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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The word “revolution” implies two elements—that of
change by movement, and that of a motion which
returns to its starting point. In the modern concept
of revolution which originated in the times of the
French Revolution the element of change effecting a
forward movement prevails. But even in this notion
traces of the earlier concept in which the cyclical
aspects of the term were predominant are still notice-
able. This justifies a careful treatment of the evolution
of the idea during the centuries between the Renais-
sance and the French Revolution.


Revolutio is a late Latin word which indicates the
moving of a thing from one place to another. Although
it occurred in the writings of Saint Augustine and of
others, it was not a widely used term.

The great political writers of the classical world
lacked an expression which corresponds to our notion
of “revolution”; certainly they knew of uprisings
against a ruler (ἐπανὰστασις: Herodotus, Thucydides),
of changes of constitutions (μεταβολή πολιτείας: Plato,
Aristotle), and of people who were eager for new things
(cupidus rerum novarum: Cicero), but they regarded
the world as being constantly in motion, and the length
of a rulership, the functioning or nonfunctioning of
constitutions depended on human qualities, not on
institutional arrangements. There existed a limited
number of constitutional arrangements and all of them
could be perfect, but human defects made the
degeneration almost unavoidable. The decline from
monarchy to tyranny is the most famous example
of such degeneration. Polybius made the change from
one constitutional form to another into a cycle
(ἀνακύκλωσις), which runs from a state of nature to
monarchy, from monarchy to tyranny, from tyranny
to aristocracy, from aristocracy to oligarchy, from
oligarchy to democracy, and from democracy to
anarchy which represented a return to a state of nature
so that the cycle would begin again. This cyclical
theory has played an important role in the history of
political thought and particularly also in the history
of the idea of revolution. Nevertheless, because in the
classical view human qualities—virtues and vices—are
the only moving forces in the cycle of political history
and because these classical theories are not predicated
on the assumption of a generally valid norm assuring
a stable order of political and social life, classical polit-
ical thought lacks constitutive elements of the term

The term “revolution” begins to be used in the late
Middle Ages. In its Italian form, rivoluzione, Renais-
sance historians—Guicciardini, Machiavelli, Nardi—
employed it in describing political events. In their
writings, rivoluzione indicated the occurrence of a
political disorder or of a change in rulership without
containing any implication about the success or value,
the desirability, the character or the aim of such
disorder or change. It was a neutral, purely descriptive
term and was used interchangeably with tumulto,
mutazione, moto.

In the course of the sixteenth century, however,
revolution gained its own particular physiognomy
which made it stand out from those concepts with
which it had previously been used synonymously. The


reason is the appearance of the word in the title of
the work in which Copernicus presented his theory
of the movements of the stars: De revolutionibus
orbium caelestium
(1543). “Revolving” and “revolu-
tions” have remained technical terms in astronomy and
cosmology indicating the orbital movements of the
planets and the time relation in which they stand to
each other. In the sixteenth century the application
of a term explaining celestial movements to political
movements on the earth was natural. The widespread,
almost general belief in astrology made it inevitable
to assume that movements of the stars had their
counterpart in political and social events. Revolutions
on earth reflected the revolutions in the heavens.

It must be added, however, that the term “revolu-
tion”—because it implied both movement and a return
to the point of departure—was particularly suited for
removing difficulties which medieval political thought
had not been able to overcome. The basic assumption
in the Middle Ages was that there was one pattern
which guaranteed the stability and permanence of the
social order: a monarchy based on a hierarchically
organized society. Each country ought to be governed
in accordance with this pattern. Unrest and disturb-
ances were the result of violations of the law. If they
were committed by the ruler he became a tyrant and
resistance was permitted, even regarded as a duty.

These assumptions of a basically stable social order,
however, began to look rather unrealistic in a world
which, especially in the later Middle Ages, showed
great changes—accumulation of wealth, concentration
of political power, new forms of military organization.
Christian thought—perhaps more correctly, the Jewish
legacy in Christian thought—had given some recogni-
tion to the existence of change and movement in social
life; it postulated a succession of empires or ages, and
chiliastic hopes and expectations which, from Joachim
of Floris until the Reformation, permeated European
religious thought, revitalized the idea of the imma-
nent approach of a final age. But this golden age which
would restore the situation before man's fall would be
preceded by a final struggle between the followers of
Christ and the armies of the anti-Christ. Victory could
be attained only if man immediately set himself against
the evil customs and laws which had crept into social
life and restored institutions to their older and better
forms. It is easy to see how the idea of revolution which
contained both—motion and return to the begin-
nings—could serve to bridge the contrast in Christian
social thought between the assumption of a generally
valid norm and of a development towards an age of

However, the term “revolution” gained popularity in
the sixteenth century not only because it fitted a Chris
tian mold of thought but also because it was compatible
with the ideas of the humanists who had revived
classical political thought. The notion of revolution
could be conceived as the all-encompassing framework
into which the cyclical thought of classical political
writers could be fitted.

Clearly, a chief reason for the adoption of the term
“revolution” in the vocabulary of political thought was
the flexibility of the term; it was associated with a great
variety of images which could be used by writers who
might have different opinions about the explanation
of change. For an understanding of the role which the
idea of revolution has played in the language of politics
it is important to keep in mind that the meaning of
the term reaches from simply designating a change in
government to the belief in a heaven-determined,
cyclical, political development.

The crucial importance of the term “revolution” in
the political vocabulary became generally recognized in
the seventeenth century when the events in England—
which we now call the English revolution—required
discussion and evaluation; revolution was used both for
the description and the interpretation of these events.
The official proclamations in which Charles II ex-
plained to the speaker of the House of Commons, to
the Lord Mayor and the Aldermen of London, his views
upon his return to England in 1660 spoke of the “many
and great revolutions” (see Book 16 of Clarendon's
History of the Rebellion) through which England had
passed; this was a purely factual, almost neutral allu-
sion to the many governmental changes which had
taken place in England in the preceding twenty years,
but others used the term “revolution” because it
appeared to them to contain an explanation of the
causes of these changes; the idea served to throw light
on the forces determining the course of history. To
Clarendon the events demonstrated the dependence of
political movements on movements in heaven: “The
motions of these last twenty years... have proceeded
from the evil influence of a malignant star” (ibid.).
Hobbes saw in the events proof of the truth of the
cyclical theory of classical political science: “I have
seen in this revolution a circular motion of the sover-
eign power through two usurpers from the late King
to his son. For... it moved from King Charles I to
the Long Parliament; from thence to the Rump; from
the Rump to Oliver Cromwell and then back again
from Richard Cromwell to the Rump; thence to the
Long Parliament; and thence to King Charles II, where
long may it remain” (Hobbes, Behemoth, end of the
Fourth Dialogue).

Application of the term “revolution” to the events
of 1688 which saw another overthrow of the Stuart
dynasty was justified in a similar manner. The change


that took place in 1688 was a revolution because it
represented a return to the true old constitution of
England and as such closed a cycle. The fact that
the events of 1688 were called a “Glorious Revolu-
tion” did not imply a better, a truer, revolution than
the previous ones, nor that it ushered in a new age.
The praising adjective “Glorious” was only intended
to indicate that the action against James II had had
a successful outcome. Also for Locke, the great
defender of the revolution of 1688, the word itself had
no particular meaning or weight. He seems to have
been aware of its cyclical element because in the nine-
teenth chapter of the Second Treatise on Civil Govern-
he maintained that the “slowness and aversion
in the people to quit their old constitutions has in the
many revolutions which have been seen in this king-
dom, in this and former ages, still kept us to, or after
some interval of fruitless attempts still brought us back
again to, our old legislative of king, lords and com-
mons.” A later passage in the same chapter, however,
shows that Locke finds no difference between revolu-
tion and rebellion. Of course, by giving the people the
“right to resume their original liberty” if the purposes
for which “men enter society” are subverted, Locke
gave the right of resistance a firm and broadened basis
which served well to justify revolutionary action in the
later part of the eighteenth century.

