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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.

Of course, Brinton’s model breaks down in the case of the Russian Revolution, where no similar cycle is in evidence. Skocpol quite rightly sees as crucial for the different course of both revolutions the contrast between the overthrow of the Jacobin dictatorship in the Thermidor of 1794 and the continuation of the Bolshevik dictatorship after the end of the civil war, thanks to Lenin’s transition to the New Economic Policy in 1921. She explains the difference mainly by different economic conditions. When the “War Communist” leap into Utopia proved impossible to continue, Lenin retreated to limited free enterprise; but “large-scale industry and foreign trade remained under central party-state controls, thus leaving the Communists (unlike the French Jacobins after 1793) with a solid organizational basis and interest in the economy.” Thus the Bolsheviks could turn to the new task of long-term industrialization—an alternative not open to the Montagnards.

But Skocpol misses another crucial condition for the different course of the Russian Revolution: the existence of a Bolshevik “Party of a new type.” Unlike the Jacobins, who had begun to kill off one another before being over-thrown by the Thermidor, the Bolshevik party was able to hold together not only during but after the civil war, in the changed conditions of the primacy of economic reconstruction. Although Skocpol recognizes this centralized party as Lenin’s great innovation, she draws no conclusion from that insight. Yet for her parallel between the French and Russian revolutions to hold, the Bolsheviks would have to be seen essentially as an imitation of the Jacobins—as many people have believed both at the time and since. In fact, they were not.

The Jacobins, as Brinton has shown in another, earlier study,4 were a loose club improvised in the course of the revolution, dominated by changing majorities and with little control over its corresponding clubs in the provinces. Revolutionary centralism was imposed in France not by a “Jacobin party”—which did not, in fact, exist—but by the commissaires en mission appointed by the revolutionary government. In contrast, the Bolshevik party created by Lenin in 1902 was a new kind of centralist organization, designed for the revolutionary conquest of state power (even if at first possibly in coalition with other revolutionary parties). Since the “October revolution” of 1917, this party had quickly gained exclusive control of all organs of government, political, economic, and military. Only such a centralized party could have transformed the revolutionary dictatorship of the civil war years that still existed in 1921—a dictatorship still comparable to that of the Jacobins at the height of the Terror—into a “dictatorship of development,” constructed to oversee the long-term industrialization of the under-developed Soviet economy.

But that means that from 1921, the Russian revolutionary process assumed a historically new nature, one no longer comparable to anything that had happened before—and that our comparative historian has missed precisely this historically new element. The new phase of the Bolshevik regime was characterized by the dual task of, on the one hand, industrial modernization in comparative isolation and, on the other, preserving monopolistic party power at all cost. This new duality of tasks also seems the only possible explanation for the subsequent development of the Soviet Union under Stalin—first his imposition of forced collectivization on the peasants, that new “revolution from above” with its millions of victims, and then the rise of his personal despotism.

Skocpol assumes too easily that Soviet industrialization could not have been achieved without the mass deportations of peasants and the later brutal exploitation of those who remained on the land, and that Bukharin’s alternative policy—increasing production of consumer goods to induce the peasants to raise and sell more produce on the market—could not have worked. The weight of scholarly discussion tends to show that economically it could have worked. But the inadequate grain deliveries of 1927-1929 were seen by Stalin and a growing part of the party as proof of the political ill-will of the peasants, and economic concessions to them were perceived as a danger to the party regime. The “revolution from above” was a political measure designed to break the cohesion and power of new social forces created by economic progress. It is the need for such repeated revolutions from above to keep the process of modernization within the bounds of party control which is the fundamental characteristic of the new type of revolutions—what I have called the totalitarian revolutions of our time.5

In this sense, it can be argued that the Russian Revolution did not end with the consolidation of Stalin’s rule. It continued through his great purge of the 1930s, another revolution from above directed against both the veteran revolutionary cadres and the new technocratic elites, and through his postwar attempts to impose further structural changes on collectivized agriculture. Even Khrushchev’s attempts to achieve, without Stalin’s violent methods, a further reduction of the peasants’ private plots and a mass resettlement in “agrotowns” in 1958 and 1959 were still a part of the same revolutionary process. Only the new party program of 1961 effectively announced its end—and was for that very reason bitterly attacked by the Chinese Communists.

The preceding argument suggests that the Russian Revolution should be understood as consisting of two distinct revolutionary processes—one comparable to the French Revolution until 1921, the other wholly original after that. While the case for thus dividing the Russian Revolution into two processes of different character may not be, at first sight, obvious, Skocpol’s treatment of the Chinese Revolution as a single, continuous phenomenon—including the fall of the Manchu dynasty, the rule of the warlords, the limited reunification of the country by the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek, and the rise to power of the Chinese Communists—seems to me wholly artificial.

