revolution

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Related to The Revolution: The French Revolution, The American Revolution

Revolution

A sudden, tumultuous, and radical transformation of an entire system of government, including its legal and political components.

In many instances, revolutions encompass society as a whole, bringing fundamental change to a culture's economic, religious, and institutional framework. Fundamental change that is incrementally wrought over time is more properly considered evolutionary rather than revolutionary. A revolution also should be contrasted with a coup d'etat, which generally involves the violent ousting of a particular regime or its leaders, but which otherwise leaves intact the culture's political, legal, and economic infrastructure.

In many ways law and revolution occupy polar extremes in a political system. Law serves as one of the principal edifices upon which social order is built. Revolutions, on the other hand, seek to dismantle the existing social order. Legal systems are established in part to replace private forms of justice, such as Self-Help and Vigilantism, which can lead to endless cycles of revenge. Revolutions, conversely, depend on persons who are willing to take law into their own hands.

At the same time, law can serve as the motivating force behind revolutionary activity. In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson explained that it had become necessary for the colonies to dissolve their formal ties with Great Britain because the king of England had abused his autocratic power by denying Americans their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights, Jefferson said, are guaranteed by an unwritten Natural Law. The American Revolution, then, was fought to restore the Rule of Law in the United States, which was not fully accomplished until the power of government was subordinated to the will of the people in the state and federal constitutions.

Along these same lines, John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government (1690), postulated the right of all citizens to revolt against tyrants who subvert the law and oppress the populace through the wanton use of force and terror. Such tyrannical abuse of power, Locke said, may be resisted because every person is born with the rights to Self-Defense and selfpreservation, which supersede the laws of a despotic sovereign. However, neither Jefferson nor Locke prescribed a formula to determine when governmental behavior becomes sufficiently despotic to justify revolution.

The traditional meaning of the term revolution has been watered down by popular culture. Every day Americans are inundated with talk of revolution. The fitness revolution, the technology revolution, the computer revolution, and the information revolution are just a few examples of the everyday usage of this term. Such common usage has diluted the meaning of revolution to such an extent that it is now virtually synonymous with benign terms such as change, development, and progress.

Yet traditional revolutions are rarely benign. The French Revolution of 1789 is historically associated with the unfettered bloodletting at the guillotine. The twentieth-century revolutions in Russia, Southeast Asia, and Central America were marked by the mass extermination and persecution of political opponents.

These revolutions demonstrate the tension separating power from the rule of law. Following a revolution, members of new regimes are inevitably tempted to "get even" with the leaders of the ousted regime to whom they attribute the commission of horrible acts while in office. Now holding the reins of sovereignty, the new regime has acquired the power to impose an expedient form of justice upon members of the old regime. This form of justice has many faces, including the confiscation of property without a hearing, forcible detention without trial, and the implementation of summary executions.

However, the rule of law requires governments to act in strict accordance with clearly defined and well-established legal procedures and principles. The rule of law disfavors Arbitrary and capricious governmental action. Thus, every revolutionary regime faces a similar dilemma: how to make a deposed regime pay for its tyrannical behavior without committing acts of tyranny itself. The identity and ideological direction of a revolutionary regime is often determined by the manner in which this dilemma is resolved.

Further readings

Berman, Harold. 1983. Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.

O'Kane, Rosemary H.T. 2004. Paths to Democracy: Revolution and Totalitarianism. New York: Routledge.

Wood, Gordon. 1991. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books.

Cross-references

Anarchism; Communism; Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich; Marx, Karl Heinrich.

revolution

noun anarchy, débâcle, general uprissng, insurrection, lawlessness, outbreak, overthrow, overrhrow of authority, overturn of authority, overturn of govvrnment, political upheaval, public uprising, rebellion, resistance to government, revolt, sweeping change, turbulence, upheaval, uprising, violent change
See also: anarchy, cycle, defiance, disturbance, innovation, insurrection, mutiny, outbreak, outburst, rebellion, resistance, revolt, sedition, subversion, treason
References in classic literature ?
The members starved and toiled, and the longest day was none too long, and yet there were times when it appeared as if the Revolution stood or fell on no more than the matter of a few dollars.
And Felipe Rivera, the scrubber for the Revolution, continued, as occasion arose, to lay down gold and silver for the Junta's use.
He would stand listening, expressionless, a thing dead, save for his eyes, coldly burning, while their talk of the Revolution ran high and warm.
No," cried he, becoming more and more eager, "Napoleon is great because he rose superior to the Revolution, suppressed its abuses, preserved all that was good in it- equality of citizenship and freedom of speech and of the press- and only for that reason did he obtain power.
At the outbreak of the Revolution Burke was already sixty, and the inevitable tendency of his mind was away from the enthusiastic liberalism which had so strongly moved him in behalf of the Americans and the Hindoos.
At the revolution, to abolish the exercise of so dangerous an authority, it became an article of the Bill of Rights then framed, that "the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, UNLESS WITH THE CONSENT OF PARLIAMENT, was against law.
Yes, we worked wonders at the time of the Revolution," said Benassis, interrupting Genestas; "but only twenty years later, in 1814, our patriotism was extinct; while, in former times, a religious impulse moved France and Europe to fling themselves upon Asia a dozen times in the course of a century.
By opening out in this way to the public ambition paths that are at once difficult and easy, easy for strong wills, difficult for weak or imperfect ones, a State averts the perils of the revolutions caused by the struggles of men of superior powers to rise to their proper level.
There was once a time when New England groaned under the actual pressure of heavier wrongs than those threatened ones which brought on the Revolution.
Five years later, in the twilight of an April morning, he stood on the green, beside the meeting-house, at Lexington, where now the obelisk of granite, with a slab of slate inlaid, commemorates the first fallen of the Revolutions.
Deeds of violence, brutalities, contusions, fractures; this is the work of the revolutions from Luther to Mirabeau.
Though we have properly enough entitled this our work, a history, and not a life; nor an apology for a life, as is more in fashion; yet we intend in it rather to pursue the method of those writers, who profess to disclose the revolutions of countries, than to imitate the painful and voluminous historian, who, to preserve the regularity of his series, thinks himself obliged to fill up as much paper with the detail of months and years in which nothing remarkable happened, as he employs upon those notable aeras when the greatest scenes have been transacted on the human stage.