Tuesday, December 28, 2021

S.A. Smith's The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

As one might expect from the author's expertise, S.A. Smith's The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction is a very informed account of the Russian Revolution and its influence up until the 1930s.  The book provides readers a concise account of revolutionary events but tries to introduce readers to some of the major areas of research into the revolution and its immediate aftermath.  Smith seems particularly interested in issues related to nationalism and ethnic minorities in the Revolution and in the Soviet Union.  He touches on issues related to gender, the arts, modernization, etc.  One might do better to read his relatively recent Russia in Revolution, however, since this book does feel caught somewhere between a high school text and a grad school preliminary exam preparation book.  And perhaps the issue is that Smith attempted to cover the narrative but also the historiography, and that might be too hard to do in A Very Short Introduction, even though I recall liking Catriona Kelly's Russian literature book in this series fairly well.

Hannah Arendt's On Revolution Revisited

 I'm a huge fan of Hannah Arendt and think there's nothing finer than her Origins of Totalitarianism in particular.  But for some reason, I wasn't thrilled with her book, On Revolution, the first time around. I was confused by the extensive discussion of the so-called American Revolution, which hardly seems like a revolution at all when set alongside of the French or Russian Revolutions.  But in preparation for a class, I gave the book another read and liked it much better this time.  I particularly like the way she explains why revolutions are inherently modern phenomena.  An expert in Greek history, she admits that previous epochs knew regime change.  However, she asserts that regime change, or even the eruption of religious mass hysteria, is quite different than revolution in the modern sense of the word.  Revolutions, she argues, involve rectilinear time. They demand revolutionary calendars that begin in Year One.  The idea of novelty is essential to the revolutionary experience.  People need to know that the future is wide-open, almost unpredictable.  

In the 18th century, people moved closer to the idea of overturning the world to create something brand new, or even utopian.  But they weren't searching for freedom, or at least the freedom to do something unprecedented.  In pre-modern eras, discontents might search to recover lost liberties, but they didn't do so to create a unique, open-ended future.  They didn't even call for liberty for all male members of society, or citizens.  They also made no pretensions to speaking on behalf of the world. They required the return of lost liberties, and these liberties were generally very specific to particular places, or particular classes or even nobles.  According to Arendt, pre-modern people didn't seek comprehensive, total, terrifying, change.  Slaves sought freedom, palace elites sought a new leader, sections of an empire sought independence; but no one sought global freedom for all citizens.  

Like Goldstone, Arendt does some historical work.  But here she notes that nobody even used the word revolution until quite recently.  And when like Machiavelli does identify a secular realm of politics, he's looking to the past, to Polybius.  Indeed, medieval thinkers couldn't even conceive of anything other than a rebellion in order to exchange rulers.  Medieval thinkers made no claim whatsoever that the people should gain any share in government.  You were born a ruler, a noble, and that was that.  The English levellers did finally demand something new:  a constitution.  Still, they were primarily concerned to get their ancient rights restored to them.  To use the scientific term, they demanded a complete revolution of the social order, or, in other words, a return to the ancient status quo.  

Arendt even includes the US revolution in a pre-modern rebellion, in the sense that the revolutionaries were demanding their rights as Englishmen restored to them.  The French Revolution, by contrast, called for the execution of the king and queen, and then the radical unfolding of new knowledge about politics, a new society, a new future.  And at first, they wanted radical decentralization, and later, and as a response to the threat of counterrevolution and invasion, the reverse:  radical centralization.  Of course, the French Revolution also added an economic dimension to the notion of radical freedom.  From 1789 onward, revolutionaries would also be thinking of social and political freedom.  

Jack Goldstone's Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction

 As will be evident, I've taken a long break from my Soviet reading list.  The general Covid situation made switch to other readings.  Even so, I have recently decided to teach a short course on the Russian Revolution and so I'm reading a few books that I thought might help me with this task.  The first book I read was Jack Goldstone's Revolutions, part of the Very Short Introductions series.  I thought my class should start with some reflections on the nature of revolution, and the history of the concept, so I appreciated Goldstone's first chapters on the subject.  Goldstone's first couple of chapters raise a number of interesting questions. After reading these chapters, I thought my class could begin by discussing questions such as the following:  How should we define the word, revolution?  What is the difference between a revolution and a revolt or rebellion or civil war or insurrection or guerilla warfare? Are revolutions common or rare in world history?  Why do they really matter?  Are they essentially violent?  Do they often or even usually lead to dictatorship?  Are they varied in their expression or a unified phenomenon? Why and when do people think they can revolt, or that they should revolt, or that they simply have no choice but to revolt?  Do revolutions occur because the people are optimistic or pessimistic about the future?  Do revolutions always contain a democratic element, or are they almost by definition democratic?  Do revolutions occur only when leaders are isolated or weak?  Do they occur only when the military waivers?   Are revolutions essentially political by nature, or are they mainly an economic occurrence?  Can a revolution be an elite affair, or is it always a matter of the masses revolting?  Are the reasons revolutionaries give for rebelling the real reasons revolutions occur, or are there more important reasons they occur?  Does inequality help or hurt the cause of revolution? What's the role of religion in revolution?  Does modernization prevent revolution or cause it?  How do we judge the results of a revolution?  Should we use a short-term or long-term standard of its effects on society?  Do elites need to be divided for a revolution to be successful?  When do revolutions have a global impact?  Is there a science of revolution?  Can they be predicted to any degree?  How have revolutions change over time?  What's the relationship between war and revolution?  Can revolutions be coopted by bringing rebels into the ruling establishment?  Are revolutions moral by nature?  Do revolutions require foreign assistance?  How do revolutions draw on past rebellions or revolutions to make their case for radical change?  Do revolutions require charismatic leaders?  Why do they attempt to adopt new language, new rituals, new religions?  Must revolutionaries be conspiratorial? Do revolutions have to lead to post-revolutionary power struggles?  How can revolutionary regimes best be stabilized?   How can they deal with external threats?  Do they do best to adopt constitutions?  Can revolutionary regimes remain democratic?  (Is the US Revolution truly a revolution?)  Do revolutionary regimes always adopt purges as a technique of government? Do the radicals always win in post-revolutionary power struggles?  What are the benefits and costs of revolutions?  Why do some revolutions have ethnic or nationalist overtones, or do they always have to have them?   How did revolutions change between 1688, 1776, 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1917, etc.?  How did non-European revolutions incorporate anti-colonialism into ideologies?  What do the Iranian Revolution and Arab Revolt say about revolutions?   

These are all great questions.  Goldstone also believes that revolutions require five characteristics:  1) economic or fiscal stress; 2) elite alienation; 3) popular) a narrative of resistance; 5) international support. 

Golstone's book also covers different broad historical epochs and their experiences with revolutions.   I found these chapters less than useful.  I think Hannah Arendt's book, On Revolution, helps to explain why this is the case.  According to her, revolutions are modern by nature.  They demand something brand new, rather than a return to lost privileges, whether real or imagined.  They usually have global pretentions.  They are utopian.  She makes her point by analyzing the Puritan Revolution and the Glorious Revolution.  Both had some modern elements, but neither sought to bring about a millenarian future.  They called for the reestablishment of ancient liberties.  They used the scientific definition of the term, revolution, to call for a return to the way society was supposed to be. Although Goldstone is right to point out that the Greeks and Renaissance princes knew regime change, they aren't quite right to equate this with the French or Russian revolutions, which called for the implementation of modern utopias that would scarcely resemble any past.