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This text is by Brandon Weiner in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

Defining Revolution

Brandon Weiner

I have probably spent too much of my life worrying about the meaning of words (this essay is no exception).  But words represent ideas and ideas can become influential.  Revolution is one such word, terrifying to some and intoxicating to others. This essay explores how the various meanings of the word revolution have evolved over time. Through brief case studies of England’s Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, and the Roman “Revolution(s),” this essay attempts to demonstrate that revolution is a flawed term and, when applied to historical circumstances, can become highly misleading. The ambiguity of the term leads to a tension between reform and revolution, often resulting in the application of the term revolution when, instead, other more narrowly defined terms shed more light on the actual events, such as a coup d'état (the sudden and illegal seizure of a government, usually instigated by a small group of the existing state establishment1). Distinguishing between reform and revolution is further complicated when the temporal constraints of revolution are examined. How do we define revolution that plays out over the course of 1,000 years? And what role does intent play where state-initiated reforms, undertaken because of necessity, result in revolutionary outcomes? The goal of this essay is not to provide a new, detailed framework for our use of the term revolution, but, rather, to trace a number of inconsistencies that arguably limit the way in which we conceive, measure, and pursue social and political change.

Revolution is everywhere. We see revolution in arts and entrepreneurship (fig. 1), in the technology we use (fig. 2), and even in what we drink for breakfast (fig. 3).

figures 1 - 3
Meet the Revolutionaries, Revolve Detroit, accessed 17 July 2013, http://revolvedetroit.com/meet-revolutionaries

The Apple Revolution by Luke Dormehl. Random House: United Kingdom. 2 August 2012, http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Apple_Revolution.html?id=640f7JNTX0kC

Revolution Teas, Phoenix, AZ, http://www.revolutiontea.com/16-Count-boxes/English-Breakfast-Black-Tea-16-count

But, while revolution is everywhere, some also argue it is nowhere, at least not outside of an advertising slogan. Building upon the legacy of the Situationists, Martha Rosler argues that, in the Post-Fordist economy, revolution has been co-opted and commoditized until the word eventually came to signify merely, “a ‘revolution’ centered on consumerism.”2 Conservatives, such as David Brooks, note that the business world is “the one sphere of US life where people still talk about fomenting ‘revolution’ and are taken seriously.”3

The Oxford Dictionary provides two definitions of revolution4 that are relevant for our purposes (and a third that may or may not become relevant):

  1. A forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.

  2. A dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people’s ideas about it: ‘marketing underwent a revolution’

  3. An instance of revolving: ‘one revolution a second’

Focusing on only the first definition for the moment, a number of the terms used are problematic. How do peaceful protest and passive resistance relate to the requirement of force? Is an oppressive law qualitatively different from the use of physical force? The term overthrow is also not as straightforward as it might initially appear. Does it apply to an overthrow in mere form, such as a coup d'état? Perhaps the most flawed term in the definition is system. It is a vital term because it should provide criteria for assessing outcomes. If there is no new system, we do not have a revolution. But, unlike government or social order, system is a term that has no standardized meaning in political, social, or military contexts. It is a catchall term that is used in this context similarly to the way in which judges have defined obscenity, where there are examples of what is and what is not obscene, but a conscious decision was made not to confine the term within a narrow definition because “we’ll know it when we see it.”5 For the purposes of this essay, let us define system mirroring the terms already provided in the definition so that revolution is: a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new government or social order. It should come as no surprise that this formulation, too, may not be wholly adequate, however, the questions that arise are due more to how we conceive of revolution and value-based assessments of what revolution should apply to, as opposed to operating from a definition that is defective in form.

