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Revolution and the Power of Ideas Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 13th, 2021

The problem of revolution occupies one of the main places in social science of the 20th century, and this is no accident. Revolutions have had a decisive influence on the fate of modern societies and continue to be the most important force in historical development. This determines the relevance of questions of the theory of revolution for understanding the social processes of today, determines the special significance of these issues in the modern ideological struggle. At the same time, the value of the socio-psychological approach is in convincing proof that people’s perception of their position is much more important than this position itself. It is based on the search for individual motives, reinforced by ideas and encouraging participation in revolutionary activities.

The psychological theories of revolutions concentrate on the problem of complex motivational orientations. The most influential is proposed by James Davis and Ted Gurr under the title of the “relative deprivation” theory (Majeed 140-145). Revolutions are caused by a painful syndrome of consciousness spreading among the population. “Poverty brings a revolution,” or rather, the poverty that people realize and which they define as injustice pushes them to riot (Tiruneh). According to William Runciman, the degree of relative deprivation is a measure of the difference between the desired situation and how the person imagines it (Runciman; 10).

In the wording of Ted Gurr, this is the perceived difference between value expectations (things and living conditions that people believe they deserve by right) and value opportunities (things and conditions that they can receive) (Gurr, 24). If people are even extremely poor, but they take it for granted, as an order of fate, providence, or as conformity to a predetermined social status, then revolutionary ‘ignition’ does not arise. Only when they begin to wonder what they should have by right and feel the difference between what is and what could be, then does a feeling of relative deprivation appear. This feeling is closely connected with a sense of injustice arising from a comparison of what people have and what others like them have already achieved. The theme of deprivation and injustice penetrates social consciousness in the period immediately preceding the revolution, becoming, in the words of Michael Mann, “a source of social power” (Mann 1-3).

As Kimmel writes, “when people make revolutions, they are guided by their dreams. The grounds for these dreams are often reminiscences, memories of the world as it once was, and the desire to return it” (Kimmel 9-11). The interpretation of the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia fits well with this logic as a result of the desire to restore the traditional patriarchal relations, destroyed by the spread of capitalism in Russia.

There is the concept of a model of revolutions — these are certain stages and phases that any revolution (or a certain type of revolution) goes through, respectively, the boundaries of the phenomenon itself and its parts and the algorithm, i.e., a certain sequence of actions and a motion vector (Dudley 78-83). This issue is one of the most relevant and complex in the theory of revolution. After the French Revolution, researchers, comparing it with the English and American revolutions, concluded that their origin, development, and consequences were similar, while the macroconditions, both political and economic, were different (Dunn 2000: 3-5), which challenges the existing tradition of explaining social revolutions mainly by political and economic reasons. Complex explanations of revolutions are needed, in which substantial attention should be paid to socio-psychological factors.

John Dunn also believed that revolutions are based on ideas that enthralled the elites and became convincing to seize power and raise the revolution and which provide sufficient justification for overthrowing the existing political (and, to some extent, social) order and replacing it with the political control of revolutionaries (Dunn 1972: 12, 15). He believed that revolutions happen when a group of revolutionaries with rather complicated ideas manage to awaken large masses of people with an already existing deep dissatisfaction with the ruling order.

Exploring the Great French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the hardships that were silently endured before became unbearable at the moment when the prospect of a brighter future opens before a person (Tocqueville as cited in Elster 24). This coincides with the ideas of Gurr about “relative deprivation” as the key to understanding the revolution. As soon as people begin to feel that they have less than they should have, a revolution occurs. Moreover, the ill-being should be namely relative, and not total: absolute disorder means an ongoing struggle for physical survival and, consequently, political passivity (Gurr 1980). DeFronzo calls it a gap, which “develops between people’s expectations… and their ability to satisfy those expectations” (13).

To explain the revolutions, the “postulate of immediacy” is also characteristic: they are usually explained by economic, political, social, and other factors on their own, “ignoring mediating factors — people’s consciousness and actions” (Kimmel 186). Moreover, in theories of revolutions, the appeal to psychological factors is often interpreted as “voluntaristic,” not only very undesirable but also violating the “good manners” characteristic of the construction of these theories (Kimmel 186). At the same time, it is difficult to disagree with the fact that classes, states, and even international economic relations do not exist on their own, but imply relations between social actors. They are created, implemented, and maintained through the interaction of people (Kimmel 205), and even such a phenomenon as a social class is “a phenomenon presented in human relations”(Kimmel 205). According to Mousnier, “in situations of rebellion and revolution, there is no linear determinism, no direct connection in the system of events that could explain and justify them. This connection is a psychological, very complex psychological connection, and the historian, in most cases, is not able to comprehend the conscious or unconscious psychology of the people whose actions he studies” (Mousnier 157-158). Thus, although the mechanism of the ignition of the revolutionary movement by ideas is a kind of common one, it still represents a ‘black box.’

