Social Revolutions Essay

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Social revolutions are the most extreme forms of collective actions. Where most social movements limit themselves to changes in the social system, social revolutions seek changes of it. Because they contest economic, political, cultural, and social orders with an involvement of a large number of people hitherto excluded from the domains of “public transcripts,” social revolutions are distinct from political revolutions and coups. Political revolutions are upheavals that result in the reorganization of political society without eventuating changes in the social structure. Coups are political strokes (often involving the military) in which an incumbent government is stripped of its political power by way of meta-constitutional means. Hence, since they involve changes in the restructuring of both political and civil society, we have had very few instances of social revolutions. Some scholars identify the most classical social revolutions, often labeled as the “Great Revolutions” of the modern era, as the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Chinese Revolution of 1921-49. Other scholars argue that the American Revolution of 1776 also belongs on this list. Recently the world has witnessed different social revolutions in developing nations (Cuba, 1959; Ethiopia, 1974; Iran, 1979; Nicaragua, 1979) and the former socialist countries (1989) where state socialism and command economy came to an end.

Causes of Social Revolutions

Social revolutions and social problems are closely knit to one another. All the same, even the most critical social problems do not ipso facto lead to social revolutions. As Alexis de Tocqueville aptly noted, relative, and not absolute, deprivation—occasioned as a result of a gap between groups’ experiences for an improved future and the means of attaining perceived expectations—fosters revolutions. More important, only a constellation of political and cultural opportunities, resource mobilization, organizational dynamics, and ideational processes have led to social revolution. Karl Marx was among the first modern social scientists to think of the cause of social revolutions along this line, although some political philosophers before him, such as John Locke, provided the ideological justification for political revolutions. According to Marx, social revolutions emerge when there is an intense dialectical tension between the productive forces and the production relations of a given society that ultimately manifests itself in the heightened tension between the contending classes.

Unlike Marx, who considered the state as a concentrated reflection of the mode of production that hardly sustains its self-dependence, Theda Skocpol, in her analysis of the Great Revolutions, viewed the state as an administrative apparatus with an independent logic of its own. This simple but important view of the state allowed Skocpol to provide what some call the most revolutionary view of social revolutions. On the basis of her structuralist approach, she noted that revolutions are caused by state breakdown; that is, the state’s inability to manage the affairs of society induced by fiscal crisis or international pressures. Moreover, according to Skocpol, the state needs to be considered in an international world-historical context. From this geopolitical perspective, state breakdown comes in part as a result of the competition of multiple states working within the constriction of imbalanced world development. States less hampered by internal forces in their access to the resources requisite to resist the challenges posed by other states are less vulnerable than those states that have overextended themselves and encounter pressure from the dominant classes. Skocpol, accordingly, contends that social revolutions take place when the state is weakened by its inability to deal with extranational load effectively, when the dominant classes are capable of exerting their influence on the state that desperately seeks to maintain the compass of its authority, and when the lower classes are capable of mobilizing themselves and act accordingly. Only the combination of these three factors leads to social revolution.

Without abrogating the fundamentals of the Skocpolian thesis, Jack Goldstone spelled out his own version of the state-centered approach. Goldstone contends that in her analysis of the Great Revolutions, Skocpol overemphasized the role of war in undermining the smooth operation of states, although on numerous occasions wars have occurred without begetting state breakdown. Goldstone, accordingly, suggests an alternative perspective in which political crisis commingles with demographic dynamics. He contends that population growth can cause price inflation, fiscal crisis, lower wages, and elite competition, thereby leading to state breakdown, especially when the state lacks appropriate resources and has weak financial structures to deal with these pressures.

Serious criticisms against the Skocpolian approach have emerged from scholars who believe that Skocpol’s approach is overly structuralist because it undermines the role of culture and ideational processes in the genesis and development of social revolutions. Even Goldstone acknowledges the relevance of ideology and culture in the latter parts of a social revolution, because revolutions, in his view, are not single events but long processes with multiple phases. Ideologies may not be effective during the phase of state breakdown, but they do play an important role during the phase of reorganization of social and political structures. Other analysts have gone much further in acknowledging the role of ideas and culture. For example, some note that the Enlightenment was crucial during the French Revolution in laying down the ideological basis for the abolition of monarchical rule and the reconstruction of a new social order. Most agree that revolutions are social constructs that surface on the social-political landscape as a result of the “choices” made by the individuals involved in them.


  1. Foran, John, ed. 1997. Theorizing Revolutions. New York: Routledge.
  2. Goldstone, Jack A. 1993. Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  3. Sanderson, Stephen K. 2005. Revolutions: A Worldwide Introduction to Political and Social Change. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
  4. Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and Social Revolutions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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