Does anyone ever get the revolution they asked for?

by John Holbo on January 25, 2013

We’re going to be having a book event soon: Envisioning Real Utopias. I’m not jumping the gun with this post – or maybe I am.

Anyway, here’s my question. But first, the set-up: there are two ways for revolutions to succeed, and two ways for them to fail.


1) You get what you ask for, and it’s good.

2) You get something you didn’t ask for, but it’s good.


3) You get what you ask for, and it’s terrible.

4) You don’t get what you ask for. You get something else, and it’s terrible.

(There’s obviously a third way for revolutions to fail, namely by not happening. This might be a special case of 4 in which you get a terrible thing you didn’t want: same old, same old. But let’s set this third case aside. We are presented concerned with revolutions that come off, for better or worse, not the vastly more numerous set of those that don’t.)

Thus, the question. Which revolutions go in which boxes? Pretty clearly 2) and, even more so, 4) are going to be full. What about 1) and 3)? Does any revolution ever turn out the way the revolutionaries plan?

Let me refine the question a bit. ‘Careful what you wish for, you just might get it’ is a classic, Brave New World, anti-utopian warning. It needs to be distinguished from the 1984, Animal Farm ‘careful what you wish for, you might get something else’-type warning. But seriously: does anyone ever really get what they want, and it’s terrible? It would follow that the revolutionaries were just complete bastards, right? Because revolutionaries all really have wishes of the following form: ‘I wish for the abolition of private property, so that humans can flourish to an optimal degree.’ Then if the plan backfires, they didn’t really get what they want. Let’s say: get what you want, institutionally, but it turns out terrible. So if you propose to abolish private property, so that humanity may flourish, and you abolish private property, and humanity fails to flourish, you count as 3) getting what you want, but it’s terrible.

Basically what I’m asking is: how many revolutionaries actually get the new social/cultural/legal machines they ask for, rather than getting some strange new machines that may work well, or not, but weren’t what they submitted a request for.

Speaking of institutions: ‘revolution’ is elastic. My question concerns institutions, per above, so let’s say a revolution is what you get when you get something new that has to be institutional, but it can’t be encompassed by existing institutions. But understand it how you like, so long as you appreciate that I really don’t want to hear about ‘revolutions in pop music song structure’, for present purposes. Let’s stick to politics and society and organizations.

Final note: people will want to be able to be squishy about this, since no revolution brings about exactly every last detail the revolutionaries asked for – or absolutely none of the things they asked for. Let’s use a sliding scale for the success column, and another for the failures. A successful revolution that came off exactly as it was blueprinted would be a 10. A successful revolution that produced some new, good thing that was utterly unanticipated by any of the revolutionaries – a sudden black monolith among the monkeys! – would be a 1. And the same goes for failure.

Of course we would really want a separate sliding scale for degree of success vs. failure. No revolution is utterly happy or utterly unhappy. But maybe we can just focus on the narrower question: you can’t always get what you want, even if, if you try sometimes, you get what you need. But, where revolutions are concerned, does anyone ever get what they want, to a first, institutional approximation? What do you think?



Rich Puchalsky 01.25.13 at 5:33 am

I’ve been reading Voline — not a great writer, but an interesting read.

“When, on my arrival [in Petrograd], some comrades wanted to know my first impressions, I told them this: “Our delay is irreparable. It is as if we had to overtake on foot an express train, which, in the possession of the Bolsheviki, is 100 kilometres ahead of us, and is travelling at the rate of 100 kilometres an hour. We not only have to overtake it, but we must grab hold of it at full speed, hang on, get into it and fight the Bolsheviks, dislodge them, and finally, not take over the train, but, what is much more delicate, put it at the disposal of the masses and help them make it go. A miracle is needed for all that to succeed. Our duty is to believe in that miracle and work for its realization.””

I think that starting with your two binaries may camouflage the fact that revolutions start out general and become more narrow as internal politics determines which factions wins out. So the goals of the revolution are never as singular as they appear later.

And as Voline’s story indicates, the ones who win out are generally those most ready to use organized violence. Is there any real connection between utopia and revolution, these days?


Sam 01.25.13 at 5:34 am

The American revolution pretty much resulted in what its organizers wanted, though with more centralization of political authority than some would have liked. At least a 9, I’d say. Of course you could call it a war of independence rather than a revolution and that argument would have some merit.


Allen Hazen 01.25.13 at 5:43 am

What counts as a revolution? Does a successful nationalist push to end connection to a “colonizing” power and establish an independent polity count as revolutionary, or do you only count as revolutions things that try forbid social and economic changes. If the former, Norway’s independence from Sweden (1905) might be a case of a revolution which got just what it wanted and was fairly happy with it. (A “revolution” whose happy outcome was cited by Jane Jacobs as a reason for Anglo-Canadians not to be frightened of Quebec separatism.)


Hidari 01.25.13 at 5:46 am

What about the so-called Velvet Revolution in what is now the Czech Republic? Not that I am claiming that absolutely everything in the Czech Republic is perfect, anything but, but it seems to be a lot better than what they had before (which is debatable with a lot of the other Eastern European countries).

Of course it depends on your definition of revolution. Was what happened in India a “revolution”? What about the “pots and pans” revolution in Iceland? Things seem to be better there now (although some people disagree). Again, Tunisia doesn’t seem to be doing too badly after their revolution. Not perfect, but then what political change is ever perfect?*

Or what about Turkey? If what Attaturk did wasn’t a revolution….what was it? (and here we know the alternative…the British and the French wanted to cut up the remains of the Ottoman Empire and replace it with pro-Western “puppet states”…with results we can see in Jordan…..or Saudi Arabia).

Was the Greek War of Independence a “revolution”?

This list might help everyone

Of course as a quick perusal makes clear it’s hard to generalise because the vast majority of revellions and revolutions fail (ı.e. are crushed).

*One can turn the question round: ” Does much incremental political change ever turn out the way the planners planned?”

Does ANY change of any sort really turn out the way people anticipated?


Bruce Wilder 01.25.13 at 5:53 am

Who is the revolutionary asking?

Perhaps the revolutionary is asked, and has an answer and the answer works well enough — success.

Perhaps the revolutionary is asked, and has no answer, or an unworkable answer.

Perhaps the revolutionary is asked, asks for expert advice & assistance, and either takes the advice & assistance, which turns out to be workeable or adaptable to circumstances — succcess.

Or the revolutionary refuses to take the advice & assistance, or takes it, but screws up the implementation. Or, it is really bad advice & assistance.


shah8 01.25.13 at 6:08 am

I think approaching from the standpoint that it ever mattered what people wanted or advocated for is misleading.

From what I understand, the vast majorities of revolutions are social default proceedings of governments. They don’t really change the character of the state any faster than states can change, but they do a nice Chapter 7 or 11, mostly 11 restructuring and clearing out of deadwood. The violence is usually about the threatened ancien regime calling in all the debts it thinks it can get away with and mobilize it against the creditors hounding for their heads.


The Raven 01.25.13 at 7:11 am

Oh, good question.

I think part of the answer is that the results of even successful revolution are incalculable, and part of what successful revolutionaries must be prepared to do is to guide the outcome and be prepared to like what they get. Neither the American Founding Fathers nor the leaders of the Indian Independence movement knew what they would get, but they found it was better than what they had before their respective revolutions.

I think Keynes critique of Communism is relevant here: to be successful revolutions must first want something that they know how to achieve and is possible; must have good theories, in other words. The on-going right-wing revolution in the USA has this problem: its economic model is fundamentally flawed, and there is no way for them to get both kind of markets and property system that they want and, at the same time, have the kinds of lives they want.

More tomorrow. I think this an interesting and important question and I hope it sparks more good discussion.


Mao Cheng Ji 01.25.13 at 7:21 am

I think “the abolition of private property” is a really bad example. It’s way too intellectual to expect the average person to risk his/her life for that kind of thing. If anything, they are probably suffering from not enough property of their own.

The main slogan can be positive (“land to the farmers”) or negative (“down with the king”). And I think it’s the negative one that has the most potential to bring up changes that you don’t expect.


bad Jim 01.25.13 at 7:44 am

In the Mexican revolution, some groups got what they wanted and others were disappointed, both cases 1 and 4. Perhaps this is typical in the overthrow of an authoritarian regime when class or regional conflicts are also present. When there are enough contending factions involved, with disparities in military or economic power, there may be so few stable coalitions possible that a generally satisfactory outcome is unlikely.


Chris Bertram 01.25.13 at 7:46 am

One problem is with the way the question is put. The very identification of the sequence of events as a revolution is often going to be made post hoc, and the people who started it weren’t thinking of themselves as making a revolution. They may or may not have got what they wanted, but they didn’t think of themselves as wanting a revolution. This may not be true of all revolutions, but it was certainly true of the people who stormed the Bastille. Duncan J. Watts’s Everything is Obvious is good on this.


Bruce Wilder 01.25.13 at 8:02 am

Aren’t the people starting a revolution generally conservatives, who think they are starting a counterrevolution or a restoration?


Z 01.25.13 at 8:17 am

But, where revolutions are concerned, does anyone ever get what they want, to a first, institutional approximation?

When do you stop the clock? In order to assess if something has turned out as predicted, this seems to be a pretty important criteria, especially since people of course react to the course of events, so that what they want can change pretty quickly. The 1789 revolutionaries got what they wanted to a very good first approximation if you stop the clock in 1789. If you stop it in 1791,1793,1795 or 1798, you might get wildly different answers (and who can tell how what a revolutionary of 1789 wanted changed in the meantime). Same in spades for the 1848 French Revolution.

All these caveat aside, the French revolutionaries of 1830 got pretty much exactly want they wanted, institution-wise, and they got it for 18 years; which is I think the longest period of institutional stability in France in the 1780-1880 period.


John Holbo 01.25.13 at 8:22 am

Every is criticizing just the way I knew you would! (I got what I wanted!)

No, seriously. I knew everyone was going to say the question is misbegotten in its simplicity – which it is. But it seems to me at least some of the above suggestions that the question is wrong are actually answers to the question.

“They may or may not have got what they wanted, but they didn’t think of themselves as wanting a revolution.”

That sounds to me as if, institutionally speaking, they got something they didn’t ask for, but it was good. That is, it’s not so much that the question is wrong. The answer is some form of 2

I tend to think of successful independence movements as not automatically
revolutionary, just because they are successful. Certainly some of them have had relatively smooth transitions.

I think examples like the Velvet Revolution and Attaturk’s Turkey sound like cases that can plausibly be answered in a ‘they kind of got what they wanted, and it was fairly good’ sort of way. That’s your answer, then.

