revolution

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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 ?
Its overthrow was a matter of a few short years, was the judgment of the revolutionists.
He was unrecognizable, something quite beyond the ken of honest, ordinary revolutionists whose fiercest hatred for Diaz and his tyranny after all was only that of honest and ordinary patriots.
appeals for assistance, for sanctions from the organized labor groups, requests for square news deals to the editors of newspapers, protests against the high-handed treatment of revolutionists by the United States courts), lay unmailed, awaiting postage.
They could no longer gain access to the active revolutionists, and the incipient ones, in Lower California.
Moreover, the activity of the English supporters of the French revolutionists seriously threatened an outbreak of anarchy in England also.
Many have adopted Nietzsche's mannerisms and word- coinages, who had nothing in common with him beyond the ideas and "business" they plagiarised; but the superficial observer and a large portion of the public, not knowing of these things,--not knowing perhaps that there are iconoclasts who destroy out of love and are therefore creators, and that there are others who destroy out of resentment and revengefulness and who are therefore revolutionists and anarchists,--are prone to confound the two, to the detriment of the nobler type.
He saw what modern anarchists and revolutionists do NOT see--namely, that man is in danger of actual destruction when his customs and values are broken.
If that's the stuff revolutionists are made of some of us may well go on their knees to them," she continued in a slightly bantering voice, while the banal society smiles hardened on the worldly faces turned towards her with conventional deference.
The German name of the victim, the absence of all other motive, and the sinister inscription on the wall, all pointed to its perpetration by political refugees and revolutionists.
During the curfew, many houses and residences were highly damaged in clashes between the patriotic revolutionist youth movement forces (YDG-H) and security officials, who attempted to remove the ditches and barricades, set up by terrorists.
The lawsuit states that Ghoneim claims being a nationalist and revolutionist but actually incited against former president Hosni Mubarak's regime.
REVOLUTIONIST (Mark Johnston) THE three-year-old Pivotal colt won in good style on his handicap debut at Pontefract and there should be more to come.