Revolution: Overturning the Whole Political System

Overturning the whole political system in a revolution leads to violence and suffering; it is difficult to restore stability.

The term ‘revolution’ is used here to describe a complete and simultaneous change of economic, legal and political systems.  A striking example was the French Revolution in 1789, where the people stripped the power and wealth from the king and the aristocracy.  Such a revolution is risky, as Edmund Burke foretold at that time in his letter Reflections on the Revolution in France:

“I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners.  All these (in their way) are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long.  The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints.” (para. 242)

Several subsequent revisions were needed, to deal with some of the adverse consequences of that revolution.

Revolutions can rely on the charisma of a leader to carry them through but, as Max Weber pointed out in his lecture Politics as a Vocation, they lack stability until the necessary institutions are in place.  And people’s impatience, for the changes that they hoped to achieve with a revolution, will continue until progress becomes visible.

There are several recent examples of overturning the whole political system, where the people suffered:

●  Chairman Mao’s attempt to transform China was costly, according to history.com: “Some 1.5 million people were killed during the Cultural Revolution [1966-68], and millions of others suffered imprisonment, seizure of property, torture or general humiliation.”

●  A Time.com article, Cambodian Khmer Rouge Killers Sentenced, reported that its “leaders were responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people during Cambodia’s infamous “killing fields” period in the 1970s”.

●  America’s attempts at regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq were very costly, and ultimately unsuccessful, as described later (


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6253.htm