By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
An appropriate topic for Labor Day, given the history? I’d say yes. One of my tsundoku has long been Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution; a friend of mine recommended this little paperback to me, since they believe the United States is in a pre-revolutionary state. Me, I’m not so sure that’s true, and not sure that would be a good thing, if true, but it’s certainly a matter of due diligence to consider it. (People on Wall Street have no trouble reading and quoting Lenin, after all, since they worry about political risk; he’s a clear thinker, and a master at his trade.) Brinton’s Anatomy was first written in 1938, and revised in 1952 and 1965. Here’s a review from the Journal of Peace Research:
For half a century Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution has remained one of the most widely read scholarly accounts of revolutions. This book, which compares four case studies — the English, the American, the French, and the Russian Revolutions — is rich in insights. It offers an exemplary application of the comparative historical method; it discusses its subject matter brilliantly; it provides a coherent and parsimonious conceptual scheme of a central political issue. Brinton imposes a vision of order on the chaos of revolutionary politics. It has had such a rare seductive appeal that policy-makers have, on occasion, confused it with a description of reality and allowed it to guide their actions.
And from (sorry) a prolific Amazon reviewer:
Brinton’s Anatomy of a Revolution is based on a brilliant premise – that all revolutions go through specific “stages.” Using the English, French, and Russian revolutions and the American War for Independence as his models, he seeks to show common threads between the four of them.
However, in this quick tour of Crinton’s book, I’m going to avoid (I hope) being seduced, especially by the idea of stages. Stages are great for lesson plans (as another reviewer points out), but the concept is dangerous because the claim can be made (and a second reviewer makes it) that such schematics or checklists can “predict the future.” I think that claim confuses an interpretation of the world with “a description of reality” — “We’re in the reign of terror. Thermidor coming up!” — and that in turn leads to ideas like being carried along by irresistible historical forces, which de-emphasizes human agency (both practical and moral) and leads to all sorts of unpleasant rationalizations.
Instead, I’m going to focus on three questions — and in Brinton’s formula, they are early questions — that I think would be of interest to readers based on my memories of what’s been said in comments on this topic over the months and years (and I’ll leave comments open so readers can discuss). They are:
- What is the Definition of Revolution?
- What are the Relations Between State and Classes Before a Revolution?
- Who are the Revolutionaries?
What is the Definition of Revolution?
Brinton begins by answering this question (pages 3-4):
Revolution is one of the looser words… [But] our focus is on drastic, sudden substituion of one group in charge of running the territorial political entity by another group hitherto not running that government. There is one further implication: The revolutionary substitution of one group for another, if not made by actual violent uprising, is made by coup d’etat, Putsch, or some other kind of skullduggery
And Brinton goes on — I’m simplifying, because Brinton has a strong discussion of his methodological choices — to compare revolutions to a fever (pages 16-17):
We shall regard revolutions as a kind of fever. The outlines of our fever chart work out readily enough. In the society during the generation or so before the outbreak of revolution, in the old regime, there will be found signs of the coming disturbance. Rigorously, these signs are not quite symptoms, since when the symptoms are fully enough developed the disease is already present. They are perhaps better described as prodromal, indications to the very keen diagnostician that a disease is on its its way, but not yet sufficiently developed to be the disease. Then comes a time when the full symptoms disclose themselves, and when we can say that the fever of revolution has begun. This works up, not regularly but with advances and retreats, to a crisis, frequently accompanied by delerium, the rule of the most violent revolutionaries, the Reign of Terror. After the crisis comes a period of convalesence, usually remarked by a relapse or two. Finally, the fever is over, and the patient is himself again, perhaps perhaps in some respects actually strenghened by the experience, immunized at least for a while from a similar attack, but certainly not wholly made over into a new man. The parallel goes through to the end, for societies which undergo the full cycle of revolution are perhaps in some respects the stronger for it; but they by no means emerge entirely remade.
I especially like Brinton’s notion of prodromal indications, despite my strictures against claiming to predict the future; perhaps I may be permitted to wriggle out of the contradiction by putting these indications under the heading of heuristics, to be tested empirically, rather than laid against a schematic.
