Defining Revolution

Revolution can be described as a deliberate effort to institute radical change in society. 1 A revolution is a calculated response to uncompromisable  discord and an attempt to restore consensus between two parties by establishing a completely new order. 2

Breaking down the definition further… 3

What are examples of parties?

Parties can be groups, individuals, companies, industries, or countries.4

What are discord and consensus?  

Consensus refers to, not agreement on everything, but  the toleration of differences and the ability for people or groups to function within them. Discord is an extensive lack of consensus between groups of people, individuals, companies, industries, or nations. Extensive discord requires a society to form new social order to function optimally again. 5

When is a revolution necessary?

When differences become a barrier for societal progress, a revolution is necessary to move back towards consensus. Consensus is reached again as a new social order is developed. Think of consensus as a beam balance. When two parties coexist effectively, the balance contains two sides with equal weight. But as conflicts arise and the parties begin to quarrel, the weight becomes unequal. 6

What are the two types of consensus? How do they work, and which one is more effective?

The two types of consensus that may occur in the resolution of a revolution are voluntary and forced consensus. Voluntary consensus is more effective, as both parties agree to a certain set of terms of how to coexist, like a contract. Voluntary consensus takes longer to achieve after a revolution, but it more long-term. Implementation of a new social order gradually is an example of voluntary consensus. Voluntary consensus requires diplomacy between both sides. Prejudices, grievances, and other human emotions make dialogue between opposite sides in a revolution very difficult to achieve. Forced consensus may lead to greater problems by stagnating progress entirely, or by requiring an enforcement mechanism to maintain the supposed “peace” period after the revolution. Forced consensus is one party mandating that another party accept its terms after a “victory,” or by deciding the fate of the second party without consulting them directly. 7

How can a revolution’s effectiveness be analyzed?

The evaluation of a revolution’s success is in its resolution. If in its resolution a voluntary consensus is created between both parties, where a “contract” allows for coexistence in a new societal order, then the revolution has been successful. An unsuccessful revolution could occur if the “consensus” is forced, temporary, and enforced violently, or if a new social order never materializes effectively. 8



  1. What constitutes a successful revolution? What does radical change entail? Tage Lindbom in his chapter on Revolution defines the term as “the total elimination of an existing social order and the installation of a new one.” Revolution involves the annihilation of that order. He distinguishes it from two related terms: general upheaval and revolt. General upheaval is defined as a violent insurrection against an oppression in view of forming a new regime. He defines revolt as an action to put an end to a regime deemed intolerable. (pg 96) Text can be downloaded (here)
  2. The Russian Revolution absolutely established a new order, specifically one that advocated for communism and decried capitalism.
  3. Looking at the definition above, there is a question that is interpretive and better left unanswered. What is the threshold for compromisable discord?
  4. Was The Civil Rights Movement a revolution? If so, then the Civil Rights Movement involves two types of parties; groups and individuals. Prof. Randy Ingram focused his lecture on MLK and Prof. Devyn Spence Benson focused her lecture on the relationship between Civil Rights and Black Nationalism. Did Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X intend for the movement to be a revolution? Their lecture slides can be downloaded (here)
  5. Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1830 is an example of a revolt that did not become a revolution. Consensus would be impossible between slaves and slave owners, and thus a new order could not be established without equal representation of the slaves in legislative bodies.
  6. Bronislaw Szerszynski writes about the myth of the Twilight of the Machines that discusses conflicts between humankind and machines. The technological revolution that is alluded to in the myth demonstrates a revolution that is not solely human against human conflicts. His text can be downloaded (here)
  7. George Lipsitz describes in his article how the counterculture era was not truly a revolution. It did not establish a radical new social order. His view can be summed up in this quote from pg 227: “Because the entire decade of the sixties has become associated with the ideas of tumultuous social change, collective popular memory often fails to recall how little actually changed and how persistently conservative American culture and political life remained during those years.” His text is available to download (here)
  8. Revolutionary writings may be crucial to how a revolution is organized. Prof. Scott Denham discusses the writings of Paul Celan as being a radical upheaval of the German language. Are radical and revolutionary writings necessary for a successful establishment of a new social order? The lecture handout can be downloaded (here)