Skip to content

Anatomy of Revolution Part 2

May 7, 2009

For a time the moderates enjoy management of governmental affairs and attempt sometimes to modify, adjust or adapt the needs of the revolution to the legal governmental organizational structure.  For a period, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter they tend to have the upper hand in making decisions and maintaining a degree of legitimacy under the auspice of the former governmental system and structure (160).  This phase, whatever the duration is honeymoon-like.  In keeping with Brinton, this is still part of the First Stage of revolution.  A distinctive occurrence is the transition of the moderate control to the extremist control and potential for terror and/or other crisis to arise.  Chapter Six examines the ascension of the extremist faction to power and describes certain uniformities that Brinton finds for the revolutions he examines.  As noted in an earlier essay, these are the English, French, Russian and American revolutions.  As such they are a narrowly defined in relation to social political needs and all are revolutions that occur prior to the mid-twentieth century, and this time frame is perhaps only relevant because the Russian Revolution may  have finally ended in the late 1940’s. 

Extremist Ascension

In tracking patterns of ascension from moderate control to left wing control by extremists, it is worth considering several things.  First, the extremist camp tends to be small in number (150).  Large masses do not a revolution make.  Many may come in and join on the heels of the few (154).  However, in what they lack in numbers they make up in cohesiveness.  This may be explained in consciousness and pride that reflects their ability to achieve the goal of a cause.  This conscious may be even more critical to the ascension process when it is further considered that as time passes some extremists will drop out.  With the winding down of the First Stage some more mundane affairs of running and organizing the government may cause some of the less intellectual, more physical types to simply return to their previous concerns and allow the remaining extremists to dicker with and pressure the moderates in transforming government (154).  Second, not only does consciousness create adhesive unity, but feeds as fanatic devotion.  This is still a time of vigor and some of the initial slogans of freedom and democracy are still being quoted.  This spirit of the First Step has not cooled and organized to the point that factions within the extremist ranks can begin to see different avenues of development.  At this point, it is “all extremists” vis “all moderates”.  Perhaps the moderates, partly because they seem to lend some legitimacy to the Old Regime government form, become the new opponent for the extremists.  However, this is a different opposition than that which led to the First Step against the Old Regime.  This step moves in time at its own sure, steady but not overbearing pace.   A third observation is that the extremists are very disciplined (155).  These people largely are used to waiting, following, and doing obeisance to the ranks.  Their past is steeped in historic oppression.  An excellent use for this pliancy is to establish and fill the ranks of a new model army for the new government.  This of course becomes a major power element for the extremists.  Fourth, there is within the extremist ranks a devotion to the leaders.  Unity in leadership follows.  As noted above, there will be perhaps a time later after the moderates are displaced that some factions of leadership may erupt, but now is not the stage, not if the revolution is to follow Brinton’s uniformities.  Command is best at the top and affective because of makeup.  Within the extremist at this level, there must be a desire that comes from high ideals, and complete contempt for anything that inhibits the establishment and realization of those ideals.  There is realism in the practicality of achieving the goals and there is a desire “prophet’s fire” to inspire self and others to reach for it.  Brinton uses Lenin’s speech to the Bolshevik party just before the October Revolution (158).  These are men or people of action.  The quote at page 159 is apropos to an understanding of this “only a sincere extremist in a revolution can kill men because he loves man.”  In other words, there is a chore to be done and the expedient route is the correct choice (160).


This is not a sudden shift or transition from the moderate to extremist control.  Much like the old Dynaflo transmission used by Buick in the 1950’s which used a clutch for reverse and forward and high.  Through use of the clutch, there is a significant point of change in direction, flow and speed.  For a time the movement is slow and constant with no sharp distinctions, then comes a smoother than the first shirt, but still a noticeable shift into high.  The moderates can almost be called perhaps in the minds of the moderates as a reverse or at least neutral setting.  The shift from this state to low requires multiple things to occur such as the right amount of clutch, gasoline and timing.  Then the stage of the extremist may take hold of the engine.  If the clutch is slow or fast, gas is too rich or too lean, or the driver’s time out of pace the auto lurches, dies or moves full speed ahead.  This seems to give a picture of the dimensions of revolution at different stages.  It seems to work well here at this stage.  As with the clutch and accelerator, extremists keep pressure on the moderates (161).  Eventually, with timing and acceleration, and adjustment out on the clutch the new organization can take hold and move past the first stages of revolution. 

            Brinton notes on page 163, that the extremists at this level of pressure on the moderates are not ignorant of political matters and some may be well experienced.  Here again is the notion that the general masses are not as critical at this stage.  Actual overthrow of the moderates he says is usually a “neat” affair free of great popular uprising.  Maneuvers include use of printed agitation, police power, military, telegraph, post, ministries.  What about digital methods that may be in use today? 

            Once the shift occurs, the focus is off the past Old Regime and the obstacles called moderates.  Now individual factions may arise.  In order to survive, what has been grounded in the most democratic theme in the past is replaced by show of power and strict behavior (166).  This may be described as dictatorship used to maintain the uniformity of the revolution.  The example of the Rump Parliament strict sanctions on the press is demonstrative of this concept (165).  As Brinton points out there is a distinction in the American case.  But in the other three there is a concept of the revolutionary dictatorship which means that in order to salvage the revolution even one for democracy and equality there may be a time of crisis where there must be a distinction among people “who deserve it, and for those who don’t.”  The reference to Marx on page 167 is central to explaining this conclusion.  Hence, dissention that arises within is quickly dealt with.  The same type of dissention if it had reared its head when facing the moderates would have been detrimental.  Now, print can be quashed, and trouble makers dealt with quickly by expulsion or “judicial murder”.  Danton and Hebert are excellent examples of judicial murder under the tutelage of Robespierre.  Smaller, and various trouble making groups can be disposed of more easily than disputes with leaders.  These smaller groups are more so rabble and fringe groups.

            In this dictatorship period, power is centralized by force, as Brinton says “rough and ready centralization”.  Final decisions are concentrated at the top by a few persons of national recognition in the form of an executive committee.  Sometimes the administrators are inexperienced, but under pressure to get the job done they perform their job without question.  An effective and swift acting bureaucracy is formed to carry our orders and dictates.  Courts are, if necessary, reorganized by supplementation with special courts, and tribunals.  To carry out the levels of judicial and legislative law a revolutionary police force comes to life.  With this shift, the time for addressing internal and external issues such as civil and foreign war is at hand.  Not only must internal dissention be resolved, but also the new government must prove itself and seek legitimacy in its neighbors, both former enemies and allies.


With accession of the extremists a time of organization may bring a time of peace for the nation, but behind the scenes the extremists are organizing their best politically trained and attempting to shore up governmental machinery.  To the onlooker it may appear the time of conflict is now over, rather there is a new stage of struggle in which individual leaders may grapple for control and meanwhile establish a firm grip on the national bureaucracy, the nations people and establish its credibility with the world. This new stage is the Crisis Stage.  It is characterized by radical control and strong enforcement of central power.  This struggle affects both the masses (the outsiders) and the insiders (177).  The outsiders seem to generally accept what the leaders do and follow them, however this soon turns to strain and stress under the order of the day, which is organize and ingrain the new society.

            In creating an atmosphere that is almost religious in effect, the new regime must create identity.  Several schemes lead to renaming of places, people and things (179).  How does changing of names affect outsiders?  A quote on page 180 is “Change a name and you change the thing.”  Part of the reason for this is to uproot all vestiges of the past old regime.  Potentially to disrupt the past serves to disorient the populous and somehow allow time for the new regime to establish itself.  After all, there will be some leaders who seek to control others and this needs to be resolved “out of the public eye”.  However, in short all people including outsiders must participate in the new regime.  One way is to give all past associated people, places and things a new identity that expresses the victory and optimism of the revolution.  Hence, we see the naming of “Constitution Avenue”.    Part of this arises in the sense of the revolution which Brinton calls puritanical and idealistic tendencies.  These tendencies religiously seek to eradicate minor vices. Eventually as time passes and radical pressure to conform increases, even the common enjoyment and simple pleasures of life otherwise considered legitimate pastimes may be outlawed.  The outsiders become increasingly frustrated and strained.  This ultimately grows until any change in the extremist terror is welcomed by the masses.

            Insiders during the revolution are affected differently.  Many may drop out due to the endless disputes, committees, and tribunals of this curvilinear organizational process of the new regime.  However, not all drop out; some remain entranced by the religious psychological state.  This stage of the revolution only serves to invigorate them to work very hard seeking ideal patterns of life, not in the future but now, in the present, on this earth (186).  This may be referred to as a phase of active religion (191).  These no doubt are many of those that benefit from the phenomena of economic struggle that takes shape.  This takes the form of confiscation and redistribution of money and land.  Brinton finds this takes place in all four of the revolutions examined (184).  This started with confiscation of the property of the old regime but as competing extremist leaders and moderate groups are eliminated, their property is also redistributed.

  1. Hence, some are under stimulated and some are over stimulated.  People can only stretch so far and must give to “reaction”.   



  1. renaming places, people, things (179).
  2. economic class struggle (184).
  3. as forms of religion they share universalist aspirations and nationalism (192).
  4. religion is lent to secularism and anti-organized traditionalism (196).