However, though Brinton’s simile is seductive, I’m not wholly persuaded by it. For one thing, I’m not sure revolutions are any sicker than ancien regimes; so where does the illness that gives rise to the fever, its climax, and aftermath really begin? For another, I believe that similes, to be successful analytically as well as rhetorically or poetically, must be in some sense isomorphic (similar in form and relations) to the reality that they are laid against. Two examples of horribly destructive similes are “Goverment is like a household,” and “Government should be run like a businss.” In fact, government isn’t, and shouldn’t be. And I remain unpersuaded that a political economy — which is, after all, the field on which revolution takes place — is anything at all like a human body, or the sort of organism that is subject to a fever.
More centrally, Brinton’s simile — and he is explicit about this in his run-up to this passage — assumes that political economies can be in equilibrium (“the patient is himself again”). I don’t believe this for a minute; it’s the same presumption of ergodicity beloved of neo-liberal economics departments. If I had to pick a simile, it would be one that Brinton considers and rejects: The weather, or rather, climate. I can’t even sketch an approach to this, since it’s been a long time since I read up on this material, but treating revolutions as local state changes in a dynamic, chaotic Club of Rome-style world system would be more isomorphic to real political econonies; would have the advantages of providing an account of patterns that repeat, like the stages in a fever chart, but without making the ergodic presumption;and would provide an account of small changes inducing disproportionately large outcomes (the Germans sending Lenin to the Finland Station in a sealed train would be an example of the butterfly effect). Finally, treating revolutions as systemic effects, say on the level of weather changes brought about by El Nino, would remove the idea — implicit in the simile of revolution as fever — that revolutions are in any way exceptional; they would become (like market crashes) naturally recurring features of the system as a whole.
What are the Relations Between State and Classes Before a Revolution?
Of “class consciousness” before revolutions, Brinton has this to say (page 29 et seq.):
It is incontestable that in all four of the societies we are studying, the years preceding the outbreakof revolution witnessed unusually serious economic, or at least financial difficulties of a special kind … Two main foci for economic motives of discontent stand out. First, and much the less important, is the actual misery of certain groups in a given society…. French and Russian history is filled with famines, plagues, bad harvests, sometimes local, sometimes national in sweep, many of which were accompanied by sporadic rioting, but in each case only one by revolution. In neither the English nor the American revolution do we find even this degree of want or famine.
Of much greater importance is the existence among a group, or groups, of a feeling that prevailing conditions limit or hinder their economic activity…. We see that certain economic greivances — usually not in the form of economic distress, but rather a feeling on the part of some of the chief enterprising groups that their opportunities for getting on this world are unduly limited by political arrangements — would seem to be one of the symptoms of revolutions.
All this, however, is rather less than what the Marxists seem to mean when they talk about the revolutions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries as deliberately the work of a class-conscious bourgeoisie…. Certainly one finds no trace of men in England or America or France saying “Organized feudalism is preventing the triumph of middle-class capitalism. Let us rise against it.” … Certainly one cannot deny that class antagonisms existed in those countries; but so far as we can judge, these class antagonisms do not seem to have a simple and clear economic basis.
And of the ancien regime that “hinders or limits economic activity,” this, taking pre-Revolutionary France as an example (pages 36 – 37):
France in 1789 is a striking example of a society the government of which simply no longer works well. … You could not make one map of the administrative areas of old France. …. You would need at least half-a-dozen maps to show the criss-cross units of paroisse, seigneurie, baillage, sénéchaussée, généralité, gouvernment, pays d’etat et d’election, les cinq grosse fermes, pas de grande et de petite gabelle–and this is but a beginning.
Rather reminds one of ObamaCare, eh? (Although, to be fair, our situation is perhaps without parallel; since under neo-liberal dispensation that began in the mid-70s, and ushered in (in my view) a change in the constitutional order from “nation-state” to “market state,” we’ve enjoyed a systematic effort by elites to render state functions dysfunctional, in order that they might be turned over to profit-making entities; so far as I know, there’s nothing at all similar in England, America, France, or Russia.) I mean, how ancien are we? We’re so ancien that we have not one but two single payer systems (Medicare and the VA), and can neither make either universal (as would seem sane) nor destroy them (as would seem the desire of elites).
However, for me the takeaway is that immiseration, as such, is not a pre-revolutionary symptom. That suggests to me that “the left” — whatever that may be, and whether radically reformist or revolutionary — would do better to focus less on injustice, and more on opportunities foregone. Justice issues are important; they are not, as it were, mere dessert toppings; but they are also not why people order the dish.
Taking, again, single payer as an example: Yes, single payer is more just, far more just than the clusterf*ck we have now; “Everybody in, nobody out.” However, single payer also allows labor mobility, improving the bargaining power of workers generally; single payer would make starting a small business not a potentially life-endangering endeavor; single payer would re-empower doctors by enabling them to practice medicine instead of coding for profit; and a host of other concrete material benefits that remove hindrances in people’s economic lives.And a government that cannot deliver single payer is indeed deeply dysfunctional. Illegitimate? Hard to say. But if the “group” “in charge of running [our] territorial political entity” can’t deliver on such a relatively simple and rational policy, perhaps indeed another “group” needs to be swapped in. Of course, the nature and composition of that group is the question, isn’t it?
Who are the Revolutionaries?
Brinton discusses types of revolutionaries (page 94 et seq). He starts by listing some of them:
Let us take a random list of names as they come to mind: Hampden, Sir Harry Vane, John Milton, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Washington, Thomas Paine, Lafayette, Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Talleyrand, Hébert, Miliukov, Konolov, Kerensky, Chicherin, Lenin, Stalin. All are revolutionaists; all opposed constituted authority by force of arms. The list includes great nobles, gentlemen, merchants, journalists; a student for the priesthood, a professor of history, lawyers, a political boss, a ward-heeler. It includes several very rich men and one or two very poor men. It includes many who by conventional Christian standards seem to have been good men; and it includes several who would by such standards seem to have been very wicked men. … Surely it is no easy task to find a least common denominator for a list like this.
One of the most useful approaches to the problem of the personnel of revolutionary movements is from the relatively objective indications of the economic and social status of those who take part in the uprising. Now it is very difficult to find out much about the rank and file of the revolutionists.[However, for the Jacobins, we can use the records of the Jacbobin clubs.] For twelve clubs, with a total membership of 5,405 over the whole course the revolution, 1789-95, in both its moderate and violent phases: 62 per cent of the members were middle class, 28 per cent working class, 10 per cent peasants. … The tax rolls confirm what occupational and social stratification suggests. In eight clubs considered over the whole period of revolution club members paid an average tax of 32.12 livres, where the average tax for all male citizens paying this direct tax in the towns considered was 17.02 livres. …. On the whole one is forced to the conclusion that “the Jacobin was neither a nobleman nor a beggar, but almost anything in between. The Jacobins represent a complete cross-section of their communities.”
First, I hope this disposes definitively of that vile phrase “the masses,” that homogenous, agency-free blob that a plucky little band of the enlightened will somehow energize and set in motion. Clearly, if the Jacobins were “a cross section” of their communities, they were appealing to multiple strata of society, and in ways appropriate to those strata. (A “mass” has no “cross-section.”)
More centrally, I’ve always been taken with the notion that “all walks of life” (Gene Sharp’s phrase, I think) must participate for “change” to come about. I know that Mubarak was over when I heard a man from Persepolis, a rich neighborhood in Cairo, say “Of course he has to go!” although he had other issues with the Tahrir Square movement.
A final criticism I’d make of Brinton’s book is the examples he chooses. Where is Haiti? Where is China? Above all, where is Nazi Germany? Which I add, tendentiously, because it seems to me that a central characteristic of Twentieth Century revolutions — Russia, China, Germany — is that they slaughter millions of people, and for all that don’t necessarily net out positive. And I truly doubt whether Brinton’s fever simile provides an objective correlative for such events.
Then again, if revolutions are less like fever — to be prevented, perhaps, by clean living and physical fitness — and more like weather systems, then, like crashes, they will come when they come, as recurring features of dynamic systems. I’m reminded of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural:
All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
“And the war came.” Then again, the butterfly effect applies within complex systems too, does it not?
 I like “skullduggery.” Brinton is refreshingly free of academic jargon.
 One such prodromal indication might be the presence of well-educated young people, especially young men, who can’t find work; that’s never a good sign for an ancien regime.
 We might also consider the demonization of revolutionaries as disease-bearing vermin, or microbes; Brinton doesn’t go there, but others have.
 Readers who really know their stuff feel free to rip this apart!
 Why the Tahrir Square movement failed “to pick up power when it was lying in the street” is something I don’t know; but the outcomes from that movement are surely a cautionary tale for those who think that attempts at revolution are always a good thing.
 Yes, “Hitler was elected,” but the Nazis took over the machinery of State through skullduggery, as Richard Evans shows in The Coming of the Third Reich