As Skocpol is well aware, the collapse of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 did not lead to a mass movement of the peasants or to a social revolution of any kind, but simply to the decay of the state. The political awakening first of the intelligentsia, and later of parts of other classes, did not occur until after World War I, when feelings of national humiliation and the example of the Soviet revolution encouraged the growth of two competing revolutionary movements: the Kuomintang and the much smaller Communist Party. Their cooperation made possible the national revolution of the middle 1920s, restoring a measure of national unity and stimulating the first real, though in the outcome largely unsuccessful, social revolutionary mass movements in China. Of course, as Skocpol shows, the national unity achieved in the new state was far from perfect and its machinery was never effectively centralized; but that is true of many national revolutions in underdeveloped countries, of which the Kuomintang revolution is an example. At any rate, the cooperation of the two parties came to an end with the Kuomintang’s purge of the Communists in 1927-1928—and with it the national revolution.

The Communists’ part in the national revolution was, of course, an essential preparation for the later Communist revolution. But the real beginnings of the latter can, in my view, only be dated from the gradual rise in the Thirties of an independent Communist leadership under Mao Zedong. For only then did a party of the Bolshevik type, organized for the struggle for national power and enabled by its growing independence from Moscow to concentrate on this goal to the exclusion of international cross-currents, come into existence. While Skocpol fails to recognize the crucial importance of the way the organization of the Chinese Communists became emancipated from Soviet control, she is most enlightening on the peculiar integration of the—largely urban and intellectual—Communist cadres in the villages during the civil war. By mobilizing the peasants both against the landlords and against the Kuomintang forces, they were able to reorganize village society through land reform carried out in cooperation with local peasant leaders, first in a few “Soviet areas,” then in their anti-Japanese bases, and finally after their victory in the whole of mainland China. As a result of these original methods of working in the countryside, even the later introduction of collectivized farming by the ruling Communists was more successful and less costly than it had been in the Soviet Union.

Skocpol does rather less than justice, however, to the decisive effect of the Japanese invasion after 1937 on the Communist victory. While the invasion itself fatally weakened the Nationalist regime, the Japanese policy of mass reprisals drove more and more peasants into the ranks of the Communists who were fighting the Japanese invaders. The “peasant nationalism” described by Chalmers Johnson,6 which Skocpol plays down, was not an ideological movement but a movement of self-defense under Communist leadership.

This Communist revolution by prolonged civil war, then, has almost nothing in common with the French Revolution. It shows important parallels with the Russian Revolution, despite the different conditions and revolutionary strategies. Both were led by a new type of centralized party, which then had to maintain control by repeated revolutions from above. Skocpol argues convincingly that the Communist cadres’ close ties with the villages enabled the Chinese party to collective farming—the first of those revolutions from above—by more “participatory” methods than had been used in Stalinist Russia. But she is far less convincing in suggesting that similar methods were used in such later crises as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.

Here, her sympathy for Mao—a residual ideological sympathy wholly absent from her treatment of Stalin—seems to have prevented her from seeing either the roots of such an urge for ever new upheavals in the nature of a totalitarian party regime, or the extent of its human and material cost—in economic setbacks, in the temporary destruction of higher education and important fields of research, in the broken lives of an entire young generation—as shown by many recent accounts from China. Above all, she has failed to realize that although the later upheavals were an essential part of the Communist revolution in China, they were different in kind from its earlier phases: the “participatory” communism which made the Chinese revolution differ from Stalin’s bureaucratic and arbitrary regime had largely disappeared—even though Mao relied to the last on totalitarian forms of “mass mobilization” and military force rather than on police rule.

It remains to be seen whether the present phase of “de-Maoization,” with its emphasis on bureaucratic and economic rationality and on the primacy of modernization over utopianism, will bring the revolutionary process to an end. Certainly the Soviet Communist leaders continued to impose revolutionary changes until the industrial economy was much more highly developed than it is today in China. Nor do we know whether the greater relative egalitarianism and concern for the participation of the people, which Skocpol rightly points out as distinctive features of early Chinese communism, will be preserved as the revolution draws to its close.

The criticisms made in this review, then, are ultimately consequences of my conviction that the course of revolutionary processes is never wholly determined by “objective” forces and structures, whether international, economic, social, or political. It is also, like all processes in history, the result of choices made by individual human beings under the influence of their beliefs. A study of revolution that neglects this element of human will and belief, however valuable its keen and careful analysis, cannot wholly escape the reproach of presenting the drama of Hamlet without the prince.

  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).

  4. 4

    Crane Brinton, The Jacobins: An Essay in the New History (1930, reprinted by Russell, 1961).

  5. 5

    Richard Lowenthal, “Development versus Utopia in Communist Policy,” in Chalmers Johnson, ed., Change in Communist Systems (Stanford University Press, 1976).

  6. 6

    Chalmers Johnson, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1937-1945 (Stanford University Press, 1962).

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