Scripting Revolution
A Historical Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolutions
Edited by Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein



Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein

“Is this a revolution?” Shortly after massive popular protest in Egypt on 25 January 2011 unleashed the flood of events that would sweep Hosni Mubarak from the presidency, an interviewer put this question to a principal Internet animator of the uprising, Google employee Wael Ghonim. He thought briefly before proclaiming the advent of “Revolution 2.0.”

Ghonim repeated this formulation frequently in interviews during the following days and in the fascinating memoir, Revolution 2.0, he published a year later. “Revolutions of the past have usually had charismatic leaders who were politically savvy and sometimes even military geniuses,” he concluded in this book. “Such revolutions followed what we can call the Revolution 1.0 model. But the revolution in Egypt was different: it was truly a spontaneous movement led by nothing other than the wisdom of the crowd.” This Revolution 2.0, Ghonim wanted to insist, was essentially leaderless: “no one was the hero because everyone was the hero.” It was “like an offline Wikipedia, with everyone anonymously and selflessly contributing efforts toward a common goal.1

One has to say that Ghonim’s characterization of Revolution 1.0 is as radically attenuated as the accompanying conceptualization of Revolution 2.0 is thin. But his title, and the events unleashed by the Arab Spring, invite us to think again about the longer history of the revolutionary tradition. To speak of Revolution 2.0 suggests a significant revision of an ongoing project, an upgrading of a revolutionary program through conceptual elaboration and technical innovation. Clearly, the Internet has placed an immensely more powerful technology of communication in the service of social and political change. But has the conceptualization of revolution been updated along with the technology? Has Facebook revolutionized revolution itself? To consider this question, we need to think about revolution again. This volume of essays proposes to do so by exploring the possibilities of a new historical approach to the comparative study of revolutions.

Approaching Revolution as Script

Until now, a curious division of labor has prevailed among scholars of revolution. Historians have mostly studied revolutions as distinct and separate events, leaving the comparative study of revolutions to sociologists and political scientists. Methodologically, these two approaches to revolution could hardly be more opposed. Where historians emphasize the specificity of historical context, social scientists point to comparable structural social and institutional imbalances in their analyses. Historians such as William Sewell and Martin Malia have long pointed out the flaws with the sociological analysis of comparative revolutions. But historians have been reluctant to propose an alternative method, in large part because the comparative study of revolutions requires a close familiarity with many different cultures, languages, and historical traditions.

The guiding insight of the essays in Scripting Revolution is that at least one feature of revolutions transcends these cultural differences—and this is the notion of a revolutionary “script.” Revolutions do not occur ex nihilo. Revolutionaries are extremely self-conscious of (and often highly knowledgeable about) how previous revolutions unfolded. These revolutionary scripts offer frameworks for political action. Whether they serve as models or counterexamples, they provide the outlines on which revolutionary actors can improvise. And revolutionaries, in turn, can transform the scripts they inherit. Marx rewrote the script of the French Revolution; Lenin revised Marx; Mao revised Lenin; and so on and so forth.

It is our contention that an historical approach of this kind is better suited than a sociological method to reveal the similarities (and differences) between revolutionary origins and outcomes. To advance this claim, and to address the added difficulty of navigating between different linguistic and cultural traditions, we have assembled a group of leading historians to explore how the revolutions on which they are experts modeled themselves on—or actively transformed—preexisting revolutionary scripts.

To take the notion of script in its fairly straightforward literary or dramatic sense, we might say that a script creates a situation and sets out the manner of its unfolding. It requires the setting of a scene and the characterization of those acting within it, in relationship one to another and to the situation more broadly construed. Its initial definition of the situation implies a narrative (or possible narratives) to be enacted in subsequent scenes, which in turn introduce actions and events that offer its characters choices among possible courses of action. A script, in other words, constitutes a frame within which a situation is defined and a narrative projected; the narrative, in turn, offers a series of consequent situations, subject positions, and possible moves to be enacted by the agents within that frame. Once known and enacted, the script can be replayed indefinitely; but it can also be changed, adapted, or even subverted by the introduction of new events, characters, or actions. The actors—or even the audience—can take over the stage.

In politics, as in the theater or on the screen, scripts generate events. They do so in the obvious sense that a script suggests positions to be taken, actions to be carried out, incidents to be anticipated. They do so, less obviously, in the sense that positions that have been taken, actions that have been carried out, or incidents that have occurred are necessarily configured (or reconfigured) to give them meaning within a script—or within competing scripts. They do so, further, as scripts thus become subject to interpretation or improvisation, leading to conflicts among those competing to define and enact their own claims in relation to a particular script, or to resist the characterizations forced upon them within a script imposed by others. Competition to impose a script, or to control a script that has been imposed, is a fundamental fact of politics, though perhaps never more in evidence than in a situation that has been declared revolutionary.

Extending this notion of script to the phenomenon of revolution, we might begin by postulating that all politics is about the definition of the situation. To declare that a revolution has occurred or is imminent, or that a revolution is underway; to act in the name of revolution, or to invoke its necessary logic as a form of legitimation or justification: these are ways of defining a political situation. There is, though, a very significant difference between seeing a revolution as an event—a significant change that has occurred, might be anticipated, or might even be passively experienced or undergone—or conceiving it as a dynamic and ongoing process of contestation and conflict, or as a mode of collective action directed toward the goal of radical transformation. This latter conceptualization, we think, is an invention that appeared first in France in the years following 1789. It is best described, in our judgment, as the first modern revolutionary script. Our contention is that it was elaborated in France in the years between 1789 and 1815. Thereafter, revolution became an action frame providing a repertory of situations, subject positions, political options, historical narratives, and social logics invoked and enacted, adapted and extended throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and into the twenty-first. To declare a particular collective political action a Revolution, to pronounce a particular situation revolutionary, to become oneself a revolutionary, to justify one’s deeds in the name of the Revolution, to insist upon, or impose, what the Revolution requires: these are all performatives—performances made possible (whether made successfully or not) within or upon the revolutionary script.

