This is the classic coup d'etat: a direct attack on those who are said to be in power, and their immediate functionaries. In almost all revolutions, this particular act is threatened, or required for the consolidation of power, but it is less often the moment of transition of power itself. Louis XVI was long out of power before he mounted the scaffold in France, as was Augusto Pinochet long out of power before he was in the hands of the law. The Shah fled before his apparatus was struck at, in January of 1979. And so on.
Conversely there are many coups, there will be many more, but few are revolutionary, and, in fact, the reverse: in most coups the action is by those who have some fraction of access to power, in order to avert popular or economic forces. It is the ultimate vote of no confidence by a party against a leader, in order to avoid one on the streets.
Thus direct and popular revolution are more often side by side than might be supposed. For example, Iran's Islamic Republic took power by removing the Shah's functionaries by force, after popular revolution had forced the government into paralysis.
In the Philippines in February of 1986 Juan Ponce Enrile rallied army troops to attempt to remove President Ferdinand Marcos in a violent coup, they were driven back, however, this began the cascade of defections that would lead to the successful popular revolution, the "People Power Revolution." The course then of the Philippines was an attempt at revolution at the ballot box, then a constitutional counter-coup, namely election fraud to prevent Marcos from losing, which sparked an unsuccessful direct coup, and this exploded in to the popular coup that did, in fact, topple the regime. It was thus a popular revolution, because this is the moment when power was transformed, but it was not the unmixed non-violent revolution which is often presented: instead the leadership of Marcos' inner circle had lost faith in his ability to rule, and saw the depth of discontent. In a state that had assassinated Benny Aquino, the father of the Corazin
However, far more often, a coup is similar to the actions of the August Putsch, that ran from 19-21 August of 1991 against Mikhail Gorbachev. In December of 1990, several key KGB leaders under Vladimir Kryuchkov, began demanding that the policies of Gorbachev be rolled back, and the powers of the police state be unleashed against dissident elements. In a story line very similar in its beginnings to the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev, the decision was made to remove the leader if he would not cooperate with a crack down, at a meeting on the 17th of August.
On 18 August Gorabechv was confronted with the demand that he crackdown and withdraw a proposed treaty, and he maintains that he refused the ultimatum, and this is the account that makes the most sense in the wake of what happened next: the conspirators launched a direct coup attempt on 19 August. The tanks were readied on 20 August, but in the end, they could not be ordered to roll over fellow Russians. The break up of the Soviet Union began only days later, as Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and began planning the transition. Soviet states began declaring independence. It was among the most dramatic three days in world history, and broadcast on television.
This relationship between direct and popular revolution: with one often leading, or attempting to forestall, the other, is repeated many times, and for the same reason. There is a constellation of revolution, a moment when the individual who hold power, as well as the means by which they hold power, are seen as incompatible with remaining in power: there is no acceptable step which both holds and uses the powers available. Others see this weakness, and act, both from within and without. The direct coup, like the constitutional coup attempt, such as the Argentine Congress' attempt to pick a new President in December of 2001, is often to counter what is seen as oncoming popular revolution. The work of popular revolution is done by breaking the morale of the leadership, and hence, the direct coup attempt as counter-revolution is one response to a demoralization: remove the perceived weak link.
On the other hand, as the examples show, direct coup attempts are often the front wave of popular revolution, or the means by which popular revolution is directed away from its original attempt. As with Iran, popular revolution is in favor of those ready to take power, and thus to be successful to its aims, must continue until those who step forward are acceptable.
There is an analogy: as political revolution is to constitutional revolution, so popular revolution is to direct revolution. Direct revolution and constitutional revolution are far more often normal politics, but by abnormal means.
What of direct revolutions? Have their been clear cut cases recently?
One clear cut case is in 1979, when in the Central African Republic, French paratroopers were used to oust the President, General Jean-Bédel Bokassa, in favor of the man he had deposed: David Dacko. However, Dacko had previously been the head of a one party state, with himself as the only candidate for President, in the new Central African order, there were multi-party elections, the first of which was won by Dacko himself. Then Dacko was overthrown a second time, but his successor continued to have to face multi-party elections, and was defeated when running for his third term. While a messy process, it is clearly revolution, and the key moment was clearly the intervention of France in order to first assert their man in power, but also to assert that there would be a new order. The phrase "revolution from above" is often used to describe revolutions which do not fit some preconceived notion of what revolution should be, but this offers a clear example of it, since it was an external power that backed by force the preference for a new order in the Central African Republic, but a new order it was, and essentially remains: with a French veto over the results of elections, and coups being used to remove Presidents who have lost their ability to govern.
Direct revolutions then, like popular revolutions are a varied lot: they range from bloodless palace coups, where the leader is told that he no longer leads, to bloody and messy pogroms where the new regime comes in with the heads of the old spiked on bayonets. Direct revolution is the threat that popular revolution holds within it: no popular revolution prevails without the assertion that the leadership has broken the law, and that if in power, it will lay the hands of the law on that leadership. Direct revolution, however, is far less common than direct counter-revolution, that is, the attempt to shuffle power, in the belief by the elites that popular discontent is a failure of will. In this it shares that feature with constitutional counter-revolution: the use of state apparatus to thwart a change in power, whether political or popular, and daring those who have won an election, or won the streets, to actually enforce that power.