What is a revolution? Excerpts from The Mansion of History (1976) by Carl G. Gustavson

Most experts have considered the French and Russian revolutions the classic examples

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Most experts have considered the French and Russian revolutions the classic examples, those that best typify the nature of revolution and which in turn provided the models, many of the stereotypes, and much of the terminology that prevail in large measure to this day. Crane Brinton, on the basis of a comparative study of these two plus the Puritan and the American, tried to set up, in The Anatomy of Revolution [1938], a model of the phases or sequences of developments in a typical revolution . . .
This attempt at finding uniformities fits the French and perhaps the Russian sequences reasonably well but applying them to others seems to strain the

evidence . . .

No one model can possibly explain fully the nature of revolution. Harry Eckstein has listed twenty-one generalized causes, a variety reminiscent of the reasons for the decline of Rome. Some focus on economic factors, some on intellectual ones, others on political and social structure or general social processes. The reasons range from growing poverty through alienation of the intellectuals, isolation of the rulers, and the appearance of new social classes all the way to excessive prevalence of ideologies. A long war (especially a lost war) may help to precipitate revolutionary consequences. Different scholars emphasize different parts of the process, no consistent image beyond convulsive change emerges, and therefore any broad survey of basis processes tends to take the form of a series of generalities . . .
One of the preparatory elements quite obviously consists of the alienation of the intellectuals. The philosophes of the Enlightenment—Voltaire, Rousseau, and others—helped to destroy faith in the old institutions and the habit of obedience, while simultaneously providing justification for rebellion. Numerous stereotypes of the French Revolution became permanent tools of future revolutionists: freedom from tyranny; the inherent “rights of man”; the noble savage; the cult of the future. Similarily, numerous Russian writers in the second half of the nineteenth century attacked prevailing ideas and discussed alternatives . . .
That people rise in desperation against tyranny, that misery causes revolution, these have always been popular notions. Along with the Golden Age of the future, they remain the stock-in-trade of revolutionary leaders. Historians like Carlyle and Jules Michelet (and Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities) narrated in full detail both the misery and the tyranny, though even at that time Alexis de Tocqueville was writing that “the French found their condition the more insupportable in proportion to its improvement.” Had misery actually engendered revolution, the French, after a century of genuine advances, would have been among the last people in Europe to revolt; the Russian Revolution came after three decades of accelerating material achievements. However, a sharp economic downturn badly hurt some elements in France, and two successive poor harvests reduced the food supply; the Russian suffered the agonizing ordeal of World War I. Therefore, the tendency now is to say that a sudden discouraging setback after steady progress may set the stage for revolution.
Quite possibly, the state of mind is as important as the actual situation, perhaps more so. Where conditions do not encourage hope, it does not occur to people to rise up, but the “revolution of rising expectancies” may bring on an upheaval, the actual possibility of escape producing action . . .
Weaknesses in the regime itself undoubtedly are another indispensable ingredient for revolution. No matter how tyrannical, a competent, resolute government determined to stay in power is extremely unlikely to be overthrown, regardless of how many abuses prevail. . .
Eugene Kamenka has pointed out a distinction between Anglo-American and continental European interpretations. On the continent, where governments tended to be rigid in the nineteenth century, economic changes are usually assumed to be responsible for causing revolutions. The English and the Americans, accustomed to economic and social changes within a stable political framework, have been prone to believe the rigid regimes themselves responsible by penning up discontent until a revolutionary explosion occurs. In terms of challenge and response, the authorities fail to respond to changing circumstances soon enough . . .
With the breakdown of authority, one so-called revolution may consist of several successive or concurrent revolutions. The events of 1789 had been preceded by an aristocratic revolt (of which the Assembly of Notables is a part), and the peasants underwent their own kind of upheaval at the same time as the events in the cities. Then came the revolution of the extremists . . . In Russia, one revolution occurred early in 1917 with the collapse of the tsarist regime, the Bolsheviks carried through a second one in the autumn, and a third took place among the peasantry. In addition, the various non-Russian nationalities waged their own struggles for autonomy at first and then for independence.

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