World Revolutions and the Evolution of World-Systems

The Battle of Frankenhausen, 1525 CE. Part of Werner Tübke’s painting; radical peasants in the Protestant Reformation.

Hiroko Inoue and

Christopher Chase-Dunn

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California-Riverside


v.8/1/21 7851 words

This is IROWS Working Paper #142 available at

 American Sociological Association 2021 annual meeting, virtual, Section on Political Economy and World-Systems roundtable, Saturday, August 7, 2021 Noon pacific time.


In the evolutionary history of the rise and fall of large-scale polities unusually large polities and settlements were formed in all the world regions.  Our research has shown that about half of these cases were associated with and caused by conquests carried out by non-core (peripheral or semiperipheral) marcher states.  The non-core marcher states conquered and unified adjacent older core states and nearby peripheral areas, resulting in a new large-scale polity whose size was unprecedented in the region’s recent past. 

World revolutions, which include all kinds of acts of resistance to hierarchy, occur simultaneously regardless of whether these acts were liked or coordinated with one another.  Similar phenomena existed across time and space in regional world-systems.  The primary hypothesis of this study is that the East Asian world-system experienced world revolutions in prehistory.

World revolutions are periods in the history of a world-system (a systemically integrated interpolity network) in which rebellions, banditry, piracy, and other social movements clustered in time. In hierarchical world-systems these rebellions are produced by a combination of local conditions and the larger structural processes of the system and the rebels are frequently unaware of one another, but the rebellions become indirectly connected because of the nested hierarchies (states and empires) in the system.  The powers that be in a world-system (the great powers with empires) recognize that rebellions have broken out, and they attempt to suppress or redress the rebellions and to take advantage of periods of unrest in competing polities and in intra-elite competition within polities.  This paper will test the hypothesis that (1) world revolutions in the East Asian and the Europe-centered world-systems were causes of changes in the distribution of power among competing states and that (2) success in geopolitical competition between states and empires is partly due to the abilities of the winners in coping with rebellions and in taking advantage of the disorganization that occurs in competing states and empires and within polities.  We utilize quantitative estimates of the sizes of largest settlements and polities, variation in the intensity of warfare and the frequencies of rebellions to test this hypothesis.


Outline of the paper. Theoretical perspectives. The comparative evolutionary world-systems theoretical research program. Our earlier research on the evolution of complexity and hierarchy.  Estimating the intensity of world revolutions. Coding rebellions. Earlier research. Preliminary findings.


The World Revolution Hypothesis

In the modern world-system the emerged out of the rise of the West there has been a spiral of interaction between world revolutions and the evolution of global governance.  World revolutions are periods in world history in which many rebellions break out across the world- system, often unconnected with one another, but known, and responded to, by imperial authorities. Since the Protestant Reformation in Europe such constellations of rebellions and social movements have played an important role in the evolution of global governance in the Europe-centered system because the powers that could best handle collective behavior challenges were the ones who succeeded in competition with challenging elites. It is possible that similar phenomena existed in other prehistorical and historical world-systems, such as East Asia. Oscillations in the expansion of trade networks, the rise and fall of chiefdoms, states and empires, and increasing synchronization of trade and political cycles may have been related to waves of social unrest that occurred in the same time periods among polities that were interacting with one another (world revolutions). Indeed, something of this kind has been suggested by Ravi Palat (2018):

Asian social movements are an especially interesting topic because the Taiping Rebellion, the first Indian War of Independence (the Sepoy Mutiny), the religious disturbances in the Asian provinces of the Ottoman Empire all occurred roughly around the same time and can be linked to the reversal of the flows of gold and silver between Asia and Europe and its consequences to the regional linkages within Asian empires.

            The idea of “world revolution” is a broad notion that encompasses all kinds of acts of resistance to hierarchy, regardless of whether they are coordinated with one another, but that occur relatively close to one another in time. Usually, the idea of revolution is conceptualized on a national scale as an overthrow of a regime and the reorganization of social relations


Baidu Peasant Uprising Atlas

within a national society. Several changes are required to use the revolution concept at the world-system level. In the modern (Europe-centered) world-system there is a global polity, a world order, or what Immanuel Wallerstein calls the “geoculture.” World orders are those normative and institutional features that are taken for granted in large-scale cooperation, competition, and conflict. The world polity, and its context in the world economy, is the arena of contestation within which world revolutions have occurred and that world revolutions have restructured.

