Are revolutions doomed to failure?

After the end of communist rule in eastern Europe and the break-up of the Soviet Union, many observers suggested that revolutions never really achieve their objectives. But how do we judge the long-term outcome of such endeavours - and have any been truly successful? Six historians debate the legacies of major revolts and uprisings

An 18th Century cartoon satirises reactions to Louis XVI's attempt tp flee France. The french Revolution shows what can happen when the state fails on a catastrophic scale

Charles Townshend

Revolutions have far-reaching, complex and maybe contradictory effects that work out over very long periods of time

Revolution has meant many things – except perhaps its literal meaning: a full-circle return to a previous state. In the modern world it has meant change, usually dramatic and rapid, often accelerated by violence. It has been applied to sudden seizures of power, but also to vast processes such as industrialisation and technological development. (The United States even called its development of so-called ‘smart weapons’ the Revolution in Military Affairs.)


Variations in meaning bear directly on the issue of success or failure. In ‘palace revolutions’ (sometimes mistakenly labelled coups d’état), in which one general might seize power from another, the issue has been resolved after a short military clash. But such revolutions cause little change, beyond that of the Swiss bank account into which the proceeds of political power are transferred. Revolutions that have attempted to transform whole societies – the great French, Russian and Chinese uprisings – have far-reaching, complex and maybe contradictory effects that work themselves out over very long periods of time.

Because of this, success and failure can be hard to calibrate. Did the French Revolution fail? That’s certainly what Beethoven thought when he struck out the dedication of his Eroica symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte – but Bonaparte was a child of the revolution, and his dictatorship was a world away from the Bourbon monarchy. After the revolution, power derived from the nation, not God; democracy was built into it. Though many French people today see the revolution as a bloodstained disaster, they still hold to the ‘republican values’ it established.

A century ago, the Irish revolution promised not just to free Ireland from British rule, but to remake it as a new Gaelic society. This carried a price: partition, confining independence to 26 out of 32 Irish counties. Yet its centrepiece, the revival of the language, was never achieved, even if it still complicates the politics of Northern Ireland. Failure is relative; revolutions may not fail entirely, but most end in disillusionment.

Charles Townshend is professor emeritus of international history at Keele University, and author of The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence (Allen Lane, 2013)

Evan Mawdsley

Whether Russia’s 1917 October Revolution failed in an Animal Farm sense is open to dispute

The Russian Revolution might seem to be a classic case of failure. The autocracy of Emperor Nicholas II was overthrown in February 1917, only to be replaced by Lenin’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in October 1917 and by Stalin’s even worse rule of terror in the 1920s and 1930s. The events and outcome were caricatured in George Orwell’s allegorical Animal Farm, which ends with the revolutionary pigs turning into humans, and the restoration of ‘Manor Farm’ – the old order.

In truth, things were more complicated than that precis suggests. Revolutions can fail or succeed in different ways. The earlier revolution of 1905 failed because the Tsar made concessions to the liberals, and because the forces of order remained intact. The Russian Revolution of February 1917 failed within eight months because the centrist (Duma) politicians who overthrew the Tsar did not satisfy popular economic demands, especially land reform, and did not bring an end to an unpopular war. The Russian Revolution of October 1917 surely did not fail, at least politically, in the sense that the radical group that brought it about remained in power until 1991. The Bolsheviks (later Communists) avoided failure, in the short term at least, by addressing the issues of land hunger and war-weariness. At the same time, they ruthlessly dealt with the forces of counter-revolution and disorder in the subsequent civil war.

Workers meet in the former duma (state assembly) building in Petrograd (St Petersburg)
Workers and soldiers’ deputies meet in the former duma (state assembly) building in Petrograd (St Petersburg) in 1917. Evan Mawdsley disputes the idea that “Communists merely replaced the old ruling class with another” (Bettmann /Getty Images)

Revolutions sometimes fail because they are attacked by counter-revolutionaries from beyond national borders. Revolutionary ‘Soviet’ Russia benefited from the impact of the First World War and its aftermath, which made effective foreign intervention impractical. Having said that, Lenin’s revolution was a failure, at least in its own ‘internationalist’ terms, because it could not immediately trigger similar uprisings in other countries (although it did do so in the late 1940s). Whether the October Revolution failed in an Animal Farm sense – by merely replacing the old ruling class with another oppressive and corrupt one – is more open to dispute. The Communists did not create a truly egalitarian polity, but they did bring about remarkable upward social mobility and mass education. The fact that this was implemented alongside Stalin’s cruel repression does not necessarily make it less revolutionary.

