A few years ago, I got lucky. An editorial team that I was part of found ourselves at the end of our tenure and with money in the pot, money that needed to be spent. The lead editor proposed that the funds be used to host a workshop, which I would convene. They had just one stipulation: ‘make it interesting’. I promised to give it a go. What I came up with, aided and abetted by my friend Daniel Ritter, was a two-day workshop on revolutions. The first day would be for Early Career Researchers (ECRs); the second day for more established colleagues. One of the benefits for the ECRs, beyond receiving a fully-funded trip to London, was that the senior researchers would act as discussants for the work-in-progress they presented.
Interesting enough? I thought so. But not without a hitch. As the first day of the workshop unfolded, I started to feel uneasy. Almost all of the ECRs had come to the subject through dramatic expressions of radical unrest that they wanted to better understand: the Arab Uprisings, Occupy, and similar movements. Great. I had experienced exactly the same surge of motivation during the 1989 revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe, just as previous generations had been drawn to the subject by uprisings in Nicaragua, Iran, Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, China, Russia, and elsewhere. The events of 1989 had been markedly at odds with what we thought we knew about revolutions: peaceful rather than violent, negotiated rather than fights to the finish, ‘rectifying’ rather than transformative in ethos. Faced with this scrambling of the revolutionary inheritance, my instinct was to look backwards: how exactly did these uprisings work within, but also against, previous experiences of revolution? What did the new model of revolution mean for the general concept-practice of revolution? However, as our workshop discussions developed, I began to realise that there was something different this time around.
The events of 2011, it seemed to me, threw up questions that were just as important as those that had animated discussions of 1989: could largely horizontalist, unarmed movements succeed against states that were armed-to-the-teeth? Did radical flanks help or hinder movement cohesion? Did digital forms of media generate new opportunities for organization and action? To my surprise, although interested in these questions, most of the ECR’s seemed uninterested in what we might learn about them by thinking historically. And, unfortunately, history seemed to mean anything before 2011. To be sure, their projects were serious, professional, and above all, methodologically sophisticated. This was top-notch scholarship. And they paid due diligence to the canon of revolutionary theory: Skocpol, Goldstone, et al. But my sense, perhaps unfairly, was that their hearts weren’t really in it. History and theory were out; presentism and methodological wizardry were in. It seemed that my mode of thinking was, in time-honoured revolutionary tradition, obsolete.
When I went home that first night, I felt a little despondent. In many ways, I realised, it was my fault. Or Daniel’s. Or both of us. When we conceived the call for the workshop, Daniel and I had a hunch that there was a lot of ‘revolutionary stuff’ around the academy, but that it was scattered. In place of the Big “R” Revolutions courses, programmes, literatures and debates that we had been socialised into, and that were once part-and-parcel of programmes in comparative politics, political sociology and the like, the study of revolution was fractured. You could find it around the edges of work on civil disobedience, contentious politics and, sometimes, terrorism studies. But it was not central to any of these fields of enquiry. This formed our animating question for the workshop: What, if anything, could bring together the fractured landscape of contemporary revolutionary studies? Our concern was that, if revolution was everywhere, it might end up being nowhere. I was starting to get the sense that our concern was justified, in fact more justified than we thought it was, or wanted it to be – revolution was all around us, but lacked a centre. What we were faced with was a revolutionary polo mint. More troublingly, this wasn’t just an academic question, it was also a substantive one. Just as the academic study of revolutions had fractured, so too had its practice. Revolution was being invoked to capture practices ranging from mass protests to brands of cosmetics. Perhaps, I wondered, it was time to retire the term and issue its last rites. And then find something else to work on.
