The New – Old – Age of Revolutions

By George Lawson

What does it mean to talk about an ‘age of revolutions’? Once upon a time, the term was straightforward. For R. R. Palmer, it referred to a series of uprisings within Western civilization by Western liberals on Western aristocrats that spread throughout the Atlantic in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Equally influential was the account offered by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm that the age of revolutions had a ‘double crater’: an economic (industrial) revolution in England and a political (republican) revolution in France.[1] For both Palmer and Hobsbawm, the West was the cradle in which the age of revolution gestated – a gift from the civilized to the less enlightened parts of the world.

Things look different now. Both the time and space of the age of revolutions have been extended: backwards to the Seven Years War (1756-63), a conflagration that spread from Europe to Central America, and from West Africa to southeast Asia, and forwards, reaching all the way to the 1848 revolutions, which ranged from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and from the Americas to Ukraine. In its most maximalist interpretation, therefore, the age of revolutions is a nearly century-long crisis that encompassed most of the world’s regions. In this understanding, the drivers of change are not dynamics internal to the West, but what Christopher Bayly calls a ‘world crisis’ triggered by intensified warfare, the extension of capitalist markets, the deepening of agricultural commercialization, the emergence of new technologies, and transnational debates about rights and constitutions.[2] These multiple upheavals pitched advocates of constitutions and representative government on one side of the barricades, and those defending dynasticism and imperial rule on the other.

Extending the temporal and spatial range of the age of revolutions raises two main issues. First, if Bayly and his fellow revisionists are right, we need to examine the interconnections between multiple revolutions rather than assume that they originated in pure form in either Europe or the West before being repeated elsewhere. Second, in addition to this analytical shift is a reorientation of revolutionary agency, one that turns attention from a desire to generate American-French style republican nation-states to one centered around intra- and inter-imperial contestation. As Jeremy Adelman has shown, much of the turbulence that marked the age of revolutions concerned claims within imperial spaces.[3] If some of these disputes included ideas of local rule and indigenous rights, they also included contestations over trade, particularly imperial preference systems that favored metropoles over colonies. More frequently, revolutionaries sought a clarification of the relationship between metropole and colony with increased levels of independence for the latter, particularly over commercial rights. Revolutionary sovereignty during this period usually envisaged remaining within an imperial web, albeit an empire with multiple centers rather than one of subservience to a single master. Even when revolutionaries were republicans (which wasn’t the case all of the time) or nationalists (which wasn’t often the case at all), many regimes, including successful uprisings like Haiti, ended in the re-inscription of despotism rather than the construction of constitutional republics.

Book cover of Anatomies of Revolution by George Lawson.

Beyond debates about the time, place, and core dynamics that underpin the age of revolutions is a broader theoretical issue: the nature and status of revolutionary waves.[4] Revolutionary waves can be defined as groups of revolutions that arise from a similar context (e.g. imperialism), have linked objectives (e.g. the formation of a constitutional order), and share common features, whether in terms of their organizational form (e.g. a people power movement), their tactics (e.g. a commitment to non-violence), and/or their symbolic repertoires (e.g. shared slogans, songs and colors). Reconfigurations of international order like the ‘world crisis’ of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries often prefigure revolutionary waves. Today, it may be that revolutionary waves are increasing as interdependencies of various kinds, from forms of communication to travel and trade, are intensifying.

Here can be found a link between the original age of revolutions and the contemporary world, a period Jack Goldstone (2016: ii) has aptly described as a ‘new age of revolution.’[5] And 2019 has certainly been a banner year for revolution. Events in Sudan, Algeria, Venezuela, Hong Kong, and Rojava are illustrations that revolutions remain a living force in a world of injustice, oppression, exploitation, and debasement.