Undoubtedly, the events in England—the execution
of a monarch, the emergence of a tyrant, the overthrow
of a king by his own son-in-law—deeply stirred politi-
cal thought. But there were other events—the defec-
tion of the Netherlands, the Revolt of the Catalans,
the Portuguese Rebellion—which directed attention to
the problem of political change. All these events
combined to make “revolution” a fashionable word;
this can be deduced from the frequency with which
it appeared in the titles of historical works. That many
popular historical writers used this term chiefly because
it was fashionable, can also be derived from the fact
that they did not attribute to it a very distinctive
meaning. One of the writers who wrote many histories
of revolution was the Abbé R. A. de Vertot (1655-
1733); in the Preface of his Révolutions de Portugal he
gave an almost frivolous explanation why in the edition
of 1722 the title of this work was changed from
Conjuration to Révolutions. He had added earlier and
later events: C'est cette augmentation d'événemens qui
a engagé à substituer le titre de Révolutions à celuy
de Conjuration.
The same, somewhat thoughtless use
of the word can be found in the title which Duport-
Dutertre gave to the eight volumes in which he pub-
lished a collection of historical anecdotes and reports.
He called his work Histoire des Conjurations, Con-
spirations et Révolutions célèbres, tant anciennes que

modernes (1754-60). If these writers made any distinc-
tion between conspiracies, rebellions, and revolutions
it is that while conspiracies and rebellions might fail,
revolutions really effected changes in government.

On the other hand, the particular and distinctive
character of the notion, because of its cyclical implica-
tions, was evident to serious political writers. It might
be enough to refer to Walter Moyle's Essay on the
Constitution and Government of the Roman State.

Moyle speaks of the “great revolution” which took
place in Rome: “the monarchy resolved into an
aristocracy; and that into a democracy; and that too
relapsed into a monarchy.” Moyle added that these
changes did not come about as Polybius had assumed
“from moral reasons such as vices and corruptions” but
“from the change of the only true ground and founda-
tion of power, property.” Under the impact of the
events in England Moyle was interested in finding
means to escape from the cycle of unending revolu-
tions, and by focusing on the question of how to avoid
them Moyle foreshadowed later intellectual concerns.
But this interest made him—and some of his English
contemporaries—unique in the intellectual world of
the Enlightenment, for the more usual view at that
time was that the cycle could not be halted.

Hume proclaimed as a law of politics “that every
government must come to a period and that death is
unavoidable to the political as well as to the natural
body” (“Whether the British Government Inclines
More to Absolute Monarchy or to a Republic,” in
Philosophical Works, Boston [1854], III, 51). Likewise,
many of the philosophes accepted the cyclical element
in the word “revolution” and did not believe in the
possibility of escape. That “empires like men must
grow, decay and die” is, according to D'Alembert, “a
necessary revolution” in the history of states (“Éloge
de M. le Président de Montesquieu”). Montesquieu saw
the same impermanency in all fields of human life: Il
arrive, tous les dix ans, des révolutions qui précipitent
le riche dans la misère et enlèvent le pauvre avec des
ailes rapides au comble des richesses
(“Every ten years
revolutions occur which hurl the rich into poverty and
send the poor on a rapid flight to abundant wealth”;
Lettres persanes). Because of its cyclical element revo-
lution fitted the skepticism of the philosophes con-
cerning the strength and power of men.

However, the word “revolution” had many applica-
tions in the language of the philosophes; they also used
this concept without any cyclical connotation. Then,
like the popular historians whom we have mentioned,
they considered revolution as a neutral term descrip-
tive of an important change in government. This is
clearly expressed by Diderot in his article on “Révolu-
tion” in the Encyclopédie; according to him “revolu-


tion” means en terme de politique... un changement
considérable arrivé dans le gouvernement d'un état.

Moreover, the meaning of the word was extended to
cover any great change in human institutions. It might
be enough to refer to the 28th book of De l'esprit
des lois
in which Montesquieu analyzed the develop-
ment of French judicial procedure; in the 36th chapter
of this book “revolution” is used to indicate a fun-
damental change in the French political government;
in the 39th chapter of the same book revolution means
only a great change in administration of laws. Every
development which changed the course of history was
called a revolution. That, for instance, is the sense in
which Gibbon used this word in his Decline and Fall
of the Roman Empire
(particularly Chapter 46). And
this was the sense of the term in the Abbé Raynal's
Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements
et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes

(1781). Raynal at the beginning of the first volume of
this work spoke about the “revolution in commerce”
which the discovery of the New World caused and a
close reading of this and the following passages shows
that—in contrast to what has been frequently asser-
ted—he didn't allude to the American Revolution and
its possible consequences but had in mind a slow and
gradual long-range development extending over three
centuries. In David Hume's essay on “The Rise of Arts
and Sciences” (Hume's Philosophical Works, London
[1874-75], II, 120), the phrase “the domestic and the
gradual revolutions of the state” indicates a neutral
and very general meaning of the word.

However, the philosophes—particularly their leaders
like Rousseau and Voltaire—also made a particular
contribution to the development of the idea of revolu-
tion, and this new aspect of the notion might have
influenced Gibbon's use of the term. Despite skepticism
and occasional pessimism the philosophes believed in
progress and particularly in the decisive contribution
which their own age and they themselves made to the
advance of humanity. Turgot wrote that, whereas the
phenomena of nature are “enclosed in a circle of revo-
lutions that are always the same,” man can break the
cycle of nature and in recent times progress has become
unmistakable and irresistible (Discours sur les progrès
successifs de l'esprit humain, Oeuvres,
Paris [1808], II,
52). The philosophes were firmly persuaded that the
great discoveries about the laws of nature which had
taken place in the preceding century would be fol-
lowed by a discovery of the laws of social order and
that it would soon be possible to establish a peaceful
and prosperous world. It was the general conviction that
an era of great change was approaching. Some looked
upon the coming events with fear. Rousseau, for in-
stance, wrote in Émile: Nous approchons de l'état de
crise et du siècle des révolutions; qui peut vous répondre
de ce que vous deviendrez alors?
(“We are approaching
a crisis and a century of revolutions; who can answer
to you for what will become of you then?”) Voltaire,
in accordance with most of the philosophes, expressed
himself more optimistically: “Everything I see scatters
the seeds of a revolution which will definitely come,
though I won't have the pleasure of being its witness.
Frenchmen discover everything late, but in the end
they do discover it. Enlightenment has gradually spread
so widely that it will burst into full light at the first
right opportunity, and then there'll be a fine uproar.
The young people are lucky: they will see some great
things” (in a letter to Bernard Louis Chauvelin of April
2, 1764). The great changes which Voltaire envisaged
would be the result of new intellectual insights. He
defined what was going on as une grande révolution
dans l'esprit humain
(in a letter to François Jean de
Chastellux of December 7, 1772). Because this revolu-
tion presupposed a new intellectual attitude the various
fields of intellectual efforts all formed part of this great
revolutionary movement and writers spoke of a revo-
lution in the arts, in the sciences, or in anatomy. Again,
we have here an extension of the notion of revolution
on which scholars of the nineteenth century would
elaborate and to which they would give intensive study.

The changes which would result from the great
revolution of the human mind and of which the
philosophes were protagonists would finally liberate the
world from superstition, from ambitious rivalry and
competition, and place reason on the throne. The world
would be organized according to true rational princi-
ples; the final age of history would be reached. This
beginning of a new world resembled the beginning of
a new revolution of the stars. There hardly can be any
doubt that the astrological connotations of the word
“revolution” played their part in the minds of many
who were expecting from the work of the Enlighten-
ment a revolution which would usher in a new and
final age.

For later generations a new, although not a final age
began with the American Revolution. However, this
was not the view of the leaders of this movement when
it began. They were convinced that they were defend-
ing themselves against a conspiracy of the British rulers
to establish a tyrannical regime in the Colonies, and
that they were acting in accordance with the right of
resistance as Locke had formulated it. The American
colonists were anxious to restore the old rightful basis
of government. From time to time one can find the
expression “revolution,” for instance, in a memoran-
dum of William Smith of June 9, 1776: he fears that
“the meditated revolution tends to light up a Civil
War.” Actually, in the early years of the struggle the


term “revolution” was rarely applied to the War of
Independence; it began to occur frequently in the
1780's when Thomas Paine, on hearing that he might
be appointed Historiographer to the Continent, out-
lined his plan for a History of the American Revolution
(October 1783), when Richard Price published his Ob-
servations on the American Revolution
(1784), and
David Ramsay wrote his History of the Revolution of
South Carolina
(1785) and his History of the American
(1789). By then independence had been
achieved. It had become evident that in consequence
the mercantile powers could no longer maintain their
monopolistic system of trade with colonies and that
a republican constitution could create a feasible system
of government. A revolution in the sense of a far-
reaching change had taken place. The full implications
of this change and also the pioneering role of the events
on the American continent were realized only when
the movement continued in Europe with the French


