers’ or ‘genuine leaders’ that end up rising to power leads us to another question: who participates in a revolution?

6) Who participates in a revolution?

The question of revolutionary participation is perhaps the most significant for the economic historian. While very difficult, getting a precise idea of the numbers of people who participate in a revolution, and perhaps their economic status, is at least within the realm of possibility.

Once I was sitting in a Chinese history class when a war of words broke out between the largely PRC-educated Chinese students in the class and my Chinese Economic History professor. The latter was born in China, where he had spent time farming rice in a ‘reeducation’ camp during the Cultural Revolution. He subsequently made his way to Oxford and developed a nationalistic, anti-Communist view of Chinese history. The students argued that the great masses of Chinese people cooperated together to carry out the Chinese Revolution, while our professor quoted statistics of actual Party membership to drive home the point that ‘it is always a minority that makes a revolution’.

My professor was not entirely correct. A revolution is always led by a minority of foot soldiers, but they draw resources and support from the masses at large. So when we count revolutionaries, do we only count Castro’s three hundred guerrillas in the jungle of the Sierra Maestra? Or do we include the thousands of peasants who gave them food, shelter and resources? Much of this depends upon the theatre of revolution, which can be wide-ranging or localised, and which often shifts over the course of a revolutionary process that can last for years, making the task of counting participants very difficult for the historian.

In the French Revolution, historians usually focus on Paris as the central theatre of the revolution, but there were varying degrees of activity throughout the lesser cities and provinces of France. In a large number of communities, revolutionary committees were formed and seized power away from monarchist officials at a local level. In Cuba, Oriente province in the east provided much of the support and recruits for Castro’s guerrillas, but there were also multiple strikes and demonstrations in Havana that helped to destabilise the regime. The Russian Revolution, like the French, centred on the masses in the capital – but after the fall of the centralised Tsarist regime, several peripheral regions such as Finland and the Ukraine collapsed into anarchy. By the end of the Civil War, there had been uprisings in areas across the empire, from the rural areas of European Russia to the cities of Siberia. The Chinese Civil War was won by Mao’s strategy of mobilising the countryside, where the Communists found support, against the cities, which were largely bases of Nationalist support. The theatre of communist activity was localised in a few areas initially, and by virtue of the Long March was later spread all over China.

But beyond considering the theatres of revolt, the historian must also consider the degree of participation of each individual. Participation can vary from being an active member of a revolutionary party, to forms of passive support, to actively working for the counterrevolution. France saw huge pockets of resistance in areas such as Brittany and the Vendée, and in cities such as Lyon or Marseille. After the success of the American Revolution, a full third of the population of the thirteen colonies packed their bags and moved to Canada, so they could remain subjects of the British crown. My Chinese professor explained that the revolution with the greatest recorded participation in history was the Iranian Revolution, in which about 10% of the population participated. I am as of yet still unsure how this participation was determined and measured.

Indeed, in our histories, the active minority that conducts the revolution gets all of the attention. But the weaker degrees of participation of others, the opportunity for participation that a revolution offers to most, and the fact that massive numbers of people simply lie low and do not participate in the revolutionary process, give us several clues as to what a revolution is. A participant is not simply a revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, but rather, a participant in certain events, at certain times, to a certain degree. Revolution – however we define it – exists somewhere in the sum total of demonstrations, outbursts of unrest, political activities, military maneuvers, promulgations of decrees and declarations, swells of rumours, and shifts of public opinion that are experienced, at least partially sporadically, from an unspecified time period to another unspecified time period. And this elusiveness brings us to the last mystery of revolution that shall be treated here: is a revolution fundamentally a rapid and explosive shift of ideas?

7) Is a revolution fundamentally only a shift of ideas?

In a literal sense, this question is not even falsifiable: every human action presumably follows some form of mental impulsion, and therefore of course a revolution is a mass shift in ideas, just as is every other mass social phenomenon. And some scholars will certainly disapprove of a question that abstracts ideas from the living, breathing humans who think them. But we could rephrase the question to capture its more subtle philosophical purpose: do the various phenomena that we call ‘revolutions’ amount to only a subset of a wider human phenomenon: deep and radical change in moral and metaphysical ideas that takes place in millions of minds in a relatively uniform and predictable way?

That a revolution represents a change in ideas is easiest to see at the local level, especially during critical moments. When the Bolshevik minds in the Smolny Institute are protected by bayonets while the minds of the Provisional Government in the Winter Palace are arrested – when armies with ‘red’ minds bearing red standards sweep the map of armies with ‘white’ minds bearing white standards – then the process of revolution can be seen as one where minds of a certain conviction eliminate or neutralise all competitors in the social arena. There is even a certain natural selection in this process: from February to October, the minds that controlled martial power were confused, divided, and disorganised. The minds that took control from October onwards were not. The Civil War represented the gradual geographic elimination of moral confusion outward from Moscow to the boundaries of the Russian Empire.

The same was true for France: the crushing of internal revolt and the stalwart defence against invading foreign armies represented the consolidation of the revolutionary idea – the guillotine and the mass executions represented only the most brutal tools of this ideational standardization. Fidel Castro ruled over a bickering, backbiting island until the Bay of Pigs invasion validated all of his criticisms of American imperial power. Mao Zedong, long after eliminating his competitors, launched righteous campaigns to change the fundamental ideas that governed Chinese society – with incomplete and disastrous results. The conflict between his tens of millions of fanatical followers and the nonplussed minds of everyone else represented a war of ideas that convulsed the Chinese people for decades before finally finding equilibrium. The squabbling, disorganized democrats of Egypt first allied with, and then fought against, the squabbling, better-organized Muslim Brotherhood, who in turn were gunned down and sent into hiding by the even-better-organized Egyptian Armed Forces. The German communists, trade unionists, and liberal democrats were overwhelmed by a nationwide groundswell of support for the National Socialists – an enthusiasm to which all institutional and constitutional checks eventually succumbed.

By this definition, several other phenomena that we might not formally call ‘revolutions’ begin to seem remarkably similar. The Civil Rights movement represented the rise of a moral consciousness in millions of black American minds that they should not accept informal marginalization, and the conquest of the sympathy of tens of millions of white American minds. The feminist movement represented a similar rebellion against marginalization, supported and resisted by both male and female minds, in both Western and non-Western societies. By this definition, the rise and spread of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism also represent instantiations of the same process. The schisms that formed Orthodox and Roman Christianity, Sunni and Shia Islam, and the Protestant denominations also represent revolutions – many of which resulted in fighting as vicious and brutal as any seen during the revolutionary wars of subsequent centuries. By this definition, every political campaign is a miniature revolution – including the campaign that brought Lincoln to power and induced a revolution in the states that opposed him; including the campaign that brought a controversial real estate mogul to power last year. A revolution as a shift in ideas – a sociological, economic, and geographical process – seems to unite all the phenomena we have yet described, but at the cost of making the definition vastly and perhaps uncomfortably broad.

And thus, I leave the final judgment of this philosophical problem to the reader. These ‘seven mysteries’, though we could surely name many more, were intended to provoke and stimulate thought rather than lead to concrete conclusions. The study of revolution will continue to capture the interest of scholars, intelligence agencies, and politicians for many years hence, and the twenty-first century will certainly continue to provide the world with ever more fresh examples of revolution. It is my hope that historians of the Russian Revolution, as well as others, will begin to think beyond the stereotypes about revolution provided by the theorists of the twentieth century, and recognize and appreciate the intricate simplicity of this natural and ubiquitous human phenomenon.


© 2018 by Peripheral Histories.

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