Revolution or Evolution? How should society change to a future, moneyless, sustainable socioeconomic system? For organisations proposing change revolution present to desirable option. This article looks at the characteristics of revolutions as compared to an alternative way to change society: evolution.

Complex systems [1, 2] constantly change [3], if they did not do so, they would died. This results from the dynamic nature of complex systems; they live close to the edge of chaos constantly changing to keep themselves balanced. When such systems do change, they can do so in three ways.

  1. The can constantly change but remain around the same place like standing up strait. When you stand you never stay perfectly still. Your body constantly adjust your position and changing the way you stand but you remain in the same place.
  2. A sudden or rapid change, which can happen when a system moves from one state to other, like losing your balance and falling over.
  3. A slow change from one state to another, like stepping out with one foot as you begin to walk.

The change itself become as type of change referred to as a phase change. The change doesn’t come out of nowhere. Often events happen in a system or society long before a change occurs that eventually trigger the change.

Societies and Change

Societies represent a type of complex system [4] and as such exhibit the same characteristics as other complex system. Most societies stay in the same state on a day to day basis. New people enter the society and older people leave but society remains much the same. On a longer time scale societies can change rapidly, such a sudden change we refer to as a revolution. Many societies have experienced such a change in the past. Slower changes we call evolution and societies constantly experience such changes as they adept to the world around them.

We can make a simplistic model of how society changes if we model it as a basic second order system. A second order system represents a overly simplified model of a society in change but it does highlight some important characteristics of change that more complex societies exhibit.
A second order system has a damping factor associated with it. An under damped systems changes from one state to the next rapidly and tends to overshoot. It then comes back towards the target values but osculates around the target value and takes some time before the oscillations die down and the system settles down in to the new state. An over damped system moves more slowly to the target value but settles down much quicker than on over damped system.

Society acts similar to a second order system. When a revolution occurs, society moves rapidly from one state to the next, often violently. Society then goes through a situation of overshoot when the leaders of the new state over compensate and, for example, carry out purges or introduce restrictions that are often relaxed at a later date. After a revolution, a society can often take generations to settle down to a point where the effects of the revolution have diminished. Slower changes in society can often have just as a dramatic effect but without the overshoot and with a shorter settling. For example, the introduction of IT-technology occurred within a few decades in the Western World, radically altering society yet without the dramatic events associated with a revolution. Society also settled down to a hi-tech society within a generation.

List of Revolutions

Historical revolutions

According to the theories of dialectal materialism, revolution is the unavoidable result of antagonistic tensions between classes in a developing society. Before investigating the merits of this argument in the following chapter, we should analyse the effects of historical revolutions to see how good their development responds to the theorem of dialectal materialism.

We should look at four examples to discuss 1) how well they corresponded to the Marxist view, and 2) how well they corresponded to the Wallacean view outlined above. Our four examples are France, Russia, China and Iran.

France (1789-1871)

Between 1789 and 1871, France experienced four major political revolutions, which have inspired revolutionaries worldwide and created the popular image of how a revolution is conducted, with barricades, agitation, angry masses of people moving to overthrow the government, stormings of palaces and executions of enemies of the people.

I will not discuss the Paris Commune of 1871 since it was a failed revolution, and I will instead focus on the successful “bourgeoisie” revolutions of 1789, 1830 and 1848.

What characterises the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 was that they both shared a lot of similarities; firstly that failed reforms and unpopular monarchies were unable to negotiate with or squash public unrest, that moderate republican factions took power before in there turn being ousted by more radical political forces, which in their turn were unable to consolidate their power. The eventual end-result of both revolutions were that the civil governments were eventually replaced with military dictatorships, which in their turn elevated Napoléon the Great and his nephew to the throne on reinstituted monarchies.

The revolution of 1830 lead to the transition from a semi-absolutist monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, and was a lot less bloody than the other two revolutions here described.

What could be said of the French revolution(s) is that it clearly followed the unstable pattern which is characterised by sudden transitions in a regimented system. We should also note that it took 81 years from the first revolution in 1789 to 1871 when the Second Empire was overthrown and France permanently emerged as a republic. During that time, the productive factors of all of western Europe had changed. Even though the change was sudden, the revolutions had less an effect than long-term reforms.

Before making this conclusion though, we should realise that the first French revolution was a tremendous cataclysm which swallowed large parts of continental Europe. Thus, could not the French Revolution had been said to develop Europe beyond the late feudal era and herald the industrial revolution?

Undoubtly so, but lest not forget that the industrial revolution in France was even potentially halted by the chaos of the revolution in 1789-1792, and the following revolutionary wars 1792-1815.
Remember that there was not a revolution in the United Kingdom, and yet the country managed to become the leading industrial power and leading capitalist nation in the 19th century, and to modernise its institutions to cope with the development.