One methodological advantage of thinking about revolution in these terms is that it offers a middle ground between the generalizable empirical description of phenomena for which social scientists aim and the close characterization of unique actions and events in specific time and place to which historians aspire. Revolutions are neither identifiable and independent unit phenomena to be sequenced comparatively nor unique historical occurrences to be understood solely in terms of their particular time and place. One can think of them historically—and transhistorically—as variations on a script for political action and understanding invented at a particular moment and in specific circumstances, a script played and replayed, improvised upon and extended in different times and places, but nevertheless possessing a degree of narrative continuity and analytical identity.

The suggestion that the concept of “scripting” could offer a useful handle on revolutionary events was first made by one of us some years ago in an essay on the French Revolution.2 Here we propose this concept as a way to think about the comparative study of revolution. More specifically, we argue that scholars who engage in this study have largely overlooked a defining feature of revolutions and of revolutionary history—namely, the self-conscious awareness with which revolutionaries model their actions on those of revolutions past. Marx famously mocked this tendency in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon; we consider it more seriously. In fact, we argue that it offers a better approach to the comparative study of revolution than Marx’s own method, which has provided the basic framework for most of the sociological studies on this topic. We consider the problems with this framework in the following section, before examining how our own approach compares with current trends in global and intellectual history.

Against Sociological (and Deterministic) Accounts of Revolution

As noted above, the comparative history of revolutions, with a few notable exceptions (which we discuss below), has traditionally been left to sociologists and political scientists. The heyday of this social-scientific school occurred in the late 1970s, with the publication of such classics as Charles Tilly’s From Mobilization to Revolution (1978) and Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (1979). Its roots, however, extend back to Crane Brinton’s 1938 The Anatomy of Revolution, and more directly to Barrington Moore’s 1966 Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (both Skocpol and Tilly studied with Moore at Harvard). Nor has this school run out of steam, as evidenced by Jack Goldstone’s Revolution and Rebellion and Steve Pincus’s 1688: The First Modern Revolution. Pincus himself owes a great deal to Moore (to whom he pays homage in 1688), as does Jack Goldstone, one of Skocpol’s students and author of numerous works on the comparative history of revolutions.3

The basic methodological framework for this sociological approach, however, can be traced back to Marx himself. Moore had made class struggle the motor of social change, and by extension of revolution, even going so far as to adopt Marx’s concept of “bourgeois revolution.”4 Even when it sheds such explicitly Marxist categories, the sociological school remains indebted to Marx’s fundamental view that the true causes of revolutions are to be found in socioeconomic conflicts (the “infrastructure”). Skocpol herself calls attention to this problem, pointing out how “everyone who writes about social revolutions recognizes that they begin with overtly political crises,” and yet when it comes to studying these revolutions, “most theorists [. . .] tend to regard the political crises that launch revolutions as incidental triggers or as little more than epiphenomenal indicators of more fundamental contradictions or strains located in the social structure of the old regime.”5 While Skocpol makes the case for recognizing the state as independent from “socioeconomic forces and conflicts,” she ultimately views the state as a “macro-structure” as well (29), hence extending the structural analysis of revolutions to another level. It is unclear how this methodological innovation resolves the problem she identified, which is to explain how political crises can trigger revolutions. In the end, revolutions in this model still appear as fated to occur, due to structural conflicts, at either the social or state level.

Historians have long treated these sociological arguments with a strong dose of skepticism.6 The problems with the sociological method can be divided into two categories: those that concern revolutionary beginnings, and those that appear in the middle or the end.

Revolutionary beginnings. There are a number of problems with the assumption that political crises are just “incidental triggers,” to be discounted in favor of structural conflicts. To begin with, it rests on an overly schematic distinction between “good,” stable states (that is, those that do not suffer from any “fundamental contradictions”) and “bad,” unstable ones.7 Leaving aside the fact that just about every state exhibits structural imbalances of some sort, it is the teleological conclusion that sociologists draw from this distinction that is most questionable. In their view, these intrinsically unstable states are fated to succumb to revolutions, while their happy, stable neighbors sail smoothly through the choppy waters of history. Here again we may glimpse the specter of Marxism that haunts the sociological school: Marx had similarly argued that the “contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse [between individuals in society] . . . necessarily on each occasion burst out in a revolution.”8

But this claim does not hold up very well to historical scrutiny. Indeed, there are plenty of counterexamples of states that exhibited “fundamental contradictions” but that muddled through all the same: think of the United States, or many Western European nations, during the Great Depression. If anything, it is often those states that should be ripe for revolution that outlast most analysts’ expectations: for instance, the USSR, the People’s Republic of China, Belarus, or many Middle Eastern and African autocracies.9 If some of these states did eventually witness revolutions, there are usually proximate causes that played important roles: perestroika, in the Soviet case, or the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, for the Tunisian Revolution.

It is this tension between proximate and indirect causes of revolution that poses a second major problem with the sociological method. In his Moore-inspired theory of revolutionary origins, for instance, Pincus claims that state-sponsored modernization projects are the true cause of revolutions, yet also acknowledges that these same projects can result in the creation of “a stable and efficient state.”10 But if the same cause can produce completely opposite effects, clearly there must be other, more proximate causes for the revolutionary outcome. And if there are other causes, why focus exclusively on modernization? Without supplying the missing links connecting a structural conflict to the outbreak of revolution, there is no obvious reason to place greater emphasis on one cause over another.

This difficulty with evaluating the different potential causes of a revolution, finally, extends to the competing sociological theories themselves. On what basis is the reader, even one sympathetic to the authors’ methodology, to decide whether, say, demographic tensions (Goldstone), intrastate conflicts (Skocpol), or risky modernization projects (Pincus) were the critical factor in bringing down a regime? Each of these structural imbalances may well have played a part; but by dismissing the causal relevance of those immediate crises that precipitate revolutions, sociologists deny us the ability to cross-evaluate their different hypotheses.11 Sociological accounts of revolutionary causes end up resembling the story of the blind men and the elephant: for one, it’s all about the trunk; for another, the belly’s the thing; for the third, the legs hold the answer.

To be sure, we do not mean to suggest that structural conflicts play no role whatsoever in the outbreak of revolutions. Without certain preconditions, no revolution is possible. But preconditions are not conditions: some human assembly is still required. It is here, we argue, that scripts come into play. When a crisis occurs, a sufficient number of individuals may decide that the time is right to enact a revolutionary script. The factors that brought about the crisis can vary from case to case: it was a financial crisis that brought France to the brink of revolution in 1789, a political one that triggered the July Revolution of 1830, and a military conflict that led to the Paris Commune of 1871. The sociological search for a “single basic process” that can explain “the periodic state breakdowns in Europe, China, and the Middle East from 1500 to 1850” is a quixotic pursuit.12 But once the crisis has occurred, and a critical mass of actors opts for a revolutionary diagnosis and revolutionary action, events tend to unfold in a very similar—even scripted—fashion.

Revolutionary middles and ends. Sociologists have not ignored these recurrent patterns in revolutionary activity, but they tend to analyze them in terms of “phases,” often modeled on emblematic revolutionary moments.13 The problem with this approach is that it conflates description with explanation. Goldstone, for instance, collapses the first five years of the French Revolution into a single “phase,” arguing that a causal chain connects the collapse of the Bourbon monarchy, the civil war, and the Terror.14 Teleology becomes his only explanatory model: the French revolutionary wars are “a natural outcome of this revolutionary struggle,” while complex historical outcomes are judged “inevitable.”15 Almost needless to say, historians would beg to differ.16

This teleological temptation seeps through a number of sociological accounts of revolution, including Moore’s.17 But simply because similar events took place in succession in multiple revolutions does not mean that they were fated to do so. Revolutions do not occur in isolation: the Russian revolutionaries, for instance, were extremely self-conscious about the history of the French Revolution, and sought to emulate (or avoid, in the case of the Napoleonic period) its path. Hence, if there was a “Terror” after the Bolsheviks seized power, it was not because, according to sociological theory, that’s when the Terror phase occurs, but rather because the Bolsheviks were consciously modeling their actions on the Jacobin script. To be sure, they faced intense opposition, which culminated in civil war, but they perceived their situation through a Jacobin lens. They moved rapidly to create a “revolutionary tribunal” to try “enemies of the people,” just as the Montagnards had; Lenin even expressed his satisfaction that a Russian Fouquier-Tinville could be found to serve as its prosecutor.18 Accordingly, Terror occurred in the French and Russian Revolutions for different reasons, but the end results bear a resemblance.

It is somewhat ironic that the dominant approach to the comparative study of revolutions should remain so indebted to Marx, given that Marx’s own followers came to abandon it in the late nineteenth century. At that time, it had become painfully apparent that the revolution, judged “inevitable” by Marx’s doctrine of historical materialism, was not just around the corner.19 “Socioeconomic forces and conflicts,” in Skocpol’s words, had failed to produce the “political crises that launch revolutions.” It was precisely this realization that led to the various revisions of Marxism, from Eduard Bernstein’s rejection of violent revolution in favor of parliamentary reform, to Lenin’s abandonment of Marx’s structural model in favor of a system of professional revolutionaries who could inculcate a “political consciousness” in the proletariat. The first successful Marxist revolution, in October 1917, was brought about by a political party that explicitly reversed Marx’s relation between historical conditions and ideology.20

Global History in a Different Key

One of the major shortcomings of the sociological approach to the study of revolutions is that it does not consider the impact that different revolutions had on each other. With the rise of interest in global history, historians are once again exploring these interrelations between revolutions—“once again,” since this was the approach pioneered by R. R. Palmer, Eric Hobsbawm, and Jacques Godechot in the 1950s and 1960s.21 To be sure, the current global historians expand the geographic scope of these earlier scholars, who focused exclusively on the European and North Atlantic theater. But they largely maintain their predecessors’ chronological focus on an “age”—1760 to 1840, in the case of the volume edited by David Armitage and Sanjay Subrahmanyam; or “the global imperial crisis of the eighteenth century,” for the essays in a recent volume on The French Revolution in Global Perspective.22

Within these chronological confines, these historians seek primarily to draw attention to the “interconnectedness” of revolutions during this period.23 They remind us that the “increasingly globalized circuits of economic exchange and worldwide geopolitical competition” determined to a large degree both foreign and domestic policies.24 Commodities, but also ideas, circulated throughout these networks, which were, moreover, multi-directional: the inward flow from the margins of empire to the capital was as determinant as the flow out.

This “synchronic” model goes some way toward explaining how revolutionary scripts circulated as well. Their circulation was truly global: the publication of Lamartine’s Histoire des Girondins in 1847, for instance, so inspired a group of Chilean revolutionaries that they each chose a nom-de-guerre from one of Lamartine’s political idols.25 And the circulation could go in many directions: as the essay by David Como in this volume informs us, the nascent seventeenth-century script of revolution in England had Spanish and southern Italian elements to it.26

There are some limits, however, to what this synchronic model can offer. In a recent review essay, David A. Bell notes how historians eager to highlight the impact of global events on the French Revolution have mostly had to content themselves with gesturing to the need for further research.27 He also points out how very difficult it can be to measure the “impact” of global affairs on national events. There is no denying, for instance, that deputies to the National Assembly paid considerable attention to colonial issues in the first year of revolution, but they paid attention to a great number of issues. It would be nearly impossible to demonstrate, and is moreover highly unlikely, that colonial issues mattered more than other red-button questions, such as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Accordingly, Bell concludes that “despite the best efforts of several talented historians, conditions and events in France’s own colonies . . . seem to have had little impact on metropolitan political developments.”

