Printer Friendly

Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World.

The comparative study of revolutions has produced some path-breaking studies, beginning with Crane Brinton's Anatomy of Revolution (1938, revised edition 1965). The year after the 1965 edition of Brinton, Barrington Moore, Jr. published Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship. The following decade, in 1979, Theda Skocpol published States and Social Revolution. To this short list, I would now want to add Jack A. Goldstone's Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World.

Goldstone's book owes something to Moore and even more to Skocpol but goes well beyond both works. It is a major reconsideration of the origins of state breakdowns in the early modern period. What Goldstone offers is a new and convincing way to examine both the famous "general crisis" of the 17th century and the great French Revolution of the 18th century. Along the way, he manages also to discuss the Ottoman and Chinese Empires, Tokagawa Japan, and 19th-century Europe.

Goldstone begins with cycles of population expansion and decline from roughly 1500 to 1850. Using what he terms a demographic/structural approach, he outlines the manner in which population growth may lead to fiscal problems for the state, increased competition among elites, and rising potential for popular protest movements. Population growth alone, as he frequently reminds the reader, explains little. It is the conjunction of population growth and institutions that lies at the base of problems in the mid-17th and late 18th centuries. For example, a relatively inflexible taxation system that fails to provide adequate revenues in an era of inflation and growing demands for state action is what makes population growth problematic. If the taxation system yields sufficient revenue, if the state meets the needs of the elites and the masses, an expanding population presents few problems. It is a matter of environmental balance, resources and the demands placed on them.

The state and its fiscal problems, which may produce state crisis or even breakdown, form the heart of the process. Also crucial, however, is the position of the elites. If these are themselves pressed by rising prices and many more contenders than previously for roughly the same number of positions, they may divide into factions unable to agree on a course of action. This, in turn, can push a society into civil war. It will certainly not provide the support a government in crisis requires from its elite. Population pressures affect the lower classes as well, producing a sense of insecurity and a potential for mobilization, particularly in urban areas. Massive discontent also helps to create a sense that the situation is out of control and the government too incompetent or corrupt to deal with it.

Goldstone is sophisticated in his demographic analysis. For example, he shows how population growth may differ regionally. This provides insight into, among others, the Catalan and Neapolitan revolts of the 17th century. He also comments on the manner in which population growth may cause a strain in some groups greater than one would suppose simply from viewing the overall figures. Thus, population growth has an effect on elite competition far out of proportion to increases in the size of the group as a whole.

This brief, somewhat bloodless sketch of Goldstone's thesis does not do justice to the subtlety of his analysis and the richness of detail that he provides. It is a major challenge to Marxist interpretations. At the same time, it is an alternative to various revisionist efforts, which, while undermining Marxist interpretations, fail to put anything in their place other than the assertion that revolution was the result of bad political choices in this or that set of unique circumstances. Goldstone believes his ideas provide a means for viewing the early modern history of Eurasia, the history of agrarian-bureaucratic states, as a whole. It should be possible, then, to write a world history of the early modern period from the perspective he furnishes.

What is appealing about Goldstone's ideas is, first, they are not deterministic. Population growth or decline works itself out in this period in many different ways depending on the institutional structure and broad cultural background of the area in question. Furthermore, state crisis or breakdown can be resolved in a great variety of ways. Finally, Goldstone's view of history is explicitly cyclical. As such, it is a welcome antidote to the teleological tendencies characteristic of much of European and American historiography.

This approach, while offering convincing explanations for many different, seemingly unrelated events, does not, however, fully succeed. There is a slightly mechanical edge to the way Goldstone constantly refers back to population growth, inflation, fiscal crisis, elite competition, and mass mobilization. While his discussions are nuanced and superbly informed, there is, nonetheless, the nagging suggestion that he underestimates the extent of change from the mid-17th century to the early-19th century. An exception is made, of course, for Britain. In the case of France, however, Goldstone seems not to be sufficiently aware of the difficulties of comparing France in the 1830s and 1840s with Qing China in that same period.

The problem, interestingly enough, seems to be an unwillingness to give cultural factors proper weight. Goldstone is very much aware of the critiques of Skocpol, particularly that by William Sewell in Journal of Modern History (volume 57, 1985), on just these grounds. He devotes a chapter to the question, the weakest by far in the book in that it is a series of generalizations rather than the crisp, detailed analysis seen elsewhere. Cultural factors, in his analysis, come into play once people begin picking up the pieces left by state breakdown. It might be, however, that many participants defined the Revolutions of 1830 and 1840 as state crises and took appropriate action on the basis of cultural factors, i.e. the sense that political action could lead to an improved situation or that this was the way to recover lost positions. Rising population and its interaction with various institutions are surely factors in events in this period, but it may be that cultural factors, anticipation of change, fear of change, moved people to action long before demographic/structural pressures. It also seems advisable to be very careful in using demographic/structural trends for virtually a year-to-year analysis. For the earlier period, these are more broadly seen as the culmination of decades of pressure and developments. Finally, while the efforts to quantify the argument as much as possible clearly involve prodigious amounts of work and ingenuity, I do not find that they make the argument any more convincing.

My reservations about the applicability of Goldstone's approach to early-19th century Europe may simply reflect the dilemma of anyone doing comparative history: the reviewer likes the overall approach but quarrels when it is applied to an area he views as one of his specialties. Whatever reservations I have about details, this is a book that should force historians to rethink the era between the 15th and mid-19th centuries. It is an explanation that appears to work well most of the time, certainly a starting point and guide for additional work. Anyone seriously interested in the comparative study of revolutions will want to read carefully Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World.

There is one aspect of the book I wish to comment on separately from the review itself. I wonder about the usefulness of including the last chapter, in particular the section entitled "The Decline of the United States." Much of the chapter establishes a more conservative position about revolution and capitalism than I would take. However, I am very much in sympathy with what Goldstone has to say about the United States in recent years. Beyond the question of sharing his views or not is another question: why put that chapter at the end of a scholarly book relatively few people will read from beginning to end? Why not publish it in a form that would reach some of those who may never read the book but would certainly appreciate the ideas in the chapter?
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Richards, Michael
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:Patients, Power, and the Poor in Eighteenth-Century Bristol.
Next Article:Freedom, vol. 1, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture.

Related Articles
History of Peasant Revolts: The Social Origins of Rebellion in Early Modern France.
Communities of Grain: Rural Rebellion in Comparative Perspective.
Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution.
The Rites of Labor: Brotherhoods of Compagnonnage in Old and New Regime France.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters