Revolution: Immunity for Democracies?


Binghamton University


New York University


University of Essex, U.K.

While social revolutions have been the focus of considerable scholarly attention over the past quarter century, little effort has been made to consider the prospects for revolution in the industrialized West. This odd fact exists in spite of Goldstone’s claim that the present-day United States exhibits some of the factors consistent with historical causes of revolution, and that we “ignore the past at our peril” (1991: 497). Drawing on a wide range of scholarly perspectives, this study is designed to show that while the theoretical potential for revolutionary movements does exist in the industrialized West, it has been effectively disabled by the lack of political alternatives to the status quo and the difficulties in mobilizing contemporary societies. Our analysis suggests, however, that given recent changes in the patterns of social and economic dislocations as well as deepening ethnic, racial, or religious cleavages around the world, there is no reason to assume that Western democracies will remain immune to revolutionary changes.

Perhaps the most important and obvious but also most neglected fact about successful revolutions is that they do not occur in democratic political systems. This is not to argue that formally democratic governments are immune to revolutions.

Samuel P. Huntington (1994: 44)

Social revolutions have been the focus of considerable attention over the past quarter century. The linkages that lead to revolution generally consist of some variant of either relative deprivation, inequality, class conflict, political mobilization, or elite defection, though a more recent trend is to model the decision to participate in revolts from the perspective of a rationally calculating actor. Most of the empirical work has involved the likelihood of revolution in either a group of developing countries, or the eighteenth and the nineteenth-century Europe. Little effort has been made, however, to consider the prospects for revolution in the industrial democracies of the West. This odd fact exists in spite of Goldstone’s claim that the present-day United States exhibits some of the factors consistent with historical causes of revolution, and that we “ignore the past at our peril” (1991: 497). This essay poses two questions: a) whether there is a potential for social revolution in the industrialized countries of the West, and b) whether we might be able to evaluate the conditions under which any such revolutionary movement might gain momentum.

There are two things striking about this theoretical inquiry. First, one of the virtues of sound reasoning should be that it is widely applicable, and second, one of the objectives of both sociology and political science as scientific endeavors should be our ability to predict social changes. So if what appears to be a rather coherent body of theoretical work contributes broadly to our understanding of the workings of the political world, then it should offer insights into what the world of politics will hold. Democracy might not be the saving grace, for as Huntington (1968: 275) argues, political democracy is not the vaccine to prevent revolutions, even though Goodwin and Skocpol (1989) believe that the ballot box has in fact been the “coffin of revolutionary movements.” But predicting the onset of a revolution is supposed to be akin to predicting the next earthquake, something long sought after yet rarely if ever achieved (Eckstein 1990). Tilly (1975: 183) sets this out as a critical challenge to social scientists; we evaluate the merits of the challenge.

The thrust of this essay departs from those who attempt to predict the specific onset of a revolution, or those who seek to demonstrate the mechanisms that lead to a specific level of protest.[1] While trying to predict the actual level of protest, the timing of its onset, or the point at which protest gives way to successful revolution is a worthwhile endeavor, particularly in highly unstable countries, this essay targets a much broader level: rather than focusing on the point at which social dislocations give rise to revolutionary movements, we ask whether the theoretical linkages that tie social and structural factors to revolutionary politics are generalizable to the industrial West, and if so, if we can use this knowledge to evaluate the potential for revolution in this category of countries. In this sense, it is necessary to invoke Marx’s dictum that it is not only unstable countries but also highly advanced and industrially developed countries that are potentially prone to a social revolution. The question then is not so much when it will happen, but whether it is thinkable. If the relative stability in the industrialized democracies is interpreted in terms of a gradual alleviation of social and political oppositions, then Fukuyama’s (1992) concept of the “end of history” may be applicable across the political, economic, and social strata of societies. But if such stability proves to conceal deeper contradictions then it would be precisely the Western democracies where we would look for the threads of social revolution.