Boswell and Chase-Dunn (2000) focused on those constellations of local, regional, national and transnational rebellions and revolutions that have had long-term consequences for changing the world orders of the modern system. The designation of world revolutions in the Europe-centered system has employed years that symbolize the totemic events that indicate the nature of the complex events that are world revolutions. For the modern world-system the world revolutions after the Protestant Reformation have been symbolized by the years 1789, 1848, 1917, 1968 and 1989. Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein (1989) analyzed the world revolutions of 1848, 1917, 1968 and 1989. They observed that the demands put forth in a world revolution did not usually become institutionalized until a later consolidating revolt had occurred. The revolutionaries appeared to have lost in the failure of their most radical demands, but enlightened conservatives who were trying to manage subsequent hegemony ended up incorporating some of the reforms that were earlier radical demands into the current world order to cool out resistance from below. It is important to tease out the differences as well as the similarities among the world revolutions. Both the contexts and the actors have changed from one world revolution to the next.

Before local and regional social movements began communicating and aiding one another they were indirectly linked through the hierarchical structures of the world-system – mainly the colonial empires of the core powers. Though local rebels in the far-flung colonies of the British Empire did not usually know about one another, the Home Office knew when local rebellions broke out and prepared plans and policies to accommodate or repress them.  Thus were the rebellions indirectly connected with one another through the hierarchical institutions of the system.

This view of the modern world-system as constituting an arena of economic and political struggle over the past several centuries includes the idea that global civil society has existed all along (Kaldor 2003). Global civil society includes all the actors who consciously participate in world politics. In the past of the Europe-centered system global civil society was mainly composed of statesmen, military leaders, religious leaders, scientists, financiers, international merchants, cosmopolitan literary figures and the owners and top managers of chartered companies such as the Dutch and British East India Companies.  This rather small group already saw the global arena of political, economic, military, and ideological struggle as their arena of contestation. Transnational political organizations and elite movements have existed in the Western system at least since the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, these can be thought of as global political parties (Chase-Dunn and Reese 2011).  The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was an explicitly internationalist organization formed to advance the counter-reformation Movements from below have been increasingly transnational since the world revolution of 1789. Politics in the modern system can be analyzed as contention between a left and right, both influencing the center and these all co-evolving (Nagy 2017).

In this paper we want to compare the role of world revolutions in sociocultural evolution in two different world-systems – the modern Europe-centered system that emerged regionally in Europe and its colonies in the 15th century CE and the East Asian system as it emerged from the Yellow River Valley in the Bronze Age (1100 BC).

We will spatio-temporally bound these two systems using the criterion of geopolitical connectedness – polities that are allying and warring with one another. Our comparison will use both historically known periods of great conflict and quantitative estimates of the intensity of interpolity and intrapolity conflict.

            Earlier efforts to periodize the long-term shape world revolutions in the Europe-centered system using codings of events have been hampered by their use of data sets that focus only on contentious events in Europe (e.g., Beck 2011). The idea of world revolutions requires effort to know what is going on in the non-core as well as the core. Efforts to resolve this problem are underway, especially in the project led by Beverly Silver and her colleagues at the Arrighi Center for Global Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

East Asia also saw periodic eruptions of popular heterodox religious movements. Mass heterodox movements are known to have been a recurrent feature of East Asian dynastic cycles (Anderson 2019).  During a period of peasant landlessness during the Han dynasty large numbers of poor people were drawn to worship the Queen Mother of the West who grew longevity peaches that, once eaten, made people immortal (Hill 2015). The Queen Mother lived in a mythical palace on a mountain somewhere in the West. This idea seems to have been present as early as the Shang Dynasty, but recurrent eruptions of the worship of the Queen Mother corresponded with periods in which there were large numbers of landless peasants.

Lamp Representing the Realm of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu)

1st–2nd century C.E.

