Varying Forms of Violence in Revolutions from 1776 to 1990

Seminar Paper, 2003

10 Pages, Grade: 1,6


The term revolution in its original meaning was a synonym for “restoration” of a political system which meant a return to some prior state of affairs. Only after the French Revolution did this definition change. Today we understand it as an overthrow and transformation of a political regime caused by popular rebellions or insurrections. This overthrow usually involves violent means. Some scientists even call a revolution the “most consequential and (frequently) violent form of political conflict in history”[1] and state that violence is an essential characteristic of revolutions. Most revolutions in fact were characterized by a large degree of violence among the government and oppositional groups. Violence in revolutions simply occurs because governments are usually not willing to transfer power to a new group of people. This of course creates tensions. Social movements, rebellions, riots, coups d’etat, and other political conflicts have often been closely connected with revolutions or revolutionary situations.

There are basically four major forms of violence we can distinguish between. The first and most frequent one is direct violence against the regime and its leaders. In this case government officials, politicians, or in former times nobles are attacked by the common people. Closely connected to this is violence against the police in a state. This is a rather modern phenomenon in which the police embodies the government because leaders are protected by special security agencies. A third form of violence is directed against large portions of the public. This can be carried out either by the original government as a response to rebellions or by new groups who seized power during the revolution. These new governments might now feel that they have to stabilize the new regime and therefore use force to keep further uprisings down. Good examples for this type of violence are the French and Russian revolutions. A forth form of violence is the symbolic one. In this case there is no physical harm done to any persons. Symbolic action can be for example tearing and feathering, open discrimination, or destroying of personal property which has no material but only a symbolic value. This was used quite frequently during the American Revolution.

However, not all revolutions automatically include violent means to overthrow the system. The degree of violence is usually determined by the opposition leaders. These elite people are responsible for making propaganda and motivating lower classes to rebel. It is normally their decision whether to use peaceful means like demonstrations or more violent ones like attacking governmental buildings. We can see a trend toward more non-violent and unarmed protests against governments during the final decades of the 20th century. Dozens of revolutions succeeded in overthrowing the regime without using force. Good examples for this might be the movement against British rule in India in the 1950s or the Eastern European revolutions in 1989/90.

In this essay I will discuss the different forms of violence by using the American, the Russian, and the East German revolutions as examples. In a conclusion I will then compare them and write about differences and similarities that occurred. I will furthermore point out changes in revolutions in our modern time and try to give some ideas why and how the nature of revolutions changed over time.

The first revolution, the American one, which I will talk about was very unique. It was not intended from the beginning on to become a revolution. Furthermore up to 1775 it rather was a resistance movement against British taxation policies. The violence used in this revolution was only directed against British authorities, their soldiers, and those who supported them. It was done in forms of rioting and crowd action.

Back in the 18th century riots were regarded as something normal. People had little opportunities to express their opinion besides starting a riot. There were neither political parties nor nongovernmental organizations as we have today. Most societies were violent during that time, however, violence in the colonies was not just arbitrary. It rather rested on well developed ideas, namely those of protesting against British policies. Crowd action became an institution of the colonial resistance movement. It is however in the American case very important to mention that many crowd actions were not causing physical harm but were symbolic. Additionally resistance against the British was mainly concentrated in certain regions of the colonies. Most uprisings occurred in the larger cities of the New England states with Boston as a center and occasionally in New York City.


[1] See Anarchism – Topics & Definitions – Revolutions

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Varying Forms of Violence in Revolutions from 1776 to 1990
International University Bremen
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Varying, Forms, Violence, Revolutions
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Frederik Boesch (Author), 2003, Varying Forms of Violence in Revolutions from 1776 to 1990, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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