I’ve been reading a classic book in the sociology of revolution, Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, first published in the 1930s and updated in the early 1960s. In it, Brinton compares the contexts and events of four European or Euro-American revolutions, ranging from the early modern English through the Enlightenment Era American and French to the industrial era Russian.
While clearly cognizant of the many distinctive features (including awareness of the American Revolution as the most atypical of the bunch, given its status as anti-colonial national struggle as much as social or political revolution), Brinton’s emphasis is on uniformities the four revolutions share in common. He smartly refrains from universalizing, making no claims that these four are typical of all revolutions – in fact he makes many explicit claims to the contrary – but he also makes a significant contribution to comparative history in that if there are important uniformities across these four quite different contexts, then there’s a good chance that this tells us something about many revolutionary, including failed revolutionary, contexts in general, even if not about all such settings.
One uniformity he discusses has to do with early stages of armed struggle in the revolutionary setting. In each case, the revolutionary factions are successful in armed struggle initially – there will be some setbacks later in some cases, but initially there is some degree of armed success, perhaps beyond that expected by either side. Keeping in mind that the cases under consideration were ultimately successful revolutions (not successful in achieving all, or even most, revolutionary goals, nor in putting off forever some form of conservative reaction, but successful in effecting a political transition), this is perhaps a statement of the obvious – armed revolutionary movements that don’t achieve at least a modicum of initial success in their armed forays are squashed before the revolution really even begins – Castro is a seeming exception with his spectacularly failed attack on the Moncada barracks, but that attack was the initial and last foray by a failed movement, leaving Castro and other Cuban revolutionaries to start anew once out of prison. (Early in the text, Brinton points out that much of his analysis will be to state the obvious, something which I agree is sometimes important in that sometimes simply stating the obvious allows for greater clarity of insight than would have been apparent without doing so.)
So, in one way or another Parliamentarians, Sons of Liberty, Jacobins, or anti-czarists (by no means mostly Bolsheviks in early 1917) gained the military upper hand over the officially constituted military. Charles’ fairly well organized and constituted army was overcome by a better one raised by Parliament. The British military establishment that could have overwhelmed the colonial militias (and very nearly ultimately did) was not much garrisoned in the North American colonies, allowing the colonists, well armed for civilians and with some militia training, to gain some early success.
It is the case of the Russian Revolution I am most interested in here. As the one industrial era revolution Brinton discusses, it is the one that perhaps speaks most closely to 20th and 21st century realities. The critical factor was that most units of the official military either refused to engage the revolutionaries or actually joined their side. In other words, the revolutionaries won largely without having to fight the military. (One major reason for the military’s refusal to engage had to do with a crisis in the Russian state, such that there was massive opposition to the state from nearly all social sectors, and along with this, failure to properly provision the military, partly because of the war context and partly due to structural failings and incomplete and partial industrialization.)
As Brinton points out, the Russian Revolution is an important counter to frequently made claims that in the industrial era, where modern states have militaries characterized by mechanized transportation, industrially produced modern weapons with ever increasing levels of sophistication, and the provisioning of large standing militaries, it is impossible for civilians to stand up against militaries and potentially gain anything. (There are other contexts refuting such claims as well, ranging from Mexico to Cuba to Iran to Zimbabwe.)
I think what’s more interesting here is that the Russian Revolution’s early successes tell us something significant about the ways in which it is possible to engage in movements for massive social transformation or revolution in the 20th century. Even in the weakened state of the Russian state, had the bulk of the Russian military acted to squash the revolutionaries, that’s almost certainly what would have happened.
In any modern state that is remotely functional (and the Russian state in 1917 was perhaps remotely, but only remotely, functional) and where the military supports the state (a critical factor not holding in 1917 Russia), civilians cannot any longer hope to enact revolutionary transition through direct armed struggle.
This has led to a change in how transformative struggle tends to work, with the growth over the past half century of movements utilizing non-violent public resistance or guerrilla warfare. This is something not much discussed by Brinton, as even for the updated edition of the book, most instances were occurring as he wrote or occurred after. Both strategies have been associated with successful social transformation and/or revolution (the civil rights movement, the 1989 transitions away from communism, the “People’s Power” ouster of Milosevic in Serbia, revolutions utilizing guerrilla warfare in Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe) and with failures (Tiananmen Square, most guerrilla warfare). In a follow-up post, I will address the potentials and limitations of each strategy in the recent past and contemporary era in effecting change.