Revolution and Social Change

Revolution and Social Change


A revolution is an unusual change of a state of affairs. It is different from an evolution, which is often a gradual, and a stage-by-stage means of adjusting or moderating a status quo. This unit takes a global and holistic view of the concept and process of revolution and social change. After defining the concepts, the unit also examines the techniques employed by revolutionaries to achieve their objectives. The unit also takes a historic excursion into different types of revolutions in the world, from the Puritan revolt in Britain, the American war of Independence and the French Revolution as preludes to the more ideologically based Marxist’s conception of revolution.

Definition and Origins of Revolutionary Movements

A revolution is a sudden or abrupt change in the social structure of a society. The concept of a revolution is distinct from evolution. While evolution is a gradual stage-by-stage progression, transition or development from one level to another, revolution is an unusual and often an un-orthodox means of effecting change. In the liberal social science disciplines there is the preference for the non-violent method of change, which made Claude Ake(1988) to describe “Social Science as imperialism”. What Karl Marx and other succeeding generation of radical scholars such as Claude Ake, Ola Oni, Bade Onimode, Edwin Madunagu and Okwudiba Nnoli did was to transform the foot-dragging of bourgeois scholarship to open resistance of the critical school. They all conceive a revolution as political in character: it is concerned with the calculated overthrow of an existing political order, using as much force and terror as are deemed necessary to effect radical changes in men’s moral, economic, social and intellectual lives (Nisbet, 1973:207). But for a revolution to succeed it also require two other pre requisites: religious zeal or mentality, in addition to military tactics. Indeed, without the religious, almost messianic preoccupation, the Jacobins would not have succeeded in carrying out the French Revolution. Similarly, V. I. was also clear about what is to be done?  In his “The State and Revolution” before he led the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. Indeed, the resemblance between the words militant and military as weapons of revolution is more than verbal. But a revolution never occurs unless the objective conditions are ripe which makes violent change inevitable. These conditions include poverty, political deprivation or exclusion and social injustice. Lack of access to basic human needs are prime causes of revolutions, especially when poor people see others living much better. Most revolutionary movements therefore espouse egalitarian ideas, a more equitable distribution of wealth and power to appeal and awaken the consciousness in the masses.

Former President John Kennedy once explains one condition that contributes to a revolution, when he said: “those who make peaceful change impossible makes violent change inevitable”. Contrary to popular impression, a revolution is not necessarily spontaneous; it has to be planned and be led for it to be meaningful and enduring. As Nisbet explained: ...The heart of every revolution, successful or unsuccessful lies in small minorities-elites as they are known in modern social theory-composed of dedicated, often professional trained individuals, conscious of themselves as communities, and working with technical knowledge as well as moral zeal toward the overthrow of a political order by whatever means are necessary.

Based on the criteria identified above, it is not easy to precisely place or date in history the beginning of the revolutionary tradition. There are those who believed that the American War of Independence in 1776 marked the onset of revolutionary movement or struggle. Others however argue that in the strict sense of the word, it was not a revolution but a war of liberation from the mother country, since the objective was limited and did not involve a total reconstruction of the fabric of the society. Others are also willing to turn backwards to the Puritan revolt of 1688 in which Cromwell, a soldier, played a vital role, and when after a civil war; the Parliament triumphed in a decisive victory over a now weakened monarchy. But unlike in the French Revolution where the unifying myth was earthly or worldly, the underlying pull and push in the Puritan revolt was eternal, Christian conviction, of the Jesuit order, championed by Ignatius Loyola, himself a retired soldier.

This makes the 1789 French Revolution that marked the end of the period of Royal absolutism of Louis XV the first ideal revolution in modern history because it fully satisfied these criteria. In spite of these different views, what is beyond debate is that each of these struggles represents a rejection or repudiation of the past and a fervent and determined desire for a new order. What is striking in 1776, and perhaps similar to other revolts in sentiments, is that the Americans not only wanted freedom from British rule they also embraced, as it was then, a novel and unprecedented republican democracy. In 1789, the French proclaimed freedom, equality and fraternity-a three-word slogan- employed by the coalition of the common people (The Third Estate) and the nobles (The Second Estate) to embark on the siege of Bastille, where the king (First Estate) held sway.