With the French Revolution the idea of revolution
assumes a more sharply defined form and gains a cen-
tral place in political thought. Interest in the connec-
tion of the idea of revolution with a cyclical historical
movement—although, as we shall see, it did not
entirely disappear—diminished. The significant new
development which was brought about by the French
Revolution was the combining in one concept of the
two notions which previously had existed side by side:
that of revolutions as changes in government; and that
of revolution as ushering in a new social order and
a new stage in world history. Already in 1793, when
the revolutionary movement was still in full swing,
Condorcet stated that the extension of the political
change to wider spheres was the characteristic feature
of the French Revolution: “In France, the revolution
was to embrace the entire economy of society, change
every social relation, and find its way down to the
furthest links of the political chain, even down to those
individuals who, living in peace on their private for-
tune or on the fruits of their labor, had no reason to
participate in public affairs—neither opinion nor oc-
cupation nor the pursuit of wealth, power or fame”
(Condorcet, Esquisse d'un tableau historique des
progrès de l'esprit humain, Neuvième Époque
). In the
notion of revolution as it developed in this period the
political change—the overthrow of the existing gov-
ernment—remained decisive, i.e., a revolution was
assumed to culminate in one dramatic, violent event:
for the contemporaries the fall of the Bastille was this
decisive event. When Charles James Fox heard of it
he said in a letter to Richard Fitzpatrick (30 July 1789):
“How much the greatest event in the history of the
world, and how much the best,” and it might be added
that the fall of the Bastille for the French has remained
almost identical with the French Revolution itself. In
the nineteenth century the crucial struggle to decide
the outcome of a revolution usually took place in the
capital; the fighters for the revolution were citizens
armed with rifles, checkmating the military forces
through quickly erected barricades and storming over
these barricades towards the center of the city.
Delacroix' famous painting Liberty Leading the People
was an apotheosis of the citizens' revolutions of the
first half of the nineteenth century.

But the fall of the Bastille meant more than over-
throw of a government; it was taken as the beginning
of a new age, and as such, forced people to take a
stand. The voices which welcomed the event were
numerous. We have mentioned the enthusiasm with
which Fox greeted the news of the fall of the Bastille.
Richard Price, the British defender of the American
Revolution, proclaimed in a sermon of September
1789: “After sharing in the benefit of one revolution
I have been spared to be a witness to two other revolu-
tions, both glorious,” and Hegel, hearing about the
French events in his small, despotically governed South
German duchy, spoke of a “magnificent sunrise.” The
consensus among the educated was that revolution
represented a step forward in the march of humanity.
Condorcet was the most articulate spokesman for the
goals at which the revolution was believed to aim:
“Our hopes for the future condition of the human race
can be subsumed under three important heads: the
abolition of inequality between nations, the progress
of equality within each nation, and the true perfection
of mankind” (Esquisse..., Dixième Époque). Progress,
democracy, and republic became attributes of the idea
of revolution; it was filled with a positive content.

Nevertheless, a problem remained connected with
this highly praised event of the French Revolution,
particularly the fall of the Bastille. This action involved
violence, a breach of law, and ever since the French
Revolution violence also became an integral element
in the concept of revolution. At the outset concern
about the violence which accompanied the “triumph
of the people” was not great because a revolt against
despotism seemed just and could be justified with the
doctrine of the “right of resistance,” for which Locke
and his followers had provided an enlarged theoretical
basis. Still in 1804, when events in France had gone
far beyond a defense against arbitrary despotism,
Schiller in Wilhelm Tell (II, ii) upheld the right of
revolution with arguments which reach back to the
past rather than point to the future. His defense of


violence used the cyclical element of return to the
beginnings, the power of the stars, natural law, and
the medieval doctrine of resistance against tyranny:
Nein, eine Grenze hat Tyrannenmacht.
Wenn der Gedrückte nirgends Recht kann finden,
Wenn unerträglich wird die Last—greift er
Hinauf getrosten Mutes in den Himmel
Und holt herunter seine ewgen Rechte,
Die droben hangen unveräusserlich
Und unzerbrechlich wie die Sterne selbst.
Der alte Urstand der Natur kehrt wieder,
Wo Mensch dem Menschen gegenübersteht;
Zum letzten Mittel, wenn kein andres mehr
Verfangen will, ist ihm das Schwert gegeben.
(Nay, there are bounds unto oppression's power;
For when its victim nowhere finds redress,
And when his burden may no more be borne,
With hopeful courage he appears to heaven,
And grasps from thence his everlasting rights,
Which still inalienable hang on high,
Inviolable as the stars themselves.
Then nature's primal state returns once more,
When man in conflict meets his fellow man;
And at the last, when nothing else avails,
The sword's fierce surgery must cure his ills;
trans. P. Maxwell).
It should be added that when in later years the exist-
ence of a right to revolution was discussed traces of
survival of the medieval right of resistance or of natural
law thinking are always noticeable.

If the violence connected with the first events of
the French Revolution could be explained and jus-
tified, further events gave the problem of the use of
violence a more serious aspect. Under the pressure of
internal and external enemies the new government
continued to disregard legal restrictions and to take
every measure which might serve to retain power: the
period of terror began. Consequently, revolution be-
came identified with a period of extra-legality while
the government ruled arbitrarily, and this lasted as long
as the government which the revolution had brought
into power was threatened. When on October 10, 1793
the Convention declared that “the government of
France is revolutionary until the peace” the meaning
was that the government could use all measures
deemed fit to secure the revolution. The period lasted
until the Thermidor, the fall of Robespierre. During
this period France possessed not only a “revolutionary
government” but also “revolutionary tribunals” and a
“revolutionary army.” The word “revolutionary”
therefore signified not only a person who takes an
active part in a revolution but is also applied to a
regime which exerts arbitrary power and to the meas-
ures which this regime might take. This meaning of
the word is alluded to in a phrase by Condorcet in
which he stressed that “the word revolutionary can be
applied only to revolutions whose aim is freedom”
(Oeuvres, XII, 516); a similar use of the term occurs
frequently in the nineteenth century and then in con-
nection with the Communist Revolution.

If in the summer of 1789 men had rallied enthusi-
astically around the cause of the French Revolution
the terror diminished the number of adherents. Very
early the alarm had been raised by Burke in his Reflec-
tions on the Revolution in France
(1790). In allowing
violence free rein, “We have no compass to govern
us nor do we know distinctly to what part we steer.”
Burke had many followers who spread his views on
the Continent. The impact of the writings of Burke
and of his disciples was so great because they played
on the fear of the people. Revolution became a de-
structive force which threatened the security, the
property, even the life of every individual. Ever since
Burke and since the terror, fear of revolution has been
one of the persistent elements in the Western political
atmosphere. It permeates Stendhal's Le Rouge et le
in which Julien Sorel reflects: Ils ont tant peur
des Jacobins! Ils voient un Robespierre et sa charrette
derrière chaque haie
(“They fear the Jacobins so much!
They see a Robespierre and his cart-load behind each

Fear and condemnation became connected with a
reawakening of the cyclical element in the notion of
revolution. The development from monarchy to
anarchy, to terror, and then to military despotism, was
presented as unavoidable once the orderly road of law
was abandoned. Such an argument can be found not
only in the political debate and in political pamphlets
but its importance is evidenced by the fact that belief
in such a cycle was strongly held by the two most
prominent conservative statesmen of the nineteenth
century: Metternich, the leader of Europe in the age
of restoration, spoke of a cycle révolutionnaire complet
(in his Profession de foi); and Bismarck, the architect
of a conservative Europe in the second part of the
nineteenth century, maintained that, after a revolu-
tion, a historical cycle occurs which leads back to dic-
tatorship, despotism, and absolutism (Gedanken und
Ch. 21). When he made this statement
Bismarck thought not only of the Revolution of 1789
but also of the French events from the middle of the
nineteenth century which had issued in the rise of
Napoleon III. But the idea of a cycle through which
a revolution will end in the dictatorship of a military
man was not only an antirevolutionary argument of
conservatives but was generally regarded as a possi-
bility actually inherent in any revolutionary movement.
The idea of a Thermidor, i.e., the possibility that when
the revolution has done its work of destruction the


masses will rally behind any power who will restore
order and stability, still haunted the leaders of the
Russian Revolution in the twentieth century; Trotsky
regarded the rise of Stalin as the Soviet Thermidor,
which he defined “as a triumph of the bureaucracy
over the masses.”

It might be remarked that the idea of a cycle through
which every revolution passes has also played a role
in scholarly discussions and investigations of revolution.
It was hoped that analyses of the cycle might serve
to establish a law of revolution; these attempts cannot
be considered to have been particularly successful;
Crane Brinton, whose Anatomy of Revolution (1938)
is one of the best studies of this kind, admitted that
comparison, in order to be successful, had to be limited
to a few great revolutions and this could not be
regarded as a sufficient basis for valid generalizations.

