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A Historical Survey of The Emergence of A Revolutionary concept In Europe 


Sylvanus Oluchi Nnadede Department Of History and Diplomatic Studies Ignatius Ajuru University of Education, Rumuolumeni, Port Harcourt E-mail: nnadedesos1@yahoo,com Phone: 07063084355, 08092122000 


This work explores the way in which the concept of “revolution” has emerged within Europe. The origins of the revolutionary concept can be seen to have lain in the intellectual movements of the 16th and 17th centuries, culminating in the Enlightenment of the 18th century. The Reformation, humanist interpretations of individual freedom, and a new search for appropriate forms of government, all precipitated the end of feudal regimes in which kings saw their position and authority as having been ordained by divine right. The collapse of religious legitimation for such political systems was crucial to their demise. This work builds on the suggestion that the concept of revolution itself has been used to serve specific social, political and economic ends. 

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Introduction The political and economic changes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the early 1990s have widely been interpreted as being of revolutionary character. (Callinicos, 1991; Lieven, 1994). They were, though, very different from the more common usage of the term in the 20th century to refer to the overthrow of capitalist governments by Marxist revolutionaries. The word “revolution” has thus been used to describe a whole range of economic as well as social and political changes, from the so-called “industrial revolution” of the 19th century to the Russian Revolution of 1917; the most famous revolution of all was the French Revolution beginning in 1789 (Schama, 1989). In all of these examples, the key meaning of revolution is that of rapid and significant change, but there is enormous debate over precisely how fast and how significant such change must be to be called revolutionary (Tilly, 1993). 

Understanding the revolutionary concept is central to our understanding of Europe. This was emphasised as long ago as 1923, when Elton (1971.v) suggested that “The revolutionary ideas as it works itself out… through the history of France from 1789 to 1871 . . . is the key not only to modern France but to modern Europe”. Writing soon after the Russian Revolution, Elton (1971:v) recognised the crucial point that at the heart of a revolutionary idea is a revolutionary method. The conscious development of such revolutionary practice was a key feature of 19th century European politics, reaching its culmination in the writings of Marx and Engels (1975a) towards the end of the century, and in the events surrounding the Russian Revolution of 1917. However, the word revolution itself was in wide circulation long before the end of the 18th century. 

The concept of a revolution The 20th century use of the word “revolution” by social and political scientists has come a long way from its original meaning in medieval times, when it was used mainly in an astronomical sense to refer to the orbit of celestial bodies. Central to such a conceptualisation was the idea of return 

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to a particular point, or the completion of a full circuit or cycle. It was not until the 15th century that the word “revolution” began to be used to refer to great changes in political affairs and it was not really until the 17th century that this use became particularly widespread. Speck (1988:1) thus comments that: 

In the seventeenth century the word “revolution” did not have the significance which it has acquired since 1789. When Englishmen used it to describe the events of 1688 and 1689 they did not mean by it the violent overthrow of authority, nor the transfer of power from one class to another. Rather it was employed in the sense of the revolution of a wheel turning round to a former state. While many people viewed the accession of William of Orange as a revolution in this sense, returning England to Protestantism and parliamentary power after James II’s shift to Catholicism and absolutist rule, this was by no means universal. Hill (1980), for example, emphasises that many contemporaries also used the word “revolution” in a linear sense to refer to dramatic changes in the course of events (see also Israel, 1991). 

This 17th century shift in the meaning of the word revolution coincided with the rise of philosophical liberalism and empiricism, expressed particularly in the work of John Locke (1632 – 1704). It is thus no coincidence that Locke’s (1967) Two Treaties of Government, in which he argues that a ruling body should be deposed if it offends against natural law, were first published in 1689. Locke’s ideas provided one of the foundation stones of the 18th century Enlightenment, with their practical expression culminating in the dramatic political upheavals in France at the end of the century. For Braudel (1985:504) “The whole of the revolutionary ideology of the Enlightenment … was directed against the privileges of a leisured aristocratic class, defending by contrast, in the name of progress, the active population including merchants, manufacturers and reforming landowners”. 

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The French Revolution is generally acknowledged not only as the defining moment of revolution in Europe, but also as one of the key watersheds in European history (Den Boer, 1993:65). In one sense it was the culmination of the liberal Enlightenment, but at the same time it presaged the shape that future revolutions would follow. More importantly for the present purpose it provided a focus for contemplation and reflection, which then polarised intellectual thought and practical action. On the one hand there were those, following Marx and Engels, who saw it as the fulfilment of capitalism’s overthrow of feudalism, an analysis of which could provide the basis for the eventual replacement of the modern bourgeois state by socialism. On the other hand, there were those in the wake of Edmund Burke (1968), whose Reflections on the Revolution in France was first published in 1790, who saw the French Revolution as challenging every element of stable society and ordered rule, and who would therefore do their utmost to ensure that the basic institutions and structures of capitalism would survive. The French Revolution was not, though, as organised and as coherent a set of events as subsequent analysis has often tended to suggest. Schama (1989: xiv) has thus recently commented that the Revolution does not “seem any longer to conform, to a grand historical design, preordained by inexorable forces of social change. Instead it seems a thing of contingencies and unforeseen consequences”. 

Born in 1818, Karl Marx was heavily influenced by the revolutionary fervor of the 19th century; he was also one of its greatest publicists and proponents. Through his writings, the idea of revolution was to be turned into the formal practice of revolution. At his burial in Highgate Cemetery, Frederick Engels thus described his close friend, accomplice and collaborator as “before all else a revolutionist” (Tucker, 1970:3). Marx (1960, 1963) not only provided detailed commentaries and critiques of the events surrounding him, but he also projected his revolutionary ideas backwards in order to understand the events that had given rise to capitalism. His views on revolution can be traced to his earliest writings, and many of the key arguments of Capital (Marx, 1976), first published in 1867, can be found 

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outlined in the Manifesto of the Communist Party (Marx and Engels, 1975a), which was finalised in 1848, the year of the major revolutionary uprisings in France, Italy and Germany. The Manifesto asserts that “the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange” (Marx and Engels, 1975a: 43). Capitalism, for Marx, was revolutionary, in that it was the product of the resolution of the internal contradictions of feudalism. Subsequent Marxist writers have thus generally referred to the period when Cromwell and the Parliamentary forces overthrew the Crown in England and then ruled in the Commonwealth from 1648 to 1660 as the English Revolution, seeing in it the violent seizure of power by the bourgeoisie (Hill, 1980; Speck, 1988). In this light, too, the French revolutions of the late 18th and 19th centuries have been interpreted as attempts by the bourgeoisie to replace the increasingly repressed contradictions of the feudal and absolutist state. 

For Turok (1980:5), the central idea of the Marxist theory of revolution “is that a social formation contains within itself certain limits on its development beyond which it must either transform itself or it will burst asunder through revolution”. Revolution is above all else, in theory, a transfer of state power from one class to another. Tilly (1993:9) likewise suggests that a revolution is “a forcible transfer of power over a state in the course of which at least two distinct blocs of contenders make incompatible claims to control the state, and some significant portion of the population subject to the state’s jurisdiction acquiesces in the claims of each bloc”. In attempting to identify the key characteristics of revolutions, Turok (1980) has highlighted eight features which they have in common: a rapid and abrupt change of political system; the collapse or overthrow of the government; violence and/or illegality on the part of the revolutionists; insurrection; mass mobilisation around a revolutionary party or movement; aspirations towards ideals such as liberty, equality, fraternity and national liberation a high degree of dedication to the cause by the revolutionists; and a developed strategy and tactics. To these, though, must be added two 

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further features. First, revolutions are essentially internal changes of political system and government within a specific state. While they can be fomented by external agency, they must have the sustained support of the majority of the population if they are to achieve lasting success. Revolutions are thus a type of civil war. However, second, they differ from many civil wars in that they involve a fundamental change in the power relations between classes. While civil wars can include conflicts between different ethnic groups or sections of a ruling elite, revolutions replace such elites. Moreover, to be termed revolutions, they must be successful; if only for a relatively short period of time. 

Another key feature of revolutions emphasised by Turok (1980) is that they are usually associated with a high degree of violence. The replacement of the old elite is thus usually a bloody affair, involving widespread cruelty, torture and death for those in all groups in society, including both children and elderly. Invariably, such actions are a direct response to the violence meted out by the previous ruling elite before its fall. 

Above all, revolutions arise from a failure in the legitimation apparatus of government (Habermas, 1976). In this light, the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe can be seen clearly as a failure of the minority ruling elite of the Soviet apparatus to legitimate its control of power. Ironically, though, thus brings us back to the earlier astronomical definition of revolution: capitalism has come full circle and shown itself able to replace the communist mode of production that was meant, according to Marxist theory, to have been its successor (Habermas, 1990). 

Political Protest within the Feudal State Before the 17th and 18th centuries, there were numerous attempts by groups of people within Europe to revolt or rebel against authority. However, non of these achieved the status and success of being termed revolutions. As Braude (1985:495) has so eloquently noted: 

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To rebel was “to spit in the sky: the jacquerie of 1358 in the Ile- de- France; the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381; the Bauenkrieg of 1525; the salt-tax rebellion by the communes of the Guyenne in 1548; the violent Bolotnikov rising in Russia at the beginning of the seventeenth century; the Dosza insurrection in Hungary in 1614; the great peasant war which shook the kingdom of Naples in 1647 – all these furious outbursts regularly failed. 

In a primarily agrarian society, Braudel (1985) suggests that one of the main reasons for this failure was that labour was dispersed, not only in its scattered agrarian form, but also in its urban expression, where the workforce was divided into small competing units. Moreover, he also notes that Europe’s ruling elites, while crushing peasant revolt and rebellion, usually did respond to sufficient of their demands to defuse subsequent protest. Thus, while the peasant uprising of 1358 in the Ile de France provoked by the burden of taxation and corvees was crushed by the nobility, it did secure the liberty of the peasantry in the Paris region, and although the Guyenne rising was crushed, the salt tax that had been one of its causes was abolished (Braudel, 1985). 

Berce (1987) emphasises another important factor limiting the success of medieval revolts. This was that their causes and energies were usually derived from local situations. In this words “The local community was the fundamental bond, the first resort in cases of confrontation, and the most potent source of outbursts of collective violence” (Berce, 1987: viii). The state was thus usually able to contain local unrest, by suppressing it with outsiders from other parts of its polity. Central to an understanding of the emergence of more widespread revolt and revolution is thus the relationship between the central state and local communities. Under feudalism, there was effectively a fragmentation of the powers of the state: the crown granted out its rights in land in return for services, initially mainly military service (Bloch, 1965). It was therefore difficult for the basic producers of society, the unfree villeins, to unite and rise up against the 

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central state. Their first focus of protest was their individual local lord, and in an age when communication was difficult and slow they had little contact with peasants in other parts of the state. In any revolt, however, the lords with their wider spheres of contact and influence could call upon their fellow knights to help to suppress the unrest. Furthermore, throughout the medieval period, the basic order of society was continually reinforced by the preaching of the Church. Again in Braudel’s (1985:493) words, “The state was there to preserve inequality, the cornerstone of the social order. Culture and its spokesmen were generally on hand to preach resignation to one’s lot, obedience and good behaviour”. Religion served to legitimate the inequalities of the social order. 

During the 15th century, however, the central state increased its power throughout much of Europe, and in so doing, it “shattered all previous formations and institutions” (Braudel, 1985:515). In trying to enforce a monopoly on the use of force, in tightening its control on the economy, and in maximising its legitimation from religious ideology, it provided the context for increasingly widespread outbreaks of violence from the 16th century onwards. Two classic examples of these tendencies can be seen in the Peasants’ War in Germany in 1525 and in the responses of the peasantry in France and Spain to increased taxation and repression resulting from the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) (Berce, 1987). Both examples nevertheless ended in defeat for the peasantry and a reassertion of the power of the central government. 

Seventeenth Century Revolution The examples of revolt and rebellion so far cited were not revolutionary in that they failed to achieve three things; they did not overthrow the central state, the peasantry failed to gain power and transform the basic social order, and they were local rather than national in character. During the 17th century, however, the power of the old social order was successfully challenged for the first time, and fundamental political and economic changes associated with the replacement of feudalism by capitalist relations 

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of production occurred in England and the Netherlands. Central to these changes were the awakening of new ideas concerning the organisation of society and the relationships between ruler and ruled that emerged following the Reformation and which reached their fruition in the Enlightenment of the 18th century. 

Feudalism was never uniform in its expression across Europe; its collapse was likewise highly variable in pace and character. While capitalist relations of production emerged quite rapidly in the Netherlands and England, they were much slower to develop in Iberia and France (Aston and Philpin, 1985; Wallerstein, 1974, 1980). It is this very slowness and unwillingness of the French ruling elite to adapt, that can be seen as having been one of the key factors giving rise to the violence and rapidity of the social and political changes associated with the revolutions of 1789 and thereafter in France. 

