Crane Brinton on Revolution

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:

  1. What is the Definition of Revolution?
  2. What are the Relations Between State and Classes Before a Revolution?
  3. 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[1]

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[2], 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?[4] 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[3], 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.[5]


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?[6] 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?


[1] I like “skullduggery.” Brinton is refreshingly free of academic jargon.

[2] 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.

[3] We might also consider the demonization of revolutionaries as disease-bearing vermin, or microbes; Brinton doesn’t go there, but others have.

[4] Readers who really know their stuff feel free to rip this apart!

[5] 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.

[6] 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

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. James Housel

    I read this 40 years ago, at Reed College. The “fever” metaphor is a powerful, if crude one. You may notice that Brinton excepts the American Revolution as lacking the fervor of the other three. We never had our “Reign of Terror”. (Until now…). The most useful takeaway for me from this book, those many years ago, was that history does not make huge leaps, despite the appearance and seductiveness of the revolutionary concept. In ALL of the cases he discusses society convulses but returns to a situation not too dissimilar to what prevailed before. The English end up w/ a king, the French an Emperor, the Americans w/ a modified Parliament, and the Russians w/ a Tsar by any other name. We cannot leave our histories behind. There is no starting over.

    1. ambrit

      I read it in AP European History class in eleventh grade. Then I re-read it after college. It does bear re-re-reading.
      The American War of Rebellion did have a “Reign of Terror” in that the Tories in America were run out of the country to be by directed Patriot Mobs. (Who picked up the abandoned property and chattels after the riots subsided?) One of the direct results of this mass migration was the English seizure of the formerly Spanish Bahamas for the southern Tories to colonize. They are still there; now known as the Conchs. (The Bahamas is really two countries; the capitol, New Providence Island, where Nassau is, and the ‘Out Islands.’ This is one reason why the Bahamas is a favourite resort of narcos and shady characters of all sorts.)
      The fever similie might be inexact, but it is simple enough to allow the “average” reader to follow the argument. When combined with the idea of a “body politic,” it makes a coherent whole. Sometimes rigour must be compromised to allow for comprehension. After all, the goal is to include as many ‘classes’ of citizen as possible. This is one of my main complaints with the “Official Left” in America; it’s lack of inclusivity.
      Starting over presumes a major dislocation. Something on the order of the Great Plagues of Antiquity, or massive ecological disruptions, like the Toba eruption of 74,000 BC. To create a vacuum not only in political terms, but also in cultural terms, the almost total extinction of culture bearers must occur. This is on the order of End Times thinking. Until such an event occurs, we’ll have to muddle through with tweaks and modifications.

      1. Carolinian

        Worth a look as a sidebar.

        Orlov says, talking about Syriza, that if you want a real revolution then better be prepared for violence. A snip:

        what used to be Northern Iraq and Syria is controlled by the revolutionary regime variously known as ISIS/ISIL/Daash/Islamic Caliphate. We can tell that it is a real revolution because of its use of terror. All revolutionaries deserving of the name use terror—and what they generally say is that their terror is in response to the terror of the pre-existing order they seek to overthrow, or the terror of their counterrevolutionary enemies. And by terror I mean mass murder, expropriation, exile and the taking of hostages

        He’s not advocating violence, but simply saying that historically speaking Syriza’s idea of revolution–or for that matter sit ins and drum circles–simply don’t fit the mold. The only thing the elites seem to respect and fear is violence because that is their own currency.

        Here’s hoping this time it’s different…..

        1. RB Houghton

          I believe there is an alternative to violent revolution. It is clearly the male choice but we are only half the population. Another approach is to discuss and clarify our intentions publicly as we are doing here and invite like-minded people to join us.

          To be frank the opposition will come from the present holders of power who will be unwilling to relinquish it whatever a majority of the people tell them.

          We have to persuade / convince those hirelings whom they reward for enforcing their wishes on us – that’s the police, the national guard and the soldiery – so imo that is where the battle lies and its a verbal one.

    2. EoinW

      Was the American Revolution really a revolution? The elites running the 13 colonies prior to the revolution were still in charge afterwards. Was it not simply about these elites refusing to pay tribute to London?

      1. Bruce E. Woych

        @EoinW: You are definitely on track. The elites or middle class broke ties with the King and took power. If they were in England, perhaps the King’s head would be in the bargain. But what that demonstrates is that revolution does not necessarily require full body decapitation of the sovereign figure. Instead, it seems to rest upon the power of retribution and tribute, England, as likened to any war, was defeated.
        In the process they gave up their presumed right to institutionalize coercive force as a monopoly of the state (as has been stated before, defines the state in some circles). In so doing they gave up a “claim” to a “share” demanded by what amounts to a bounded obligation from territorial possessions. In other words, revolution is more of a “RECAPITALIZTION” process and a redistribution of rights. Of course to accept that is revolutionary and radical, because that would mean that the State is a system of Capital afterall; and perhaps an industrial corporate system with the King as CEO and parliament some form of board of directors. In any case, YOU made a GREAT observation.
        Bruce E. Woych

      2. Bruce E. Woych

        @EoinW: You are definitely on track. The elites or middle class broke ties with the King and took power. If they were in England, perhaps the King’s head would be in the bargain. But what that demonstrates is that revolution does not necessarily require full body decapitation of the sovereign figure. Instead, it seems to rest upon the power of retribution and tribute, England, as likened to any war, was defeated.
        In the process they gave up their presumed right to institutionalize coercive force as a monopoly of the state (as has been stated before, defines the state in some circles). In so doing they gave up a “claim” to a “share” demanded by what amounts to a bounded obligation from territorial possessions. In other words, revolution is more of a “RECAPITALIZATION” process and a redistribution of rights. Of course to accept that is revolutionary and radical, because that would mean that the State is a system of Capital afterall; and that Capitalism is all about power relations; But perhaps England is an industrial corporate system with the King as CEO and parliament some form of board of directors. In any case, YOU made a GREAT observation.
        Bruce E. Woych

  2. McKillop

    From what I understand, a fever is not necessarily an illness but rather the body’s response and defence to an illness. Infection, for example, is countered by the body’s rise in temperature to destroy the bacteria or virus.
    I’d also like to suggest that the predictability ‘issue’ might be partially resolved by the mere bidea of ‘possibility’ – as when a warning sign or event (the prodromal?) that causes a parent to say “Stop bouncing on the bed, you’ll hurt yourself.” – is resolved in another way.
    Are there not, finally, those who now consider that a putsch or revolution has occurred in the U.S.A.? And elsewhere in the “West”?
    I read countless comments regarding the abrogation of the rule of law that the U.S.A.’s constitution once promised. Corruption allowed and encouraged might also be considered a revolution.
    My fondness for values taught to me would require me to suggest we have a ‘counter-revolution’ of sorts -to restore and develop what was promised.

  3. McKillop

    Not to hog but . . . perhaps Brinton did not include either Germany or China because his book was first published in 1938 – and, as mentioned, he wrote an “Anatomy of Revolution” which would pertain to the others, past and present, making extensive revisions unnecessary.
    Of more particular concern to me is that I have been reminded of a book that I read a while back and from which I learned interesting historical “stuff” for the first time. I also learned “stuff” from your post -to wit, prodromal, ergodicity, and the Scottish roots of skulduggery (skulduddery) which refers to fornication. If using the simile of a fever is cause for controversy, consider the idea that revolutions might come about if the social order is f***k’dup through chicanery and other acts of skulduggery.
    (Strangely, all the words were noted as questionable by my computer programme – as are ‘programme’, ‘labour’, and others; we poor Canadians put up with so much abuse because of our Tory sympathies!
    No ‘reign of terror’ – ha, ha, ho.)

    1. ambrit

      No “Reign of terror?” What about the Sasquatch peoples of the Canadian Rockies? (Many consider them as remnants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.) Try and find a Sasquatch today, I dare you.
      Of course, there are the Tong Wars in Vancouver, but I digress.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      The book was revised, as I point out. It’s always possible to add additional material in an Appendix (or explain why it hasn’t been added in a new Preface.

      As far as “no reign of terror,” I take your point, but I’m not sure I’d equate exile to Canada with the tumbrils and the guillotine of Paris, let alone the Vendéé.

      1. James Levy

        The primary barrier for serious historians, if they are going to be taken seriously at the upper reaches of the profession where Brinton lived, is languages. If he wrote about the rise of the CCP without reference to Chinese language primary and secondary texts, he’d get killed by the specialists in the top journals. The fear of getting hammered because of a faulty bibliography is endemic in American academia (and why history Ph.D. degrees here now take an average of 8 years to complete); British scholars, whom I studied under in the UK, thought this American obsession with covering every possible base crazy, but it is taken enormously seriously over here.

