Definition, Types and Origins of Revolutionary Movement


Definition, Types and Origins of Revolutionary  Movement

Definition of Revolutionary Movement

A revolutionary movement or social movement is a specific type of social movement dedicated to carrying out a revolution. Charles Tilly defines it as "a social movement advancing exclusive competing claims to control of the state, or some segment of it”. A social movement may want to make various reforms and to gain some control of the state, but as long as they do not aim for an exclusive control, its members are not revolutionary. Social movements may become more radical and revolutionary, or vice versa - revolutionary movements can scale down their demands and agree to share powers with others, becoming a run-of-the-mill political party.  Goodwin distinguishes between a conservative (reformist) and radical revolutionary movements, depending on how much of a change they want to introduce. A conservative or reformist revolutionary movement will want to change fewer elements of the socio-economic and cultural system than a radical reformist movement (Godwin also notes that not all radical movements have to be revolutionary). A radical revolutionary movement will thus want both to take an exclusive control of the state, and to fundamentally transform one of more elements of its society, economy or culture.


Type of Revolutionary Movement or Social Movement

There is no single, standard typology of social movements. As various scholars focus on different aspects of movements, different schemes of classification emerge. Hence any social movement may be described in terms of several dimensions.

Many attempts at categorization direct attention to the objective of the movement. The social institution in or through which social change is to be brought about provides one basis for categorizing social movements as political, religious, economic, educational, and the like. It may be argued that all movements tend to be either political or religious in character, depending upon whether their strategy aims at changing political structures or the moral values of individuals.

A commonly used but highly subjective distinction is that between “reform” and “revolutionary” movements. Such a distinction implies that a reform movement advocates a change that will preserve the existing values but will provide improved means of implementing   them. The revolutionary movement, on the other hand, is regarded as advocating replacement of existing values. Almost invariably, however, the members of a so-called revolutionary movement insist that it is they who cherish the true values of the society and that it is the opponents who define the movement as revolutionary and subversive of basic, traditional values.

Some attempts to characterize movements involve the direction and the rate of change advocated. Adjectives such as radical, reactionary, moderate, liberal, and conservation are often used for such purposes. In this context the designation “revolutionary” and “reform” are often employed in a somewhat different sense than that described above, with the implication that a revolutionary movement advocates rapid, precipitous change while a reform movement works for slow, evolutionary change.

The American sociologist Lewis M. Killian advanced still another typology based on the direction of the change advocated or opposed. A reactionary movement advocates the restoration of a previous state of social affairs, while a progressive movement argues for a new social arrangement. A conservation movement opposes the changes proposed by other movements, or those seeming to develop through cultural drift, and advocates preservation of existing values and norms.

Killian and the American psychologist Ralph H. Turner argued that it is useful at times to categorize social movements on the basis of their public definition, the character of the opposition evoked, and the means of action available to the movement. This scheme is designed to eliminate the subjective evaluation of goals inherent in such categories as reformist and revolutionary. A movement that does not appear to threaten the values or interests of any significant segment of society is publicly defined as respectable. If there is no competing movement advocating the same objective, it is also non-factional. The respectable non-factional movement must contend primarily with the problems of disinterest and token support, but it has access to legitimate means of promoting its values. A respectable factional movement must contend with competing movements advocating the same general objective but also has access to legitimate means of extending its influence. A movement that appears to threaten the values of powerful and significant interest groups within the society is publicly defined as revolutionary and encounters violent suppression. As a result, it is denied access to legitimate means of promoting its program. Another type of movement is defined as neither respectable nor dangerous but as peculiar; this type, seen as odd but harmless, encounters ridicule and has limited access to legitimate means.

Social movements may also be categorized on the basis of the general character of their strategy and tactics; for instance, whether they are legitimate or underground. The popular distinction between radical and moderate movements reflects this sort of categorization. An obvious difference between types of movements depends upon their reliance on violent or nonviolent tactics. But a nonviolent movement may also be defined as revolutionary or radical because it accepts civil disobedience, rather than legal or parliamentary maneuvering, as a major feature of its strategy. It should be added that the distinction between violent and nonviolent movements is a relative one because a movement may shift rapidly from one to the other as it develops.