During the first half of the 16th century the Low countries formed part of the extensive Habsburg Empire. However, in 1556 Phillip II acceded to the Spanish throne, and sought to reunite the Catholic world under Spanish leadership. In seeking to impose Spanish religious and political control over the Low countries, Phillip II provoked considerable unrest. The precise causes of the subsequent Dutch revolt have been much debated, but a conjuncture of four key elements occurring at a particular place and time was crucial to the events which followed; the spread of Calvinism, new ideas about the rights of representative assemblies, republicanism and political freedom (Kossman, 1991). Although the initial revolt was bloodily repressed by Spain at the Peace of The Hague in 1648, the emergence of new systems of economic production alongside demands for religious and political reform in the late 16th century heralded the dawn of a new era. 

The final emergence of the Netherlands as an independent republic coincided with Civil War in England. As in the Low countries, the English Civil War was provoked by a combination of antagonism towards absolutist tendencies of the Crown and the growing strength of Calvinism. Increasing conflict between the Crown and Parliament, leading to Charles 

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I governing without recourse to Parliament between 1629 and 1640, coincided with the rise of Puritanism, which emphasised individualism and hostility towards Catholicism. Closely associated with these political and ideological conflicts, though, was the increasing economic affluence of both gentry and townspeople, based on trade and on the emergence of new systems of agrarian production. Hostility developed into armed conflict in 1642, culminating in the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the rule of the Commonwealth until 1660. 

The comprehensive character of the changes in mid-17th century England and the Netherlands have led many observers to describe them as revolutions. Berce (1987:99) has thus emphasised that “In the two prime cases of England and Holland, what was at stake was the total conquest of power, even if the full extent of the objective only surfaced little by little, by force of circumstances”. In the English case, moreover, the argument is strengthened by those such as Hill (1961, 1972) who see the Civil War as the final resolution of the conflicts within feudalism and the emergence of the bourgeoisie as the ruling elite. The crucial economic significance of these political and ideological changes was that they provided the opportunity for a transformation of institutional structures which were to benefit those wishing to gain individual profit from speculative investment (Wallerstein, 1979, 1980). Indeed, as Hill (1972:11) has stressed, “the long-term consequences of the Revolution were all to the advantage of the gentry and merchants, not of the lower fifty per cent of the population”. 

The collapse of the Commonwealth and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, led to the re-emergence of a royal court in England. However, the gains of the Civil War for the rule of parliament were not entirely lost. As Hill (1961:222) has commented, “The Restoration of 1660 was a restoration of the united class whom Parliament represented, even more than of the king”. Subsequently, the attempts of Charles II (1660 – 1685) to impose French-style absolutist rule, and James II’s (1685-1688) reassertion of Catholicism, led to renewed tensions between Parliament and the Crown. These provided the context for an Anglo-Dutch Protestant political and 

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religious alliance, which saw the Dutch Prince William of Orange (Charles I’s grandson, and married to Mary, James II’s elder daughter) replace James II as King of England in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 (Miller, 1983). Although bloodless, the events of 1688-1689 can be seen as revolutionary in two senses. On the one hand, they reflected the old medieval meaning of revolution, in that they returned the country to the political rule of Parliament (Speck, 1988); on the other, they were revolutionary in that they represented the culmination of the tumultuous events set in motion by the Civil War, finally replacing absolutism by a constitutional monarchy. Furthermore, the Glorious Revolution had a profound influence on revolutionary movements elsewhere in Europe and the colonies. In Europe, as Israel (1991:31) has stressed, the Anglo-Dutch alliance “created a real balance of power”, whereas previously “the continent had been virtually prostrate before the political and military supremacy of France”. It also highlighted fundamental questions about the extent to which religious differences should be allowed to influence international politics, and in France it raised the spectre of a parallel revolution to throw off the tyranny of Louis XIV. 

Revolution in the 19th Century The flowering of the Enlightenment during the 18th century, with its emphasis on reason, religious tolerance, freedom of thought and rationality, was closely associated with the new social, economic and political order of the emergent capitalist states of England and the Netherlands. Moreover, it provided an increasing focus for criticism of the absolutist regime of Louis XV (1715 – 1774) as expressed for example in the works of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau. In France, given the decadence of the Ancien Regime, the parlous state of the country’s finances, the continued social disadvantages of the peasantry, and foreign policy failures, it is remarkable that the absolutist state was not challenged by a major revolution before the end of the 18th century. To be sure there were anti-seigneurial uprisings, and opposition to the imposition of various 

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taxes, but the overthrow of the old regime in France occurred almost a century and a half after it did in England. 