Thankfully, the second day of the workshop brought me back from the precipice. Daniel and I had asked four colleagues – Colin Beck, Mlada Bukavansky, Erica Chenoweth, and Sharon Nepstad – to stick around for a second day to see if we could come up with a collective project. Again, we had been deliberately ecumenical in our planning. The six of us came from diverse disciplinary homes, we had different ways of conceiving the subject, and we used a range of techniques. But as we talked, something began to emerge: from difference came, if not unity, then a solidarity-infused-excitement. This was a subject too important to be left to splinter into a million pieces, particularly given that we all agreed that we were living in what Eric Selbin nicely dubs a ‘little revolutionary age’. To meet the challenges of revolution in the contemporary world – its simultaneous ubiquity, yet apparent obsolescence – revolutionary studies would need both upgrading and reconfiguring. So that’s what we set out to do. Our collective efforts should be published next year.
In many ways, Anatomies of Revolution represents a solo spin-off from this collective endeavour. I wrote it because I was, and am, troubled by the loss of the central place that historical social science has played in the study of revolutions. I want those mobilised by contemporary struggles over justice, equality, rights and dignity to look backwards in order to better understand where we are today. I want them to draw on as wide a universe of cases as possible, not just the most recent or those we have decided, often dubiously, to be ‘successes’, but also the near misses and apparent ‘failures’. If we want to understand revolutions today, we need both historical perspective and theoretical judgement. That’s what the book sets out to provide.
So how did I do? Pretty well going by the extraordinarily rich commentaries offered by Ayşe Zarakol, Eric Selbin, Adam Morton, Maria Tanyag, and Jack Goldstone. All of the commentators offer an appreciation of the book that is deeply heartening. Tempted as I am to leave things there – with a story and a note of thanks – the essays also provide important points of critique and requests for further development. These range from concerns about the scaffolding of the book to questions about absences. In this response, I’ll take these two issues – scaffolding and absences – in turn.
Both Adam Morton and Jack Goldstone raise questions about the way in which the book is set-up. For Morton, it’s too imbued with Weberian ideal-types: abstract thought-pictures that are insufficiently ‘real’. For Goldstone, the book’s theoretical heavy labour contains an unresolved tension – are we social scientists doing explanatory causal work or ‘humanists’ writing descriptive stories?
Let’s start with the latter. Anatomies is written from the assumption that all revolutions are singular in the sense that the events that produce a particular revolution are not replicable because no two contexts are ever completely alike. This assumption is joined to a second claim: that singular revolutionary events produce sequences – or plots – that can be abstracted and used to explain other revolutionary episodes. This is why I use multiple episodes of revolutionary change to construct ideal-typical anatomies of revolutionary situations, trajectories, and outcomes. I refine these revolutionary anatomies through a series of paired historical comparisons before, in the final part of the book, exploring the make-up and adaptation of a particular family of revolutions in the contemporary world, which I label ‘negotiated revolutions’. To borrow Goldstone’s biological reference, my goal is to combine narrative and abstraction in a way that provides an explanation of a particular revolutionary species, while simultaneously generating portable insights into the wider genus of revolutions.
This approach means that I don’t accept Goldstone’s requirement to choose a side. In fact, I reject the premise of the game. We need both description and causation, narrative and explanation, history and theory. And neither is subordinate to the other. These binaries are all-too-common in contemporary social science, whether they arise over: methods (a focus on secondary sources vs. primary sources); aims (the identification of regularities vs. the highlighting of contingencies); orientation (nomothetic vs. idiographic); sensibility (parsimony vs. complexity); scope conditions (analytic vs. temporal); levels of analysis (structure vs. agency), and more. Once you look hard at these distinctions, they fade away. Plenty of social scientists do archival work, just as the main aim of historians is to contribute to existing historiography – primary materials are a means, not an end. Lots of historians are committed to regularities (from Toynbee to Christian), while plenty of theorists (with post-structuralists as the vanguard or shock-troops depending on your taste) highlight contingency. And so on. The promise of historical sociology is the conjoining of history and theory into a single enterprise: history-theory.
