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Anatomy of Revolution – Brinton Part 1

May 7, 2009

Of the many kinds of revolutions, this is the attempt to define an “ideal type” of revolution through analysis of four revolutions that share an element of social class struggle.  The English, French and Russian are more or less centrally defined as instances of social class struggle.  The fourth, the American is bifurcated with a beginning with concentrating on territorial-nationalist principles and then taking on an aura of social class struggle (24).  For this and other reasons, the American Revolution is distinguishable from the other three.  However, where the American, English, Russian and French share an element of “class struggle”, the Russian Revolution is distinguishable as to its outcome.  Whereas it, like the other three began with calls for freedom as postulated by the Western world it changed focus and has taken a route other than the familiar democracy (vi, vii, 21).  Nonetheless, Brinton concludes these four revolutions begin with democratic overtones as modern (post-medieval) revolutions.  Other types of revolutions are discussed on page 21.

            The concept of revolution brings to mind many vivid pictures and key word terminology to describe the phenomena and therefore common connotations of the concept as a word range to opposite ends of expression and meaning.  Visualizing a revolution as the “glorious revolution” or the “reign of terror” are appropriate extremes.  Nonetheless, the object of scientific study begs a definition of “revolution”, to wit: “drastic, sudden substitution of one group in charge of the running of a territorial political entity by another group hitherto not running that government (4).  This definition necessarily dispenses with calling any change that is “consensual in nature” such as elective process in the United States or by election.

            In Chapter One Brinton introduces the concept of success.  The concept of success is complementary of another term, “finished” in the preface (vi, 21).  Success means the revolutionists become the new legal government.  To be finished is more ambiguous in meaning but definitely is a more precise term for conclusion of the revolution.  Brinton states in his Preface to the Vintage Edition on page vi that since his earlier edition he has now concluded that the Russian revolution has “finished”.  Later he indicates that although the American Revolution may be a complete territorial-national revolution, as a social revolution it appears to be incomplete (24).  Therefore, a finality and higher level of success may at times be difficult to predict and measure.


Old Regimes are the previous age just before revolution occurs (27).  They define the old way of life and are particular to each society within a general frame of similarity.  Brinton’s examination of each revolution is an attempt to distinguish similarities of each Old Regime and thereby create a framework for anticipating revolution.  He establishes three primary variable categories by which to assess each regime.  These categories are economic and political structure, alienation of intellectuals, and class antagonism.  His conclusion in Chapter Two is that no true and steadfast predictor or combination of variables give a test for predicting when or if revolution will occur.  However, Brinton does conclude that certain relationships between variables exist in his analysis.  In most instances various combinations and intensities of each variable was present before revolution occurred (65).  There is another variable of discontent that is related to each measure.  Each society has some level of discontent and is healthy to a degree (28).  It is when the level of discontent increases in combination with other factors that it becomes indicative in analyzing cause of revolution. 

Economic and Political Variables

Perhaps the economic factor is best summarized by James C. Davies “what provokes a group to attack a government is not simply deprivation or misery, but ‘an intolerable gap between what people want and what they get’” (30).  Hence, as Brinton concludes it is not lack of actual economic return or basic access, but rather a “feeling” of denial of self-value (32).  Brinton states on page 33, “the existence among a group, or groups, of a feeling that prevailing conditions limit or hinder their economic activity”.  Therefore, objectively the group may be economically successful and at once subjectively economically unsuccessful.  Therefore, there is growing consensus of lack of self-fulfillment and potential that translates itself as lack of justice (34).  Brinton provides an excellent summary of the economic discussion on pages 35 and 36.  Turning to political structure it is noted that each regime shared a level of government inefficiency and public impatience with the government.  Here again, some inefficiency and public impatience is normal and is critical only when it reaches a particular level.  As with the economic factor, only with a certain level of impatience will propaganda, action groups, and riots occur.

Intellectual Variable

Ideas are always part of society and they help shape the state of mind of various groups (39).  Hence, ideas may shape group organization for or against a government.  Pressure groups with special aims may use propaganda, lobby efforts or even terrorism in order to succeed in promoting ideals.  Again, such groups are part of society but may contribute to revolution at a particular level or in combination of groups and lead to supplanting legal government with illegal government.  Illegal government is a form of radical change and serves as an indicator of revolution (40-2).  Intellectuals, noted on page 42, play an instrumental role in shaping and communicating ideas that reflect critical analysis and that often disagree.  An excellent thought occurs on page 43 that intellectuals like corpuscles are useful and beneficial to the body (social and physical) in limited number.  In short, the degree, amount and focus of writing and talking about the ideal world, free of social, political and economic difficulties and discontents may lead to revolution.  A critical component is the numerosity of views sponsored of which the intellectual segment of society is the instrumental driving force.  

