Ideas of Revolutions and Revolutionary Ideas

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Ideas of Revolutions and Revolutionary Ideas

Velikie Revolutsii ot Kromvelya do Putin [Great Revolutions from Cromwell to Putin], Irina Starodubrovskaya and Vladimir Mau. second, augmented edition. Moscow: Vagrius, 2004. 511 pp.

In this magisterial, path-breaking book, which for the first time seeks to explain the origins and the course of the latest Russian Revolution by placing it in the context of the great revolutions past, Irina Starodubrovskaya and Vladimir Mau have produced an intellectual equivalent of a deliciously dense and rich multi-layered chocolate cake: like its physical counterpart, it is both impossible to consume in one sitting and hard to stop eating.

There are four conceptual layers, each containing the authors' answers to one of the four fundamental questions they pose: What are the commonalities in how revolutions come about, unfold, and end? What are the deficiencies of scholarly approaches to the study of revolutions, and how can they be synthesized and amended? How can these amended causal schemes help explain what happened in Russia between 1985 and 2004 and what will happen after? And finally, how will the experience of the Russian Revolution contribute to the existing body of theorizing on revolutions?

For those who have grappled with these issues as part of education or in their own work, an overview of the literature undertaken to answer the first question is an excellent refresher. The reader new to these topics will find this a fine introduction to what is known as "structuralism" in history, the many variations of which are centered on what might be called grand material ("objective") causes-be they, to cite a few examples given by the authors, Barrington Moore's economic imperative of "getting grain to the classes that ate bread but did not grow wheat";1 the state's inability to react adequately to military pressure from other states and to peasants' mobilization in protest in Theda Skocpol's explanation;2 Jack Goldstone's demographic changes;3 or the emergence of rival groups claiming the state's political and economic resources and mobilizing the opposition, as described by Charles Tilly.4 In turn, these underlying tectonic metafactors affect the interests of multitudes (usually socioeconomic "classes") whose defense of their economic and, by extension, political interests, results in political upheavals.

Like the works of Skocpol and Tilly, The Great Revolutions falls into what might be called the Marxist-statist subdivision of structural analysis. While they reject Marx's philosophy of history (with class wars and revolutions as stages toward the inevitable triumph of classless communism) and emphasize the relative autonomy of state bureaucracies as political actors (in contrast to Marx's notion of their being nothing more than the "committees" for carrying out the agenda of the economically dominant class), the key methods and the tools of analysis are unmistakably those of Marxist historical materialism. (As Vladimir Nabokov used to say in his Cornell lectures on Ulysses: "Joyce lost his religion but kept his categories."5)

Early on, Starodubrovskaya and Mau synthesize theories of revolutions in a hypothesis that they continue to refine and validate throughout the book: "Revolutions occur in the countries that come into collision with qualitatively new, atypical for them problems, engendered both by internal processes and by global tendencies," while they lack flexibility both in the institutions of the ancien régime and the "psychological stereotypes" of the people do not allow for adjustment and thus doom an evolutionary adaptation.6

The authors leave little doubt that the "problems" they have in mind are economic. Indeed, when identifying major shortcomings in the "traditional approaches" that account for the "unfinished" state of the theory of revolutions and which their book was to amend, their diagnosis is centered around the neglect of the "problems stemming from economic development and economic policy. …