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Revolution: Unwanted Disorder or More?

“A revolution constitutes a challenge to the established political order and the eventual establishment of a new order radically different from the preceding one.”Encyclopedia Britannica

This definition brings to mind the American Revolution (1765–1783), the French Revolution (1789–1799), or the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), but what does “revolution” mean and how is it viewed in today’s world?

In the July 4, 2013, edition of The Huffington Post, Jennifer Bradley and Bruce Katz conclude in their article, “Today’s American Revolution,” that “In the absence of constructive action in Washington, cities and metropolitan areas have emerged as the can-do directors of the nation, taking powerful steps to grow jobs and remake their economies for the long haul.”(2)

The ancient Greeks viewed revolution as the undesirable result of societal breakdown; a strong value system, firmly adhered to, was thought to protect against it. During the Middle Ages, much attention was given to finding means of combating revolution and stifling societal change. With the advent of Renaissance humanism, there arose the belief that radical changes of government are sometimes necessary and good, and the idea of revolution took on more positive connotations. John Milton regarded it as a means of achieving freedom, Immanuel Kant believed it was a force for the advancement of mankind, and G.W.F. Hegel held it to be the fulfillment of human destiny. Hegel’s philosophy in turn influenced Karl Marx. (3)

In the most recent decade, there have been more than 50 “revolutions” of sorts. The revolutionary wave known as the “Arab Spring” alone included uprisings, revolts, protests, revolutions and civil wars in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, Algeria, Syria, Bahrain and Oman.

Far from establishing a radically different new order, some of the Arab Spring incidents focused on making small, though important, changes. For example, the 2011 Omani protests were about demanding salary increases and lower costs of living. However, the same year, the Egyptian revolution brought down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

The question becomes, “What is revolution?” Is it merely unwanted disorder or a push to be seen and heard? And more importantly, are today’s revolutions different from those of the past?


Eric Selbin, Professor of Political Science and Lucy King Brown Chair

Eric Selbin is a professor of political science and holder of the Lucy King Brown Chair at Southwestern University. As an expert in the areas of resistance, rebellion and revolution, theories of revolution, and socio-political change, he explains that revisiting these questions is unavoidable if we are to understand this enduring phenomenon.

Following are excerpts from his May 2014 article for The International Relations and Security Network titled, “Revolution: a Source of Insecurity and a Thing of the Past?” (4) Selbin writes…

It’s safe to say that revolutions have always been sources, simple or otherwise, of insecurity and disorder in the short run. … Yet for millions there is an almost romantic aspect, evoking not the convulsion attending any social change but boundless possibilities; herein lies the power of revolutions…

A few caveats are in order. Perhaps more than ever before, we recognize that past, present, and future co-exist in complicated ways… There is also “simply” nothing “simple” about revolution, insecurity, or disorder, a dynamic hinted at below. Finally, the underlying terms, security and order, strike me as illusory at best, since any person or society can be only one incident away from “insecurity and disorder,” which in any case might be in the eye of the beholder.

So what, exactly, is a ‘revolution’?

Defining revolution may seem a fool’s errand, but it is not unimportant…we know it when we see it…

Revolutions are, as a rule, rare and momentous processes. People have been and are hungry, poor and watched their children suffer and die in many places at many times and not often risen up. Land, goods, and services have been and are unfairly distributed to the wealthy and powerful without prompting radical struggles. Thus, revolutionary imaginations and sentiments abound at any time, revolutionary situations less commonly, and actual revolutions rarely. And yet the people’s notion of revolution as rapid, dramatic social upheaval meant to produce striking, broad, and meaningful change persists. Regardless of what governments, media, or academics say, this notion of revolution in the streets or squares or on social media and in the ‘twitterverse’ is driven by the dynamic of hope and reflects the desire of many people in many places at many times to enable and more importantly ennoble their struggle(s) by setting them in a revolutionary tradition. We should be wary of denying people’s lived experiences and their sense(s) of meaning with which they imbue their lives, their actions, their world(s).

