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Revolution as a Theme in Teaching a Twentieth Century World History Course

Zenon V. Wasyliw

Ithaca College

     Twentieth Century Global Revolutions, an intermediate level college course, offers students a thematic and comparative approach to the study of twentieth century global history.1  Students critically assess historical developments, individuals and transformations of the twentieth and twenty first centuries through the prism of revolutions and revolutionary movements.  Interdisciplinary assignments and innovative interactive approaches engage and enhance student mastery and appreciation for world history.  The course also offers social studies teacher education majors and social studies teachers a content and resource foundation in teaching secondary school global history. 1
    Students are first introduced to revolutionary theories and models along with specific examples of pre-twentieth century revolutions.  James DeFronzo's Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements2 is an excellent text for the course.  The first chapter offers students a cohesive theoretical introduction to revolutions.  Another excellent source is Revolutions. Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical Studies edited by Jack A. Gladstone.3 This edited collection of articles provides a much deeper evaluation of revolutions and theories of revolution and analyses of specific revolutions.  Michael D. Richards' recently published Revolutions in World History4 concisely assesses five specific revolutions within a conceptual and global context.
    Pre-twentieth century European political revolutions are reviewed.  The American and French Revolutions, the Revolutions of 1848 among others within the liberal tradition are noted as are the evolving socialist and nationalist movements.  Greater attention is placed upon the role of industrialization, modernity and world-systems theory. 5 A collection of primary source readings supplements the evaluation of theories and models 6  as does a valuable internet site of primary source documents.7
    The Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the Soviet Stalinist revolution are the first specific twentieth century case studies.  Marxist ideology is applied to the Russian and later Soviet examples through the evolution of Leninism and Stalinism.  The DeFronzo chapter on the Russian Revolution offers a solid political overview.  Each succeeding chapter in the DeFronzo book covers specific successive revolutions.8  General and country specific website links found on the online syllabus enhance hard copy assignments with access to primary sources.  This course places a stronger emphasis upon the Stalinist revolution through a critical examination of the five year plan's policies of rapid industrialization and forced collectivization and their results.  The Stalinist model is featured as its fulfillment of creating a revolutionary industrial workers state served as a model for future revolutions.  Autobiographical accounts provide students an appreciation for the transformations uncertainties in daily life and values as a result of revolutionary policies.9  Student role playing provides a good classroom questioning strategy as students must respond from the perspective of a specific social class and defenders of a defined policy position. 4
    The Chinese Revolution is reviewed in a similar fashion.  A summary political history is offered related to earlier historical developments leading to the revolution of 1949.   A closer examination of events in the history of the Peoples' Republic of China culminates with a special emphasis placed upon evaluating Mao's Cultural Revolution.  The autobiographical work by Zhai Zhenhua offers a focus of assessment.10   The author describes her personal experiences with the Cultural Revolution.   Communal organization and responsibility is an innovative approach that encourages active learning in students.   Students are divided into communes and each commune selects an appropriate revolutionary name and is assigned a specific section of the assigned book to review and critique from a Maoist perspective in front of the class.  Revolutionary discipline is enforced.  Absences, late arrivals and inadequately prepared individuals must undergo a process of self-criticism and accept the re-education decrees of the class, acting as the larger commune.11  Informers maintain a close surveillance over the proceedings.  This section concludes with a reflection upon the complexities of the Cultural Revolution and students' own roles in communal activity and the dynamics of peer evaluation and pressure.
  Students are assessed through both essay examinations and a comparative book critique.  The critique focuses upon the respective books dealing with the Stalinist revolution and Mao's Cultural Revolution.  Specific guidelines found in the syllabus require a comparative study of policies leading up to the Stalinist and Maoist policies.  Stalin's emphasis on the industrial working class as a revolutionary force as opposed to Mao's focus upon the peasantry is an example of divergent paths.  The assigned autobiographical works are then critically assessed for their historical accuracy and impact upon the reader. 6
