Academic journal article Journal of Social History

How to Succeed in Revolution without Really Trying

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

How to Succeed in Revolution without Really Trying

Article excerpt

History surprises. As Charles Tilly points out in the opening pages of European Revolutions, 1492-1992, scarcely had Europeans decided that the age of revolution was over, than revolution swept through eastern and central Europe, toppling one regime after another.

The events of 1989 in the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania, involved not only the collapse of communist governments in those countries but also formed part of a larger process, the coming apart of the system set in place by the October Revolution of 1917. Events subsequent to 1989, especially the bungled coup of August, 1991, led to the dissolving of the Soviet Union in December, 1991. After an extraordinary career spanning seven decades, the Russian Revolution had failed.(1)

If revolutions, even seemingly well-established ones like the Russian Revolution, can fail after decades in power, what constitutes success? Can one speak of successful revolutions at all? Americans, of course, do all the time. But this still leaves open the question of defining the nature of success and failure for revolutionary movements.

Tilly does not deal directly with the question of revolutionary success or failure, but his reflections on 500 years of revolution provide useful data for such a discussion. European Revolutions, 1492-1992 is part of a series, edited by Jacques Le Goff, on "The Making of Europe" that features books on large topics (The European City and Europe and the Sea are the two other titles published to date). Each book is published by five European publishers in five languages, English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Tilly, as a glance at his publications will demonstrate, is no stranger to books on large topics.(2)

Tilly brings together in European Revolutions the two major themes of his scholarly work: revolution and state formation. Around the end of the 15th, the beginning of the 16th century (1492 as a starting point is, as Tilly puts it, "arbitrary, but not nonsensical" [21]), polities and the economies associated with them began to take on new shapes. In this process of change, "revolutionary situations" developed. Tilly defines a revolution situation as involving three elements:

1) the appearance of contenders advancing competing claims to control the state;

2) commitments to the claims by a significant segment of the population; and

3) the inability of the state to deal effectively with 1) and 2).

In Tilly's review of historical developments in various areas of Europe, many revolutionary situations turn out to be political crises without revolutionary implications, dynastic quarrels, for instance, or attempts by outsiders to take advantage of internal dissension. Personnel changes may occur, but political and other systems stay largely the same. At the same time, genuinely revolutionary movements receive no attention using Tilly's definition of a revolutionary situation because they are not taken up by contenders in a position to advance claims to control the state. The lack of distinction between political crises without revolutionary implications and those with is a significant flaw in Tilly's analysis.(3) The terms of the definition bring in events that seem out of place, exclude others that appear to belong.

Even though the analysis is somewhat flawed, two elements of Tilly's approach justify adopting it with reservations. First, Tilly sees revolution as part of the overall political process. So-called ordinary politics produce political crises and some of these crises would clearly fit a definition of a revolutionary situation modified to include the intention of contenders not only to control the state but also to use that control to advance some program of change. The outcome of any political crisis sets the terms for the politics that follow. This has the effect of setting the phenomenon of revolution firmly in the mainstream of politics. States evolve in many ways, including through revolution. …

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