Nevertheless, there is general agreement on what
a revolution is. Although there are many modern
definitions of revolution they all contain the same
elements. They maintain that revolution is a sudden,
violent change in the social location of power expres-
sing itself in the radical transformation of processes
of government, of the official foundations of sover-
eignty or legitimacy, and of the conception of the
social order; revolutions are intended to usher in a new
era in history. Clearly, all the constituent features of
this definition—a violent political overthrow, a trans-
formation of social life, a development which has
relevance for all humanity—were characteristic of the
French Revolution; it created the modern concept of

Nevertheless, it should not be overlooked that in the
decades following the era of the French Revolution
and of Napoleon the two different notions of revolution
which had existed in the eighteenth century and which
the modern concept of revolution combined, continued
to exist as distinctive facets within the unified concept.
Revolution still was regarded as indicating both: polit-
ical changes in different countries; and an all-em-
bracing general movement. There were still revolu-
tions, and there was the revolution.

Violent political upheavals and changes of govern-
ment—revolutions—were frequent in the nineteenth
century: the July revolution of 1830 in France; the
Decembrist revolution of 1825 in Russia; the
Neapolitan revolution of 1820; the February revolution
of 1848 in Paris; the German revolution of 1848. Of
all of them it can be said that they were directed
towards greater freedom. But the concrete aim of these
revolutionary movements in the various countries var-
ied widely: in one country it might be a written consti-
tution; in another it might be an enlargement of the
rights of parliament or a broader franchise; or it might
be equality before the law in countries in which a
feudal nobility still exerted judicial and administrative
functions. The pride in national distinctiveness which
the struggle against Napoleon had produced implied
that each nation had a different individuality and had
its particular problems which it had to solve in its own
peculiar way. One might even go farther: one country
might need a revolution; another might be able to live
without it; and in the case of a revolution, causes and
aim might differ.

Nevertheless, to explain developments which had
shaken the entire European social structure as locally
determined and patterned was hardly fully acceptable—
particularly not to those whose position was threatened
by the revolution. Friedrich von Gentz, the German
translator of Burke, saw the French Revolution in its
early years as a “protean monster” working in different
forms and at different places. The revolution became
a vast force with a life of its own: “The lava of revolu-
tion flows majestically on, sparing nothing. Who can
resist it?” wrote one of its adherents, Georg Forster
(Sämtliche Schriften, VI, 84), and his view of the revo-
lution as a spreading, powerful, dynamic force was
shared by the enemies of revolution. In their view
revolution had no rational, calculable, or justifiable
goal. It was a dynamic force changing the civilized
order into anarchy and chaos. With the fall of
Napoleon the dangers seemed to be eliminated and
Metternich's entire policy aimed at protecting Europe
from a renewal of the revolutionary outbreak. Yet, as
the events of 1830 and then of 1848 showed, the revo-
lutionary violence had been dormant, not extinguished,
and proved again its power to break the fragile crust
of civilization. The view of revolution as an elemental
force, harbinger of chaos and destroyer of civilization,
explains the impact which the events of 1830 and 1848
made far beyond the circle of the conservative rulers
on wide groups of educated men. Barthold Georg
Niebuhr, the historian of Rome, and one of the great
personalities of the era of Prussian reform, collapsed
when he heard of the July revolution in 1830 and never
recovered. The deep impression which the outbreak
of the revolution of 1848 made on Alexis de
Tocqueville is reflected in the classical greatness of his
own description:

La monarchie constitutionelle avait succédé à l'ancien
régime; la république, à la monarchie; à la république,
l'empire; à l'empire, la restauration; puis était venue la
monarchie de juillet. Après chacune de ces mutations
successives, on avait dit que la Révolution française, ayant
achevé ce qu'on appelait présomptueusement son oeuvre,
était finie: on l'avait dit et on l'avait cru. Hélas! je l'avais
espéré moi-même sous la restauration, et encore depuis que
le gouvernement de la restauration fut tombé; et voici la


Révolution française qui recommence, car c'est toujours la
même.... Quant à moi, je ne puis le dire, j'ignore quand
finira ce long voyage; je suis fatigué de prendre successive-
ment pour le rivage des vapeurs trompeuses, et je me de-
mands souvent si cette terre ferme que nous cherchons depuis
si longtemps existe en effet, ou si notre destinée n'est pas
plutôt de battre éternellement la mer!

(Souvenirs in Oeuvres
Paris [1964], XII, 87).

(“The constitutional monarchy had followed the old
regime; after the Republic, the Empire; after the
Empire, the Restoration; then the July monarchy. After
each of these successive changes, one might have said
that the French Revolution, having accomplished what
was presumptuously called its work, was ended; so
people said and thought. Alas! I had hoped so myself
during the Restoration and also after the Restoration
government had fallen; but there was the French Rev-
olution beginning all over again in the same old way.
... As for me, I cannot agree, I don't know when this
long voyage will end. I am tired of being misled by
fogs, time and again, into believing that the coast is
near, and I often wonder whether that solid ground
which we have so long sought really exists, or whether
our destiny is not rather to battle the sea forever!”)

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 filled Jakob
Burckhardt's mind with anxiety and fear that unrest
and revolution would put an end to European civili-
zation; he began his lectures on the age of the French
Revolution with the words:

Zum Namen dieses Kurses ist zu bemerken, dass eigentlich
alles bis auf unsere Tage im Grunde lauter Revolu-
tionszeitalter ist, und wir stehen vielleicht erst relativ an den
Anfängen oder im zweiten Akt; denn jene drei scheinbar
ruhigen Dezennien von 1815 bis 1848 haben sich zu erkennen
gegeben als einen blossen Zwischenakt in dem grossen
Drama. Dieses aber scheint Eine Bewegung werden zu
wollen, die im Gegensatz zu aller bekannten Vergangenheit
unseres Globus steht.... Jetzt dagegen wissen wir, dass ein
und derselbe Sturm, welcher seit 1789 die Menschheit fasste,
auch uns weiter trägt

(Gesamtausgabe, Berlin [1929], VII,

(“I would like to say about the title of this course that
really everything that has happened until today forms
part of an age of revolution and perhaps we are only
at its beginning or in its second act. For those three
apparently tranquil decades from 1800 to 1848 have
revealed themselves to be nothing but an entr'acte in
the great drama. This drama seems to develop into
a movement which stands in contrast to all the known
past of our globe.... Now we know that one and
the same storm which gripped the human world since
1789 carries us further along.”)

The development of the idea of revolution in the
nineteenth century was also influenced by the fact
that whatever people thought about it was deeply
colored by emotion. The French Revolution and sub-
sequent upheavals created a feeling of insecurity, and
insecurity creates fear; this established the undertone
of all future political discussions and became the domi-
nant voice at critical moments. However, it did not
determine the middle-class attitude to revolution in
more tranquil times. It is difficult to present a satis-
factory statement on the question whether in the nine-
teenth century people regarded revolution as an evil
or as a beneficial event; the problem needs more in-
tensive and more subtle investigation than scholars
have given it. The difficulty is that probably the views
of the great bulk of the people, of the middle classes,
on the problem of revolution, were deeply ambiguous.
Because of underlying fear, the issue of violence and
of terror played a great role in all the discussions.
This becomes very evident in the writings of his-
torians whose favorite topic in the first half of the
nineteenth century was the history of revolutions, and
that meant, of the English and French Revolutions.
The inclination of the nineteenth-century historians—
at least outside of France—was to place the English
revolution above the French Revolution because the
English had tried to maintain the old rights and not
to create new ones; they had taken recourse to law,
not to violence. For instance, that was the thesis of
Friedrich Christoph Dahlmann, the most influential
German liberal, who in the 1840's wrote books on
the English as well as on the French Revolution. This
thesis was not welcome to French historians who were
unwilling to condemn a development which had raised
their country to hegemony in Europe. François Guizot
wrote about the English and French Revolutions: Ce
sont deux victoires dans la même guerre et au profit de
la même cause; la gloire leur est commune; elles se
relèvent mutuellement au lieu de s'éclipser
(beginning of
his Histoire de la Révolution d'Angleterre, 1826). In
the same way Auguste Mignet began his Histoire de
la Révolution française
(1824) pointedly: Je vais tracer
rapidement l'histoire de la révolution française qui com-
mence en Europe l'ère des sociétés nouvelles, comme
la révolution d'Angleterre a commencé l'ère des gou-
vernements nouveaux.
Nevertheless, it is evident that
they had difficulty in fitting violence and terror in
their benign picture of the French Revolution. Both
Mignet and Adolphe Thiers, whose Histoire de la Ré-
volution française
appeared likewise in the twenties of
the nineteenth century, recognized the necessity of ex-
treme measures in the dangerous circumstances in
which France found itself without approving or
admiring them: Il est une vérité qu'il faut répéter
toujours: la passion n'est jamais ni sage, ni éclairée,
mais c'est la passion seule qui peut sauver les peuples


dans les grandes extrémités (“There is a truth that
must always be repeated: passion is never either wise
or enlightened, but only passion can save people in
great extremity”; Leipzig [1846], III, 187). And Jules
Michelet, in the Preface of his History of the French
(1847) directly attacks those who regard
the revolution and terror as inextricable: “The violent
terrible efforts which it was obliged to make in order
not to perish in a struggle with the conspiring world
have been mistaken for the revolution itself by a blind,
forgetful generation.” Even Carlyle who in describing
the history of the French Revolution was not influenced
by national or patriotic considerations gave much at-
tention to the question of terror and represented the
excesses of the revolution as a natural process, an
almost unavoidable reaction to the corrupt regime
which had preceded it.

