There can be no bigger compliment to George Lawson’s new book Anatomies of Revolution, than to invoke the figure of Fred Halliday. For the last six years of teaching a course on revolutions in the making of “the international”, I have used a quote to try and grab students’ attentions about the constitutive and generative importance of revolutions in the making of world order. It goes:
Revolutions . . . are not occasional punctuation marks, but the very grammar of modern world history.
My flawed memory and assumption was that this was from Fred Halliday’s Revolution and World Politics (1999). Drawing from Marx and his view of world politics in 1854, it was assumed that there was a dominating pentarchy of empire-states made up of Britain, France, Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia. For Halliday, then, the sixth great power was revolution itself in configuring state formation processes within the uneven and combined development of capitalism.
But this precise framing of revolutions comes not from Halliday on revolution and the international. It is Lawson all the way down. From an early article in International Affairs in 2011 (p. 1073) to the book we have now (p. 7), the interactive properties and inter-social relations of revolution are wonderfully captured in this powerful single line. There can be no better praise than remarking that the legacy of Fred Halliday lives on and moves on in the work of George Lawson in Anatomies of Revolution. Lawson delivers his own rethinking of revolutions, not as sporadic occasional punctuation marks, but as the very grammar of the international. He should be applauded for delivering a book of timely significance and considerable stature. So, I want to convey congratulations on delivering an important and pivotal book for debates on revolutionary situations, their trajectories, and outcomes.
To engage the book on its own terms, I have analytically homed in on three wider concerns. These are: 1) Relationality: the attempt to move beyond binaries through the historicist inter-social approach to revolution; 2) Abstraction: the recourse to ideal-types in trying to forge an understanding of revolutions in history; and 3) Space: the extent to which there is methodological statism at the centre of the focus on revolutions at the expense of a more nuanced interpretation of differences in the reappropriation of space.
The dialectical method of inquiry is best described as research into the manifold ways in which entities are internally related — Bertell Ollman, Alienation
It seems these days that just as much as everybody in international theory once rushed to be critical (even social constructivists), then the latest robe to wear is that of relationality. Rather than constructing comparison around an “external” relationship between “cases” and “theory”, for example, there is a striving for an interpretive approach to give substance to causal historical analysis (whole) whilst relating comparison to specific instances (parts).
Hence the relational conception of revolutions pervades Anatomies of Revolution as a central pillar of theory building. The book:
seeks to develop a global historical sociology of revolution in which the inter-social provides the “global”, the concern with historicising revolutions provides the “historical”, and the relational constitutes the “sociology” (p. 10).
Yet, the relational emphasis here seems all on its own, largely adrift from relational analysis within critical social science more broadly over the last thirty years or even ‘fourth generation’ historical sociology more specifically and recently. This is so, first, with reference to the philosophy of internal relations forged by the epistemological inquiry of Bertell Ollman. For the method of political economy, capital is a social relation. For a materialistic philosophy of internal relations, ‘the problem is never how to relate separate entities but how to disentangle a relation or group of relations from the total and necessary configuration in which they exist’ (Alienation, p. 48).
Second, it was Doreen Massey that commented in Spatial Divisions of Labour that ‘to say that social space is relational has become commonplace’, yet the, ‘real meaning of the slogan that “space is relational” has not been taken on board’. I will come to the significance of the spatial grammar of revolutions last. For now, though, a much more capacious literature exists on relationality that could have been developed in the book.
Third, as a final example, there is the method of incorporated comparison within the analysis of historical sociology and revolutions developed by Philip McMichael, ever since his article in American Historical Review (1990). The reformulation of comparison by developing historically-grounded theory located within time and space relations has become essential to historical sociology debate and thus its ‘fourth generation’. Raised in its methodological relevance to passive revolution (see my article in Latin American Perspectives , or Revolution and State in Modern Mexico ), incorporated comparison is an interpretive method in historical sociology focusing on interrelated instances of revolution within world-historical processes, where the particulars of state formation are realised within the general features of capitalist modernity as a self-forming whole.
There is much to commend wider literature on relationality, then, that addresses different genealogies of revolution, or different but associated spaces of revolution across time. This literature is seemingly excised from the discussion without motivating explanation.
In the analysis of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical agents are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both — Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1
One of the more formidable aspects of Anatomies of Revolution is the definition of revolution as a flexible abstraction as ‘a collective mobilisation that attempts to quickly and forcibly overthrow an existing regime in order to transform political, economic, and symbolic relations’ (pp. 5-6). The building-block of this approach to abstraction is recourse to ideal-type concepts of revolution drawing from the work of Max Weber. Revolutionary anatomies are thus read as ‘flexible analytical constructs that simplify historical circumstances into ideal-typical sequences that, in turn, serve as a means of facilitating empirical enquiry’ (p. 47).
But there is a method of political economy based on real, or concrete, abstraction that is again absent from engagement. For Marx, in Grundrisse, ‘the concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse’. Therefore, ‘abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought’. This alternative method of abstraction, then, does not create ideal-types, as such, as these would be mere thought-concepts. After all, classical economics was held to account in Capital, Vol.1 for making a violent abstraction of the law of value by basing it on immediate experience, or surface appearances. Any concept is therefore at risk of becoming fetishised or abstracted from its alienated forms of appearance under capitalism. Instead, the analytic foundations of historical materialism are based on ‘abstractions-in-action’, or real abstractions, rather than thought abstractions. The economic concept of value is a real one, just as much as the category of passive revolution is a concrete abstraction.
