What is a Political Revolution? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of a Revolution
  • 1:49 Characteristics
  • 3:52 Examples of Revolutions
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

In this lesson, we'll examine what constitutes a political revolution. We'll look at the 'anatomy' of a revolution, if you will, and identity its key characteristics. We'll define the term and cite examples from history.

Definition of a Revolution

In the 1960s, British rock band the Beatles had a famous song called 'Revolution.' Some of the lyrics read as follows:

You say you want a revolution,
Well, you know, we all want to change the world.
You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know, we all want to change the world.

Maybe you've heard this song. But what is a revolution? Most of us are probably familiar with the American Revolution, and maybe the French Revolution, but how do these revolutions compare to others? Are there general commonalities among revolutions?

First let's define and understand the term. Now please understand we are talking about political revolutions here, as opposed to say, an intellectual, social, or technological revolution. The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th century and the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century are completely different. They were periods in which tremendous advances took place within a short period of time.

A political revolution is the forcible removal of a power structure by a group of people and the implementation of a new power structure. By 'power structure,' usually we're referring to a government. Basically a revolution is a group of people rising up to overthrow the government with the intent of setting up an improved system. This will be our standard definition. Now that said, there are some cases, where the government is not completely overthrown, but is profoundly changed or modified. This type of scenario is less common, but still could be considered a revolution. Usually a revolution happens relatively quickly (in terms of a few months or years), although in some cases, it can drag out over the course of decades. In addition to changing power structures, revolutions also usually affect changes in economics and society as a whole.


Let's continue by looking at some of the defining characteristics of a revolution. Not always, but almost always a revolution has its root in the lower classes of society, or among the common people. We can see this trend over and over again throughout history. Look at the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution of 1917. The common people were dissatisfied with their respective governments and took to protesting, which in turn, led to revolution. Hunger, poor living and working conditions, and the denial of personal freedoms have often been causes for revolutions throughout history. Think about it: there's no bread to eat, or you're not allowed to vote: who are you going to be mad at about this? The government, of course!

Not always, but generally, revolutions tend to be liberal (or democratic) movements, meaning forces of liberalism rise up against forces of conservatism. A monarchy, for example, would be an example of a conservative government. More often than not, in revolutions the common people would demand liberalization, and rise up against a conservative government, with the intent of replacing it with a more democratic government.

Usually revolutions follow a pattern in which protests by the masses are met with government resistance. Often times, when a conservative government tries to put down the protest, it only fans the flames of revolution, making the revolutionary movement even more powerful. Again, this is not always the case, but it is definitely a pattern. We should also remember that not all revolutions are successful. Sometimes they are squashed and put down. For example, the Italian Revolution of 1848 was put down by the Austrian Empire. In fact, most of the revolutions of 1848 were put down.

Often times revolutions involve the execution or murder of the previous government. For example, in the French Revolution, King Louis XVI was beheaded. In the Russian Revolution of 1917, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the communist Bolsheviks. This is not always the case, but it does happen often.

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Additional Activities

What is a Political Revolution? Writing Prompts

Poster Prompt 1:

Create a poster or other type of graphic organizer that defines what a political revolution is, as well as what it is not.

Example: First provide the definition of a political revolution, either with a drawing or in text, or some combination of both. Then provide examples of what a political revolution is not (for instance, the Industrial Revolution was not a political revolution). Then depict how quickly a revolution can occur, and what kinds of changes it usually produces.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay that describes the characteristics of a political revolution. Tip: Be sure to explain the role of the lower classes in political revolutions, as well as the role of liberal ideals.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay that explains how and why the American Revolution and the Russian Revolution were indeed political revolutions. As a variation, you can also choose a revolution of your own choosing, and if it was not a political revolution, then explain what characteristics it was lacking to make it a political revolution.

Example: For the American Revolution, you can explain how the American side began to assert more liberal ideals, while the British government reacted by handing down more conservative legislation. You can describe how the Revolutionary War was violent, as acts of violence are common in political revolution. Finally, you can delineate how the revolution ended with the overturning of British power in the colonies and the creation of a new nation with a brand new political structure.

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