The American War of Independence (1775 – 1783) provided the spark that ignited revolution across Europe in the 19th century. With the overthrow of English rule, a new type of constitution was established in the United States of America, based on personal liberty, popular sovereignty and political equality. Despite the internal problems of the French regime during the 18th century, it still remained one of Europe’s main political forces. By the 1780s, though, the French political system was in a state of crisis, and revolutionary unrest expressed itself in the siege of the Bastille in 1789, the Declaration of the Republic in 1792, the Execution of Louis XVI in 1793, and the violent bloodshed of 1793 – 1794 (Soboul, 1988, Townson, 1990). 

While narrative histories of the French Revolution have sought to impose some historical logic on the events that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it still remains difficult to interpret the particular pattern of occurrences that made up the Revolution. Current opinion tends to impute causative power to the local as against the national, and to the individual as against the structure (Schama, 1989). Moreover, Townson (1990:5) asserts that “The idea that the Revolution was a class war of bourgeoisie versus aristocrats has had to be discarded as has the idea that the revolution led to the dominance of the capitalist bourgeoisie and the development of capitalism”. Nevertheless, by the time Napoleon was crowned as Emperor in 1804, France was a very different place from that which she had been in 1788, and while the bourgeoisie had undoubtedly benefited, so too had the mass of the peasantry (Townson, 1990). 

But not all of the peasantry were content with the events of 1789 – 1793, and the violent uprisings in the Vendee between 1793 and 1833, in which perhaps as many as 600,000 people were killed (Berce, 1987), were an expression of the opposition to the new political and economic system that the French Revolution had initiated. The immediate cause of the Vendee revolt was opposition to the state’s new conscription policy, but it 

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was also royalist and Catholic in origin. Moreover, it was fundamentally opposed to the economic balance of power possessed by the towns. As Berce (1987:205) has described: 

“Starting as marches on towns or as resistance to urban power, the Vendee wars were the bloodiest illustration of the irreducible opposition between town and country… if the suspicious and envious hostility of the peasantry towards townspeople is a commonplace, the crushing of the rebellious provinces was the result of an opposing fury – the middle classes’ hatred of the peasantry – which espoused and worsened the totalitarian logic of the revolutionary ideology. 

Just as those who lived through the English Civil War had to wait some 40 years before the events of the Glorious Revolution, so too was the first outburst of the French Revolution followed by a period of further “revolutionary” change in France, including the July revolution of 1830, which brought Louis-Philippe to the throne (Pilbeam, 1991) and the European-wide uprisings of 1848 – 1851 (Sperber, 1994). While these events together with the Paris Commune of 1871, have often been seen by Marxists as inexorable stages in the process by which the working classes were to overthrow the bourgeoisie, this view is now no longer so readily accepted (see Pilbeam, 1991). 

In February 1848, Louis-Philippe was in turn overthrown during the revolution commencing in Paris, which initiated a year of revolutionary Uprising in Germany, Prussia, Austria and Italy. While the precipitating factors of the 1848 revolutions were the harvest failures of 1845-1846 and the recession of 1847, these events were also influenced by the longer-term rising taxation burdens imposed by European governments on their populations, and the emergence of political opposition movements following the French Revolution of 1789 (Sperber, 1994). Across Europe, with the exception of Britain and Russia, riots and demonstrations took place throughout 1848, involving the erection of barricades, land 

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occupations, strikes, boycotts of seigneurial obligations, and violent assaults on those seen as being in positions of power. The prime aims of these political movements were to achieve the final overthrow of remaining absolutist and feudal institutions, to guarantee basic civil rights, to create representative institutions, and to recognise equality before the law (Sperber, 1994). 

However, none of the attempted revolutions of 1848 in the long term achieved the dramatic overthrow of political regime that they had intended. In part, this reflected dissension within the ranks of the revolutionaries, and fear among the revolutionary leadership, many of whom were middle- class, of exactly what they were unleashing. In part, too, it reflected the lessons learnt by moderates and conservatives in the sixty years since the French Revolution of 1789, for all of the attempted revolutions of 1848 were eventually thwarted by armies that remained loyal to the king or emperor. Nevertheless, in seeking to retain their overall power, European rulers did accede to some revolutionaries’ demands. Thus, serfdom was indeed abolished in central and eastern Europe, and constitutional governments were also eventually introduced, although, as in Austria, often not until the 1860s. 

