War and revolution have always been significant influences that shape the development of societies and their internal and external systems and relationships. As Goldstone (1994) observes, “The modern world was ushered into existence on a wave of violent revolutions stretching from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries” (p. 239). The most significant of these revolutions occurred in China, England, France, Iran, and Russia (Goldstone, 1994; Walt, 1996). While both wars and revolutions are “direct struggle[s] for power,” the two differ in significant ways, and they have distinct implications for the societies that fight them and, indeed, for the very world at large.
Revolutions are distinguished from wars by the fact that the latter are acts of resistance against external enemies and conditions, while the former are acts of resistance that originate within a country and are directed against internal enemies and conditions that prevent the country from developing and asserting a cohesive national identity (Trotsky, 1957). When the voice of the people has not been an effective means of securing political and social change, revolutions have been staged as an impetus for the facilitation of desired change. In some of the largest and most powerful countries of the world, revolutions have redefined the national identity of a society and have worked towards the “abolition of [its] more shameful national limitations” (Trotsky, 1957, p. 39). “The fundamental premise of a revolution,” writes Trotsky (1957), “is that the existing social structure has become incapable of solving the urgent problems of development of the nation,” and that an alternative system is not only possible, but necessary (p. 173).
In the most successful revolutions, there has been a congruence between the “inner readiness” for such an act and the capability of the people to bring it to fruition (Trotsky, 1957, p. 177). Walt (1996) contends that “a revolution is more than just a rearrangement of the administrative apparatus or the replacement of one set of rulers by [another” (p. 12). He continues by explaining that the outcome of a successful revolution is the creation of a “fundamentally new state based on different values, myths, social classes, political institutions, and conceptions of the political community” (Walt, 1996, p. 12). In fact, the power of the revolutionary paradigm is that it “establishes the basic nature of a polity” by redefining national identity through the implementation of new goals, systems, and means of achieving objectives (p. 12). Revolutions are typically spearheaded and carried out by the revolutionary lower classes, the members of which have been marginalized and “disinherited” by the country’s dominant system, which has “no intention of dying” or being dismantled without a fight (Trotsky, 1957, p. 240; 133).
The lower classes take “all phenomena and all relations [and address them] in concentrated form” through the appropriation of existing systems and ideologies and infusing them with new symbolic meanings (Trotsky, 1957, p. 160). What defines contemporary western society beyond shared geography is its history of revolutionary activity. Beyond the obvious physical activity of a revolution, Goldstone (1994) contends that the true power of a revolution has always been that it fosters “revolutions…in the way people think, how they view their world, and what they aspire to achieve” (p. 239). This consequence of a revolution is not true just for the country in which the revolution occurred. As Walt (1996) points out, “revolutions are more than just critical events in the history of individual nations; they are usually watershed events in international politics” (p. i), not the least reason being that they often precipitate shifts in thought within other societies by virtue of their example.