revolution, in a political sense, fundamental and violent change in the values, political institutions, social structure, leadership, and policies of a society. The totality of change implicit in this definition distinguishes it from coups, rebellions, and wars of independence, which involve only partial change. Examples include the French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, and Iranian revolutions. The American Revolution, however, is a misnomer: it was a war of independence. The word revolution, borrowed from astronomy, took on its political meaning in 17th-century England, where, paradoxically, it meant a return or restoration of a former situation. It was not until the 18th cent., with the French Revolution, that revolution began to mean a new beginning. Since Aristotle, economic inequality has been recognized as an important cause of revolution. Tocqueville pointed out that it was not absolute poverty but relative deprivation that contributed to revolutions. The fall of the old order also depends on the ruling elite losing its authority and self-confidence. These conditions are often present in a country that has just fought a debilitating war. Both the Russian and Chinese revolutions in the 20th cent. followed wars. Contemporary thinking about revolution is dominated by Marxist ideas: revolution is the means for removing reactionary classes from power and transferring power to progressive ones.
See H. Arendt, On Revolution (1963); J. B. Bell, On Revolt (1976); R. Blackey and C. Paynton, Revolution and the Revolutionary Ideal (1976); S. N. Eisenstadt, Revolution and the Transformation of Societies (1978); B. Turok, Revolutionary Thought in the Twentieth Century (1980); J. A. Goldstone, ed., Revolutions: Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical Studies (1986); A. Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution (1986); J. B. Rule, Theories of Civil Violence (1988); M. S. Kimel, Revolution: A Sociological Interpretation (1990); L. Langley, The Americas in the Age of Revolution (1997); S. Dunn, Sister Revolutions (1999).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.