Beyond this core commitment to history-theory, and therefore description-explanation, as a single venture is a more prosaic rationale. I remain concerned, as I was in that workshop a few years ago, that historical social science is going the way of the VCR. On a good day, I hope it will be more like vinyl – once we stop buying it, we’ll realise that it’s both cool and also captures resonances that can’t be accessed through CD’s, streaming, and the like. But, for now, I’m thinking VCR: quaint, remembered fondly, but ultimately passé. For all the contemporary talk of mixed methods, historical work is often the secondary – at best – bolt-on to other approaches. It is the blue-footed booby of the research process: cute, fun, but not in the end particularly serious. This is, in my view, a serious problem. Whether we like it or not, there is no aspect of social science, including revolutionary studies, which does not require some kind of historical commitment. We test our arguments in history, code our data from historical episodes, and construct theories from historical events. So we don’t have a choice about whether we ‘do’ history or not – it is all we have, whether we take a thick or thin, committed or mercenary, approach to it. Yet we tend to give far less time to our selection of a historical mode of enquiry as we do to our theory and, even more so, our methodology. History is much more than a method or an underlabourer to causal work. It is constitutive of how we create concepts, theories, and ultimately, worlds. Revolution, for example, is not a supra-sensible abstraction floating outside history, but a concept-practice that is forged in history. Here I am situated firmly in Ayşe Zarakol’s camp.
What does this entail for a history-theory, or historical sociology, of revolution? An approach that accepts the simultaneously particular and patterned nature of revolutions starts with the view that revolution changes in form across time and place. Revolutions shift in meaning, in character, in terms of their main actors, how they are legitimated, and more. Indeed, the durability of revolution arises from precisely this capacity to adapt to many times and many places. But should we accept the fact of revolutionary diversity not just as our starting point, but also as our end point? Here, Goldstone and I agree. There are patterns within diverse revolutionary experiences. Sometimes this is explicit – patterns are forged through deliberate emulation. Both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks saw themselves as the Girondins and Jacobins of their day, even if the Bolsheviks portrayed the October revolution as the antithesis of 1789, marking the triumph of the fourth estate over the third estate. Revolutionaries around North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 watched uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and thought, ‘if it can happen there, it can happen here’. But some patterns are more submerged: the vulnerability of personalistic regimes, particularly those dependent on a foreign backer; the spur provided to domestic uprisings from international instability; the links between elite fracture and state delegitimation, and more.
Goldstone is right to say that many of these patterns have already been identified. Anatomies adds, or emphasises, some new dynamics, particularly around the ‘inter-social’ components of revolution: the various processes that stimulate, or hold-back, the transmission of revolutionary ideas and strategies, the desire to emulate both revolution and counter-revolution, and so on. Goldstone’s idea of revolutionary waves as objects of analysis is a promising addition to this list. But beyond this substantive agenda lies a more fundamental point – it matters how we arrive at our findings. Most revolutionary theory works from a regularity-deterministic view of causation, establishing associations between objects that are separated, or at least separable, in time and space. Lying behind this wager is the view that social entities, like revolutions, are collections of properties that can be disaggregated and the co-variation between their properties assessed. As Zarakol points out, in many ways, this way of thinking represents a zombie form of naturalism. Anatomies works differently. In processes as complex as revolutions, it is nigh on impossible to draw necessary links between causes and outcomes across time and place. When an incumbent regime carries out reform tells us much about whether they will be successful. Protests that prove to be existential in one setting are either repressed or wither away in another. The centrality of time and space to revolutionary dynamics highlights the benefits of a shift to configurational causation. Contra Goldstone, both words matter – this is a configurational approach, but also a causal one. The difference is that, in this approach, causation is not constant, but contextual. And it is not the product of independent entities, but the result of interdependent event-complexes.
Perhaps the best way of clarifying this point is to think of the differences between taking a photograph or shooting a film. Most approaches to revolution do the former, holding certain conditions constant by taking a snapshot of a particular moment in time, then testing the generalizability of this snapshot to other instances of the phenomena. Anatomies does the latter, seeing social reality as a moving spectacle that requires analytics to be adjusted to changing conditions. The aim is to move away from a view of revolutions as bundles of properties towards a concept of revolutions as ‘entities-in-motion’. In the first instance, causal configurations emerge locally. But they also travel. Causal configurations can therefore be used to construct ideal-typical anatomies of revolutionary causes, trajectories, and outcomes.