Russian Revolution In Russia, the Tsar’s army had been mobilised against any possible outbreaks of revolution during the 1848 uprisings elsewhere in Europe, and during the remainder of the 19th century, the government ruthlessly sought to prevent any such subversive activity. However, it failed fully to suppress the emerging revolutionary movement, and the crisis of the 1914 – 1918 war provided the opportunity for the Bolsheviks to seize power in 1917. While Alexander I (1801 – 1825) at the beginning of the 19th century had sought to introduce liberal reforms in Russia, the Decembrist uprising of 1825 showed that these had not gone far enough to satisfy the demands of sections of the nobility and intellectuals who had increasingly been influenced by German idealism and French social reform movements. The ruthless suppression of 

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the Decembrists and the introduction of a strong internal security system under Nicholas I (1825 – 1855) prevented further serious outbreaks of unrest, but at the cost of increasing social and political tension. Alexander II (1855 – 1881) on acceding to the throne therefore sought to introduce further reforms, including the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and local government reforms in the 1860s and 1870s. However, these failed to alleviate the situation, and widespread peasant poverty associated with a rising industrial workforce created the conditions in which underground opposition movements could flourish. Many of these built on the anarchist ideals of individual autonomy propounded by Bakunin (1814 – 1876), and the populist movement increasingly called for violent revolutionary action. Following Alexander II’s murder, the ever more absolutist and autocratic styles of government adopted by Alexander III (1881 – 1894) and Nicholas II (1894 – 1917) exacerbated the already highly volatile situation. 

By the end of the 19th century a number of oppositional groupings had emerged in Russia, despite tight official censorship and the prohibition of formal political activity. Thus, the first Socialist Democrat Workers’ Party congress was held in Minsk in 1898, and following the arrest of most of the delegates immediately thereafter, the key revolutionary activists were deported to Siberia, where many fled abroad. In 1902, the Social Revolutionary Party was founded as a specifically revolutionary party espousing terrorist violence (Wood, 1986; Williams, 1987), and then in 1903 the second congress of the Russian Social Democrat Party was held in Brussels and London. This led to a split in the party between the Mensheviks led by Julius Tsederbaum Martov, who believed in “a long period of bourgeois liberal government before socialism could be established” (Williams, 1987:103) and the Bolsheviks, headed by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), who advocated an immediate proletarian revolution led by a small professional party. 

The émigré revolutionaries, though, played little part in the first Russian revolution of 1905. The war with Japan, which started in 1904, precipitated unrest, culminating in the shooting of demonstrators in St. 

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Petersburg in January 1905, known as Bloody Sunday. This was followed by a general strike, revolts and mutinies across Russia, which were violently suppressed. The Tsar was forced to make concessions, promising a fuller constitution with an elected assembly, the Duma, and initiating agrarian reforms. The outbreak of the 1914 – 1918 war then brought Russia into alliance with Britain and France against Germany and Austria- Hungary, causing enormous internal strains, food shortages and continuing war losses had led to considerable disillusionment with the government, and rising political unrest. A demonstration in memory of Bloody Sunday was followed by the arrest of Bolsheviks and further protests, but the events of the ten days between 23 February and 4 March caught most people by surprise. In Williams’ (1987:8) words, “Ten days of popular demonstrations, political manoeuvring and army mutiny developed imperceptibly into a revolution which no one expected, planned or controlled” (see also Katkov, 1967). 

The abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of a provisional government under Prince Lvov on 2 March 1905 initiated a period of great uncertainty (Acton, 1990). Following Lenin’s return from exile in Switzerland on 3 April, he strongly argued against co-operation with the provisional government, advocating instead the nationalisation of all land, the cessation of the war, and that all power should be given to the workers’ committees, the soviets. Although Lenin’s ideas were initially regarded as a minority view by most socialists, the failures of the provisional government over the summer provided the context for the Bolsheviks to seize power in October (Luxembourg, 1961). Rapidly under Lenin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks were able to consolidate their power; in part as a result of the rigorous organisation of their party mechanisms, but also through their ruthless application of a policy of terror and execution. Opposition by White Russian military forces loyal to the Tsar was defeated by the Red Army during the Civil War between 1918 and 1921. 

