Definitions of revolution

Dale Yoder. 1926. “Current Definitions of Revolution,” American Journal of Sociology 32:3 (Nov.): 433-441.

“The term ‘revolution’ is one of the most used and, one suspects, one of the most misused of words. Both within and without the literature of the social sciences it has acquired a variety of meanings which make it as adaptable to personal purposes as is the chameleon’s skin. In general parlance it carries connotations and significances which involve the deepest fears as well as the highest hopes. To some it represents the most formidable danger threatening modern civilization; to others, the only gleam of hope in a present world of darkness. So general is the popular belief that revolution is a calamity of the direst order and a thing to be avoided at any cost that the newspapers of the day regularly refer to it as the one outstanding catastrophe which faces modern nations. The most effective means for opposing any present-day social movement is to brand it as ‘revolution’ or to suggest that it is a step in that direction.” (433)

Merriam-Webster (online)

Definition of revolution

1a (1) :  the action by a celestial body of going round in an orbit or elliptical course; also:  apparent movement of such a body round the earth (2) :  the time taken by a celestial body to make a complete round in its orbit (3) :  the rotation of a celestial body on its axis

1b:  completion of a course (as of years); also:  the period made by the regular succession of a measure of time or by a succession of similar events

1c (1) :  a progressive motion of a body around an axis so that any line of the body parallel to the axis returns to its initial position while remaining parallel to the axis in transit and usually at a constant distance from it (2) :  motion of any figure about a center or axis revolution of a right triangle about one of its legs generates a cone (3) :  rotation

2a :  a sudden, radical, or complete change

2b :  a fundamental change in political organization; especially :  the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed

2c :  activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation

2d :  a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something :  a change of paradigm the Copernican revolution

2e :  a changeover in use or preference especially in technology the computer revolution the foreign car revolution

Oxford Dictionaries (online)



1A forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system.
‘the country has had a socialist revolution’

1.1 (in Marxism) the class struggle which is expected to lead to political change and the triumph of communism.

‘when I grew up it was the Marxism that was very strong, it was like the revolution was coming next week’

1.2 A dramatic and wide-reaching change in conditions, attitudes, or operation.

‘marketing underwent a revolution’

2An instance of revolving.

‘one revolution a second’

2.1mass noun The movement of an object in a circular or elliptical course around another or about an axis or centre.

‘revolution about the axis of rotation’

2.2 A single orbit of one object around another or about an axis or centre.

‘near the solar equator the sun takes about 26 days to complete one revolution’

Legal Definition: 1969 Ballentine’s Law Dictionary

“A sudden, radical and fundamental change in the government or political system, usually effected with violence or at least some acts of violence, sometimes after prolonged struggle between armed forces, and prompted ordinarily by internal conditions oppressive to the people. The overthrow of an established government, generally accompanied by far-reaching social changes.”

Mao Zedong:

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” From Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan (1927)

From Lewis Lapham’s “Crowd Control”:

The twentieth-century philosopher and political scientist Hannah Arendt says that the American Revolution was intended as a restoration of what its progenitors believed to be a natural order of things “disturbed and violated” by the despotism of an overbearing monarchy and the abuses of its colonial government.

Born thirteen years later under the fixed star of a romantic certainty, the French Revolution was advertent, a violent overthrow of what its proponents, among them Maximilien de Robespierre, perceived as an unnatural order of things. Away with the old, in with the new; kill the king, remove the statues, reset the clocks, welcome to a world that never was but soon is yet to come.

The plot line tends to repeat itself—first the new flag on the roof of the palace, rapturous crowds in the streets waving banners; then searches, requisitions, massacres, severed heads raised on pikes; soon afterward the transfer of power from one police force to another police force, the latter more repressive than the former (darker uniforms, heavier motorcycles) because more frightened of the social and economic upheavals they can neither foresee nor control.

The French philosopher Simone Weil draws a corollary lesson from her acquaintance with the Civil War in Spain, and from her study of the communist Sturm und Drang in Russia, Germany, and France subsequent to World War I. “One magic word today seems capable of compensating for all sufferings, resolving all anxieties, avenging the past, curing present ills, summing up all future possibilities: that word is revolution…This word has aroused such pure acts of devotion, has repeatedly caused such generous blood to be shed, has constituted for so many unfortunates the only source of courage for living, that it is almost a sacrilege to investigate it; all this, however, does not prevent it from possibly being meaningless.”

Theda Skocpol (1976) “France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions.”

Social revolutions are: “rapid, basic transformations of socio-economic and political institutions”

Chalmers Johnson (1964)

A violent response to a major dysfunction in society.

Patrick H. O’Neil Essentials of Comparative Politics (Fifth Edition)

“a public seizure of the state in order to overturn the existing government and regime.”

James Davies (1962), “Toward a Theory of Revolution”

A revolutionary state of mind requires the continued, even habitual but dynamic expectation of greater opportunity to satisfy basic needs, which may range from merely physical (food, clothing, shelter, health, and safety from bodily harm) to social (the affectional ties of family and friends) to the need for equal dignity and justice. But the necessary additional ingredient is a persistent, unrelenting threat to the satisfaction of these needs: not a threat which actually returns people to a state of sheer survival but which puts them in the mental state where they believe they will not be able to satisfy one or more basic needs. Although physical deprivation in some degree may be threatened on the eve of all revolutions, it need not be the prime factor, as it surely was not in the American Revolution of 1775. The crucial factor is the vague or specific fear that ground gained over a long period of time will be quickly lost. This fear does not generate if there is continued opportunity to satisfy continually emerging needs; it generates when the existing government suppresses or is blamed for suppressing such opportunity.

Paul Rahe, (1997) “How Revolutionary Was the American Revolution?” from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Newsletter

America’s Founding Fathers had little doubt regarding the revolutionary character of their undertaking. They took at face value Thomas Paine’s claim that their struggle for independence marked “the birthday of a new world” and that they actually had it in their power “to begin the world over again.” Indeed, they embedded within the Great Seal of the United States an explicit assertion of breathtaking presumption: America’s struggle for independence was not simply a local matter of concern to a handful of colonists on the shores of North America but a world-historical event, and the year 1776 would therefore be remembered as the beginning of a novus ordo seclorum –“a new order of the ages.”

Neil Faulkner, “The American Civil War: the second US revolution” from “A Marxist History of the World”

Lincoln won only 40% of the national popular vote in the 1860 presidential election, but he carried almost every county in the Upper North, and won a clear majority of 54% across the North as a whole … Northern abolitionists had no doubt about the significance of what had happened: ‘The great revolution has actually taken place,’ wrote Charles Francis Adams. ‘The country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the slaveholders.’ The struggle that resulted was a long and bloody one because it was a revolutionary war fought between rival systems and opposing political ideologies; no compromise, no negotiated settlement, no happy half-way house was open to Americans as they embarked upon their violent feud in the spring of 1861.

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