I just finished reading the book of this name by the late Harvard professor Crane Brinton. In it, he compares and contrasts four revolutions: The English Civil War of the 1640s, the American Revolution, The French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. He finds many distinctive elements, but many commonalities. He strings these universals together on the theme of a fever, the course of an illness. (With no pejorative intent)
The prodrome to revolution is counterintuitive in several ways. It does not generally originate from what we’d call the proletariat. In each of the four cases the middle and upper middle classes are the movers. Nor does it tend to start in a time of economic losses. The grievances of the middle class come from a sense of advancing and then hitting a glass ceiling. They see an unjustifiable aristocracy above them gaining unmerited benefits such as relative freedom from taxation and government subsidies. For example, the core of the English opposition in the 1640s was the gentry, newly prosperous men of business who wanted a voice in politics equal to their economic force. Brinton describes them as not so much oppressed as “cramped.”
There are certain signals that Brinton sees in all these cases. One is defections from the aristocracy. Some aristocrats themselves lose faith in their own privilege and take up the cause of the lower classes. The intellectuals desert the rulers, refusing to continue to rationalize the status quo. The government becomes inept in maintaining its finances and providing services to the general populace. The response from the population is to form parallel organizations to do the work that the central government cannot or will not do.
Eventually these parallel organizations make demands on the government that, if granted, would amount to abdication. The revolutionary organizations engage in illegal activities that provoke the government into action. In the American colonies this took the form of the Committees of Correspondence, the local militias, and the state legislatures. The violent opposition to tax collectors and the stockpiling of arms were the triggers for the British armed response.
In all four cases the armed government response was ineffective or simply absent. Charles the First of England couldn’t muster enough competent troops and officers to beat the Parliamentary Army. The ministers of George the Third fumbled the initial response to American unrest with a provocative and yet feeble military presence, and then prosecuted the war in a disjointed way from across a six week ocean voyage. King Louis barely responded at all to the unrest in the streets of Paris, while his troops defected to the mobs. Russian Imperial troops refused to fire on the crowds, joining them instead.
Let me pause for a moment and ask if I am the only one thinking of Egypt. Stay with me.
Brinton compares the next stage to the crisis of a fever. Having overthrown the establishment, the revolutionaries have to decide on their own organizing principles and their program. There is an inevitable tendency towards centralization of power. The threat of counter-revolution and the jostling of factions provoke this.
Revolutionaries also tend towards a social or spiritual purity. Each revolution had an element of “the perfection of mankind” to it. In the English Civil War it was overtly religious In the American, French, and Russian revolutions it was more of the Enlightenment era phenomenon, overtly atheistic in France and Russia, deistic in America. In all cases, people were expected to embrace a revolutionary asceticism.
The moderates lost. Power shifted from the status quo conservatives to the revolutionary/reform moderates to the hard line revolutionaries. The extremists tended to have the most monolithic and loyal organizations, as well as the willingness to use violence, deception, and dirty tricks to achieve their goals.
Again I’m thinking of Egypt.
In each case there was a period of terror: Anti-Catholic massacres in England, mob violence and the expulsion of Loyalists in America, death sentence by accusation in France, and the violent suppression of dissent in the Soviet Union. Brinton acknowledges that the period of terror in the Soviet Union quieted down and bureaucratized, but never really went away.
In each case there was a cooling off, known as the Thermidor period in France. The extremists are better at taking control than ruling. The terror burns itself out and the worst offenders often do not outlive this period. Robespierre, the leader of the French terror, mounted the scaffold himself only a few years after his ascent to power. And let’s face it; people get sick of high standards of virtue. Humanity returns to the mean.
As do political structures. England and France returned to monarchy, albeit constitutional monarchy. The Soviet Union became an oligarchy approximately as oppressive as the imperial government that preceded it. The new United States, thankfully, had a local and state democratic tradition to revert to. What happened in three of the four cases is that the middle class, people with some property, with something to lose, looked at the extremists and the conservatives and chose stability over the new brotherhood of man. In the Soviet Union power was centralized much more effectively, and under a philosophy that did not postulate a middle class. Not that there was much of a middle class, percentage-wise, before the revolution.
Professor Brinton was humble and hesitant in his conclusions. His caveats take up significant space in the text. Still, I consider his propositions to be remarkably applicable to recent history. The Chinese went from the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Red Brigades to mixed state/private capitalism in just a few decades. Wherever I see revolution in this world I see the train of Crane Brinton’s thought being validated. Do you?
The Anatomy of Revolutions is considered a classic of political and historical analysis. It gets the Minor Heretic Seal of Approval.