The French historians of this period saw in social
tension and in the struggle of classes one of the causes
of revolution. Indeed, fears of revolution were kept
alive by the sharpening of social conflicts in conse-
quence of the increasing role of industrial activity in
economic life. In the first half of the nineteenth century
we have the “Peterloo” massacres (1819) and the
Workers' Rebellion in Lyons (1832). We have in Silesia
the weavers destroying the newly-installed spinning
machinery. We have the beginnings of trade unions
and Chartism; these movements were accompanied,
and perhaps nourished, by writings which attacked the
existing economic system and questioned the inviola-
bility of private property. Louis Blanc, Pierre-Joseph
Proudhon, Robert Owen, Adolphe Blanqui, began to
develop socialist doctrines which implied a change in
the governmental system. A bourgeoisie with the
memories of the terror behind it and a threat to its
property before it, began to look upon the idea of
revolution with detestation. They began to accept the
view of the conservative statesmen that there was a
wide revolutionary conspiracy comprising such associ-
ations like the Junge Deutschland and the Giovane
Even if they were liberals they rejected revolu-
tion and advocated evolution and reform as the appro-
priate road to social betterment.

However, if the possible social consequences of rev-
olution deterred the middle classes they remained op-
ponents of absolutism; moreover, they were the chief
protagonists of that nationalism which the French
Revolution had awakened and which kept a powerful
hold over the minds of men in the nineteenth century.
Revolts of oppressed people against foreign despotism
were regarded as natural, national revolutions deserved
support, and the actions of revolutionary movements
which tried to achieve national unification had to be
approved. This was the time when Europeans directed
increased attention to the American Revolution be-
cause, more than the English and the French Revolu-
tions it seemed to represent the model of a revolution
which achieved national liberation. Simón Bolívar, as
the leader of a similar movement in South America,
was highly admired by the liberal bourgeoisie. The
Greek fight against the Turks, the Polish rebellion
against Russian rule, aroused general sympathy and
Thaddeus Kosciusko, Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe
Garibaldi, and Louis Kossuth were welcomed and
celebrated as heroes wherever they went. Perhaps one
might say that revolutions in foreign countries when
they were directed against oppression and despotism
were encouraged. But revolutionary movement in one's
own country, especially when they had a social con-
tent, were regarded with deep suspicion. Nevertheless,
as the events of 1848 showed, because the European
middle class in their attitude to revolution was
ambivalent, they could participate in a revolution and
try to harvest advantages from it after the revolution
had broken out.

It should be added that a split mind in the attitude
to revolutions was not a peculiarity of the liberal mid-
dle classes; the same split can be found among con-
servatives. Bismarck broke with the Gerlachs, i.e., the
leaders of the conservative group to which he owed
his political start, when the Gerlachs opposed any
cooperation with Napoleon III whom they regarded
as the incarnation of the revolution. Bismarck had no
reservations to work together with this “heir of the
revolution” if such policy would be of benefit to
Prussia. Bismarck, as he wrote in his memoirs, had
never any hesitation in an emergency to take recourse
to revolutionary weapons.

Bismarck's dispute with the Gerlachs took place after
the Revolution of 1848, and a “realistic” attitude was
easy for him because the revolution in Germany had
failed and the position of his class was no longer

The great influence of the events of 1848 on the
thinking about revolution is unquestionable. The mid-
dle classes on the European continent could not take
a purely negative attitude because of the active part
which they had taken in the revolution. Moreover, the
ruthlessness of the reactionary regimes, which after the
failure of the revolution were in power in Central
Europe, aroused resentment and the rapid increase in
industrialization heightened misery. It appeared im-
possible to separate national and social questions; a
revolution would have to have a social content. The
most striking and enlightening illustration of the man-
ner in which the thinking about revolution and about
the issues of revolution was shifting can be found in
Theodor Mommsen's Römische Geschichte (1854). The


third book, which deals with the Gracchi is entitled
“The Revolution.” Mommsen's sympathy is on the side
of the Gracchi brothers, particularly of Gaius who
wanted to overthrow the regime of the aristocracy.
And the reason for this revolution as Mommsen
described it was the contrast between an agrarian and
a money economy which with the expansion of Rome
had issued in a serious conflict between capital and
labor and created a proletariat living in utter misery.

It is astounding how little attention has been given
to this section of Mommsen's work, which strikingly
reveals a shift of the contents of the revolutionary
struggle from the political to the social plane. This was
the time when Marx was working out his revolutionary
theory. Clearly, Marx's view was nourished from the
atmosphere of the fifties. But it also opened a new
chapter in the history of the idea of revolution because
in entrusting the task of revolution exclusively to the
proletariat it again changed the attitude of the middle
classes and placed the bourgeoisie definitely in opposi-
tion to revolution.

This is not the place to present a thorough analysis
of Marx's theory of revolution. Such an undertaking
belongs to the article on Marxism for, as it has been
said, “The revolutionary idea was the keystone of a
theoretical structure... and an exposition of the
Marxian revolutionary idea in complete form would
be nothing other than an exposition of Marxism itself
as a theoretical system” (Tucker, pp. 2, 5). In the
following, emphasis will be placed on an analysis of
the connection of the earlier ideas of a revolution with
that of Marx and on Marx's influence in giving the
concept a new shape.

Marx's notion of revolution is closely tied to a
number of related terms and concepts and should be
understood in connection with them. These notions are:
world revolution; distinction between social and polit-
ical evolution; class struggle; bourgeois revolution and
socialist revolution; final revolution.

It is symptomatic of the central importance of the
idea of revolution in Marx's general system that the
word appears in so many associations. Like Hegel,
Marx saw world history as an interconnected process
and revolution was the engine which had this process
moving from one stage to the next. Of course, there
are other elements in Marx's thought which shaped his
concept of revolution. There were the views that each
stage of history—its political forms, institutions, intel-
lectual outlook—was determined by its forms of pro-
duction and that the struggles and conflicts in history
can be explained as contrasts between classes: that all
social history was essentially a history of class struggles.
The further implication was that this was always a
struggle between two classes, between the smaller
ruling group which benefited from the prevailing mode
of production and the mass of the exploited.

If Marx's ideas are placed in the context of the
history of the idea of revolution it becomes evident
that he accepts the notion of revolution as a movement
changing and transforming all spheres of life; but be-
cause he sees social life as dependent on the prevailing
forms of production he is able to establish a clear and
well-defined relation between the general Révolution
des esprits
and the particular revolutions which
effected the overthrow of a political regime. The po-
litical revolution is part of the wider social revolution;
it is an essential precondition because the ruling group
controls power by means of political institutions, but
at the same time a political revolution is only a partial
phenomenon. A revolution will be complete only if
it brings about a change in the modes of production
so that the whole of social life will become trans-
formed. Thus, political and social revolution are inter-
connected but also distinguishable: “Every revolution
dissolves the old society: in that respect it is a social
revolution; every revolution overthrows the old gov-
ernment, in that respect it is a political revolution.”

Marx also accepts the notion of the simultaneous
existence of one great, all-embracing revolution and
of many different national revolutions, and he dissolves
this apparent contradiction. Although his scheme of
a world-historical progressive movement punctuated
by class struggles is applicable to the whole of history,
actually Marx is interested only in the most recent
stages of this process: the change from the feudal to
the bourgeois age, and from the bourgeois age to the
age of communism. He maintained that in his own
time there were bourgeois revolutions, i.e., revolutions
with which the bourgeoisie ends the role of feudalism,
and socialist revolutions in which the workers over-
throw the rule of the capitalist bourgeoisie. Some of
these revolutions may be both bourgeois and socialist
according to the state of economic development which
has been reached in the country in which the revo-
lution takes place. However, one essential additional
point of Marx's thought is that the communist revo-
lution is the final revolution which will establish a
form of economic life eliminating the contrast between
rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited. Being the
last stage in the historical process this revolution must
extend over the whole world. It is to be carried out
on an international level. It must be a world revolution.

Because Marx invested revolution with a chiliastic
element revolution became essential in moving the
world historical process forward to its final goal; it is
necessary and desirable and must be judged positively.

Because revolution designates a movement which
brings about a new stage in world history it is distin-


guished from other similar concepts. Conspiracies or
Coups d'état might change the personnel of a govern-
ment, but they do not transform the political and social
system. A revolutionary is a man who recognizes the
need for changing the entire system and acts accord-
ingly. There was meaning in Marx's struggle against
anarchists or terrorists. Revolutionary action could be
successful only if it was carried out systematically in
cooperation with the class of the exploited. It was a
movement which required organization. Only those
who took part in organizing the proletariat, the
workers, towards action could be considered to be true
revolutionaries. If the modern notion of revolution had
arisen in the French Revolution, Marx's theories made
revolution a clearly defined historical category.


With Marx and with the emergence of Marxian
socialism as a significant political factor a sharp line
began to separate the bourgeois capitalist world and
the world of the proletariat. Likewise in the history
of the idea of revolution a distinction becomes neces-
sary between the developments in the bourgeois atti-
tude towards revolution and the changes which the
Marxian theory underwent in the hands of socialist
writers and politicians.

The formation of large Marxist mass parties openly
proclaiming the need for revolution inevitably in-
creased fear of revolution and demands for counter-
measures. However, the attitude of liberal and
democratic circles remained somewhat ambivalent.
They were wedded to the idea of progress and although
they might consider the possibility of a Marxist revolu-
tion in their own country with anxiety and abhorrence,
they did not withhold approval from attempts to
change the government system in countries with
reactionary absolutist governments: for instance, the
Russian Revolution of 1905 or the Young Turkish Rev-
olution of 1908. However, a certain hardening in the
attitude to revolution and to revolutionaries took place.

It is very difficult to determine to what extent
Marxian thought exerted influence on the political and
historical thinking among the bourgeoisie; it is evident
that the idea of revolution became a central issue of
political and historical thought. Historians found revo-
lutions everywhere in history. What had been the
defection of the Netherlands became the Dutch Revo-
lution. The revolt of the Protestants in Prague was
named the Bohemian Revolution, and, as in Max
Weber's Economics and Society, each of the changes
in city rule—from that of families to that of merchant
guilds, from merchant guilds to democracy—became
a “revolution.” There was a tendency to fall back on
the early eighteenth-century practice of calling every
violent change of government a revolution although
it was now always assumed that some social change
was involved.

However, the term “revolution” was now also ap-
plied to events outside the strictly political sphere and
it seems likely that Marxian revolutionary theory with
its stress on the close connection between political,
economic, and intellectual events, had a part in this.
For the first great step in widening the use of the term
was made by applying it to significant, far-reaching
changes in economic development. The concept of an
“industrial revolution” is probably the best-known
application of the term to the economic sphere.
Although this combination of words had been in use
since the twenties of the nineteenth century, “industrial
revolution” became a well-defined concept describing
the economic developments which began in England
in the eighteenth century through Arnold Toynbee's
Lectures on the Industrial Revolution published in
1884. The discovery of an “industrial revolution”
spurred investigation into its causes, and they indicated
that an expansion of trade which had preceded the
“industrial revolution” played a significant role in
accumulating the capital needed for the growth of
industries: the “industrial revolution” had followed a
“commercial revolution.” If industry and commerce
had their revolutions agriculture could not be left
behind: the dissolution of the manor, the creation of
individually owned landed estates, and the enclosure
of areas which had been common property and in
common use constituted an “agrarian revolution.” To
the same area of a great economic change in early
modern Europe belonged two further combinations in
which the word “revolution” appears—“price revolu-
tion,” indicating the inflationary trend in prices during
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries caused primar-
ily by the influx of precious metals from America—and
“scientific revolution” which is meant to comprise the
origin of the modern scientific outlook in the period
from Galileo to Newton.

In later times these notions became independent of
the particular events of early modern European history
they had been coined to describe. We speak of a “sec-
ond industrial revolution” in the twentieth century; we
assume that the heavy plough and the use of horses
produced an “agricultural revolution” in the early
Middle Ages, and the “scientific revolution” of the
seventeenth century was preceded by the “Copernican
revolution.” Nevertheless, in their original meaning all
these notions—“industrial revolution,” “commercial
revolution,” “agrarian revolution,” “scientific revolu-
tion,” “price revolution”—refer to various aspects of
the gradual rise of a capitalist society in the period


between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries.
They are various facets of the social revolution which
is both precondition and consequence of the bourgeois
political revolution. Whether the scholars who intro-
duced these notions were directly or indirectly influ-
enced by Marx, it can hardly be an accident that the
extension of the notion of revolution from the political
to the economic sphere was originally concerned with
those innovations and developments which Marx
regarded as the economic basis of the bourgeois politi-
cal revolution. In a general way it was the Marxian
problem of the victory of capitalism over feudalism
on which these various revolutions throw light.

Because these notions owe their origin to this crucial
problem of modern history it is necessary to separate
this use of the word revolution from one which is not
connected with any significant intellectual or historical
problem and which is primarily due to the fashionable
appeal which the word revolution had gained.
Frequently heard statements are: Planck's quantum
theory represents a “revolution” in physics, or Freud
brought about a “revolution” in psychology, or
Roentgen's discovery of the X-ray “revolutionized”
medicine. In all these cases the revolution to which
these statements refer is limited to one field—physics,
psychology, or medicine—and it is not suggested that
it has any direct repercussions in other fields. Appli-
cation of the word revolution is intended to indicate
that Planck or Freud or Roentgen accomplished a
breakthrough which placed further work in the area
of their specialty on a new basis. The term revolution
in these cases stresses the suddenness and the radical
nature of the new development; it has no further
implication than to signify a change brought about by
a brief or sudden action.

We have pointed to the influence which Marxian
thought might have exerted in the bourgeois camp.
Unquestionably bourgeois ideas played their part also
in the development of Marxian revolutionary theory.
The emergence of Revisionism with its implied belief
in a victory of socialism by means of democratic
evolution shows some echo of the bourgeois theory that
the evolution of capitalism had been a long process
extending over centuries and was not due to sudden
violent action. Economic developments even seem to
indicate that a gradual improvement of the material
situation of the workers within capitalism was not im-
possible. The theory of the Revisionists drew strength
from the fact that developments since the middle of
the nineteenth century (the failure of the revolutions
of 1848 and then the Paris commune in 1871) had
shown that civilians armed with rifles and barricades
were of no avail against a government in possession of
a disciplined army equipped with heavy weapons and
with artillery. Friedrich Engels himself directed at-
tention to the fact that the difference in strength be-
tween those who possessed a monopoly in military
power and civilians had immensely widened. Clearly,
under these circumstances the writings of the orthodox
Marxists anxious to refute the theses of the Revisionists
tried to prove that revolution was necessary and in-
evitable and to outline the tactics which might make
a victory of revolution feasible. It is from this point
of view that Lenin's State and Revolution (1917) is
remarkable in its argument that the state is an instru-
ment of the ruling group and that as long as a state
exists a victory of the suppressed class is impossible.
Lenin also maintained that one could not rely on the
political maturity of the mass of the workers; a revo-
lution required leadership by a small select group. For
Trotsky the politically and economically underdevel-
oped situation in Russia made a revolution necessary
but the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie made it
also impossible that it could maintain itself in power.
Control would come into the hands of the industrial
workers and revolution would then spill over Russia's
frontiers into Western Europe. Briefly, once revolution
has started it could no longer be stopped. It became
a “permanent revolution” until the triumph of so-
cialism over the entire world had been achieved. The
discussions on the general strike and particularly
Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence (1908) also
served the purpose of proving the necessity and
feasibility of revolution. With the general strike the
workers possessed a weapon which could replace the
fight of civilians on barricades. For this reason the Paris
Commune on which Marx had made some brief obser-
vations became a paradigm; it exemplified the manner
in which during a revolutionary struggle masses of
workers could exert administrative control and form
an effective power center. Briefly, the issue which
dominated the Marxist camp was whether revolution
remained necessary and feasible; the issue was placed
on another level only after the Bolshevists had seized
power in Russia.


