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Revolution Revisited: The Structuralist-Voluntarist Debate*

  • Mehran Kamrava (a1)

There are three ideal types of revolutions: spontaneous, planned and negotiated. The role and importance of structural factors versus human agency vary according to the general category to which a particular revolution belongs. In spontaneous revolutions, both the transition and conslidation phases are heavily conditioned by prevailing structural factors, especially those that result in the weakening of ruling state institutions and the political mobilization of one or more social groups. By contrast, in planned revolutions self-declared revolutionaries take the lead in both mobilizing supporters and weakening the state, in fact often having a highly elaborate ideological—as well as tactical and strategic—blueprint for the acquisition and consolidation of power. Negotiated revolutions see the greatest coalescence of forces involving both structural developments and human agency. The seeds of the revolution have germinated, but the prevailing structural developments are not by themselves sufficient to bring about the revolution's success. Actors representing both state and society must step in to negotiate, and only then might the revolution succeed and be consolidated.

Il existe trois types idéaux de révolution: spontanées, planifiées et négociées. En ce qui concerne les révolutions, le rôle de la prédominance des facteurs structurels par rapport aux facteurs humains varient selon la catégorie générale dans laquelle une révolution particulière s'inscrit. Dans les révolutions spontanées, tant les phases de transition que celles de consolidation sont fortement conditionnées par les facteurs structured prédominants, surtout ceux qui aboutissent à un affaiblissement des institutions en vigueur dans l'État et à la mobilisation politique d'un ou de plusieurs groupes sociaux. En revanche, dans les révolution planifiées, les révolutionnaires déclarés prennent la tête, tant pour mobiliser des adeptes que pour affaiblir l'État, nantis souvent qu'ils sont, d'un plan de crise et de consolidation du pouvoir, qui est à la fois hautement idéologique, aussi bien que tactique et stratégique. Les révolutions négociées sont témoins de la coalescence la plus poussée de forces impliquant les développements structurels aussi bien que les facteurs humains. Les semences de la révolution ont germé, mais les développements structurels prédominants ne suffisent pas en eux-mêmes à faire triompher la révolution. Il faut que d'autres acteurs représentant l'État aussi bien que la société interviennent pour négocier; c'est alors seulement que la révolution a des chances de triompher et de s'installer.

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1 Some of these contrary analyses, which originally appeared in the journal Contention, have been published in Keddie, Nikki, ed., Debating Revolutions (New York: New York University Press, 1995).

2 Nikki Keddie, “Can Revolutions Be Predicted: Can Their Causes Be Understood?” in ibid., 5–6; and Jack Goldstone, “Why We Could (and Should) Have Foreseen the Revolutions of 1989–1991 in the USSR and Eastern Europe” in ibid., 41–42.

3 The planned/spontaneous varieties of revolutions presented here loosely correspond to Huntington's categorization into “Eastern” and “Western” patterns respectively, although they differ from them in important ways as well (Huntington, Samuel, Political Order in Changing Societies [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968], 266268, 271–74).

4 There are, of course, numerous definitions of revolutions. Two of the more representative ones are offered by the sociologist Giddens, Anthony and the political scientist Theda Skocpol. Giddens defines revolutions as “the seizure of state power through violent means by the leaders of a mass movement, when that power is subsequently used to initiate major processes of social reform” (Sociology [Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989], 604605). In a somewhat different vein, Skocpol maintains that revolutions are “basic transformations of a society's state and class structures, accompanied and in part accomplished through popular revolts from below” (Social Revolutions in the Modern World [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994], 5).

5 Absent from this list are the Fascist and Nazi “revolutions” of the 1930s, which have long been debated by historians and students of revolutions. See Kershaw, Ian, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (2nd ed.; London: Edward Arnold, 1989), 131149.

6 Goldstone, Jack, “Revolutions in History,” in Goldstone, Jack, ed., Revolutions: Theoretical, Comparative and Historical Studies (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1994), 315.

7 Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, 264–66.

8 Gurr, Ted Robert, Why Men Rebel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 13.

9 Johnson, Chalmers, Revolutionary Change (2nd ed.; London: Longman, 1982), 62.

10 See, for example, Kelly, Jonathan and Klein, Herbert, “Revolution and the Rebirth of Inequality: Stratification in Postrevolutionary Society,” in Goldstone, , ed., Revolutions, 195204; and Susan Eckstein, “The Impact of Revolution on Social Welfare in Latin America,” in ibid., 263–86.

11 Kamrava, Mehran, Revolutionary Politics (Westport: Praeger, 1992), 24.

12 For a useful review of theories of revolution, see Moshiri, Farrokh, “Revolutionary Conflict Theory in Evolutionary Perspective,” in Goldstone, Jack, Gurr, Ted Robert and Moshiri, Farrokh, eds., Revolutions of the Late Twentieth Century (Boulder: Westview, 1991), 436. Also impressive, though by now somewhat outdated, is Aya, Rod, “Theories of Revolution: Contrasting Models of Collective Violence,” Theory and Society 8 (July 1979), 3999.

13 Most students of revolution disagree with this assertion, as I myself did in earlier writings on the subject, maintaining that revolution is necessarily sudden and violent. Huntington writes that “a revolution is a rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions” (Political Order in Changing Societies, 264). Dunn, John similarly maintains that “revolutions are a form of massive, violent and rapid social change” (Modern Revolutions: An Introduction to the Analysis of a Political Phenomenon [2nd ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988], 12). Finally, Calvert, Peter writes that “revolution is sudden. The gradual process of political, social and economic change that go on all the time in all societies can and do result in major transformations, but they are not revolutions” (Revolution and Counter-Revolution [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990], 15).

14 News, for example, travelled much slower at the time of the English revolution than it did at the time of the Iranian revolution. In England in the 1660s letters travelled at an estimated 3–4 miles an hour and information about events was transmitted rather slowly (Munck, Thomas, Seventeenth Century Europe: State, Conflict and Social Order in Europe, 1598–1700 [London: Macmillan, 1990], 110). In the Iran of the 1970s, however, cassette tapes and radio broadcasts by the BBC and Radio Israel made news of events available within hours after they had occurred. See Serberny-Mohammadi, Annabella, “The Power of Communication: Communication and the Iranian Revolution,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1985.

15 DeFronzo, James, Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements (Boulder: Westview, 1991), 166167.

16 Halisi, D. R. D., O'Meara, Patrick and Winchester, Brian, “South Africa: Potential for Revolutionary Change,” in Goldstone, , Gurr, and Moshiri, , eds., Revolutions of the Late Twentieth Century, 276278. It is extremely difficult to pinpoint precise dates for the South African revolution because of its unusually long gestation period and the numerous highlights taking place in the late 1980s and the 1990s that marked the dismantling of apartheid. In May 1996, the final draft of South Africa's post-apartheid constitution, which many South Africans consider as their nation's “birth certificate,” was approved.

17 Connelly, Owen, French Revolution/Napoleonic Era (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), 111.

18 Calvert, Dunn and Huntington would disagree with this assertion also. See, for example, Calvert, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, 15.

19 The Polish “revolution” of May 3, 1791, symbolized by the inauguration of the country's first constitution on that date, could also be considered to fit into this category. See Palmer, R. R., The World of the French Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 8990.

20 An interesting study of the imagery of revolution through political posters and signs (during the 1980 May Day celebrations in Iran) can be found in Abrahamian, Ervand, Khomeinism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 7487.

21 Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, 264.

22 Mason, David, Revolution in East-Central Europe: The Rise and Fall of Communism and the Cold War (Boulder: Westview, 1992), 66.

23 Ramet, Sabrina, Social Currents in Eastern Europe: The Sources and Consequences of the Great Transformation (2nd ed.; Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 120121.

24 Skocpol, Theda, States and Social Revolutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 18; and Selbin, Eric, Modern Latin American Revolutions (Boulder: Westview, 1993), 34.

25 Connelly, French Revolution/Napoleonic Era, 55.

26 Ibid., 80–83.

27 Kamrava, Mehran, Revolution in Iran: The Roots of Turmoil (London: Routledge, 1990), 36.

28 See Teitelbaum, Joshua and Kostiner, Joseph, “The West Bank and Gaza: The PLO and the Intifada,” in Goldstone, , Gurr, and Moshiri, , eds., Revolutions of the Late Twentieth Century, 298323.

29 It is difficult to consider what happened in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltics, Central Asia and even Bulgaria and Romania as “revolutions” in the sense the concept is employed here. Instead, each country saw the internal collapse of one state structure and its replacement by another, without substantial changes occurring in the overall nature of state-society relations.

30 Tilly, Charles, European Revolutions, 1492–1992 (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993), 10.

31 Ibid., 14.

32 Franqui, Carlos, Diary of the Cuban Revolution (New York: Viking, 1980), 57.

33 James Scarritt, “Zimbabwe: Revolutionary Violence Resulting in Reform,” in Goldstone, Gurr and Moshiri, eds., Revolutions of the Late Twentieth Century, 245–47.