  4. McKillop

    Hard to stop! Talk about a revolution – I’m listeening via utube to a Chinese band romping up Sing, sing, sing (1936).

  5. McKillop

    Thanks for your comments. Revised, yes, but what of my anatomical point.? One revolution is much like the other, no?
    Exile to Canada could be considered by those of us whose ancestors were not Daughters of the Revolution, a cold and seemingly endless (before global weathers changes) punishment more horrid than any sissy stuff inFrance. The Reign only disposed of some 3800, I’ve heard.
    (You ‘americans’ and your exceptionalism!!!)

    1. NoFreeWill

      Plenty of British sympathizers were hung or shot during the Revolutionary War or before it. Some during fighting, but a lot of it was what we would call extrajudicial execution.

  6. NoFreeWill

    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.” …

    compare to

    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. …

    aka primarily a bourgeois revolution, but supported by other classes who also stood to gain from it. also note that Marxist theories don’t imply a grand class conspiracy that is self-concious, but rather an organized group of people fighting for their interests, ie exactly what the Jacobins were doing.

    And say what you will about the Russian Revolution, but keep in mind that before it many Russians were living in conditions resembling the 1700s and after it they were firmly in the 20th century. and also that capitalist powers immediately attacked it (like the French Revolution) causing a period of civil war that led to widespread starvation. and the huge gains for working people everywhere that would not have been possible without the communist/Soviet menace.

    The revolution may have failed in Germany, but social democracy in Europe was secured by the Russian Revolution. not to mention all the Soviet sponsorship of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial revolutionaries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Nelson Mandela’s terrorist (in a good way) group was trained directly and sponsored by the KGB. And the neoliberal hegemony you see is at least partly a consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union. As long as it was around capitalism had competition (agonistic political theory is interesting here).

    1. BillC

      A bit late to comment on this thread, but I want to second your last paragraph. I put it thus:

      The fall of the Soviet Union is the worst thing that ever happened to the western European working and middle classes.

      I’ve lived three periods in Germany and Italy: ’77-’82, ’92-’96, and ’10 onward — long enough to form good impressions of life for most folks but separated by enough time away to reveal the cumulative impact of long-term changes that are nearly invisible when you live them day-by-day. My first stay began around age 30 and ended with the conviction that both Italy and Germany had achieved near-ideal “sweet spots” of social democracy, taking into account each nation’s resources, culture, and history.

      My second stay saw the revelatory discoveries of pervasive official corruption in even northern Italy and the Mani Puliti (“clean hands”) campaign to end it. Reformers had some success in that battle, but as the GFC showed us, TPTB eventually won that war at the very highest levels throughout the western market state empire, not just in Italy.

      In my current stay, it’s clear on both sides of the Atlantic that the happy talk (maybe even true) about increasing GDP is propaganda that obscures the reality of boarded-up small enterprises on Main Street and chronic non-employment of tens of millions of youth and older workers who are losing skills, self-respect, and long-term security every day and that Gaia will not allow us to grow our way out of this injustice.

      The formerly comfortable middle and working classes’ political disaffection and fear of change (above all, refusal to abandon the Euro) contribute to this decline, but it would not have proceeded as rapidly and thoroughly in western Europe had the USSR survived. Short- and medium-term, eastern Europeans gained from the Soviet Union’s dissolution, but western Europeans surely did not.

      Gradual dilution of the robust, successful western European social democratic model of the ’50-’90s began with Thatcherism, was nailed down with the EU/Eurogroup treaties and the Harz IV accords, and has led to today’s apparently invincible Dictatorship of the Multinationals even in Europe. Reaganism and its neoliberal successors were just as successful in the US, but in the same amount of time, the disappearance of any operational and countervailing alternative enabled the European elite to “democratically” reverse a much greater measure of social progress.

    2. EoinW

      Good point that these revolutions are attacked by external forces because the establishment – in England 1790s and Europe/America 1920s – fears a successful revolution spreading the revolutionary fever to their own population. The Reign of Terror was exactly what the British aristocracy wanted to see in order to discredit the revolution.

      Case in point the Cuban Revolution. How successful would it have been without the American trade embargo? Even with it, I look at Cuba today with a surplus of doctors they send around the world and a universal health care system still intact, compared to Canada with a 2 decade doctor’s shortage and health care system under siege, and have to shake my head. But we do have lots of material stuff thanks to free trade!