Returning to our Oxford definitions, on one hand, we have revolution that involves a “forcible overthrow” and is commonly associated with images such as this (fig. 4):

figure 4

On the other hand, we have revolution that consists of a big change to, well, almost anything. The example for the second entry is specifically about the business world and its meaning of revolution that Brooks refers to as the only kind currently “taken seriously.” But, this is a recently developed meaning.6 The etymology of revolution traces back to the 14th century Old French revolucion, referring to the revolution of celestial bodies, or perhaps directly back to the Late Latin revolutionem, meaning “to revolve.”7 Revolution, in reference to a forcible overthrow, first appeared during England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, when the King’s powers were formally limited by Parliamentary approval.8 The Industrial Revolution brought the term revolution into the business context; however, it appears that the notion of an “overthrow of a … social order” was maintained by writers during the early years of the Industrial Revolution who framed the revolution around an idea of a new social order9 and a change in “the whole civil society.”10

Even though it may not be “taken seriously,” discussion on the topic of revolution beyond the realm of business persists. One common debate centers on “working within the system” vs. “working outside of the system.” Saul Alinsky, one of the pioneers of community organizing in the 1930s, inspires activists who argue, “[a] true radical has to work within the system.”11 Alinsky writes:

[a]ny revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution.12

One obvious counter argument to “revolution through working within the system” is definitional. Revolution is the overthrowing of a government in favor of a new system. By definition, it is not the reformation of an existing system. But there is a loophole. And this loophole cuts to the heart of how we both define and understand the term revolution today: Can we have revolution (and not the “a revolution in marketing” variety) that does NOT involve overthrowing a government or social order in favor of a new system? And, yes, this is simply the converse of the Oxford Dictionary definition. However, the cases examined below show that even the most canonical of revolutions, in some ways, fit the converse definition better, that is, the “overthrow” of a government proves to be an illusion, a government is overthrown specifically not in favor of a new system, or a social order is overthrown with little change to the larger system.

Grace Lee Boggs, a long-time political activist and author of The Next American Revolution (University of California Press [Ltd.]: Berkeley, CA; Los Angeles, CA and London, U.K.. 2011), has adopted the position that revolutionary change can be achieved through personal transformation and neighborhood-based initiatives.13 By her definition, revolution is released from the necessity of political regime change and becomes almost entirely detached from matters of the state.14 Boggs’s argument for revolution through personal transformation has been thoroughly criticized by some,15 however, that revolution can occur within a governing regime or state is not lacking for historical examples.

Revolution is an idea as well as a word, which, like almost all words, like definitions. But ideas and definitions can, at times, make an odd couple. As noted above, we did not use the word revolution (as in overthrowing a government) until the 17th century. Nonetheless, we can assume that overthrow of one system of rule in favor of another system precedes 17th century England.16 Yet, once we have a definition and a theory, facts are often made to fit such a definition.

figure 5

Peter Lely
William III (1650–1702), as Prince of Orange in Garter Robes, 1677

Consider England’s Glorious Revolution (the revolution that coined the phrase “revolution”). While the Glorious Revolution is credited with installing a constitutional monarchy, the Revolution itself primarily involved a small number of elites (fig. 5) and has been characterized by some historians as a coup d'état rather than a revolution.17 Additionally, the term “revolution” was used to describe the Glorious Revolution with good reason. England already had a constitution at the time of the Revolution. In this sense, The Glorious Revolution dealt primarily with enforcement issues, rather than the creation of a new governing doctrine. Use of the term “revolution” at the time conveyed the traditional meaning of the term in the sense that the old system had come full circle.18 There was a new governing regime, but the system was not new.

figure 6

Katy Perry in Ballot Dress at Obama campaign rally in Las Vegas on 24 October 2012. Photo by John Gurzinski / Getty Images. http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/showbiz/4608764/katy-perry-pledges-support-for-obama-in-election-ad-dress.html

Now, let us examine the American Revolution. Chief Justice Morrison Waite observed, “when the people of the United Colonies separated from Great Britain, they changed the form, but not the substance of their government.”19 Modern historians of the American Revolution also note that, notwithstanding the rejection of British monarchy, the revolution changed very little in the Colonies. Jack Greene writes:

With astonishingly few exceptions … leaders of late colonial regimes retained authority through the transition to republicanism and the republican regimes they created in 1776 and after bore a striking resemblance to the social polities they replaced. Everywhere, political authority remained in the hands of the predominant groups among the existing settler population … Nor did the new republican regimes preside over a large-scale social reconstruction.20

The American Revolution’s impact and place in history have widespread implications, however, such standing does not require an interpretation that identifies a forcible overthrow of either a government (beyond a change in form) or a social order in favor of a new system.