In the history of the idea of revolution the Russian
Revolution represents, at least at this writing, the final
and also the most prominent landmark. It was a politi-
cal revolution which involved change in all spheres
of life. As such it was also a social revolution. It was
meant to extend over the entire world and to usher
in a new stage in world history; it was a world revolu-
tion. Political revolution, social revolution, world rev-
olution, all combined in what its adherents call the
“Great October Revolution” of 1917.


Even if the conquest of power by the Bolsheviks was
not followed by a revolutionary triumph over the
entire world, the fact that a large part of the globe
had cut itself off from capitalist society made the
Russian Revolution an epoch-making event for friends
and foes. The Russian Revolution became a paradigm
of a revolution. A revolution had to bring about the
seizure of power by a new class. It had to destroy the
existing social structure and change all the forms of
social life and this would almost necessarily involve
a period of terror. One might add that a revolution
had to be regarded with awe all over the globe. Any
political change that did not fulfill these requirements
was no longer regarded as a “true revolution.”

The transformation of Germany from a monarchy
to a republic in 1918 was not a revolution because,
despite liberalization and democratization, the change
of regime did not change the German social structure.
On the other hand it is interesting and significant that
both fascism and Nazism were anxious to claim that
they were revolutions. Although their governments
were formed by bargaining and negotiations they
pretended to have attained power by a violent struggle
(March of Rome, Reichstag Fire). They emphasized the
thoroughness of the change which they had effected
and represented their movements as “the wave of the
future.” In the dispirited and disillusioned decade after
the First World War many insisted on the need for
a thorough change; the Russian Revolution influenced
the minds even of those who did not agree with its
doctrines, by demonstrating that only a revolution
could bring about significant changes. In a somewhat
paradoxical way revolution became the legitimate in-
strument for change and change that was not brought
about by revolution was not regarded as real change.
The fascist leaders were well aware of the latent
sympathy of the masses for revolutionary solutions, and
so were their followers and imitators in Spain, in
France, and in Eastern Europe, who used the same
appeal to revolution. It is characteristic of the prestige
which the word “revolution” had gained in the 1930's
that even historians of American democracy designated
the great ages of reform of the history of their country
as periods of revolution; they introduced expressions
like “the Jacksonian Revolution” or “the Rooseveltian
Revolution,” and even a conservative president be-
lieves that his legislative proposals will have greater
appeal when he says that he expects they are effecting
an “American revolution.”

There were more potent reasons why the fascist
leaders stressed the revolutionary character of their
regimes. They wanted to free themselves from the onus
of being leaders of a “counterrevolution.” Originally
counterrevolution signified a policy which undid what
the revolution had done; but with the growing threat
of socialist parties, with tensions and conflicts among
the various groups of the bourgeoisie, the view began
to spread that recourse to revolutionary measures and
the establishment of a dictatorial regime based on force
was necessary to maintain the existing order. The em-
phasis on the revolutionary nature of their regimes
served well to mask the counterrevolutionary nature
of fascist or Nazi politics.

But Mussolini and Hitler had another motive to insist
on the revolutionary nature of their governments. In
the times of the French Revolution the French revolu-
tionary leaders called their government a “revolu-
tionary government” because this name suggested ex-
traordinary times in which strict observation of laws
or legal procedure was not feasible. By stressing at
every opportunity the revolutionary nature of their
governments the fascist and Nazi leaders justified the
use they made of arbitrary emergency legislation with
disregard for legal rules and traditions; the appeal to
the necessities of revolution served to embellish
despotic arbitrariness.

The Russian situation was different. After they had
seized power the Bolsheviks remained involved in war
against counterrevolutionary forces for several years.
They felt encircled and threatened by a hostile world
and tried to mobilize all the oppressed and suppressed
peoples of the world. This work was entrusted to the
Communist International whose task was “to liberate
the working people of the entire world. In its ranks
the white, the yellow and the black-skinned peoples
—the working people of the entire world—were
fraternally united” (Theses of the Communist Interna-
tional on the National and Colonial Question, 1920).
The communist leaders survived the civil war and
outside intervention but for them the end of the war
did not constitute an end of the period of emergency.
Their world revolutionary aims had not been realized
and since they regarded a half-socialist and a half-
capitalist world as an impossibility, they continued to
live in what they considered a transitional period
threatened by outside enemies. While they could
attempt to build socialism in their country the final
order of society, communism, could be constructed
only after the world revolution, which now was post-
poned into the future. The revolutionary period was
extended for an uncertain time, and the rulers of Russia
have kept the door open to fall back on revolutionary
measures when it seems necessary. The same holds true
for almost all the governments of a communist char-
acter. All of them assume that it will take time to build
the new society at which they are aiming and until


the communist revolution has conquered the world
world revolution has not ended. This view is clearly
reflected in the name which was given to the consti-
tution of Castro's Cuba: it is entitled Fundamental Law
of the Revolution.

Because of the dominant influence which the Russian
Revolution exerts on all investigations and debates of
the idea of revolution, issues that have seemed settled
have again been opened up. Problems like the connec-
tion between culture and revolution, the question of
the revolutionary character of a particular class, and
the relation of anarchism and revolution, are beginning
to be discussed in a new manner.

Discussion on the connection between culture and
revolution focuses in the notion of a “cultural revolu-
tion”—a term which is widely used and debated.
Russian scholars maintain that the term was first used
by Lenin but the relation of cultural attainments, par-
ticularly of art to revolution, is an old issue of great
complexity. Nearly every political regime uses the
symbols of art for its own legitimation; accordingly,
a new regime tends to demand and to promote a new
artistic style. Although this has happened at almost all
times it came out into the open as a conscious policy
in the period of the French Revolution, and then in
the nineteenth century the relation between art and
revolution took a new form because some of the artists
began to reject the idealistic tradition which had
nourished art in previous centuries. They stressed the
need for “revolutionizing art” and considered them-
selves to be the natural allies of political radicalism.
In the second part of the nineteenth century, in the
times of naturalism and realism, writers and poets used
art for the purpose of expressing sharp social criticism
and participated actively in the socialist movements.
In general, however, the bond between modern artists
and revolution was a radical attitude rather than
agreement on a definite political program. This is
shown by the fact that many of the Futurists went to
fascism, others went to communism.

But if the artists acted as if they had a free political
choice Marxism regarded the cultural world as a
superstructure bound to the economic base of social
life, and a revolution which changed the modes of
production would produce, therefore, a new culture
as well; the political and social revolution would be
supplemented by a revolution in culture.

Indeed, in the years after the First World War when
a revolutionary wave passed over Europe, writers and
artists, particularly in Germany and Russia, believed
they had to play a decisive role in building a new
society. Walter Gropius, then a leader of modern
German architecture, wrote in 1919: “Not until the
political revolution is perfected in the spiritual revolu-
tion can we become free.” Indeed, modern architecture
in Europe owed much to commissions by the govern-
ments which political changes in Germany and Russia
had installed. Yet the fact soon emerged that the
Marxian concept of “cultural revolution” was not really
compatible with what artists then understood by “rev-
olutionary” art. This problem was recognized by Leon
Trotsky in his book on Literature and Revolution (Eng.
trans. 1925). The writings of modern poets like
Alexander Blok and V. V. Mayakovsky are for him signs
of the decline of the old civilization and forerunners
of a new civilization. But Trotsky believed that a true
new culture could develop only slowly and gradually
on the basis of a fully developed new economic and
social order. “Revolutionary art which inevitably
reflects all the contradictions of a revolutionary social
system should not be confused with socialist art for
which no basis has as yet been made.” For Trotsky
modern art—which for him was identical with revolu-
tionary art—has a certain transitional value and from
this point of view it was logical that in the first years
after the revolution Bolshevist cultural policy should
promote modern art. But that was a brief period. After
some years the Bolshevik leaders rejected modern art
as standing outside real life; abstract art became
prohibited—the works of modern abstract artists were
literally placed into the cellars of museums. The art
appropriate to communist society had to be compre-
hensible to the people and not only to a small, sophis-
ticated elite. Art ought to show life in forms which
could immediately be understood. It had to be “social
realism.” The mission of the proletarian revolution is
“to convert all the gains of cultural life into an all-
people's possession” and socialist culture must be “a
truly national culture” (M. Kim, pp. 1-2). Of course,
part of the great attention which Berthold Brecht has
attracted in the East and in the West is that he was
able to incorporate into his plays two different levels:
on one level they teach simple lessons of political
morality; on the other, they ask the lasting questions
of the human condition. Marxists might make use of
the prestige of a great name like that of Picasso, but
in East and West the organized communist movements
keep distance from the artistic avant-garde. The aims
of cultural revolution are placed on a lower key. Lenin
said: “For us this cultural revolution presents immense
difficulties of a purely cultural (for we are illiterate)
and material character (for to be cultured we must
achieve a certain development of the material means
of production); we must have a certain material base”
(Works, XXXIII, 475). In concrete terms cultural revo-
lution in Soviet Russia begins with education of the


masses and is envisaged as a long-time process. It
should perhaps be added that it appears that in China
“cultural revolution” serves the purpose to eliminate
all deviations from what the ruling group regards as
Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.