34 Selbin, Modern Latin American Revolutions, 4.

35 Skocpol, States and Social Revolution, 47. I would not, for reasons that should become clear shortly, include the Chinese revolution as one of those more heavily influenced by structural factors than by deliberate action.

36 Ibid., 14–24.

37 Schutz, Barry and Slater, Robert, “A Framework for Analysis,” in Schutz, Barry and Slater, Robert, eds., Revolution and Political Change in the Third World (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1990), 7.

38 Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions, 23.

39 Huntington's classic analysis of the susceptibility of praetorian regimes to revolutions applies here (Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, 192–263.

40 Jeff Goodwin and Theda Skocpol, “Explaining Revolutions in the Contemporary Third World,” in Skocpol, ed., Social Revolutions in the Modern World, 268–69.

41 Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, Stephens, Evelyne Huber and Stephens, John, Capitalist Development and Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 211213.

42 Kamrava, Revolution in Iran, 100.

43 Johnson, Revolutionary Change, 101.

44 Farhi, Farideh, “State Disintegration and Urban-Based Revolutionary Crisis: A Comparative Analysis of Iran and Nicaragua,” Comparative Political Studies 21 (1988), 248.

45 This division was pronounced among the revolutionary leaders in Iran, initially splitting them into two “fronts,” with those who pressed for the Shah's overthrow based in Paris and those seeking maximum concessions from him in Tehran (Kamrava, Revolution in Iran, 90–91).

46 Connelly, French Revolution/Napoleonic Era, 50–51. That some sans-culottes, as Connelly claims, provided beer for the mobs who turned out in their support did not hurt their popularity.

47 Kamrava, Revolution in Iran, 123–24.

48 Moore, Barrington, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (New York: Penguin, 1966).

49 Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions, 171.

50 Ibid. Skocpol's assertion is only partially valid as it does not take into account revolutions that start out as deliberately planned, highly ideological movements, the most notable examples of which include the Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions. More on this below.

51 Le Bon, Gustave, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 2930.

52 William Sewell, “Ideologies and Social Revolutionaries: Reflections on the French Case,” in Skocpol, ed., Social Revolutions in the Modern World, 173.

53 Ibid., 193.

54 Brinton, Crane, The Anatomy of Revolution (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952), 163164.

55 Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions, 161–62.

56 Stephen Walt, “Revolution and War,” in Goldstone, ed., Revolutions, 254–55.

57 Taheri, Amir, The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution (London: Hutchinson, 1985), 295.

58 Most of these studies have already been cited. See also, Colbum, Forrest, Post-Revolutionary Nicaragua: State, Class, and the Dilemmas of Agrarian Policy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Dunn, John, Rethinking Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 6886; Skocpol, Theda and Trimberger, Ellen Kay, “Revolution and the World-Historical Development of Capitalism,” in Skocpol, , ed., Social Revolutions in the Modern World, 120132; Davidheiser, Evelyn, “Strong States, Weak States: The Role of the State in Revolution,” Comparative Politics 24 (1992), 463475; and Jack Goldstone, “An Analytical Framework,” in Goldstone, Gurr and Moshiri, eds., Revolutions of the Late Twentieth Century, 37–51, to name a few.

59 Blanchard, William, Revolutionary Morality: A Psychosexual Analysis of Twelve Revolutionists (Oxford: Clio, 1984), xv.

60 Sewell, “Ideologies and Social Revolutionaries,” 194–95.

61 John Foran, “State, Culture, and Society in Recent Works on Revolutions,” in Keddie, ed., Debating Revolutions, 133.

62 Selbin, Modern Latin American Revolutions, 11–22.

63 Ibid., 11–14.

64 By nature, most military coups are intended to forestall change rather than bring it about. Nevertheless, a list of some of the “grandiloquent and radical-sounding titles” which military executive bodies adopt for themselves, compiled by Nordlinger, includes: the Revolutionary Command Council (Egypt and the Sudan), the National Reformation Council (Sierra Leone), the National Renovation Committee (Dahomey), the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction (South Korea) and the Revolutionary Council (Burma and Syria) (Nordlinger, Eric, Soldiers in Politics: Military Coups and Governments [Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1977], 109).

65 Instead, the continent has been characterized by what one Africanist calls “the politics of the belly,” by which he means a mixture of corruption, repression, elite assimilation and clientalism (Bayart, Jean-Francis, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly [London: Longman, 1993], 228241).