But why might one raise doubts about the apparent stability in the industrialized world? Two factors stand out: a) deepening cleavages among ethnic and racial groups, and b) changing patterns in social and economic dislocations. These two trends are often linked, and a cursory look at each should suffice to make the issue clear. Throughout the 1990s and into the early part of this century unemployment rates have been increasing across Western democracies. France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and Finland have in the last generation rarely had unemployment rates below 10 percent (World Bank 2003). What is more, presently nearly one out of thirteen members of the workforce are officially unemployed in many leading industrial countries (Economist 2004a). Those without double-digit unemployment figures have structural unemployment resting at about seven percent, and the number of underemployed leaves countless additional workers falling far short of their potential. The effects of recent efforts to “privatize” the world’s economy appear to have quite starkly favored the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle classes. What is more, “outsourcing” of the jobs to places like China and India and the flow of immigrants have been the cause of increasing tensions and insecurity in the labor force of Western democracies. At the same time the ability and willingness of states to temper the effects of these difficult economic times has come under rising strain. Access to education and the expanding role of technology and the Internet seems to widen the gap between rich and poor even further.

The extent of these structural problems is often exacerbated by racial and ethnic cleavages, with urban areas and minority groups suffering more severely. For example, in spite of the upward mobility of many African Americans in the United States, urban centers tend to be populated overwhelmingly by members of this racial community. And it is in these urban areas where unemployment is highest, educational facilities the poorest, teenage pregnancy most prevalent, and drug abuse nearly epidemic.

The United States is not the only country where racial and ethnic tensions and socio-economic dislocations have been on the rise. In Britain, the inflow of immigrants from its former colonies led to increasing racial tensions and a number of race riots. The budding neo-nazi movement in Germany and the anti-Muslim violence in the Netherlands is testament to the resentment felt by the majority for minority ethnic groups. German unification was similarly accompanied by a surge of violence against foreigners and the emergence of the xenophobic Republikaner Party. Tensions between the French and North Africans have erupted into violence also in southern France, fueling electoral support for the anti-immigrant National Front Party (e.g., Dalton 2002: 104). In short, at least some conditions that are theoretically linked to revolution are prevalent in the most modern countries of the world.


What is meant by revolution has been a subject of intense debates in the scholarly literature. Most definitions of revolution emphasize factors such as time, class, and violence, with a consequent realignment of social, economic, and political bonds that tie societies together (Skocpol 1979, Hagopian 1993, Sztompka 1993). Skocpol’s (1979: 4) definition of revolution as a class-based revolt from below that brings rapid transformation of society’s state and class structure has been very influential in this respect. However, the problem with this definition is simply that it is outdated—revolutions from the late seventies on have not been necessarily an outcome of only internal economic problems. In the era of globalization and a low-level state intervention in capital accumulation in the West, both the state and the class become rather elusive categories. If revolution is a transformation of the social structure of the state—and not just a political transformation resulting either in a gradual democratization and opening up of the enclosed polity, or in an authoritarian monopolization of politics—then the challenge revolutions face in modern democracies is not only impeded mobilization and frustrated coalition-formation but also the vagueness of their target.

In spite of the variety of conditions that influenced revolutionary outcomes, students of social revolutions usually agreed that some form of interplay between relative deprivation, inequality/class conflict, and mobilization had to be in place for the revolution to occur. Even though the tendency now is to question sufficiency of these determinants and to point to the role of elites, scholars still believe that linkages tying social-economic conditions to revolutionary behavior cannot dismiss the role of relative deprivation, inequality, and mobilization.[2]


In the late sixties and early seventies, relative deprivation was a common point of departure for many studies on social revolutions. Davies (1962), for instance, argued that a gap between value expectations and value achievements would account for the onset of revolutionary behavior. Since the expectation was a continued increase in the satisfaction of economic and social needs, any sharp or sudden decline from that trend would result in an intolerable gap between expectations and achievements. Gurr (1970) outlined the social determinants of relative deprivation and made more explicit the criteria with which to evaluate the desires and achievements of a social group. Tanter and Midlarsky (1967) found some empirical support for the hypothesis that a “revolutionary gap” contributes to the onset of revolution, though others were unable to confirm the basic tenets of this theory (Miller et al. 1977).

The concept of relative deprivation as a cause of revolution is grounded in the relationship between frustration and aggression, and has its antecedents far beyond those mentioned above. De Tocqueville and Marx each related the onset of revolution to the gap between what people were led to expect, and what they were subsequently able to achieve. On the one hand, Marx (1988) argued that it was a long historical process in which the labor class was continually impoverished by the exploits of the capitalists, leading eventually to the rising up of the proletariat to overthrow the bourgeoisie. De Tocqueville (1955), on the other hand, claimed that the French revolution was precipitated, in part, by economic and social advancements that left the French masses expecting more while the industrialization process was leading them toward increasing immiseration.


