Table for revolution


April 18, 1997

The prospect of reviewing this volume really excited me. Here we are, I thought, at the so-called end of history, and some audacious publisher is bringing out a richly illustrated - 350 full-colour pictures - yet reasonably priced text on revolutions, written by a historian and subtitled nothing less than "500 Years of Struggle for Change". Maybe the book was intended for people like me, who refuse to believe history is over. I even wondered, given the volume's attractiveness and comprehensiveness, if it might be used in the teaching of modern history.

In fact, it is a coffee-table book, intended for browsing and/or displaying to guests. I will most likely keep it in our living room, because it is so attractive, but cannot recommend it for pedagogical purposes.

It is definitely comprehensive. Following an introductory essay on "What is revolution?", chapters of varying length and quality treat revolutionary and counter-revolutionary conflicts from the Dutch revolts and English revolution of the 17th century, through the American, French and - to its credit - Haitian revolutions of the late 18th, to the Latin American and European upheavals of the 19th and the many and diverse struggles of the 20th, including the most recent, surprisingly peaceful revolutions which toppled the Soviet empire.

But wide as the scope of the book is, historically and geographically, the work is poorly executed. I became a bit sceptical on reading that the author is a frequent contributor to The Daily Mail and Wall Street Journal - hardly credentials for a critical work on modern revolutions. More important, the book fails to incorporate the best scholarship on the subject. It is not just that the further reading section omits such classic works as Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution and George Rude's Ideology and Popular Protest, not to mention fine works by younger historians pursuing "history from below"; but also that the author does not even seem familiar with them. How else to explain the fact that, while he attends to the ideas and ideologies of political leaders, he essentially ignores the culture and ideas of "the people"? Whatever one's view of revolutions and counter-revolutions, no competent contemporary student of such struggles could fail to consider the "dialectic" between the ideas of the elites and those of the common people in the making of such events. Moreover, Almond's treatments of the respective revolutions leave out details that have made the recent study of these struggles so interesting - again, this is apparently due to lack of interest in the role of common people. He briefly notes the Levellers, but not the Diggers, Ranters, or other popular religious movements. He obscures the popular aspirations within the American revolution - which Tom Paine so effectively captured in Common Sense, and thereby turned a colonial rebellion into a nation-making revolution. And, while he acknowledges the role of Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy in Franco's Spanish civil war victory, Almond does not even mention the volunteers of the International Brigades who fought to defend Republican Spain even though their own governments failed to provide help.

Although Almond rejects Francis Fukuyama's end-of-history thesis, he says "complacency has rarely been a good prophet", thus revealing his elitist perspective and sympathies. I am tempted to say: never judge a book by its cover.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change/development, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Revolution: 500 Years of Struggle for Change

Author - Mark Almond
ISBN - 1 899883 73 8
Publisher - De Agostini
Price - £19.99
Pages - 208

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