Turning the tables on revolution

Revolution and World Politics
April 21, 2000

The classic texts on revolution cover their topic from just about every conceivable angle: revolution and class, revolution and the public sphere, revolution and gender, revolution and race, and much more. Few of them, however, deal with the central question of revolution and war, and even fewer with the all-important issue of revolutions and foreign policy. At the same time, until very recently, historians of international relations and foreign policy have been slow to grasp the peculiar complexities posed by revolutions for the state system(s). There have been, of course, excellent case studies, such as T. C. W. Blanning's Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars (1986), but a synthesis comparable to those written on the balance of power, geopolitics and other great themes is conspicuously lacking.

This is surprising. In the 1840s, after all, Marx had spoken of revolution as the "Sixth Great Power" of Europe; and it is from this pithy formulation that the well-known commentator and historian of international relations, Fred Halliday, takes the subtitle of his new study on Revolution and World Politics.

The nub of his argument is that "revolutionaries, for all their exaggerations and tactical accommodation, mean much of what they say". Their profession of revolutionary fraternalism, of their intent to spread the Jacobin, liberal or communist gospel, is thus not mere rhetorical flannel - as "realist" historians of revolutionary foreign policies often rashly assume - but deadly earnest.

Contrary to appearances, revolutionary regimes are not "socialised" - or house-trained - by the international system, but retain their missionary incontinence long after the first flush of crusading enthusiasm has subsided. In a world that tends towards domestic homogeneity, Halliday argues revolutionary states can never be, and do not want to be, stabilising factors.

Much of this argument is entirely persuasive. For example, thanks to the flood of new documentation made available after 1989 by the Cold War International History Project, we now know that both Stalin and Mao were far more ideologically driven than "realist" observers allowed. As Vladimir Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov have recently argued in Inside the Kremlin's Cold War (1996), Stalin, despite his differences with Trotsky over "revolution in one country", subscribed to a "revolutionary-imperial paradigm", rather than an essentially conservative and traditional conception of Russian state interest.

The same is also true of the early Mao, whose foreign policy down to the late 1960s, at least, seems to have been primarily determined by ideological factors.

Indeed, as recent studies have shown, the outbreak of open warfare between Red China and communist Vietnam in 1979 was not so much the reassertion of a historic or geopolitical enmity between the two states as the culmination of a recondite but genuine ideological quarrel.

Another strength of Halliday's approach is his focus on the interaction between domestic and foreign policy at every stage of the revolutionary process.

Following the lead of Otto Hintze, Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, and - implicitly - Leopold von Ranke, he sketches the ways in which not merely the course but also the origins of great revolutions have been shaped by international affairs. The classic example here is the French revolution, which was substantially caused by the failure of the ancien régime to master the simultaneous and related global diplomatic and fiscal-political crises of the 1780s; but the same is also more or less true of the Russian cases in 1905 and 1917, and of many revolutionary upheavals in the third world.

In short, Halliday has written an extremely stimulating and long-overdue book that will be useful not only to students of revolutions and international relations, but also to historical sociologists interested in the development of the modern state. Much of the strength of the work lies in its ambitious organisation in analytical discursive chapters rather than more conventional narratival case studies.

But Revolution and World Politics is not the last word on the subject, nor - given its dimensions - does it pretend to be. Inevitably, a work of this scope will overlook key monographs, such as James Chastain or Lawrence Jennings on revolutionary foreign policies in 1848; the rather Marxist view of the 17th-century troubles in England also seems curiously outdated. No less unexpectedly, there are a number of minor errors, particularly concerning Central European affairs: for example the notion of cuius regio, eius religio - though not the phrase itself - dates to the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, rather than Westphalia, where it was merely reaffirmed, and it was not just an Austrian army, but an Austro-Prussian force, under Prussian command, that failed to master revolutionary France at Valmy in 1792.

There are also a few interpretative and structural weaknesses. First, there is more repetition than necessary, to the extent that virtually all the arguments advanced in the first few pages of chapter nine, for example, have already been made earlier. Second, Halliday's concern to rehabilitate revolution per se and rescue it from what E. P. Thompson once described as the "immense condescension of posterity" is at a tangent to the rest of the book.

The space allotted to this generationally forgivable but essentially quixotic enterprise would have been better devoted to elaborating on the principal theme of revolution and world politics. One might have been told a little more, for example, about the minority of revolutionary foreign policies that were quietist from the outset, and how these might be explained. Since Halliday repeats A. J. P. Taylor's famous quip that the 1848 revolutions were the moment when "history failed to turn", he might have added that it was also the year when the great pan-liberal-revolutionary-constitutional-nationalist crusade to liberate the Poles and other captive peoples failed to materialise. A more contemporary, rather different example of revolutionary stasis in foreign policy would be communist Albania under Enver Hoxha, whose ideological virulence was not reflected in aggression against his neighbours. None of this, however, alters the fact that this book will be read with profit by students and scholars, and perhaps - one hopes - the occasional policy-maker as well.

Brendan Simms is lecturer in international relations, University of Cambridge.

Revolution and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power

Author - Fred Halliday
ISBN - 0 333 65328 9
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £47.50
Pages - 402

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments