Book Review: “Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction”

As part of an ongoing relationship with Oxford University Press, we have asked our associate editors to periodically review newly-released works in the social sciences. Associate editor Hunter Pribyl-Huguelet starts us off with a quick review of one of the latest installments in OUP’s widely known Very Short Introductions series

Jack A. Goldstone. Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford, 2014). 133.

Summaries and overviews are necessary components of the literature on any topic. Though such projects are often mocked because of their inherently reductionist and derivative nature, they remain important tools for disseminating information on a given topic to a wider audience. Such is the case with Jack A. Goldstone’s topic of “Revolutions,” one of the latest installments in Oxford University Press’s series of “Very Short Introductions.” Despite choosing a topic rife with intricacies and complexities, Goldstone attempts to distill a staggeringly broad topic to a single formula.

He begins with the admittedly grandiose claim that “[t]his book seeks to answer the questions of why revolutions occur and why they surprise us, how they have developed over the course of history, and where they have shaped national and global politics” (2-3). Though a work of this nature demands a large degree of simplification and condensation of materials, it does not justify Goldstone’s apparent claims to historical omnipotence. An introductory work should invite readers to explore a topic further and to gain a greater understanding of the complexities of an issue. Readers should gain a greater appreciation for ambiguities and should be led to question rather than reaffirm their preconceptions.

However, Goldstone takes the exact opposite approach. In his second chapter, entitled “What Causes Revolutions?,” he almost descends into a parody of the work when he literally posits a five-step formula for revolutions, claiming that “[w]hen these five conditions coincide,” all of which are quite obvious, “any untoward event can trigger escalating popular revolts and open elite resistance, producing a revolution” (19). Goldstone’s implications that revolutions are produced as predictably as explosive reactions in a chemistry lab are out of place even in an introductory work. Other claims such as “research has shown that revolutionary ideologies need not provide a precise future plan to unite and motivate their followers” (19) are similarly problematic in their implications that humanities research is as definite as scientific research and in its minimization of ongoing controversies among historians. Minimizing controversy directly violates what should be a fundamental aim of an introductory work, to alert readers to complexities and to entice them to explore the topic through further research.

Subsequent chapters, which give a textbook-like depiction of revolutions throughout history, are more in keeping with the directive of “a very short introduction” than the first three chapters. However, though he explicitly draws a division between revolutions and events such as grain riots, Goldstone incorporates several episodes from antiquity into a narrative of “revolution” which centers on modern democratic and socialist movements. In discussing classical “revolutions,” Goldstone perpetuates the popular fallacy of viewing the political and social conditions of modernity and antiquity as analogous. On the positive side, he touches upon the interesting ways in which modern movements use narratives of classical history to justify modern movements. For example, he discusses the role of legendary pharoahnic-era revolts in the ideology of the contemporary Egyptian revolution.

One aspect of the book which is particularly interesting and useful is the connections which Goldstone draws between various revolutions. He goes beyond the obvious connections such as that between the American and French Revolutions, drawing in examples such as the revolution which established the Meiji Restoration. To readers unfamiliar with Japanese history, the elements of constitutionalism and the effect of European revolutionary ideas on the apparent imperial resurgence would come as a surprise. The penultimate chapter of the work deals with the revolutions of the Arab Spring, which Goldstone summarizes well, while acknowledging that any conclusions one might attempt to draw about the “results” of these revolutions would be premature.

However, it is fairly easy to discern which “side” Goldstone intends to vilify in a given revolution. For example, Goldstone portrays the Bolsheviks almost unequivocally as villains, while casting the Sandinistas as champions of democracy. Overall, the weaknesses of the work far outweigh its strengths. Though an introductory work must summarize and sometimes generalize, the genre cannot justify the simplistic and often heavily biased tone of this work.

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