    The Vietnamese Revolution illustrates the application of a modified revolutionary ideology in overthrowing colonial powers. The Vietnamese Declaration of Independence of 1945 offers students a more complex picture of Ho Chi Minh's worldviews.12 The document references the American and French Revolutions, French imperialism, and nationalist concerns. These and other examples in the declaration nuance student perceptions of the Vietnamese Revolution and future United States involvement. The document may also be collaboratively analyzed by assigning groups specific perspectives, whether communist or pro-Western Vietnamese, French, American, Soviet or Chinese. I have found that presentations and positions based on independent group research leads to heated debates and a greater appreciation of varied perspectives. 7
    The strategy of non-violent, civil disobedience is critically analyzed as to whether it is a revolutionary model.  Gandhi's movement for Indian independence and the United States' civil rights movement offer the context for this assessment.  Students view on their own time the Gandhi film and read two documents authored by Gandhi.13  A comparative study is done with earlier definitions and examples of revolutions to ascertain whether conceptualizations of revolutions need to be broadened to include the Gandhi model.  The United States Civil Rights movement brings forth the concept of a cultural revolution that challenges not only existing race relations but those of gender, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation. 8
     The course proceeds with reviews of specific revolutions in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.  Africa is first examined through the lens of colonialism and imperialism.  A survey of independence movements and post-colonial revolutions14  leads to a focus upon the South African Revolution and the specific role and strategy played by Nelson Mandela15 and the African National Congress.  In a similar fashion, Latin America is introduced through a broad introduction that includes an appraisal of the Mexican Revolution.  The Cuban Revolution serves as a central focus with an evaluation of its revolutionary impact upon the Western Hemisphere and beyond.16  The Middle East is first appraised with an assessment of Ataturk's Turkish Cultural Revolution of westernization.  The Turkish Revolution is then compared with the Iranian Revolution and the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism as examples of divergent revolutionary paths taken in the Middle East and the Islamic world in general.  A close evaluation of the Iranian Revolution follows with a discussion of 9/1117 and its impact on the world. 9
    The discussion on Islamic Fundamentalism leads to an evaluation of more contemporary globally oriented issues related to revolutions and revolutionary movements.  Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations is examined through a collection of articles presenting varied responses to the Huntington thesis.18  The Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern and Central Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union provide an appraisal of the Marxist revolutionary model counter posed with a perceived victory of liberal democracy.19 Transnational revolutionary movements20 acquaint students with democracy movements across the world.  Specific peaceful revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Kyrghyzstan and Ukraine are reviewed within the context of a plan for nonviolent revolution proposed by Gene Sharp of the Albert Einstein Institution.21  Student groups present researched reports on the aforementioned revolutions and other regions, such as Burma, where a revolution is possible based upon the Sharp model. 10
    The course concludes on issues related to globalization and potential revolutions and revolutionary movements of the future.  The sustainability movement is an example.  Ithaca College is committed to developing a sustainable campus to serve as a model for the outside world.  Students have a wonderful opportunity to be part of a movement that challenges our accepted consumptive norms.22  Environmental concerns closely connect to the sustainability movement.23  Genetic research, technology, human migration, wars, human rights and other related issues serve as additional themes to earlier political and social revolutions and movements examined throughout the semester.  Students, as part of a final assignment, create their own revolutionary models for the future based upon a comprehensive review of material covered in the course. 11
    Twentieth Century Global Revolutions is also intended to assist Social Studies Teacher Education majors and Social Studies teachers.  They gain a mastery of content and concepts related to their teaching global history and utilize materials and sources in their classrooms.  The course makes connections with major themes and ideas found in both the National History Standards and the New York State Social Studies curriculum.24   Students who have taken this course have informed the instructor that the material and activities were applicable in the classroom.25 12
    A final goal of the course is for students to gain a global perspective and develop critical thinking skills.  Each specific revolution and revolutionary movement also introduces students to different parts of the world, their needs and concerns.  Historical case studies are followed with evaluations of current events and future concerns.26 A comparative approach and an introduction to issues related to globalization hopefully encourage the development of aware and concerned citizens of the world. 13
Biographical Note: Zenon V. Wasyliw received a Ph.D. in History from Binghamton University in 1992. He is currently Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Ithaca College Department of History and coordinates the Social Studies Teacher Education program. His homepage is found at





