The Ideology of Revolution: Revolutionary Legacies of the 20th Century

From a lecture Series presented by Professor Peter Stearns, Ph.D.

While revolutions in the 20th century didn’t happen everywhere, they did occur as wide spread as Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. The legacies of these revolutions live on today.

Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène_Delacroix for article on Revolutionary Legacies
Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix

This geographical spread represents a measurement of the extent to which activities that previously were regional now tended to become global. News of revolutions, news of the success of revolutionary regimes, inspiration from revolutionary leaders—these now could spill into societies that were very different in terms of cultural and political tradition from the societies in which the revolutions occurred in the
first place.

The Big Four  

Image of Porfirio Diaz
Porfirio Diaz

There were four watershed revolutions in the 20th century. Three of them occurred in the second decade of the century, and one in 1979. Revolution first broke out in Mexico in 1910–1920. It reflected a variety of grievances and involved a variety of groups. There were important middle-class liberals involved in the revolution, seeking mainly to concentrate on political and constitutional reforms after a period of authoritarian dictatorship under Porfirio Diaz.

There were peasant revolutionaries—Pancho Villa and others—interested in raiding and, in many cases, in fundamental land reforms. There were movements among urban workers.

Mexico had, by this point, a significant,if minority, industrial sector. The goals of the revolution were quite varied, and not surprisingly, it took a decade of recurrent revolutionary activity for anything such as a settlement to be worked out. The revolution ultimately produced a limited series of land reforms affecting some regions but not the bulk of the country.

It also produced the installation of a one-party political system that provided political coherence: genuine but noncompetitive elections. The Mexican Revolution in one sense was somewhat unusual in having relatively little direct spillover. This was not a revolutionary contagion, but the example of peasant revolutionaries, the example of limited land reform, and moving peasant claims for access to land—this undoubtedly had an influence in other parts of Latin America, where peasant uprisings would occur some decades later.

Learn more: The Mexican War

The second great revolution of the second decade of the 20th century was the Chinese—truly historic. Beginning in 1911, a batch, initially, of middle-class revolutionary student intellectuals overthrew the imperial system, as far as we know, forever. A system that had recurred in China for many centuries was now toppled.

An initial effort attempted to establish a Western-style parliamentary democracy; it was hampered tremendously by the power claims of regional warlords and landlords, then hampered by the invasion of the Japanese and by key divisions among Chinese revolutionaries—between the nationalists, who were heirs to the parliamentary liberal tradition, although increasingly authoritarian in style, and the new Communist movement that was born in the early 1920s and would ultimately prevail. Essentially, the Chinese Revolution would run from about 1911 until the final Communist victory in 1949.

Xinhai Revolution in Shanghai, showing “Five Races Under One Union” flags

Learn more: The Birth of Chinese Communism, 1917–1925

The third great revolution, initially a sort of bellwether of the 20th-century revolutions, was the Soviet Revolution of 1917. There had been a foreshadowing in the Russian uprising of 1905. The Communist Revolution was certainly inspired by Russia’s hardships in World War I, but it was also fed from much-longer-standing peasant and worker grievances and from widespread concern about the police and authoritarian measures of the tsarist regime, which, despite a modest concession right after 1905, continued to repress political expression.

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A variety of resentments boiled over. There was a brief period of liberal rule, complicated by a liberal effort to stay in the ranks of the World War I powers, but finally, during 1917, the Bolsheviks took over and launched a period of significant political, social, and cultural upheaval.

Image of Bolshevik forces marching on the Red Square
Bolshevik forces marching on the Red Square

Learn more: The Revolution of 1905

The final great revolution was significantly different and occurred much later. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was hailed at the time as possibly the first great Third World revolution. It was a revolution not dependent on Western ideas of any sort—remember that Marxism, as well as liberal democracy, was Western in origin. The Iranian Revolution was an Islamic revolution in a predominantly Shiite country. It was a rebellion against undue Western influence, against an authoritarian and, in some ways, corrupt political regime.

It urged a return to more fundamental Islamic political principles. It represented a statement by peasants and others that the country had moved off its proper moorings. The revolution was meant to inspire or, possibly, was held as capable of inspiring a wave of similar revolutions in other societies. In a literal sense, this obviously has not yet occurred, but perhaps judgment should still be withheld.

Supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini hold a demonstration in Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979
Supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini hold a demonstration in Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979

Learn more: The Iranian Revolution & the Hostage Crisis

Worldwide Revolutionary Activity  

In addition to these granddaddy revolutions, the 20th century, particularly after World War II, was peppered by other revolutionary surges in smaller areas. The 1950s, for example, saw revolution in Egypt, Bolivia, and, of course, Cuba. The 1970s saw revolution in Nicaragua. Vietnam constituted a revolution, as well as a war for independence—an interesting combination, but the revolutionary component was quite significant. The number of episodes that ought to be regarded as revolutions certainly is open to subjective judgment, but we’re dealing with a significant number overall in a significant number of places.

We know from our knowledge of earlier revolutions, such as the great French Revolution of 1789—and now we know from, for example, the Soviet experience, as well—big revolutions, major upheavals, take a long time to work out. The actual revolutionary years may be 5 or 10—10 in the Mexican case; 5 or so in the Russian case, maybe 6, from the 1917 rising to the end of the civil wars in 1922–1923—the episode may be fairly short, but it really takes a long time for revolutionaries to work out their goals; for different sectors of society to react, to adjust, and to internalize; and for initial revolutionary excesses or experiments to be whittled down into more manageable proportions.

For example: Clearly, the French Revolution was not fully worked out in France until at least the 1870s. That’s a century after the initial rising. Some would argue that it took even longer than that for groups to finally reconcile themselves to a central revolutionary legacy. Revolutions of the 20th century, in some cases, are still working themselves out.

Implementing Change

Revolutions, of course, never change everything. Revolutionaries in the 20th century sometimes argue they would, but revolutions always manage to preserve, unwittingly at least, significant segments of the old regime. The Russian Revolution, for example, tossed up institutions that looked quite similar to the tsarist political police. The names changed, but some of the purposes and methods remained distressingly consistent. The Soviets also replicated some tsarist interest in territorial expansion, though under new rhetoric, and replicated tsarist interest and emphasis on heavy industry. Revolutions never change everything, but they do, if at all successful, change much.

Learn more: The Legacy of Revolutions

The core components of 20th-century revolutions add up to four basic points. Obviously, each revolution has its own imprint and its own biography, and it’s significant to spend some time on individual profiles. We can look at who the leaders were—and leaders can have a tremendous role in shaping revolutionary dynamics—what the actual specific grievances were, and of course, what the outcomes were. For purposes of world history, however, I think it’s fair to go beyond the individual profiles and look at some general features, both in terms of causation and, even more significant, consequence.

The Fall of Vulnerable Regimes  

Image of Tsar Nicholas II, overthrown in Russian Revolution
Tsar Nicholas II, overthrown in Russian Revolution

Causes, first of all, include weak regimes. It’s a truism, perhaps obvious, that revolutions do not occur against regimes that are full of vim and vigor, even if they’re corrupt and unjust in other respects. Regimes that have the power and will to send the military against revolutionaries, particularly in the 20th century, in which military armaments are so superior to the weapons available to civilians—these regimes are not toppled.

Of course, they may be eroded by failed revolutionary efforts. A regime may be weakened over time, but one component of all the major 20th-century revolutions involves weak and vulnerable regimes.

A tsar who is inept and influenced by a crazy advisor is an invitation to a revolution, in a sense. A boy emperor in China, heir to the throne but not yet capable of really wielding power, is an example.

An aging dictator in Mexico, an aging shah in Iran, who is ill to boot—these are components of regimes that had previously been capable of effective repression but were losing their grip, and in which, characteristically, key segments of the military either refused to move against revolutionary dissidents or actually joined them. Component number one is consistent in broad outline across the cases.

Learn more: Nicholas II, The Last Tsar

Social Justice in the Countryside  

Image of Revolutionary Fighters, Mexico, 1911
Revolutionary Fighters, Mexico, 1911

Second, every revolution needs at least one large social group that has elements that are perfectly willing to engage in violence, who feel violence is justified in order to achieve legitimate social ends. In the 20th-century revolutions, the most consistent provider of this kind of revolutionary muscle came from the peasantry. The 20th-century revolutions were heavily peasant in composition and dynamic.

Peasants characteristically wanted greater access to land in a period in which population growth was pinching resources, as well as abolition of the landlord class and their continued claims over peasant labor and peasant revenues. They wanted what they saw as social justice in the countryside. They believed that the land was legitimately theirs, that it was being taken from them, and they needed and could act with justice to redress the balance.

