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Mike Duncan (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode Zero, The Introduction The word revolution is one of those words you think you know the definition of, until you actually start trying to define it. Then it turns out to be a very slippery fish. Because first of all, the word revolution, coined by Copernicus in 1543, is supposed to mean completing an orbit, coming full circle.
But the kind of revolution we’re talking about is the opposite of that. It’s a sudden, radical change, overthrowing the old regime and replacing it with a new one. It’s not about coming full circle, it’s about boldly setting out on a new path. So right away, the word doesn’t even mean what it’s supposed to mean. And it only gets muddier from there. Because even overlooking the utter absurdity of using the word revolution to describe a fundamental change in political organization, we still have a hard time expressing precisely what we mean by revolution.
We know it involves overthrowing the existing regime, but we also know that it’s more than a mere coup. We know it involves a conflict between two competing forces within a country, but we also know that it’s more than a mere civil war. We know it involves mass mobilization, but we also know that it’s more than some half-baked peasant revolt. It’s more organized, more directed, more thoughtful. Isn’t it? Well, sometimes yes, and sometimes really no.
As it turns out, distinguishing coups from civil wars, from revolts, from revolutions is a very sticky proposition. Indeed, for each of the revolutions we are going to cover in this series, there is a contingent of revisionist historians ready to argue that no revolution in fact took place. That it was just a rebellion masquerading as a revolution. Because look, the revolutionary effects were neither as wide nor as deep as once supposed, or only a narrow band of socioeconomic elites actually participated, or no one at the time actually thought that they were engaged in a revolution.
But the problem is that when we add up all those particular reinterpretations, we’re left with the very unsatisfying notion that in all of human history, no revolution has in fact ever taken place. And that just seems… not right. With that in mind, this series is based on a broad definition of what counts as a revolution.
The Encyclopedia of Political Revolutions, dealing with this same problem, casts a wide net by including events that share two characteristics. One, irregular procedures aimed at forcing political change within a society. And two, lasting effects on the political system of the society in which they occurred. But I’d like to get a touch more specific than that. Because it’s not enough to just have a cabal of elites force their way into power. That’s a coup. And it’s not enough to have an amorphous blob of angry peasants marching around with clubs and axes. That’s a revolt. Or maybe an insurrection.
So sociologist Charles Tilley narrows the definition a little further, down to, “…a forcible transfer of power over a state, in the course of which at least two distinct blocks of contenders make incompatible claims to control the state, and some significant portion of the population subject to the state’s jurisdiction acquiesces in the claims of each block.” Which is jumbled, because, well, he’s a sociologist. But basically, we need some cross-class alliance of dissidents to overthrow an existing regime by extralegal means, and then alter the political system in some fundamental way.
Where it starts to get messy is when further wrinkles are added. Theta scotchable, for example, creates a superclass called social revolutions that require changes to the political structure to be accompanied and reinforced by deep changes in the social structure. Now this is perfectly reasonable, but it leaves us grappling with difficult and ultimately subjective questions like, how much change, and for how many people, and for how long, and how do we even measure it? These are the kinds of questions that academics will be arguing about forever as new evidence is uncovered, and old evidence is reexamined, and which I plan to neatly sidestep.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ll get into it, but I have no intention of adhering to some strict analytic criteria, and then casually tossing away events like the Mexican Revolution, because not enough hectares of land were ultimately redistributed to make it a really real revolution. So for me, if it walks like a duck, and it talks like a duck, it’s probably a revolution. If there was ever a historical period that highlights this problem of what do we call it, it is the period we are going to begin the series with. Britain in the 1640s and 1650s. Something happened. Everyone agrees on that. But was it a revolution?
And if it was, was it a religiously driven Puritan revolution, or an economically driven bourgeois revolution? Or was it neither, and instead just a civil war that has been anachronistically labeled revolution? The men and women who lived through the period often referred to it as simply the late troubles, and left it at that. So what was it? A revolution, a rebellion, a civil war?
In truth, it was all of these things. It started as a conflict over whether the political system should be reformed, descended into civil war, sparking a totally unexpected revolutionary period in the late 1640s and early 1650s that saw the king executed, monarchy abolished, and a written constitution introduced for the first time. But then the storm passed, and by 1660 the monarchy was restored, and most of the recent innovations swept away.
So what do we call it? Every possible label – the Great Rebellion, the English Revolution, the English Civil Wars, the Wars in the Three Kingdoms – fails to capture some essential element of this story. Since I am primarily interested in the revolutionary aspects of the period, I am going to use English Revolution as shorthand. And I know that this is problematic, not the least of which because, you know, Scotland and Ireland. So if you want to yell at me about calling it the English Revolution, please email me at RevolutionsPodcast at gmail.com.
But just so you know, no, I am not a Marxist or some unreconstructed Whig, I’m just a guy interested in the revolutionary aspects of the period who is going to be talking a lot about the English revolutionary aspects of the period. Finally let’s talk a little bit about interpretation. In broad terms, historians interested in explaining revolutions tend to break down into two loose camps. One camp argues that revolutions erupt when slowly building tensions and the socioeconomic system finally break, while the other camp argues that it has far more to do with the calculations and miscalculations of individual historical actors.
The former is criticized for building very nice looking theoretical models and then highlighting anything that proves the model and ignoring anything that doesn’t, while the latter is criticized for essentially arguing that nothing was amiss until the moment rebellion, civil war, and violent social upheaval spontaneously consumed the entire nation. Neither of these interpretations alone, at least to me, is satisfactory. Long term social forces set the parameters for action, but they do not dictate the results. Individual choices dictate the results, but always within the bounds of those long term social parameters. This is not a bold thesis, but I’m pretty sure it’s how life goes.
I’ll close with a note on programming. With this show covering a series of distinct time periods that are thematically linked, but otherwise wildly disconnected, when I make the transition from one revolution to the next, I’m going to have to pause and recalibrate. Specifically, I’m going to have to pause and recalibrate for four weeks. I’ve thought a lot about this, and I just don’t see any good way to get around it. So each revolution will run its allotted 12 to 15 episodes, and then I’m going to go dark for a month while I get ready for the next batch.
So 12 weeks on, four weeks off. Sound good? Good. So with all that out of the way, let’s get into this thing. I apologize in advance if I butcher any pronunciation. It’s bound to happen. Email me when it does. Please don’t just leave me hanging. The show lives at revolutionspodcast.com.
- The Encyclopedia of Political Revolutions by Jack A. Goldstone: https://amzn.to/3OYV1h6
Welcome to Revolutions.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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