George Lawson’s Anatomies of Revolution offers both rich descriptions and causal analyses of several important episodes in the history of revolutions and embeds these in arguments that advance the scope and quality of our theories of revolution.
Lawson’s description of revolutions is purely virtuous: Revolutions are varied, not static; their trajectories change with history and local context; they are rooted in multiple, not single, causal configurations, and have diverse emergent outcomes. This is a radical shift from the normal view that tries to cage and/or simplify revolutions to construct limited typologies. As I like to put it, “Revolution” is not like a physical category; it is more like an evolving genus with many species which are themselves evolving. You may have democratic revolutions in Solon’s Athens, in Britain’s eighteenth-century American colonies, in Eastern Europe in the late twentieth-century, or in Burkina Faso in the early twentieth-century. They will not look the same, but will have recognizable similarities.
If there is a defect in Lawson’s description, it is that he omits the important characteristic pointed out by Maria Tanyag in her post in this series: Revolutions throughout history to date have been upheavals in patriarchal societies led by men seeking to replace the existing patriarchal order with another one that is more favorable to them. Male revolutionaries have co-opted and greatly benefited from the efforts of women in making revolutions, but rarely does their revolutionary vision, and even more rarely the post-revolutionary society they create, incorporate changes that end the oppression of women and meet women’s demands for change.
Lawson’s efforts to unravel revolutionary causation are trickier. Lawson aims to build on and realize the potential of 4th generation approaches, which are more contingent, engage ideologies, and empower agents (Goldstone 2001). He sees deficiencies in the rigidity of any strict causal approach, and tries to overcome them by presenting a model that heavily uses the term “configurations.” Revolutions do not have a list of causes; they have varying causal configurations, among which can be discerned “critical configurations” that are robust, recurrent, and enduring.
Two key components of these configurations are intra-social relations among actors within a society—different popular groups, revolutionary leaders, state leaders, and varied elites (esp. military)—and inter-social relations among actors in different societies. For Lawson neither set of relations is primary; both are essential and interpenetrating parts of the configuration from which revolutions emerge. And “emerge” is the key: in place of an approach that enumerates causes, no matter how varied and contingent, Lawson substitutes an approach to causation in which shifting relationships produce, in emergent fashion, critical configurations (for example, a military that defects from the state) that enable revolutions to arise.
But is this really different? Let us take military defections, which scholars studying both great social revolutions and modern color revolutions have seen as a critical condition enabling revolutionary mobilization to grow and succeed in overturning the state (Brinton 1965, Chorley 1973, Nepstad 2011). Let us say this is a recurrent, robust critical configuration. But that begs the question – when and how does this critical configuration arise? Is it different in every case? Or are there robust sets of configurations that lead to this particular critical configuration? How is this different from saying a crucial cause of revolutionary success is the inability of the state to use its coercive forces – and then observe that this could be because they have been shattered in war, because the officers joined an elite revolt, because the ordinary soldiers have mutinied, because the military simply won’t fire on citizens and so chooses to stand down or remain in its barracks, or because the government lost its nerve or the top state leadership became too divided and disorganized to firmly and consistently direct its coercive forces (Barany 2016). Lawson is correct that the varying role of the military is a contingent and varied process, not a static structure. But isn’t it a cause? Or are the various conditions the true causes? The answer is that if we have to identify the most common configurations as causes, then the inability to use the military against revolutionaries is a major cause of successful revolutions, with the particular factors that led to that condition in particular cases being part of the varied history of revolutions, rather than the common causal pattern.
Lawson claims his historicist, relational, inter-social approach has “enough flexibility to accommodate empirical variation, but…retain[s] sufficient strength so that their logics are robust across time and place.”
I disagree. I grant it is important to be historicist, relational, and inter-social in considering the factors, processes, and event trajectories that produce revolutions and their outcomes. But I don’t think it helps to simply jettison the language of causes and substitute configurations in its place. McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly (2001) faced the same problem in their study of contentious actions: the patterns of contentious actions are diverse, change across time and place, and emerge from constellations of relational actions. So they retreated to a discussion of “mechanisms” instead of causes.
But to me, these seem to all be evasive half-measures. One should grasp the nettle: either we are humanists content to describe and interpret events and appreciate and focus on their unique aspects, or we are social scientists who can and should do all of that, but also seek for causes behind classes of similar events. No two animals are exactly alike, and evolution is a historical, contingent process, but biologists and ecologists still work to uncover the causes behind both the general processes of evolution and to identify particular turning points, like the origins of humans or the development of certain biological structures.
In that they recognize that there are greater and lesser similarities across entities: All Eukaryotes, from the single-celled paramecium to oak trees to blue whales share certain similarities: organelles in their cells, and chemical processes to produce energy by one of three pathways (photosynthesis, aerobic or anaerobic respiration.) But we still would not study or explain the life cycle of oak trees and blue whales in the same way. Rather, we divide and typologize living things and offer more general or more specific explanations of their life course and characteristics as needed: Blue whales share much in common with other marine mammals, even more with the narrower class of whales. Similarly for oaks with trees, even more for deciduous trees. The generalities are useful as they best fit the class. So the questions for us should be: What are the various types or groups of events that are usefully embraced by the term “revolution,” and what generalities about causes, trajectories, and outcomes can we deduce from studies of their historical development and variations that apply with a useful degree of validity across and within certain specific types and sub-types?