There is also an argument that the American Revolution contained shades of “revolution as a complete rotation,” similar to the one made about the Glorious Revolution.  The English Empire of Revolutionary America was not held together just by force; instead, it has been described as, “a composite state characterized by indirect governance, fragmented authority, an inchoate theory of national sovereignty, and limited fiscal, administrative, and coercive resources.”21 The historian Elizabeth Mancke argues that, prior to the American Revolution, while in the process of developing a new sense of imperial order, Britain became increasingly worried that the lack of centralized authority in the colonies would lead to their eventual loss and, consequently, undertook a series of measures that directly challenged the autonomy of colonies over their local affairs.22 Revolving completely would have involved maintaining British rule, which clearly did not happen. Yet, the need for (and resistance to) greater centralized authority was an issue that both British and early American governments identified as essential to long-term growth and stability of an American state. The matter of actually enacting a more centralized government was a dilemma that would vex the U.S. well beyond the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation, and at the time of writing, a legacy of local autonomy continues to pervade U.S. politics.

figure 7

Dalibor Konopac
Romulus and Remus
fashion design by Paul Brun, 7 June 2009, http://www.trendhunter.com/trends/romulus-and-remus-dalibor-konopac
Modern depiction of Romulus and Remus, the mythical brothers who founded the city of Rome.23

At this point, our discussion of revolution has largely been confined to the prevailing paradigm of nation-states. If we expand our view of the field, we find one case unique in the history of the western world due to its astounding longevity: Rome. From the founding of the city of Rome in 753 BCE24 (fig. 7) to the deposition of the final western emperor, Romulus Augustus, in 476 AD, the Roman state persisted, in some form, for arguably over 1,200 years. That is roughly 1,000 years longer than the U.S. has been in existence and does not include the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which survived and flourished as the Byzantine Empire for nearly an additional 1,000 years until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453.25

A case study of revolution in Rome defies conventional classifications for a variety of reasons beyond the length of time involved and the fact it predates the modern conception of nation-states. One hurdle comes when attempting to determine what it meant to be “Roman” and, as a result, how we attempt to identify the “Roman state” throughout its history. It can be argued that a shared sense of collective identity defined the Roman state. On the other hand, what was “shared” varied markedly over the centuries. At least two things were constant: you paid your taxes to Roman officials and there was always a Roman army (fig. 8) that, at least in theory, was tasked with protecting Roman citizens from foreign threats.26 From this perspective, Roman identity always included some sense of a relationship to the Roman “state.” But identity is a complicated matter. While notions of the city-state and empire were more familiar to Romans than nationhood, there is evidence to suggest that regional identification was strong among the Roman elite27 and Roman citizens, who, if living in a remote region of the Empire, likely had little contact with the Empire on a day-to-day basis.28

figure 8
Roman Soldiers, 11 June 2008,

The presence of Roman armies and Roman taxes was a constant throughout the history of Rome, but the governments directing the armies and collecting the taxes were anything but constant. Rome experienced countless violent regime changes while also surviving numerous forcible overhauls to its form of government. The twin brothers Romulus and Remus founded the city of Rome as a monarchy. Rome was ruled by seven kings until the creation of the Roman Republic in 509 BCE. In 44 BCE, the Republic ended, giving birth to the Roman Empire. Beginning with Emperor Augustus, the Empire was ruled as a Principate until 284 AD, where, upon the accession of Emperor Diocletion, the Empire was ruled as a Dominate. Beginning in the late 4th century AD and until the end of the western Empire, Roman emperors served as little more than figure head rulers for a series of Germanic kings who, due to social and political factors, could not themselves assume the formal title of emperor.