      Today I think it’s worth considering viewing all elites across the globe as one entity, our 1% aristocracy. If the unlikely event of a successful revolution happens they’ll circle their wagons together and prevent the global spread of such a revolution(the great fear of the Russian Revolution). If, more likely, no revolution emerges then the global gang will be free to quarrel with themselves over diminishing resources(WW3). The rich kids in the nursery getting out of hand again.

  7. Oregoncharles

    “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.)” –
    The East India Company? The motivating factor for the (original) Tea Party; more generally, tax policies that favored it and other English companies were a major driving force in the Revolution. They were the reason so many elites were revolutionaries – you know, the Founding Fathers.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      The East India Company, IIRC, was a chartered company; it was not meant to destroy existing state institutions (and was eventually absorbed by the elites).

      However, the British, in India, rendered all sorts of institutions dysfunctional unless they were part of the colonial administration. That might be one useful way to look at the last 40 years — the colonization of “the heartland” by a small number of elites in cities on the coasts (including the coast of Lake Michigan).

  8. dcblogger

    excellent analysis of one of my favorite books. I share your view that weather might make a better comparison, or rather earthquake. I take the view that we are in a pre-revolutionary state. I also share your view that revolutions usually do not have happy endings and are not something to be eagerly anticipated. But if I am correct that we are in a revolutionary time, then it behooves us to find power in the street and do our best to guide events in such a way that we come out like Prague 1989 rather than Chile 1973.

  9. Oregoncharles

    Metaphors may be rhetorically effective and even illuminating, but they’re always untrue. X is not in fact Y. Similes often ARE true: X may be very like Y, if you specify the likeness. Poetry is only so useful in understanding history, and usually pretty misleading. It does induce us to read and remember it , though.

    Lambert does specify that revolution is a desperate act, very destructive of both lives and infrastructure and extremely risky. Syria stands as an object lesson to us all. That’s why electoral or political revolution is worth trying for, even if the odds seem very poor.

    In principal, every election is a potential peaceful revolution – if it is genuine, a big question these days. But for that, it has to step out of business as usual. The candidates have to represent a new base of power, and they have to change the structure. This is why Bernie Sanders does not represent an electoral revolution: By running within the same old power structure, his main effect is to validate it. Because he doesn’t bring a whole new cadre with him, he would be isolated, at best, in the White House. That’s if he were allowed to take office. His right-wing foreign affairs and military policies may serve as an insurance policy on that point.

    For an electoral revolution, we have to break the 2-party system. Nobody says it would be easy.

    There’s another option for peaceful revolution, a much more fundamental one: a constitutional convention. It’s very risky – the Bill of Rights could easily go away (but it already is) – but I see more and more support for the idea (as people get more desperate). However, most of that is based on a very limited Convention. There is no such thing. Once it’s convened, it’s a whole new order. A revolution, if you will. The founders envisioned it happening on a fairly regular basis – but then, they were revolutionaries.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      However, if you look at Briton’s typology of revolutionaries, you will find some of them are part of “the elites.” When the pillars of the regime start to crumble, the cracks go all the way to the top.

      Adding, of course similes are always “untrue” — as any abstraction must be! — but the way they are untrue really matters. Do you really feel that the way in which “government is like a household” isn’t true doesn’t matter?

      1. Oregoncharles

        “if you specify the likeness.” Agreed, similes may be very misleading indeed.

        Afterthought: My favorite explanation of most revolutions is that “the sceptre was rolling in the gutter – IOW, the old regime had effectively collapsed. SOMEONE is going to pick up that sceptre. Similarly, that in the case of the American revolution, the colonies “fell off of their own weight” – simply weren’t governable from London anymore. Didn’t prevent some extreme violence, of course. The end of British rule in India provides a better model, though the partition led to plenty of violence.

      2. Lexington

        Some perhaps, but not many.

        In the case of the English (or more accurately, Anglo-Scottish), French and Russian revolutions the landed aristocracy overwhelmingly supported the monarchy, for the excellent reason that their wealth and prerogatives were directly tied to the legitimacy of monarchical government and a threat to the monarchy was equally a threat to them. There are very few historical examples of people betraying their own class interest (to use a Marxist formulation) out of ideological solidarity with their socio-economic inferiors. I personally think this is far too much to ask of human nature and therefore a very weak reed on which to base one hopes for meaningful political reform.

