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Were These Revolutions Necessary?

States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China

by Theda Skocpol
Cambridge University Press, 407 pp., $7.95 (paper)

In this important and original book, Theda Skocpol seeks to discover the common causes and results of modern social revolutions, defined as “rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures…accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below.” By analyzing the great French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian and Chinese revolutions of our century, she hopes to arrive at a general understanding of the phenomenon. Each of those revolutions, in her view, started with the collapse of an autocratic monarchy, a collapse caused by inability to resist foreign pressures effectively. Each was propelled at a decisive stage by a mass uprising of the peasantry. And each resulted in the creation of a centralized state machine of a new type.

Her book would be interesting for its comparative historical method alone, which differs equally from simple historical description and from the statistical comparisons of social science. Rather it follows the model of Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy,1 which sought to determine the factors that had led to authoritarian control in some countries and democracy in others by investigating the evolution of the social structure of the countryside in England, France, the United States, Japan, China, and India. This method has great advantages over a straightforward narrative of single cases, which cannot by itself in the absence of “controls” justify general statements about causation. It also has advantages over the kind of social science approach that isolates individual “indicators” from their historical setting so as to obtain a sufficiently large number of cases for statistical comparison.

By contrast, in examining a limited number of cases in depth, as Skocpol does, one is more likely to arrive at meaningful general statements about historical patterns and their causes. That method is potentially most fruitful but also risky, since its success depends in each case on the author’s initial selection of the factors whose causal relevance is to be investigated. But the author is at less risk of having missed some important elements if he claims less than complete determination of events by the factors analyzed—thus granting to history at least a residual element of freedom.

The great merit of Skocpol’s book is that she has isolated some major causal factors in the outbreak and outcome of great revolutions, and has shown their contribution to the three cases she investigates. The major weakness of her work is that its claims are too narrowly deterministic, tending to ignore the scope for choices that “objective conditions” frequently—though not always—leave to the human actors in the process of history. The factors she neglects or treats as merely derivative include the roles of cultural traditions, of dominant or emerging ideas and political movements, and of creative personalities—the very factors that may determine the choice between alternatives in given objective situations.

It is, of course, Skocpol’s particular selection of factors—the externally induced collapse of the autocracy, the destruction of the old state machine by a mass movement of the peasantry, and the creation of a new centralized state machine—that justifies, in her view, the grouping together of the French Revolution of 1789 and of the Russian and Chinese revolutions as historical events of the same type; and she relies on the same three factors for rejecting their separation both in the orthodox Marxist categorization of revolutions as “bourgeois” and “proletarian,” and in the academic liberal characterization of them as either “democratic” or “totalitarian.” She argues that the French Revolution resulted no more in a liberal-democratic rule of the bourgeoisie than the Russian and Chinese revolutions resulted in a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Before criticizing Skocpol’s central thesis, I must give a fuller account of her argument. According to her, the monarchic old regimes collapsed under increasing pressure from more developed foreign powers, because their dominant landlord classes refused to accept the economic reforms and sacrifices that resistance to those pressures would have required. In France, for example, the nobles opposed tax reform; the Chinese gentry refused “to invest in modern transport or industrialization” or to finance reforms that might strengthen the existing state. The unsettling pressures from foreign powers—a factor neglected in most theories of revolution—are as evident in the Russian case as in that of the Manchu dynasty in China before 1911. As for the French, Skocpol points to their defeats by the British in India and North America in the second half of the eighteenth century. By contrast, the absence of a similar revolutionary effect in Prussia after its defeat by Napoleon in 1806 she explains by the political, social, and military reforms initiated by the king with the partial consent of the ruling classes in the following years.

In each case, then, the fall of the monarchy was caused in part at least by the negligence and short-sightedness of the privileged classes themselves (though Skocpol admits that the Russian example does not really fit this claim). The collapse or critical weakening of traditional monarchic rule, in turn, made those classes defenseless against the claims of the peasants, who by rising spontaneously in France and Russia (though, as Skocpol notes, not for many years in China) turned the political crisis into a social revolution. In France, the increasing violence in the countryside “forced [the] reluctant hand” of the alarmed nobles and members of the Third Estate, meeting at the Constituent Assembly at Versailles in 1789, and led them to renounce their own court pensions, tax immunities, seigneurial dues, and seigneurial justice.

Again in each case, the collapse of monarchic authority and aristocratic prestige produced near-anarchy, which could only be overcome by the creation of a new, centralized state machine. The Jacobins of the Montagne began to build such a state under the pressure of international war, and it was completed, after their overthrow, by Napoleon, who created a bureaucratic machinery that has survived all subsequent changes in the French system of government. In Russia, Lenin led the Bolsheviks to power on the back of the peasant revolution of 1917, but Stalin consolidated the new state after subjugating the peasants.