There is a rather long tradition linking patterns of inequality to revolutionary behavior, suggesting that the gap between the haves and the have-nots would perhaps play some role in revolution. Structural inequality has been linked to the mass political violence characteristic of revolutionary movements in the developing world, though the evidence is mixed as to whether it is income or land inequality that is of greatest importance (Russett 1964, Midlarsky and Roberts 1985, Midlarsky 1988, Muller and Seligson 1987). The inequality—either land or income—generates discontent among those who go without, possibly resulting in large-scale political violence, which, if coupled with the fall out of powerful elites from the state, can lead to revolution. As with evidence pertaining to relative deprivation as a cause of revolution, inequality as an explanation rests on strong theoretical foundations though the evidence is mixed (Brockett 1992). Moreover, it is clear that neither relative deprivation nor inequality can stand on their own as causes of revolutions. At the most, they can serve as a motivating force for social change.

The difference between relative deprivation and inequality as explanations for revolutions may seem subtle at first, but the underlying mechanisms are profoundly different. In the former instance, the perceived deprivation is a psychological process where judgement is made relative to one’s own expectations. The mechanisms of inequality work differently: rather than individuals judging their situation relative to their own expectations and achievements, inequality is evaluated relative to others within society. Both conditions are likely to be evident concurrently, and it would be difficult to imagine one condition existing without at least some of the other. But those who argue for inequality as the causal mechanism are implicitly positing that issues of social and economic justice generate the motives behind revolutionary movements. If inequality and injustice are considered as significant components of revolutionary impulses, their role gains a momentum only if these individual concerns can reach the level of the group.


The ability to mobilize is key to revolutionary movements (Tilly 1978). Given that there are structural conditions for expressing discontent, it is the ability to mobilize resources that determines revolutionary behavior. To Tilly (1978), this is conceived of as groups contending over political issues, while Huntington (1968) argues that it is the incongruity between political mobilization—meaning political modernization—and political institutions that results in revolution.

Since revolutions require, among other things, revolutionary strategies, strategists are expected not only to articulate alternatives but also to mobilize the masses. Using a game-theory approach, Lichbach (1990) shows that a rational person would not rebel against inequality. But if a rational person would not rebel against situations he or she finds intolerable, then we can deduce from Lichbach’s findings that either revolution is an irrational behavior, or that revolutionary strategists are required to mobilize the masses and in doing so change the expected payoff from participation in revolutionary action. Overcoming the collective action problem appears to be a critical link in mobilizing mass action, with selective incentives appearing to be a necessary ingredient (Lichbach 1994), even though others dismiss the role of the collective goods problem in social movements altogether (Tarrow 1994). One way to conceive of a solution to the collective goods puzzle is in terms of revolutionary strategists being able to deflect some of the costs associated with participation in revolutionary politics and therefore change the potential payoff to the masses.


Social dislocations associated with inequality or deprivation can never, on their own, lead to the mobilization of the masses behind a revolutionary agenda. Assuming that mobilization is crucial for the revolutionary process, the important question is what facilitates the mobilization of masses. If we can identify conditions that are necessary for political mobilization, we can then develop a more comprehensive model of revolution by integrating them with other necessary organizational and structural factors. As Tarrow (1994) points out, without some form of social movement, talk of revolutionary politics is beyond the pale because only social movements mount challenges to elite authority out of which revolutions may give rise. DeNardo’s (1985) work is critical in understanding the move from issues that increase the motivation behind the mobilization of support for revolutionary behavior. DeNardo argues that both strategists and alternatives to the status quo are necessary because first, the ruling coalition has a strong incentive to repress those who advocate revolutionary politics, and, second, the masses are generally unwilling to take the risk associated with the organizational process. However, although strategists may be necessary, they are not sufficient for public mobilization—alternatives to the status quo must be presented to the discontented in order to stimulate their involvement in the struggle for changes.