The repertoires that protestors deploy in these struggles have multiple historical lineages. In the short-term, they can be traced back to the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern and Central Europe, and the (mostly pale) imitations of these uprisings in early twenty-first century “colour revolutions” in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), and Ukraine (2004), where rulers were deposed, but transformation was limited. Contemporary revolutions share a modular character with previous waves: an ethos of non-violent protest based around the occupation of public spaces; the identification of supporters with clearly distinguishable symbols; a decentralized organizational structure; a fluid form of leadership; a symbolic repertoire oriented around nationalist renewal and other, time-honored ideals – freedom, justice, dignity; and international support, or at least tolerance, whether from state agencies, international organizations, or foundations.[6]

But the historical echoes of these movements can be heard even further back in time, in the people power movement that ousted President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986, the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of 1974, the 1968 uprisings in France, perhaps all the way to the Constitutional Revolutions that took place during the early part of the twentieth century in Russia, Iran, Portugal, China, and the Ottoman Empire, when pro-democratic movements unseated imperial regimes, held competitive elections (albeit in franchises limited to propertied men), convened parliaments, and instituted civil freedoms. These events, Charles Kurzman argues, acted as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the events of 1989 and after.[7]

Contemporary revolutions therefore owe much to the legacy of 1989, 1968, and 1905, They also share similarities with the experience of 1776. Hannah Arendt famously saw in the American Revolution a ‘self-limiting’ model of revolutionary change that was oriented around individual liberty and democratic representation, while leaving the ‘social question’ (mass poverty and inequality) relatively untouched.[8] Both the rallying-cries (e.g. freedom, justice, dignity) and aims (fairer political representation, an end to corruption, nepotism and indignity) of contemporary revolutionaries look quite familiar in this regard. It follows that the forces that animate contemporary revolutions have their origins, however faint, in the first age of revolution.

Two conclusions result from this analysis. First, revolutions accumulate from events, sometimes far in their past, which are reproduced, if not repeated, across time and place. Second, revolutionary waves require regular reassessment and revision. From a narrow perspective, the Arab Uprisings represent a distinct wave that began in 2010 and are, as of 2019, more or less over. Opening up our temporal lens a little, 2011 becomes part of a longer wave that emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s. A third, even longer-term perspective ties the events of 2010-11 to events reaching back to the Constitutional Revolutions in the early years of the twentieth century. A final, ultra wide-angle viewpoint places them within a tradition of revolutionary struggle that stretches back to the second half of the eighteenth century. In this way, assessment of revolutions, revolutionary waves and, indeed, ages of revolutions depend on prior judgements about where and when they start, and where and when they end.

George Lawson is Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of Anatomies of Revolution (Cambridge, 2019) and Negotiated Revolutions (Routledge, 2005), co-author (with Barry Buzan) of The Global Transformation (Cambridge, 2015), and co-editor (with Julian Go) of Global Historical Sociology (Cambridge, 2017) and (with Chris Armbruster and Mick Cox) The Global 1989 (Cambridge, 2010).

Title image: Liberty Bell with Independence Hall in the background. 


[1] Eric Hobsbawm (1962) The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (London: Abacus), p. 4.

[2] C.A. Bayly (2004) The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 147.

[3] Jeremy Adelman (2006) Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic (Princeton: Princeton University Press); Jeremy Adelman (2008) ‘An Age of Imperial Revolutions’, American Historical Review 113(2): 319-340.

[4] Revolutionary waves is a much debated term. See, in particular: Colin Beck (2011) ‘The World-Cultural Origins of Revolutionary Waves’, Social Science History 35(2): 167-207; Colin Beck (2014) ‘Reflections on the Revolutionary Wave in 2011’, Theory and Society 43(2): 197-223; Mark Katz (1997) Revolutions and Revolutionary Waves (New York: St Martin’s); John Markoff (1996) Waves of Democracy (Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge); Nader Sohrabi (2002) ‘Global Waves, Local Actors: What the Young Turks Knew about Other Revolutions and Why It Mattered’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 44(1): 45-79; Kurt Weyland (2012) ‘The Arab Spring:  Why the Surprising Similarities with the Revolutionary Wave of 1848?’, Perspectives on Politics 10(4): 917-934; and Kurt Weyland (2014) Making Waves: Democratic Contention in Europe and Latin American Since the Revolutions of 1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

[5] Jack Goldstone (2016) Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World, 2nd Edition, (London: Routledge), p. ii.

[6] The obvious exception to this pattern is the revolutionary strand of militant Islamism, exemplified by al-Qaeda and Islamic State, which combines hierarchical organization with an equally hierarchical vision. For more on this, see:  George Lawson (2019) Anatomies of Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), Chapter Seven.

[7] Charles Kurzman (2008) Democracy Denied, 1905-1915 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p. 8.

[8] Hannah Arendt (1963) On Revolution (London: Viking).

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