Are these ideal-types ‘violent abstractions’, as Morton claims? Perhaps. But surely no more so than other abstractions, including those provided by historical materialists. There are no concepts or analytics that avoid overwhelming the multiple, heterogeneous, lived experiences they aim to make sense of. This includes class, capital and, indeed, revolution. Given this, I think Morton overeggs the distinction between Weberian and Marxian strategies. The critical configurations developed in Anatomies arise from the drawing together of diverse historical experiences with the aim of locating robust, enduring patterns in history. These are, for my money, ‘real abstractions’ as much as they are thought-pictures.
Morton is right on the money, however, in saying that Anatomies is limited by its own context: capitalist rationality, methodological statism, and more. It is true that Anatomies privileges the nation-state over other sites of revolutionary struggle. I didn’t mean this to be case. Nor did it occur to me during the years that the book was being written. But it is not the first time the point has been made – and I do think there is something to it. At first glance, it feels counter-intuitive that a book highlighting the ‘inter-social’ aspects of revolution would fall into this trap, particularly one claiming to operate beyond the ‘analytical bifurcation’ of international and domestic. I use the term ‘inter-social’ rather than alternatives such as intersocietal, international and interstate precisely to avoid presuming that the objects of analysis are societies, nations or states respectively. For me, social sites ‘at home’ and ‘over there’, ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’, ‘metropole’ and ‘colony’ are not analytically distinct any more than they are empirically discrete. A neighborhood in Damascus is still embedded within a state, a region, and a global order. All of these scales are intimately connected. So why did I end up reinforcing state-centrism?
My best guess is that political positionality has snuck into my scholarly analysis. One of my main concerns with contemporary activism is what I perceive to be its excessive voluntarism. If enough people come out onto the streets, so the argument goes, the regime will fall, or is at least very likely to do so. I am not so sure. Anatomies argues that there are two reasons that matter more than protest numbers: first, the relationship between a regime and a foreign power; and second, the coherence of the state, in particular the role of the coercive apparatus. On the former, if a foreign patron decides to maintain its client by force, then it is likely to be able to do so, no matter how brave, creative or numerous the protestors are – examples range from Czechoslovakia in 1968 to Hong Kong in 2019. On the latter, for a revolution to succeed, there must be a fracturing of the state: key allies of the regime need to defect and the coercive apparatus must either split or remain neutral. Again, there are any number of examples that demonstrate this point, not least from recent years – compare the post-2010 trajectories of Tunisia and Syria. What I am pushing back against, therefore, is the tendency amongst contemporary commentators, scholars and activists to fail to embed analysis of protests within state-society relations and international orders. Here the spectre of my mentor Fred Halliday looms large.
This positionality not only led to a reinforcement of state-centrism, or at least international-state-society centrism, it also led to the downplaying of contemporary movements. Here, again, my primary concern was with excessive voluntarism. But it also runs deeper. Contemporary revolutionary movements often lack a clear sense of the collective, whether as foe, agency or goal. The adversary of contemporary revolutionary mobilisations is a smorgasbord of contemporary ills: racism, sexism, injustice, neoliberalism, environmental degradation, inequality, indignity, and more. Many of those who study and take part in these movements celebrate this diversity and its accompanying ethos of autonomism – horizontalism, self-organisation, individualism – that seeks not to seize state power, or even engage it in direct confrontation, but to mobilise outside its reaches. But without clear answers to the questions ‘emancipation from what’, ‘emancipation by whom’, and ‘emancipation to where’, I think these movements are likely to have fleeting rather than enduring effects. Although it is weak ties between acquaintances that help people succeed in the workplace, it is strong ties of affective solidarity that are required to sustain revolutionary movements. The cross-sectoral alliances that bind contemporary movements in the short-term have often failed to generate the collective solidarities that maintain struggles over the long-term. To date, these movements have been more successful at shifting debate within existing political ecologies than in offering an alternative to them. It may be that their affective arc is too fragmented to sustain a revolutionary struggle.
