Revolt, Rebellion, and Insurgency Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The legal framework of war may be the only place where a serious and spirited debate over the differences between revolt, rebellion, and insurgency can occur.


The legal framework of war may be the only place where a serious and spirited debate over the differences between revolt, rebellion, and insurgency can occur. However, for those who happen to be leading a revolt, planning a rebellion, or participating in an insurgency, the subtle distinctions between the three can be important. A revolt is defined as an attempt to break away from or rise against established authority. Rebellion goes further, suggesting the manner and extent to which that person will resist those government demands. Insurgency is that state of resistance which, while clearly a challenge to established order, lacks the organizational aspects of a revolution. History is full of examples of all three.RevoltsRebellionsInsurgenciesRevoltsRebellionsInsurgencies


While it would be easy to dismiss revolt, rebellion, and insurgency as events cut from the same cloth, there is a slight, but nonetheless important, distinction. Only insurgency would seem to offer any outside credibility, which might entitle it not only legal recognition from other nations but also material support, and quite possibly legal protection in the event of failure. If one is facing a well-entrenched opposition and the odds of success appear slim, being able to win acceptance as an insurgent movement could offer some very important perquisties, including the chance of avoiding execution in the event of failure.

History of Revolt, Rebellion, and InsurgencyAncient World

No doubt Roman leaders in charge of the security of their empire spent more than one sleepless night worried about the Middle East, and with good reason. The Great Revolt (66-73 c.e.)Great Revolt, also known as the First Jewish-Roman War, First (66-73 c.e.)[Jewish Roman War]Jewish-Roman War, lasted seven years and, while a failure, revealed the obstacles an occupying force faced in trying to pacify an area. Starting in the year 66 c.e., over alleged religious tensions between Jews and Greeks, it quickly grew to include an antitax protest and even featured random attacks on Roman citizens in Caesarea. Roman troops were rushed in to restore order but were attacked and turned back by local forces. Fearing the defeat might embolden others to join the revolt, Emperor NeroNero (Roman emperor)Nero ordered a full-scale invasion to crush it. In 67 c.e., 60,000 Roman troops attacked Galilee, and its destruction convinced many that resistance was futile. Year by year, town by town, the Roman legions restored order, until the only remaining holdout was Masada, Siege of (70-73 c.e.)Masada, to which the Romans laid siege (70-73 c.e.). When the legions finally broke through the fortresses’ defenses, they found that the defenders had taken their own lives rather than surrender. Masada’s fall signaled that the revolt was over, crushed by overwhelming force and quite possibly hampered by its inability to win new supporters or outside help.

Medieval World

Runnymede Runnymede, Englandmay seem like a strange name to some people, but to others it is the home of one of the most significant rebellions of the medieval world. It was at Runnymede in England that the people of Britain successfully forced their king to acknowledge that the rule of law surpassed his power as monarch.

In 1066, the Norman Conquest (1066)Normans had conquered England and in the process established a highly centralized form of government that put tremendous power in the hands of the king. The system seemed to work until the early thirteenth century, when JohnJohn (king of England)John of England became king. He suffered a series of military setbacks, which cost him valuable lands in France and required him to raise taxes to mount a counterattack. He also ran afoul of the Catholic Church over the selection of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It had always been the king’s choice, but bishops decided they wanted more of a say. The controversy resulted in King John’s excommunication by Pope Innocent III and the threat of an invasion by Spain. The bishops got their choice, and John returned to the good graces of Rome by declaring England and Ireland papal territories and then renting them back for an annual tribute. Noblemen, worried about how the higher taxes might affect their holdings and enraged by the king’s unilateral surrender of sovereignty to a foreign power, may have been pushed over the edge and into rebellion. In 1215 they gathered their forces and marched on London, finding the gates open to them and a receptive population waiting for them. Many of the city’s residents, though not in outright rebellion, shared the nobles’ outrage concerning the king’s behavior. Together this coalition executed by all accounts a relatively peaceful rebellion, forcing King John to meet them, Magna Carta (1215)acknowledge certain limits to his power (in the Magna Carta), and grant the nobles certain control over his actions.