One reason the historians Bell discusses have found it challenging to connect French Revolutionary history with events occurring outside of metropolitan France may also have to do with the synchronic time frame they adopt. Contemporaneous events do not always have the largest impact: it sometimes takes the repeated transmission and reworking of past events to make them influential. The beheading of Charles I arguably mattered more for the French in 1792 than in 1649. Similarly, it was only after the king’s flight to Varennes (in June 1791) that French political actors and theorists became receptive to English republican arguments from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.28

We have accordingly privileged a more “diachronic” model of revolutionary transmission, one that considers the impact of revolutions on each other over the longue durée.29 As the Catalonian and Neapolitan examples cited above indicate, many elements of what would become the modern script of revolution began to coalesce well before the “age of revolutions” might be said to have begun. Our approach challenges the logic of imposing chronological bookends on the study of revolution: on the contrary, the essays collected here underscore the importance of analyzing the continuity (and the ruptures) between, say, seventeenth-century English revolutions and the eighteenth-century American and French revolutions. They also look forward to appreciate the lasting reverberations of 1789–94 on the Bolshevik Revolution, and even in the ongoing Arab uprising.

Adding a Fourth Dimension to Intellectual History

Over the course of this longue durée, the meaning and connotations of “revolution” of course changed considerably. Far be it for us, indeed, to suggest that a revolutionary script is a “unit idea” that plows through history untouched. On the contrary, our essays call attention to the manner in which revolutionary scripts are always mutating. This perpetual transformation has not occurred uniformly in time and place: at different points in history, there have been a variety of scripts to choose from. The Spanish American revolutions of the early nineteenth century (which, for reasons of space, are not otherwise discussed in this volume) offer a striking example of how most revolutionaries sought to perform an “American” script, rather than a “French” one.30

To examine these transformations of revolutionary scripts over time, we pay particular attention to the evolving meaning of the term “revolution” itself. A considerable amount of scholarship has already charted the evolution of this term, from a general designation (usually in the plural) of political troubles, to the modern sense of a political and social transformation of a state along constitutional lines.31 The essays here draw and build on this body of work, shedding new light in particular on the seventeenth-century emergence of the term and its eighteenth-century modifications.

From a methodological point of view, this study of the changing values and connotations of the term “revolution” owes a debt to the intellectual historical approach known as Begriffsgeschichte, or “conceptual history.” Practitioners of this methodology examine how certain “basic concepts,” mostly of a political nature, become the objects of definition wars between different social groups.32 Because of this contestation, the meanings of these terms tend to vary significantly over time. Begriffsgeschichte traces these variations both synchronically (exploring the range of meanings available at a given moment) and diachronically (often over the longue durée). Not surprisingly, the historian most closely associated with the school, Reinhart Koselleck, chose “revolution” as one of the important political keywords of modernity.33

Despite our appreciation of this historiographical method, our scripting approach varies from it in one critical fashion. Koselleck and his colleagues essentially consider the meaning of political keywords to stem from different structural arrangements of other concepts. In his article on the “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution,” for instance, Koselleck notes how the early-modern understanding of revolution combined different concepts of time (46–47). But where he adopts an implicitly spatial metaphor, we again wish to highlight the diachronic relations between constitutive elements of revolution. To use a different metaphor (explicitly, this time), political keywords can be “scripts” in a programming sense: they entail a certain number of actions, to be executed in a certain order. Our approach therefore emphasizes how debates over the meaning of revolution take the form of competing narratives.

A View of the Essays

The volume of essays we present grew from a conference on “Scripting Revolution” organized at Stanford University in November 2011. In the year or so between the conference’s initial planning and its eventual occurrence, there came the surprise of the Arab Spring, triggering a sequence of revolutions that are still ongoing and engaging both public and scholarly interest in their nature and progress. In that context, we found colleagues more than ready to address the notion of revolution as script. Their essays do not all engage the notion in the same way or to the same degree, nor do they necessarily agree on every aspect of the still incomplete and patchy history of scripting revolution that emerges from the essays taken as a whole. We offer them as an exploration of an approach and an invitation to debate, and as an effort to reconsider the history of a form of collective political action recently thought dead but now dramatically replayed before our eyes.

Part I: Genealogies of Revolution

Our opening section takes readers to the locus classicus for discussion of the early history of modern revolutions: the seventeenth century and, more particularly, seventeenth-century Britain, with its contrasting conventional images of revolution as civil war and revolution as gloriously peaceful political change. What did it mean to speak or write of “revolution” during this period, and can it be said that meanings of the term then current allowed possibilities for imagining a script for revolution in the sense we have defined above? Tim Harris opens the discussion by emphasizing a common theme in this first section: the erroneousness of the long-accepted and still frequently repeated assumption that “revolution” derived its initial sense as a political concept from the more traditional notion of a return to a status quo ante, as exemplified by the movement of the stars. “Revolution” did not mean “Restoration” in the seventeenth century. It could describe that outcome, but only as a specific case of a more general phenomenon of change and transformation, often experienced negatively as disruption, disorder, and upheaval. “Revolution” in this sense could signify a radical and abrupt transformation of political regime occurring as an outcome of human action; but could such an outcome be instigated or planned in advance? Could there be a script for revolution in this sense?

Harris suggests two discursive possibilities to this end—and two notions frequently seen as implied in the idea of revolution—one theoretical, the other empirical. Theoretically, the right to resistance could justify action to produce political change (though there was always the counter claim that all power came from God and must be accepted as such). One might argue, however, that early-modern resistance theory still required recourse to some principle of legitimacy within the existing political order rather than validating its complete overthrow. The empirical reasoning was more straightforward: it recognized the simple fact that tyranny frequently provoked rebellion. God, in this case, could be seen to be working through human agency to overthrow tyrannical regimes. Can this be seen as a script for revolution? One could object that waiting for revolution to occur is scarcely a script for bringing it about. Locke, in effect, resorted to both the theoretical and the empirical argument, combining the right of resistance with recognition of the fact of rebellion (though he insisted that the latter usually appeared infrequently and only after “a long chain of abuses”). Did this combination thereby turn his Second Treatise into a script for revolution?

