The Causes of Revolutions:

A comparison between two approaches



Mahra Salim Alqassimi

20 September 2010 


Revolution could be defined as a forcible sudden change in political and social structure of society. There have been revolutions as long as there have been systems against which to rebel, and the subject has interested historians from earlier times.

Recent works on revolution, however, employ a theoretical rather than a historical approach. Contemporary investigators tend to deal with revolution generally and through examination of selected examples seek to develop a general statement capable to explain the nature and the occurrence of all revolutionary movements (Lipsky, 1976, p.495).

The causes of revolution have been a central issue in most revolutionary studies. but, evidently, any theory of revolutionary causation depends ultimately upon its author’s perception of the nature of revolution itself. Sociologists look to revolution from different angles: one sociological approach to revolution is structural approach. Structural analysts emphasize objective relationships and conflicts between different groups and nations. Their analysis combines a concern for the power of state with a focus on large scale social relationships that may reinforce of limit state power – relationships between states and elite groups, between peasants and landlords, etc.(Goldstone,1980,p.58).

The psychologists concern themselves primarily with the intentions of the revolutionary participants and the motivation for their action. They employ psychological explanations and tend to see revolution primarily as a product of idealism and personality .(Lipsky, op.cit.,p.498).

In this essay I shall present, discuss, and compare, the approaches of both structuralists and psychologists. Theta Skocpol and Barrington Moore are representatives in this essay, of the former group while Ted Gurr and James Davies represent the psychologists. 

Although Theda Skocpol and Barrington Moore approaches to revolution are the same, their models on the subject and the implications of those models are at variance.

Skocpol examined the causes and consequences of the world’s three major revolutions. in France in 1789, in Russia in 1917 and in China in 1949. She initially examined the period on the eve of revolution and traced the roots of crisis and conflicts. Special emphasis was stressed upon the ways in which those regime states came into crisis, and also upon the phenomenon of peasant uprisings. The period from the beginning of the peasant uprising through to the consolidation of new regimes was also investigated. Here special attention was given to the state-building efforts of the new leader and to the structures and activities of new state organizations within revolutionized societies. (Skocpol, 1979, p.xi).

On the basis of the three above –studied cases, Skocpol develops a general structural model, what she calls a “structural perspective’. Her analysis involves relationship among classes, among states and between classes and states. She also examined each of these three cases within a comparative framework, noting, on one hand, their similarities with each other and, on the other hand, their differences from selected cases of non-revolutionary change or failed revolutionary attempts. (Himmelstein, 1981, p. 1146).

In the current analysis, Skocpol paid little attention to the ideologies or interests of the participants in the revolution.

In the above analysis, Skocpol distinguished between rebellions, revolts, political revolutions and social revolutions in those social revolutions require a successful transformation not only in the policy but also of the social basis of the political power (ibid, p .1145)

Skocpol emerged from her analysis with three major principles:

First she asserts that revolutions are not made; they happen. They arise from certain structural conditions – a political –military state crisis in conjunction with certain relationships between peasantry and landed upper-class and between landed upper-class and the state (Himmelstein, op.cit. pp1148-1149).

Skocpol’s second major principle is that revolutions do not arise simply from contradictions and conflict internal to society. She argues that underlying all social is the “internationally uneven spread of capitalist economic development and nation stats formations”. Revolutions, she argued, occur only in countries situated in disadvantaged positions within international position within international arenas (Skocpol, op.cit. p.19.23).

The third and final major principle in Skocpol’s theory is that revolution begin with  breakdown of state apparatus which is shaped not by class struggle but by relations between the state and both the dominant class and other states. State appears as the main figure in Skocpol’s account of revolution. She views states as administrative, coercive organizations that are potentially autonomous from (though conditioned by) socio-economic interests and social structure (ibid, p. 14).

There are two points detected by many investigators in Skocpol’s overall analysis. First, she ruled out any substantial role to ‘vanguard parties ‘in making socialist revolutions. Instead, she found ‘marginal élites’ struggling for state power. She argued that those ‘marginal elites ‘might have mobilized particular social classes, but they were not inherently the representatives or partisans of those classes. (Himmelstein, op. cit., p. 1152).