Modern World

The Arab Revolt (1936-1939)Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 is a good example of a revolt that failed to achieve its goals. It was a revolt by committee, trying to forge a coalition among groups without giving much thought or shedding much light on what it would do if successful.

Revolutionaries defending barricades in Paris during the July, 1830, revolution.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Britain had controlled the area in the Middle East known as JewsPalestine and PalestiniansPalestine since the end of World War I, alternately administering and disciplining Palestinian Arabs and Jews. The Balfour Declaration (1917)Balfour Declaration (1917) had determined that at some point the region was to be designated a homeland for Jews, with some consideration given to the national aspirations of Arabs. Both sides wanted a homeland that excluded the other. The Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 was the first sustained violent uprising of Palestinian Arabs in more than a century. Thousands of Arabs from all classes were mobilized. The revolt began with spontaneous acts of violence committed by followers of an Arab religious leader who had been killed by the British in 1935. In April, 1936, the murder of two Jews led to escalating violence. At that point, Arab political parties formed a committee. It called for a general strike, nonpayment of taxes, and national independence. Coinciding with the strike, Arab rebels, joined by volunteers from neighboring Arab countries, took to the hills, attacking Jewish settlements and British installations in the northern part of the country. By the end of the year, the movement had assumed the dimensions of a national revolt. The British shipped more than twenty thousand troops into Palestine, and by 1939 the Zionist movementZionists had armed more than fifteen thousand of its people in their own nationalist movement. Even though the arrival of British troops restored some semblance of order, the armed revolt continued. A British government task force was sent to Palestine to investigate the situation and reported in July, 1937, that the revolt was caused by an Arab desire for independence. The task force recommended that the region be partitioned, separating Jews from Arabs, and further recommended the forcible transfer of the Arab population from the proposed Jewish state. The Arabs were horrified by the idea of dismembering the region and particularly by the suggestion that they be forcibly transferred. As a result, the momentum of the revolt increased. In September, 1937, the British were forced to declare martial law, and many Arab officials were arrested. Although the Arab Revolt continued well into 1939, high casualty rates and firm British measures gradually eroded its strength. According to some estimates, more than five thousand Arabs were killed, fifteen thousand wounded, and fifty-six hundred imprisoned.

Although it signified the birth of a national identity, the revolt was unsuccessful in many ways. The general strike, which was called off in October, 1939, had encouraged Palestinian Jews to become more self-reliant, and the Arabs of Palestine were unable to recover from their sustained effort of defying the British administration. Their leaders were killed, arrested, or deported, leaving the dispirited and disarmed population divided. Palestinian Jews, on the other hand, were united and cooperated with British forces in fighting the Arabs. In the end the revolt failed because of a leadership vacuum and inability to articulate a vision for a political structure to supplant the British authority.

If revolts are the poor relations of forceful change, rebellion may be their more successful cousins, but just barely. Like revolts, rebellions involve open defiance of the established order. Rebellion, however, also involves a clear use of armed force and attempts to publicize its objectives so people know what the ruckus is all about.

The Chechen Rebellion, First (1994-1996)Chechen Rebellion in Russia is a good example. Chechnya declared its independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union was collapsing. However, it was unable to free itself from the Russian FederationRussian Federation, led by Yeltsin, BorisYeltsin, BorisBoris Yeltsin. The First Chechen War lasted from 1994 to 1996, when Russian forces attempted to stop Chechnya from seceding. The Russians outmanned and outgunned the Chechen rebels but could not outmaneuver them, and they were therefore unable to smash the resistance. In 1996 the Russian government signed a peace treaty with Chechnya’s military leaders, who proclaimed the rebellion a success. The Chechen people elected a president and a coalition government and went about the business of running their own country. The independence was short-lived, however, apparently faltering when Chechens decided to export their rebellious notions to neighboring DagestanDagestan. This time the Russians responded in a more organized fashion, coordinating air and ground operations first to eject the Chechens from Dagestan and then to invade Chechnya itself. The Russian incursion disrupted Chechnya’s rebel movement and claimed the life of its president. By 2000, Russia had installed a pro-Moscow government in Chechnya, ending the rebel movement indefinitely.