The vast majority of regime changes throughout the history of Rome can more readily be classified as coup d'états, rather than revolutions that overthrew a government in favor of a new system. During the Empire, most regime changes involved the death or assassination of one former general who was replaced with another high-ranking general. Succession was highly dynastic and bloodlines always mattered to the Roman elite. It is difficult to identify a new government (in substance) that came about as a result of regime change during the Empire; however, the transition from the Republic to the Empire, in name at least, involved a forcible overthrow of a government. Instead of an elected senate ruling, power was consolidated in the hands of one man (usually).29 But consolidation of power does not, in itself, lead to a new government (in substance). The Republic had always been ruled by a small number of noble families called patricians. Only patricians could serve in the senate. The families feuded and competed with each other for centuries. Augustus, the first Roman emperor, had himself been a senator (known then as Octavian) before overthrowing the Republic. As a patrician and a member of the gens Julia, one interpretation of the founding of the Empire could be that, instead of creating a new system, Augustus merely finished what his great-uncle Julius Caesar started in an effort to put the gens Julia on top of the other patrician families for good (the Julio-Claudian dynasty lasted 95 years).

While bloodlines did matter to the Romans, over time, the privileged position of patricians changed dramatically. During the Republic and early Empire, Rome’s political elite descended from noble families and was overwhelmingly born in either the city of Rome or in Italy. By the time of the Illyrian emperors, these factors were hardly a requirement for positions of political power. A string of Rome’s most effective emperors beginning in the late 3rd century were all born to poor peasants in the Balkans and rose up through the military ranks. It is important to note that this revolution to Rome’s social order happened over a period of centuries, beginning with the entry of peasants into the army in 107 BCE. When the first Illyrian-peasant emperor, Claudius Gothicus, came to power in 268 BCE, the Romans had experienced over two centuries of military coup d'états, culminating in the Crisis of the 3rd Century, which nearly led to the end of the Empire. Claudius Gothicus was the first competent emperor in years and high-ranking generals with peasant origins had populated Rome’s army with increasing regularity. The donning of the purple (the imperial colors) by a peasant was a result of necessity, not a consequence of revolutionary instigation. Similarly, Marius’s elimination of the land ownership requirement for service in the military in 107 BCE was motivated by practical concerns (the need to raise new and larger armies in the face of growing disdain toward military service by the wealthy, land-owning class) and not revolutionary intentions.

figure 9

scultpor unknown
Portrait of Caracalla, 215 AD
image coutesy Musei Capitolini http://en.museicapitolini.org/collezioni/percorsi_per_temi/ritratti_imperiali/ritratto_di_caracalla

Throughout its history, Rome adapted. Revolutionary change did occur, but over long periods of time, and often as a result of state-based responses borne from necessity. Other examples include the Edict of Caracalla in 212 AD, which extended full rights of Roman citizenship to all free men in the Roman Empire (previously citizenship was primarily only enjoyed by inhabitants of Italy). At the time, the measure was almost an afterthought, extended to increase the tax base, rather than to address the social tensions that had existed since the Social War of 90-88 BCE in which a number of allied Italian cities revolted over citizenship rights. Until the early 4th century, despite a general policy of religious tolerance, Rome repeatedly harassed and attempted to suppress Christianity. Beginning with Emperor Constantine and following Emperor Julian the Apostate, Christianity became a matter of state policy, which has been characterized by many as a policy of political necessity. Diocletian ushered in a revolution in bureaucracy during the late 3rd century. He effectively doubled the number of bureaucrats in the Empire, separated military and political powers (in everyone but the emperor), and opened bureaucratic careers to former slaves (known as freedmen), creating dramatic opportunities for social mobility. While the scale of Diocletians’ bureaucracy was new, the model was largely an extension of the administrative system Augustus imposed in Egypt in 27 BCE (a province as a personal protectorate of the emperor) and was thereafter maintained.