From this perspective, discontent could be conceived as working through strategists who mobilize and political philosophers who articulate alternative conceptions of society. And if the two intervening factors are sufficiently strong then mobilization is possible, maybe even likely. On the one hand, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Eritrea, Vietnam, Peru, and Poland all had traces of large-scale mobilizations against the ruling coalition. In each case the mobilization of discontented masses around some alternative form of social organization was quite common. On the other hand, there are a number of societies where the conditions for discontent appear to be quite evident, yet efforts to mobilize the masses are tentative and ineffective. Two questions keep recurring: Why are alternatives and strategists not as ubiquitous as the conditions contributing to discontent? And why are successful revolutions so rare? Is it only because the level of discontent is insufficient to generate mass upheaval, or because the articulation of alternatives and the development of strategies are constrained by the ruling elite?

If repression is an effective tool to stifle the development of a revolutionary organization, the prevalence of repressive practices should help to account for the relatively low incidence of revolutions. But this does not add much to our understanding of the likelihood of revolutions in the industrial democracies of the West, where overt and violent repression is hardly the norm. Even though repression in the West relies on more subtle mechanisms such as media compared to less democratic countries, the marginalization of individuals or groups is, nevertheless, quite effective at suppressing organizers. In the past, this was done largely by identifying potential revolutionaries and discrediting their alternatives to the general public. Communism or the political organizations of religious states, for instance, have been sufficiently ideologically laden to serve as an object of disdain over the past 50 years. This distrust of the communist path permitted the wholesale purge of those who attempted to articulate alternatives, as well as those who attempted to strategize and organize revolutionary movements. The more despicable the existing alternative the easier it becomes to repress those who might facilitate the mobilization process. Furthermore, in such a climate the repression needs not be as overt as witnessed in much of the developing world. The label of “a communist” could suffice to restrict the capabilities of those willing to take the risks, and if the risk takers are constrained, then the masses will be extremely hesitant. The McCarthy era and the resulting “red files” in the United States serve as poignant examples, but the effect was much more widely felt (Whitfield 1991, Ginsberg 1986).

Through much of the Cold War, a political opponent did not even have to be articulating Marxist ideas to be labeled a Communist; any political alternative could suffice to brand one as a Communist dissident. This image of the enemy proved to have been very efficient in uniting people for their common cause, leading them thus away from any revolutionary ideas. The demise of this imaginary enemy, the Soviet Union, had to be a shock to the system. Since the West has organized much of its society in active resistance to the Soviet threat for the better part of the last half of the century, the sudden removal of that threat caught most of the attentive public by surprise. Although the fall of the Soviet Block has been celebrated as the victory of democracy, cross-national surveys conducted in early 1994 indicated that a majority of Americans, Germans, and Britons believed the world had become a more dangerous place since the end of the Cold War (Dalton 2002: 114). To give a face to this amorphous danger, a new enemy had to be invented. Terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism as axis of evil and enemy of democracy have become a target of a pre-emptive strike against potential revolutionary mobilization.


Skocpol (1979), and more recently by Lachmann (1997), demonstrated that deprivation and inequality, even if successful in gaining collective recognition by the masses and leading to a violent conflict buttressed by new ideology, have only a small chance to be carried through if not supported by elites. In French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, either the dominant class or the army defected from the state. It was only because of this division of the ruling coalition, or its repressive forces, that popular discontent could be transformed into an organized revolution. This division could be either a direct intention of elites to initiate revolution (when the elites deem the state unable to meet their expectations) or an indirect facilitation of revolution by their withdrawal of support from the state. Highly vulnerable states at times of social tension contribute significantly to success in organizing a populist-based movement. Other factors, such as widely accepted new ideological goals and the likelihood of international support or opposition, also play their roles. The democratic uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968, for instance, had been staged by the elites that defected from the existing regime and was widely supported by the population. What it lacked, however, was world attention and support. International pressure during the Cold War allowed the elites favoring the status quo to seek Soviet military intervention, which was unlikely to be contested by the forces from beyond the Iron Curtain.

Recent research on Third World revolutions of the twentieth century demonstrates the role of elite behavior in revolutionary politics.  Drawing on the evidence from Iran, Nicaragua and the Philippines, Parsa (2000, 1989) argues that what is crucial for the overthrow of the state in the developing countries are class coalitions. Class antagonism does not produce revolution by itself, and “intense conflict may actually reduce the likelihood of revolutions.” In repressive regimes with high state intervention in capital accumulation like Iran, Nicaragua and the Philippines, the state was an easy target to locate. The difficulty, however, was, first, in finding ways to escape the radars of repression while organizing popular opposition, and, second, to find an ideological ground for different groups to agree upon. In the developing world, too strong class antagonism and a too specific extremist ideology, as Parsa concludes, are likely to prevent a coalition-formation and thus obstruct revolutionary path.  The question remains as to whether these arguments inform us about the prospects for social revolution in the advanced industrial democracies, that is, whether the coffin of revolutions there is really nailed shut.

What implications for political stability in the West can we derive from our general understanding of revolutions?  If we can rule out revolutionary change then we must infer one of two other processes for change: 1) that these political systems remain stable and unchanging over time, or 2) any change must come by dint of evolutionary processes or by defeat in war.  We see no compelling logic that defines a particular path to change, nor any reason to speculate that the end of political history is upon us and that stability will last in perpetuity.  Theory should provide guidance for thinking about future political transformations.


A cultural perspective on political change might suggest that traditional models of deprivation and mobilization must be tempered by the decreasing vulnerability of the state.  Modern forms of capital accumulation diffuse attention from the state to the firm and therefore reduce the propensity for revolutionary change.  But why would our current culture be any different from the previous forms of culture? Is not the current cultural shortsightedness an expression of our society in the same way previous cultures were expressions of their own social forms?

While Theodor Adorno (1973, 2002), among other social theorists, argued that capitalism has an inherent tendency to transform everything into commodities, other theorists point to political possibilities opened by the current social situation of Western democracies. In an attempt to overcome Adorno’s pessimism, Ernesto Laclau (1990: 82), for instance, argues that counter-hegemonic struggles have now become possible in many more areas and that particular issues enjoy greater autonomy. It is not always clear, however, how, according to Laclau, the masses could be mobilized in the environment of increasing social fragmentation and atomization prevalent in the advanced industrial democracies. Does the “dislocated agent” really matter on the political level? It is perhaps not a coincidence that instead of theorizing revolution, Laclau talks about a gradual process of democratic reforms.  Endorsing a slow accumulation of minor adjustments, these local revolts are the means of letting the steam out, so to speak. In the era of the mass media setting up the by now widely accepted opposition between democracy and dictatorship (ethnic and religious fundamentalism, totalitarianism, etc.), any radical change, i.e. revolution, is in advance dismissed as leading to dictatorship. Rather than threatening, limited demands for emancipation serve to rejuvenate the system—they make democracy look more democratic and help to show its openness to questions, strengthening thus its difference from dictatorship (Žižek 2000: 182).  This means that at the cultural level both perceptions of deprivation and the ability to mobilize are worked out through the system such that evolutionary change is more likely.

Working counter to this system-dampening process, Western societies are now facing a number of serious economic difficulties. Over the last several decades, they have been experiencing growing market volatility, increasing strains on their governments’ ability to regulate economy, as well as growing job insecurity and high levels of unemployment (Economist 2004b) . Of the major European countries, France, Italy, Finland, and Spain throughout the 1990s all had official unemployment rates of over 10 percent, with Spanish unemployment climbing to 22.7 percent in 1995 (World Bank 2003). Belgium, Austria, Canada, Greece, have maintained average unemployment between 8.4 and 9.1 percent over the last decade. According to data collected by the British government and reported in their annual publication, Social Trends, the gap between the rich and the poor in the United Kingdom has been growing since 1994/5, with ethnic minorities disproportionately concentrated among the poor (Office for National Statistics 2004). This trend is confirmed by data from the other Western democracies including the United States: according to the Economist (2001), economic recession in the United States hit the poor the hardest, and, more significantly, has sharply increased the gap between high-wage earners and those in the middle.

