A revolutionary is a person who either participates in, or advocates a revolution.[1] Also, when used as an adjective, the term revolutionary refers to something that has a major, sudden impact on society or on some aspect of human endeavor.


The term—both as a noun and adjective—is usually applied to the field of politics, and is occasionally used in the context of science, invention or art. In politics, a revolutionary is someone who supports abrupt, rapid, and drastic change, usually replacing the status quo, while a reformist is someone who supports more gradual and incremental change, often working within the system. In that sense, revolutionaries may be considered radical, while reformists are moderate by comparison. Moments which seem revolutionary on the surface may end up reinforcing established institutions. Likewise, evidently small changes may lead to revolutionary consequences in the long term. Thus the clarity of the distinction between revolution and reform is more conceptual than empirical.

A conservative is someone who generally opposes such changes. A reactionary is someone who wants things to go back to the way they were before the change has happened (and when this return to the past would represent a major change in and of itself, reactionaries can simultaneously be revolutionaries). A revolution is also not the same as a coup d'etat: while a coup usually involves a small group of conspirators violently seizing control of government, a revolution implies mass participation and popular legitimacy. Again, the distinction is often clearer conceptually than empirically.

Revolution and ideology

According to sociologist James Chowning Davies, political revolutionaries may be classified in two ways:

  1. According to the goals of the revolution they propose. Usually, these goals are part of a certain ideology. In theory, each ideology could generate its own brand of revolutionaries. In practice, most political revolutionaries have been anarchists, communists, socialists, nationalists, syndicalists, and fascists.
  2. According to the methods they propose to use. This divides revolutionaries in two broad groups: Those who advocate a violent revolution, and those who are pacifists.

The revolutionary anarchist Sergey Nechayev argued in Catechism of a Revolutionary:

"The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it."[2][3]

According to Che Guevara:[4] "[T]the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a true revolutionary lacking in this quality"[5][6]

According to the Marxist Internet Archive, a revolutionary "amplif[ies] the differences and conflicts caused by technological advances in society. Revolutionaries provoke differences and violently ram together contradictions within a society, overthrowing the government through the rising to power of the class they represent. After destructing the old order, revolutionaries help build a new government that adheres to the emerging social relationships that have been made possible by the advanced productive forces."

Revolutionaries may be terrorists, but there is no necessary overlap. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin condemned terrorism for "destroying contact between the revolutionaries and the masses of the revolutionary classes of the population, and spreading both among the revolutionaries themselves and the population in general utterly distorted ideas of the aims and methods of struggle against the autocracy." In his controversial essay "Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution",[7] the Marxist political theorist Norman Geras posited that terrorism should be rejected, but that violence could be justified in the case of extreme social injustice.[8]

In the early 20th century in Italy, Benito Mussolini's political thought came to focus on a radical form of Italian nationalism, which has been called revolutionary nationalism. According to A. James Gregor, Mussolini had a fuzzy and imprecise approach to the concept of revolutionary nationalism by 1909, although he acknowledged its historical role which later provided the groundwork of his subsequent views.[9] At this early stage, despite Mussolini's inclination towards nationalism, he was still opposed to traditional patriotism and conventional nationalist appeal which included his emphatic rejection of the type of nationalism that was championed by the privileged classes and traditional bourgeoisie, who simply used the slogans of nationalism "whenever a profit might be turned".[10] A. James Gregor describes Mussolini's approach to his version of nationalism as follows:

Mussolini's revolutionary nationalism, while it distinguished itself from the traditional patriotism and nationalism of the bourgeoisie, displayed many of those features we today identify with the nationalism of underdeveloped peoples. It was an anticonservative nationalism that anticipated vast social changes; it was directed against both foreign and domestic oppressors; it conjured up an image of a renewed and regenerated nation that would perform a historical mission; it invoked a moral ideal of selfless sacrifice and commitment in the service of collective goals; and it recalled ancient glories and anticipated a shared and greater glory.[11]

See also


  1. "ARD Archived 2011-06-07 at Wikiwix
  2. Nechayev Archived 2008-10-18 at the Wayback Machine, Spartacus Educational website by John Simkin
  3. Sergey Nechayev (1869). The Revolutionary Catechism Archived 2017-02-06 at the Wayback Machine.
  4. Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence by Joram ten Brink, Joshua Oppenheimer, Columbia University Press, 2012, page 84
  5. "Socialism and Man in Cuba" Archived 2008-03-23 at the Wayback Machine A letter to Carlos Quijano, editor of Marcha, a weekly newspaper published in Montevideo, Uruguay; published as "From Algiers, for Marcha: The Cuban Revolution Today" by Che Guevara on March 12, 1965
  6. Guevara, Che. "Socialism and man in Cuba". Archived from the original on 10 August 2017. Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  7. Geras, Norman (1989). "Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution". Socialist Register. Retrieved 16 November 2018.
  8. Eleni Courea (11 November 2018). "University alerts students to danger of leftwing essay". The Observer. Retrieved 16 November 2018.
  9. A. James Gregor, Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism, University of California Press, 1979, p. 75
  10. A. James Gregor, Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism, University of California Press, 1979, p. 97
  11. A. James Gregor, Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism, University of California Press, 1979, p. 99