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European Revolutions: 1492-1992.

History surprises. As Charles Tilly points out in the opening pages of European Revolutions, 1492-1992, scarcely had Europeans decided that the age of revolution was over, than revolution swept through eastern and central Europe, toppling one regime after another.

The events of 1989 in the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania, involved not only the collapse of communist governments in those countries but also formed part of a larger process, the coming apart of the system set in place by the October Revolution of 1917. Events subsequent to 1989, especially the bungled coup of August, 1991, led to the dissolving of the Soviet Union in December, 1991. After an extraordinary career spanning seven decades, the Russian Revolution had failed.(1)

If revolutions, even seemingly well-established ones like the Russian Revolution, can fail after decades in power, what constitutes success? Can one speak of successful revolutions at all? Americans, of course, do all the time. But this still leaves open the question of defining the nature of success and failure for revolutionary movements.

Tilly does not deal directly with the question of revolutionary success or failure, but his reflections on 500 years of revolution provide useful data for such a discussion. European Revolutions, 1492-1992 is part of a series, edited by Jacques Le Goff, on "The Making of Europe" that features books on large topics (The European City and Europe and the Sea are the two other titles published to date). Each book is published by five European publishers in five languages, English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Tilly, as a glance at his publications will demonstrate, is no stranger to books on large topics.(2)

Tilly brings together in European Revolutions the two major themes of his scholarly work: revolution and state formation. Around the end of the 15th, the beginning of the 16th century (1492 as a starting point is, as Tilly puts it, "arbitrary, but not nonsensical" [21]), polities and the economies associated with them began to take on new shapes. In this process of change, "revolutionary situations" developed. Tilly defines a revolution situation as involving three elements:

1) the appearance of contenders advancing competing claims to control the state;

2) commitments to the claims by a significant segment of the population; and

3) the inability of the state to deal effectively with 1) and 2).

In Tilly's review of historical developments in various areas of Europe, many revolutionary situations turn out to be political crises without revolutionary implications, dynastic quarrels, for instance, or attempts by outsiders to take advantage of internal dissension. Personnel changes may occur, but political and other systems stay largely the same. At the same time, genuinely revolutionary movements receive no attention using Tilly's definition of a revolutionary situation because they are not taken up by contenders in a position to advance claims to control the state. The lack of distinction between political crises without revolutionary implications and those with is a significant flaw in Tilly's analysis.(3) The terms of the definition bring in events that seem out of place, exclude others that appear to belong.

Even though the analysis is somewhat flawed, two elements of Tilly's approach justify adopting it with reservations. First, Tilly sees revolution as part of the overall political process. So-called ordinary politics produce political crises and some of these crises would clearly fit a definition of a revolutionary situation modified to include the intention of contenders not only to control the state but also to use that control to advance some program of change. The outcome of any political crisis sets the terms for the politics that follow. This has the effect of setting the phenomenon of revolution firmly in the mainstream of politics. States evolve in many ways, including through revolution.

Secondly, revolution is all about power. Without power, revolutionary movements are reduced to grand ideals and brave gestures. To write a history of revolutions would require, of course, some attention to those movements that never had a chance to contend for power, but there is good reason to emphasize those movements that were in a position to contend for power.

Despite the title of his book, Tilly is not doing a history of revolutions but rather a history of how revolutions and state formation have intertwined in various regions of Europe. And, it is just this kind of enterprise that provides us an opportunity to reflect on revolutionary success and failure.

The first two chapters set forth a number of general propositions about revolution and state formation. Other than my disagreement with how we might understand the term "revolutionary situation," I find Tilly's discussion helpful and sensible. In particular, the section on "claim-making" is a thoughtful general review of how popular protest has changed through time as both political entities and economic systems have changed [38-42]. The heart of the book, however, something of a tour de force, is a review of 500 years of revolution region by region in Europe.

Chapter 3, principally on the Netherlands, illustrates Tilly's approach well. As he notes,

The chapter makes three essential points. First, the character of revolutions altered greatly over the 500 years in question, as a function of the same processes that eventually created consolidated states. Second, the organization and incidence of revolution varied substantially from one region of Europe to another, especially as a function of the relative predominance of capital and coercion in each region. Third, revolutions and other nonrevolutionary political conflicts varied in parallel from region to region and period to period.[53]

Tilly's main strength in this book is to establish the connection between revolution and state formation. This makes clear the role played by the phenomenon of revolution in political affairs and places revolution in a definite historical context. Tilly errs, in my estimation at least, in considering too many events to be revolutionary situations. In the case of the Netherlands, he lists sixteen between 1487 and 1833. In order to discuss the reciprocal actions of revolution and state formation in the Netherlands, I suggest that it would be sufficient to include the Revolt of the Netherlands, 1566-1609; the Dutch Patriot Revolution, 1785-7; the Batavian Revolution, 1795-8; and the Belgian Revolution, 1830-3. [Based on Table 3.2, p. 74] Others might have a slightly different lineup, but my point would be that a relatively few, genuinely revolutionary events figured in the process by which the Netherlands produced a durable, flexible, stable political system that has managed over a long period of time to weather various political strains and also respond to different kinds of economic, social, demographic, and cultural changes. A similar process might be followed in the case of Britain and France to isolate a relatively small number of revolutionary developments that figured in the evolution of viable political systems. [See table 4.2, page 114, and table 5.4, page 151] Success, then, might be measured by the relatively stable existence of these states over a lengthy period of time.

It is interesting to note that the Dutch, whom some might see as the very embodiment of stability and consensus, required more than two centuries (from 1566 to 1833) to achieve a political system durable and flexible enough to avoid revolution. According to Tilly, the British accomplished this within the 17th century itself. Some observers of the 18th century and particularly of the early 19th century might wish to challenge this judgement. Of course, the British polity did survive these storms, despite their severity. A pertinent question here, however, might be how close did they come to not surviving? France, a country about which Willy has written much and early, illustrates best what might be the only rule one could derive from the history of revolution in the modem era: success only comes through failure. By this I mean simply that the French gained a workable system only through a process of trial-and-error which, among other elements, included a frequent resort to revolution. The 19th century in France may be presented as seemingly endless repetitions of the great French Revolution, not necessarily as Marx had it in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." Whether the French Revolution was ultimately worked out in the Third Republic or the Fifth, it does present an interesting example of an intensely self-conscious process of a nation responding to an historical event.(4)

In the chapter on the Russian Revolution, Tilly discusses a situation where seemingly brilliant success led to resounding failure. If there is another dictum to be gleaned from the history of revolution it might well be simply that early success may well lead ultimately to failure. Some element of trial-and-error appears to be a necessary ingredient for any lasting results. A revolution that fixes itself early on into a rigid state pattern with the economic, social, and cultural systems compatible with that pattern may be lacking in a capacity to respond to rapidly changing environments, both within and without the state.

The Russian Revolution also brings up the question of "cost." Like economists, social historians know that everything costs something. Change or no change, someone pays a price. Social history, in fact, often seems to be an attempt to find out who paid how much for what. The Russian Revolution, in particular, Stalin's "Second October" in the early 1930s, appears to be a clearcut example of cost exceeding benefits, and of success being undone by what it took to achieve it.

Without a calculus of social costs, which presupposes an entirely rational approach to governance, we can never know the true cost of revolutions and other political acts, nor definitively assess success or failure. This should not stop us, however, from seeing some revolutions as successes, which is, by the way, different from asserting that they were the best or the only way to bring about whatever was accomplished. Paradoxically, those we might consider successful were built on failures or, at best, partial successes. We need look no further than the American Revolution, enshrined in national mythology as a grand success. Its first century was filled with disasters big and small, culminating in the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction. The Civil War, whether viewed from Tilly's perspective or from my modification of Tilly, constituted a revolutionary situation. Together with the Reconstruction, it certainly formed a revolutionary outcome. The end of Reconstruction, which came a little over a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, was, in fact, only the beginning of a long process of knitting the nation back together, a process that may only have achieved real success in the period after World War II.

Tilly's extended essay on revolution in Europe over the last 500 years seems to suggest we need to give any revolution or series of revolutions at least a century before we make judgements about success or failure. The Russian Republic of Boris Yeltsin, then, still caught up in the fallout from the failure of the Russian Revolution of 1917, could easily go through several more revolutionary experiments before settling into a stable system. If so, its experience with revolution would not be so very different from that of many other European states, except for the duration of the regime produced by the October Revolution.

One additional comment on Tilly's contribution to the comparative study of revolutions would seem to be useful here. Looking at 500 years of revolution in Europe makes it obvious that revolution does, in fact, have a history. As we move from century to century in Europe, different groups become capable of competing for control of a state or interested in creating a state that they can then control. Changing economic forms determine whether a state may be challenged by new social groups or, as is the case by the late 19th century, become so strong as to be beyond challenge except by special groups such as the armed forces.(5)

What Tilly appears to miss, as do most other students of the phenomenon who focus on either institutional structures or material factors, is simply the cultural dimension.(6) Ideas count for something, as scholars have noted in the paradox of Marx and Engels, whose ideas about the importance of material factors, rather than the workings of the material factors themselves, were what caused millions of men and women to act. Somewhat similarly, it is the idea of revolution as a means to effect political change that emerges in the course of the 19th century as a crucial factor in politics. Marx understood the events of his time not only on the basis of his ideas about economic forces but also in reference to the French Revolution. Lenin, Trotsky, and other Russian Revolutionaries viewed their activities through the prism of the French Revolution. Revolutionaries since the Russian Revolution have looked back to 1917 or to the Stalinist model to gain orientation. In this sense, the indisputable success has been the idea of revolution itself. Not only those who would imitate previous revolutions but more especially those who would attempt to counter what they understood as the power of the idea of revolution give us a measure of its success.

Once again, success breeds failure. In the rush to learn historical "lessons," would-be revolutionaries neglect the close attention to detail that politics require. Lenin creates the model for the successful revolutionary party, Stalin the plan for the rapid development of state and economy, Mao the guidelines for successfully wearing down an enemy far stronger than the forces of revolution and each, in turn, is uncritically imitated. What had been an art in the 19th century becomes a science in the 20th, with all the dangers inherent in unexamined formulae, rigid prescriptions, or blindly applied laws.

This brings us back to history once again and to revolution as a phenomenon that may appear in any location, in any time, in any guise. To the extent that we know the past, we may work self-consciously either to encourage or to discourage the appearance of revolution. The naivete of observers in 1989 and since notwithstanding, revolution as a phenomenon is not something relegated to the past. If revolution appears to have had a few success stories, resulting in systems that combine capitalism and democracy, there is no reason to assume that this combination is the last stage in history.

Tilly's book, as I noted earlier, is not so much about revolution as it is about the role played by revolution in politics. Tilly emphasizes the way changing political structures change the kinds of revolutions (and revolutionaries) that are possible. I have suggested that revolution is something that people have been aware of as a possibility for some two centuries now and that this consciousness has to a large extent changed the nature of politics. Revolution's greatest success may well be the major role it has played in bringing about political and other kinds of change in this century. (The fear of revolution alone has motivated more change than we have adequately acknowledged.) Tilly's contribution, then, is to remind us that history is, to a large extent, about power and its use and that revolution can be an important factor in determining who has power. For the social historian as well as for the political historian, this is an important reminder.

Department of History Sweet Briar, VA 24595


1. One might also note the failure of the Mexican Revolution. Roughly contemporaneous with the Russian Revolution, the Mexican Revolution also produced considerable social change in the 1930s but without the enormous human costs associated with the Stalinist Revolution. By the 1940s a system had evolved, managed by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), that appeared to satisfy major elements in Mexico, bureaucrats, the military, the middle classes, labor, and the peasantry. Some groups were obviously better served than others, but the system provided political stability and satisfaction for many until the late 1970s. During the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a concerted effort was made to restructure the economy. Less progress was recorded in opening up the political process. It now appears Salinas was no more successful than Gorbachev in rescuing his country from the cul-de-sac into which its revolution had driven it.

2. The following listing, by no means complete, provides an idea of Tilly's contributions to the study of state building and revolution: C. Tilly, ed., The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton, NJ, 1975); -, From Mobilization to Revolution (Reading, MA, 1978); -, Big Structures, Large Processes, and Huge Comparisons (New York, 1984); -, The Contentious French (Cambridge MA, 1986); -, Coercion, Capital, & European States, AD 990-1990 (Cambridge, MA, 1990).

3. Tilly distinguishes between a "revolutionary situation" and a "revolutionary outcome," and notes that the latter is a much more rare event than the former. It seems preferable, however, to get straight at the start what is and is not a "revolutionary situation." Once that is done, then it is useful to point out that not every revolutionary situation leads to a revolutionary outcome.

4. Francois Furet presents a case for the French Revolution ending with the establishment of the Third Republic, ca. 1880. Cf. Revolutionary France, 1770-1880 (Cambridge, MA, 1992). Anne Sa'adah indicates that the revolution may only have been fully worked out in the Fifth Republic. Cf. The Shaping of Liberal Politics in Revolutionary France: a Comparative Perspective (Princeton, 1990). Sa'adah's comparison of the experiences of the United States, Great Britain, and France with liberal politics, the links between political behavior and institutions on the one hand and revolutionary experience on the other hand, strikes me as a good example of Tilly's approach used in a case study.

5. Theda Skocpol, in States & Social Revolutions: a Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge, 1979), not only stresses the state as an independent actor in a revolutionary process but also traces at length the history of the three processes she examines. Skocpol has much in common with Tilly, although her focus is on the revolutionary process rather than state formation. Barrington Moore's ground-breaking book, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston, 1966), should also be mentioned in this connection. Moore pioneered the idea that revolution could be an integral part of the political process, not an aberration or an interruption as much of 20th century scholarship, even Crane Brinton's seminal comparative study, had suggested (cf. The Anatomy of Revolution, first published in 1938, reissued in 1965 in a revised and expanded edition). In addition, a recent book, clearly influenced by Moore and Skocpol, should be noted: Jack A. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (Berkeley, CA, 1991). [cf. my review in the JSH, 26:4, 875-877.]

6. On this issue, see the insightful essay by William Sewell, Jr., "Ideologies and Social Revolutions: Reflections on the French Case," Journal of Modern History 57:57-85, essentially a critique of Skocpol's ideas in the book cited in endnote 5. Skocpol's reply is in "Cultural Idioms and Political Ideologies in the Revolutionary Reconstruction of State Power: a Rejoinder to Sewell," Journal of Modern History 57: 86-96.
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Author:Richards, Michael
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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