Russia (1917-1991)

Under Lenin, the Bolsheviks upheld the theory of the Vanguard, which stated that the small and weak working class of Russia would be needed to be led by the Bolshevik Party, according to Lenin the enlightened forerunners of the proletariat who alone understood what the workers needed.

Although the duty of the vanguard was to take the lead during a potential revolutionary situation, it was taken by surprise in February 1917, some months after Lenin had uttered that the revolution in Russia was decades away.

The Russian revolution was not an inevitable event, but a historical “accident” which would not have occurred if not Russia had been mauled to pieces at the battlefield by the German and Austrian-Hungarian empires in the First World War.

One could say that the Russian February revolution happened under extra-ordinary conditions, and just was one part of the general total collapse and demoralisation which occurred in Russia during the years of 1917-1922.

For all it’s shortcomings, the tsarist system was not so weak that it wouldn’t have survived haven’t it been for the first world war, and the small Russian working class, although playing an important role in the revolution, was not overally supportive of the Bolsheviks, which did only win one quarter of the votes in the election of 1918, despite being in control of the state apparatus.

Clearly, the Russian working class did not understand their “objective class interests” as indicated by the results.

We could note that the Russian Revolution followed the same pattern as the first French Revolution, with a foreign intervention (The Coalitions/The Entente), a conflict between different kinds of revolutionaries, and the eventual consolidation of power into the hands of one faction, culminating in the restoration of a more moderate system.

China (1926-1949)

It is actually wrong to talk about a Chinese “revolution”, since Mao and the communist party gained power during a Chinese Civil War, and therefore – with Soviet aid I might add – conquered China province for province in a fierce struggle with the Guomintang.

After the communists had won power, a power struggle due to the failed “Great Lead Forward” soon brought open a power struggle between the adherents of Mao and the “revisionists”, leading to the “Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which was an attempt to indoctrinate socialist ideology into the society on a grand scale.

By the path which China has taken since 1978, we could conclude that China still fits the pattern of other revolutions, and that the new ruling class, when consolidated, soon start to acquire the behaviours of traditional ruling classes. In the case of China, it did not happen through a revolution, but through a state of anarchy which in reality had existed since the era of the warlords around 1916.

Iran (1979-1981)

Iran is a unique case because the complexity of the revolution reminded very much of that of France in 1789. We had an unpopular and isolated regent, who had not only irritated the educated bourgeoisie and middle class because of the reactionary, outdated monarchy and his seeming inability to modernise the country, but also the masses of the impoverished country-side, due to the economic situation.

The Shah also lacked internal legitimacy (twice brought to power by foreign interests as he had been). If he had been a stronger ruler, he might have been able to reform the system and prolong it, but due to his inability to foresee what would happen, he behaved in an arrogant way towards everyone except his foreign allies, which he tried to backstab in 1978.

His regime fell in February 1979, due to protests from liberals and socialists, but when the masses of people were mobilised due to the return of Khomeini, the revolution soon turned peculiar. Instead of a more progressive government, the Iranian people gained a theocracy which have lasted until this day, and by 1981, Iran was an Islamic republic.


As we can see, the imagined picture of a revolution as an inevitable feature in the history of the progress of society is not equal to the idea that each and every revolution will turn out creating a more progressive society.

For the first thing, the mass of people mobilised against the government in question is not doing what they are doing based on ideological convictions, but rather on their disagreements with the practical policies of the government. For if the population had been discontent about the very thought of a government, they would not have been governable. We could also see that all popular revolutions the last 100 years happened against semi-tyrannical governments which were both repressive and incompetent in different ways, and that even tyrannical governments could survive if they act wisely.

The revolutionary political parties carried to power have in all cases repeated the pattern of radicalisation, moderation, consolidation and eventually reconstruction which we could first see in the French revolution, something which shows to us that most revolutions do indeed happen in something which could be called a pattern.

This pattern though, is not determining the development of society more than it is determined by it, and history shows us that society will change according to the small changes which are mostly generated by technological development and the increased ability to make use of the available energy that gives us.

Of course, political reform within a social system is seldom a way to move forward, but what is needed is an evolutionary approach to social change.


[1] Nigel Goldenfeld and Leo P. Kadanoff. “Simple Lessons from Complexity”. Science. Pp 87-89. 2 Apr 1999.
[2] Kevin Kelly. “Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World”. Perseus Books Group. 1995
[3] Christoph Adami, Charles Ofria, and Travis C. Collier. “Evolution of biological complexity”. Processding of the Acadamy of Science of the United Sates of America. Vol. 97. No.9. Pp 4463-4468. 25 April 2000.
[4] Steven N. Durlauf. “What Should Policymakers Know About Economic Complexity?” Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin and Santa Fe Institute. 13 September 1997