Revolutionary Change

Week 8

Revolutionary regime change and view from the bottom


A regime is a system of government or administration, and it is used in two technical senses.  First, we may find regime continuity even when governments change, if there is no fundamental or revolutionary change in the way governments function or the system of administration. Conversely, we may find regime change even within the life of a single government, if that government centralizes power under a charismatic leader, or devolves power to sub-units.  Secondly, it may be used to denote the norm-bound interactions of states or other actors in an international system or constellation of states (Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, 1996).


The constitutional orders described by Bobbitt are international regimes writ large, or they might be described as meta-regimes – the arrangements that initiate and shape the evolution of norms. A new organization of states, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, might be an evolution of an existing regime, or it might have revolutionary impact, like the new European order after Napoleon, or the emerging Western hemisphere after the Monroe Declaration.


“Revolution” is a loaded term, and is used in a lot of different ways. Before the French Revolution, the word often implied return to a previous state of affairs – its literal meaning – circling back to the beginning. After 1789, it was used to imply the overthrow of an established order, involving the transfer of state power from one leadership to another, and perhaps a radical restructuring of social and economic relations (OCDP, 1996).


The industrial revolution fits this definition if you focus on the power transition from agrarian aristocracy to industrial bourgeoisie, but market relations changed dramatically, as Polanyi describes.  While many scholars differentiate between social and political (and economic) revolutions, Polanyi demonstrates that they are inextricably entwined.  Arguably, this is true in microcosm, as at the macro level. Thus, the economic “revolution” of consumer electronics (overthrow of existing technology and marketing structures) inevitably has social and political consequences: the impact on community described by Putnam and the accelerating globalization pushing towards the market state described by Bobbitt, the direction of causality is never unidirectional.


Revolutions may provoke counter-revolutions, as systemic movements like global capitalism produce anti-systemic movements (Wallerstein) or as market pressures produce anti-market defences (Polanyi’s double movement). It is thus only natural to find scholars like Marx who seek to explain the inevitability of revolutions, while others seek to understand roots of social instability and political violence in order to preempt them. Chalmers Johnson (1982) describes dysfunctional events to be avoided, but his rejection of justifiable political violence suggests that the status quo is always preferable to violence.


Writing about the French Revolution in 1789, de Tocqueville argued that previously encouraged expectations of improvement were frustrated.  This explanation was explored empirically by Davies (1962), who developed the explanation that rising attainment led to expectations of continuing rises; when the reality fails to live up to expectations, frustration generates revolutionary pressures. The implication is that poverty and underdevelopment are less dangerous than growth followed by stagnation.

Samuel Huntington (1968) argued that revolutions involve mobilization of new groups in politics at rate which prevents existing institutions from assimilating them. Established democracies don’t experience revolution because they accommodate broader participation and offer avenues for outsiders to influence politics, while elites circulate in and out of power to maintain the democratic regime. Huntington’s model treats revolutions as a phenomenon of the developing world.

Theda Skocpol (1979) rejects the idea of specific underlying processes. She identifies political crises in some cases (France and Russia) and peasant rebellion in others (China), and argues that complex interactions of political, social, and economic factors are more important than general causal patterns, which give too little weight to human agency and revolutionary organization.

This precipitates discussion of the management of violence by elites (Tilly, 1978) and the concept that skillful elites can derail innovation gently and remain in the driving seat, while less skillful elites resort to coercion and push society towards revolution.  Tilly revisits some of his 1978 ideas in his later work (2003), and concludes that revolutionary violence is not a separate category, but part of a more comprehensive pattern of types of violence, which interact and alternate in any given case of protracted violence over time.  This is a vital insight for any effort to manage violence in the interest of positive change; like disease, some forms of violence are more easy to control and limit, while others may morph into more dangerous forms (often through the actions of political entrepreneurs) or cycle back and forth over time, combining motivations and defeating or evading counter-measures.

Pinker re-examines these revolutionary hypotheses in neo-Tocquevillian perspective (2009), finding much to agree on with Huntington and Skocpol, but adding Goldstone’s demographic argument.  Goldstone finds that state breakdown clustered in two waves, culminating in the mid-seventeenth century and the mid-nineteenth century, separated by a century of stability. Instability correlated to population growth, while stability was sustained during periods of population stagnation. (Pinker, 401). Drawing on a wider range of cases than previous scholars, Pinker argues that state modernization is the key factor in political revolutions. He cites Boix (2003): modernizing regimes are likely to suffer revolution or some form of armed conflict if they are not clearly perceived to have a monopoly over the forces of violence. France under Louis XIV and Sweden under Charles IX modernized and centralized state power, but did so while maintaining a clear monopoly over the means of force.


