Air University Review, July-August 1982

Five Types of Revolutionaries

Dr. Mostafa Rejai
Dr. Kay Phillips

Through the ages, revolutionaries have been an endless source of fascination for both the scholarly and popular imagination. The democratic revolutions of England, America, France, and Mexico gave rise to such historic figures as Cromwell, Hampden, Pym, and Vane; Washington, Jefferson, Otis, Henry, and the Adamses; Danton, Marat, Mirabeau, and Robespierre; Carranza, Madero, and Obregón. The communist and nationalist revolutions of the twentieth century have catapulted into prominence such men as Lenin and Stalin, Mao and Chou En-lai, Ho and Giap, Castro and Guevara, Arafat and Habash, Nkomo and Mugabe. The list goes on.*

*In a work currently in progress, World Revolutionary Leaders, Mostafa Rejai and Kay Phillips are studying 135 revolutionary leaders from 31 revolutionary movements spanning four centuries and all major regions of the world.

All these men are bent on destroying the existing social order and replacing it with a new one. How they differ among themselves is a question that seldom has been addressed.

Our close examination of a relatively large number of revolutionaries reveals five distinct types: The Founders, The Professional Revolutionaries, The Scholars, The Agitators, and The Generals. Of course, not every individual within each type embraces all traits identified.

The Founders, such as Washington, the Adamses, Cromwell, Pym, Marat, Mirabeau, Carranza, and Obregón, came from different time periods and cultural traditions. In common they represent a mature, solid, middle-aged, middle-class group—an image running counter to the popular stereotype of the revolutionary. These men were relatively well educated, had a variety of occupational backgrounds, and subscribed to a variety of democratic ideologies. Typically members of the establishment in their own societies, most of them appeared on the revolutionary landscape in response to situations of national crisis or emergency. Though cultured and cosmopolitan, The Founders had experienced little foreign travel and maintained few or no foreign contacts. In this sense, they were homegrown revolutionaries. These patriots and the patriarchs were the "fathers" of their countries, validating and legitimizing the revolution. The Founders sought to capture or preserve the identity, integrity, or independence of their nations.

The Professional Revolutionaries, men like Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, Ho, Castro, and Guevara, though born in urban areas were typically associated with underdeveloped lands, uniformly communist: Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba. These leaders came from the middle or lower social strata and were radicalized quite early in life. They traveled extensively in foreign lands. They generally had long histories of antiregime activity, were arrested with regularity, and spent long periods of time in prison, exile, or both. These Professional Revolutionaries devoted their entire lives to the vocation of revolution.

Eclectic in ideologies, The Scholars come from the predominantly middle-social stata of their societies. Not only do they typically come from professional families, they themselves are in the professions: law, medicine, teaching, journalism, the ministry. We have chosen the label "scholars" for this group of professionals-turned-revolutionaries because, regardless of their specific professions, they write extensively on a variety of subjects and contribute heavily to the theory and practice of revolution. The Scholars are well exemplified by Alain Geismar of France (a professor of physics), Juan Mari Bras of Puerto Rico (a lawyer), George Habash of Palestine (a physician), and Camilo Torres of Columbia (a sociologist and a priest).

The Agitators, such as the Algerian and Palestinian revolutionaries, virtually mirror the popular stereotype: young, lower class, uneducated, unruly, from undeveloped countries, with a long history of radical activity. This group typically comes from rural backgrounds, has little formal education, and is parochial in outlook. Their early and sustained involvement in revolutionary organization and activity accounts for their frequent arrest and long periods of imprisonment. Their sense of social deprivation is likely to be strong.

Although The Agitators represent a variety of ideological postures, they characteristically combine shades of leftist doctrines—anarchism, socialism, communism—with strong nationalist commitments. As such, they are most likely to borrow foreign ideologies and adapt them to local needs. The Agitators share some characteristics with The Professional Revolutionaries, but in contrast, their commitment is not firm, final, and unwavering. Given appropriate circumstances, The Agitators may turn opportunist.

The Generals, typified by Robert Devereux, the third Earl of Essex, in the 17th century, constitute a professionally educated group, consisting most likely of middle- or high-ranking military officers who become involved in revolutionary activity late in their careers, either because of acute dissatisfaction or as a response to situations of national emergency. A related group of revolutionaries does not have formal military training but accumulates considerable military experience in the course of their revolutions. The Generals tend to be urban born, well traveled, and cosmopolitan.

Coming from relatively prominent families, they have a history of involvement in the traditional politics of their own countries.

The identification of five types of revolutionaries also carries several concrete implications or conclusions.

First, it is no longer possible to stereotype all revolutionaries. Specifically, as we have seen, whereas such revolutionary types as The Founders and The Scholars are far removed from the popular stereotype of the revolutionary, The Professional Revolutionaries and The Agitators are as close to it as one can come.

Second, it is clear that one can no longer discuss revolutionaries in the abstract but, rather, in terms of discrete types possessing discrete personalities. Specifically, there is no such thing as a or the revolutionary personality—only revolutionary personalities.

Finally, as we know, in general terms every revolution requires a group of leaders who possess verbal and organizational skills to undermine the existing social order, articulate the vision of a new (and presumably better) society, mobilize and coordinate all efforts toward the realization of their objective, and give it credence and legitimacy.

More specifically, however, our five-fold typology of revolutionary elites demonstrates that revolution requires a certain specialization of functions, skills, and talents. In this context, The Scholars undermine the existing regime, generate popular discontent, and provide ideological justification for the revolution. The Agitators and The Professional Revolutionaries provoke the regime, create an atmosphere of popular unrest, mobilize the masses, formulate a revolutionary program, and coordinate revolutionary action. The Agitators perform an important additional function by providing a role model for the masses: coming from similar social backgrounds, they are particularly effective in attracting new recruits to the movement. The Generals perform a military function, taking command of the situation, putting their military skills to effective use, directing and fighting the battles that need to be fought. The Founders institutionalize the revolution and give it respectability and legitimacy.

These functions and skills are found in all revolutions but to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the particular needs of the environment. In other words, although different revolutionary types interact to produce a revolution, different historical requirements will intervene to produce different mixes of revolutionary personalities.

Stated differently, the five groups of revolutionaries constitute ideal types, historically and analytically considered. As such, not all five are universally present in all revolutions. Moreover, the functions the five perform overlap to some extent. Thus, for instance, The Professional Revolutionaries may well discharge some of the functions performed by The Generals and The Founders. The Founders may perform a variety of functions other than institutionalizing and legitimizing the revolution. Revolutionary leadership, in short, is a collective (or corporate) enterprise in which one type or another gains special prominence depending on the sociohistorical context.

Miami University
Oxford, Ohio


Mostafa Rejai (Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles) is Professor of Political Science at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, where he has received the outstanding teaching award. Dr. Rejai’s recent publications are World Revolutionary Leaders (forthcoming) and Leaders of Revolution (1979). He is a previous contributor to the Review.

Kay Phillips (Ph.D., University of Cincinnati) is Associate Professor and Assistant Chair in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Her recent publications include World Revolutionary Leaders (forthcoming) and Leaders of Revolution (1979).


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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