A stable definition would be something like ‘a rapid transformation of a society’s political, economic and symbolic institutions’, but you’re only going to know that’s happened afterwards, and that relies on it being successful and it relies on you deciding what a sufficient enough transformation is and what rapid means — sometimes it takes weeks, sometimes it takes months, whereas in China you have about three decades in the lead up to the revolution. A lot of people think about revolutions as violent, but that’s a bit problematic too – often revolutions are actually quite peaceful, but turn violent afterwards.
I would say that – going back over the last few hundred years – there have probably been three main types of revolution. There’s a revolution 1.0 that you associate with America, France, Haiti, the Atlantic revolutions of the late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth centuries that were largely about issues of political representation. So they wanted to bring in constitutions, often wanted to generate republics, but didn’t have a particular idea about how to organise an economy, say.
"A lot of people think about revolutions as violent, but that’s a bit problematic too – often revolutions are actually quite peaceful, but turn violent afterwards."
Then, starting with Russia and the Bolshevik revolution 1917, you get this notion of class struggle and economic exploitation/subjugation as being the key motif to revolutions. That generates a shift from political revolutions to social revolutions or revolutions 1.0 to revolutions 2.0 where you want to look at a society’s economy at least as much as their form of governance, or perhaps as a vehicle for transforming governance.
Then in the post-Cold War world you’ve got a shift again – you’ve got a sort of revolution 3.0, with this notion that you can have mass protests that don’t generate a vanguard party, that don’t have a particular type of political programme, that don’t have an immediate notion of systemic transformation, but the key difference is really in their mode of organisation, which is much more decentralised, much more diffuse, much more non-hierarchical, and enormously motivated by non-violent rather than violent forms of protest. The 1989 revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe are one example, then you had various protest in Ukraine the decade after, you had Serbia in the 1990s, and then I would argue that at least initially that’s what the Arab uprisings largely looked like – they were predominantly non-violent.