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). 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 peasantry 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 in 1964. 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.


Revolution in Third World/African Countries

Most third world and African countries have had revolutionary movements at some times before and since their independence. During the cold war years, the typical third world revolutionary movement was a communist insurgency based in the countryside. Those who view their leaders as promoting what they called US imperialism, which they consider to be against their national interest, organize such revolutions. Consequently, the domestic politics of third world countries were coloured by the great power politics in the East-West contest. In reality, many of these governments and revolutions had little to do with global communism, capitalism or imperialism. They were indeed local power struggle largely between rural ethnic groups into which great powers, for selfish reasons, were drawn.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 removed super power support from both sides of domestic politics; and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the adoption of capitalist oriented economic reforms in many countries, including Russia and China, reduced the appeal of communist directed revolution. Although third world revolutions usually advocate for the poor versus rich, nationalism versus imperialism, the particular character of these movements varies across regions. In the Arab world, for instance some of the most potent revolutionary movements are motivated by extreme, or in the Western usage, fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic doctrine as it was successfully launched in Iran in 1979 and Afghanistan in 1982. Islamic political activities in the Middle East derive their main base of strength from championing the cause of the Palestinians against Israel (Zionism), or against the idea of exclusive nuclear club or selective proliferation, or the poor masses against the rich elites. Thus, radical group like the Hezbollah runs school, hospitals, and control 12 seats in Lebanon’s parliament as at 2001 (Goldstein). Through such activities, they gain legitimacy in the eyes of their people, rather than being perceived as terrorist organizations.

In Africa also, where colonialism led to the creation of artificial boundaries that were at variance with ethnic divisions, many revolutionary claims or movements have continued to have a strong tribal appeal or primordial base, as it was successfully demonstrated in the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia, and is ongoing in countries such as Sudan and Cote de Voire. In his book, Revolutionary Pressures in Africa, Claude Ake (1977:9) wrote of contradictions that arose between proletarian and bourgeois countries, which has created a class struggle between the two, “brought about revolutionary pressures in Africa” and intensified what he called “mutual alienation.” He identified neo-colonial dependency as the most salient feature of a post-colonial African state, a condition that is rooted in, and perpetuated by global class struggle. He concluded that the class war can only be brought to an end through “socialist revolution”. This however did not occur, especially with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a country that was passionate about spearheading the global overthrow of the capitalist system. However, there are about half a dozen countries in the continent where revolutionary activities, even if they do not approximate to Claude Ake’s prediction, have succeeded. They include, among others, Egypt, Algeria, Ghana, Mozambique, Namibia, and South Africa. Let us briefly examine some of them.

Egyptian Revolution

The Egyptian Revolution was launched in 1952 by Gamely Abdul Nasser when he led the army to overthrow King Farouk. The revolution began under a revolutionary petty-bourgeois leadership that revolted against the incapacity and corruption of the old regime. It proposed to modernize the country by striking at the old conservative order, and bring about a new era of economic progress that will put to an end the imperialist domination of Egypt. One of the objectives of the revolution was to widen considerably the state sector, a factor that led to the nationalization of heavy industries and big banks including the Suez Canal in 1956. Nasser’s administration also granted to the workers and peasant a formal majority of seats in the Egyptian National Assembly. These reforms were meant to actualize the goals of Arab-socialism, which was also anti-capitalist.

Despite these reforms, we must point out that due to a number of reasons Nasser was unable able to create a worker’s state. The revolution could not stop free buying and selling of land by the bourgeoisie up to a certain ceiling. Similarly, the state structure inherited from the former regime remained largely intact. There were also no organ of workers power, or independent trade unions, or independent workers’ party, and no socialist consciousness among the broad masses. All these have made the private sector to remain very strong, if not dominant. Indeed, apart from the symbolic changes made under Abdul Nasser, the few gains of the revolution were not sustainable, as Nasser successors-Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak- have returned Egypt to the pre-1952 era, especially with their enthusiastic embrace of Western powers, particularly, the United States.