66 The New York Times, May 31, 1992, IV, 4; and, The New York Times, November 18,1992,1,10.

67 Exceptions, of course, do exist, as exemplified by Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings' hold on power in Ghana since 1981. In a different continent and a different context, Indonesia's Suharto also fits the general model of civilianized military rulers. For the policy-making priorities of such leaders, see Nordlinger, Eric, “Soldiers in Mufti: The Impact of Military Rule Upon Economic and Social Change in Non-Westem States,” in Kebschull, Harvey, ed., Politics in Transitional Societies (New York: Appleton-Century-Kroft, 1973), 250261.

68 For a discussion of the “Kemalist revolution,” see Ahmad, Feroz, The Making of Modern Turkey (London: Routledge, 1993), 9093.

69 Hourani, Albert, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge: Belknap, 1991), 405407.

70 It is not always easy to distinguish exactly when a military coup is just a coup and when it constitutes the beginning of a revolution from above, although the manner and nature of the social and political changes initiated after the transfer of power are a good general set of guidelines. In the Middle East especially, military coups in the name of revolution have been quite popular, as evident by the examples of Iraq (1958), Libya (1969), the Sudan (1969) and Syria (1971). Literally all of these countries are now governed by some sort of Revolutionary Command Council, although it would be difficult to argue that revolutions from above akin to those in Turkey and Egypt have occurred in all or any.

71 Matthews, Herbert, Revolution in Cuba (New York: Charles Scribner, 1975), 9495.

72 In Peru, Shining Path guerrillas, following the practice of the Chinese revolutionaries, often killed wealthy peasants and confiscated their property, an act that was not always universally cheered by other peasants. See Berg, Ronald, “Peasant Responses to the Shining Path in Andahuyalas,” in Palmer, David Scott, ed., The Shining Path of Peru (New York: St. Martin's, 1992), 9699.

73 As Eric Wolf has suggested, as romanticized as this may be, it is often not an easy task: “Any anthropologist who has worked with peasants,” he writes, “will appreciate the unreality suggested by the picture of the dedicated commissar, newly descended upon the peasant village, busily molding the minds of five hundred, a thousand, or two thousand peasants” (“Peasants and Revolutions,” in Goldstone, ed., Revolutions, 63). For an account of some of the hardships involved, see Franqui, Diary of the Cuban Revolution, 133–46.

74 Luttwak, Edward, Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 8183.

75 Nordlinger warns against giving too much credit to the “progressive-modernizing” soldier, noting that most officers come from middle-class backgrounds, and that the middle classes often act to safeguard their own economic interests (Nordlinger, Soldiers in Politics, 34–36).

76 Writing in the early 1960s, David Apter labelled a somewhat similar phenomenon as “political religion” (“Political Religion in the New Nations,” in Geertz, Clifford, ed., Old Societies and New States [New York: Free Press, 1963], 57104).

77 Luttwak's definition of a coup, which emphasizes the element of conspiracy rather than mobilization, illustrates this point better, “A coup,” he maintains, “consists of the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder” (Coup d'Etat, 27).

78 From 1962 to 1964, 12 of the 18 members of the ASU's Supreme Executive Committee were military officers (Dekmejian, R. Hrair, Egypt Under Nasir: A Study in Political Dynamics [Albany: SUNY Press, 1971], 148).

79 For a thorough review of studies on democratization, see Shin, Doh Chull, “On the Third Wave of Democratization,” World Politics 47 (1994), 135170.

80 See, for example, Gellner, Ernest, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Critics (New York: Penguin, 1994); Hall, John, ed., Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison (Cambridge: Polity, 1995); Budge, Ian and McKay, David, eds., Developing Democracy (London: Sage, 1994); and Tester, Keith, Civil Society (London: Routledge, 1992), to mention only a few books on the topic.

81 Kamrava, Mehran and Mora, Frank, “Civil Society and Democratization in Comparative Perspective: Lessons from Latin America and the Middle East,” Third World Quarterly 19, 5 (1998), 901904.

82 Ibid., 908–09.

83 Schwartzmantel, John, “Civil Society and Democracy: What Is the Connection?”paper delivered at the Conference on Democratization and Civil Society, University of Warwick, 1996.

84 Two of the more recent examples of such interdisciplinary approaches include, Roper, Steven, “The Rumanian Revolution from a Theoretical Perspective,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 27 (1994), 409; and Charles Tilly, “The Bourgeois Gentihommes of Revolutionary Theory,” in Keddie, ed., Debating Revolutions, 141.

* The author thanks Melisa Çanli and the Journal's anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this article.

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