Meanwhile, in March 1919, some 50 delegates from various parts of Europe, as well as from China, Korea, Persia (now Iran) meeting in Moscow 

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set up the Third Communist International, to encourage international support for the beleaguered communist government, and as a first step towards Lenin’s aspiration of the global victory of communism (Dukes, 1979). By the time of the Comintern’s second congress in July 1920, around 200 delegates from 35 countries attended. The key outcome of this congress was the delegates’ acceptance of Lenin’s 21 conditions for membership, which emphasised iron discipline, adherence to the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the need for communist parties to model themselves on the Russian exemplar. The congress also denounced all reformists as class enemies, and advocated insurgency wherever and whenever possible, particularly in the colonies of the imperial powers. The idea of revolution, in the 19th century largely a European concept, was now to be put into practice across the world. 

European Revolution in the 20th Century In the aftermath of the devastation caused in Europe by the 1914 – 1918 war, reaction to the communist revolution in Russia was pronounced. The war itself had caused fundamental rifts within European socialism, although Lenin and the Bolsheviks had laid a clear claim to international leadership through the success of their revolution. The possibilities of revolution spreading to other countries struck fear into the minds of most European governments. 

After their success in Russia, communist parties across Europe sought to incite revolution. Germany was widely seen as being the most likely place for success, given the impact of the war and the condition of the proletariat. However, attempted uprisings by the German communists were suppressed by force, and the emerging Weimar regime was able to resist violent opposition from both the left and the right (Dukes, 1979). In part, this failure reflected the influential role in the German Communist Party of Rosa Luxembourg (1961), who had been opposed to Lenin’s centralist views, as well as his and Trotsky’s willingness to use violence and terror. Organisational weaknesses in the German Communist Party, and 

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its lack of support through the country as a whole, meant that the Freikorps, a newly levied force loyal to the Social Democrat Party, was able to suppress the attempted revolution. Elsewhere in Europe in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Iberia, smaller-scale revolutionary uprisings were likewise unsuccessful (Dukes, 1979). However, growing nationalist sentiments, an appeal to religious legitimation, and a fear of communism, led to an increasingly violent right-wing backlash. This was reflected in the rise to power in Italy of the National Fascist Party formed in 1921, the growing strength in Germany of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazis) during the 1930s, and the emergence in Spain and Portugal of similar right-wing governments during the 1930s (Woolf, 1968). 

In Spain, the victory of the Left Republicans with their socialist allies in the 1931 elections led to the establishment of a republic supported by both the liberal bourgeoisie and the workers (Browne, 1983). Although the right regained power in 1933, their rule was short lived, and a combined socialist, communist and republican Popular Front was re-elected in 1936. The subsequent attempted labour reforms by the Socialists “necessarily implied a redistribution of wealth… (and) constituted a challenge to the existing balance of social and economic power” (Preston, 1994:1). Opposition to these reforms, fuelled by claims that the leaders of the Republic were anti-religious, and supported by army officers who were furious at attempts to do away with their privileged position, provided the context within which Francisco Franco led a military uprising in 1936, thus initiating the bloody civil war that was to last until 1939 (Troksky, 1973; Carr, 1982; Browne, 1983; Preston, 1984). The Spanish Civil War is of crucial significance for a study of revolution in Europe for two main reasons. First, it represented a right-wing, fascist reaction to a generally peaceful acquisition of power by the left. Although the Republic was castigated by Trotsky (1973), for example, as being insufficiently revolutionary, it had nevertheless brought a left-wing coalition to power by relatively peaceful methods. It thus showed that socialism, if not necessarily communism, did 

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not always have to gain power by violent revolution. Second, though, the left ultimately failed, in that the counter- revolutionary forces of the Falange and Franco, militarily supported by Germany and Italy, were to achieve victory after three years of bitter fighting. Moreover, this victory was gained despite support for the Republic from the defunct Soviet Union and the involvement of some 60,000 overseas volunteers who formed the International Brigades (Hemingway, 1955). 

