Revolution (noun): A series of events which inspire a great amount of change, but do not originate with an attempt to upend the status quo in any significant way. Examples are the French Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution.

A diagram I created in my red notebook, displaying a sketch of the Battle of Cowpens, which was an important battle in the Southern front of the American Revolutionary War.

Coming into the Humanities program at the beginning of my first year at Davidson, my personal definition of revolution was loose and abstract. The word evoked images of warfare, new nations, and James Watt’s steam engine. It made me ponder the revolutions I had learned of in my history classes or Assassins Creed videogames. Revolutions seemed to be rooted in the past, and I believed that they could only be uncovered in retrospect. 

However, the first 2 units of the course, concerning the civil rights movement and the Copernican Revolution, changed my perspective on the word completely. First, I read Lewis Lapham’s essay introducing the issue “Revolutions” in Lapham’s Quarterly, which asked, “who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change?”[1]Lapham, then, thinks that revolutions are purely political, and not technological, scientific or social. A technological change distracts us from focusing on the real, political revolutions. He also thinks that they are disappearing from relevance among American society. Then, when reading Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I was reminded of the constant struggles against oppression in American history, and I came to realize that today we are living in a period containing revolutions in women’s rights, racial equality, and technology. Thomas Kuhn’s analysis of the Copernican Revolution showed me a case in which a revolution originated from a benign source, since Copernicus had no intentions to create a new, world-shaking solar viewpoint, but actually wanted to make corrections to the old geocentric system.

This revelation inspired my second project in the course and led me to my current definition of revolution: an event which inspires a great amount of change, but has an origin in an event which did not intend to upend the status quo in such a significant way. For example, Copernicus did not intend to alter religious and social thought when he made his astronomical corrections, and the American colonists initially desired representation in Parliament before they decided to write the Declaration of Independence. This definition has the interesting consequence of labeling King and the civil rights movement as non-revolutionary, since they had planned actions with clear goals in mind. However, the actions in these events were certainly reformative and important, and any initial disdain for my opinion about the civil rights movement (and other prominent reforms) proves Lapham’s point that the word “revolution” has become overused and misunderstood.

The revolutions mentioned in Lapham’s article fit my definition well. For example, he includes the following quote from Vladimir Lenin: “Revolution cannot be forecast; it cannot be foretold; it comes of itself. Revolution is brewing and is bound to flare up.”[2]This falls right into my notion that revolutions are unexpected and unplanned – they happen when people get caught up in the moment of trying to exact change for a cause about which they are passionate. Another instance that supports my definition is contained in the words of Albert Camus, who wrote that, “Ideally a revolution is a change of political and economic institutions intended to increase freedom and justice in the world. Practically it is a series of often unfortunate historical events that brings about this change for the better.”[3]Revolutions, when they do occur, do not come from a planned reform of institutions. Rather, they necessarily require rapid and accidental change. Another quote in the Lapham issue, from Mao Zedong: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”[4]Although Mao’s definition focuses on the political aspects of revolution, his viewpoint is similar to mine in that such tumultuous events cannot be described by movements that slowly achieve change according to plan. A final quote to illustrate my point is from Erich Fromm, who stated that, “The successful revolutionary is a statesman, the unsuccessful one is a criminal.”[5]In other words, revolutions inspire such rapid and unruly change that those involved are completely different people than they would have been – they have completely changed the status quo. 

After realizing my personal definition of revolution, upon visiting Paris I looked for things to symbolize the rapid changes that have occurred in the city. I ended up deciding on the Luxor Obelisk, located at the Place de Concorde. Noticed by Napoleon in his conquest of Europe, it was given to France by the Ottomans, who ruled over Egypt in the 1830s.[6]The presence of this obelisk on the same spot at which political figures had their heads chopped off by guillotines during the French Revolution is significant. Additionally, the colonialism and world dominance represented by this artifact represent a sort of revolution that swept Europe during its imperialism of the 1850s.[7]

A couple other examples of classwork that informed my definition of revolution were from units 3 and 8. In Tamura’s unit on the Rwandan genocide (unit 3), I noticed how the massacres and bloodshed in the African country occurred in a rapid storm of anger and hatred that ran its course in the matter of a few years. The brother versus sister murder that occurred is an example of an unexpected revolutionary change. Additionally, investigations into the German Red Army Faction (RAF), during unit 8 showed just how much revolutions can get out of hand. Ulrike Meinhof’s rapid decline from respected journalist to convicted murderer were rapid changes that happened when she was caught in the moment of the RAF’s increasingly radical actions.

Overall, the word “revolution” can be defined many ways, but I have decided to focus on how they create rapid change without an expectation or foreshadowing that they will do so. This applies to all revolutions, whether political, social, technological, or anything else. Additionally, it renders useless the application of “revolution” to described new commercial products or reformative movements.

[1]Lewis H. Lapham, “Crowd Control,” Lapham’s Quarterly7, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 25.

[2]Lapham’s Quarterly7, no.2: 87.

[3]Albert Camus, “International or Not at All,” Lapham’s Quarterly7, no.2: 108.

[4]Mao Zedong, “Out of the Barrel of a Gun,” Lapham’s Quarterly7, no.2: 123.

[5]Lapham’s Quarterly7, no.2: 54.

[6]This obelisk is picture as the logo at the top of the webpage.

[7]For more on my research into colonialism, see my research paper on Aimé Césaire’sDiscourse on Colonialismand its relevance to today’s neocolonialism, located in the “Research Paper” tab on the menu.