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, 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 …

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