This shift in wealth and employment patterns comes at a time when direct transfer payments to the socially dislocated have also come under increasing strain, and in many instances the level of welfare provisions have been cut substantially. This is evident in the United States where the federal government has shifted much of the burden for social assistance down to the level of state governments, which in many cases are unable to cope with the increased demand. Globalization and increasing economic interdependence has lead to dismantling of the welfare state, eroding the social democratic bargain, and bolstering the interests of capital at the expense of labor (e.g., Kitschelt et al. 1999, Keohane and Milner 1996).  The path that Goldstone (1991), for instance, suggests as a way out of these social dislocations is increasing productivity to a sustained level that surpasses inflation—a task that currently appears to be difficult to achieve. With a considerable concentration of economic and political wealth in the hands of the few, the cultural constraints might be significantly weakened, making any call for social change ready to find a fertile ground in the United States.  These two competing pressures force us to consider the impact of political dynamics on the process of revolutionary versus evolutionary change.

One argument against the idea of revolutionary change in industrialized democracies might be that the political processes that underlie democratic politics will be flexible enough to forestall any movement toward radical change. This may be entirely correct. The logic of the argument follows that political parties, sensing popular disaffection with the status quo would be able to adapt to the will of the public. Anthony Down’s (1957) work quite clearly buttresses this proposition. Political parties in two party systems seeking to get reelected could move toward the center of public preferences, and if this is so, their policy positions will always represent moderate rather than extreme policy choices. In the long term, we would then expect incremental change, if at all, but not revolution. At first blush the logic of these arguments seem sound enough to obscure the prospects for revolutionary pressures, but on closer inspection there still appears to be countervailing forces at work.

Although Downs made a strong theoretical case for why we should expect party convergence to equilibrium policy positions, empirical evidence does not always support this claim (e.g., Adams 2001, Budge 1994). What is more, parties have also become large organizations that have developed entrenched interests in the current distribution of resources. As Olsen (1982) argued, large distributional coalitions are inefficient at providing a collective good because they increase the complexity of government and seek to limit the diversity of membership. If Olsen’s logic of collective action is correct, then we might not expect to see the established political parties moving toward the center of mass preferences, but rather a flourishing of small vanguard parties that champion new causes. The new organizations, or parties, may be able to provide the selective incentives necessary to woo people from the center of the spectrum out closer toward the peripheries (Lichbach 1994).

The United States can serve again as an example of how the tendency towards an incremental change in modern democracies can become their Achilles heal. With the same party dominating both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, the opposition is left more or less powerless. If one of the preconditions of successful revolutions is an elite-defection, the usual reason for leaders to defect is a prolonged loss of all political influence. In such cases, a deprived elite might try to regain its position by supporting a mass mobilization. Even though nothing indicates this in the policies of the recent administration in the United States, the growing economic problems coupled with political frustration can certainly make a significant part of population wonder if incremental changes do not always lead from the desired reforms. After all, the solution to the recent problems of economic growth, poverty, and distribution of wealth in the United States has been a top down “growth” oriented strategy, one that catered considerably more to the elite than the masses.  If democracy relies on its ability to implement preferred changes by incremental transformations, and if these lead away from the changes desired by the mass public, pressure for dramatic change may find favor and in doing so facilitate the mobilization of strategists and the articulation of alternative models of political and economic organization.

The core of Parsa’s (2000: 294) arguments is that the likelihood of revolutions is lower if: 1) the country develops “democratic institutions that expand polity and permit moderate political organizations access to the state,” thus diminishing “the likelihood of coalition formation among reformist and revolutionary challengers”, and 2) governments are less interventionist and allow market forces to determine capital allocation. With figures clearly showing that average public share of fixed capital expenditure in developing countries is around 45-50%, whereas in the developed ones it is around 14%, the low profile of the state in the developed world makes the capitalist elites less likely to coalesce with other social groups. The decentralized, depoliticized, and self-regulating market diffuses and limits conflicts with the civil society. In spite of this low level of intervention, the West nevertheless developed a surprisingly small capitalist class: the percentage of employers or self-employed in the West in 1990 was on average under 10% (U.K. 7.5%, U.S. 8.1%, Germany 8.3%), whereas in the developing countries it was around 30% (going as high as 70%) (International Labor Office 1989, 1990). This suggests that the potential for revolution in democratic countries is diminished by virtue of the organization of the economic system.  As bad as it might be for some, the mechanisms for anything but gradual, system-induced, change are unavailable.