Ghanaian Revolution

The Ghanaian revolution can be seen from two phases. The first phase was noticed during the struggle for independence by Kwame Nkrumah who advocated for independence for “Self-governance-Now” as opposed to Dr Joseph Danquah, his counterpart of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), whose slogan was ‘Self-Government within the shortest possible time’. What actually made the struggle for independence in Ghana to be regarded as a revolution was that the militancy employed by Nkrumah in his slogans (we prefer self-government in danger to servitude in tranquility) and his eloquent (seek ye first the political freedom and every other thing shall be added unto it), though earned him detention where he won a colonial supervised election, but eventually succeeded in making Ghana the first black African country to gain independence in 1957.

The other phase of the Ghanaian Revolution is the cleansing of the socio-political and economic Augean Stable of Ghana, especially through the execution of three past heads of state Achampong, Afrifa and Akuffo, when Jerry John Rawlings came to power in 1981. He transformed the Ghanaian society by flushing out the corrupt structures and people in the system. Afterwards, he transformed from a military rule to democratic leader, organized a successful transition, and laid the foundation in Ghana of what can now be referred to as an oasis of true democracy in the West African desert of guided or flawed democratic practice.

Ethiopian Revolution

In the early 1974, Ethiopia entered a period of profound political, economic, and social change, frequently accompanied by violence. One major reason for the Ethiopian revolution was the need to confront the traditional status quo by the modern forces in order to effect meaningful changes in the political, economic and social nature of the Ethiopian state. This is because of the government’s failure to effect significant change in the economic and political systems in the country falling standard of living, rising inflation, corruption, and famine which affected several provinces. It is important to note that the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution was initiated by the military, acting essentially in its own immediate interests. But this later spread to the civilian population in an outburst of general dissatisfactions.

Specifically, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam led the revolution, which ousted Emperor Haile Salaissi from his authoritarian grip on power and exploitative feudal regime. To some extent, the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopian is one exemption to the general stereotype of military rule in Africa as an aberration, because his revolution was able to liberate the long-oppressed and exploited working class. It created the necessary conditions for the subsequent rise of the Ethiopian workers Party (EWP), and the Peoples Democratic Republic of Ethiopian (PDRE), with its own new system of provincial divisions and administration for a socialist government in Ethiopia.

Algeria, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa

The revolutions in these Africa countries were struggles to liberate these former colonial territories from an oppressive and exploitative regime of colonial powers. This mostly took the form of guerilla warfare aimed at independence. In Algeria the FLNA led by Ahmed Bembella provided the military vanguard while Frantz Fanon supplied the intellectual sinew; in Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo of the Patriot Front(an amalgam of ZANU and ZAPU) led the struggle; in Mozambique it was Samoral Machel who piloted the struggle; in Namibia Sam Njuoma was the hero of struggle while, in South Africa, the African National Congress, after it was unbanned and its leader, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, succeeded in achieving majority rule for the country in 1994.

It is important to note that it was not all liberation struggles in Africa that entailed large scale violence; there were countries such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Gambia where independence were negotiated. Equally important is the case of Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe, after more than three decades in office has succumbed to counter revolutionary forces: manipulation of elections and annihilation of opposition forces to remain in power, economic mismanagement, corruption and gross human rights violations. The only pretenses to revolution his regime now show include indiscriminate seizure of white owned farmlands, ostensibly to redress alleged past wrongs, and vitriolic verbal attacks on Western imperialists for interfering in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs.

Apart from guerilla wars aimed at independence, African revolution also took internal forms like revolution against despotic and authoritarian leaders. One could cite the example of the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko, the sit-tight ruler of former Zaire (now DRC) by Laurent Kabila as another variant of a revolution, since in this case, a corrupt and an unpopular leader was changed in a popular revolt and a new government formed.

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