We do not ever speak of a Roman Revolution when, by traditional measures, the Romans presided over a political revolution (from a Republic to an Empire), a religious revolution (state-sponsored Christianity), a social revolution (citizenship for all, requirements for the highest public offices, class-based reform), a bureaucratic revolution (career bureaucrats, division between civilian and military), a military revolution (open to non-land owners, first standing army), and the list could continue. However, we often speak of the American Revolution with reverence, despite evidence that the government changed in form only and that the existing social order and its overwhelmingly localized character continued, through primarily the same agents, for at least a half-century following the revolution. Likewise, the Glorious Revolution is held in high revolutionary esteem, even though the historical record suggests the government also changed in form only and that the participants themselves regarded the revolution as a return to a pre-existing government that simply had not been enforced effectively.

The Roman examples are instructive because they cut at the heart of the tension between reform and revolution. The difficulties in assessing the temporality of revolution and the role of intent could not be more apparent. I have excluded extended discussion of more clearly revolutionarily motivated attempts at reform in Rome because none were ever particularly successful, or, at least, not in the century in which they took place. But, Rome always adapted and one reason the reforms are difficult to characterize as revolutions leads back to the question of the identity of the Roman state. Even if the reforms led to a revolution in some sense in a following century, Rome was still Rome; or, rather, it still looked like Rome to the Romans because the change happened so gradually. The difficulty of temporality also applies to the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution. Neither qualifies as a revolution in government (in substance) at the time of the revolution. However, the governments of Britain and America of today clearly underwent a revolution in substance (perhaps both in government and social order) at some point during the intervening centuries. When did the revolution really occur? Needless to say, we cannot simply take it for granted that the developments that led to revolutionary change in substance were predestined. On the contrary, like Rome, Britain and America have adapted and reformed, often due to political, social, and economic necessities, throughout their respective histories and without a prerequisite of revolutionary intent.

Where does this leave us with the use of the term revolution? There are no perfect answers, but there are, at least, two options resulting from this essay. The first is definitional. Aside from clarifying that a change in government must be in substance, and not in the category of a coup d'état, we could examine what we mean by a new system. For the purposes of this essay, a new system has been defined as a new government or social order. But this leads to complications, such as the situation where there is a new government comprised of a small number of elites and the vast majority of the population remains unaffected (arguably the scenario in all three of the revolutions examined herein, even if new governments in substance were granted). But a new system could be defined as a new government and new social order to correct for such an outcome. Granted, while providing a more narrowly tailored definition and smaller range of outcomes, defining revolution as a new government and social order introduces a values-based question as to what should be considered a revolution. Nonetheless, the definition would provide further distinction from Oxford’s second definition that involves an undefined quantity of change to an undefined object (i.e. a revolution in marketing).

The other option is much more drastic and impractical: stop using revolution altogether. Reforms are reforms and revolutions are reforms. Instead of using revolution, we could simply say “reform,” “ big change,” “a new government,” “proletariat assumed the means of production,” or whatever the specific outcome is that is being referred to. The argument to cut revolution from our vocabulary stems from the Situationists; who argue that in a post-Fordist society (i.e. a western capitalist country) everything is subsumed by the consumption economy and the spectacle. We experience revolution through the TV or through social media, revolution is mediated by a series of images and representations, but we do not actually experience revolution. In this paradigm, revolution is truly nothing more than a marketing slogan, it is a commodity itself, and it is a tool of the consumption economy to sell other commodities. Whatever revolution once was, this is its function in society now and the argument applies to revolution as an idea as much as it does to revolution as a term. Or so the argument goes, at least.