In the eyes of the world–or at least in the eyes of those who recognize international law–insurgency may be the most legitimate form of resistance to an existing order. To engage in insurgency is to participate in a revolt against a government in a manner less organized than a revolution. Revolutions are more cerebral; they leave paper trails of those who have spoken of them, written about them, and even planned them. Insurgencies are more action-oriented, headed by leaders sometimes characterized by dedication, swagger, and daring and pitted against seemingly overwhelming odds. Cuban Revolution (1956-1959)Castro, FidelFidel Castro and his insurgent forces in Cuba or Ho Chi MinhHo Chi MinhHo Chi Minh and his insurgent forces in Vietnam might come to mind. In the beginning, neither Castro nor Ho and his forces were able to control large areas of territory, but they certainly were capable of offering stiff resistance to the Cuban and French governments, respectively.

The question of how insurgents should be dealt with in the event of their success (or failure) is at issue: Recognition by third parties? Summary execution? At the very least, international law has instructed its adherents that insurgencies can be recognized as wars against the established order. At the same time, recognition of an insurgency expresses the belief by third parties that the insurgents should not be executed if captured and that they should be entitled to prevent the opposition from gaining access to supplies from neutral nations. In their insurgency against the French, Ho Chi Minh and his followers enjoyed the support of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and they diligently attempted to deny France the supplies it received from a seemingly neutral party, the United States. In the end the insurgency prevailed, and Ho went on to bigger things.

In the tangled maze of revolts, rebellions, and insurgencies, with their confusing mix of terms, one thing seems clear: It is how others see them that really counts.RevoltsRebellionsInsurgencies

Books and Articles
  • Brinton, Crane. Anatomy of a Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1965. Takes the theories developed in international law and applies them to specific cases that have become the benchmarks of twentieth century political upheaval.
  • Defronzo, James. Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2007. Offers a modern look at the subject Brinton discussed four decades before, suggesting that the changing global political environment offers some subtle yet important changes to the picture Brinton originally limned.
  • Fenwick, Charles. International Law. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948. Good for a legal understanding of the terms. Fenwick gives helpful insights into how the international community defines and responds to revolt, rebellion, and insurgency.
  • Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin, 1997. Takes a comprehensive look at how the Vietnamese insurgent movement developed, back to the time when China was the country’s chief nemesis.
  • Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. New York: Vintage Books, 2001. Provides further proof of the difficulties inherent in executing a victorious revolt or rebellion by examining the various Jewish-Arab conflicts over control of Palestine prior to World War II.
  • Moss, George Donelson. Vietnam: An American Ordeal. New York: Prentice Hall, 2008. Insurgency is explored both directly and indirectly. Touches briefly on the insurgent struggle in Vietnam, first against the French and then against the United States.
  • Rocca, Samuel. The Forts of Judea, 168 B.C.-A.D. 73. New York: Osprey, 2008. Reconstructs the particulars surrounding the first Jewish-Roman War, sometimes referred to as the Great Revolt. Astute readers will note that between the lines Rocca provides a cautionary tale on the difficulties of staging a successful revolt in the absence of a broad base of support and effective communications.
  • Schultz, Richard. Insurgents, Terrorists, and Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Offers contemporary commentary about conflict.
  • Smith, Sebastian. Allah’s Mountains: The Battle for Chechnya. London: Tauris Parke, 2001. Examines Chechnya’s insurgent movement and the Russian response.

Civilian Labor and Warfare


Education, Textbooks, and War

Paramilitary Organizations

The Press and War


War’s Impact on Economies

Women, Children, and War

Categories: History