A similar victory was achieved in 1688 in what later came to be referred to as the Glorious Revolution, when the English rose up against the Catholic tyranny and James II fled to France. Another common theme in these three incidents is that those who desired change were already dissatisfied with the peaceful or conventional method; rather they were prepared for unorthodox means and actually, in all the cases, used violence or force to achieve their related objectives. Indeed, by opting for violence they clearly anticipated Karl Marx who in 1848 along with his life-long collaborator, Fredrick Engels later developed a more profound, brilliantly articulated and scientifically based violent method of reconstructing a new social order.


Examples of revolution in other countries of the world include: Russia 1917, China 1949, Cuba 1959, Algeria 1962, South Vietnam 1975, Cambodia 1975, Angola 1975, Iran 1979, Nicaragua 1979, Afghanistan 1992 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. But we will however discuss a few of them, citing two examples in Europe, one each in Asia and Latin America, including some countries in Africa where popular uprisings or revolts that are commonly referred to as revolutions have occurred.

The 1917 Russian Revolution

Vladmir I. Lenin was in exile in Siberia in the year 1898 where he encountered and studied the work of Karl Marx. He was released in 1900 and went to Switzerland where he turned into an apostle of Marxism. He later became part of the leader of the Russian Marxist movement. This movement split into two due to irreconcilable ideological differences over the interpretation and practical application of Marxism. The first group, the Mensheviks was led by the father of Russian Marxism Georgie Plekalov, they were the orthodox Marxists. They insisted that the dialectics had to run its full course before the proletarian revolution. As far they were concerned, Russia was not ripe for a revolution because it was still a feudal society in the pre 1917 years. They believed that without attaining the capitalist stage, a revolution in the Marxian sense was not possible.

On the other hand, the Bolsheviks, led by V. I. Lenin rejected the Menshevik theory as too dogmatic. They argued that under certain circumstances, the proletariat and the peasantries could join forces and take control of the state. Unlike Marx who spent a lot of his time analyzing capitalism and paying little attention to the socialist/communist utopian, Lenin was more pragmatic. Consequently, Lenin devoted himself to developing revolutionary doctrine and applying Marxism to a real situation. Lenin therefore restored violence to the doctrine, amended the theory to make it apply to under developed states and filled in the blank space that Marx had left regarding post-revolution proletarian society.

Ways by which V.I. Lenin modified the Marxist theory

1. Violence is the only action that would bring about meaningful change.

2. V. I. Lenin believed that the proletariat would not develop class-            consciousness without the intervention of a revolutionary group. Someone must ignite the revolution; Lenin recommended not even the    labor union because they could be bought over.

3. Lenin believed that socialism could be imposed by a minority - a          revolutionary vanguard - small, discipline, totally, dedicated group          which must include total commitment.

4. The vanguard of the proletariat in Russia was the Bolshevik party. It      was renamed the Communist Party in 1918. The party would carry out    the revolt or revolution and then impose a dictatorship on the entire         society. As Lenin saw it, it was not to be a dictatorship of the Bolshevik    over proletariat.

5. Lenin also created a structure for the vanguard of the proletariat and   the international movement. He called it the International Communist         Movement; (the Committers). Its duty was to encourage socialist       revolution would last or endure if other European nations embraced the   socialist option.

6. Lenin succeeded in October 1917 when the Bolshevik party carried out    the socialist revolution in Russia. The revolution eventually led to the    formation of USSR led first by Lenin himself, who later died in 1924.

Having laid the foundation of the socialist revolution in USSR, the mantle fell on his successor, Joseph Stalin who also died in 1956. From 1956 Nikita Khrushchev ruled for eight years until he was dismissed in1964. Leon Brezhnev took over and ruled until his death in 1982. A succession of aged leaders from Andropov to Chenecko ruled until 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev, a relatively young leader emerged on the scene. He reasoned that the 1917 revolution had not really achieved its objectives, given the stagnation of the Soviet economy that had atrophied. Gorbachev therefore introduced far reaching reforms which altered the course of the socialist revolution in Soviet Union and ultimately to the disintegration of the Soviet Empire.