Class Struggle

Even in a democracy there is class struggle, however it is tempered by circulation of elites through use of their talents.  While the U. S. is the best example, Brinton makes a case that even in France, Russia and England mobility could be enjoyed comparable to individuals like Henry Ford, Bob Hope, or Harry S. Truman (61, 62).  A critical point in which those who are mobile may develop discontent is where a “limitation” has been placed upon their class upward movement or a barrier develops between them and the upper hierarchy.  This comes in the form of being able to generate prestige and recognition, but without commensurate financial reward (French courtiers of the Enlightenment) and generating wealth but diminished return in advanced prestige or recognition in social circles (63, 64).  This most often affects the middle and lower classes and creates greater embitterment against the upper or ruling class (57, 60).  The second type of stoppage of circulation appears to be the more critical factor of frustration with the social order (64).  As an interjection, this may interact with intellectual alienation and spur writing and ideals against the ruling class.  Compounding the issue of class is that some of the ruling class may also begin to find need for change in the government.  They in turn may actively turn against the government, or passively fail to defend it (51, 52).   


Determining first stages of revolution are difficult to determine.  Even in hindsight, labeling a first stage may be debated.  These many differences create great difficulty in determining exactly when a revolution begins (69-76).  Certain uniformity exists in relation to the four case studies.  First, there was governmental attempt to collect money and the people opposed it.  Second, there was a moment of crystallization that creates clear opposition between the old regime and the revolutionists.  Third, there is failure of the old regime to deploy force to control the people.  The actors of the revolution may not even realize the first stage has occurred until much later.  There is debate whether the first stage is spontaneous or planned by the revolutionists (77).  One line of theory is that revolution comes to happen through the internal thought processes of individuals over time.  This process is actually a number of interlocking plots proposed by a group of determined individuals, which eventually come to fruition (79).  The driving element of the other theory is the spontaneous nature by which people are through external factors driven to the point of a united front, which is necessary for “keeping the oppressors in check”.  Often one theory or the other is used by a participant (either of the old or new regime) to explain how the revolution came to occur or fail.

            The honeymoon follows the revolution during the period of victory and initial formulation of the new government.  The honeymoon is short lived.  It quickly fades as the members face the new problems of how to structure and organize the new government.


In discussing the various types of revolutionists, Brinton makes several points.  First, time and era are relevant to whether revolution is considered a valid mode of governmental change (93).  Second, revolutionists come from a cross-section of the people of the old regime.  Third, conditions unique to the revolution affect behavior of revolutionists.  Fourth, there is a moderate stage, and an extremist stage of revolution.

            Brinton analyzes categories of economics and social position, and character and disposition.  When analyzing the economic and social status of revolutionists in the four cases he further breaks down categories for rank and file (followers) and for leaders (95-105).  He concludes that overall revolutionists are not the dregs of society.  Neither rank and file nor leaders come from one clear social or economic segment of society (105).  Hence, both the street fighter and the orator are needed.

            Brinton’s statement on reduction of sociology to psychology on page 105 is noteworthy to the analysis of the character and disposition of revolutionist types.  The typing of people by character and disposition is related to ‘discontent’ of the individual.  He lists ten types of revolutionists in his analysis.  The first is  the gentlemen-revolutionist, the sincere idealist, the opportunist, the old regime failure, the undiscovered and unrewarded, the professional radical, the obscure conservative, crazed men of blood, the fanatic, and the contrary minded (107-13).


Moderates come to power partly because they are best suited and proximate to the old regime’s government, referred to as the legal government.  With the first step of revolution, or slightly before in the psychological state power shifts from the Right (Conservative – old regime) to the Moderates and eventually to the Left (Extremists).  This process is called the Sequence of Power (123).  Related to the sequence is the reality of the Dual Sovereignty (132).  Hence, they must leave.

            Perhaps moderates tend because of reality judgment to be “fence sitters” who attempt to hold on to the familiar.  “The revolution, like Saturn, devours its children” (121).   


Brinton, Crane. 1965. The Anatomy of Revolutions. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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