        I specifically exclude the American Revolution because it’s a special case – the revolutionary leadership was drawn from colonial elites but those elites were not members of the British nobility.

  10. TG

    There is an old saying, that the maximum amount of misery that a people will endure before revolting is ultimately exactly what they will end up with.

    Indeed revolutions often create death and destruction on a great scale. I would propose that while revolutions are often very bad things, the threat of revolution is more generally positive (think: how the threat of communism helped FDR launch the New Deal).

    In the 1950’s Mao created a population explosion that created horrible poverty (no it wasn’t because of a crop failure). The Chinese people became angry and violent, and even the Chinese communists nearly lost control, using the cultural revolution to channel the anger of all those starving and angry young men. The Chinese government backed off, and now, while still quite poor by modern American standards, the standard of living in China has advanced significantly. In contrast the Indian people have put up with their poverty with nary a ripple, and now half the population is chronically malnourished with a standard of living inferior to Medieval England. Perhaps what the Indian people need is not some new macroeconomic theory, but an elite that is afraid that there will be a revolution if they don’t stop crushing the peasantry into the dirt.

    Perhaps progress requires that a people be cranky and unreasonable?

    1. Oregoncharles

      There is an active and fairly successful Maoist guerilla force in India, as there was in Nepal – where it eventually won, at least partially.

      We just don’t usually hear about it.

  11. marku52

    The Archdruid had an interesting take on revolution a few weeks back, his premise was that one of the first jobs of any revolutionary movement is to de-legitimise the existing government. He points out that while the left has made no progress at all on this, the right has succeeded admirably. From Cliven Bundy to the Oathkeepers, to Texas talking about secession, the right has persuaded its followers that the government is both incompetent and untrustworthy. Who am I to disagree, although I come at it from the entirely different side.

    Another point he made was about what he called the “Senescence of the elites”. And boy, what a bunch of self aggrandizing, out of touch incompetents do we have there.

    We may be more pre-revolutionary than we would like to realize.

    1. Captain Spaulding

      Antonio Gramsci had this all figured out 80 years ago. He would recognise the American right wing in an instant, and would probably argue that there is no actual “left” political movement in the US – just a variation of the same basic hegemonic project.

  12. RBHoughton

    Thank you for that worthwhile read Lambert.

    Agreed that revolutions do not follow predictable stages, at least not while the anger is still being played out, but there is a destination that revolutionaries cleave to and that’s to introduce fairness and justice to their societies.

    Thus it is that the control freaks who have usurped popular power in the “Great Democracies” invariable ridicule utopian concepts, saying they are realists and revolutionaries are dreamers.

    I believe it is possible to make Natural Rights the basis to fair and just government as the American, French and Russian revolutionaries sought to do, but they all erred in supposing that a population would have the energy and ability to preserve its rights. That has turned out to be wrong.

    I have written a paper here – – which summarises my thoughts. Comment is welcome.

    1. McKillop

      I read some of your paper. Of particular amusement to me was the description of George III as a good Christian, but not a generous one. Of the crowns of Europe being paternal but quite stupid.It’s so fine to read the ironic comments of those times. So fine to read the straight out criticism.
      Also,ironically, were the arguments in favour of wealth and aristocracy opposed to ‘equality’. The rich and powerful, manipulative now as they ever were, still argue that their ill-gotten gains weren’t got through theft, slavery, and legal manipulation and violence. It would seem that the stupidity is catching to those who are financially cunning.
      I have now a better idea as to why “Capitalism works”.
      Who, do you know, coined the term Reign of Terror? What fate would ‘ve been given the men had they been ‘rebels’, not ‘revolutionaries’?

  13. gordon

    I’m not so sure about the violence and bloodiness of revolutionary movements in themselves. So far as I remember, the Bolshevik revolution wasn’t very bloody in Petrograd, though I think there was street fighting in Moscow for a while. The real bloodbath happened in the civil war, which was stimulated and prolonged by foreign interference. The “September massacre” and reign of terror in revolutionary France was, I think, also a response to foreign interference – there was an anti-revolutionary foreign army in northern France, and the Duke of Brunswick, its leader, had published a very threatening manifesto. The revolt in the Vendee was also supported by foreigners. So my feeling is not that revolutions are essentially and necessarily bloody, but become so when foreigners get involved.