Turning to social and economic revolutions, Polanyi (1947), Bobbitt (2007) and Acemoglu and Robinson (2013) have all cited the British case in detail to illustrate the argument that regime changes, including shift to parliamentary or inclusive institutions, can set the scene for revolutionary economic transitions like the industrial revolution. Polanyi’s explanation of the origin of the industrial revolution in inclusive institutions almost exactly parallels the much later ideas of Acemoglu and Robinson, but with greater evident appreciation of negative consequences of the revolution. For a slightly different perspective, consider Hillaire Beloc (1912) (yes, he’s the same satirical poet who wrote the Lion that ate Albert – “Always keep a hold of nurse / For fear of finding something worse” ).  Beloc was a conservative catholic moralist, who traced many of the negative market consequences of the industrial revolution to Henry VIII’s seizure of the monasteries.


Macro-social enquiries like Gibbon, Beloc, Polanyi, Bobbitt, Acemoglu and Robinson, cited above, draw on historical cases. Much narrower economics and business case studies address some of the same questions with different tools.  Jensen (1993) and Blinder (2006) both address contemporary problems of capitalism.


Twenty years ago already Jensen (1993) was pointing to circumstances paralleling the industrial revolution of the 19th century: “Since 1973 technological, political, regulatory, and economic forces have been changing the worldwide economy in a fashion comparable to the changes experienced during the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution. As in the nineteenth century, we are experiencing declining costs, increasing average (but decreasing marginal) productivity of labor, reduced growth rates of labor income, excess capacity, and the requirement for downsizing and exit. The last two decades indicate corporate internal control systems have failed to deal effectively with these changes, especially slow growth and the requirement for exit. The next several decades pose a major challenge for Western firms and political systems as these forces continue to work their way through the worldwide economy.”


Later Blinder (2006) argued that offshore production was not just routine international trading, but a fundamental shift in the way global trade is organized, and this will have serious economic and social consequences for developed countries as their productive capacity and ability to maintain employment is hollowed out and replaced by low-wage service-sector jobs that cannot provide the tax base necessary to support the public sector.


These issues help to put globalization and its discontents into the context of revolutionary pressures.  Will democratic systems have the capacity to weather pressures of unemployment and shrinking economies? The British middle class were given entry to political power and the Chartists were ignored (Polanyi) and the Occupy Movement seems to have collapsed, but has the 99 percent gained anything in political power as income levels continue to diverge? Is revolution in our future?

Learning Objectives

  1. Define revolution and revolutionary regime change as they are generally used
  2. Understand the connections between revolutionary change and social and economic development in the context of Polanyi’s and Bobbitt’s explanations of system change.
  3. Understand patterns of violence as they emerge from revolutionary pressures (social, political, and economic change).

Required Reading

Polanyi, Ch 2

Bobbitt, ch. 23 for Bobbitt’s explanation of the collapse of the Soviet Union

Tilly (2003) Ch 1

Optional Reading

Jensen, M. C. (1993). The modern industrial revolution, exit, and the failure of internal control systems. the Journal of Finance, 48(3), 831-880.

Blinder, A. S. (2006). Offshoring: the next industrial revolution?Foreign affairs, 113-128.

Johnson, C. A. (1982). Revolutionary change (Vol. 47). Stanford University Press.

Tilly, C. (1978). From mobilization to revolution (p. 143). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tilly, C. (2003). The politics of collective violence. Cambridge University Press.

Davies, J. C. (1962). Toward a theory of revolution. American sociological review, 5-19.

Huntington, S. (1968, 2006) Political Order in Changing Societies. Yale University Press.

Skocpol, T. (1979). States and social revolutions: A comparative analysis of France, Russia and China. Cambridge University Press.

Belloc, H. (1912). The servile state. TN Foulis.

Pinker, S. (2009), “Rethinking Revolutions: a neo-Tocquevillian perspective,” Ch. 17 in Goodin, R. E. (Ed.). (2009). The Oxford handbook of political science. Oxford University Press.


Complete and post on the self-assessment questions. Don’t try to answer them comprehensively – take a stab at each and then come back to consider your classmate’s responses.

Self-Assessment Questions

  1. What is a revolution, and why is the concept useful?  Is it possible that ideas like revolution, revolutionary violence, and war conceal more than they reveal? (Consider the analogous concepts of disease or cancer, for which much more specific categories are necessary before prescriptions can be developed).
  2. How does Polanyi explain the origin of the Russian Revolution?  How does Bobbitt explain the collapse of the Soviet Union?  Are these two explanations compatible or at odds with each other?
  3. If development always produces social, economic, and political change, why does it only sometimes produce violence? (Consider narratives of Polanyi and Bobbitt, augmented by de Tocqueville, Pinker, Davis, Huntington, Tilly, and any others you may run across).


Our seminar will consist of online discussion of the self-assessment questions.

David Last, updated September 2014, lastdav@gmail.com