In contrast, ideal-type Weberian reasoning is at risk of delivering violent abstractions. ‘Ideal-types serve as tools by which to clarify history—they organise social life into internally consistent, logical constructs’, Lawson states (p. 73). But do these ideal-types make appearance into reality? As Lawson goes on to reveal, the ideal-typical anatomies of revolutionary situations ‘have delivered neither indispensable conditions, nor have they served to display the essential attributes of revolutionary situations’ (p. 122).
An agenda for historical sociology, then, would be to explore the tensions between the false abstractions of Weberian ideal-types that make concepts into ideal situations and the real abstractions of historical materialism that take concepts into the “hidden” realms of political economy.
With reference to Weber, Herbert Marcuse argued in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory that, ‘in his sociology, formal rationality turns into capitalist rationality’, so that the changes of late capitalism are anticipated but without rooting them in the structure of capitalism itself. Could it be so with Anatomies of Revolution? Each approach to knowledge has its own particular abstractions, its own method of abstraction, so it would have been welcome if these analytical common thematic concerns were explored in relation to revolutionary dynamics. It is surely important to debate these in a future round of dialogical historical sociology, or historical materialist sociology.
A revolution that does not produce a new space has not realised its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself — Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
Flowing from my focus on what are deemed as problematic ideal-typical anatomies is also the need to reassess the appropriation of space as the life-nerve of revolution, or the production of new spaces. The historical focus in Anatomies of Revolution is framed through revolutionary situations (England and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688; Chile and the authoritarian coup of 1973); revolutionary trajectories (Cuba after 1959 with the M-26-7; South Africa against apartheid with the ANC); and revolutionary outcomes (Iran since 1979; Ukraine since the uprisings in 2004 and 2013-14).
The tenor of much of this analysis, however, is framed through the lens of revolutionary states. Even the attention on negotiated revolutions towards the end of the book—grappling with the contradictory amalgam of revolution and restoration—is arrested by a focus on state space:
the minimum condition of revolutionary outcomes is the period in which a revolutionary regime takes control of the principal means of production, means of violence, and means of information in a society (p. 219).
Negotiated revolutionary outcomes produce weak states. Even the commentary on social-movements-come-revolutionary-movements is inflected through the prism of state space. Hence ‘the prospects for revolution within democratic capitalist states’ are deemed marginal (p. 228). Meanwhile, social movements-come-revolutionary-movements are appraised as movements that ‘promote self-organisation and autonomous action, [while] eschewing the need for a centralised party that will organise protest and an ideology that will sustain a project of state transformation’ (p. 200).
My quibble here is that the point of departure is methodologically statist through-and-through. This is so even with the strive to address contemporary multiple small ‘r’ revolutions rather than the singular big ‘R’ revolution of the past. The opportunity to engage with movements such as the Ejército Zapatisa de Liberación Nacional (ELZN) in Mexico is too cursory. As subcomandante Marcos stated in 1994 to a group of grumbling tourists that could not travel to Palenque because the route was closed: ‘Disculpen las molestias, pero esto es una revolución’ [Sorry for the inconvenience, but this is a revolution].
Beyond this early rhetoric, what movements such as the EZLN represent in its alternative economy organising, self-sufficient educational projects, and health care provision are revolutions in the appropriation of space that are enduring. Such movements point towards a different space and different mode of production that is to be contrasted with the homogeneity of state space. Instead of centring on state space there is a shifting of the optic to appreciate also counter-spaces of revolutionary resistance that are multi-scalar and sub-state in their effects on daily life. As Lefebvre asks us in The Production of Space: ‘If space embodies social relationships how and why does it do so? And what relationships are they?’. More work should be welcomed on how revolutionary struggles are inscribed in space that are not exclusively at the scale of state space.
George Lawson has produced a contemporary classic in realising Anatomies of Revolution. The book will have lasting significance across historical sociology and delivers a pivotal set of contentions about recurrent revolutionary pathways; the contradictions of revolutions; the deflection of revolutions towards the persistence of restorations; and the inter-social trajectory of revolutions.
The normative field of Anatomies of Revolution is a robust projection of Weberian historical sociology that through its arguments on relationality, ideal-type abstraction, and state space seemingly stops short of exploring pastures beyond its own normative field, where the historical materialist grass might indeed be greener. As Lawson himself states:
Clearly there is much still to do in mainstreaming international factors into the analysis of revolution (p. 66).
My argument is that Anatomies of Revolution is caught up within the “iron cage” rationalisation of state-based historical sociology and the limits of mainstreaming revolution. Venturing beyond the normative field of this mainstream and engaging cognate historical materialist debates on relationality, abstraction, and spatial analysis would have been a risk worth taking and delivered richer reward. Returning to Lefebvre in The Production of Space, he states: ‘When we contemplate a field of wheat or maize, we are well aware that the furrows, the pattern of sowing, and the boundaries, be they hedges or wire fences, designate relations of production and property’. It is ever thus with revolution. Moving beyond the disciplinary normative field to recognise the furrows, the sown patterns, and the boundaries of revolutions embedded in the designates of production and property is the missing step.
A necessarily historical materialist moment of engagement in international theory still awaits.