Revolutions are defined most often by their combination of extraordinary means and ends, drastic social and political transformations that occur during and in the wake of vast mobilizations of mass forces. Scholars compare such historic episodes to understand why masses take action when they do and to explain how popular forces combine with the actions and reactions of elites to produce the structural and ideological results of revolutions. The sharpness of revolutionary definitions and comparisons becomes blurred when we widen our gaze beyond the great modern revolutions. Popular forces mobilized in great numbers and often with much violence yet had little effect on social relations in various instances, especially in the centuries before 1789. Recently, we have seen the overthrow of seemingly permanent and brutal regimes in Eastern Europe by vast, though poorly organized and nonviolent, street demonstrations. In those cases, weak means appear to have produced ends of profound change.
This chapter makes a plea for setting aside definitions of revolution and instead broadening the scope of our analysis to encompass a range of instances of attempted and achieved political change, cases in which mass mobilization was absent as well as present, and cases in which structural change was narrow as well as broad. I shall argue that the structure of elite relations provides the best basis for a typology of comparisons because the degree of conflict among elites determines the efficacy of mass action. This chapter seeks to understand how revolutions matter by locating the great revolutions within a historically broader yet theoretically more precise study of the interaction of elite conflicts and mass mobilization.
Participants and scholarly observers find it difficult to gauge the short-term political and long-term structural effects of revolutionary mass action because notions of revolution conflate two parallel and only occasionally interacting processes: ongoing elite conflict and episodic mass mobilizations. Mass mobilization occurs most often during periods of unusually intense elite conflict. Mass action has structural consequences only to the extent that