European fascism was to suffer a severe setback in the wave of German and Italian defeat in the 1939 – 1945 war and the establishment of liberal democracies throughout most of western Europe. However, in Spain and Portugal, both neutral during the war, right-wing regimes remained in government until the 1970s. In Spain, despite increasing social unrest in the late 1960s, Franco retained power until his death in 1975, when his nominated successor Juan Carlos was peacefully crowned as king. In Portugal, the Corporatist New State proclaimed by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in 1933 was characterised by extensive state management of the economy, tight restrictions on labour movements, prohibition of political parties, strict censorship and a secret political police force. Here a backward rural economy, increasing difficulty in fighting independence movements in its colonies in the 1960s, and growing internal dissent, provided the background against which the Armed Forces Movement, supported by the underground Communist and Socialist parties, seized power in a bloodless revolution on 25 April 1974 (Figueiredo, 1975). Following an abortive counter- revolution, the first free elections for almost fifty years were held in Portugal in 1975. The Socialist Party received the largest number of votes, and despite a further attempted coup by the far-left in November of that year, the Socialist Party was confirmed in power in the 1976 Assembly elections. 

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The Future of Revolution 

The 1939-1945 provided the opportunity for Soviet forces to gain political control of eastern Europe and for communist parties to be established throughout the region without recourse to revolution. Subsequent fears of communism, particularly in the United States of America (USA) but also among her European allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), led to a massive counter- revolutionary movement designed to limit the influence of Soviet-led international communism. It was only in 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet economy and system of political repression and legitimation, that a new wave of revolution occurred (Glenny, 1993). In a matter of months, the communist governments of eastern Europe built on the Stalinist single-party model were rapidly overthrown by populist movements which sought to turn them into so-called liberal democracies (Callinicos, 1991). These revolutions, though, were fundamentally peaceful occurrences. Despite the ever-present fear of violence, the political and economic changes that have occurred in Russia and most of the countries of eastern Europe have so far been significant by the lack of bloodshed associated with them. The horrors of “ethnic cleansing” in what was Yugoslavia, and the warfare practised by the independence movements of the southern republics of the former Soviet Union, are noticeable exceptions to this, but these expressions of violence have resulted primarily from ethnic and religious differences and are not strictly revolutionary in the sense of class-based political change. The summary execution of the Ceaucescus in Romania was also exceptional, and it remains remarkable that such immediate acts of vengeance were not more widespread between 1989 and 1991. 

These recent revolutions in eastern Europe, though, are by no means over. Early claims that they represented the unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism, and that they were an “end of history” (Fukuyama, 1992), have not only been refuted on theoretical grounds (Callinicos, 1991); but can also be judged as premature on empirical grounds. While their early stages were indeed associated with the twin rhetorics of “democracy” and 

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a “free market”, the failures of most initial post-1989 governments and the return to power of many former communists emphasises that it is too early to pass such sweeping judgment (Gowan, 1995). Capitalism has shown remarkable resilience in helping to transform post-capitalist socialism (Habermas, 1990), but the contradictions of capitalist relations of production as they are introduced into many post-communist states have yet to be fully experienced. 


In conclusion, it is possible to draw out four main themes from this work. First, political revolutions need not be associated with any one type of economic system. Revolutions have thus occurred against political authority associated with feudal, capitalist and communist economic systems. Second, revolutions are generally the result of the failure of the ruling elite to legitimate its actions, and particularly its use of repression and violence. The basic cause of most European revolutions has been opposition towards absolutist rule, vested in the hands of a few people who have lost the confidence of the majority of the population. 

Third, revolutions have usually taken place within a national context. While there have been limited European-wide attempted uprisings, as in 1848, and despite the Comintern’s activities in the 20th century, all successful revolutions have so far been dependent on nationally focused interests, and have been concerned with the replacement of one form of national government by another. Since 1945 the increased emergence of Europe-wide political organisations, and particularly the creation of a European parliament, have completely restructured the context in which any future revolutionary activity may take place. It thus seems likely that if future European political revolutions take place, they will be directed against a centralised European bureaucracy that fails to legitimate its activities, rather than against the much-reduced control of power by national governments. 

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Finally, this survey of the emergence of a revolutionary concept in Europe has also highlighted four key practical attributes necessary for the successful implementation of revolution. First, as Lenin saw so clearly, it is necessary for there to be a determined and powerful group of people with a clearly planned agenda, who are able to promote revolution and who, perhaps more importantly, are also able to seize the opportunities provided by the serendipitous way in which events during a revolution unfold. Second, it is necessary for significant sections of the military to be subverted to the revolutionary cause. Most counter- revolutions have thus succeeded in situations where the military have, for whatever reason remained loyal to the regime in power. Third, it is crucial for the revolutionary party to gain the support of the mass of the population for its programme of change, and fourth, those promoting revolution must be prepared to use violence and bloodshed in their actions, particularly against regimes where institutionalised systems of repression have been most strongly enforced. 

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