Matthew O'neill

Is gradual or revolutionary change more likely to result in a just society?

The French revolution with its storming of the Bastille and guillotines, the “red terror” of the Russian revolution of 1917, Mao Zedong’s communist revolution, Castro’s Cuban revolution, the Iranian (aka Islamic) revolution of 1979; the very word “revolution” conjures up images of injustice, violence, bloodshed and chaos - and usually in that order.


We seem to have a slightly different perspective however of the likes of the Suffragette movement or Gandhi’s revolt against British rule in India or the more recent Arab Spring. All were borne from injustice, all had their share of violence (albeit to different degrees and single-sidedly). So, what makes these different from the “traditional” concept of revolution? Was it the relative peaceful nature of protest or that the longevity of their outcome forms a perspective that they created a more just society in their wake? Or was it simply that they took more time? – 30 years in Gandhi’s instance and c.20 years for the Suffragettes? The debate between gradual and revolutionary change then, often characterised as reformism versus revolution, is one which warrants consideration.


Revolution can be thought of as a sudden change in political power caused by a revolt in the population and while it may be a remarkably efficient method of changing society, one can argue it rarely results in a just one.  Is revolution therefore more desirable than gradual reform, and how can the architects of a revolution secure a just society, assuming that is their intent of course?


History is littered with examples of revolutions aimed at deposing one tyrant only to succeed in replacing them with another. Consider for example, the French revolution of 1789. Led by the tyrannical Robespierre, it is estimated that the subsequent “Reign of Terror” was responsible for the deaths of up to 40,000 citizens. Following his bloody demise, it paved the way for the national hero, Napoleon, through a coup d'état of his own, to assume power as emperor of France, bringing the revolution full circle to a style of dictatorship reminiscent of the monarchy it replaced a mere decade earlier. Other examples include the Russian revolution and its resulting 69 years of authoritarian communist regime only for it to disintegrate before yet again return to a dictatorship under Putin. Opponents to this view, cite the American revolution of 1765 as the prime example that revolution can also lead to long lasting and just societies and in America’s case, the world’s largest democracy and we will explore this later.


The pattern of dictatorship begetting dictatorship can be partially explained by the spontaneous nature of revolutions. As Chowning Davies (1962) describes in his “J-Curve” theory, revolutions are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of social and economic development is followed by a rapid decline. One should note here the clear juxtaposition between the long-lasting and prosperous establishment and the speed of its downfall.


This points towards the fact that revolution comes rapidly and violently rather than through a gradual, democrat or peaceful process. In States and Social Revolutions, Skocpol (2015) demonstrates how for a revolution to occur, the administrative and military power of a state has to break down, making changes through the establishment even harder to achieve.  For this reason, revolutions remain relatively spontaneous, often lacking a clear agreement between the revolutionaries as to what they believe should replace the original establishment. They are predominantly united in their desire to overthrow the current regime. Moreover, one could also argue that these circumstances risk attracting individuals seeking to exploit revolution for their own gain; using the movement as a means to eliminate a tyrannical government as an opportunity to gain power for themselves. This effect would also help explain the pattern of continued oppression following revolution. If we assume that positions of authority attract the ambitious, then it would be logical to expect the same of revolutionary types. A more typical explanation for this behaviour could be that, in the words of Sir John Dalberg-Acton (1887) ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ [1], meaning that one could expect successful revolutionaries to be over-whelmed by their sudden new power to such an extent that they become reluctant to relinquish it, despite the hypocrisy of such an act.


Gradual reform it could be argued, can avoid these pitfalls. When society has time to adjust, the new government is more likely to have emerged through a democratic process that better represents the specific needs of society.


This is not to say that revolutions are undesirable or unjustified in every circumstance. This argument assumes that change through the existing establishment is always possible. Often revolutions are fuelled not just by the populaces’ discontent at a rapid decline (be it social, economic or both), but by their helplessness to arrest that decline. To return to the example of late 18th century France, not only was the population suffering extreme economic hardship, but the division of society into the First and Second Estates of the clergy and nobility compared to the Third Estate of the commoners showed an inequality of a dramatic scale. Despite being 98% of the populous, the Third Estate were almost completely at the whim of the clergy and nobility who misused their power by raising taxes from the poor for their own gain. In such a situation, gradual reform would have been impossible leaving the only resort for commoners, active defiance. Revolution in these circumstances therefore would be the only vehicle in which to effect change at the speed necessary to avoid continued hardship and oppression despite its aforementioned shortcomings.


The negative aspects of revolutionary change such as in the French, suggest gradual change is the more desirable, however this it is not always the case. The most obvious example of this is the American revolution which has established the largest democracy in the world and one that has continued to thrive as a “just” society for over 200 years.


The key difference between the outcomes of the French and American revolutions can be partially attributed to the fact that the founding fathers had a clear vision of both the government they wanted the country to be free of and crucially, the type of governance and society it should be replaced with. This can be evidenced through the Declaration of Independence wherein British rule was not only denounced, but the specific aspects of British rule that the colonies were unsatisfied with. Thus, it implies the changes that were believed necessary such as for example, ‘the benefits of trial by jury’. In doing this, revolutionary leaders could eliminate any potential infighting or confusion following the revolution and in so doing make it considerably harder for any individual or group to hijack power. Not only this, but the success of the American revolution could also be attributed to its very limited scope (not to be confused with ambition). The founding fathers sought a political revolution whilst maintaining the already established economic and social policy.


The American revolution, while successful, can still serve however as an argument for gradual change, as both economic and social change did not happen overnight. This also alludes to an argument against revolutionary change: that it does not allow time for a society’s values to change, instead relying only on the population’s unity of discontentment of the status quo rather than a united vision of what to replace it with.


Whilst it can be argued that the American revolution led to a democratic and just society, there is a counter argument since it must be remembered that the society which emerged presided over the most profoundly unjust of societal aspects for almost a further 100 years; the slave trade. Indeed, reform came through perhaps that most grave of revolutions, civil war (and America’s bloodiest conflict to date). In From gradualism to immediatism: Another look, Macleod (1982) makes the distinction between the gradualists (advocates for gradual change) and immediatists (advocates of immediate change) in the fight against slavery, showing how the questions surrounding gradual and revolutionary change reverberate throughout history.


This reflects the limitations of revolution - to secure success, it benefits revolutionaries to limit the scope of their new ideas, the lowest common denominator as it were. In doing so however, the “new” society is forced to inherit several problems from the previous one. In turn, possibly enough for some not to see the benefit of revolution in the first place.


Gradual change, if possible, can tackle social, economic and political issues together, whilst also giving time for society to change its values as a whole to ensure reforms are more likely to be longer lasting and successful. The limitations of gradual change are just that, its gradual nature. This translates into a far greater period of time in which a population must endure living in an unjust society for and who of us could have unlimited patience with tyranny, oppression and injustice?  As we can see from the American revolution and the slave trade that continued to prosper, revolutions rarely fare better.  Other historical examples fair far worse, with new regimes often being crueler than those deposed with the asset of a more subservient population, making significant changes even more distant. As George Bernard Shaw (1903, p.1) observed: ‘Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny. They have only shifted it to another shoulder.’[2]

This failure of revolutions to truly remove tyranny is made worse by the fact that they come through violence and conflict. While violence may technically be an unnecessary component of a revolution, it becomes necessary through the establishment’s unwillingness to accept change or relinquish power. Matthew White’s observation (2011, p.17) that “Chaos is deadlier than tyranny. More […] multicides result from the breakdown of authority than the exercise of authority” [2], suggests revolutions necessitate the breakdown of authority. In this sense, revolutions are likely to demand violence and suffering (be it deserved or undeserved), only to achieve a society similar or identical to what has been deposed – an unjust one. Moreover, the common lack of criminal justice in times of revolution such as with the French revolution’s Reign of Terror or the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late seventies shows violence is likely to be directed disproportionally towards the innocent.


The methods of revolutionary and gradual change remain a divisive issue and poses a question that cannot be distilled into a simple answer. Both methods of change pose risks and benefits if a population yearns for a just society. Either approach can be justified depending on circumstances. However, taking into consideration the lessons of history, I believe gradual change is the more likely to produce a just society. Revolutions may be desirable for their ability to produce rapid change, but this is also one of their greatest shortcomings. In the violence of revolution there is rarely any guarantee that the will of the people is enacted upon democratically and rarely any clear and united vision of what the new establishment should be. The rush to justice (often based on retribution) in the absence of legal systems leads to the deaths of the innocent, the very people the revolution was acting for.


In contrast, gradual change appears more effective both in reflecting the will of the people and guaranteeing a long-term just society. That is not to say, revolution cannot be a success if the vision of the post society is clear and the scope is realistic as the American revolution demonstrates. Whether it is a just society, however, is debatable. The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s are just two testaments to the opposite. Even today, America suffers greatly from economic and social inequality. Perhaps the answer therefore is not whether a gradual or revolutionary approach produces the more just society, but what we perceive to be a just society in the first place.


[1] Dalberg-Acton, J. (1887). The Correspondence between Lord Acton and Bishop Creighton. Cambridge Historical Journal


[2] Shaw, B. and Limited Editions Club (1903). The revolutionist’s handbook & pocket companion. Ltd. Editions Club.


[3] White, M. (2013). Atrocities : the 100 deadliest episodes in human history. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.



Chowning Davies, J. (1962). Toward a Theory of Revolution. American Sociological Review, [online] 27, pp.5–19.

Luxemburg, R. (1899) Social Reform or Revolution? Pathfinder Books Ltd

Chowning Davies, J. (1962). Toward a Theory of Revolution. American Sociological Review

Macleod, D. (1982). From gradualism to immediatism: Another look.

Skocpol, T. (2015). States and social revolutions : a comparative analysis of France, Russia, and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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