One might argue that Nicaragua had a revolution because it was an instance of a type of state – neo-patrimonial – that more commonly has revolutions than military, one-party, or constitutional states. But since military, one-party, and even constitutional states (Weimar) have had revolutions, and many neo-patrimonial regimes remain stable for many decades, this probabilistic configuration can only be a part of the story; we need to add other factors to the mix. Lawson, following Ritter (2015), adds subordination to foreign powers, which does factor in in Nicaragua and Iran. But one also has to add the role of the Catholic Church members following liberation theology; the mobilizational skill of the Sandinista leadership, the influence of Cuba, the longstanding oppression of the peasantry, and the particularly egregious corruption of Anastasio Somoza following the great Managua earthquake. At what point are we here building a theory of revolutions in which we deduce and test hypotheses about general causes, vs just building a narrative of a particular revolution from the configuration of relations and the sequence of events in a particular country?
I would argue that it remains key to discuss causal conditions, triggering events, contingent trajectories, and diverse outcomes and how they are patterned in particular types of revolutions. Lawson in fact, despite his different language, does this: he attributes the English Revolution of the 1640s to particular inter-social conditions, a particular regime type (creeping sultanism), an ideology of revolution (nationalist religion), along with a systemic crisis of royal authority that enabled opposition elites to challenge the monarchy for control of the territory.
As another example, the flag “inter-social” is a useful pointer, but it only becomes useful as a causal factor when we have a concrete sense of how inter-social factors produce particular consequences. My colleagues and I try to do this in our forthcoming volume on revolutionary waves (Goldstone et al 2022), where we argue that revolutions should not be analyzed in what Adam David Morton described in this series as simply “state-centered” events. Rather we argue that virtually all revolutions should be analyzed in the context of the revolutionary wave of which they are a part, with the analysis proceeding by first establishing the world-system relations among states at the start of the wave, how these relations affect the unfolding of the wave (including the impact of wave events on sub-national actors and conflicts), how each revolution affects subsequent cases in the wave, and then how the wave of revolutions alters inter-social relations to reshape the subsequent world system. We then identify the specific changes to the world system caused by particular eighteenth-century, nineteenth-century, twentieth-century and twentyfirst-century revolutionary waves.
While I believe our language of analysis is important, let me shift focus to areas where I do think Lawson makes essential and highly original contributions to the theory of revolutions. These are, first, in expanding the range of cases to show that even the development of a revolutionary situation need not produce a revolutionary change of government. Other pathways exist, such as a military coup or authoritarian upgrading. To paraphrase and challenge Jeff Goodwin (2002), there are “other ways out” of revolutionary situations, if current or counter elites have the means, organization, and skill to seize them. Second, Lawson beautifully illustrates the various types and subtypes of revolutions that demand different explanations, including delineating and providing a fresh label for one such type: “Negotiated Revolutions.” These are one type of the larger class of “non-violent” or “color” revolutions, arising when the incumbent, instead of simply fleeing, stays and uses their residual power to negotiate a transition to a new and different regime. Third, I would say Lawson is better than any predecessor in showing how varied and contingent are the outcomes of revolutions. If we have gone from Hannah Arendt (saying revolutions are “good” or “bad” depending on whether they end in democracy or dictatorship; to Theda Skocpol arguing that revolutionary outcomes reflect the social base of the winning revolutionary faction and the policies leaders used to hold that base in their revolutionary struggles; to Jack Goldstone (2016) arguing that outcomes reflect the cultural world of revolutionary leaders (cyclic or linear, looking to restoration or apocalyptic destruction and renewal), George Lawson takes us further down this road. For Lawson, outcomes can reflect the melding of economic, political, and symbolic fields along with the outcomes of contestation among claimants to post-revolutionary power and the opportunities and constraints created by pervasive inter-societal interactions. Though messy, I think this is fundamentally the correct approach to outcomes, with the stipulation that these again must be adjusted to generalities that are limited and guided by their usefulness in applying to particular types of revolutions.
Finally, I would add a fourth virtue, and that is Lawson’s explicit treatment of radical Islamism and regime-altering populism as instances that should be treated in the larger framework of revolutionary movements and events. I think Lawson’s is the first general work on revolutions to include these events, even if only in a final coda, but I think it is an important step that should lead to more systematic inclusion and analysis of these as revolutionary phenomena. The single most important advance since the “third generation” of revolutions is reconceiving revolutions as far more diverse phenomena than just the two dozen or so classic democratic and communist revolutions linked to state modernization. In expertly presenting a far more varied range of events within a bold and far-reaching analysis of revolutions, an analysis that is fully historical and global in its approach, Lawson shows how far the fourth generation has come.
I would say that with this book it has fully arrived.
Arendt, Hannah. 1963. On Revolution. New York: Viking.
Barany, Zoltan. 2016. How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Brinton, Crane. 1965. The Anatomy of Revolution. New York: Vintage.
Chorley, Katherine. 1973. Armies and the Art of Revolution. Boston: Beacon.
Goldstone, Jack A. 2001. “Toward a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory,” Annual Review of Political Science 4:139-187.
Goldstone, Jack A. 2016. Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (25th Anniversary Edition). New York: Routledge.
Goldstone, Jack A., Andrey V. Korotayev and Leonid Grinin. 2022. Revolutionary Waves of the 21st Century. New York: Springer.
Goodwin, Jeff. 2002. No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945–1991. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McAdam, Doug, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly. 2001. Dynamics of Contention. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nepstad, Sharon. 2011. Non-Violent Revolution: Civil Resistance in the late 20th Century. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ritter, Daniel. 2015. The Iron Cage of Liberalism: International Politics and Unarmed Revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and Social Revolutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.