To resistance and rebellion, David Como adds a third related notion: civil war. Noting the shift in historiographical fashion that led what was once called “the English Revolution” to be renamed “the English Civil War,” Como shows that it was precisely during the upheavals of the 1640s and (more precisely) the 1650s that “revolution” became a more markedly political term in English. The usage came from abroad as expanding circuits of communication brought news of rebellion and disruption in accounts of the “revolutions” occurring most remarkably in Catalonia, Sicily, and Naples. The most notable of these accounts, that of Alessandro Giraffi, translated by the royalist James Howell in 1650 as An Exact Historie of the late Revolutions in Naples, offered a dramatic description of popular revolt forcing political change. As its translator doubtless intended, it succeeded (along with similarly entitled accounts) in provoking reflection on the stormy course of English affairs. Como shows that participants in the English political conflicts of the 1650s reached increasingly for the still fluid term “revolution” to characterize the shifts and upheavals in the events engulfing them. But they shrank from claiming full agency in producing these events; “revolution” was not yet a frame for action. “Revolutions,” for better or worse, remained the work of providence. To embrace them meant accepting a gift from God. To lament them meant acknowledging the fact of divine punishment for human fractiousness. The empirical was ultimately the theological.

In the wake of the Wars of Religion, there were strong claims to be made for absolute monarchy as the essential bulwark of peace and stability against the disorders and upheavals of civil war. But these claims could be contested on the grounds that monarchy was the cause of political instability, not its cure, and that the needs of citizens were better served by popular or republican government. The argument drew, David Armitage shows, on the Roman republican tradition celebrated by Algernon Sidney and other Commonwealthmen. Turning the Roman narrative to other purposes, Sidney saw the history of monarchy in England as an endless succession of civil wars. Thomas Paine saw the same, going so far as to include the Glorious Revolution in this category. So, indeed, did Edmund Burke, though in an entirely different register. In this strain of thinking, Armitage posits, the modern script for revolution may simply have absorbed the older notion of civil war and rebranded it successfully.

Part II: Writing the Modern Revolutionary Script

The appearance of this modern script provides the topic for our second section. In its opening essay, Keith Michael Baker argues that “revolution” was slow to acquire its modern meaning as an action category. He draws on evidence offered by digitized databases to show the continued dominance of the seventeenth-century meanings of the term in English, French, and American usage. In the conventional eighteenth-century lexicon, he argues, “revolutions” still happened; they were not yet thought of as consciously made. Enlightenment gave “revolution” a more positive valorization, and the abbé Raynal’s Révolution de l’Amérique described one as unfolding. But it was only as the French Revolution unleashed political energies with terms like “revolutionary” and “revolutionize,” Baker contends, that “revolution” was decisively scripted as an act rather than a fact.

The American insurgents may not have called themselves “revolutionaries,” and they may have preferred to present their “American Revolution” as an accomplished fact, as Baker argues, but Jack Rakove finds some of them already pressing upon the conventional limits of the term. John Adams speculated in a letter of 1774 that “our Children, may see Revolutions, and be concerned and active in effecting them of which we can form no conception,” and Benjamin Rush was ready in 1786 to declare the “American revolution . . . far from over” and independence only “the first act of a great drama.” The script the Americans thought they were following, however, was a Lockean script for resistance issuing in an “appeal to Heaven.” Locke had stipulated that rebellion need not lead to an endless series of “revolutions.” But what should come next? Here Locke was of little help. The Americans improvised by restricting “revolution” to an accomplished fact and binding it as closely as possible to the founding act of constitution-making. This distinctively American script, Rakove argues, merged revolution and constitution-making into a single story.

The French story proved to be quite the contrary. There, in Dan Edelstein’s analysis, revolution escaped the constraints of constitutionalism. It became transcendent, a source of authority in and of itself. Edelstein goes back to the Levellers to uncover the origins of an early-modern discourse linking the natural right of resistance, popular sovereignty, and the creation of a constitution as the outcome of an act of political will. This tight combination, he argues, was articulated in the American Revolution and in the early phase of the French Revolution. But it was dismantled by the Jacobins in a series of moves after the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy by popular insurrection on 10 August 1792. Robespierre defended as revolutionary the authority of the Paris Commune to act against enemies of the people in the interim period following the fall of the king; he argued for the monarch’s execution not on constitutional grounds (since there were none) but as a necessary choice between the legitimacy of Louis XVI and that of the Revolution itself. Saint-Just extended this same logic a year later by declaring French government “revolutionary until peacetime,” which was to say that it was now unfettered by the restraints of the constitution ratified two months earlier and ultimately free to remodel the people from whom it had once derived its authority. Assuming a transcendental power in Jacobin discourse, Revolution now authorized continuation of . . . the Revolution. The Jacobin moment was brief, but its sanctification of revolution was to enjoy a long life.

“Revolution” had a twin called “Counter-Revolution.” They grew together, as demonstrated by the displays of co-occurrences of the two terms in the Archives parlementaires in Baker’s essay. Revolution became more powerful as Counter-Revolution became more dangerous, and vice versa. Each assumed transcendental force in the Manichean political universe revealed by Guillaume Mazeau’s account of the assassination of Jean Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday in July 1793. Mazeau charts the tourbillion of facts and fantasies, conspiracies and denunciations, ideas and opinions that swirled around this famed event, making it symbolic of a war to the death that would escalate into the Terror. We should not forget that Marat was a journalist, one of the tribe of scribes that endowed the Revolution with its awful eventfulness by endlessly repeating that each and every day must decide the fate of republican France—and of all humanity. Marat in death exemplifies the power of the French Revolution as it became a modern political script: a sequence of defining moments to be replayed, an agonistic struggle of iconic personalities and fundamental principles to be re-enacted, and a repertory of political situations, rhetorical strategies, and subject positions to be rehearsed and refashioned. (Even today his image haunts the Internet.)

Marat plays a minor but telling role in Malick Ghachem’s chapter on “The Antislavery Script: Haiti’s Place in the Narrative of Atlantic Revolution,” this time as the author of Chains of Slavery, the work published in London in 1774 that fueled his politics until his death. This radical warning of encroaching despotism in England, and the inevitable loss of political liberty everywhere, contained not a word about the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. In this regard, it epitomizes Ghachem’s central question: was there, could there be, a script for a revolutionary destruction of plantation slavery? The classical republican tradition upon which Marat and the American revolutionaries drew in opposition to political enslavement turned out to be insufficiently capacious to embrace the overthrow of chattel slavery. The promise of universal emancipation offered within the French Revolutionary script proved problematic, too, in the face of countervailing property claims of planters and French economic interests. Ghachem emphasizes that, in any case, some of the demands for the rights of slaves and free people of color drew on the Old Regime provisions of the infamous Code Noir itself. There remained the oldest script for an antislavery revolution, the prospect of a Spartacist revolt against which Raynal had warned in a famous passage of the Histoire philosophique et politique . . . des Deux Indes mentioned by Baker. This nightmare scenario terrified whites across the Atlantic world, fueled the abolition of slavery in Saint Domingue in 1793 (though that proved transitory), and found its strongest resonances in the bloody liberation of Haiti. In the Declaration of Haitian Independence in 1804, repudiation of the Code Noir became entwined with another element of the French Revolutionary script, the new modern language of national sovereignty. That language was now turned against French rule, racial domination, and chattel slavery, Ghachem argues, but at the cost of leaving ambiguous the legal status of coerced labor.

Part III: Rescripting the Revolution

Our third section opens with Gareth Stedman Jones’s analysis of the historical context of the Communist Manifesto. As in Saint Domingue, this context was defined by the failure of the French Revolution to deliver on its promise of universal emancipation. Hegel had imagined a Germany peacefully transformed in the light of Universal Reason; his reform-minded disciples found local political realities more irrational, and more obdurate. Lacking popular energy and a compliant alternate monarch waiting in the wings, the young Hegelians had watched from afar as the French replayed their revolution in 1830. Among them was the journalist Karl Marx, who found his republican Rheinische Zeitung abruptly closed down by the Prussian authorities in 1843. Exiled in Paris, Marx famously adapted the revolutionary script for a new age of industrial transformation and capitalist exploitation. The irony of the Communist Manifesto in Stedman Jones’s analysis, though, is that it moved even further from the local political realities it was meant to address. Its categories—“the modern state,” “the class struggle,” “the bourgeoisie,” and “the proletariat”—were abstract and largely fictive; they had little explanatory purchase and fleeting correspondence to any contemporary situation. Its realist, materialist rhetoric decked out a fantasy that was, Stedman Jones insists, “to a considerable extant an expression of the pathology of exile.” A fiction, though, that would ultimately produce some powerful facts.

The French, meanwhile, had more frequent opportunity to replay and extend the revolutionary script. They added the barricades in 1830, overt class struggle and the dream of a socialist republic in 1848, and the bloody experience of the Commune in 1871. But did they still hew too closely to the memory and mythology of the originary revolutionary drama of 1789–95? Many thought so, as Dominica Chang shows in “Reading and Repeating the Revolutionary Script: Revolutionary Mimicry in Nineteenth-Century France.” “The second time as farce,” Marx famously remarked of 1848; Proudhon and Tocqueville, among others, found their different ways of expressing the same judgment. So did Flaubert, whose Education sentimentale was, as Chang shows, directed specifically against the imitation of French Revolutionary figures its author deplored as empty, futile mimicry. Flaubert reportedly said of the slaughter of 1871 that “none of this would have happened if they had understood L’Education sentimentale.” Chang’s analysis reveals how deeply divided (and possibly weakened) the Communards were as they fought over the deployment of language and actions they valorized or repudiated as a re-enactment of the Terror of 1793–94.

The Third Republic that emerged from the revolutionary violence of 1871 nonetheless declared itself the realization of the script announced in 1789. The French Revolution became its myth of origin. Observers elsewhere saw 1871 as marking the final failure of a script now exhausted. Claudia Verhoeven analyzes the reaction of one such group, the radical Russian intelligentsia, in “‘Une Révolution Vraiment Scientifique’: Russian Terrorism, the Escape from the European Orbit, and the Invention of a New Revolutionary Paradigm.” In her account, disillusionment with the revolutionary script they saw failing so miserably (and bloodily) in France, and recognition of the backwardness of their country in relation to European social and political development, led these intellectuals toward Terrorism as a substitute for Terror. The path was not a straight one. For Herzen, after 1848, there was no longer a libretto; revolution no longer consummated the logic of history. Zaichnevsky, in 1862, still imagined that historical progress could be accelerated in Russia by doubling down on revolutionary violence, unleashing civil war, and establishing the dictatorship of a revolutionary party. For their successors, from Karakozov in 1866 to Morozov in 1880, revolution triggered history rather than accelerating it. Historical development could be leapfrogged, autocracy shattered, and massive violence avoided, by the precise and “truly scientific” terroristic application of the assassin’s pistol. Russia could choose a new door to the future.

The portal eventually opened in Russia in 1917 involved a very different rethinking of the European script, as Ian Thatcher shows in “Scripting the Russian Revolution.” As he points out, the Bolshevik script was certainly not the only one in play in 1917, nor was it fated to dominate the others. It had to jockey with a liberal script emphasizing freedom (particularly that of the gentry to keep their land); a socialist script that promised the “re-allocation of Russian national resources”; an extreme left, Menshevik script that ruled out collaboration with bourgeois parties but nonetheless accepted a brief period of bourgeois rule; national scripts that sought the breakup of the Russian empire; and finally, popular scripts that were not theorized to the same extent as the others but contained a powerful hope for basic living improvements. If the Bolshevik script ultimately won out, Thatcher argues, it was because it was the one that could most easily absorb the popular script, and appear to reflect the true demands of the people.

Part IV: Revolutionary Projections

After 1917, revolution became institutionalized in a government whose very authority derived from its revolutionary promise. But the script of communist revolution could no longer be controlled and finessed in Moscow alone: competing versions emerged in Hungary, Poland, and Cuba in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and more regularly in China. How did this bureaucratization (on the one hand) and rapid mutation (on the other) affect the revolutionary script?

