What is a revolution?

What did ‘revolution’ mean on the day the Bastille prison was stormed in July 1789? Peter Furtado tracks the changes in the meaning of the term – a word adopted following the French Revolution that has since acquired many layers

The execution of Louis XVI in the Place de la Revolution

On the evening of 14 July, 1789, Louis XVI of France returned from hunting and heard the news of the storming of the Bastille. When he asked, “Is this a revolt?” the Duc de la Rochefoucauld replied, “No, Sire, it is a revolution.” Less than a week later the duke was serving as President of the National Constituent Assembly, the body set up by the Third Estate as an authority in direct challenge that of the king, and which thereby embodied the revolution he had predicted.

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What exactly did Rochefoucauld mean? The word he used is notoriously difficult to define, and it is important to track changes in its meanings through time. In the 1780s, there were just two political precedents considered worthy of the name. The first was the ousting of James II of England in 1688, the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ that applied the idea of a social contract between rulers and ruled and created Britain’s constitutional monarchy. To us this may seem less of a revolution than the Civil Wars and execution of Charles I four decades earlier – to contemporaries, that was “the Great Rebellion”, and if they used the word revolution at all it was in the old sense of “turning of the wheel”, applied to the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660.

The second example was the overthrow of British rule in parts of North America and the creation of the republic of the United States in the 1770-80s – which built on the the Glorious Revolution’s concept of the social contract, and added the universalist claim that the “inalienable rights” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness gave citizens everywhere the right to overthrow a government that undermined these.

In the 1780s, there were just two political precedents considered worthy of the name

British radicals – dissenters opposing the established church, the anti-slavery movement, proponents of free speech and political reform – came together in the 1780s in the London Revolution Society – but its name did not (as we might imagine) reflect a commitment to planning a future violent overthrow of the state; instead it reflected its roots in the Whig settlement of 1688-89.

The word was quickly adopted to describe the events in France of summer 1789 – not just the storming of the Bastille but also the earlier creation of the National Assembly. The word was apparently borrowed from the Revolution Society, which quickly became involved in developments in Paris and served as a model for the formation of the Jacobin Club. Edmund Burke’s famous Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) was a riposte to the ideas of the Revolution Society.

In the following dozen years, the word acquired many other layers: the assertion of popular sovereignty and social justice, the sweeping away of oppressive institutions and corrupt privilege, and the release of creative energy and imagination to escape the cruel stasis of a failed system; but also chaos and mob rule, the adoption of terror by the state to protect its new order, and an authoritarian government prepared to enforce social and political change at all costs. It evoked visceral fear and visionary enthusiasm in equal measure.

Ever since Burke, philosophers and politicians, historians and the general public, have debated the choices made by Louis and Robespierre, Danton and Napoleon Bonaparte and, implicitly or explicitly, supporting or recoiling from their actions. The fall of the Bastille and its aftermath directly inspired many others to seize control of their own destiny – in the case of the Black slaves of the French colony of Saint-Domingue, to overthrow their colonial masters, abolish slavery and establish the new state of Haiti in 1804.

The meaning of the word changed with the diverse Europe-wide upheavals of 1848, which began in Sicily. This was swiftly followed by barricades on the streets of Paris to overthrow the monarchy of Louis-Philippe and the installation a short-lived republic; these inevitably echoed those of 1789 and were seen as revolutionary. It came to mean any radical, popular challenge to the established order. At the same time, though, Karl Marx published his dialectical materialist theories of historical change through class conflict, in which he stressed the inevitability of the bourgeois overthrow of feudalism, and then the working-class overthrow of the bourgeois state, each of which would involve profound, irreversible social and institutional transformation, a revolution. Marx’s work led to the adoption of the term revolution for the related socio-economic changes – such as the Industrial Revolution, a term popularised by economic historian Arnold Toynbee in the 1880s.

Through the later 19th century the burgeoning ideology of revolution resulted in the emergence of dedicated revolutionaries, notably but not exclusively Marxist, who devoted their lives to developing the theory, identifying the opportunities in political reality and working to achieve the revolution. In the early years of the 20th century, Lenin developed the notion of the disciplined revolutionary party that could bring about the socialist revolution even in circumstances – like those of Russia in the 1910s, or China in the 1930s-40s – that were not apparently ripe for its imminent occurrence.

Through the past 250 years, the concept of revolution has morphed sufficiently for an exact definition to be impossible

The single-minded and proactive Leninist-style revolutionary dominated much of 20th-century thinking on revolutions – even those, like the Vietnamese revolution led by Ho Chi Minh, with a strongly nationalist, anti-colonial flavour – but in the later century the word escaped the confines of Marxism.

This was seen first with the conservative, theocratic Iranian revolution of 1979. This was followed by a new style of popular, non-violent and constitutionalist revolutions against authoritarian or military rule, such as the 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines, followed by the overthrow of Soviet rule in 1989–91.  The early 21st century saw the ‘Colour Revolutions’ in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere, and those of the Arab Spring of 2010-13. These were aimed less at achieving a idealist or total transformation of society than at a liberation from an oppressive regime.

Through the past 250 years, the concept of revolution has morphed sufficiently for an exact definition to be impossible. Except perhaps for ideologues, there is no ‘ideal’ revolution against which to judge a particular historical event. Those in power might describe a rising against them as a rebellion, whereas those involved in the same rising, and sympathetic observers, may prefer the term of revolution. Arguably the broadest definition, suggested by Jack Goldstone, is of an event with four key elements: the forcible overthrow of a government; some degree of popular involvement; the creation of new institutions; and the introduction of some element of social justice. But it is not hard to find examples of events around the world described as revolutions either at the time or in retrospect, but where one or more of these elements are missing.

Ultimately, perhaps, Louis XVI’s question was not so naïve. The storming of the Bastille would not have been a revolution had he managed to quash the rising and take command of the political whirlwind that he already faced. But he could not, and the events of 14 July, 1789 became the defining moment of a revolution – because people at the time, and ever since, thought it was.

Revolutions: How They Changed History and What They Mean Today, edited by Peter Furtado, is available from Thames & Hudson

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This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021