Issue Briefs

Violent Revolutionary Instruments: An Overview

Vittorfranco Pisano

31 May, 2016

In the presence of socio-political upheavals currently afflicting the Middle East and North Africa, but whose final outcome remains uncertain, this is an opportune time to consider the nature of revolution, with particular reference to violent revolutionary instruments.

Radical change

Revolution entails radical change. When revolution occurs within a political context, it produces radical change affecting institutions and governance. Whether or not a given regime reflects democratic principles and pluralistic dynamics, three primary revolutionary instruments based on violence are potentially capable of bringing about its demise and introducing a different political order: (1) Transit through various stages of unconventional conflict, (2) coup d’état, and (3) popular insurrection. Each of the three has its own characteristics and ancillary limitations.

Unconventional conflict comprises a series of seditious and/or violent manifestations, five of which contemporaneously constitute the stages of a potentially progressive revolutionary cycle. They are – in sequential order – subversive agitation, terrorism, insurgency, civil war, and revolution.

Subversive Agitation

Subversive agitation is the initial and propulsive stage of the cycle. In the pursuit of a given revolutionary ideology or program, its arsenal includes passive resistance; propaganda and disinformation; incitement to disobey the law or, most frequently, specific laws; orchestrated degeneration of authorized gatherings; unlawful demonstrations; seizure or destruction of public or private property; road blocks; and physical clashes with adversaries and riot police. Injuries and death are often consequential.


The second stage, terrorism, is characterized by criminal violence, political or politico-religious motivation, clandestine structures and dynamics, and action by non-state actors with or without state sponsorship. The systematic resort to criminal violence and the total adoption of clandestine structures and dynamics differentiate terrorism from subversive agitation.


Insurgency, the third stage, is at times achieved, primarily within a rural context, even without transiting through the stage of terrorism. Insurgency differs from terrorism since it entails partial control over population and territory at least temporarily, while terrorism is totally devoid of such a capability. The objective of insurgency is to control national resources and territory through unlawful political organizations and irregular armed bands directed against the governing authorities. It calls for the exchange of fire, albeit generally at the skirmish level and of brief duration, with the regular armed forces. As opposed to subversive agitation and terrorism, insurgency requires a considerably greater degree of organizational capacity, operational planning, command skills, training, and human and material resources.

Civil war

The fourth eventual stage, civil war, takes place when the population of a state splits into two or more adversary factions that vie with arms for governmental power, or when a substantive portion of the population conducts or supports internal warfare against the established authority. Because of greater numerical strength involved and operational intensity, civil war differs from the preceding three stages: subversive agitation, terrorism, and insurgency.


A subversive aggregation that successfully transits through the aforementioned stages of the revolutionary cycle reaches the final stage: revolution itself. An early revolutionary outcome can at times result from weakness or compliance on the part of the system under attack, thus rendering unnecessary the transit through all stages of the revolutionary cycle within the context of unconventional conflict.

Coup d’état

As opposed to the stages that comprise the above-described revolutionary cycle, a coup d’état (habitually and more simply referred to as coup) entails the sudden and forcible overthrow of a government by a relatively small group. Implicit to a coup is the existence of a conspiracy that leads to success or failure.

Several elements characterize a coup regardless of its outcome: Violence or threat of violence; quick execution; replacement of government leaders by leaders of the coup or individuals designated by them; coup participants already enjoying some political power; and the participation of military elements.

Depending on the conspirators and societal conditions, a coup entertains one or more of the following objectives: Exercising governmental power; introducing or blocking a progressive or a conservative regime; replacing a relatively moderate regime with a more radical one; preserving established authority or insuring public order.

Often a coup is qualified by its promoters and perpetrators as a revolution but in general it entails nothing more than a change in governmental leadership.

In order for a coup to be successful – even if short lived and regardless of whether or not it ushers in an actual revolution – various factors are collectively indispensable: Favorable circumstances, the will to carry it out, a well coordinated plan, and adequate means.

From insurrection to revolution

Lastly, even popular insurrection can potentially produce a revolution. The malaise of any population willingly or unwillingly under the sovereignty of a given state is traceable to negative – or so perceived – societal conditions of historical, political, social, economic, or cultural nature that from time to time afflict various geopolitical areas. Particularly incisive are certain objective factors such as widespread poverty, unemployment or underemployment, demographic imbalance, inadequate infrastructures and social services, ethnic or religious discrimination, bureaucratic inefficiency, governmental corruption, and abuse or violence by the rulers. These factors, individually or collectively, provide a fertile breeding ground for resentment on the part of the population that can lead to spontaneous protest and demonstrations.

The limits of disorganized protests

While undeniably facilitated by modern means of communication and, particularly, by the new social media and networks, spontaneous protest and demonstrations tend to involve primarily youthful groups that certainly voice grievances, but lack maturity and commonality in terms of leadership, programs, and ideology. Consequently, they do not constitute a true movement. Limited linkage with other sectors of the population is not per se sufficient to give way to a revolutionary machine.

In order for spontaneous protest to translate into insurrection, additional ingredients are required: The ability to go beyond mere symbolic demonstrations; acquiring a broad popular base; capability to paralyze or disrupt the orderly workings of daily life, at least within urban settings; an organizational structure that unifies heterogeneous protesters and activists; and physical, material, and armed resistance against the police and the eventual intervention of military troops.

Difficult to get a revolution

In any case, in the absence of either the benevolent neutrality of the armed forces or the support of a significant majority of the military establishment in favor of the insurgents, it is extremely arduous for a popular insurrection to breed revolution. Moreover, the revolutionary endeavour, if devoid of significant and coherent political goals and the determination to carry them out, is susceptible to infiltration and exploitation by any faction having a different political or politico-religious agenda and endowed with adequate capabilities and means.

Chaos and civil war

A sought-after revolution can degenerate into total chaos with the risk that alternative or concurrent scenarios will arise. A coup having opposite aims may take place, and may even be followed by a counter coup. Civil war may break out in case of a split within the armed forces between units loyal to the regime and units siding with the revolutionaries. One or more neighbouring or non-neighbouring states may interfere economically or militarily in the pursuit of their own interests. Radical minorities having sundry roots may step in, thus leading to various forms and stages of unconventional conflict.

Positive change is unlikely

In the most optimistic case, if the revolution leads to free elections, a democratic regime may emerge, but such an outcome is not guaranteed, in fact most unlikely, particularly in countries whose creation is artificial and whose traditions are not respectful of pluralistic society and human rights.

Vittorfranco Pisano is a Global Policy Institute Fellow and chairman of the Intelligence and Security Department, International University of Social Sciences – UNINTESS (Mantua, Italy). He has previously taught at various universities, including Georgetown University and the Defense Intelligence College in Washington, D.C., and the University of Rome “La Sapienza” (Italy). A retired U.S. Army colonel, he has served in military police and general staff assignments in the United States and Europe from 1964 to 1996. He has consulted for to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism and reviewed courses offered by the U.S. Department of State as part of the Antiterrorism Assistance Program. He is the author of over 200 books and other publications on security, intelligence, and unconventional conflict in English or Italian and currently lectures at civilian and military institutions in Italy and other countries.