The Soviets saw China as a revolutionary latecomer, but in fact their southeastern neighbor had a long history of revolutionary action. In their paper on revolutionary scripts in China, Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Wu Yidi focus on two moments in this history. First, they examine the period, from the late nineteenth century to the 1911 revolution, when opponents to the Qing dynasty revived a classical Chinese term for “revolution” (geming) to express their desire for an American- or French-inspired upheaval. In opposition to these would-be revolutionaries, others looked to the Meiji Restoration for a more reformist script. Both sides believed that change was necessary, however, and this shared belief made their positions more fluid (compared with the fierce debate over Marxist revisionism occurring at the same time in Germany and Russia). Wasserstrom and Wu then show how current Chinese political debates, going back to 1989, echo this earlier moment, with some dissidents looking to the revolutionary scripts that emerged from Eastern Europe, the color revolutions, and (more recently) the Arab Uprising, while others, more fearful of China’s own violent revolutionary past, continue to advocate for some kind of slower moving reform. Both of these moments demonstrate how political conflicts in China have often taken the form of arguments over which foreign script was most applicable to the domestic situation.

Between these revolutionary bookends, however, we find a script that was more defiantly Chinese: Mao’s Little Red Book. Alexander Cook offers a study of this work’s reception, taking seriously Lin Biao’s claim that this work was a “spiritual atom bomb.” This was a very deliberate metaphor in the 1960s, when the fear of nuclear destruction ran high. Cook uses the fable of “The Foolish Old Man” (which appears in the Little Red Book) to explain Lin Biao’s claim. This is a curious fable, in that it involves the appearance of supernatural forces to move mountains. For Cook, this oddity reflects the fact that Mao’s revolutionary script relied just as much on spiritual—that is, ideological—devotion to revolution as on material efforts. But spiritual power was, in Mao’s view, akin to the atom: if it could be released, its power would be overwhelming. This vision was not limited to economic transformation: like the atom bomb, it had a military point as well, which was the pursuit of a “people’s war.” In the face of nuclear catastrophe, Mao upheld that this force was greater than any bomb.

We follow this focus on China with three in-depth case studies, each placed a decade apart, of how revolutionary scripts were transformed across the globe. Lillian Guerra examines how cinema was instrumental in shaping the dominant script of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. The central villain of this script was, of course, the United States, portrayed as being responsible for every problem facing Cuban society. Cinema was a key medium for disseminating this script, since it allowed people literally to see themselves as part of the revolutionary transformation of Cuba. The official film industry accordingly exercised strict censorship over films to ensure that the “correct” script was being represented. Guerra turns to the much-censored films of Nicolás Guillén Landrián to explore the ways in which his “counter-scripts” challenged the privileged narrative of the Cuban regime.

Julian Bourg zooms in on the watershed year of 1968, and more particularly on the revolutionary upheaval that rocked France, to underscore a paradox: the students were acutely self-conscious about recycling scripts from revolutions past, but curiously, the events in Paris had an unscripted feel. Students were acting out revolution, but everyone was also taken by surprise by the rapid pace and breadth of events. Indeed, ’68 led many philosophers to reconceptualize it as an event—that is, something unplanned, with unforeseeable consequences.

What this meant, however, is that “1968” could become the keystone of a plethora of different revolutionary scripts, be they political, economic, social, or cultural. As Bourg points out, the very concept of revolution was very much in flux at this time, as the contrast between student protesters in Berkeley and, say, the Red Army Faction in Germany indicates. In the end, however, he shows how ’68 can be seen as marking the demise of the Leninist script of party-led revolution, and a return to the boisterous, disorganized, popular script of revolution.

Ten years later, in Iran, it certainly seemed at first that this “democratic” script was triumphing. In his reading of the 1979 Revolution, Abbas Milani points to how it largely stemmed from the frustrations of the Iranian middle class: the shah’s rapid modernization and secularization program had produced a new, urban, more worldly society, but it had not opened up the political process. By 1979 he was an incredibly unpopular figure, and, what’s more, an erratic ruler. But the Iranian Revolution is perhaps most fascinating as a case study of how a revolutionary script that was expected to conclude with the establishment of a constitutional republic was instead rewritten, at the last minute and through remarkable strategic planning, by Khomeini and his clerical allies. For Milani, this high-wire act of political manipulation underscores the unplanned, even unscripted nature of the Iranian revolution. But he also notes how Ayatollah Khomeini’s appropriation of the revolutionary process was itself part of a clerical, messianic script to accomplish a divine order in history.

Finally, we close this part by bringing our narrative up to the present, thus also highlighting the continuing relevance of the revolutionary scripts discussed here. Silvana Toska focuses on how revolutionary scripts, in the recent Arab revolutions (as in others before them), became progressively more radical. In so doing, however, they also opened up splits between political groups that no longer agreed on the meaning of revolutionary goals. In her examination of the Egyptian and Yemeni revolutions of 2011, Toska ends up highlighting a paradox. On the one hand, revolutionary groups in both countries shared little in common beyond a desire to overthrow the regime in place; hence, as these revolutions went on, dissensions among revolutionaries became increasingly visible. At the same time, these open disagreements were also what made it impossible for one group to impose its point of view on the others, thereby making the likelihood of a democratic outcome higher. Recent developments have added new chapters to the history of the Arab uprising, transforming Ghonim’s fantasy of a leaderless revolutionary script into an ongoing struggle for leadership.

As David Bell notes in his “Afterword,” the contributions in this volume do not all deploy the concept of a revolutionary script in exactly the same fashion. It is our hope that these methodological variations on a theme will be seen as evidence of the usefulness and flexibility of the “scripting” concept. Our goal with this volume is primarily to outline a more promising, historically grounded method for the comparative study of revolutions. We certainly do not claim, with one volume, to have exhausted such a study, and hope that other historians will pursue this investigation, exploring the revolutions that we left out, and uncovering other ways in which revolutions are produced by, and in turn produce, scripts.


1. Wael Ghonim, Revolution 2.0, The Power of the People Is Greater than the People in Power: A Memoir (Boston, 2012), 293–94. This brief discussion by Ghonim draws on Keith Michael Baker, “Revolution 1.0,” Journal of Modern European History 11 (2013): 187–88.

2. Keith Michael Baker, “A Script for a French Revolution: The Political Consciousness of the Abbé Mably,” in Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1990).

3. Most notably Jack A. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (Berkeley, CA, 1991).

4. See Barrington Moore, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Boston, 1966), xv–xvii. The subtitle of Moore’s book, Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World, is also telling.

5. Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge, 1979), 25. Compare with Marx, e. g., in The German Ideology, in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York, 1978), 164–65. Skocpol herself highlights this Marxist genealogy (25).

6. See notably William Sewell, “Ideologies and Social Revolutions: Reflections on the French Case,” Journal of Modern History 57 (1985): 57–85; and Martin Malia, “High Social Science and ‘Staseology,’” in History’s Locomotives: Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World (New Haven, CT, 2006), 302–16.

7. This distinction can be seen in Skocpol’s use of nineteenth-century Prussia and Japan as “counter-points” to her thesis about the origins of revolution in France and China; see States and Social Revolutions, 99–111.

8. Marx, The German Ideology, part I, section D, 5 (emphasis added).

9. See, in this volume, the discussion by Silvana Toska of the “stagnation thesis.”

10. Steven Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution (New Haven, CT, 2009), 41.

11. Similar criticisms have been leveled by sociologists themselves: see notably John Foran, “Theories of Revolution Revisited: Toward a Fourth Generation?” Sociological Theory 11, no. 1 (1993): 1–20.

12. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion, 459.

13. Crane Brinton famously suggested that all revolutions experience a “Terror” phase, followed by a “Thermidorean reaction,” on the French model: see The Anatomy of Revolution, rev. ed. (New York, 1965), chs. 7 and 8. See also Lyford Edwards, The Natural History of Revolution (Chicago, 1927).

14. For Goldstone, this corresponds to “phase two” of the Revolution: it occurs when “the Old Regime state has lost the initiative and either collapses or struggles among the host of contenders who seek to establish a new monopoly of authority; this phase is marked by efforts to mobilize supporters, rapid-fire legislation and creation of economic and political structures, and often by civil war and a ‘reign of terror.’” In Revolution and Rebellion, 417–18.

15. “If the Reign of Terror was an inherent part of the process of revolution, so too military rule was its inevitable conclusion.” See ibid., 431–32.

16. As David Bell has shown, the war against Austria and Prussia (later joined by Britain) was not in the slightest preordained, but rather the result of a deliberate strategy on the part of a prowar faction among the Jacobins, led by Brissot: see Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (Boston, 2007).

17. See, for instance, his argument that “it is very difficult to deny that if France were to enter the modern world through the democratic door she had to pass through the fires of the Revolution, including its violent radical aspects.” Moore, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 105 (emphasis added).

18. See Arno Mayer, The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton, NJ, 2000), 256.

19. See, notably, Stanley Aronowitz, The Crisis in Historical Materialism: Class, Politics, and Culture in Marxist Theory (Minneapolis, MN, 1990).

20. On Bernstein, see notably Peter Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein’s Challenge to Marx (New York, 1952). On the reception of Marx in the late nineteenth century, see James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Tradition (New York, 1980). For Lenin, see What Is to Be Done?, in Essential Works of Lenin (New York, 1987), and below. In The German Ideology, Marx argued that “if these material elements of a complete revolution are not present . . . then, as far as practical development is concerned, it is absolutely immaterial whether the idea of this revolution has been expressed a hundred times already.” Marx-Engels Reader, 165.

21. See R. R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolution, 2 vols. (Princeton, NJ, 1959–64); Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe, 1789–1848 (1962); Jacques Godechot, Les Révolutions: 1770–1799 (Paris, 1963).

22. See David Armitage and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eds., The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760–1840 (Basingstoke, UK, 2010); and see also Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson, The French Revolution in Global Perspective (Ithaca, NY, 2013), 2 (quotation).

23. Armitage and Subrahmanyam, “Introduction,” The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, xix.

24. Desan, Hunt, and Nelson, “Introduction,” in The French Revolution in Global Perspective, 5.

25. Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna, The Girondins of Chile: Reminiscences of an Eyewitness, trans. John H. R. Polt (Oxford, 2003), 19. Thanks to Jorge Myers for this reference.

26. For a critique of the “diffusionist” model (in which ideas about revolution stem only outward from Western capitals), see Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori, “Approaches to Global Intellectual History,” in Global Intellectual History (New York, 2013).

27. David Bell, “Questioning the Global Turn: The Case of the French Revolution,” French Historical Studies 37, no. 1 (2014): 1–24.

28. See Rachel Hammersley, The English Republican Tradition and Eighteenth-Century France: Between the Ancients and the Moderns (Manchester, 2010).

29. See David Armitage, “What’s the Big Idea? Intellectual History and the Longue Durée,” History of European Ideas 38, no. 4 (2012): 493–507.

30. See John Lynch, The Spanish American Revolutions, 1808–1826 (New York, 1986).

31. This scholarship is discussed and analyzed in Parts I and II of this volume.

32. For an introduction to Begriffsgeschichte, see Melvin Richter and Michaela W. Richter, “Introduction: Translation of Reinhart Koselleck’s ‘Krise,’ in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe,” Journal of the History of Ideas 67, no. 2 (2006): 343–56.

33. See Reinhart Koselleck, “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution,” in Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (New York, 2013), 43–57; and Neithard Bulst, Jörg Fisch, Reinhart Koselleck, and Christian Meier, “Revolution, Rebellion, Aufruhr, Bürgerkrieg,” in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, 8 vols. (Stuttgart, 1984), 5: 653–788.

Harris: Did the English Have a Script for Revolution?

Acknowledgment: I am grateful to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for funding an extended period of research leave at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, during which time I was able to undertake much of the research and writing of this article.