Many revolutions in the 20th century also, of course, involved a working-class or proletarian component in the cities. Russia was sufficiently industrialized in 1917, and the workers sufficiently, if illegally, organized worker risings in St. Petersburg and Moscow that played a significant role in the revolutionary outbreak. Workers were also involved in the Mexican revolution. But the working-class component is a bit more of a variable. Peasant revolution is really a core feature of 20th-century revolutions, at least in most of the major cases.

Learn more: Russia’s Marxist-Leninist Experiment

The Ideology of Revolution  

Along with weak regimes and a sense of real social entitlement, a third component involves an ideological buildup. Before the revolution—usually illegally, sometimes through activities in exile (a key factor in the Soviet Union and in Iran)—ideologies are disseminated that help inspire many revolutionaries and, in particular, revolutionary leaders. Remember that it’s easy to stand here and pontificate about what revolutions involved. It’s really important to remember that dedicated revolutionaries risk a tremendous amount. They’re risking their freedom and their lives, and the inspiration of a guiding ideology is almost crucial.

They may be misguided and open to criticism in various respects, but one has to respect, in most instances, the sincerity, sometimes even the fanaticism, of the ideological principle. Various ideologies obviously served in the 20th century. In Mexico and, to a certain extent, in early China and even early Russia, revolutionaries in some instances were inspired by liberal and democratic principles—the notion that regimes should provide political access to all peoples, protect individual liberties, and be constitutional.

Learn more: Marx—Materialism and Evil

In the Iranian case, the dominant ideology, developed initially in exile, was a restatement of what people such as the Ayatollah Khomeini viewed as the fundamentals of Islam. The ideology came from the religion, although early in the Iranian Revolution there were liberal and even a few Communist components, as well, that quickly got shoved to the side. The dominant revolutionary ideology of the 20th century—operative in Russia and, ultimately, in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere—was, of course, Marxism.

Image of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Marxist analysis, developed in the 19th century, called for an understanding that Capitalism was creating a growing majority of oppressed working-class people, taking their wages in order to swell Capitalist coffers, and that justice called for an overthrow of the system. Marxist ideology also urged that revolution had, in fact, history on its side.

The ultimate course of revolution was predetermined by a larger historical dynamic, in which ruling groups would create their own antithesis and the antithesis would swell and grow and, ultimately, triumph. The sense of inevitability did not deter revolutionaries from feeling that they also needed to work for the revolution, but it provided some comfort. Marxism also provided a truly glowing view of the ultimate future of a revolutionary society.

After a period of adjustment, after a period of proletarian dictatorship in which the trappings of the bourgeois regime would be called out, a society would emerge in which people produced spontaneously what they could produce and took from society what they needed. The state would wither away. Inequalities against women would be eradicated. This was human perfection, and the process of history, once this perfection was achieved, would then stop. It’s a beautiful vision. We may dismiss it as unrealistic or even undesirable, but its beauty, I think, has to be acknowledged, at least in explaining why this ideology proved so inspirational in so many otherwise different settings.

Learn more: The Socialist Response

Confronting Western Influence  

The fourth and final component in the 20th-century revolutions was some degree of concern about undue Western ownership and influence. The Iranian revolutionaries very clearly were concerned about American and European influence in the oil industry and in other modernizing sectors in Iran under the shah and wanted Iranian cultural values to be reasserted.

Mexican revolutionaries, far earlier, worried about the extent of American ownership of Mexican land and property. Russian revolutionaries, including ordinary workers, were inspired in part by concern about the large number of foreign owners in Russian industry and the kinds of profits that were being siphoned off. Concern about Western control, concern about signs of Western core economic activities, as well as cultural influence, provided a final spark for the revolutionary tinder.

Learn more: The Economic Revolution and Its Critic—Marx

What did these revolutions accomplish? In general, 20th-century revolutions, first and foremost, uniformly produced authoritarian regimes. They might have intended otherwise, particularly in the early liberal days, but the result was authoritarian regimes.

Keep reading:
A Historian’s Eye on Eastern Europe: Past and Present
The Ottoman Empire at Total War, 1914–1916
Napoleon and the French Revolution

From the Lecture Series: A Brief History of the World
Taught by Professor Peter Stearns, Ph.D.