Some of us argue that there have occasionally been global waves of revolution, as in 1848 and 1968 (and perhaps 1917–18), and it is too soon to tell whether today’s are another. But resistance, rebellion, and revolution seem to be in the air, a perception heightened by social media. A few years ago politicians, pundits, and academics of various perspectives assured us that the “age of revolution” (1789–1989), was over. A time, place and space had passed, none too soon and not to be missed. Reports quickly proved exaggerated, as Eastern Europe’s “refolutions,” the “Pink Tide” in Latin America, and persistent revolutionary struggles elsewhere made clear. And at least since 2009 in Iran (but also in Georgia, Guinea, Iceland, Moldova, and elsewhere), there has been a steady rise across the globe of people pressing for social and political and economic change, seeking control over the material and ideological conditions of their everyday lives.

The uprisings in the Arab world, various indignant movements throughout Europe, Chile, and Mexico, the North American Occupy movement, Brazil, Gezi Park in Turkey, Ukraine, and India’s Naxalites all remind us that radical socio-political movements for greater participation and social equality persist. Whatever their demands—or no demands—such collective behavior represents a call to be seen and heard, reflecting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “fierce urgency of now”… More and more people are stepping out of their homes to claim their private hopes and dreams in public fora. If this is not revolution in the grand scale we conventionally associate with the term, is it revolutionary nonetheless? Who among us is prepared to tell people their struggles for justice and dignity are “simply” “disorder”?

Conditions for revolution

As people move from revolutionary imaginations to share their revolutionary sentiments and seek to create revolutionary situations, they rely on stories to do so. Messy, open-ended, and complicated, these stories tell us much about who and what we were, are, where we want to go and who we want to be. Such stories shift and change in ways that are hard to predict and harder still to pin down, versions and variations often transient and effervescent. This no doubt contributes to a vague sense of unease, and concerns about insecurity and disorder. Yet it is in insecurity and disorder that hopes, dreams, desires, and, hence, possibilities exist… Revolutions are rare both because states are strong and those who benefit defend the social order. But when states are weak and elites withdraw and groups begin to challenge, mobilization can occur and states—and others—will respond. How this process unfolds in any given time or place and whether it succeeds fundamentally depends on the myriad particulars at play in each country.

Neither gone nor forgotten

And so to the crux of the question. Once upon a time, revolutions were inscribed as rare and momentous occasions, designating great and grand efforts to fundamentally transform humanity with an eye to the worth and dignity of every human being. Today’s movements, in contrast, seem to many as little more than rock throwing or a groupuscule able to muster a protest. Even when they are larger, such movements often seem focused on specific grievances with essentially reformist demands—hardly reminiscent of the sweeping, world-altering dimensions of revolutions past, nostalgically remembered as seeking to change a given society as a mere way station on the way to changing the entire world.

Yet what could be more meaningful than changing the small worlds that are our everyday worlds and hence matter most for most of us most of the time?… Revolutions are fundamentally struggles to rectify injustice; as long as unjust social orders exist, revolutions will be a recurrent aspect of politics and society, regardless of the banner people choose to fight under.


Reporting Revolutions: A Student Perspective

More and more, journalists reporting on “revolutionary” events in war-torn parts of the globe are finding themselves in harm’s way. Senior Erica Grant shares her perspective and an excerpt from her Capstone project. Read More


Story by Eric Selbin, Professor of Political Science and Lucy King Brown Chair at Southwestern

1. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/500584/revolution
2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-bradley/todays-american- revolutio_b_3542586.html
3. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/revolution
4. http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?lng=en&id=179406

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1 comment

  1. Kathie Platt

    November 19, 2014

    Dear SU Communications/ Professor Selbin:

    I couldn’t agree more with your idea concerning the significance of today’s revolutions that are occurring on a smaller and more numerable scale:

    “Yet what could be more meaningful than changing the small worlds that are our everyday worlds and hence matter most for most of us most of the time?”

    Please allow me to share the following (unpublished) article I wrote concerning potential “communication revolutions” occurring within healthcare today. I would love to hear your response.

    Thank you so much,

    Kathie Platt

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