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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.


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

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
He said in a statement to mark the passage of 54 years since the revolution, today: "We salute the memory of this great revolution at a time when the people of Kurdistan is facing serious threats." He added that with the steadfastness of the people of Kurdistan and the sacrifice of the brave Peshmerga forces, we passed the many difficulties, and we can achieve victory in the end, and to live with dignity and freedom." He explained that "the multiplicity of parties and freedom that we see now in the Kurdistan region have been achieved with the blood of the martyrs, and the best possible estimate and considering we can offer for the pure blood that will be in harness differences of views among all the components to serve the nation, independence and coexistence in peace."/ End
Stovall looks at France from the great Revolution to the present time through the lens of transnational history, which considers both the potential rewards and the limitations of the nation state and national citizenship.
Sophistical type of questions and inquiries having no value to that great revolution which people considered a treasure added to the stockpiled of the revolutionary struggle of the Sudanese people.
The condition of the world at that time presented the gloomiest picture ever of human history, but with the arrival of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), a great revolution came in the lives of humans.
That way we feel the teaching methods need to undergo a great revolution, if we want our children to get full benefit from their learning, right from play school stage.
To protect them, look after them and to give them the kind of respect you expect them to give you will be the beginning of our great revolution," said Dikshit.
By Matovu Muhammad Idris A great revolution does not crumble, likewise a strong tyrannical dictatorial regime can never hurtle without the cause having not emerged from within, before it can emerge from without.
They saluted the souls of leaders of the Syrian Great Revolution against the French occupation, on top Sultan Basha al-Atrash and his colleagues Yousef al-Azmeh, Sheikh Saleh al-Ali and Hassan al-Kharat.
Nonetheless, it is unacceptable after a great revolution such as that of Egypt to deal with them by allowing a siege of the media city or some private newspapers by some extremists terrorising the workers these places.
Varghese Kurien are a great example of how small initiatives can bring about a great revolution in the whole nation.
PPK will not leave lands waiting for the "Great Revolution", spokesman ARBIL/ Aswat al-Iraq: Anti-Turkish PKK party announced today that the Turkish tactics depend on air and artillery strikes, thus its fighters will not leave their lands waiting for the "Great Revolution".
Travel agents and tourists from all over the world should encourage Egyptian economy after our great revolution but what's happening now is that I see them punishing us by not visiting us, any way tourists will guarantee an excellent service now, when they just pay at the last minute as if they are not satisfied, they are not requested to pay."