These figures, however, also strengthen the relevance of the socio-economic and political indicators that point to a deep divide in Western societies. Economic inequality and polarization of political influence are, among other factors, a result of the fact that fewer people control wealth and the means of production. A smaller capitalist class is less likely to defect from the status quo but it is also more likely to intensify the already present socio-economic and political problems—an increasingly smaller group of people will control a growing level of wealth and political power. With the current problem of outsourcing, the distribution of wealth is becoming more polarized as workers lose jobs while a small class of capitalists makes more profit by using cheaper labor and favorable tax conditions abroad.

If – or as – society polarizes along political and economic fault lines the forces of politics and those of culture may collide.  The atomized state and the diffusion of targets may impede mobilization, all the while the efficient working of political groups may strive to overcome these obstacles.  Logic provides no reason to expect that industrial democracies are immune to these competing tensions, and no reason to expect the political and economic world we occupy is unchangeable.  It is hard to assess today which force is likely to dominate this struggle, but neither is there any reason to a priori dismiss the possibility of revolutionary change.  In fact, the absence of a common enemy of the advanced industrial democracies should make easier for philosophers and strategists to articulate and organize around alternative conceptions of a political, economic, and social world.

If all these forces were to lead toward a revolutionary challenge in the West, how would it look like?  First, sweeping change of revolutionary proportions need not be violent.  While historically violence was associated with many revolutionary cases, it is not a necessary condition for revolutionary change, particularly in modern industrial societies where participatory forms of government can accommodate – and possibly facilitate – sweeping changes without violence (Sztompka 1993: 305). This was made evident by the recent revolutions in East Central Europe and the Soviet Union. Second, the process may start slowly, almost imperceptibly to most.  The prominent work of Marx and Engles was preceded by the Owenites and the St. Simon movements – experiments in collective living – by at least a generation.  The Saint Simon and the Owenite movements laid the foundation for the articulation of a society organized around the social needs of the masses upon which Marx and Engels were able to build the tenets of the Communist movement.  Had Saint Simon and Owens been repressed at an early stage, and had Owens been prevented from carrying out his ‘social experiments’, the philosophy of Marx and Engels might have never seen the light of day.  The change itself may be sudden, but the ground for it could play out over an extended period of time.  And finally, the outcome itself could represent a short-term disaster or a long sought after search for social and economic equity.  The key is that revolutionary change is neither inevitable nor impossible, but it behooves us to think about the prospects for our future.  Admittedly, however, to theorize about the onset of a revolution is a bit like predicting the next earthquake, and to imagine how it would look is, of course, even more of a speculation.


As this argument stands, it is merely an attempt to link our understanding of the causes of revolution to the prospects for social stability in a domain that remains heretofore unchallenged. In light of the breakdown of the Soviet empire, the apparent threat from Islamic terrorists, and the continuing struggle in “pacifying” Iraq, this seems like a worthwhile endeavor. At this juncture any inferences represent at best an exercise in counterfactual judgment, but thinking about the seemingly unthinkable is useful in spite of the lack of evidence. It was only a bit more than a decade ago that many would have denied the possibility of the collapse of the largest political empire in a century. Few at that time could think about the unthinkable. The argument we provide suggests that, in spite of the rhetoric of the “end of history” and in spite of the increased difficulties to mobilize for radical changes in recent times, the theoretical potential for revolution does exist in the industrialized West.

For the truly cautious and skeptical, we leave with one closing thought. As any homeowner in an industrial democracy is all too aware, insurance companies—those whose job it is to insure against loss for a given level of risk—exclude coverage for damage incurred as a result of war, acts of God, and revolution. To the God-fearing the Apocalypse is sufficient grounds to exempt the insurance companies; and acts of war are far too common in this world to hold an insurance company liable. But why would insurance companies insist on indemnity from damage resulting from revolutions, if industrial democracies were immune from such events? We think that they might be the only ones who think seriously about the prospects for social revolution in the markets in which they engage.



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[1] Examples of attempts to predict the onset of revolutions include Gurr and Lichbach (1986) and Francisco (1993). For an example of efforts to demonstrate the level of protests see Muller et al. (1991).

[2] For discussion on relative deprivation see Gurr (1970), Davies (1962); for issues of inequality and class conflict see Midlarsky (1988), Midlarsky and Roberts (1985), Muller and Seligson (1987), Moshiri (1991). For discussion on mobilization see Tilly (1978), Huntington (1968), DeNardo (1985), and for structural factors see Skocpol (1979), and Goldstone (1991).

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