Written by a history professor in 1938, this book develops a theory of how revolutions happen, using examples from the English, American, French, and Russian revolutions. The focus is not explaining why things happen, but drawing common patterns from these four revolutions to understand how a revolution generally progresses from start to finish.
Revolutions don’t necessarily arise from absolute poverty, but rather a feeling that society is “unfair” in some way. Discontent usually brews for a while and it’s hard to predict the exact point that will spark the revolution. First the intellectuals agree in their criticisms of the old regime, then a larger section of the population, and finally when the discontent spreads to the police and army, then the revolution is likely to succeed.
The people involved in the revolution are from all walks of life, not just the lower class, but they tend to be the idealistic type. As the revolutionaries gain support, the moderates generally lose to the extremists, since they moderates are seen as associated with the old regime, and it’s easier to rally behind a pure ideal.
When the extremists defeat the moderates, we enter a “Reign of Terror”, where the extremists push their ideals onto the population. The leaders are skilled at leading a revolution, but less skilled at peacetime administration. However, the people cannot sustain this state for very long, and gradually revert to their pre-revolution habits, and the government eventually learns to be better at administration. Overall, a revolution cleans out some of the vestigial inefficiencies of the old government, but the long term change is not as big as one would expect.
The idea of revolutions having predictable stages is an interesting one, but the data doesn’t actually fit the theory very well. The American and English revolutions never had a “Reign of Terror” and remained mostly moderate throughout. The book is noticeably dated: at the time of writing, it was still unclear how the Russian revolution would pan out. Now we know that it did not quickly settle back to the pre-revolutionary state, and neither did the Chinese revolution (not covered in this book). So all things considered, the evidence for the theory is weak.
The author’s writing style is quite verbose and difficult to read. There were lots of references to people and events from each of the four revolutions, but he assumed you’re familiar with the facts already and does not bother to review them. For me, this was manageable for the American and French revolutions which I was more familiar with, but I was lost in the sections about the English revolution of 1688.