The Anatomy of Revolution

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

With recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, it may be time to turn to Crane Brinton’s 1938 work on The Anatomy of Revolution, which studied the English Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution, and found that revolutions tend to move from the Old Order to a moderate regime, and then — typically — to a radical regime:

The revolutions being studied first produce a “legal” moderate government. It vies with a more radical “illegal” government in a process known as “dual power”, or as Brinton prefers to call it “dual sovereignty”. In England the “Presbyterian moderates in Parliament” were rivals of “the illegal government of the extremist Independents in the New Model Army.” (p. 135) In France, the National Assembly was controlled by the “Girondin moderates”, while the Montagnard “extremists” controlled “the Jacobin network,” “the Paris commune,” (p. 136) and the Societies of the Friends of the Constitution. (p. 162) In Russia, the moderate provisional government of the Duma clashed with the radical Bolsheviks whose illegal government was a “network of soviets.” (p. 136)

The radicals triumph because they are

  • “better organized, better staffed, better obeyed,” (p. 134)
  • have “relatively few responsibilities, while the legal government “has to shoulder some of the unpopularity of the government of the old regime” with “the worn-out machinery, the institutions of the old regime.” (p. 134)
  • The moderate are hindered by their hesitancy to change direction and fight back against the radical revolutionaries, “with whom they recently stood united,” in favor of conservatives, “against whom they have so recently risen.” (p. 140) They are drawn to the slogan `no enemies to the Left.` (p. 168)
  • are attacked on one side by “disgruntled but not yet silenced conservatives, and the confident, aggressive extremists,” on the other. The moderate revolutionary policies can please neither side. An example is the Root and Brand Bill in the English Revolution which abolished the episcopacy, angering conservatives and established institutions without earning the loyalty of radicals. (p. 141-43)
  • are “poor” leaders of the wars which accompany the revolutions, unable to “provide the discipline, the enthusiasm,” needed. (p. 144)

(Hat tip to Kalim Kassam.)


  1. Genius says:

    Anatomy is one of my favorite books!

  2. Buckethead says:

    So was the dual power period in the US the overtaking of the original government under the articles by the new government under the constitution?

  3. Cruft says:

    The “tea party” is the initial obvious fit, but, but, but the present bifactional regime will not”‘go gentle into that good night.”

  4. Kalim Kassam says:

    Thought I’d reproduce my response on a facebook thread where an interlocutor points out the American Revolution reversed the moderate to radical pattern:

    Though I’ve been studying the bourgeois/liberal revolutions recently, I haven’t yet read “Conceived in Liberty.” I guess those 4 volumes have proven a little too daunting! But that interpretation basically fits with what else I’ve gathered. The revolution itself was engendered by some very radical theorists (I just read Bailyn’s “Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” which illustrates this very well) & had a radical phase or ‘terror’ with the persecution of real & suspected Loyalists (the recent “Tories” by Thomas Allen is good), but ended up much more moderate/conservative. Crane Brinton also picks out the American Revolution as the outlier of the of the four (English, French, American & Russian) in a number of respects including this one.

    What started e.g. with Sam Adams & Tom Paine ended with John Adams, Madison, Washington, Franklin (as well as assorted fruits and nuts like George Mason & Jefferson for spice!)

    I’ll also add one reason I somewhat suspect the relevance of my reading about these older revolutions and neglect of more recent ones to situations like Tunisia & Egypt is the presence of a global mass media. I suspect this is a game changer in the course of political change as much as the ideology of nationalism at an earlier time.

  5. Kalim Kassam says:

    Buckethead, the Wikipedia article has:

    According to Brinton, while “we must not expect our revolutions to be identical” (p. 226), three of the four (the English, French and Russian) began “in hope and moderation”, reached “a crisis in a reign of terror,” and ended “in something like dictatorship — Cromwell, Bonaparte, Stalin”. The exception is the American Revolution, which “does not quite follow this pattern”. (p. 24)

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