The second point is that Skocpol does not think that the socialist revolutions that occurred in the agrarian – bureaucratic societies of Russia and China represent analogies and models for future social revolutions in advanced capitalist states. The reasons she gave were that advanced capitalist states are hardly in a disadvantaged position in international and political arenas. She also maintains that advanced capitalist societies lack any producing class with economic and political autonomy of the Russian and Chinese peasantries. moreover, she argued, previous social revolutions resulted in the rise of strong, bureaucratic, centralized states, thus, they could not provide a model for transformation of the strong, bureaucratic, centralized states already existing in advanced capitalist societies (ibid , pp. 1152-1153).

Barrington Moore is another structural analyst whose approach is that of a comparative, historical sociology that seeks clues to the present in the past and, in doing that, employs a wide range of historical material (Rothmans,1970, p. 61).

In his book “social origins of democracy and dictatorship”, moors studied some Western and Asian societies. His western case studies were confined to England, France, and United States of America, with briefer scattered references to both Germany and Russia. in Asia, he studied Japanese, Chinese and Indian societies, Moore could not deal with every country in the world, and nevertheless, he tried to formulate a general theory of social change which is central in his analysis. In his book, he also analysed, in detail, the causes and consequences of the English revolution in the mid-seventeenth century, the French revolution in the end of the eighteenth century and Chinese revolution in the mid twentieth century. In his analysis he gave particular attention to the mode of production, production relationships and competing social classes. He paid little attention to the sociological factors and cultural variables of those societies. (Rothmans, op.cit. pp.62-63).

It might be not  clear that Moors has developed a general theory of revolution, but from his theory of social change and his scattered analyses of past revolutions, one could elicit general principles that are in line with his theory of social causation.

Moor argues that the mode of production in a given society determines ideology of the social classes of which it is composed and its structure, and that all ruling classes have, as their primary goal the fullest possible exploitation of those whom they dominate  and that past revolutions have been inevitable, because the ruling classes have as their primary goal the fullest possible exploitation of those whom they dominate  and that past revolutions have been inevitable, because the ruling classes where unable to transcend their ideologies and unwilling to accept limitations upon their opportunities for exploitation(ibid, p. 62) Moore also maintains that whatever the outcome of the revolution it is necessary, even in the radical phases, for it  to produce a society superior so far to the old regime (ibid,p. 73)

It was not of major importance to Moore that a certain exploited class should launch the revelation, so far as the result of that revolution help establish and advanced system and society that serve that class’s interests (ibid, p.70) .

In contrast to Skocpol’s theory on revolution, Moore seems to have concentrated solely on class conflict as a key to his analysis, while Skocpol also adds international pressure and external war in her analysis. He also differs from Skocpol that he looks at the exploitive upper-class and state as inseparable identities.

Aggregate psychological theories, however, view the causes of revolutions differently. Instead of analyzing social structures and interrelationships between different groups in society, they try to explain revolutions in terms of people psychological motivations for engaging in political violence or joining oppositional movements( Skocpol, op, cit. 9).

Ted Gurr studied selected cases of violence from historical records and contemporary modern world.

Using critical variables and indicators such as economic stress, religious cleavages and other macro-social indicators, he examined political, economic opportunities to those ethnic or economic groups involved in violent acts (Goldstone,  op. cit. pp430-431). At the same time, he examined these groups’ values, norms, situations and the patterned forms of action by which those groups organized (Tilly nd Gurr, 1973, p.362).

Then he distinguished a number of aspects and dimensions of change in those groups, such as type, extent, scope, pattern and rate of changes (ibid p.363).

Analysing the obtained data, Gurr noticed that before the outbreak of violence, value changes of substantial extent and scope occur in a society at a pace too rapid for a commensurate change in institution. People can no longer achieve any of their goals (relative deprivation), the result is widespread stress. A period of ‘milling’ and agitation sets in, leading towards consensus of grievances and the development  of anti-elite norms and ‘solidified public opinion’ develops. Governments prove incompetent or recalcitrant to remedy the situation and whenever further institutional or situational change weakens the ability of the ruling elite to resist, some precipitants will spark revolutionary conflict ( ibid, p.363).

In brief, the primary causal consequence in revolutionary act is first; the development of discontent, the politicization of that discontent, and finally its actualization in violent action against political objects and actors (Skocpol, op.cit., pp25-26) .

In his analysis, Gurr distinguishes ‘turmoil’, ‘conspiracy’ and ‘internal war‘ as the major forms of political violence. Revolutions are included in the ‘internal- war category’, along with large- scale terrorism, guerrilla wars and civil wars. What sets internal wars apart from the other forms is that they are more organized than ‘turmoil ‘and more mass-based than conspiracy.