‘Land to the peasants’ or ‘down with the king’ seem like proposted institutional changes concerning which one can say later: did it happen? If so, did it turn out well or badly? (Again, not that the answer is clear.)


John Holbo 01.25.13 at 8:26 am

“When do you stop the clock?”

Mao, when asked what you thought about the French Revolution: ‘it’s too soon to tell.’ I think it was Mao (or was supposed to be Mao.)

Anyhoo. Quite so. If you don’t stop the clock pretty quick, no one gets what they want, because too much happens. It seems reasonable to say that you get what you want, institutionally if the institutional changes are actually made, the way you want them, pretty quick. Not 100 years after the revolution but right after the revolution. Or soon after.


Henry's Kissinger's Confidante 01.25.13 at 8:43 am

It was (in the story) Zhou Enlai.


Billikin 01.25.13 at 8:50 am

Sam: “The American revolution pretty much resulted in what its organizers wanted, though with more centralization of political authority than some would have liked.”

Arguably, they got less centralization of political authority than most would have liked, which is why they scrapped the Articles of Confederation.


Mao Cheng Ji 01.25.13 at 9:11 am

“‘Land to the peasants’ or ‘down with the king’ seem like proposted institutional changes concerning which one can say later: did it happen? If so, did it turn out well or badly? (Again, not that the answer is clear.)”

Right, so, once you deliver a ‘checkmate’ (as, for example, in 1979 Iran) you have achieved what you set out to do. But then, since there can’t be vacuum, now it’s all up for grabs, and so you get an Islamic Republic. Which is, I suppose, what most people wanted at the time, since it was approved by a referendum. So, wasn’t it a success, then? And compared to what? I don’t see anybody there advocating restoration of monarchy, so it must be something like 1b: you got what you wanted, and it’s a step in the right direction.


David 01.25.13 at 9:12 am

The non-Strasserite Nazis come to mind. Their complaint would be that they lost, not that their revolution failed, no?


Z 01.25.13 at 9:13 am

It seems reasonable to say that you get what you want, institutionally if the institutional changes are actually made, the way you want them, pretty quick. Not 100 years after the revolution but right after the revolution. Or soon after.

OK, then the revolutionaries of 1789, 1830 and 1848 got pretty much exactly the institutions they wanted in the short term. The Meiji revolutionaries also got I think exactly what they fought for though they were member of the oligarchy before anyway, so the whole event might not qualify as a revolution, depending on whether you think a revolution necessarily involves popular movement (and setting aside the idiosyncratic term of Restoration traditionally used in pure Bruce Wilder @11 style).


reason 01.25.13 at 9:14 am

I want to combine #1 and #2.

The problem is not the revolution. Quiet revolutions haben all the time and nobody notices (one probably just happened in the US with the very flawed but still significant health reform). The problem is violent revolutions and the processes that go with the violence. And the US is a classic case. Seen short term, it went well. But because the war created holy matyrs whose memory became sacret it stopped evolution. And the consequences are becoming ever more apparent with a whole array of ancient and disfunctional institutions.


reason 01.25.13 at 9:22 am

oops typo – sacret should of course be sacred in case anybody thought I was inventing some mysterious new jargon word.

Just in case it wasn’t clear, I’m in general anti utopian and anti-revolutionary because
1. Utopians almost always make the perfect the enemy of the good and risk replacing things that work modestly with things that don’t work at all
2. Revolutions carry all the baggage of the process of revolution. Evolution will happen anyway – we should try to encourage it by a adopting a progressive frame of mind.


The Raven 01.25.13 at 9:32 am

Billikin @16: “Arguably, [the Framers] got less centralization of political authority than most would have liked, which is why they scrapped the Articles of Confederation.”

I think they got what they thought they wanted, and found it had unintended results, which puts in our host’s category 3, “got what you wanted, and it was bad.” In my terminology, it was another failure of theory. Loose confederations sound really good, until you find out that the participants seldom act in the common interest.

Internet anarchism also sounds really good, until you see what trolls can do to it—I’ve seen it three times on the internet. I have at times reflected that the opaque system of quick electronic trading that has taken over the financial markets is in some sense what the original cypherpunks (who were libertarians) thought they wanted.

In category 4, I would put the dissolution into violence that occurred in France in 1789, but of course not only there and then. It is one of the chief risks of violent revolution; the violence becomes its own justification.

Mao @8: consider the Diggers.


david 01.25.13 at 9:47 am

Secession-type events where an existing government unilaterally breaks off from its parent, because the parent has suddenly lost power or desire to stop it by force, would seem intuitively peaceful. Nationalist revolts against personal unions and past annexation treaties that left the state apparatus in place – Belgium against the Netherlands, Sweden against Norway.

The Balkan nationalist movements seceding from Ottoman arguably got the independence they wanted. It is the Great Power states that backed them that found that their plans all conflicted with everyone else’s plans.


Rob 01.25.13 at 12:20 pm

The Raven @22:
“Loose confederations sound really good, until you find out that the participants seldom act in the common interest.

Internet anarchism also sounds really good, until you see what trolls can do to it—I’ve seen it three times on the internet. ”

There are trade-offs here though. There must be circumstances in which the loose confederation is better than tight central control, and a free-for-all internet is better than a more heavily-regulated one. Consider the institutional setup you would need to prevent trolling on the internet – is it really compatible with the existence of the internet as we know it? Would a “counter-revolution” against the internet anarchists be a good idea?

As regards the internet, I think it would help to distinguish between “they (the internet anarchists) set out to create something wonderful and it turned out to be bad” (category 3) and “they set out to create something wonderful and it turned out to be less wonderful than they thought, but still mostly good” (category 2? Not a perfect fit though). I’m sure we all think, every now and then, “we’re all carrying around pocket-sized devices capable of near-instant retrieval of a large portion of human knowledge and capable of real-time communication with almost any other living human, but all we use them for is watching cat videos”, and this might be a form of revolutionary disillusionment, but it’s not enough to suggest that we wish the revolution hadn’t happened.


JulesLt 01.25.13 at 12:58 pm

A revolution destroying the old music industry, but getting X-Factor/America’s Got Talent, rather than the (wished for) Grateful Dead model?


Trader Joe 01.25.13 at 1:01 pm

Further to Z @12

The South’s succession from the North could be viewed as a revolution. In the eyes of the leadership of the revolution the effort could only be regarded as a failure. But in the eyes of the numerous Southern abolishionists of the day it was not and certainly by the time the granchildren of the revolutionaries were adults it was apparent that the South’s “failure” was in fact the key to later success.

The splintering of Tito’s Yugolavia and the related multiple revolutions provides other examples where particular factions could be deemed to have had short term success (i.e. a 1 or 2 above) and long-term failure or initial short term failures (usually 4) but ultimately the potential for long-term success (most are still evolving).


Mao Cheng Ji 01.25.13 at 1:45 pm

Nah, I believe a vast majority of rational people of that region (except Slovenia) realize that it’ll always be a failure. There is no upside whatsoever, and will never be.


bianca steele 01.25.13 at 3:09 pm

I was thinking about @Chris Bertram–when did people start thinking what was happening as “revolutions” in the first place–but then I saw @reason–when did people start thinking societies and governments “evolve” in ways that happen naturally (and for the good) unless some bad person tries to stop them?


TheSophist 01.25.13 at 3:17 pm

A couple of thoughts:
1. I read somewhere once (that’s my official MLA format citation) that Zhou Enlai thought that he was being asked about the “revolution” of 1968, and so “it’s too soon to tell” is somewhat less gnomic than advertised. Can anyone confirm/refute/shed light on this interpretation?

2. If the Scots were to vote themselves out of the UK, would this count as a revolution? (Which, of course, is a different question than “would it be a successful revolution?” to which we all know that the answer would be yes, because, as someone said once, “if it’s not Scottish, it’s cr*p.”)


belle le triste 01.25.13 at 3:37 pm

@29: I have also read this very plausible suggestion re Zhou Enlai. And forgotten where.


Alex 01.25.13 at 3:51 pm

I’ve heard the Zhou thing as well. It’s even possible he was thinking about De Gaulle’s coup.


rf 01.25.13 at 4:01 pm

“Can anyone confirm/refute/shed light on this interpretation?”

There’s this


Salient 01.25.13 at 4:02 pm

I’m pretty sure the vast majority of revolutions are solidly in category 1. Unless we’re counting numbers of people, rather than number of incidents. We’ll have a long way to go with 2/3/4 before catching up to the tens of thousands of local peasant revolutions that resulted in small-scale land redistribution. (Category 1 is severely constrained by population size, and the modern state is large-sized, so we can’t expect much to happen ‘as planned’ there. The more people there are, the more fuzzy ‘as planned’ is.)


MattF 01.25.13 at 4:33 pm

Maybe she’s out of fashion (again!) but Hannah Arendt wrote a book on the subject. One point she made was that revolutions aren’t about feelings, or even about policies– they’re about institutions, and specifically, the creation and constitution of new ones. By that rule, the American and Roman revolutions were successful.


Wonks Anonymous 01.25.13 at 4:43 pm

TheSophist, yes that is Chas Freeman’s account of what Zhou was referring to. And DeGaulle’s coup came earlier, by this time he was about to lose a referendum and step down.

Bryan Caplan has argued, based on Eugen Richter’s “Pictures of the Socialistic Future” that the G.D.R really was what the revolutionaries were after since they were “born bad”. It would be preferable to rely on the writings of revolutionaries themselves, rather than a fictional account by one of their detractors.


christian_h 01.25.13 at 4:51 pm

(Pre-apology to John; this post is not meant as trolling.)

I think the question as in the OP is not well-posed at all. We’d first have to consider the questions:

What is a revolution, or what types of revolution are we talking about? E.g., is the mere overthrow of a government a revolution? Are we considering what Marxists call “political revolutions” or only what we call “social revolutions” or does this typification make sense? (So everyone should go and read Neil Davidson’s brilliant new book.)

When you ask “did the revolutionaries get what they want”, what is the time frame? I think, for example, that an argument can be made that the bourgeois revolution in France was a process that stretched from before 1789 to 1871 – in this time of course several “revolutions” in the political sense occurred, and many revolutionaries attempted to go beyond the bourgeois part of this bourgeois revolution.


robinm 01.25.13 at 5:00 pm

“But while I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name–” William Morris, “Dream of John Ball”)


jc 01.25.13 at 5:11 pm

The French Revolution got what they wanted, for a time (pre-Napoleon). Of course, it turns out that what they wanted didn’t really work out the way they’d hoped (in the short term), thus the rise of Napoleon.


Tzimiskes 01.25.13 at 5:23 pm

I’m wondering if the Dutch revolt and formation of the Dutch Republic could go mostly in box 1, or if 2 would be more accurate.

