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  • Rethinking Revolutions: Integrating Origins, Processes, and Outcomes
  • Jack A. Goldstone (bio)

The myth of revolutions treats them as sudden detonations of popular energy and social change. Dramatic acts on a particular day — the fall of the Bastille in Paris on 14 July 1789 and the midnight storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (then called Petrograd) on 24 October 1917 — have come to symbolize the French and Russian revolutions. When most people think of “revolutions,” they think of a rapid series of events, taking a matter of weeks or months, during which old regimes fall, new regimes are constructed, and the population accepts (or is forced to accept) the new order.

Studies of revolution have also tended to focus on the “explosive” moments of revolution and to dwell mainly on the conditions that led to such explosions.1 This emphasis has led to the “state-centered” theories of revolution, in which the onset of revolution is viewed mainly as a problem of state collapse, to be explained by structural vulnerabilities in certain kinds of states.2 To the extent that such works examined the processes and outcomes of revolutions, these were treated mainly as contests over state power, growing more extreme and resulting in stronger, more authoritarian rule by regimes that had to become tough to seize and hold state power in the face of numerous domestic and international opponents.3

These theories have been challenged by the unfolding of the “color” revolutions that began in the 1980s: the yellow revolution in the Philippines, the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia, the orange revolution in Ukraine, the rose revolution in Georgia, the cedar revolution in Lebanon, and the tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Along with the anticommunist revolutions in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria, these events seemed to follow a novel path.4 They unfolded as a series of moderate confrontations between crowds engaged in peaceful demonstrations and powerful authoritarian states that lost the confidence to defend themselves. The latter conceded power to the opposition or negotiated a change of regime, leading to new governments that were — in direct contradiction to the pattern most [End Page 18] often noted by state-centered theories — weaker and more democratic than the party-based authoritarian systems they replaced.5 These differences have led some scholars to question whether these events were in fact revolutions at all, or perhaps some new species of event — “revolutions” or “electoral revolutions.”6

In fact, the causes of these color revolutions were much the same as noted in the state-centered theory for prior revolutions: (1) a fiscal or economic deterioration that undermines state authority; (2) divided elites that split over how, and whether, the current regime can resolve the crisis; (3) sufficient popular grievances directed against the state to enable significant mass mobilization of either urban or rural populations to oppose the government; and (4) the coalescence of diverse opposition groups around an ideology of opposition that justifies and encourages rejection of state authority.7

What differentiates these color revolutions from the more explosively violent and autocracy-producing revolutions must therefore not be a fundamental difference in causes but something crucial in the processes through which they unfolded and the conditions and actions that produced their distinctive weak/liberal state outcomes. Yet we lack a theory of revolutionary processes and outcomes of sufficient depth and variety to identify crucial elements or turning points in the process of revolutions that would explain these divergent outcomes. The best-developed theory of revolutionary processes remains the classic “natural history” approach. 8 Yet these scholars looked at only a few cases and sought to identify a uniform course of events leading to a similar outcome, rather than to develop a typology of trajectories or account for key differences in outcomes.

Interestingly, the color revolutions were not the first revolutions to exhibit this behavior. The Netherlands’ revolution against Spain (1566), the British Glorious Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution (1776), the Japanese Meiji Restoration of 1868, and the Chinese Republican Revolution of 1911 are usually seen as anomalous events by scholars of revolution, often treated as not truly revolutions at all because they lacked the terrorizing violence and authoritarian outcomes of more...


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pp. 18-32
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