Gurr believes that governmental power and stability depend directly upon societal trends and popular support. He does not believe that state coercive organizations can effectively repress (for long) discounted or disapproving majorities of people in society. The state in his theories, in contrast to Moore, is an aspect of utilitarian consensus in society. The state can wield force in the name of popular consensus and legitimacy, but it is not fundamentally founded in organized coercion (ibid, pp.25-26). Gurr believes that by a prompt action towards reform, the state could manipulate the level of the critical variable and could still forestall a full-fledged. (Goldstone, op.cit, p.430).

The summary of Gurr’s argument is as follows: Revolutions are explained as basically due to the occurrence in a society of widespread intense, or multifaceted relative deprivation that touches both masses and elite aspirants. Broad participation in, and a deliberate organization of, political violence are probable unless the state interfere at the right time and implement reformatory measures.

James Davies is another theorist who believes that subjective attitudes, not objective conditions, ultimately lead to revolution. He studied a wide range of pre and proto-revolutionary societies. His main concern was to examine socio-economic development of these societies before and during revolutionary periods. Particular attention was given to the needs of the people during those periods. Expectations of the people and reality were used as two variables to measure the degree of frustration of the people before involving themselves in revolutionary acts.       

Davies agrees that fundamental impetus towards a revolutionary situation is generated by rapid economic growth but he associates such growth with a generally rising rather than a generally falling standard of living. He argues that the moment of potential revolution is reached only when the long-term phase of growth is followed by a short-term phase of economic stagnation or decline. The result of this (j-curve) as he calls it, is that steadily soaring expectation, newly created by the period of growth, shoot further and further ahead of actual satisfaction of needs. Successful revolutions, according to Davies, is the work neither of the destitute nor of the well-satisfied, but of those whose actual situation is improving less rapidly than they expect, (Stone, 1966, p.171). This analysis is not only confined to economic factors alone, but also to other needs like political authority, prestige, etc.(Kumer, p.45).

The above hypothesis on revolution gains an admirable measure of support from past European Revolutions. Revolutions broke out all over Europe in 1640s, a decade or two after a long phase of economic growth had come to an end. The French revolution of 1789 occurred a decade after a period of economic improvement had given way to an economic recession and two years after that recession had deteriorated into  crises, it also followed close on the heels of the monarchy failure to overcome aristocratic opposition ( ibid, p.45). However, both approaches have encountered many crises

To summarize the argument so far, both Skocpol and Moore believe that only by analysing relationships between groups and between groups and states, a general theory of revolution (Skocpol) or social change in general including revolution (Moore) is possible. Skocpol adds two other factors: international pressure and state crises and excluded a major role for elites in the revolutionary process.

The psychologist, on the other hand, believes that relative depravation (Gurr) and frustration (Davies) of revolutionary participants are the major factors in revolution.

The structuralist devoted scant space to the process of revolution, to how human being actually make a revolution. This omission is particularly marked in Skocpol’s argument who insists on a structural perspective with no admixture of voluntarism. Skocpol ignored human beings, thinking and acting, which are the mediating link between structural conditions and social outcomes. Moreover, structural conditions do not dictate absolutely what humans do, they merely place certain limits on human action or define a certain range of possibilities (Himmelstein, op, cit, p. 1153).

Structural conditions may define the possibilities for mass uprisings or the options available for consolidating state power in a revolutionary situation, but they do not fully explain how particular groups actually act, what options they pursue, or what possibilities they realize (ibid, 1153).

This gap in structural analysis seems to have been partially filled by the psychologists who busy themselves studying the mental states of the revolutionary participant, their expectations, frustrations and actions.

But this approach is not without its flaws. The psychologist does not discuss clearly who develops these actions, why they and not others develop them, and why specific actions are taken because of them (Lipsky, 197).

Moreover, the pattern of events taken as possible initiating causes is vague. Undoubtedly any kind of social change may give rises to a potentially revolutionary situation. Since the range of occurrences cited as possible initiators of potentially revolutionary situations is loosely and broadly specified, the explanatory power of these analyses is correspondingly weak (Goldstone, p. 430-431).The critical variables themselves, used by Davies and Gurr, are extremely difficult to observe in practice, because one cannot readily measure either the cognitive state of mind of large masses of individuals.

In conclusion, it is evident from the above argument, that the theories of revolution are rather complicated multidimensional issue. There are many aspects of revolutionary process that the above discussed theorists did not touch.

I think only by contribution and coordination with various other investigators a plausible general theory of revolution could be established.