I’d add that a lot of medieval religious revolutions could probably go into box 3, by initially putting in new institutions (to qualify as a revolution) that failed to have their intended impact on individual morality (though most of these were crushed or dissolved in fairly short order, but many did have some lifespan). I don’t know enough details about any particular instance to judge in detail, but I think this would add numerous cases to consider.

Also wondering if the original Caliphate would qualify as a revolution in the sense of a revolution against the previous institutions in the Arabian peninsula, and if this would be box 1 or 2.


Yarrow 01.25.13 at 5:29 pm

There’s Orwell’s “All revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure” — which I think translates as: 4a) You don’t get what you ask for. You get something else, and it’s terrible — but not as terrible as not having a revolution would have been.


js. 01.25.13 at 5:37 pm

“They may or may not have got what they wanted, but they didn’t think of themselves as wanting a revolution.”

That sounds to me as if, institutionally speaking, they got something they didn’t ask for, but it was good. That is, it’s not so much that the question is wrong. The answer is some form of 2

It doesn’t at all follow from the quoted bit that the answer is a form of 2. Because “they” may have gotten exactly the institutions they wanted, except that unexpectedly for them, they got these through revolutionary means rather than non-revolutionary means. This is especially clear given that the next paragraph (in 13) implies that whether or not some institutional change qualifies as revolutionary depends on the smoothness of the transition. (As an aside, if this is the criterion, did India [or the Subcontinent if you prefer] have a “smooth transition”? If not, was it an instance of revolution?)

Anyway, it’s this focus on the nature of the transition rather than the actual institutional change itself that strikes me as problematic. Esp. post the French case, we tend to call “revolutions” precisely those events that are violent, protracted, and partly as a result, extremely disruptive—and not just in an institutional sense. (“Velvet revolution” etc. seem to me to be extended senses of the term.)

JH presents a different criterion though:

let’s say a revolution is what you get when you get something new that has to be institutional, but it can’t be encompassed by existing institutions.

This criterion doesn’t mention violence, militancy, etc., at all. If we take *this* criterion seriously, then I’d suggest that the vast majority of what we’d call revolutions would fall under 1 (also: fair number of 3’s). It’s only implicit reliance on the usual sense of “revolution” that makes us think that 2 & 4 are overfull.


js. 01.25.13 at 5:43 pm

Shorter me: Aren’t you really asking: Does anyone ever get the major institutional change [=new institutions that can’t be encompassed by existing institutions] they asked for?


rf 01.25.13 at 5:47 pm

I’m sure it’s been said but #2 isnt really a success; you get something new that was better than before but probably not as good as it could have been. An ambiguity at best. Most likely leading to a lifetime of ‘what ifs’ from the revolutionaries, making it possibly worse than what went before


rf 01.25.13 at 5:50 pm

Like hypothetical Gore administration, which would have been a calamity


chris 01.25.13 at 5:52 pm

I’m surprised that nobody else has pointed out yet that revolutions are often heterogeneous, with different revolutionaries wanting different things — in extreme cases “down with the ancien regime” may be the ONLY thing they agree on — and therefore will often, or even usually, fall into multiple boxes at once.

If the Jacobins got what they wanted, and the Girondins didn’t, and most of the former and all of the latter were ultimately unhappy with it, then the French Revolution falls into boxes 1, 3, and 4 at the same time — and I’m not so sure you couldn’t find someone else for whom the result was a box 2. (Napoleon?)

Of course if the *only* thing you want is “down with the king” then any non-quashed revolution is going to be a 1 or 3 for you (depending on whether or not after the king falls there really is a deluge), but if some of your fellow revolutionaries have more specific goals for what happens after the king falls, then it may still be a 2 or 4 for them.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the revolution doesn’t have goals any more than the nation has interests — people in the revolution have goals, but not all people in the revolution have the same goals. And the same thing potentially applies to evaluating the result as good or bad. There may be some extreme cases where everyone agrees the result is bad, but I doubt if there will be any where everyone (even limiting it to everyone who supported the revolution) agrees the result is good.


engels 01.25.13 at 5:57 pm

But unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being. And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy. Similarly, at another stage of development a century earlier, Cromwell and the English people had borrowed from the Old Testament the speech, emotions, and illusions for their bourgeois revolution. When the real goal had been achieved and the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk.


Donald A. Coffin 01.25.13 at 6:10 pm

A long, long time ago, I read a book which I remember had a great impact on me, which is now literally all I remember about the book. The Anatomy of Revolution, by Crane Brinton, published in 1965 (which is also when I read it). Maybe I should re-read it. Then there’s always Pete Townshend’s take on the issue, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”


Donald A. Coffin 01.25.13 at 6:11 pm

(Actually first published in 1938…)


Glen Tomkins 01.25.13 at 6:24 pm

Add me to the list of people you’re going to say are copping out of the question by claiming it’s simpleminded or otherwise misbegotten, but maybe I have a slightly different cop-out that might be of interest.

What I find fundamentally misbegotten about this question is the idea of attributing even the fact of revolution to revolutionaries, much less how the revolution turns out. All the revolutions with which I have any familiarity were made by their society’s elites, not its revolutionaries, by the powerful, not the powerless.

Take the French Revolution as the locus classicus. It was started by the Parlement de Paris when it refused to register Neckar’s new taxes. The elite that did this intended precisely that this would force the Estates General to be called, a forum they imagined that they would be able to control and use to change how France was governed in ways that they could control. Only after a long further string of this elite’s disastrously foolish dabbling in revolution, did any sort of even negative control of events fall to people who at the start of it all lived in garetts and basements plotting the downfall of the ancien regime.

So, sure, no doubt about it, we can preserve your taxonomy of the four ways that revolutions fail or succeed, but we can only do that by way of a massive label change. But if you do that, the taxonomy collapses into itself. From the point of view of the parlementaires of 1788, all four of your outcomes can be said to be true, and in spades:

1) They got a revolution, they got a new way of France managing its finances that did not stop at royal decrees.

2)They certainly didn’t want canaille managing France’s finances! But, however canaillish the folks who ended up calling the shots, that turned out much better than these idiot parlementaires running France’s finances.

3)They got a revolution. alright.

4)They did not get a dictatorship of the parlementaires and grandees of France, and yes, what they got instead was goddawful.


bob mcmanus 01.25.13 at 6:59 pm

36:So everyone should go and read Neil Davidson’s brilliant new book.

Done at your recommendation. Loving it to death, and only in the introduction. Thank you.

What do we get without proletarian social revolution? We get the bourgeois.

Napoleon? Bourgeois. Dixie slavery and Civil War? Bourgeois. Imperialism? Yup. Hitler, WWII and the Holocoaust? Not exactly a proletarian communist. Bourgeois.
Stalin? State Communist bourgeois.

Chinese Revolution of 1949? (+Famine and Cultural Revolution)

“Was it as a proletarian revolution which although not involving any actual proletarians led to the creation of a workers state transitional to socialism? Or was it, as will be argued here, a modern form of bourgeois revolution which led to the formation of a state capitalist regime, whose managers have without any counterrevolution taking place now adopted one of the most extreme versions of neoliberalism?” …Davidson

Enough. But I will not engage the moralizing from the abbatoir that is neoliberal anti-Revolution.


geo 01.25.13 at 7:02 pm

As Engels (I mean engels) points out, revolutions require “heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars.” This is exactly why revolution is neither here nor there, and should not be part of anyone’s program. What brings about deep, enduring, granular social change is quotidian virtue: patience, perseverance, generosity, solidarity, ingenuity, modesty, honesty, openness to criticism, a modicum of courage, a commitment to nonviolence (and some training in it — it’s a demanding skill), a smidgen of imagination (social change is not rocket science), and a willingness to work one’s ass off. Romantic rhetoric, revolutionary swagger, party loyalty, hierarchy, asceticism, discipline, and theoretical sophistication should be resolutely eschewed.
The Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Iranian, Zimbabwian, and to a lesser extent the Cuban, revolutions were — partly, but not entirely, because all these regimes (except perhaps for Zimbabwe — I don’t know) were under continual threat from the United States — such ghastly failures, such horrible travesties of socialist and communist ideals, that anyone advocating radical social change should probably preface her remarks with IANAR (I Am Not a Revolutionary).
The only benign, lasting change is gradual, molecular, deep-rooted, widely based, non-violent. Natura non facit saltum, and that goes for human nature as well.


LFC 01.25.13 at 7:03 pm

@48 All the revolutions with which I have any familiarity were made by their society’s elites, not its revolutionaries, by the powerful, not the powerless.

Not, I think, really true of the French, Chinese and Russian revolutions, all of which, per Skocpol’s analysis, had peasant revolts/participation as one key ingredient (absolutely central in the Chinese case). ‘Professional,’ organized revolutionaries (in the case of the Bolsheviks or the Chinese Communists) and/or certain urban elites (esp. in the French Rev.) played important parts, but the great social revolutions were, in significant ways, revolutions ‘from below’.


LFC 01.25.13 at 7:12 pm

P.s. to my 51: “great” in the sense of ‘major’, not ‘wonderful’


MPAVictoria 01.25.13 at 7:14 pm

“Like hypothetical Gore administration, which would have been a calamity”
Yeah thank god we got Bush the Lesser instead.


bob mcmanus 01.25.13 at 7:16 pm

50: Your nobility is I am sure no great comfort to the young Chinese factory girls signing suicide contracts, or the actual suicides and emigres of Spain and Greece, although I bet it makes you feel terrific. I feel terrible.

Revolution doesn’t start with Lenin looking out and seeing the millions rush headlong toward each other across the Somme, with Krupp and Armstrong at their backs, to Max Weber’s bloody cheerleading (taking a short break from his hard boards), but it sure works as a hell of a metaphor for me.

Nothing has really changed. It has only gotten worse since then.


SamChevre 01.25.13 at 7:34 pm

I’d say that the change in institutional powers among the states/federal government, and among the technocratic and legal branches versus the elected bodies of both sets of government, in 1932-1972 in the US, counts as a revolution. It was successful in meeting the goals of the revolutionaries (basically the old northeastern elite), although much resented by the people and groups who lost power.


LFC 01.25.13 at 7:42 pm

b. mcmanus @55
I know your comment wasn’t directed at me, but re “Weber’s bloody cheerleading”:
yes, he was a German nationalist, but much less extreme than some. Singling him out doesn’t make sense, imo. But I don’t want to derail the thread, though at this point the train seems to careening anyway.


rf 01.25.13 at 8:15 pm

“Yeah thank god we got Bush the Lesser instead.”

