What is a revolution?

Revolutions generally have three main characteristics: 

  • Combine a popular mobilization with a change in political institutions
  • Result in widespread social change
  • Violence

This makes revolutions more than popular protests and more than a transition to democracy.  Scholars of revolution study the Russian revolution or anti-colonial revolutions in Africa because they changed countries’ political systems and social systems, redistributing economic resources from the former rulers to other social classes (or ethnic groups).  Events like the American revolution – as new and influential as it was – or the post-communist transitions to democracy don’t usually get counted as “revolutions” because they were too “bourgeois” – they changed political, but not social, systems.

Structural Theories

Structural theories argue that economic change in countries leads to social change that creates the conditions for revolution.

One prominent structural theory was described by Sam Huntington in Political Order in Changing Societies.  He argued that economic modernization is destabilizing. It shifts the balance of power among social classes — increasing the urban or middle class population, for example — and revolution can result when states do not use political institutions like parties and legislatures to integrate these new political actors and classes into the system.  Tim Gurr in Why Men Rebel further modified this to focus on the relative deprivation that can arise from modernization.  When growth leads to inequality, those on the losing end will protest.

Structural theories are, however, most associated with Theda Skocpol and her book States and Social Revolution.  She argues that economic change is insufficient to cause revolution.  Revolutions also require a weak military (usually following defeat in an interstate war) and divisions within the political elite.  Lower class revolts alone, according to her theory, are insufficient because they lack organizational resources and can be easily repressed by the security services.

Huntington, then focuses primarily on the source of grievance among new social classes, while  Skocpol argues revolutions require economic grievance plus organization and opportunity.

As with all structural or historical institutionalist theories, these theories are criticized for being too determinative – arguing after the fact that revolution was inevitable – as well as ignoring the agency of different political actors.  Other theories focus more on revolutions as contingent events – ones that depend more on specific configurations of political actors and the sequence of events.


The next category of theories focuses on their leaders and the ideologies they promote.

Skocpol describes these theories as theories that leaders can “make” revolutions – that revolution can be successful because it is a deliberate strategy of a vanguard, whether we are talking about Lenin in Russia, Mao in China, Castro in Cuba, or Khomeini in Iran.

Jack Goldstone, in his literature review of revolutionary theory, focuses on the role of leaders and ideologies as contributing factors to a revolution, arguing that effective leaders are those who are best able to take advantage of revolutionary conditions.  The reason we see so many strong leaders at the head of revolutions is because of a selection effect – the ones that win are the ones who are able to do this best and the ones who fail don’t get studied.

Leaders and the ideologies they espouse work best when they are based in culturally resonant frameworks – when they build on and modify traditional views rather than completely contradict them.  They can also gain additional ground when the prior government has upended these traditional views.  This is not to say that ideological revolutions are conservative – quite the contrary – but that successful ones adopt cultural symbols that can expand their appeal across social and political classes.  The writings of Ali Shariati in Iran provide a good example of this – combining Islam and Marxist ideologies in a way that appealed to religious conservatives as well as economic radicals.

Collective Action

A final set of theories focus on how protests organize and grow. Theories of collective action in revolutions can be grouped into three sub-categories: Theories based on information, those based on resource management, and those that focus on elite coalitions.

Information-based theories focus on how crowds communicate and grow.  Whether news is shared via word of mouth or the Internet (or cassette tapes, as during the Iranian revolution), effective communication can lead to the rapid growth of protests from a small group of students or radicals to a multi-class coalition.

Resource-based theories are most prominently associated with Sidney Tarrow and his book Power in Movement.  The idea is that social movements require different types of resources – whether ideological, numerical, or organizational – to succeed, and those that thrive are those best able to build off prior social networks (such as mosque-based networks in Iran).  This one reason why Tarrow argues successful protest and revolution are more likely during times of economic growth rather than during economic crises – that economic growth leads to both rising expectations and greater access to resources among the discontent.

Finally, coalition-based theories focus on elite polarization and the ability of some groups to establish cross-class coalitions.  As Goldstone notes, fragmented elites tend to be weak in the face of authoritarian leaders, but when government policy leads to a polarized elite – division into two or three motivated groups – those groups can then form coalitions with popular protestors, helping to provide organizations and resources to movements that arise in other classes.

These three categories of theories over-simplify the complex topic of revolutions, but provide a starting point from which to break down and understand events in Iran in 1978 and 1979.