In consequence of the Bolshevist conquest of power
the cause of revolution became identified with Russian
policy. Russia was expected to be protector of any
revolutionary movement and, on the other hand, any
government that allied itself with Russia considered
itself to be a revolutionary government and was
regarded as such. The common bond was the enmity
against Western capitalism and imperialism and this
made each member of this alliance automatically a
partner in revolution. The notion of revolution became
absorbed in the contrast between East and West. This
contrast extends over the entire globe. It can express
itself as a racial struggle between blacks and whites.
It can be a fight of farmers and peasants against the
encroachments of urban civilization. It can be a strug-
gle of natives against foreign rule. What the Com-
munist International set out to do after the First World
War became a reality after the Second World War.
The colonial empires collapsed, and in many cases
where this development involved a conflict the move-
ments for independence and the newly independent
states were anxious to get Russian support. But this
has introduced great diversity into the revolutionary
front. If originally in the eyes of Marxism a revolution
was a class struggle, with the industrial workers on one
side and the capitalist exploiters of the proletariat on
the other, the composition of the army of the revolu-
tion has now become multifarious: concerted action,
if it is taken, arises from political cooperation rather
than from occupying an identical place in the social

Although Marxism has become almost identical with
revolution actually the great differences in economic
problems and social structure which exist in the revo-
lutionary camp have had the result that the name
Marxism covers a great variety of aims and measures.
Insofar as the debate which has developed concerns
the idea of revolution it appears chiefly to discuss issues
of revolutionary tactics. In the writings of Che Guevara
and Régis Debray (La Révolution dans la révolution)
the need to adapt the revolutionary struggle to the
circumstances in Latin America is the main theme.
Unification of the military and political command,
guerrilla action aiming at control of small outlying
areas, and then revolutionary propaganda to win over
and train the population of these localities, that is the
gist of their recommendations. They feel themselves
to be true revolutionaries in contrast to the “Marxist
Revisionists”—as Che Guevara as well as the Chinese
call the Moscow leaders—who have transformed the
revolutionary struggle into political maneuverings. But
it can hardly be doubted that, behind this dispute about
tactics there lies a different idea about the world which
should emerge in consequence of the revolution. The
idea of using the instruments of modern civilization
for organizing life in such a way that everyone receives
according to his needs is confronted by the view that
everything that forms part of this civilization is evil
and that modern civilization has to be rejected in its
entirety. The ghost which Marx believed to have laid
when he drove Bakunin into the wilderness has
returned. Clearly, there is an anarchist element in some
of the revolutionary movements of the present—of the
guerrillas, of the students, of the blacks—and it is no
accident that in the May days of Paris of 1968 the
black flag of anarchism could be seen next to the red
flag of revolution.

In the nineteenth century revolution was envisaged
as a brief, violent action which overthrows the existing
government and in its consequences changes the social
structure and ushers in a new period of history. Since
the Russian Revolution the concept of revolution has
begun to disintegrate. The sudden action if it occurs
is not a culminating point but rather a beginning and
the completion of a revolution is a long process. Par-
ticularly the slow and gradual changes in economic
structure in underdeveloped countries are regarded as
revolutions, and this has validity both for the East,
where this process is called “building of a socialist
society” and in the West, where it is called
“modernization.” The term “revolution” has somewhat
lost the sharp edge which it possessed in the nineteenth
century and is applied to any far-reaching change.

This is also reflected in recent scholarly discussions
on the theory of revolution. They are interested less
in the revolutionary event itself than in the underlying
long-range reasons for revolution. They are concerned
with the lack of harmony between the social system
on the one hand and the political system on the other.
And they try to discover the various phases in which
this dysfunction develops and ask at which point a
revolution becomes inevitable. Some social scientists
want to eliminate the term “revolution” entirely from
the scholarly terminology and replace it by “internal
war.” This expression hardly fits the revolutions of the
past but it must be admitted that it has a certain
validity in the present when revolution has become
a weapon in power conflicts. Whether we think of the
East or the West the belief has grown that the world
can be managed and can be transformed by a series
of carefully planned steps. The idea of revolution has
lost the spontaneity which it possessed when people
believed that they were carrying out the commands


of history. As executors of this higher force they trusted
that they were creating an entirely new world and it
was this belief in a utopia which gave to the idea of
revolution its strength in the nineteenth century and
made it a powerful force in political thought from 1789
to 1917.


There are a number of investigations of the term “revolu-
tion,” e.g., Arthur Hatto, “Revolution': An Enquiry into
the Usefulness of an Historical Term,” Mind, 58 (1949),
495-516; and Melvin J. Lasky, “The Birth of a Metaphor;
On the Origins of Utopia & Revolution,” Encounter (Feb.
1970), 35-45; (March 1970), 30-42. An analysis of the role
which the idea of revolution played in modern history is
provided by Karl Griewank, Der neuzeitliche Revolu-
(Frankfurt-am-Main, 1969). However, this book
is somewhat fragmentary, and for the idea of revolution in
the nineteenth century, see the investigation by Theodor
Schieder, “Das Problem der Revolution im 19. Jahrhundert,”
Historische Zeitschrift, 170 (1950), 233-71. For a somewhat
more theoretical discussion of the history of this idea in
recent times see R. Koselleck, “Der neuzeitliche Revolu-
tionsbegriff als geschichtliche Kategorie,” Studium Ge-
22 (1969), 825-38; for an analysis of the comple-
mentary concept of counterrevolution, see Arno J. Mayer,
Dynamics of Counterrevolution in Europe, 1870-1956; An
Analytic Framework
(New York and London, 1971). For
investigations of the Marxist concept of revolution see
Robert C. Tucker, The Marxian Revolutionary Idea (New
York and Toronto, 1969); and Reidar Larsson, Theories of
(Stockholm, 1970). Various aspects of the prob-
lem are discussed in Vol. VIII of Nomos entitled Revolution,
ed. Carl J. Friedrich (New York, 1966). For the wider philo-
sophical and sociological aspects of the problem see Karl
Mannheim, Ideologie und Utopie (Bonn, 1929), trans. L.
Wirth and E. Shils as Ideology and Utopia (London, 1936);
Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York, 1963); and A.
T. Van Leeuwen, Development through Revolution (New
York, 1970). Historical studies particularly focused on the
problem of revolution are Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Die
europäischen Revolutionen und der Charakter der Nationen

(Stuttgart and Cologne, 1951); Crane Brinton, The Anatomy
of Revolution
(New York, 1938); and idem, Preconditions
of Revolution in Early Modern Europe,
eds. Robert Forster
and Jack P. Greene (Baltimore and London, 1970); Franco
Venturi, Il populismo russo (1952), trans. Francis Haskell
as Roots of Revolution (New York, 1960; also reprint);
Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge,
1965). The approach of the modern social sciences to the
problem of revolution is described in Lawrence Stone,
“Theories of Revolution,” World Politics, 18 (1966), 159-76;
and a work of social science character on this topic is
Chalmers Johnson, Revolutionary Change (Boston, 1966).
See also Harry Eckstein, “On the Etiology of Internal War,”
History and Theory, 4 (1965), 133-63. For Marxist views
of special aspects of the problem, see J. V. Polišenský, “The
Social and Scientific Revolutions of the 17th Century,” XIII
International Congress of Historical Sciences, Moscow, Au-
gust 16-23, 1970, published by Central Department of
Oriental Literature (Moscow, 1970); and M. Kim, “Some
Aspects of Cultural Revolution and Distinctive Features of
Soviet Experience in Its Implementation,” XIII Interna-
tional Congress of Historical Sciences, Moscow, August
16-23, 1970, published by Central Department of Oriental
Literature (Moscow, 1970), pp. 1-14; the problematic char-
acter of the concept in the present-day world is reflected
in Albert Camus' famous book, L'Homme révolté (Paris,


[See also Anarchism; Astrology; Crisis; Cycles; Marxism;
Nationalism; Utopia.]