Like so many historical terms, the word “revolution” has undergone changes in meaning. Originally, it referred to the rotation of the heavenly bodies, the celestial spheres, and, carrying a connotation of supernatural force, was applied in the Renaissance to human events that seemed beyond human control.
During the seventeenth century, the word still meant a return to a natural order of things, a natural order as regular as the rotation of the heavenly bodies. Hence the Restoration in England in 1660 was considered a revolution, but not the Puritan episode, which came under the label of rebellion. The Glorious Revolution, however, was a revolution for those at the time who felt that the events of 1688 had restored the natural order. By the time of the French Revolution, the meaning had altered to convey the idea of revolting against tyranny, of changing the destiny of a people by heroic, romantic deeds.
Popular usage of the word applied to any forcible overthrow of a government, for instance by the military, has blurred its twentieth-century meaning. No one specific definition for authentic revolution will satisfy everyone, and when getting into specifics, several kinds should probably be distinguished. None of the efforts in this direction seem quite satisfactory because the uniformities, as in other areas of history, are not that uniform. Nevertheless, certain ingredients appear to be characteristic: (1) the presence of violence; (2) a breakdown of obedience to authority; (3) a transfer of power in the state; and (4) as most usually conceived, major social changes. Or, in one definition, a transfer of power from one or more social groups to other groups under circumstances of violence.
Different interpretations are held by people who range all the way from those who believe diabolical forces are responsible for these upheavals to the fervent devotees of the cult of revolution. For the latter, revolutions seem good in themselves, sometimes appear to serve in this secular century the older functions of a religious revival, a conversion and cleansing of society. Or they seem a shortcut to the Golden Age of the future. Often uncomprehending or derogatory of other historical processes, the devotees may regard revolution as the only effective agent of change. “Revolution is the locomotive of history, the motive force of progress of human society,” proclaimed a Chinese Communist leader, echoing a similar statement by Karl Marx.
As dramatic episodes in the early acceleration of political change all over the world, the late eighteenth-century American and French upheavals inaugurated the modern series of revolutions. Earlier outbreaks of general political unrest, however, had taken place . . .
The French Revolution, however, lies at the storm center of a series of
disturbances . . . Presently, the Spanish Americans rebelled against their motherland, the Greeks succeeded in throwing off the Turkish yoke, and in 1830 and 1848 additional series of revolts occurred. Historians continue to debate whether these all form part of a single larger phenomenon, a Western Revolution, or not.