Revolutionary Ideology in the Outcomes of Social Revolutions


Revolutionary Ideology in the Outcomes of Social Revolutions

Jordan Elliott
Published by the PIT Journal: 


Revolutions are extreme changes in a country that can have far-reaching effects for its neighbors. For this reason, many countries pay close attention to revolutions as they play out to decide whether or not to assist or impede revolutionary progress to protect their own interests. Predicting the course of such events therefore becomes essential to determining foreign policy towards areas in turmoil. Scholars largely agree that revolutions tend to play out in similar ways. However, revolutionary theorists are still at odds over how successful revolutionary states form. Some historians such as Theda Skocpol (1979) argue that social revolutions are a product of socioeconomic and political conditions and therefore are predictable in at-risk countries. Others, like Greg McCarthy (2008), claim that this view fails to take into account social class and the struggle resulting from socioeconomic differences, factors that have been driving forces in revolutions instigated by the lower class, as in France and Russia. I contend that, although the preceding government and society are significant in causing a revolution and creating revolutionaries, the ideological mindset of the revolutionary group is itself a major factor in determining the outcome of the revolution. I will demonstrate this by analyzing revolutions of the communist ideology and noting common political and ideological trends that can be used to determine common outcomes of communist-influenced revolution. 

Social revolution is a specific form of upheaval in the national political and social structure that can emerge from religious and economic motivations. These events are, according to Skocpol (1979), “basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures; and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below” (p. 4). Such upheavals involve not only political and governmental shifts, but also socioeconomic changes. Both the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, in 1917 and 1949, respectively, can be classified as social revolutions. The Russians had a change in government from constitutional monarchy under the Tsars to Marxist-Leninist state under the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin, who transferred means of production form private owners to the government. The Chinese went from military dictatorship by Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist party to a Marxist-Leninist state under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) marking a shift in social power to the peasantry. Both of these events involved massive upheaval in government and socioeconomic class structures. 

The 1917 Russian revolution and 1949 Chinese revolution occurred over thirty years apart and in different cultures and regions. However, both revolutions shared an important aspect: being led by communist groups. This factor, I argue, was strongly influential in the formation of their successor states during their respective civil wars. Both states were highly bureaucratic with high amounts of government control in the economy. This trajectory can be traced through their responses to rural dominance and decentralization as they succeeded in their civil wars, and I assert the tendencies the countries displayed reflect a general trend of ideologically communist revolutions. This resulting economic system with strong government influence is often referred to as a “command economy,” where the central government controls the economic goals of the nation and distributes the resources necessary for production. Command economies are often seen in communist countries and are a common outcome of a successful communist revolution. 

There may be some objections to the idea of generalizing the outcomes of revolutions beyond individual cases. Logic seems to dictate that every country has different political and socioeconomic conditions, all of which impact how a given revolution plays out. The revolutions I intend to analyze are no exception to this influence of specific circumstance. The Soviet Union was formed out of a nation with an urban proletariat vulnerable to the Bolsheviks. Their revolution led to the creation of a state that gained much of its power from municipal soviets, worker’s councils meant to provide local governance in cities, with the support of the working class. The peasantry, though oppressed, ruled itself through local leaders and was rather indifferent toward the central government. The Chinese Communist Party, on the other hand, was unable to gain control of the urban centers until late into its struggle, forcing it to adopt tactics emphasizing the rural peasants and mass mobilization, grassroots use of civilians to further political goals (Skocpol, 1979). These distinctions are noteworthy, but do not invalidate the generalization of communist-driven revolution as resulting in a bureaucratic command economy. 

As many historians acknowledge, both Tsarist Russia and Nationalist China had fundamental similarities at the times of their collapses. Richard Pipes (1968), a well-known scholar on Russia, and Skocpol (1979) both attribute some revolutionary sentiment in Russia and China to their large agrarian populations reacting against mistreatment by the central authority. The Russian Empire also had rising nationalistic sentiment from its conquered peoples in Poland, Finland, and other peripheral territories - mirrored by the divisions in China from its Warlord Era, after which the former warlords continued to have autonomy under the Kuomintang nationalists. Both revolutions also occurred around times of extreme national stress, the First World War destroying the Russian military and Japanese forces decimating the Chinese during the Second World War. These common conditions determined in part the type of revolution that took place in both countries—though the rebels’ beliefs factored in as well. While the conditions of a country at the beginning of its revolution determine many of the problems its new government will face, the ideology of the revolutionaries also plays a role and can contribute to the stability of the new regime, as evidenced by the unfolding of events in Russia and China. 