 The 1949 Chinese Revolution

The Communist Party of China was founded in the year 1921. Mao Tse-Tung, the leader of the revolution was born in 1893 and later became the communist leader in China. The Soviet Union was interested in China and therefore, V. I. Lenin used the Committers to co-ordinate the efforts of the Communists in China. Mao wrote a book titled Report on the Human Peasant Movement, which called upon the Communists to abandon the cities for the countryside because the peasants not the proletariat were China’s true revolutionaries. With this document, Mao led the formation of what became ‘Maoist thought’. But it was not easy for Mao to get his thought translated into reality. The Nationalists led the government of China. There was a rivalry between the Nationalists and the Communists because the Nationalists were already in control in China and they saw Mao’s idea as a threat to their positions. The nationalists therefore decided to silence the communists. To avoid destruction or annihilation, the communists embarked on a Long March. It lasted a few years. About 100,000 people embarked on that journey which covers 6,000 miles, only 35,000 survived (Baradat, 2000). A new base was established in Shensi province where the March ended. In 1949, Mao led the peasants to successfully overthrow the Nationalists’ government in a revolution.

Principles of Maoism

First, when the Communist Party in China took control of government it introduced the five year plan which attacked the absentee`s land lords, sought to socialize the economy and also made it to be collectively owned. Second, Mao allowed the people to criticize his government unlike the Soviet method of suppressing dissent and imposing conformity or uniformity on the people. To achieve this Mao used the phrase: “let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools contend.” Third, Mao believed in the idea of permanent revolution because it is the only means by which people can achieve their goals. Mao did not believe in institutionalization or bureaucratization but in mass movement.

Fourth, Mao rejected Lenin’s elitist reliance on the party to lead the revolution. Mao therefore, invoked the slogan “red over expert” and called for the mobilization of the masses, which he called the last line of defense of the revolution.

Fifth, Mao believed in guerilla warfare. Unlike Marx who believed that revolution would happen by itself or Lenin who spoke of a vanguard party to telescope a revolution. Mao believed that revolution would happen over a long period. Sixth, Mao identified two objectives of a revolution: military and political, the two being inseparable, since as he puts it “political power also flows from the barrel of the gun”. According to him, the first military goal of a guerilla war is to preserve oneself and destroy the enemy. And this can be done by destroying the fighting capabilities of the opponent. The only thing essential to the guerilla is the safe zone. Politically, war is not won until you have convinced your opponent about the rightness of your course. As Mao put it, “surround the cities with the country side”. Mao said in 1949 when he led the revolution: “From today on, the Chinese people have stood up. Never again will foreigners be able to tramp us.

The 1959 Cuban Revolution

Fidel Castro was born in 1927. His country, Cuba was under a dictator, named Fuldencio Batista. In 1953, Castro tried to seize a military installation but failed. He was arrested and imprisoned but was later released in 1955. Castro went into exile in Mexico and returned to Cuba in 1956. He built a large following of supporters among the peasantry to whom he promised land reforms and redistribution. Just like Mao, he embarked on guerilla warfare, which eventually toppled or overthrew the government of Batista in December 1959. Since assumption of office in 1959, the communist inspired government of Fidel Castro faced consistent United States’ hostility, which reached its peak in 1961 when the John Kennedy’s administration sponsored the Bay of Pig insurrection against Castrol’s government. However, with the support of the Soviet Union Castrol was able to ward off this rebellion, including the international outrage and anxiety generated over the Cuban Missile Crisis, a dispute that pitched Washington against Moscow. American consistent grouse against Cuba included Castrol’s anti imperialist postures, description of U. S. as the colossus of the North, and his determination to export or ignite revolution in other Latin American countries, including African states, notably, Angola. Despite U S’s opposition, Cuba has remained a communist state in the Americas like an oasis in a desert, and Castrol retained his position first as Prime Minister, until 1976 when he took the title of President. Due to ill-health, he yielded his office to his brother, Rao, in 2008. Though still a third world country the 1959 revolution has recorded modest achievements for Cuba in the fields of education, public health and racial equality, including substantial investment in the area of agriculture, especially sugar-cane production, its major foreign exchange earner.

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