At the same time, pure ideology is such a level of political commitment at which (in the public consciousness) all differences between private social prospects and general political development are leveled. Pure ideology, as it were, occupies time, fills it with its ideas, and subjugates the era to its goals. It creates the social constants of its hegemony, such as “vanguard,” “driving force,” “meaning and purpose of the era,” etc. For example, political Enlightenment, the ideology of the New Age, or political modernity are saturated with such constants: “progress,” “knowledge,” “rationality,” “society,” “universal will,” “social contract,” etc. To paraphrase Michel Foucault, we can say that revolutionary ideology is such a word order that can change the whole order of things.

“Pure ideology,” or, as Manheim called it, “total ideology” (Mannheim as cited in Loader 32), aims not only at a political revolution: the seizure of power by the opposition is implied as one of the tasks, but the goal of total ideology is a social revolution. An ideal revolution leads not only to a change in the relations of people, the setting of new goals, and the emergence of other interests, but also leads to a change in the laws of the social universe ‑ to a political modification of the “physics” of things. As Manheim could say, the ideal revolution creates a new “ontological unity of the world” (Mannheim as cited in Loader 66). Of course, such unity is held together solely by ideological “glue”.

Examples of the results of truly social revolutions are national states or industrial states of the 20th century that appeared in the 19th century. In other words, a real social revolution is always the emergence of new content of universal interest, will, or contract, expressing (representing) a new social form. This is the socio-political modus of a completely different country or alternative revolutionary state, such as, for example, Soviet Russia (Hobsbawm 41). Such historical changes can only be achieved by colossal power inspired by revolutionary ideas. At the same time, the readiness for an armed clash with power turns revolutionaries into alternative social power: a force charged with the ideology of revolution.

While political changes were closed in the informational impenetrable kingdoms, the idealization of the dream of social change (and revolution as their tool) proceeded slowly. However, capitalism —exchange and trade — accelerated this process. The idea of revolution, moving through political events, began to circulate intensively in the public consciousness. Politically ‘magnetized,’ the revolution turned into something increasingly more formalized: into a tangible dream. For example, the English Revolution did not yet think of itself as a revolution; it considered itself to be a correction of the violated order, a return to the lost authenticity of relations, a restoration of the “old English liberties” ‑ rights and freedoms.

The American Revolution has identified itself as the political project of a new nation. The French revolution did not doubt at all about itself ‑ it was the frontier of the new world, that is, the final break with the social tradition of the “old regime.” Having solved the questions of political power, having abolished the old state, the French revolutionaries redrew social life. The structure has completely changed, and as a result, a new (bourgeois) state has appeared. The Russian Revolution and Soviet Russia were the first historical product of a purely revolutionary ideology: ‘radiation’ of revolutionary ideology began to penetrate the minds long before the first events. namely revolutionary consciousness gave rise to the first generations of professional revolutionaries.

Ideology in the most abstract sense is the simplest and most effective way to clarify social uncertainties to the vast masses of people. Of course, it is necessary to understand that ideology has never burdened itself with the question of truth. The direct opposite of ideology ‑ science as a body of verified knowledge ‑ could make people more predictable in emergencies, but knowledge penetrates behavior through education, and the circle of its carriers is always very narrow. Therefore, namely ideology on a non-alternative basis created the history of the revolutions.

Nevertheless, it is not expedient to go to any extremes ‑ neither to be likened to those psychologists who consider revolutionary crowds to be irrational, or to those classics of Marxism who exaggerated the influence of rationality, claiming that the participants in the revolutions are guided by conscious and well thought out class motives. There is a lot of spontaneous and unpredictable revolutions, but there is also a rational one. However, the revolutionary masses are distinguished from ordinary crowds by the dominance of revolutionary goals, created and represented by ideas.

Works Cited

DeFronzo, James. Revolutions and Revolutionary Movement. Routledge, 2014.

Dudley, Leonard. “The rationality of revolution.” Economics of Governance, vol. 1, issue 1, 2000, pp. 77-103.

Dunn, Susan. Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Dunn, John. Modern Revolutions: An Introduction to the Analysis of a Political Phenomenon. Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Elster, Jon. Tocqueville: The Ancient Regime and the French Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Gurr, Ted Robert. Why Men Rebel. Routledge, 2011.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Kimmel, Michael S. Revolution: A Sociological Interpretation. Temple University Press, 1990.

Loader, Colin. Karl Mannheim’s Sociology as Political Education. Routledge, 2017.

Majeed, Akhtar. “Relative Deprivation and Political Behavior.” The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 40, No. 2, 1979, pp. 140-155.

Mann, Michael. The Sources of Social Power: Globalizations, 1945-2011. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Mousnier Roland. Preconditions of Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Johns Hopkins Universirty Press, 1970.

Tiruneh, Gizachew. SAGE Open, vol.4, issue 3, 2014. Web.

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