In China, where the fall of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 was first followed by a period of national decay, the Kuomintang’s “National Revolution” of the 1920s tried to restore an effective centralized state but never really succeeded. This was achieved only when the Communists finally achieved power throughout China in 1949. This fact, as well as the Communists’ belated organization of a peasant revolution—which had not spontaneously arisen after the fall of the monarchy—during the civil war and the war against Japan, explains why Skocpol has to treat the entire period from 1911 through the 1950s as a single revolutionary process in order to fit China into her scheme.

In addition to many stimulating ideas, Skocpol’s book seems to me to have two basic merits. One is her emphasis on the way the international pressures act as preconditions for most, if not all, major revolutions. The other is her insistence that, as surely as each revolution starts with the collapse of one state machine, it leads to the creation of a more rational and centralized apparatus of government. Though Skocpol is greatly influenced by Karl Marx, as every student of social revolution must be, and though she was educated in a climate still colored by the student revolt, she is clearly not utopian. If her master is Barrington Moore, she has not undergone much influence from his late friend Herbert Marcuse.

Against these merits, I find two major weaknesses in Skocpol’s work: her off-hand neglect of the changes in beliefs and values preceding and accompanying social revolutions, and her failure to take seriously older attempts at a comparative history of revolutions based on the concept of the “revolutionary cycle.” These weaknesses cause her to underestimate the fundamental character of the differences between the French Revolution on the one hand and the Russian and Chinese revolutions on the other.

That one of the preconditions of revolution is a change in accepted values which causes the ruling “system” to lose legitimacy is a thesis that has been argued persuasively by Chalmers Johnson2 and others, and indeed might seem self-evident. Skocpol appears to reject it partly from a general prejudice against “ideological explanations” and partly because of the remarkable stability of the South African regime, which is clearly rejected by the majority of the subject population. But this seems less the argument of the sophisticated scholar which Skocpol otherwise proves to be than the reaction of a disappointed radical; for a moment’s reflection should have shown her that values can slowly change for generations before a revolutionary situation arises, and that the importance of such changes for creating the preconditions of revolution is not contradicted by the fact that the actual outbreak may be brought about by conflicts within a ruling minority and a loss of legitimacy among the hitherto loyal armed forces.

Moreover, values and changes in values also offer an important key for understanding the direction which revolution gives to social and political change within a country. It simply will not do to try to explain the French Revolution without referring to the Enlightenment, or the Russian Revolution without looking at Russian revolutionary thought in the nineteenth century. Skocpol notices shrewdly that the French revolutionary peasants forced the abolition of seigneurial privileges but generally respected the seigneur’s property rights and even continued to pay land rent as distinct from other dues, because they believed in the principle of private property. She is also aware that the Russian revolutionary peasants recognized no such principle, but violently seized the nobles’ estates and redistributed the land among themselves. That was clearly not due to a difference in their material interests—countless French peasants would have been delighted to have more land—but to a difference in their “values” or “ideologies.”

Again, Skocpol describes how the French armies were transformed by the Montagnards’ levée en masse, which called for the mobilization of all Frenchmen without regard to income and class; and she mentions that this transformation would not have been possible if the new regime had not recognized the human rights of the volunteers. But this is literally her only reference to the Rights of Man, which surely deserve more attention in a comparative history of revolutions. It might have occurred to Skocpol that the difference between the cynical tolerance of Napoleon’s regime and the cynical brutality of Stalin’s dictatorship had something to do with the background or absence of a belief in individual rights in the two countries, and that this was important for the different outcomes of the two revolutions.

As for the “revolutionary cycle,” Skocpol is, of course, familiar with earlier attempts to base a comparative history of revolutions on that concept, notably Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution.3 His attempt was based on obvious morphological similarities in the English Revolution of the seventeenth century and the French Revolution of the eighteenth century. In both cases the rule of the revolutionary moderates gave way to a dictatorship of extremists, followed eventually by a restoration and some time later by a new, liberal revolution (1688 and 1830), which achieved the broad constitutional and social goals of the early revolutionaries without the later political extremism. The value of Brinton’s approach lay in its long historical range, extending both before and after the revolutionary climax, thus helping to uncover its underlying causes and continuing effects. By treating the revolutionary cycle in France as finished only by the July revolution of 1830, he brought out the ultimately bourgeois character of its result—something which Skocpol treats as unimportant.

  1. 1

    Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Beacon Press, 1966)

  2. 2

    Chalmers Johnson, Revolutionary Change (Little, Brown, 1966).

  3. 3

    Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (revised and expanded edition, Vintage Books, 1966).

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