Tilly, Theories and Modern Revolutions Oh My

The way one structures the concept of revolutions will ultimately determine how many revolutions have actually occurred throughout history. Therefore, broader definitions will not only lead one to recognize more events that qualify as a revolution, but they are important in identifying the issues within a society that deserve attention- especially in the context of oppression.

Charles Tilly argues this point enthusiastically. He claims that there is a deficiency of “grounded analysis of revolutionary process that connect them [revolutions] firmly to our accumulating knowledge of state formation and routine political contention” (Tilly, 5).

Why is this important?  Tilly focuses on connecting factors, similarities, shifts of power and the outcomes of revolutions in order to connect the past, present and future. He asks “how forcible transfers of state power have changed in character as a function of transformations in European social structure, especially the organization of states and relations among states,” “how changes in revolution connect with alterations in non-revolutionary conflict and collective action,” and “how revolutions work, and whether the regularizes within revolutions have changed systematically over the five centuries under review” (Tilly, 5). These questions connect factors, which show that revolutions all involve forced transfer of power over states so this must involve how states use force because they vary in time, space and social setting. This is valuable when as a society, we wonder about our own fates, triumphs and outcomes.

Tilly’s objective of analysis however, does not base itself on solely violence because he believes that certain incidents of collective violence is actually “collective action. He believes this because the collective violence is just a typical part of competition between groups over power and numerous conflicting goals. (Skocpol,10). Whereas collective action, “defined as ‘People’s acting together in pursuit of common interests.” (Skocpol, 10). Collective action in revolutions according to Tilly involve all the contenders fighting for “Ultimate political sovereignty over a population” where all the challenging contenders succeed in at some point over throwing the already existing power holders. Revolutionary situations involving “multiple sovereignty” contain two main parts we need to consider according to Tilly. The first part we need to consider is all the long-term shift of social trends from one group to another in society. (Skocpol, 11). The second part we must take into consideration is the importance of examining any “medium-term occurrences, such as the proliferation of revolutionary ideologies and the increase of the popular discontent, that make revolutionary contenders for sovereignty likely to emerge and large elements of the population likely to support their claims.” The revolutionary moment arrives when an alternative government, body, or some kind of group is being followed more favorably than the actual government. This means there are where there is two “sovereign” states ruling over the people, although the second one is illegitimate. Because of the multiple sovereignty, the original government is more likely to collapse because there is less support. But in order for multiple sovereignty in a revolution to be successful there has to be force, In short, multiple sovereignty can only be successful with a force against the standing government (Skocpol, pg.11).  The idea of multiple sovereignty can be applied to the Egyptian and Libyan protests

This picture is of a protest taking place in Libya

This picture is of a protest taking place in Libya

because they started to follow groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. With people paying more attention on these other groups, the political governments in place could not stand alone. Eventually, there were new political officials because of the collective action in Arab Spring, classifying them as revolutions.

Another thing that could potentially cause a revolution would be a war, along with multiple sovereignty. The outcomes of wars correlate to revolutions and wars are involved in multiple states- how the other states react to internal conflict will strongly affect the outcomes. In order to identify which states might have revolutions, it is crucial to inspect domestic and the relationships among states. War, is an event that has affected nearly every generation, including our own can act as an indicator or a correlation of revolutionary events to come.

However, collective action and multiple sovereignty are not the only things that cause revolutions. Tilly also claims that social perceptions act as a corresponding factor to revolutions. If we want to examine the parallels between our modern day predictors of revolution, it is crucial to examine past attitude shifts. A personality of a revolution will be shaped by the causes and common mindsets. In order to provide examples of this, Tilly states that “1. By shaping the state’s structure and its relation to the subject populations; 2. By determining who are the major actors within any particular polity as well as how they approach political struggle; and 3. By affecting how much pressure example of the transition between an agrarian to an industrial economy; which eliminated the power of the caste like landlord/peasant relationship, bears upon the state and from which directions”(Tilly, 6).  These social perceptions are all indeed possible factors to cause a revolution. People are more likely to rebel if they are being oppressed, whether in a social structure of classes, or economically.

There is never just one thing that can be picked out and determined as the cause of a revolution.  Many theorists believe that there are multiple things that factor into the cause of an event.  Tilly believes that collective action, multiple sovereignty, and social perceptions are all significant factors when trying to determine an event as a revolution. His ideas on collective action help show that no sole event can cause a revolution singlehandedly. He also believed that multiple sovereign groups with some sort of force against the standing government would be required to cause revolution. Lastly, he believed that many social perceptions, such as economic and social class struggles had to be in place in order to incite a revolution. Looking at revolutions in various ways is the only way to truly identify their cause.



Works Cited


Skocpol, Theda. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and

China. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979. 3-42. Print.


Tilly, Charles. European Revolutions, 1492-1992. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1993. Print.


  1. I thought your post did a great job capturing Tilly’s main points throughout the article. Tilly believed mostly in government institutions. I felt as though Tilly would expect a government not be so easily moved by economic and class struggles but rather ensure that it was able and equipped to suppress tendencies that could ultimately lead to a revolution. That, of course, is easier said then done.

  2. I really like how you incorporated all of Tilly’s ideas into your post. On your paragraph about war, I remember the reading talked about how war would only be a revolution cause if the revolting group won. Otherwise it was considered a rebellion. I would be curious to know which idea of his do you see as the biggest cause revolution.

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