An all encapsulating definition of revolution maybe be an impossibility. Describing the what and how of a revolution will inevitably fail to include important aspects of many revolutions. A “why” definition — explaining why a revolution happens — and then proceeding from there presents itself as a solution to this dilemma. Revolutions begin because a way of life has broken irreparably. A system can break down for many reasons but the underlying similarity of revolution is that the old way cannot offer enough to society anymore. Lapham quotes Simone Weil as saying “[o]ne magic word today seems capable of compensating for all sufferings … that word is revolution.”[1] Weil suggests revolution promises a change away from failing system but not necessarily to a better one. People do not believe in ideology of the revolution, but they believe in the act itself. If the old system cannot be repaired by a change of leadership, law, or patience, then the people — whether they be artists, bakers, farmers or bankers — revolt. Lewis Lapham, in his article “Crowd Control,” quotes Jefferson as saying “[t]he tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”[2] I, however, do not find revolution to be necessarily violent as shown by another of Lapham’s examples, Vaclav Havel. Havel wrote about the citizens’ revolutionary power of refusing to interact with a communist state in “Power of the Powerless.” Havel then carried out his bloodless revolution in Czechoslovakia by replacing the government and transforming Czechoslovakia into a capitalist society. Here, Havel accomplished a feat as revolutionary as the French Revolution but with far less destruction. Revolutions in the arts and sciences too show how revolutions can be bloodless. The first step of revolution is not the end. One must be careful not to impose a sense of historical determinacy on the past and instead realize that some potential revolutions do not manifest while other revolutions unintentionally derive from reform. Thus, even with the qualitative definition there is still a possibility that the initial revolution fails which brings me to a second point. I discuss how a revolution begins, but how does it end, can it end, or must it be continuous? In my definition, a revolution can end once a paradigm shift has occurred. Whatever philosophy grounded the previous mode of life, must be dissolved and replaced with a new one. Something that seemed a revolution can later collapse leading to a reversion to the old system causing it to be a failed revolution. Ultimately, a revolution comes from the failure of an old system to provide for society and ends with the implementation of a radically new paradigm guiding society.

[1] Lapham, Lewis. “Crowd Control.” Lapham’s Quarterly. 18.

[2] Lapham, Lewis. “Crowd Control.” Lapham’s Quarterly. 21.

Kotek, Lubomir. Havel in Prague 1989. Photo
Boyd, Nick. Red Notebook. May, 9, 2018. Photo

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