My personal hope is that we will begin to develop a new vocabulary around revolution and social and political change, one that is more nuanced and one that speaks to a greater understanding of the various ways in which change occurs, even if it is not readily apparent to our eyes.30

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coup_d%27%C3%A9tat

2 Rosler, Martha. "Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism". e-flux. 2010. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/culture-class-art-creativity-urbanism-part-i/

3 Brooks, David. Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Simon & Schuster: New York, New York. 2000.

4 http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/revolution

5 “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” - Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964).

6 Identifying the exact date of the first use of “revolution” in a business context and not in reference to a new social order is beyond the scope of this article. R.J. Keith’s 1960 article in the Journal of Marketing appears to have been the first usage of “the marketing revolution” to garner widespread attention, however, previous usages may exist.

7 http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=revolution

8 http://chagala.com/russia/pipes.htm

9 Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford University Press: New York, New York and London, United Kingdom. 16 May 1985.

10 Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Otto Wigand, Leipzig. 1887.

11 http://www.ryanholiday.net/rules-for-radicals-working-within-the-system/

12 Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals. Random House. 1971.

13 http://americanrevolutionaryfilm.com/about-the-film/

14 Presumably, the state would still have some ability to exert influence over neighborhoods, but Boggs’s argument is most convincingly applied to neighborhoods in Detroit where services traditionally provided by government entities (e.g. public safety, running water, fresh food, electricity, etc.) have been, to varying degrees, assumed by neighborhoods and individuals. Some might also argue that, in such neighborhoods, the state has already largely removed itself. 

15 See Aaron Petcoff's "A critical reply to Birkhold's "Grace Lee Boggs' call for visionary organizing". a better world is probable. 18 June 2012.

16 Among the various interpretations of the story of Adam and Eve, one might not need to strain too hard to identify some element that could be characterized as a desire for regime change.

17 Webb, Stephen. Lord Churchill's Coup. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York. 1995: p. 166.

18 Mitchell, Leslie. "Introduction" in Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Oxford University Press.1790; and Black, Donald M. MacRaid. 2000. Studying History (2 ed.), Palgrave. 2009.

19 Chief Justice Morrison Waite, quoted by E. L. Jones, “The European Background,” in Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Galman, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of the United States. Vol. 1: The Colonial Era, Cambridge. 1996.

20 Greene, Jack P. "The American Revolution," (2000) The American Historical Review 105 (1)

21 Id.

22 Mancke, Elizabeth. "Another British America: A Canadian Model for the Early Modern British Empire". Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. 25, no. 1, 1997. See also Greene.

23 Photo from http://www.trendhunter.com/trends/romulus-and-remus-dalibor-konopac

24 This date comes from the creation myth of Romulus and Remus. Very little is known of the historical founding of Rome.

25 Phillip K. Dick writes in his novel VALIS that, in reference to the Roman Empire, “the empire never ended.”

26 During the crisis of the 3rd century and under the rule of Emperor Gallienus, the Roman Empire briefly broke into three competing states: the Gallic Empire, the Palmyrene Empire, and the Italian-centered Roman Empire. Even during this period, a collective sense of being “Roman” persisted. 

27 See the Illyrian Generals and Cicero’s writing on Marius (who were both from the same city).

28 “Conquerors of Italy-The Early Roman Republic”. The Ancient Warfare Magazine Podcast. 16 May 2014.

29 During the Tetrarchy there were four emperors (two senior and two junior). There were many other variations where emperors either ruled jointly or as a senior “Augustus” and junior “Caesar.”

30 Discussion of the Marxist definition of revolution (the class struggle that is expected to lead to political change and the triumph of communism) has been intentionally omitted from this article for the simple reason that it is a different beast. The focus of this essay has been conventional and popular definitions of revolution (i.e. the Oxford Dictionary version of revolution) and revolution in Marxism operates within a clearly delineated theoretical framework with a specified set of desired outcomes.

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link - issue 08: July/August 2014