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  A political revolution is a systemic transformation in the political institutions of the state, involving a change in the power-holders and the system of government. Jack Goldstone distinguishes three major processes which make up a complete political revolution: the breakdown of the control of the central state; competition for control after the development of a ‘power vacuum’; and the formation of new institutions. A fully blown social revolution additionally requires a systematic transformation of property relations.

A revolution may occur primarily in a peaceful way, as with the breakdown of communist rule in much of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but has more usually been thought to require the use of violence on the part of revolutionaries: as in the Bolshevik Revolution or Cuban revolutions. While liberal revolutions have often been peaceful, communist revolutions have never been peaceful.

The earliest theories of revolution were probably those expressed by Plato and Aristotle who differed in their view of the inevitability of a progression from good to tyrannical forms of government. However, most classical and medieval political thinkers focused on the issue of whether or not, or when, rebellion against tyranny might be justified, rather than on the properties of revolutions, or systematic explanations of their occurrence. The exception was the richly political and sociological account of revolutions in the Islamic world found in the writings of Ibn Khaldun (see Islamic political thought), and which some have found helpful in interpreting the recent Iranian revolution.

Explanatory theories of revolution can be broken down roughly into state-centred and society-centred approaches, as preferred by political scientists and sociologists respectively. Following the paradigmatic French Revolution of 1789 Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century, Crane Brinton in the early 20th and Samuel Huntington in the second half of the 20th century all focused on the inability of the state to meet rising societal expectations, and its institutional incapacity to manage political demands produced by rapid economic growth and a fiscal crisis. In this perspective revolutions occur not because they are willed, but because states and their institutions break down. Society-centred explanations, by contrast, emphasize the effects of changing social structures and modernization as catalysts of revolution. Marx and Engels argued that the evolution of capitalism would produce severe inequalities between workers and capitalists. The ‘crisis of capitalism’ would lead to a revolution which would enable the proletariat to wrest control of the means of production (see Marxism). Revisionist Marxists subsequently developed less deterministic theories, allowing for the possibility of non-violent revolution, or focusing on the revolutionary capacities of peasants, as opposed to urban workers. In the 1960s, political sociologists like Ted Gurr shifted the focus to the motivational aspects of individuals and groups. He argued that ‘relative deprivation’ led to aggressive responses to the frustration of felt needs, and if sufficiently organized against a weak or inept state such motivations could lead to revolution. In the 1970s, Charles Tilly argued that the ‘mobilization of resources’ was more important than deprivation in explaining revolution. Deprivation is ubiquitous but rebellion is rare. As Trotsky once put it ‘poverty is not the cause of revolution, if it was the masses would always be in revolt’.

The most ambitious theories of revolution attempt to combine state-centred and society-centred approaches. Barrington Moore sought to explain the patterns of the major revolutions of the modern world through a comparative focus on the class and political structures of agrarian societies, while his student Theda Skocpol argued that a combination of over-extension in international conflicts and internal social and fiscal crises explained the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions. However, both have been criticized, especially for downplaying the active role played by revolutionaries in bringing about revolutions especially in the Russian and Chinese cases.

Presently much of the literature devoted to explaining revolutions is less ambitious. McAdam\'s ‘political process’ model focuses upon patterns of interaction between groups challenging state authority and the effect of the state\'s response upon further mobilization; while Goldstone has been examining the relationship between population growth and the ability of states to meet increased demands for food production. This reversion to ‘under-deterministic’ approaches is an admission of the failure of existing overarching accounts of the complexity and diversity of modern revolutions. The position of the general theorist of revolution is like that of Chairman Mao: when asked for his judgement on the French Revolution of 1789 Mao replied that it ‘it was too early to tell’. BO\'L

Further reading Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution; , J. Goldstone (ed.), Revolutions: Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical Studies; , J. Goldstone, , T. Gurr and , F. Moshiri (eds.), Revolutions of the Late Twentieth Century; , B. Moore, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy; , T. Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions.



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