Here I think we need urgently to connect work on emotions with the study of revolution, thinking much harder about how to bring rationality and emotions together. It is clear that the two are deeply intertwined – as James Jasper puts it: ‘Brains can feel, and hearts can think’. We also need to take stock of contemporary movements that are combining mobilising strategies: vertical and horizontal; armed and unarmed; deliberative and hierarchical, and more. In Rojava, for example, revolutionaries are following a hybrid model of centralisation and decentralisation in the form of a ‘decentralist vanguard’: an internally centralised vanguard party pushing for decentralisation in the wider society. Once again, revolutionaries are demonstrating their remarkable capacity to adapt to circumstances. And once again, revolutionary theorists are being somewhat slower, present company included, at updating our frames of reference.
If the points raised by Goldstone and Morton are more concerned with the book’s architecture, other commentators raise questions around what the book doesn’t do – in other words, they highlight some critical absences. Key here is the issue of gender raised by Maria Tanyag and Eric Selbin’s concern with the ‘folksonomy meaning of revolution’, one directed by ‘real people in the real world making real decisions that really matter’. Both points are important. I will take each in turn.
Tanyag is right to raise the absence of a good-enough account of gender and revolution in Anatomies. For many years, I have been asking and, on occasion, trying to cajole prospective PhD students to carry out work on this subject. So far without success. Time to grasp the nettle. Let me suggest two ways in which this issue could be productively engaged. The first might be dubbed a ‘women and revolution’ approach. Here the strategy would be to accumulate what we know about the experiences of women during and after revolutionary struggles. As a starting point, my hunch is that, very often, there is a two-stage pattern to these experiences: first, women are active participants during revolutionary struggles – they serve on the front-line and play leading roles in the wider political movement; second, in the post-revolutionary period, women are sidelined or forced back into the private realm. Short-term gains tend to wither away or are overturned. The Jacobins, to take but one example, banned female clubs, women from attending political assemblies, and even discussing politics. But despite rich historical accounts of the role of women in specific revolutionary uprisings, these fragments have not yet been collated across revolutionary episodes. So, in part, we simply need to find out what we know. But we also need to ask some additional questions: Are there major differences in the experiences of women – rates of participation, prominence in the movement, policy changes in the post-revolutionary phase, etc – across types of revolution (e.g. republican, socialist, Islamist), by region (e.g. Latin American, Asian, etc), or by time (e.g. post-1989, Cold War, 19th century)? I currently have a research proposal out to tender in which these questions form a major line of enquiry.
In many ways, a ‘women and revolution’ approach represents an easy option in that it takes place within existing ecologies. In this sense, it is important, but additive. There is, however, a more root-and-branch challenge that Tanyag raises, which is considerably more unsettling. This might be called a ‘gender and revolution’ approach. It is one that takes seriously the ways in which feminist insights provide a full-spectrum challenge to the study of revolution: epistemologically, conceptually, analytically, empirically. This challenge requires not just rethinking, but unthinking: who we consider to be revolutionaries, where we might find them, how we might value their insights, and more. Tanyag provides a number of illustrations of how this approach could work. I find this idea exciting and daunting in equal measure. Whatever emotions it evokes, it is an agenda that needs exploring. Tanyag and I have been discussing how to do so within the parameters of a ‘Women, Gender, Revolution’ project, one that assumes both minimalist and maximalist agendas. What is clear is that revolutionary studies in general, and me personally, cannot go on eliding, obscuring, or silencing feminist work on the subject. My hope – and expectation – is that a relatively short number of years from now, work on gender and revolution will be a prominent feature of revolutionary studies.