Evan Mawdsley was professor of international history at the University of Glasgow. His books include World War II: A New History (CUP, 2009)

Marisa Linton

When the French revolutionaries chose war, they risked the revolution coming under the control of the army’s leaders

History is littered with instances of revolts that never became revolutions. Most uprisings of the oppressed are ruthlessly crushed by the ruling group. So what does it take for a revolt to become a revolution – if we define ‘revolution’ as a political regime change accompanied by social transformation that empowers the poor? If the ruling group remains united, decisive and, above all, retains control of the army, then internal revolt is unlikely to succeed, at least without foreign intervention.

The French Revolution of 1789 shows what can happen when the state fails on a catastrophic scale. Financial crisis and the collapse of the old regime paved the way for the most shattering revolution the world had yet seen. It became, for many observers, the archetypal revolution. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth. Liberty and equality became the watchwords, along with ‘fraternity’ – love of one’s fellow man. So how did this idealism collapse within four years into war, civil war and terror?

This scenario was not inevitable, though made more likely by the reluctance of the king to co-operate with the new regime. His attempt to flee France, along with the revolutionaries’ reckless decision to export the revolution abroad in a foreign war, fatally undermined the constitutional monarchy, leading to renewed revolution – and the terror that made a mockery of the revolutionaries’ humanitarian aims.

Revolutions are overwhelming experiences for the people who live through them, including their leaders. By 1795, many of the leaders in France were either dead, in exile or exhausted – cynical and disillusioned with idealism. As one leader wrote: “We have lived six centuries in six years”. Revolutions are, by their nature, politically destabilising. When the revolutionaries chose war, they risked the revolution coming under the control of the army’s leaders. Ultimately, the revolution was destroyed by an opportunistic and unscrupulous general who seized his chance to become a military dictator. Many more people would die in Napoleon’s wars than died under the revolutionary terror.

Marisa Linton is associate professor in history at Kingston University, and author of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Michael A McDonnell

Even many patriots were disappointed with the revolution’s outcome

The American Revolution is often rightly seen as an example of a ‘successful’ revolution. A colonial resistance movement against imperial taxes snowballed into a successful war for independence that resulted in the creation of a union of states, in the federal constitution – and in the founding of a nation.

But we need to think carefully about how we define ‘success’, and from whose perspective we do so. Few patriots who protested against the Stamp Act in 1765 envisioned independence. Most were proud Britons at the time. And the myriad forces that led to that break also drove many to stay loyal to the British empire. Few remember the revolution as a civil war, but fighting among colonists across the new states was endemic, and some 70,000 colonists and enslaved people fled during the conflict.

African-Americans and Native Americans would also contest the success of the revolution. Many enslaved Americans already embraced patriot rhetoric that stressed liberty over tyranny, but were deeply disappointed that the revolutionary settlement did not include wholesale abolition, despite the fact that many enslaved people fought for their masters against the British during the war. Thousands of others instead fought for and tried to escape to British lines where at least some found freedom in far-flung places including Australia. Native Americans fought for their own independence against founding fathers who coveted their land and waged a war of conquest in the west. It was only the constitution of 1789 that gave the newly united states sufficient force to overcome the still powerful native nations on their borders.

Finally, even many patriots were disappointed with the outcome. Radicals who embraced abolition, a broader suffrage and more representative assemblies were often defeated by conservative forces in the individual states when new governments were formed. And though the federal constitution is often seen as a revolution in politics and political thinking, its creators deliberately set out to curb the more democratic tendencies of the state governments in the name of stability.

Americans still wrestle with the revolution’s ambiguous legacy: the vagaries of the electoral college, state versus federal rights, and the inequalities perpetuated by the creation of a nation rhetorically dedicated to freedom, but built by enslaved African-American labourers on Native American lands.

Michael A McDonnell is associate professor in history at the University of Sydney

Robert Bickers

The preservation of China’s territorial integrity triumphed over the aspirations of its people

The 1911 revolution in China began with a farce and ended in tragedy. Launched when a cigarette-smoking bomb-maker blew himself and his comrades to smithereens, it finished when the first man democratically elected to be prime minister was assassinated by the president’s secret service at a railway station in Shanghai.

The bombing unleashed the fury of 20 years of ethno-nationalist propaganda that saw thousands slaughtered in pogroms, as the uprising advanced across the sprawling Qing empire ruled by the Manchu dynasty. As chaos spread, a great fear grew that foreign powers – which, barely 11 years earlier, had sent troops into northern China to suppress the anti-colonial Boxer uprising (1899–1901)– would seize the moment to carve up the country. Like so many other revolutions, this one ended in uneasy compromise. The Manchu rulers abdicated and a new strongman, Yuan Shikai – once head of an important Qing army – became president of a new republic. China was saved from extinction, and the republic incorporated all of the lands ruled by the Manchus (except Tibet and Mongolia, which broke free). The former emperor was even allowed to keep the ‘Forbidden City’, his palace at the heart of the capital.

But Yuan Shikai was no republican. Between December 1912 and January 1913, millions of voters selected an electoral college that chose a new national assembly – the first and only time that mainland China has held anything approaching a free, democratic election. The revolutionaries won the vote, but in March 1913 their prime minister designate was assassinated. The murder sparked a ‘Second Revolution’, pitching the nationalist revolutionaries against Yuan Shikai. They were defeated, the revolution failed, and 40 years of political disintegration and vicious strife followed.

The preservation of China’s territorial integrity triumphed over the aspirations of its people. But the incomplete revolution prompted a far darker turn. It seemed to many that it was China’s culture itself – not Yuan, nor foreign influences – that obstructed all hope of progress. To remove that obstruction, the revolutions that unfolded during the years in which Mao Zedong controlled the country aimed to destroy every last vestige of the old order. Decades of agony would ensue.

Robert Bickers is professor of history at the University of Bristol, and author of Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination (Allen Lane, 2017)

Charles Forsdick

A revolt of the enslaved turned into a disciplined revolutionary movement

Although the Haitian Revolution has been described as the “only successful slave revolt in history”, it is equally associated with the inevitability of revolutionary failure. Western media often perpetuate an account of Haitian history that implies a teleology of decline. An extreme version of this was evoked following the January 2010 earthquake, which the US fundamentalist preacher Pat Robertson blamed on a “pact with the devil” (an allusion to the August 1791 vodou ceremony seen as the trigger for the revolution). According to such a narrative, the revolution represents a tipping point in the passage from colonial abundance to postcolonial impoverishment.

Such an account downplays the extent to which – by most criteria – the Haitian Revolution was, in fact, a major success. The wealth of the ‘pearl of the Antilles’ depended on a brutal system of plantation slavery that denied the freedom and humanity of the enslaved. The revolution represented an extension of the French revolutionary spirit of 1789 but was, more importantly, the culmination of resistance evident throughout Atlantic slavery. Under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, a revolt of the enslaved turned into a disciplined revolutionary movement that defeated French, British and Spanish forces, delivering universal emancipation from slavery (decades before French abolition in 1848) and liberation from colonial France.

Engraving depicting Toussaint Louverture the leader of the Haitian Revolution
An engraving of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution that began as a slave revolt in 1791 but became a long-running and eventually successful battle for independence from the French (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

In the revolution itself were, nevertheless, seeds of the failures that followed in its wake. Central to these were decisions regarding the systems required to replace plantation slavery. Afro-Trinidadian historian CLR James saw Louverture’s tragic flaw as his inability to communicate this to the people. Independence was followed by civil war associated with government based on skin tone, by diplomatic ostracisation as world powers sought to quarantine the impact of Haiti’s revolution, by the crippling debt imposed by France in return for recognition of independence in 1825. Despite attempts to ‘silence’ its importance, the impact of the revolution is, nevertheless, evident in abolitionism, anti-slavery revolts and other political radicalism throughout the 19th century. The limitations of the Haitian Revolution are primarily associated with its failure to defend the gains achieved. It has, though, continued to shape and inspire political movements today, suggesting that, far from having failed, the Haitian Revolution remains still unfinished.

Charles Forsdick is James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool, and co-author of Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions (Pluto, 2017)


This article was first published in issue 6 of BBC World Histories magazine