November 25, 2009

What is a revolution?

Stephen Pincus in his latest volume on 1688 has gone some way to providing an answer to this question and I think it is useful both to describe what his answer is and see what people think and to give my own provisional thoughts on his answer. Pincus thinks of a revolution as a social and political event which lasts perhaps several years- the French Revolution he stretches until the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the English of 1688 (the subject of his book in which this doctrine makes its appearance and which shall be reviewed here soon) from 1688 to 93 or even to the end of the war of the Spanish succession in 1720. Pincus is perhaps more interested though in why revolutions happen.

For him revolutions happen 'when the political natino is convinced of the need for political modernization but there are profound disagreements on the course of state innovation' (Pincus 1688 34). In all revolutions, he suggests, the ancien regime had already broken down. The France of 1789 had been through the reforms of Necker and Turgot, the England of 1688 was the subject of absolutist experiment by James II, the Russia of 1917 had seen Stolypin make his attempts to create the Kulak class, the Shah of Iran was a compulsive reformer before swept away in 1979- even in less famous revolutions such as that of Mexico, the reforms of Porfirio Diaz preceded the later revolution. Modernization, in Pincus's account, creates two impulses towards revolution: in the first place it creates a group of people who are affected by state policy and disagree with it- a constituency for revolution and secondly it associates the forces of order with radical change. If Kings and Ministers have deserted tradition, then the people will listen to radicals and insurgents and give each competing view of modernisation a hearing. This view has antecedents going back to De Tocqueville and definitely had some truth to it- but are there gaps?

My own view is that there are some interesting reflections to be made upon revolution as an entity. However there are a couple of things to be said first- there may not be a type of revolutions to abstract from. For example you could make a case that James II was never stronger than in 1688, and you could make a sensible case that Nicholas II of Russia was never weaker than in 1917. Military defeat seems to provoke revolution as in Nicholas's case- but the costs of victory are no less dangerous as Louis XVI might attest. Equally revolutionary conditions- modernization affecting a state- might not always give rise to a revolutionary situation (something Pincus accepts)- and modernisation itself is an odd concept. More recently historians have stressed the ways that state efficiency is modern- so Charles I and James II become 'modern' kings, earlier historians though stressed that representative institutions were 'modern' so divine right monarchs were definitely not modernisers by definition. Revolution might be instable- and how also are we to make sense of reactionary revolutions like that of the forty tyrants in Athens or ancient revolutions- was Caesar not a revolutionary? You could have fooled both Cicero and Cato. I have some sympathies with Pincus's viewpoint but also as the paragraph above suggests I'm unhappy with the typology and unhappy with the idea of modernisation, what are other people's views?


goodbanker said...

Apologies for such a lengthy absence from your thought-provoking blog.

My immediate thoughts are about more modern "revolutions". What about 1989, for instance? This puts pay to the multi-year part of Pincus' definition (though this is a cheap point). More importantly, isn't there a circular argument when Pincus claims that revolutions happen "when the political nation is convinced of the need for political modernization" (n.b. forget, for ease, the bit about "profound disagreements"). So, in 1989, there was nothing inevitable about the success of the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe - it could, arguably, have been Hungary 1956 / Prague 1968 all over again. On this basis, don't revolutions happen, and (ex post) the political class appears to have been open to modernization?! Maybe for earlier centuries, when communications were so much slower / more fragmented, Pincus' argument is more persuasive? But I can't help feeling that answering 'what a revolution is' comes down to a somewhat tawdry definitional point, and that history written by "winners" is plays an important part in this regard. Anyway, you asked for views; I guess I'm with you in not being entirely satisfied with Pincus' approach.

p.s. James II as "absolutist experiment"? That feels very old school! But maybe I'm out of date - has the revisionist interpretation of 1685-89 (that I'm familiar with from ?20 years ago) been re-revised again?!

Gracchi said...

Goodbanker- great to see you back- thought provoking blogs are much better with thought provoking commenters!

Yes I agree with your points about modern revolutions- I haven't quite got to review Pincus's book because I'm still about half way through it but will write about it soon. There is something unsatisfactory about the dimension of modernity that he uses- its an awfully teleological way of looking at the past.

On James, you are right to say I glossed over the point- partly because I want to return to it in my review of Pincus's book. To a degree the idea that James was intending absolutism is getting stronger- Jonathan Scott for example in his England's Troubles suggests that is a portrait of James and others have too. Pincus does bring up a lot of sources for it- but as I said I'll return to them later- mainly diplomatic correspondence and goes for the revisionists explicitly.