1 The course Twentieth Century Global Revolutions was developed and first taught the fall of 1993 in response to an Ithaca College initiative to expand the number of global studies courses offered at the college.  A valuable conceptual resource was and still is:  Bruce Mazlish and Ralph Buultjens, editors, Conceptualizing Global history (Boulder, CO, 1993).   Also note the World History Association internet presence – – Another relevant history site that includes many links -  Weisner, Ruff, Wheeler, Doeringer, Curtis, editors, Discovering the Twentieth-Century World. A Look at the Evidence (New York, 2004) offers relevant sources as evidence with a valuable methodological framework. 

2 James DeFronzo, Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements (Boulder, CO, 1996).

3 Jack A. Gladstone, editor, Revolutions. Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical Studies (New York, 1994). Other valuable reference sources may include Theda Skocpol, Social Revolutions in the Modern World (Cambridge, 1994); Peter N. Stearns, The Industrial Revolution in World History (Boulder, CO, 1993) and Charles Tilly, Social Movements, 1768-2004 (Cambridge, 2004). 

4 Michael D. Richards, Revolutions in World History (New York, 2004).

5 Jeffrey Kingston, The Birth of Industrial Britain, 1750-1850 (Harlow, England,); Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (2004).

6 A specific collection of sources on twentieth century revolutions does not exist.  Custom publishing offers a solution in filling this void.  Meridian. Sources in World History through Pearson Custom publishing is a fine alternative.  Introductory documents include works written by Braudel, Adam Smith, Mazzini, Marx, Engels, Thorstein Veblen, Clara Zetkin, Lenin, and Alexandra Kollontai.

7 The Internet Modern History Sourcebook –                                                                                                                                                                  

8 Specific revolutions covered include: Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese Cuban, Nicaragua, Iranian and South Africa.

9 John Scott, Behind the Urals.  An American Worker in Russia's Steel City(Bloomington, 1989) and Eugenia Semyonova Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind (New York, 1995) are specific assigned books that have been used successfully.

10 Zhai Zhenhua, Red Flower of China (New York, 1992). A comparative analysis of communism is found in Robert Strayer, The Communist Experiment. Revolution, Socialism, and Global Conflict in the Twentieth Century (2007).

11 The Meridian readings include "How to be a Good Communist" and "Quotations from Mao's Little Red Book."

13 The Meridian readings include by Gandhi, "What is True Civilization" and "The Condition of India." Other general references include – B. R. Nanda, Gandhi and His Critics (Delhi, 1993) and Louis Fischer, Gandhi. His Life and Message for the World (New York, 1982).

14 The works of Chinhua Achebe offer valuable insights on the impact of colonialism.  I have assigned in the past, Home and Exile (New York, 2000); Things Fall Apart (1991); No Longer at Ease (New York, 1960).

15 The Meridian collection includes "The Organization for African Unity," "The Definition of Black Consciousness," by Steve Biko, and an excerpt from Nelson Mandela's "Long Walk to Freedom."

16 The Meridian readings include "The Cuban Revolution of 1959," by Fidel Castro and "Women in the Failed Nicaraguan Revolution."  I have assigned Che Guevara's Guerrilla Warfare (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1998) that has led to interesting discussions.  Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Soccer War (New York,1992) offers a fascinating reporter's first hand account of revolutions and uprisings throughout Africa and Latin America.

17 I have had strong success with Ryszard Kapuscinki's Shah of Shahs (New York, 1992).  The Meridian reader includes for discussion Usama bin Ladin, "What Al-Qa'eda Wants from America," and Ibn Warraq, "A Muslim's Critique of Islam."

18 Samuel P. Huntington, et. al., The Clash of Civilizations? The Debate (New York, 1996).

19 Timothy Garten Ash, The Magic Lantern.  The Revolution of '89 in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (New York, 1999); David R. Marples, The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991. (2004) Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York, 1992).

20 Sidney Tarrow, The New Transnational Activism (Cambridge, 2005).

21 Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy.  A Conceptual Framework fro Liberation (Boston, MA, 2003).

23 David E. Lorey, editor, Global Environmental Challenges of the Twenty-First Century. Resources, Consumption and Sustainable Solutions (Wilmington, DE, 2003).

24 National History Standards –  New York State Social Studies –  National Council for the Social Studies –

25 One example includes –

26 BBC News offers valuable current and historical information and resources.  Students are encouraged to familiarize themselves with this site and other news sites.


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