Eric Selbin’s point about the subjectivity of revolutions is also one that warrants a response. I agree wholeheartedly with Selbin that the micro-side of revolutionary processes has been understudied. This is largely, I think, because of the continuing hold of structural theories over the sub-field, still best represented by Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions. The opportunity to further develop insights about the micro-dynamics that fuel revolutionary sentiment is one that, like Selbin, I would like to see taken up. For me, two particularly promising lines of enquiry stand out. The first concerns the affective dimensions of revolution – here, I would urge a focus not just on text and visual cues, but also on music, which strikes me as necessary to any revolutionary uprising, providing a sense of collective resonance, joy and purpose that is deeper than other affective repertoires. Second, work on micro-dynamics could add depth to existing accounts of the relationship between social media and revolution, which it seems to me are much exaggerated. Revolutionaries are adept at making use of any and all available technologies: pamphlets, banners, songs, cartoons, graffiti, posters, and more. Multiple mediums, from salons to taverns, and from ships to public squares, have carried revolutionary messages around the world. Whichever form these social technologies assume, the central point is that the message matters more than the medium. It is the integration of existing technologies within wider communicative ecologies based on strong, personal ties of trust that enable protests to cohere. This is as true of the 2011 Arab Uprisings and the 2019 protests in Hong Kong as it was of 1789, 1917, and other landmark revolutionary events. Work on social movements and science and technology studies could provide some useful analytical tools here, particularly when combined with historical scholarship that contextualises the long-term relationship between revolutions, technology and micro-sentiments.
Better must come?
I would like to close by looking beyond these absences at two further ways in which the study of revolutions might develop. The first is one hinted at in my book, and noted by Goldstone – the relationship between revolution and non-progressive moments, such as fascism, white supremacism, and militant Salafism. It is worth asking why we don’t, or at least rarely, see these movements as revolutionary. For me, there is something to see here, perhaps something quite uncomfortable. There are insights that are opened up about radical far-right movements, from their ideologies to their militancy, their forms of organisation to their reading of global injustice, which come into sharper relief when approached as revolutionary dynamics. This strikes me as an important area for future engagement.
The second point of development is around liberalism and revolution. This is a topic that, despite its importance, has not yet received a detailed treatment. I aim to take up this challenge over the next few years. In terms of a sneak preview, my opening gambit is that revolution and liberalism were born under the same sign, as twins of the radical Enlightenment. It is sometimes difficult to recall just how radical constitutionalism, individual rights, republicanism and nationalism were two centuries ago, even as they remain turbulent forces in the contemporary world. During the second half of the nineteenth-century, revolution and liberalism began to move apart – the increasing hold of socialism and anarchism ‘othered’ liberal revolution, seeing it as, at best, ameliorative and, at worst, capitulatory. During the twentieth century, this ‘othering’ was hardened by revolutionary anti-colonial thinkers, who fused anti-imperialism, anti-racism, socialism and nationalism with forms of federalism. In the twenty-first century, the gap between liberalism and revolution has once again closed as unarmed, mass, people-power movements have become increasingly prominent.
The relationship between revolution and liberalism is, therefore, meandering: at times closely linked, at other times, more distinct. I do not think, though, that liberal revolution will swallow more radical currents. Not only is illiberal revolution from the right a volatile force in contemporary world politics, but I also expect a new challenge to emerge from the left, one that we can already identify in embryo: an intersectional movement of movements based around a politics of deliberation, recognition and redistribution, a green New Deal, climate justice, anti-racism, automation and technology, anti-sexism, and much else besides. The ‘democratic confederalism’ of Rojava is perhaps the most powerful current enactment of these currents. As these new, yet somewhat familiar, filaments of revolutionary practice cohere, so too will theories that seek to interpret and cultivate them. After all, revolutionary theories are assessed and reassessed, made and remade through ongoing encounters with revolutionary history and practice. This means that it will be revolutionaries, not academics, who will enact and transcribe these events and experiences. Revolutions are always-already unfinished. There are always further revolutionary anatomies to identify.