The first major similarity between the Chinese and Russian revolutions is that they both used either the urban or rural poor as their base, making freedoms for these groups imperative to consolidating power early on and giving the new government a method of mass mobilization through the peasantry. Agrarian society is one of the driving factors in the development of a successful communist movement. This idea may appear surprising, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848) were primarily concerned with the proletariat, or urban working class. The proletariat, they believed, was the group most injured by capitalism, and was destined to rise up against its oppressors to take the “means of production,” or assets such as factories, wealth, and tools that make up the non-human part of manufacturing. The temporary government that formed after the Russian Empire’s collapse ruled alongside the socialist Petrograd Soviet, creating a semi-organized system through which the Bolsheviks could harness proletarian power and advance their agenda. However, Lenin’s party soon took steps to bring the peasants under their rule (Pipes, 1968). 

In China, similar events unfolded in reverse order: The CCP had trouble reaching the urban masses, which not only were a much smaller portion of the Chinese population than of the Russian but were largely under Kuomintang control. Instead, the communists turned their attention toward the peasantry, providing them with education and training while also using them as guerilla forces that could be quickly mobilized for battle. The Party then used a temporary alliance with their nationalist enemies during an invasion by Japan around the time of World War II to reach out to cities and the proletariat. Chen Zhihua (1987), a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, considers this union between proletariat and peasantry to be a similarity between the two revolutions—a union of the poor—and states that “the working class, though comparatively small, was able to persuade the peasantry, its poorest part, to its own side” (p. 7). The rebellion of those considered victims of capitalism is a central idea of communism (Marx & Engels, 1848), and can therefore be considered a characteristic of communist revolutions because of their ideological roots. 

Another similar aspect of the two revolutions is the elimination of the preceding government’s internal divisions to suit the ideological views of the revolutionaries. The Russian communists, at Lenin’s urging, issued a declaration of support for self-determination of all peoples. This statement effectively endorsed secessionist movements across Russia, helping the communists to gain support in the peripheral territories, such as the Caucuses and Poland. Some historians, such as Pipes (1968), would say that this statement was misleading, and that Lenin “had no intention of favoring an ‘unconditional’ right to self-determination” (p. 45), and was trying to gain support without actually allowing nations to leave Russia. Although the declaration of support was relevant to the communist goal of creating a world government bound not by national borders, but by class, Pipes does not consider the declaration to be in good faith. However, Ronald Kowalski (1997) takes the view that Marx and Engels themselves would have supported such a course of action. According to Kowalski, the logic behind this sentiment was that, if the communists denied self-determination to a subject nation, “then the workers of the latter would doubt its commitment to freedom and democracy” (p. 168). Certainly, Pipes is right in that Lenin did not intend for many nations to actually attempt to secede, as he was quick to label newly independent states as dominated by the bourgeoisie and no longer entitled to the privilege of self- determination. The communists then conquered most of the territory it had lost to independence movements. However, the connection between the declaration and Marxist works shows that the motivation behind this reconquest was, at least in part, ideological. And, Lenin eliminating many newly independent states resulted in the broadening of the Soviet Union’s command economy, an essential characteristic of communist governments. 

Much like Russia, China’s internal stability was also weak at the time of its revolution, a problem that the communists had to face in a way that fit their ideology. However, this decentralization was not due to nationalism. Immediately after the collapse of the Qing Empire, China was overrun with autocratic governments led by warlords. The Nationalist Alliance, using both KMT and CCP forces, defeated these dictators with the goal of uniting China. However, Chiang ran into problems after the split between the KMT and CCP, as he placed many of the former warlords in charge of their regions, giving the central government of Nationalist China only a portion of the Chinese military and little control over resources (Skocpol, 1979). The communists, upon conquering Kuomintang territory, were able to gain the support of the peasantry through educational programs meant to train them in self-organization and the promotion of communism. This support led to the creation of a centralized bureaucratic state, similar to that formed in Russia, but with a strong focus on the peasantry. of explaining communism to the proletariat, the essential group around which communism is based. 

This system utilized organization on all levels, from neighborhood to national, to spread the ideas of the government. The Chinese government turned out to be similar to the early Soviet Union (USSR) in some ways, such as its economic structure and party-centric government, likely in part a result of its political tutelage from Russia, the original communist state. This connection did not shape the revolution itself, but helped speed its success, giving the Chinese resources with which to stabilize their country with ideology intact. Skocpol (1979) states that “party organization made it possible for [the CCP] actively to mobilize peasant popular support during the 1940s, establishing a solid political basis in the countryside” (p. 266). The use of tried-and-true communist strategies, altered to suit an agrarian unindustrialized economy, shaped the structure of the new government of the People’s Republic of China, leading to programs of rapid industrialization similar to Stalinism with later returns to agriculture with the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. This general path resembled that of the Russians in its centralized bureaucratic methods. 

Although the Russian and Chinese revolutions ended similarly, with command economies and powerful bureaucracies, not all historians would consider communist revolutionaries to be a contributing factor to their paths. Critics of the importance of revolutionary groups, including both Skocpol (1979) and McCarthy (2008), argue that the revolutionaries themselves are products of countries’ internal situations, and their revolutionary roles arise from pragmatic, rather than ideological, solving of the problems brought on by these underlying factors. Skocpol notes the triumph of Stalinism over Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union and the post-revolutionary codification of Maoism in China as examples of circumstance winning out over ideology. However, this view neglects some important factors in these shifts. 

Firstly, Stalinism’s adoption in the Soviet Union was in part due to Lenin’s early death. This sudden occurrence left the Bolsheviks disorganized, allowing Stalin to take power - a circumstantial issue which could have been avoided by Lenin’s survival. In China, many of the unique parts of Maoism did not come into play until almost a decade after the revolution had yielded a stable government. During and after its revolutionary era, Chinese communists led a state that adhered to Marxist-Leninist ideals, demonstrating a strong ideological influence. Certainly circumstance and class conflict contribute to revolution, at least to some extent, but different ideological groups will deal with these issues according to their economic, political, and social beliefs. 

Most revolutionary analysts agree that revolutions have certain patterns to them (Skocpol, 1979; McCarthy, 2008; Chen, 1987). Communist revolutions, as seen in Russia and China, tend to result in bureaucratic single-party states with a large emphasis on state-led economic development (Skocpol, 1979, p. 282-283). This pattern generally holds through the first few years of the new regime’s existence. In this regard, I agree with Skocpol and McCarthy. Debate only arises when discussing what factors influence these patterns. The revolutionary ideologies, though often ignored as a force in their own right by those of Skocpol (1979) and McCarthy’s (2008) schools of thought, are, Chen (1987) and I contend, essential in determining the trajectory a revolution will follow. 

Even this theory’s detractors make statements that seem to support it. For example, Skocpol (1979) writes that “from 1921 on, the shape of the revolutionary New Regime depended upon how that [Bolshevik] leadership exercised and deployed state power in Russian Society” (p. 220). Although she considers state power to simply be a means of solidifying control to legitimatize the state, Skocpol’s statement demonstrates that ideological groups have the power to influence the direction of revolution by determining, among other things, the economic and political institutions that will govern the country. 

By gathering intelligence about revolutionary groups at the forefront of upheaval in a nation, we can deduce their ideologies. From their ideology, revolutionary tendencies can be applied to predict possible actions that may be taken during a revolution. For example, a communist group is likely to create a bureaucratic government based on the lower class, which could be effective at quick mass- mobilization in times of war. Using this sort of analysis, with emphasis on the structural and ideological distinctions of various revolutions, general trends for other revolutionary varieties, such as Islamic revolutions in the Middle East, can be found and refined. This information could be used to determine whether or not intervention is necessary for national security and if so, what sort. A country with an interest in oil in a region, for example, would not be keen on allowing communists to seize power, as the new regime would likely not be receptive to private investors. During a revolution led by religious zealots, onlookers may be less likely to deem intervention worth the trouble if such revolutionaries tend to create large, destructive armies. The guidelines discussed in this article, when applied to more revolutions, could provide a way to better predict the formation of governments in the critical stage of revolution. 




Chen, Z. (1987). On Some Subjective Conditions of Russian and Chinese Revolutions. China Report, 23(2), 221-229. doi:10.1177/000944558702300206 

Kowalski, R. I. (1997). The Russian Revolution: 1917-1921. London: Routledge. 

Marx, K., Engels, F., Harvey, D., & Moore, S. (2008). The communist manifesto. London: Pluto Press. 

McCarthy, G. (1986). Interpreting the Russian and Chinese revolutions. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 16(1), 75-94. doi:10.1080/00472338685390051 

Pipes, R. (1968). The formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and nationalism, 1917-1923 (2nd ed.). 

Skocpol, T. (1994). Social revolutions in the modern world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Skocpol, T. (1979). States and social revolutions: A comparative analysis of France, Russia, and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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