Opposition on a mass scale is a very different matter. The massive, passive resistance or the civil disobedience movement in India launched by M.K. Gandhi before Independence was not directed against particular policies of the British Government but against the whole notion of the colonial rule.
The aim was political independence of the country from the alien government and rule by Indians themselves according to their own genius. Where, as in this case, the aim pursued entails or implies the overthrow of the prevalent regime, or a radical change in a whole range of policies, there is a revolutionary situation.
The distinction between reform and revolution in terms of the extent or importance of the proposed changes is clearly significant, but account must also be taken of the weapons used and the speed of change.
A change, even in a matter of major importance, say, the radical extension of the franchise, is in the nature of reform if it is achieved by methods such as peaceful demonstrations and petitioning. Such reforms have often been hastened by the threat of revolution and occasionally inability to obtain it has resulted in the threat becoming a reality.
It might still be called a reform if the weapons actually used were those of non-violent persuasion, and continue to be so even if violence actually occurred but was sporadic and the consequence of “excessive zeal rather than intent.”
The Hungarian uprising and the troubles in Ireland were revolutions and not reformist movements because violence was accepted and not accidental and because the aim was primarily to win and not to seek concessions.
In ordinary language the word revolution is often used to describe both the method of inducing change and scope of the changes. In this wider sense, it means, as Maclver has said, “to embrace decisive changes in the character of Government, even though they do not involve the violent overthrow of an established order.”
The revolution of 1688 in Britain, for example, was a peaceful revolution. In the narrower sense, the word revolution refers exclusively to the methods used to bring about particular changes in the system of government.
It leaves out of account what the revolution is about, who the revolutionaries are, and how far they are successful in achieving their ends. The emphasis is on the use of violence, or extra-constitutional means, involving a temporary breakdown of the system which is being challenged and its replacement by another system or constitution.
Revolution and reform are not the monopoly of declared revolutionaries or reformers. Innovators are not aware of the consequences which may follow from their acts. To the extent that the future is uncertain, in theory any person or group may accidentally trigger a revolution or reform if the present circumstances are propitious. Luther is a clear example of a reformer who started a revolution.
The question then arises as to what determines the present circumstances. This is not the place to enter into the “free-will/ determinist controversy, but if we agree that after an action one may reasonably say that ‘He could have acted otherwise’ we accept that the future is not given. Revolutions or reforms, then, may be planned or unplanned by the men or the social forces that light the fuse.”
Political change is more likely to be generated by the few than the many. Normally revolutions are the consequence of activity by a small number who, by skill in the use of violence, or political manipulation, carry the day. In modem times, particularly in Africa and South America, the military has been the prominent as revolutionaries. Pakistan and Bangladesh also come in this category.
This is understandable in such politics for the military is often the only disciplined group and also the only possessor of higher education, technical skill and modem weapons of destruction. Those responsible for reform are much less easy to identify, particularly in complex political systems. Often individuals and groups, both in and out of government, are involved and share responsibility.
Whatever be the genesis of change, the outcome will depend on the relative strength of the parties in conflict. In the case of revolutions there are but two sides (revolutionaries and government) that fight while the many observe, and in the end one group is victorious. In the case of reform, the government is often a third party to a conflict between those outside government who favour reform and those who do not.
Here the government may perform the function customary in pluralistic societies of ‘holding the ring’ and subsequently declaring the “winner or dividing the prize.”
The government may wait before it intervenes to bring the two sides together, may arbitrate at the request of the parties, declare a truce or refer the matter to a body to inquire into the situation. Reform, then, is a contest with a referee and rules; a revolution is a free-for-all.