Definition of Revolution

Our coursework over the last two semesters has been grounded in the theme of revolution. In the first weeks of class we were handed a lofty goal; by the end of this year, we were to have a definition of revolution. With this end-goal in mind, I began the year excited to unpack and unravel the complex phenomenon of “revolution.” Below is my attempt, with the help of scholars, my peers, and the Humanities professors throughout the year, to define this term.

The course began with a unit centered on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This letter, written in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, offers a glimpse into the political definition of revolution that comes to mind when I first consider the term. Dr. King and his supporters mobilized the masses in the name of social justice, with the goal of changing existing social and political structures. These components of the Civil Rights Movement align with Jack Goldstone’s definition of a revolution as, “the forcible overthrow of the government through mass mobilization (whether military or civilian or both) in the name of social justice, to create new political institutions.”[1]

The criteria proposed by Goldstone for political revolution rarely occur in combination. Many events, such as revolts, riots, strikes, and uprisings, may meet one or two of Goldstone’s criteria, but they rarely meet all four. For example, while peasant revolts “usually call attention to exceptional local hardships,” their end-goal is not to create new political institutions, but rather, “to get help from the government to resolve local problems.”[2] I saw the phenomenon of events meeting some but not all of the criteria for a revolution while researching the Athens Polytechnic Uprising for my research paper. I sought to determine whether or not the Athens Polytechnic Uprising should be considered a revolution, and while I found that it successfully mobilized the masses in the name of social justice, it did not directly cause the creation of new political institutions.[3]

There was a stark contrast between units one and two of the course. In unit two, we transitioned from discussing political revolution and focused our attention on scientific revolution. During this unit, through close reading of Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution, I realized that I could not have a stable definition of revolution: there are different categories of revolution (political, scientific, technological, personal, etc.), and each category of revolution has its own defining criteria. categorical look at revolutions is seen in the Spring 2014 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, which focuses on revolutions. On pages 10-15, Lewis Lapham provides readers with maps displaying the places where different revolutions have occurred over human history. He provides three different maps; one plotting political revolutions, one plotting scientific revolutions, and one plotting technological revolutions.[4]

Though I believe there are different definitions for different categories of revolution, I also acknowledge the similarity between different forms of revolution. All revolutions spark a fundamental change to existing structures, rules, or assumptions. This is what Kuhn calls a “paradigm shift,” and while he only applied this term to the natural sciences, I believe similar shifts occur in politics, within individuals, etc.

Some people argue that events have to make forward progress to be considered revolutions (see image below). I do not consider forward progress a requirement of revolution, especially because forward progress is incredibly subjective.

Therefore, my definition of revolution is as follows; revolution is categorical (different categories of revolution have their own defining criteria), and it sparks a notable shift/change in existing structures and/or assumptions.

Note taken during Dr. Ingram’s lecture on August 23, 2018 titled “The Humanities, Revolution, and the Example of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.'”

[1] Jack Goldstone, Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2014: 4.

[2] Goldstone, 4-5.

[3] Izzy Pilot, “The Athens Polytechnic Uprising,” 2019.

[4] Lewis H. Lapham, “Politics, Science, Technology,” Lapham’s Quarterly 7, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 10-15.