In hypothetical Gore administration Bin Laden wins


MPAVictoria 01.25.13 at 9:11 pm

“In hypothetical Gore administration Bin Laden wins”
/Confused slashy


rf 01.25.13 at 9:33 pm

It’s a complicated hypothesis. I make a brief appearance as secretary of state


Earwig 01.25.13 at 10:08 pm

“In hypothetical Gore administration Bin Laden wins”

More than he has won so far?
Very hard to believe.


Harold 01.25.13 at 10:48 pm

Many years ago, in the antedeluvian days when I was a high school sophomore, my social studies teacher, noticing a glimmer of interest in my eye, spoke to me after class, saying “Psst, you may be interested in this,” it was Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of a Revolution, which I borrowed and devoured. She also recommended I compare Kropotkin’s treatment of the French Revolution with Carlyle’s — I had already discovered Kropotkin’s memoirs somehow. Alas, life intervened, and I am still working on volume 1 of Kropotkin’s History of the French Revolution – after all these years.

Meanwhile, there is this is also of interest, though it may be superseded in detail.


Walt 01.25.13 at 10:56 pm

In a hypothetical Gore administration, bin Laden steals the Spear of Destiny from the Vatican, which makes him immune to bullets.


mud man 01.25.13 at 11:05 pm

In the Book of Samuel, the Israelites asked for a King “to go out before us and fight our battles” against the Philistines. Samuel warned them “he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots”, etc, but the people insisted, so Samuel annointed Saul, son of “a man of wealth … a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he.”

And it turned out just as Samuel warned, Saul was as brutal as he was negligent. So a popular revolution installed a tyrant, which is what they wanted to do, but “then the people said to Samuel, ‘Who is it that said, “Shall Saul reign over us?” Bring the men, that we may put them to death.’ ” But of course they couldn’t do that.

Forestalling those who object to the Bible being quoted: a story doesn’t have to be totally factually historically accurate to be valuable for gaining wisdom. Stories are like that.


novakant 01.25.13 at 11:06 pm

revolutions require “heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars.” This is exactly why revolution is neither here nor there, and should not be part of anyone’s program. What brings about deep, enduring, granular social change is quotidian virtue

The revolutions of 1989 for the most part required no terror, civil or national wars and resulted in deep, enduring social change. Most people got what they wanted or at least got rid of what they didn’t want.


philofra 01.25.13 at 11:09 pm

I didn’t see any mention of the revolution that is occurring in the Arab/Muslin world.


rf 01.25.13 at 11:21 pm

“In a hypothetical Gore administration, bin Laden steals the Spear of Destiny from the Vatican, which makes him immune to bullets.”

True. And we’re only scratching the surface here


engels 01.26.13 at 1:24 am

The revolutions of 1989 for the most part required no terror, civil or national wars and resulted in deep, enduring social change. Most people got what they wanted or at least got rid of what they didn’t want.

Most people got a pony (or at least a beetle).


The Raven 01.26.13 at 1:47 am

I think there is a fifth category here: what we asked for was internally contradictory, and therefore could not be achieved, or even, we didn’t know to ask for. There is always some of this. But sometimes revolutions fail because of bad theory.

And with that, good night.


geo 01.26.13 at 2:20 am

Novakant@65: Yes, true, but the revolutions of 1989 were “deep-rooted, widely based, non-violent” and required no “terror, civil war, and national wars.” There was no vanguard party, no conception of a radically new social order (as opposed to a return to a generally pre-existing and already established one), no “revolutionary swagger, party loyalty, hierarchy, asceticism, discipline, and theoretical sophistication.” Certainly most people wouldn’t have called themselves revolutionaries — the word “revolution” was pretty much a dirty word in all those societies. And though regime weakness contributes to virtually all revolutions, in the case of 1989 the existing regimes simply collapsed as soon as their external military support disappeared.


LFC 01.26.13 at 3:01 am

philofra @66 has a point, given e.g. the protests in Egypt on the second anniversary of the revolution there (or the events that led to the toppling of the regime, if you prefer that terminology).


rf 01.26.13 at 3:06 am

“I didn’t see any mention of the revolution that is occurring in the Arab/Muslin world.”

Because it’s too early to tell


js. 01.26.13 at 3:31 am

A question for Holbo, and others who are sympathetic to his classification scheme (and perhaps also for the anti-revolution people in general):

How would you classify the Haitian revolution? (Not an idle question, ps.)


philofra 01.26.13 at 3:32 am


It is not to early to tell. It is a revolution by definition!


QS 01.26.13 at 4:36 am

@ 52 – Trotsky makes the same claim: no revolution w/o the Russian peasant. See Vol 1 Ch. 3.

So is Wright’s book worth the read? (I’ve always avoided “analytical” Marxism thinking I’d find it boring. Into Marx, not into rat choice or analytical philosophy. At all.)


Mao Cheng Ji 01.26.13 at 7:32 am

Geo, “the revolutions of 1989 were “deep-rooted, widely based, non-violent””

Surely they at least required a threat of violence. Otherwise, Mr. Ceausescu could just tell the crowd to scram and go practice “patience, perseverance, generosity, solidarity, ingenuity, modesty, honesty, openness to criticism, a modicum of courage, a commitment to nonviolence”, and that’d be the end of it.


bad Jim 01.26.13 at 8:06 am

What’s a revolution? A war of independence barely qualifies. Chopping off the head of a king may be no more than a dynastic struggle. The French revolution briefly instantiated a unification of Germany, regularized taxes and surnames, weights and measures, and ultimately catalyzed the delegitimization of monarchy throughout Christendom. That’s no small accomplishment for a bunch of rabble-rousers, and, two hundred some years later, it’s a pretty damned comfortable place to visit. N’est-ce pas?


novakant 01.26.13 at 12:37 pm

geo, I also think old-school revolutions the way you describe them are indeed mostly a thing of the past and this is closely related to the diminished attractiveness of utopian thinking. Both developments I would consider a good thing, generally speaking. But I still think that the events of 1989 were revolutionary in nature and that when the opportunity to topple the regime presented itself, advocating incremental change was useless at best. Which is not to say that the people driving the change in, say, Poland and the GDR didn’t display many of the virtues you favour and were indeed to a large extent atypical revolutionaries.

Surely they at least required a threat of violence.

The example you picked was the exception to the rule.


Louis Proyect 01.26.13 at 12:56 pm

So is Wright’s book worth the read?

I would say it is pretty much made to order for the intellectual appetites of the Crooked Timber moderation board and most of the regular commenters. It is in the spirit of “Red Plenty”, a rueful look at planned economies from the standpoint of Mises “calculation problem” economics. The net result is endorsement of cooperatives, something obviously made to order for the gradualist perspective here, plus an embrace of the Chinese Communist Party’s development policies. I debated Wright here:

Here’s Russell Jacoby hammering Wright:


Mao Cheng Ji 01.26.13 at 1:46 pm

Well, then, what compelled Gen. Jaruzelski to lift the martial law in 1983? Are you aware of the 1982 riots?

The smoothest transition was Hungary, but that was a result of the bloody revolution of 1956. That was the event that reformed the institutions there, from a dogmatic soviet-style system to the so-called ‘goulash communism’.


rf 01.26.13 at 1:57 pm

You’re probably right philofra. My apologies for the snappy response


LFC 01.26.13 at 2:23 pm

QS @75
So is Wright’s book worth the read?

I don’t know but I have no present plans to read it. (I recently read another book that is supposed to be the subject of a coming CT book event and that filled my CT-book quota for *at least* the next six months.)


CarlD 01.26.13 at 3:49 pm

Just piling on here, today’s problems were yesterday’s solutions. And so on. So time scale really does matter, as of course does what you call a problem, what you call a solution, and who does the calling.


KE 01.26.13 at 3:50 pm

Jules@25 may be being cheeky but he makes a fair observation. We were promised an end to major label hegemony and RIAA shenanigans, opening up a vibrant and diverse media ecosystem and destroying the gatekeepers. What we’ve ended up with is a system where the majors still sustain a chokehold with 360 deals and cross-media promotions, while hard working ethical little guys can scarcely earn a living wage without being subsidized by corporate advertisers or trust funds. Chris Ruen’s recent book is a fair-minded chronicle of this failed utopia; ironically it’s currently “pay-what-you-want.” I think it provides some lessons about the pitfalls of utopian thinking more generally–the key problem of disconnection between the architects of a revolution and the people the revolution is ostensibly supposed to benefit. It’s a question of good information/accurate data, but it’s also a question of accountability in leadership.


rf 01.26.13 at 3:56 pm


Here’s a nice reading list on the Arab Spring if you’re interested


novakant 01.26.13 at 4:17 pm

Mao, I was talking about revolutions of 1989 which were non-violent – Romania being the sole exception. I still find it quite amazing that such a massive transformation was achieved peacefully. This is one of the reasons why I wouldn’t disqualify revolution as a political means outright.


Jacob 01.26.13 at 4:45 pm

I think one of the biggest problems for revolutions (at least violent revolutions) is that the people who subsequently come into power per definition do not think it is without warrant to use violence against political enemies. Thus they don’t (or can’t) begin to govern in a way that is peaceful enough to be described as a successful “democracy” or whatever utopia they were fighting for to begin with.


JD_Locke 01.26.13 at 4:54 pm

“…does anyone ever get what they want?”

Who’s the they? The leaders and organizers of the revolution, though often originating from and representing “the people,” tend to have agendas separate from the larger cause. Disagreements over what constitutes success exists even within the leadership of a revolution. Look at the Chinese Communist revolution, where Mao Zedong successfully achieved his goal — continuous revolution — to the disappointment of pretty much everyone else.

I think if you study individual elements of a revolution, you’ll find those who were successful; if you’re looking at the nominal claims of a revolution, however, you’ll find fewer happy endings. The Paris Commune got what they wanted, for about three months, and the American Revolution achieved its relatively modest goal of independence from the British — though we’re still working on fulfilling the more soaring rhetoric.


Mao Cheng Ji 01.26.13 at 4:58 pm

@84, I understand. I’m saying that at least some of those 1989 transformations can be traced back to incidents of mass-violence that, I would argue, actually produced fundamental institutional changes. 1989 being, to an extent, only the final acknowledgment. I do realize that this is a controversial view.


Stephen 01.26.13 at 5:32 pm

Novakant@84: as I remember it, Romania in 1989 was the only Soviet satellite state that didn’t actually have a Soviet garrison. Maybe that’s what made the difference: when the East Germans, etc, realised that the Soviet troops weren’t going to be used to prop up their governments, everyone realised it was all over. Ceausescu honestly thought he could support himself in power by his own forces.


chris y 01.26.13 at 6:03 pm

mud man@64. The biblical story of Samuel and Saul is nearly paralleled by the stories of various Greek tyrants who rose to power on the back of a popular movement but turned out to be, well, tyrannical. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that there’s a germ of historical truth in it.


