The Magazine

Revolts of the Masses

Revolutions make history, and vice versa.

Feb 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 21 • By DAVID AIKMAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

History's Locomotives

Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World

by Martin Malia

Yale, 360 pp., $30

The 20th century was, among other things, the Jurassic Park era of revolution. Painful, savage, and ultimately tragic experiments at wrenching humankind by force into egalitarian utopia was tried in country after country, invariably with the same brutal, and unsuccessful, results. These efforts were led by cold-hearted and single-minded men, each of whom seemed obsessed by something other than empirical logic, let alone common sense. What was it?

In this brilliant and comprehensive work, Martin Malia, who died before the book's publication and taught most recently at the University of California at Berkeley, attempts to answer that question. He succeeds impressively. The title came from a remark of Karl Marx that revolutions were "the locomotives of history." The entire concept of revolution, Malia demonstrates persuasively, is a European invention. It first came to life in its modern form, one that he describes as "a generalized revolt against an Old Regime," in 1789 in France. It acquired what Malia regards as its "final form" in 1917, in Russia. After this, though Soviet power brought "revolutionary" (viz. Communist party-led) regimes to power all over Eastern Europe, all subsequent revolutionary successes occurred in agrarian, backward societies, and many of these in Asia. Indeed, Marxism-Leninism developed into a "cult of revolution," a quasi-metaphysical belief in the socially redemptive power of violent social change.

Historians before Malia, to be sure, rejected the simplistic notion that the prototypical "revolt against the Old Regime" in France sprung mainly from the combination of deteriorating economic conditions and social and political ideas critical of the Old Order: What might be called the "economic-slump-plus-Enlightenment-ideas" theory of political change. With great illumination, Malia uncovers the seedbed of European revolutionary sentiment in the millenarian and apocalyptic heresies of late medieval and early modern Europe.

He begins his detailed study with the Hussite rebellion of Bohemia during 1415-1436. In the Taborites, an apocalyptic Hussite community that developed an egalitarian socialist base and a formidably successful revolutionary army (they defeated the mounted knights who came against them with the unique combination of circled wagons and early artillery), Malia sees in many ways the prototype of revolutionary change in Europe thereafter: popular discontent and inflammatory visions of apocalyptic events and millennial changes. Later, in the pattern established by the Taborites, revolutions usually established a revolutionary regime, crescendoed to a paroxysm of violence, and then, after disillusionment and desire for moderation, experienced a "Thermidor," the displacement of the original revolutionary leadership and revolutionary goals.

Malia examines this pattern of revolution in the upheavals created by the rise of European Protestantism. He describes the Reformation itself as "revolutionary" because it divided Latin Christendom into two antagonistic blocs. But he raises interesting questions. The peasant revolt of Thomas Müntzer of 1525, he says, was "the largest and most radical social movement to occur anywhere in Europe before the French Revolution." Yet it was put down by the German princes, with Martin Luther's consent. Why was that? And why, he also asks, did the Dutch rebellion on the whole succeed--though the end result was a draw rather than a decisive defeat of Catholic Spain--and the French Protestant movement fail?

In 1566 the Huguenots seemed on the point of taking over France, yet they were turned back. They failed, notes Malia, to capture the monarchy and they were unable to complete their conquest when their most prominent leader, Henry of Navarre, an aspirant to the French throne, converted to Catholicism with the famous quip, "Paris is worth a mass." As for Müntzer, whom Friedrich Engels considered a predecessor of Marx, Malia notes that he was strikingly lacking in political and social goals and remained to the end primarily theological in his interests.

When discussing what he calls "the classic Atlantic revolutions," Malia notes that the English, even after Parliament's war on the king began in 1642, thought of their protest as a struggle to "restore" lost liberties rather than to overturn the Old Order in its entirety. True, there were radical fringe elements like the Diggers and Levellers; but these, Malia notes, have acquired their latter-day fame from the interest in them demonstrated by Marxist historians such as the late British scholar Christopher Hill. (Malia tartly quotes the Soviet historian Mikhail Pokrovsky to the effect that "history is politics projected onto the past.")

As for the American Revolution, as Malia notes, most historians agree that it was not a classic revolution--its social aspirations were limited and it failed to "devour its children." On the other hand, Malia says that it was "revolutionary" in that it set in motion revolutionary aspirations that are still current all over the world. Yet Malia almost glosses over perhaps the profoundest point about the American Revolution: Its worldview was "at variance with European Enlightenment optimism." Americans thought that, tempted by political power, human beings would likely turn wicked. It was natural of them to think that. By the end of the 18th century European culture was profoundly secular, and American culture was still overwhelmingly Christian.

Then came the French Revolution, of which the 24-year-old William Wordsworth wrote, "Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, to be young was very heaven." Of course, it wasn't bliss for the 20,000 or so Frenchmen and women guillotined during the Terror of 1794. Yet the French Revolution accomplished something without which none of the 20th-century revolutions would have taken their peculiar, violent courses: the abstraction and universalizing of human rights. In France the slogan was "liberty, equality, fraternity," but over time the unifying aspiration of all revolutions was to become egalitarianism.

As for the "final form" of European revolution, October 1917, Malia suggests that Marxism came to Russia primarily because Russian intellectuals "needed a new theory of revolution" after the collapse of the Populist movement of the 1870s. There was never a workers' seizure of power in Russia, Malia asserts: "What triumphed in October," he says, "was not a social class of flesh-and-blood workers but a political party of ideologues purporting to incarnate the workers' revolutionary consciousness."

Readers should be warned that History's Locomotives, though brilliant, is not an easy read. Wide-ranging and almost encyclopedic in its historical references, it is also dense with references to prominent historians and sociologists and their works. There are also occasional phrases that might have been composed after a bedside overdose of Lenin: "Thus the Hussite proto-revolution, which fought out basically in religious terms, in fact furthered an untheoreticized constitutionalism." But that solecism is hardly typical of this book, which resonates long after it has been put down.

To come across the following sentence in reference to the great arc of European revolutionary thought is to encounter a mind of formidable originality: "Thus did the Western revolutionary tradition traverse the millennial trajectory from salvation religion as surrogate politics to salvation politics as surrogate religion."

The millennium? Salvation? Red October? Those Hussites set in motion more powerful forces than they anticipated.

David Aikman, senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, is writer-in-residence at Patrick Henry College.