Revolutionary Waves

The ongoing Arab protests and revolutionary movements are simultaneously fascinating, inspiring, and confusing.

One of my students in HIST 423 French Revolution and Napoleon sent me this great question: “Do you know of a historical, sociological, or political theory that would attempt to explain why or how the political demonstrations that began in Tunis eventually spread throughout the Middle East? During the break I have been reading a variety of ‘comparative revolutionary studies literature,’ . . . but these works are focused on identifying the origins of revolutionary upheavals, or categorizing revolutionary phases, etc. I have not been able to find a theoretical framework, other than the ‘domino theory,’ that can be applied to the political situation in the Middle East, with respect the spread of demonstrations, or one that would predict, or explain the spread of a revolutionary movement from one region, or from one country to another.  Are there any books or articles you can refer me to?”

This is a great question, but a complex one!

Comparative revolutionary studies is a vast field, and there are a number of different theoretical approaches to comparing revolutionary movements. Many revolutionary theories focus on comparing “great” revolutions, such as the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, over time.  A good example of this approach is David Parker, ed., Revolutions and the Revolutionary Tradition in the West, 1560-1991 (London: Routledge, 2000).  Other comparative approaches consider successive revolutions within a single nation, as when a study examines the 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871 revolutions in France.  Charles Tilly, The Contentious French (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1989), is an exemplary study of this kind. Some comparative revolutionary theories and histories do examine contemporaneous revolutionary movements, providing intriguing historical perspectives for considering the current Arab revolutions.  The remainder of this post introduces some of the key works in this field.

Classic Marxist studies see revolutions as responses to changes in economic modes of production, so revolutions should occur in waves across geographic areas affected by similar economic conditions.  Karl Marx himself analyzed the French Revolution and the Revolutions of 1848 through this method, and predicted a coming revolution of the proletariat.  Many other Marxist historians, political scientists, and sociologists have since adapted Marx’s methods to other cases of revolutions, especially the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Chinese revolution of 1949.

Decolonization movements in India, southeast Asia, and Africa in the 1940s-1960s prompted a new round of comparative revolutionary studies.  Many of the decolonization struggles have been described principally as nationalist movements, but some see transnational forces such as Arab nationalism or pan-Africanism as crucial to decolonization. The Civil Rights movement in the United States is sometimes also set into decolonization frameworks of analysis.  The prolonged guerrilla and counter-insurgency warfare in Algeria and Indochina (Vietnam) brought sustained analysis of revolutionary movements in both areas.  These conflicts and revolutionary movements in Latin America led scholars such as Edward E. Rice to describe “wars of the third kind” as explaining similar dynamics in conflicts that were dominated by unconventional war (as opposed to conventional warfare or nuclear war).

Ted Robert Gurr and other theorists developed social and political models to explain revolutionary preconditions and processes, debated with Marxist scholars in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the 1960s and 1970s, R.R. Palmer examined the American, French, and other late eighteenth-century revolutions through the lens of an “Age of Democratic Revolutions,” by which he referred principally to the spreading of democratic ideals throughout Europe and the Atlantic World.

Charles Tilly’s model of revolutionary situations and revolutionary outcomes offers another method for studying revolutionary movements comparatively, although his framework is based on a state-by-state analysis.  Tilly has numerous books on revolutions (published from the late 1960s to the 2000s), but perhaps the best introduction to his work on revolutions is European Revolutions, 1492-1992 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).

Jack A. Goldstone (following Theda Skocpol) has produced an interesting theory of “state breakdowns” as explaining revolutions.  His theory is comparative, but (like Tilly) is largely based on analyzing individual states, then comparing results.  Goldstone does “waves of state breakdowns” as sweeping through Europe at certain historical moments in his Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

The revolutions of 1989 led to an outpouring of writing on the revolutions.  There have been numerous comparative analyses, but often focused on the Eastern European Communist bloc as a linked unit, and thus based ultimately on the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Chinese and Iranian revolutions have often been left out of comparative analyses, except by Asian and Middle Eastern specialists such as Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Farrokh Moshiri.  A comparative approach considering European and Asian examples of revolutionary movements is provided in Mark N. Katz, Revolutions and Revolutionary Waves (Palgrave Macmillan, 1997).

More recently, historians have examined the spread of human rights language through abolition movements, novels, and literature.  Some historians identify a series of cultural revolutions in the Atlantic World, seeing the Haitian Revolution as the most radical.  Others see global dimensions of the spread of the concept of human rights or modern political culture, even in India and beyond.  For an example of this line of study, see: Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Lynn Hunt, and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Human Rights and Revolutions (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000).

In recent years, the various “color” revolutionary movements of Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the 2000s have prompted some comparative study.

I will post my bibliography on comparative revolutions once I have a chance to update it.

This entry was posted in Comparative Revolutions, French Revolution and Napoleon, History in the Media, History of Violence, The Past Alive: Teaching History. Bookmark the permalink.

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