Stephen 01.26.13 at 6:07 pm

Chris@45 is of course quite right that revolutionaries’ motives may be very heterogeneous: I would go further and say that they may even be contradictory. And from all points of view, the outcome may be (4).

Consider the complex struggles which were once described as the Great Rebellion. The English Parliamentarians wanted an end to Charles I’s attempts to govern and raise taxes without Parliament: they had the Lord Protector doing just that. The Scots Presbyterians wanted the imposition of their correct religion on England, by force if necessary: they had an overwhelming English conquest of Scotland. The Irish Catholics initially got some of what they wanted, with the massacre of a fair number of Protestants: they had, later, the Cromwellian settlement. (4) all round. [1]

A further complication: sometimes, the revolutionaries’ view of what they want may change drastically. Consider the late troubles in Northern Ireland. Initially, the Irish revolutionaries genuinely wanted a 32-county republic (though whether this was to be a Catholic or a Socialist republic depended on whether they were asking for arms and money from Boston and New York, or from Moscow), with withdrawal of the British Army and Government, and of any unwilling Protestant Unionists. Later, many of them realised that what they really wanted was a continuation of British rule in a separate Northern Ireland, on condition that they themselves [2] held well-paid and important posts under British rule. Whether that counts as (4), (2) or (1) depends on the time of asking.

fn1. I think that what most of the Welsh wanted was to keep their heads down and stay out of trouble. That was not a revolutionary objective.

fn2. My Irish is far too rudimentary to come up with the variation of “Sinn Fein” appropriate to this syntax.


Stephen 01.26.13 at 8:18 pm

bad Jim @77: the Frenc Revolution “catalyzed the delegitimization of monarchy throughout Christendom.” The Kings or Queens of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium. the Netherlands, Spain and the UK might beg to differ on this point.


Stephen 01.26.13 at 8:29 pm

re OP’s classification of revolutions: I would suggest a fifth class of outcomes.

(5) You get in the end what you could have had, or could have peacefully developed from what you could have had, by normal political processes without your bloody Revolution; but so many good people on all sides have been killed fighting, or murdered legally or otherwise, that the whole business is terribly embittered and political progress is blocked for generations.

I am thinking of the Irish disaster from the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1914 to the end of the Civil War; but I’m not sure it isn’t also true of the French Revolution also.

Other examples?


LFC 01.27.13 at 5:07 am

@94 Re the French Revolution:
It was not one thing but went through several phases.
Probably worth remembering that, before the Terror, the Revolution accomplished a lot, above all in getting rid of the old regime, the legal underpinning of seigneurial and noble privileges, etc.
One summary holds that the Revolution’s two most lasting results, beyond the consequences for France itself, were entrenching the notion of ‘the people’ as the ultimate sovereigns, and ‘normalizing’ the idea of political change. Some of the immediate consequences were not good, and there was a lot of bloodshed, but I’m with ‘bad Jim’ @77 in judging the Revolution on balance positively, from the perspective of some 220+ years later.


LFC 01.27.13 at 5:15 am

js. @73
the Haitian rev. was the first successful revolution of slaves vs. masters (at least in the ‘modern’ era), wasn’t it?


Bruce Wilder 01.27.13 at 9:27 am

It seems to me that behind the common notion of “revolution” is some sense of an operative social contract, between the rulers and the ruled, at the core of society. I’m not thinking of an abstract, philosophical idea, which can be used to derive concepts of just rules, but the actual rules and institutions, and how a more-or-less decentralized society works together.

One aspect of the actual social contract is the deal: just how good a deal it is, for those on the bottom, in the middle, at the top. Another is the pragmatic case: how well does the society or the nation-state work, how productive, efficient, resilient, adaptive, innovative, creative. Political identification and patriotism mean that the pragmatic case can be felt quite as passionately as the grievances of class, which, I suppose, is one reason why movements of national self-determination have been as frequent in history as rebellions against economic oppressions, and frequently one entangled the other.

The pure, vertical deal may be unfair — it is probably always unfair to some substantial degree — but, every deal that persists will have the characteristic that breaking the deal will be expected to be more costly to the lower classes than the possible benefit of . . . withdrawing from cooperation, pending re-negotiation of the terms. The elite are, by definition, better organized, albeit less numerous, and in possession of greater resources and greater discretion in the use of resources. They will arrange it so that breaking the deal is more costly to the many than continuing the deal, no matter how unjustly imbalanced is the distribution of benefits in the continuation. So, in that sense, it would make sense that few revolutionaries would succeed in toppling their elites, and few would realize substantial, net benefits, even in the medium-run, from an overthrow. Few unions have gone out on strike, expecting to recover in the next contract the cost of the strike.

The pragmatic case opens the possibility that the elite may not be satisfied with how well the vertical deal works, or what it requires. Isn’t that a major part of the story of the Revolutions of 1989?

The French Revolution, with its Fall of the Bastille, rampaging sans culottes and its Reign of Terror, may suggest a narrative of a society oppressed, finally rebelling when it has had enough. But, France in the late 18th century was very much a society acutely aware that as a nation-state, its institutions simply did not work well. And, the example of the American Revolution held out the possibility that a constitution could be rationally and deliberately re-written. In the event, the revolutionaries were remarkably incapable of managing the acute problems of money and bread, but mobilizing a nation in arms did solve the immediate foreign policy problem.

The wealth and power of a society, and the political economy of a nation-state, is tied up in the social cooperation structured by its operative social contract. Withdrawing from that social cooperation, breaking the social contract, is necessarily very costly, as it interrupts the social cooperation, which provides the production of goods and services, at the most basic level. If it is simply a matter of getting a better deal for the bottom, it may not worth the cost. Where the operative social contract is not merely oppressive, but also dysfunctional in some broader senses, so that even the elites feel dissatisfaction, then “revolution” may have a chance.


Harold 01.27.13 at 9:35 am

In the fight against oppression, militarism, and war, the convinced socialists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht died as victims of malicious “special deterrence.”

“The contempt of life and the brutality against human beings reveal mankind’s capacity for inhumanity. It can not be and must not remain a means of resolving any sort of conflict.”


Peter T 01.27.13 at 10:27 am

It seems to me very difficult to talk sensibly about “revolutions” as a class (perhaps with some idea of working out what worked or not, or what will work). Whether they happen, and how, and with what result, is deeply embedded in the attitudes, culture, expectations, vaguely-understood notions of what the social contract requires and so on. The Russian, Chinese and French revolutions were violent in large part because all the participants accepted violence as part of the accepted repertoire of social protest (in the forms, respectively, of peasant insurrection and palace coup, peasant uprising and urban barricades coupled with elite factional defiance) AND that state or elite violence was an appropriate response. By contrast, the Iranian revolution of 1978 was largely free of mass bloodshed, in part because of the cult of martyrdom and in part because family linkages undercut the ability to mobilise on interest lines. Likewise, the nobles who led their neighbours and tenants in revolt against Charles I were just doing what their ancestors had done.

We are more wary of violence now – when we call for heads on pikes, it is just metaphor. But all sides accepted it as real then.


Mao Cheng Ji 01.27.13 at 11:42 am

“We are more wary of violence now – when we call for heads on pikes, it is just metaphor.”

Nah, that doesn’t ring true.

It’s true that the world is more interconnected now, and the creatures populating a different tribe in the next village over, slums across the tracks, military barracks, and palaces or skyscraper corner offices appear to us, typically, as human beings just like us. But on the other hand, the craft of ideological conditioning has become very advanced too; various groups of people can be demonized and dehumanized quite easily.


LFC 01.27.13 at 2:34 pm

minor pt. — Iranian rev. was ’79. But could you explain connection betw. ‘cult of martyrdom’ and lack of bloodshed?


LFC 01.27.13 at 2:46 pm

B. Wilder @97 2nd paragraph — yes, I think there is probably a whole category of upheavals where a major aim of the revolutionaries is something like ‘national renovation’ (or, perhaps as a subset, restoration of ‘national pride’).


reason 01.27.13 at 5:36 pm

bianca @29
“but then I saw @reason–when did people start thinking societies and governments “evolve” in ways that happen naturally (and for the good) unless some bad person tries to stop them?”

I don’t think it necessarily happens naturally, nor that it is necessarily stopped by or only by “bad” people. Bad with the right sort of institutions and attitude, it does happen. I just think revolutions are very bad for creating the right sort of institutions and attitudes.


Stephen 01.27.13 at 5:50 pm

LFC@102: if you include “national recognition”, would the American Revolution be in the class you mention?


Stephen 01.27.13 at 5:52 pm

Peter T @99:
” the nobles who led their neighbours and tenants in revolt against Charles I “: well, that’s true for some part of the Parliamentary forces. It’s more true of the nobles and gentry who led, etc, for Charles I. I don’t think it’s at all true of the London or Bristol Trained Bands, or of the New Model Army.


Stephen 01.27.13 at 6:11 pm

Bruce Wilder@ 97: “the possibility that the elite may not be satisfied with how well the vertical deal works, or what it requires. Isn’t that a major part of the story of the Revolutions of 1989?”

For a moment I thought you meant the Revolution of 1789, about which your comments are certainly true: it’s not clear that even the King was satisfied with the pre-revolutionary deal. For the Revolutions of 1989, the Central European elites were perhaps silently dissatisfied with the vertical deal – I heard that the defining moment in Hungary was when the members of the Politburo, each of whom had long ago lost all faith in Marxism or the Communist Revolution, realised that none of the others believed in them either – but it was Gorbachev’s decision to abandon the Soviet military support for that deal that clinched it.


js. 01.27.13 at 7:06 pm

the Haitian rev. was the first successful revolution of slaves vs. masters (at least in the ‘modern’ era), wasn’t it?

Well, yes. (Though it was the first and last, no?) But I was curious whether the “revolution never brings about anything good”, “we need to patiently and non-violently work for incremental change” types—whether these types if they could transport themselves back in time would want to give such counsel to the Haitian revolutionaries. Perhaps they would, but the thought strikes me as pure farce.

More generally, it doesn’t seem to me that the people giving such counsel on here have a particularly good grasp of how and why (what we tend to call) revolutions come about. It seems to me that the Haitian case makes this particularly stark, but then I doubt I’m going to make much headway against someone like Stephen.


Louis Proyect 01.27.13 at 7:52 pm


LFC 01.27.13 at 8:21 pm

js. @107 — yes, I take your point.

Stephen @104:
LFC@102: if you include “national recognition”, would the American Revolution be in the class you mention?

I’m not entirely sure. On the one hand, I think the 13 colonies viewed themselves to some extent as little polities who had a common cause vs the colonial power but were not necessarily a singular ‘nation’; on the other hand, the opening of the Decl. of Independence refers to “one People…dissolv[ing] the Political Bands which have connected them with another….” But then the American Rev. is not something I claim any extensive knowledge about, much or most of what I learned about it in school having faded somewhat in memory.


David Kornreich 01.27.13 at 10:42 pm

badJim@77 & Stephen @93

A few points,

1. None of the European colonial countries which would emerge white and Christian ruled ever tried monarchy with the exception of Mexico and Brazil and those two were only because European based royalists needed a “Government in Exile” location.

2. After WWI there were no absolute monarchs left in control of any European nation states though I’m not sure of the exact history of some of the micro-states.

3. Victoria inherited the throne in Britain in 1837, aged 18, less than 50 years after the storming of the Bastille. A British King or Queen had enough power at that time, that there was some fear that before her ascension William IV may die while she was still a minor leading to a regency and the difficulties thereof. When she died in 1901 she was a more titled monarch but less of an absolute one. Due in large part to strides made in moving towards universal franchise in Britain. Had one of her children needed a regency it would have been considered much less problematic for the British state.

4. Between 1789 and WWI there was continuing political pressure and intellectual ferment on the Prussians, Austrians, Romanovs, Spanish and Portugese to reform/liberalize their monarchies or face a violent revolution themselves.


Bruce Wilder 01.28.13 at 12:29 am

Surveying revolutions surely must impress upon the mind the extent to which social, political and economic institutional change has its foundation in generational change, and the moments of conflagration or celebratory triumph are but milestones along a path longer than any human lifetime. I think Stephen goes too far in thinking the blood always superfluous to the result. Following Kornreich’s hint, I would suggest that the reactionaries also participate in revolutions, with their resistance, and they often win out. (As the risk of pointing out the obvious, we are living in the dark days of a revolutionary moment lost to the dark forces of an overweening plutocracy, heedless of the inevitable consequences. Thank you, neoliberal scum, for your service in bringing the next Dark Age closer.)

The French Revolution, as badJim@77 points out, did, eventually, begat a stable Republic, and a committment of the whole French body politic to republican ideology. It took a while, and ironically the Third Republic was birthed amidst one of those unaccountable moments in 19th century French history, when political enthusiasm for monarchy dominated. They still had l’affaire Dreyfus and Petain and Algeria to work through.

The American Revolution did not realize its program, until the Civil War, which puts its progress on the same time-scale as the French Revolution. On such time-scales, I suppose that one could argue, as Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood in essence did, that the American Revolution, itself, fulfilled the hopes of Whigs and Levellers for the English Civil War.

Maybe, Zhou Enlai really was thinking 1789 not 1968, and we should give him credit. He was, after all, not just speaking idly; he was, at the moment of speaking, sponsoring Deng in setting in motion the Chinese “revolution” which approaches a crisis, now.


Peter T 01.28.13 at 2:52 am

The Iranian revolution happened from mid 1978 – by November it was clear the Shah was going to go. 1979 was just the finale.

LFC @ 101

Martyrdom (the killing of the innocent/righteous by the forces of evil) play a central role in Iranian Shia belief and Iranian political myths. So one form of protest is to invite martyrdom – it is politically dangerous for ones opponents to respond with deadly force unless you are clearly isolated. When, as in 1978, some tens of thousands of people are walking up to soldiers and offering to be killed, the soldiers have to indicate which side they are really on (when, as at Jaleh Square, the soldiers fire, then more people go and sit down, and they have to choose again). It makes bloody repression difficult. Especially as 40 days after a death, there is a formal mourning ceremony – so you get a cycle of violence/mourning/more violence/more mourning, with the stakes growing each time.


Ellis Goldberg 01.28.13 at 4:06 am

My only real knowledge of this subject comes from spending a lot of time on the streets in Cairo (not continuously though) since January 28, 2011. And reading some of the historiography of the French revolution. And a large slice of analysis and reporting in Arabic in the years since. Some people have thought I’ve been pretty accurate, but I don’t think anyone really guessed the extent of the revolt. I still think Furet is right that one of the most revolutionary features of such an event is that it irrevocably divides society in ways that last for years and possibly decades. The Whiggish idea that the French revolution instantiated something that 200 years later makes France a pleasant place to live means it was a successful revolution seems a bit odd to me. Would this reading backward have been so reassuring to the victims of the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv, or the Communards, or indeed to most Algerians or Tunisians of the 19th and first half of the 20th century? The ascent of Frederick the Great also set in motion some important and long-lasting changes. And Germany today is also a fine place to be. Ditto the Berber-Arab conquest of Andalusia which many people prefer both to France and Germany.


LFC 01.28.13 at 4:15 am

Peter T @112
thanks for the explanation


js. 01.28.13 at 5:38 am

Martyrdom (the killing of the innocent/righteous by the forces of evil) play a central role in Iranian Shia belief and Iranian political myths.

Orientalize much? Just think about the actual example you provide (which is a good one). If, for whatever reason, you have tens of thousands of people—perhaps even just thousands of people—marching up to armed state forces, these forces are going to be faced with a pretty stark choice. And if they do respond with fire, that’s going to raise the stakes immensely (whether or not there’s the 40-day mourning period and procession after).* You really don’t need anything as half as exotic as a “cult of martyrdom” to explain this.


Peter T 01.28.13 at 6:26 am


OK. But what if – as happened in Tabriz and other places, some thousands of people go outside the city and dig graves (signifying their readiness to fill them with their own bodies)? I don’t know too many other places where the deaths of the holy martyrs are commemorated with mourning processions and “sad holidays” each year. And martyr cults are not that exotic – Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was one of the few books to be reliably found in every English home for a couple of centuries (and the sensibilities it pointed to were a key part of English responses to the French and Irish).

Main point is that violence is in some sense a cultural language, with different forms, meanings, expected responses and so on at different times. So whether and how a revolution is violent is not sensibly addressed in general terms.


Bruce Wilder 01.28.13 at 10:26 am

” I still think Furet is right that one of the most revolutionary features of such an event is that it irrevocably divides society in ways that last for years and possibly decades.”

Look about you at the greedy plutocrats gobbling up everything in the U.S. today — do you think they will stop, before they are afraid for their very lives?

The violence of an insurrection seldom marks the initiation of violence, just a change in focus. And, the bitter divisions of civil war usually have roots before the war in question, or there wouldn’t be a war.

There’s a Tory view, which says that France, before the Revolution was a tolerable enough place, and getting better, which just highlights the irrationality of idealism. It is similar to the view that the antebellum American South was moonlight and magnolias, and or the idea that the First World War, before and after, should be blamed on the failure of liberal ideas and reforms: Woodrow Wilson paved a road to Hitler, by failing to recognize what a stalwart fellow Kaiser Willy really was, or similar tendentious nonsense.

I don’t think it is Whiggish fantasy to trace the heritage of the French Revolution to institutions of political governance and law, and to attribute some of what we admire about French society to the development of th0se institutions. Of course, it is wrong to imagine that those developments just happened, or were inevitable outcomes of organic or natural processes, independent of all the struggles, sacrifices, conflicts and fighting.


JohnTh 01.28.13 at 2:24 pm

One self-styled ‘revolution’ which achieved more or less exactly what its (mostly elite) sponsors wanted was the English Glorious Revolution of 1688/9. They wanted the Catholics down and a Protestant constitutional monarchy heavily and formally beholden to Parliament, and with the help of a well-executed Dutch invasion, they got it. It’s possibly a good example of how small revolutions, with limited aims and limited violence (1) can more precisely achieve their objectives.

(1) Obviously 1688 kicked off terrible violence in Ireland, but I think that’s better thought of as round ‘n’ in the colonial wars the English waged in/on Ireland.


js. 01.28.13 at 5:55 pm

Main point is that violence is in some sense a cultural language, with different forms, meanings, expected responses and so on at different times.

I agree with this. And I’m well aware of the importance of the concept of martyrdom for the Shia. Yet, I’m not sure that I would rely too heavily on the concept of martyrdom, or perhaps all that much at all, in accounting for the behavior of the state’s armed forces in 78-79. (For one thing, Iran at other times has been only too willing to use violence against its own citizens. So I think you need a more historically particular explanation for the revolution.)


Stephen 01.28.13 at 6:24 pm


When you say you “doubt I’m going to make much headway against someone like Stephen” you seem to think my position is “revolution never brings about anything good”. Which it is not.

This argument started in the recent White Liberal thread, in which I commented that, in my opinion, most revolutions make things worse in the short term. I do hope you can see that is entirely compatible with a belief that some revolutions make things better even in the short term, and some of those that are bad to disastrous in the short term may make things better in the long term.

As for the Haitian example: I would say it was a case where the pre-Revolutionary state was so bloody awful that even the disasters of the Revolution, and the subsequent prolonged post-revolutionary misery, must have been in some ways an improvement. I don’t know what counsel I would have given at the time. With hindsight, I would say that other West Indian slave islands, and the other half of Hispaniola that did not revolt as Haiti did, had a much better long-term future. But I doubt if an argument along those lines would have appealed to a recently-imported African-born slave, who might well have felt he had no long-term future.


Stephen 01.28.13 at 6:39 pm

David Kornreich @110

What absolute monarchs do you think survived in Europe even in 1914?

You may have an idiosyncratic value of “absolute”, if you think that Victoria was in any sense absolute on her accession. You are quite right to say there was much concern that Victoria might inherit while under age, giving rise to a Regency: but that was because the Regent would have been Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, who had a reputation for rape, incest and murder, and was generally thought unfit for the duties of a constitutional monarch.


Stephen 01.28.13 at 8:01 pm

Bruce Wilder@111
You think that with regard to revolutions I go “too far in thinking the blood always superfluous to the result”. Perhaps you may wish to rephrase that, especially with regard to superfluity which does not mean whatever you think it means.

You would, as I pointed out in replying to js, be quite wrong in supposing that my belief, based on some knowledge of contemporary and reading of historical events, is that revolution is always unjustified and unproductive. Not at all: sometimes it produces benefits; but I would maintain that it is usually far more bloody, terrifying, unjust and in the short run at least damaging than some revolutionaries – particularly those living in comfort in countries far distant from any revolutionary experience – begin to understand. And as you point out, the reactionaries quite often win. (Query: would it have been better if the anti-Fascist reactionaries in Italy, 1922-25, had won? And in Germany, 1932: hard, I suppose, to work out who were the revolutionaries, or (at least in their own minds) the alternative NSDAP revolutionaries, or the genuine reactionaries?)

There were no Whigs in the English Civil War. There was much to be said for the Levellers who wanted, among other things, the abolition of corruption within the Parliamentary and judicial process. Good luck with that in the USA.


Stephen 01.28.13 at 8:05 pm

Peter T @116: “Main point is that violence is in some sense a cultural language, with different forms, meanings, expected responses and so on at different times”.

Does this equally excuse, reactionary, Fascist or Nazi violence?


Stephen 01.28.13 at 8:14 pm

JohnTh @118:

Partly agreed, but I think it’s more accurate to say that the English revolutionaries of 1688 succeeded in that they didn’t get what they didn’t want. Namely: James II as King, progression towards absolute monarchy, progression towards compulsory reCatholicisation of England (the two being linked), removal of all Irish military forces from England (the indispensable agents for the two former). Many of them did not actually want some of the things they did get: William and Mary as legitimate sovereigns, Dutch regiments occupying London, long and very expensive wars. You win some, you lose some.


Katherine 01.28.13 at 8:21 pm

It’s worth mentioning that one of main reasons why things turned out so badly for Haiti was the way it was treated by colonial/slave owning/trading powers after the revolution. The ‘reparations’ they were forced to pay France saddled the new country with a high interest debt that wasn’t paid off until half way through the 20th century. What this means for measuring the success of the revolution I don’t know, but it suggests that forces outside of the revolutionary movement itself can play a major role.


rf 01.28.13 at 8:48 pm

“So whether and how a revolution is violent is not sensibly addressed in general terms.”

There’s a new book called Why Civil Resistance Works, which I haven’t read but (apparently, and I guess it partly addresses your point) shows how non-violence is more effective and leads to better long term solutions. Which is good news all round! (I think the case studies show how a revolution becomes violent or not, but I’m not sure)

I don’t really know anything about Iran but, afaik, on the cultural aspects there have been pretty strong arguments against religion playing a major role in the revolutions ‘non-violence’, and instead ‘national characteristics’ (for example the role of mass protests in recent Iranian history in Ervand Abrahamian, Mass Protests in the Iranian Revolution) have been given some credit in the outcome. Although whether or not that’s true I don’t have a clue

He also mentioned the specifics of the revolution itself as being vital – the context both domestically (the pressure the Shah was under for his human rights record, greater ‘liberalisation’ etc) and internationally (rise in human rights promotion, Carters concentration on human rights, at least rhetorically) – specific acts the revolutionaries took to make it non-violent (which it wasn’t always) specific acts the Shah took (not cracking down hard enough, and then encouraging the protesters by offering concessions)

This contention seems to be backed up ‘scientifically’ by Karen Raslers ‘Concessions, Repressions and political protest in the Iranian Revolution’, which identifies the success of the revolution and its relatively peaceful nature in the mix of concessions and coercion employed by the Shah. (I reread them to make sure I wasn’t misremembering, which I still might be tbh, but they’re both online)


Mao Cheng Ji 01.28.13 at 9:02 pm

“You would, as I pointed out in replying to js, be quite wrong in supposing that my belief, based on some knowledge of contemporary and reading of historical events, is that revolution is always unjustified and unproductive.”

How can it be justified or unjustified? A revolution, as I understand it, is a spontaneous mass uprising. It can not be initiated by a decree, and for as long as it’s happening its leaders have a very limited power to steer it in any intended direction. It’s not in the category of things that can be justified. Some individuals (whose actions can be justified or not) will try to ride it and hope to come out on top, but that’s about as much as anyone can do.


js. 01.28.13 at 9:08 pm


When I said I didn’t expect to make much headway, etc., I was expecting that you’d manage to come up with some gem like the penultimate sentence in 120. You didn’t disappoint!

In any case, the answer is exactly what Katherine says at 125 (though I might put the point even more strongly).


Bruce Wilder 01.28.13 at 10:27 pm

Stephen: “I would maintain that it is usually far more bloody, terrifying, unjust and in the short run at least damaging than some revolutionaries – particularly those living in comfort in countries far distant from any revolutionary experience – begin to understand.”

We may well be simply talking past each other, or quibbling over nuance.

Revolutions, in my view, are redeemed by the success, if any, of the institution-building that comes after. Doctrines of non-violent civil disobediance are persuasive to me, in that they recognize that the violence of insurrection or revolutionary resistance may prejudice later efforts at institution-building, which efforts are the prize.

The institutions, which govern social cooperation, ante-revolution, have their own costs in dysfunction and injustice. Imagining that they were better by reason of some degree of apparent peace, or more amenable to amelioration or reform than they were, is a common Tory trick of selective memory, which I scorn, without intending to attribute such fallacy to Stephen. Outright collapse was what triggered the French Revolution; counter-revolution, which triggered so much violence, was trying to restore a completely dysfunctional regime.

The Whigs did emerge at the tail end of the English Civil War(s). Their political tendency got its name from the Wiggamore Raid. More importantly, the Whig style of meta-political thinking in strategic and institutional terms emerged from the paranoid style of the Civil War(s), and continued, to inform the American Revolution in the 18th century, with subtle arguments about instituting constitutional government.

The French Revolution went badly in large part because the French were so ill-prepared to address the urgent problems, which brought down the ancien regime: money and bread. French Enlightenment thinking on these subjects was largely rubbish; the Revolution arrived with enlightened opinion centered on a consensus in favor of laissez faire and hard money, which enshrined rank ignorance as truth, and a People, unaccustomed to civic deliberation on public policy, was disabled in the midst of crisis, by the inability to even imagine, let alone legitimate, technocratic competence in the management of political economy. For lack of a better marker, they turned, eventually, to the Man on Horseback — a successful general — to institute reform by authoritarian fiat. Napoleon did an OK job of it, for the most part: thoroughly rationalized Code of Law, Banque of France, efficient civil administration, kinda sorta separation of church and state, etc., though still pretty rough on the proletariat and easy on the wealthy and land-owning classes.

Much is sometimes made of the spirit of the French Revolution, which so influenced political thinkers in the 19th century. It should be noted that the spirit of counter-revolution was born at nearly the same moment, and was responsible for most of the violence that followed attempts at political modernization in Europe, well into the 20th century. Was counter-revolution ever worth it? (Asked ironically)

One thing I would say for revolutionary violence, even where it appears to fail abjectly, is that it pays dividends to others in later situations, by lending credibility to the threat of violence. The French Revolution may not have netted much to the French, but it is difficult to imagine that the Whig-Liberals would have been able to put over even the weak tea of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, if the London mob pelting the shutters of the Iron Duke did not remind the powers-that-be of something more dire. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 surely owed a debt to the fear of renewed civil war.

Again, I fully expect my own country will pay a high price, because the banksters, and the complacent “lesser evil” enabling them, cannot imagine the violence they carelessly nurture. Ditto for the Europeans following the precepts of the hapless Turgot, in managment of the Euro.


ChrisB 01.28.13 at 10:40 pm

The very long term Chou-En-Lai (traditional misinterpretation) view, though, surely needs to be heavily discounted by the general secular trend towards improvement in life (as indicated by life expectancy) since the 1870s. Capitalist/mixed government style productivity has been gearing up GDP immensely, so that all outcomes (with the possible exception of Haiti) look somewhat better. Leaving aside the usual caveats about uneven distribution/ecological unsustainability, the test for ‘better’ surely has to be ‘better than the norm’. We in the West live in what any other generation of revolutionaries would have regarded as a near-paradisial material world, but that surely doesn’t mean that every past faction has won simultaneously.


bad Jim 01.29.13 at 2:59 am

Bruce Wilder @111 notes the enthusiasm for monarchy at the advent of the Third Republic. It has been reported that a major sticking point was whether the flag would be the tricolor or the fleur-de-lis.


Peter T 01.29.13 at 5:45 am

I generally agree with Bruce Wilder, but I think he has got the French Revolution wrong here in an interesting way. Pre-occupation with the management of the national economy is a very modern thing. Ancien regime governments were not expected to manage the economy – that was in the hands of God and the harvest. What they were expected to do was manage the national finances, so that the state could meet its obligations to pay pensions to the rich, protect the commerce of the middling sort, and make glorious war. The crisis of 1798 was driven by the inability of the regime to do these things – the accounts were a mess and the tax system was a bigger mess. Bad harvests made the situation worse but France had weathered bad harvests before.

The revolutionaries started out to reform the revenue system – and the associated complex of laws, rights and privileges – wholesale. They did not reckon on immediate international intervention, or on the degree of internal resistance they encountered. Perhaps they should have. But, given that one of the main aims of the reform was to allow France to compete militarily, the success in war of the revolutionary and the successor Napoleonic regimes is an indicator that they did in fact get what they wanted.

It is clear that any serious attempt to put French finances on a basis comparable to those of Britain or the United Provinces was going to have to over-ride serious opposition – just as any attempt to bring the US banking system under control is going to anger and hurt a lot of people (many of them not plutocrats). And that opposition was going to involve violence, because that was the way politics was played.


Hidari 01.29.13 at 9:46 am

“Obviously 1688 kicked off terrible violence in Ireland”.

Not just in Ireland. The first (and subsequent) Jacobite risings were a direct consequences of the “glorious” “revolution”. Which led to the not-particularly-non-violent Massacre of Glencoe amongst other things.


Bcsmith 01.29.13 at 2:06 pm

I agree with J.D. Locke — Revolutionaries are usually a coalition of groups with at least somewhat differing goals, but also those goals can change rapidly in the course of revolutionary events. In other words, revolutionary events change the participants as they chsnge the possibile outcomes in unforeseen ways. I’ve written a book arguing that American revolutionaries abandonned some ideals of liberty and some forms of popular participation, as elites saw how far the common men in their coalition wanted to take those ideals and forms. Those are not freedoms we are still aiming at, but rather, as the book has it, Freedoms We Lost.


Bruce Wilder 01.29.13 at 10:33 pm

Peter T

The idea that the state should take no role in the management of the economy was actually a novelty in the mid 18th century: the favored doctrine of the physiocrats, to whom are attributed the phrase, laissez faire, and the pejorative, bureaucracy. Feudal tradition and Catholic doctrines provided a background expectation, though, of an obligation to organize relief in famine, to routinely regulate fair prices and product quality and repress usury, as well as to promote public works and the development of industry, in accord with the mercantilist ideas current at least since the 16th century.

Turgot, a physiocrat, was the proto-neoliberal, preaching a strict austerity and free trade. Turgot, as an intendant in Limoges had promoted industry and organized famine and work relief efforts. He had addressed lending money at interest, seeking a compromise between traditional Catholic moralistic criticism and the newer, capitalist ideas. Like most Frenchmen of his day, he recalled Law’s system with little real understanding, but much passionate contempt. Here’s what the Wikipedia article on Necker says about the campaign of Necker and his wife to promote him as a replacement for Turgot in the direction of state finances:

Madame Necker entertained the leaders of the political, financial and literary worlds of Paris, and her Friday salon became as greatly frequented as the Mondays of Mme Geoffrin, or the Tuesdays of Mme Helvétius. In 1773, Necker won the prize of the Académie Française for a defense of state corporatism framed as a eulogy of Louis XIV’s minister, Colbert; in 1775, he published his Essai sur la législation et le commerce des grains, in which he attacked the free-trade policy of Turgot. His wife now believed he could get into office . . .

Necker, like virtually all of the leading bankers and financiers of Paris, was a Swiss Protestant. He would replace Turgot’s strict austerity with loans at high interest rates. (He would also make himself popular by creating a nationwide system of pawn brokers — a very unCatholic thing to do, but a desperately needed service in a country without much of a banking system.)

Free trade in grain, an end to privilege and taxation of land, (which is to say, the rich) had become the consensus of Enlightenment opinion, on the eve of the Revolution. Brienne would get free trade in grain during his brief turn in office; bad timing as it turned out. In the event, high bread prices would motivate mass participation in the Revolution. The October March, which brought King and Assembly back to Paris, changed everything.

The fact that direct knowledge of banking and finance was the monopoly of a Swiss Protestant colony in Paris contributed to the hopeless fumbling about of the revolutionary governments with assignants and the like. The loot of foreign conquest relieved an acute shortage of currency in Paris, which no one in government had the understanding to remedy in any other way, turning the character of the Revolution. In the end, Napoleon took power, in part, by negotiating with the Swiss bankers for a Banque of France, just as he negotiated an agreement with the Catholic Church.


Stephen 01.31.13 at 10:09 pm

Bruce Wilder@ 129

Why, thank you, Bruce, for not attributing to me a fallacy I do not hold. I have become slightly disenchanted with CT (which has so many other intelligent contributors) on finding that if I propose A, I am immediately accused of proposing unrelated B on account of my accuser disagreeing with both A and B.

Regarding your particular point: we are probably agreed in thinking that, by 1789, the defects of the French Government finances and of French society had become so intertwined that, in all probability, nothing could be done that was more or less like the initial stages of the Revolution.

Which is not to say that, if something had been done much earlier, or had continued to be done as was being done under Turgot’s administration of the finances, the defects could not have been amended. Restore the finances by abolishing sinecures and pensions, suppress counter-productive internal taxes, attack the nobles’ privileges: above all, keep out of the catastrophic American war [fn1]. I don’t say that would have preserved France, but might it not?

Nor is it to say that the catastrophes of the early French Revolution after the-bliss-was-it-in-that-dawn-to-be-alive time, and its successors – attack on France’s neighbours, Terror, ascent of Napoleon, Empire, millions dead, restored Bourbons – were necessarily an inevitable consequence of the early Revolution. But if you argue Turgot’s failure was inevitable since it happened …

Fn1: Yes, I realise that might have changed the course of American history. At worst, the current USA might be sunk into the despotism, squalor and poverty of their northern neighbours,


bob mcmanus 01.31.13 at 11:58 pm

Just in case anyone doesn’t understand why I consider Holbo a hardcore neo-liberal. The post could have been a paraphrase. From the absolutely essential recent Neil Davidson book on bourgeois revolution.

Irving Kristol, 1973

By her criteria the French and Russian revolutions should more properly be called “rebellions,” whereas only the American Revolution is worthy of the name. A rebellion, in her terms, is a meta-historical event emerging out of a radical dissatisfaction with the human condition as experienced by the mass of the people, demanding instant “liberation” from this condition, an immediate transformation of all social and economic circumstances, a prompt achievement of an altogether “better life” in an altogether “better world.” The spirit of rebellion is a spirit of desperation ”a desperate rejection of whatever exists, a desperate aspiration toward some kind of utopia. A rebellion is more a sociological event than a political action. It is governed by a blind momentum which sweeps everything before it, and its so-called leaders are in fact its captives, and ultimately its victims. The modern world knows many such rebellions, and all end up as one version or another of “a revolution betrayed.: The so-called “betrayal” is, in fact, nothing but the necessary conclusion of a rebellion. Since its impossible intentions are unrealizable and since its intense desperation will not be satisfied with anything less than impossible intentions, the end result is always a regime which pretends to embody these intentions and which enforces such false pretensions by terror.


Bruce Wilder 02.01.13 at 12:09 am

There’s a lot about the French Revolution, which I don’t understand. In any systemic collapse, especially one so dramatically violent, it is natural to wonder if all might have been saved, by some singular, strategic intervention, which would have enabled the whole, rickety, Rube Goldberg contraption to muddle through some series of piecemeal reforms, to evolve, more or less peaceably.

The French Revolution has inspired some fairly ridiculous hypotheses about key factors, identified in counterfactual speculation about how the whole bloody mess might have been avoided. Doyle, author of the current Oxford History of the French Revolution, takes the view that the violent chaos of the French Revolution was something of an unlucky accident. He does Marie Antoinette one better, by suggesting that the whole starving mobs of Paris thing might have been absent, if only the French peasants had been a little bit quicker in adopting the potato.

Alexis de Toqueville, writing in the shadow of the collapse of the liberal Orleans monarchy and the rise of Napoleon III (with some, who remembered still alive), thought that the French suffered from having too little acquaintance with the forms and habits of civic engagement. They didn’t have Roberts Rules of Order in their blood, and couldn’t deliberate productively in political assemblies, because they had so little experience of it.

I think it is hard for us to even imagine the political world of ancien regime France, where so much of the virtual reality of institutional politics would be so alien to us. There’s a tendency — acute in de Toqueville’s account and many others, which make use of social science statistics, to highlight the emerging modern bourgeois world we recognize as precursor to our own, alongside the Enlightenment ideas, which we also recognize as our heritage — and, to ignore the larger bulk of economic, political and social institutional reality almost completely alien to the 19th let alone the 20th century, which was immolated in the French Revolution. So much was heaped on that pyre, because there was so much to heap on that pyre.

Peter Gay, the great historian of the intellectual Enlightenment, liked to make the point that the philosophes, who did so much to lay the foundations of our own thought, our modern ideologies, social science and philosophies and understanding of ourselves and the world, were, in their own time, in the 18th century, literally outnumbered nearly 10 to 1, by conservative Catholic prelates. For every philosophe, there were five or ten Abbé’s, writing and publishing and debating, tutoring the children of the rich and advising or administering various institutions. We forget them, because we have no use for them or their ideas, but they nearly overwhelmed the French Enlightenment with sheer force of numbers. Ancien regime France had a government within a government, in the Catholic Church and in its ancient nobility of the sword and its venal nobility of the robe both, preserving strictly an ideology and a hierarchical cadre, as much as the Soviet Union had the Communist Party. For the organic state, these were some very powerful homeostatic systems — well-developed and powerful immune systems, ready to envelope and expel the modern as an infection.

I don’t like tales of inevitability. History only happens one way, as I’m constantly repeating, but that doesn’t justify a narrative, which eliminates all notice of the contingencies that shaped the behavior of those, who lived through it. I don’t say Turgot had to fail, because he did fail. I do think Turgot was a doctrinaire idealist, and there was much less of practical economics or political morality there than claimed, by the man or his fans. I do think France suffered from the underdevelopment of institutions of deliberative governance, and the overdevelopment of the politics of court intrigue. Turgot had the favor of the King, but no deep understanding, but more importantly, no adequate means to mobilize political support or put into motion the apparatus of the state.

His failure to reform was the not the first nor the last. Machault d’Arnouville had failed Louis XV, a more competent monarch, in what was, in many ways, a more sweeping reform. Turgot and Necker were really just trying to kick the can down the road in different ways, because of the difficulty of systemic reform, already revealed by d’Arnouville’s failure. And, it wasn’t just the constraints on them, real as those were, which condemned their pitiful efforts to failure: it was their lack of imagination, and the lack of imagination of the society as a whole. Even with the example of British state beating them on every front in global war and economic competition, and of the American Revolution, there was more of the heady sense of possibility than any real and deliberate appreciation of what was necessary or possible. Until the Estates Generale were called, no one had proposed a permanent institution, able to deliberate on, and press successively, for reform. And, even then, Necker revealed his small-mindedness, by treating them as an administrative council. And, right up to, and through the beginning of the Revolution, the ferme générale, the private for-profit, corporate collectors of taxes, was busily constructing its very elaborate wall around Paris, the better to collect taxes. (Lots of proposals to change tax policy, but little appreciation of the need to change the apparatus, or expectation that it would be changed, whatever the reform.)

I focus on the legislative and economic mainstays. I cannot account for the extreme reaction against the Catholic Church or the nobility. That’s where the violence erupted after all. For that, I think historians need more imagination then I can bring to bear. And, I think, for me and for them, it is just really hard to recognize the full massive weight — we look back into that distant mirror and see what survived and developed, and wondered why the world we know had to have such a violent birth — and, realistically, maybe the answer is that it didn’t. Our mistake is that we fail to see clearly the necessity for the violent death of what no longer is, because we have no acquaintance with it.


John Holbo 02.01.13 at 12:13 am

Bob, I’ll bite: why do you consider me a hardcore neo-liberal?

Re: the passage you quote.

‘Is x true?’ sort of means the same as ‘X is true’, in an abstract semantic sense. But the difference in force introduced by the interrogatory, as opposed to assertion, makes it very unwise (I should think) to say that any given question is merely a ‘paraphrase’ of one possible answer to it. If you see what I mean.

In the post I actually reject, in passing, as obviously false, the extreme view that all revolutions end in terror. That is, the only thing you ever get is 4. This is the view of the passage you quote, so what is your evidence for attributing this view I say I think is obviously false to me?


bob mcmanus 02.01.13 at 5:48 pm

138:” I cannot account for the extreme reaction against the Catholic Church or the nobility. That’s where the violence erupted after all.”

Jacobin review (1/29) of Sophie Wahnich In Defense of the Terror

The Terror was, therefore, a necessary corrective to “popular vengeance,” delimiting the sort of violence seen in September, and thus boasting a quasi-mollifying function. As Danton said in a typical moment of rhetorical thunder: “let us [the Convention] be terrible so as to save the people from being so.” Wahnich continues:

Establishing the Terror had the aim of preventing emotion from giving rise to dissolution or massacre, symbolizing what had not been done in September 1792 and thus reintroducing a regulatory function for the Assembly. For Danton, the members of the Convention had to be “the worthy regulators of national energy.”

Wahnich’s subversive reflection, then, is that far from taking lives the Terror was actually about saving them.

Wallerstein, from Davidson:”The struggle between aristocracy and bourgeoisie, in so far as it existed at all, was a “diversion” in both senses: “fun and games; and a displacement of the attention of others, in this case, the peasants and the sans-culottes.”

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