    1. Anarcissie

      Since the state is a kind of frozen war, sudden changes in the configuration of the state at its top levels necessarily require that the war, the violence, be unfrozen, and then refrozen (if possible) in the new form or with the new personnel. Other kinds of revolution have occurred, for example, the existing state may gradually transform itself into a different kind of state, especially if there is decay of support for the existing state among the population. I don’t think that’s what’s being discussed here, however.

      Because of the totalitarian, absolutist claims of the state post-Westphalia, it is very attractive to the leaders of one state, observing the collapse of another on their boundaries or on their periphery, to try to extend their power over the territory and population of the now defunct neighbor. One might say the nature of the state system abhors a vacuum. Even virtually uninhabitable Antarctica was carved up.

  14. downunderer

    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.)

    This is an ongoing program in New Zealand, despite widespread unpopularity. There are those who say our Prime Minister is an American agent. Some even support the idea with rational arguments.

  15. Lexington

    Well, there’s a reason this was written in 1938. This sort of “grand history” that tries to distill universal principles from disparate historical examples has fallen by the wayside as being excessively reductionist and insensitive to the particular social, political and economic context of each revolutionary movement. English society in the 17th century, colonial American and metropolitan French society in the 18th, and Russian society in the 20th century were all very different after all, and the more closely we examine the particulars of each case the more we appreciate how large and important the differences are. The “history from 20 000 feet” approach worked best when scholars like Brinton were working with a MUCH thinner body of historiography that made it appear much easier to drawn out parallels and make generalizations without obviously doing great violence to the particulars of each case.

    As for Nazi Germany and China: in the former instance there wasn’t a revolution, at least not a “revolution from below” of the kind with which Brinton is concerned. And at the time of writing the Nazis has only been in power for a few years and no one knew for sure where their radical fascist experiment was going to go.

    As for China, Brinton obviously could not know in 1938 what was going to transpire in 1949. At the time of writing the Japanese had invaded China and were fighting both the Communists and Nationalists (who were also fighting each other) but no one yet knew that the end game of this confused situation would be a Communist revolution – indeed in 1938 the Communists were on the ropes and the smart money was on a Nationalist victory if the Japanese were defeated.

  16. hemeantwell

    There’s much to comment on in your useful review, thanks for it. A couple of points:

    – You’re spot on with your reservations regarding Brinton’s stage theory. I think it was the main reason why his work has tended to be ignored by subsequent academic writers like Charles Tilly, Eric Wolf, or Alexander Rabinowitch. Notions like “fever” and “delirium” are questionable because they paint action logics as irrationally subjective, rather then reflecting the situational dynamics of extreme, all-out conflict between contending parties who have come to believe that opponents cannot be trusted to respect a new social contract. The “fever” of the Terror in the French Revolution that way misses how it came after years of fighting with a resistant, powerful aristocracy supported by foreign powers. The “fever” of the phase of “war communism” during the Bolshevik revolution developed out of an acute struggle against both domestic and foreign enemies that compelled a militarized extraction of maximum effort from the population. Desperate exhaustion in a state of nature is more descriptively apt, and the contribution of foreign powers to these catastrophes makes it impossible to think of revolutions as reflecting a balance of forces in an easily delimited social field. .

    – Katherine Chorley’s book “Armies and the Art of Revolution,” written during the same period as Brinton’s book, argues quite successfully that revolutionary success depends on the state of the regime’s repressive forces. If revolutions involve legitimacy crises to get going, one of the most important crisis dimensions is the erosion of military and police discipline and loyalty. If you are thinking about the possibility of a revolution in this country, along with racism, unemployment, etc. you have to think about disaffected Snowdens and drone operators. It seems that one of the great advantages of the privatization mania will be the erosion of repressive discipline and esprit de corps. A Fighting 59th made up of sub-contractor hirelings is hard to imagine. Lady Chorley put together a wide-ranging review, it’s a good read.

  17. Captain Spaulding

    I’m not sure the English and American revolutions belong in the same category as France and Russia. The English revolution was an intra-feudal squabble and the American was an independence bid by a colonial ruling class. Neither changed the basic contours of their class systems in any way. That is definitely not the case in France and Russia.

    This is one case where the dreaded “Marxists” demonstrate a much firmer grasp of what, in historical analysis, is actually useful, as opposed to superficially similar.

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