Princeton Art Gallary

The attraction of stressed masses to “pie in the sky when you die” reoccurs in world history. The White Lotus movement was another heterodox popular movement that first emerged during 11th century CE and became powerful during the Yuan dynasty. Ming dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang was an adept. It had ideological elements such as gender equality, vegetarianism and egalitarianism that reappeared in the gigantic Taiping Rebellion in the middle of the 19th century (Spence 1996). The Taiping rebellion was part of an interesting confluence in which the East Asian dynastic cycle was becoming entwined with the world revolutions of the West. The Taiping founder and leader, Hong Xiuquan, read a pamphlet about God and Jesus that a Christian missionary from Tennessee had had translated into Mandarin. After failing the imperial examination, he had a dream in which it was revealed to him that he was Jesus’s brother. As many as thirty million people died as the Qing dynasty fought for decades to extinguish this movement.

            We are also coding conflict events for the East Asian system that will use coding decisions that are intended to make comparisons with the Europe-centered system intelligible. Earlier research on Chinese internal (within-polity) conflict events has shown the kind of periodicity associated with the idea of world revolutions.

David Zhang and Harry Lee and their colleagues are pioneers in the long-range study of East Asian conflict and its relationships with climate change (Zhang et al. 2006, 2007, 2015a and b; Lee 2018). They built on the earlier research of J. S. Lee (1931, 1933), who studied the relationship between “internal wars” and climate change in China.

The Zhang et al. (2006) findings for the number of rebellions from 1000 to 1911, counting events per decade, is shown in Figure 1. Zhang et al. (2006) said, “We  . . . categorized wars on the basis of types of participants, particularly the leaders of the two sides in the armed conflicts, as either “rebellion” or “others” (state and tribal wars) (405). The rebellions were predominantly peasant uprisings induced by famine and heavy taxation since farmers were always the first to suffer from declining agricultural production. The three outstanding peaks of warfare were dominated by peasant uprisings. Wherever they occurred rebellions are always significantly correlated with temperature  . . ..”

Figure 1: Rebellions in China 1000 CE to 1911 CE: Source Zhang et al 2006: 406, Figure 2d.

In the appendix to their 2015 article, Zhang et al. (2015b) say more about the relationship between climate and conflict:

What caused the cycles of nomadic invasion and retreat or the expansion and shrinkage of agriculturist empires? Lee (1933) conjectured that the power of nature was the ans­wer. Some scholars have found strong statistical relationships between climate change, war, population and dynastic cycles in Eurasia and the world by using high-resolution temperature reconstructions and fine-grained historical datasets.”


This study decomposed history into different time domains and found that the multi-centennial geopolitical changes are associated with climate change, but the short-term changes (less than 200 years) do not exhibit any rhythmic pattern. This implies that those short-term geopolitical changes might be associated with social and political changes that are nonlinear and irregular (no continuous frequency).

The results indic­ate that a complex system may be controlled by different factors at different spatial and temporal scales. When a selected factor has a characteristic time-scale which is adequate to the scale of the considered process, while all the other factors have significantly different time-scales, we can consider the selec­ted factor as the most evident one that controls the process (Korotayev et al. 2006). In this study, we could infer our eco-geopolitical hypothesis by the fact that the long-term geopolitical and precipitation frequencies were strongly coherent in China at the multi-centennial scale, but the short-term geopolitical changes, even if they were of lower magnitude, might have been controlled by other, unknown factors (Zhang et al. 2015b: 15-16).

The Zhang (2006) paper shows that there have been cyclical waves of rebellions in China from 1000 until 1911. This is consistent with the hypothesis that the East Asian world-system experienced world revolutions, but further research is needed to include rebellions in Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia, and to examine the relationships between these and dynastic cycles and upsweeps of polity and settlement sizes. The question as to why cold spells should cause increased conflict is complicated. Regarding peasant rebellions Zhang et al. argue that it was declining agricultural production, famine, and taxation that stimulated rebellions. The studies by Zhang et al. usually found a two or three-decade lag between cold peaks and the onset of conflict. Harry Lee (2018) suggests that a bad climate and decline in agricultural productivity often sets the stage for natural disasters (floods) or sociocultural catastrophes (famines, epidemics) that serve as the proximate causes of the outbreak of rebellions.




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