Once the extremists have more or less united under a singular leader the stage of terror and virtue accelerates.  The strain on the masses and some insiders builds.  Ultimately, the stage of terror and virtue begins to evolve back toward a more moderate form of government.  Before this can occur, there must be a change in the leadership again.  In France, the guillotine for Robespierre paved the way for Napoleon’s leadership.  This new stage is Thermidor.  The Thermidorian Reaction winds down the revolution.  In the case of England and France, the revolution wound down more quickly.  In Russia, it was very slow as noted in the text of Chapter Eight and in the Preface to the Vintage Edition (225).  In America Thermidor was even still more different from France and England (206).

            Several uniformities are found in Thermidor.  There is a restoration of the normal.  Normality does not mean peace and happiness; there will still be necessary terrorisms as the leadership becomes established.  However, characteristic in varying ways are the following: First, extreme and isolated economic hardship on the poorer classes and excessive pleasure of the upper class as a system of stratification reestablishes itself (212); Second, a move from secular humanistic religion back to the organized church, though this is more one of toleration in the Russian model due to perhaps the strength of Marxism as a religion (also the American situation is distinguished) (214); Third, a return of pleasure in daily life.  This “return” is in light of the recent past experience, almost hedonistic (218).  Last, there is a return of, or as Brinton refers to the phenomena, an “amnesty” of those previously expelled.  These individuals become either part of the political scheme or return to a solitary life.

            A strong dictatorial leader characterizes this phase.  Brinton states at page 208: “After a revolution has undergone the crisis and the accompanying centralization of power, some strong leader must handle that centralized power when the mad religious energy of the crisis period has burned itself out”.  It seems that revolutions eventually, partly because of the terror and religious virtue stage, burn out the people.  All the regulations that bind the people and keep them focused become a hazard to progress.  As the revolution weakens and control breaks down there is a necessity for a strong central, no questions asked, dictatorial leader.  Nevertheless, in time internal and very localized differences within the government lead to sacrifice of these leaders as fanatics, terrorists and lunatics.  The cooling period begins.  Sometimes the cooling period progresses quickly as in France, England and the United States, other times it is slow and volatile as in the case of Russia.


According to Brinton, beginning at page 250 there are certain uniformities that lead up to and lead to each step of revolution as identified by his study.  First, are the preliminary stage elements that come into play in setting the stage for Phase One of revolution.  The state of the economy is generally good.  There are not extreme forms of discontent expressed by a large group of non-prosperous people.  Actually this may expressed as antagonism which arises not for want of necessary things, but rather because people come to see disparity in what they want and what they have (251).  Hence, overwhelmingly the revolution partakers are those of bourgeois class who are embittered because they do not have access to the aristocratic life.  This leads to a related class issue.  Brinton notes that revolution seems to occur when social classes are closer in proximity and social intercourse than when distant.  This may work with the fact that those who have attained a degree of economic success are much like Simmel’s stranger, they are in the midst of the aristocracy, yet so far when it comes to being the aristocracy.  This enhances many strong feelings about privilege.  There is the uniformity of transfer of intellectual allegiance.  In addition, as with the other uniformities, all of the revolutions suffered from ineffectual government.  Russia suffered less, but still suffered this to a degree.  These preliminary uniformities meld with a characteristic of ruling class ineptness.  In short, the ruling class loses its focus, unity, drive and therefore strength.  Some of the ruling class ranks, which begin to distrust their own class, traditions, habits, and intellectualism, enhance this.  Some will leave and join ranks of the dissatisfied.  Politically the ruling class becomes inept.  Combining these uniformities in varying degree with governmental inefficiency leads to government being unable to “successfully” defend itself or use force to control the ones who desire revolution (252).  In bringing about the preliminary stage of revolution, Brinton concludes that it is not the strength or planning and organization of the revolutionists that bring success, but rather the ineptness of the old regime to control the public or their own integral operations of government, police and military.

            As the First Stage are realized, a point occurs which organizes and unifies the revolutionaries, both moderates and extremists to act.  As long as the focus is overthrow of the old regime, they remain organized and unanimous.  Even after the initial stage, they are unanimous and honeymoon-like, but this changes as the old regime vanishes, and the surviving members are executed, flee, or are vanquished from the country.  Unity breaks down as groups emerge, some more radical than others and some more moderate.  Moderates initially for a period move into government, but lack power to organize people who are in the fever of the moment.  The extremists must obtain power from the moderates and are perhaps best pictured as current revolution against the moderates who now have the appearance of the old regime and therefore represent an “unfinished revolution”.  Fighting, violence and disputes continue until the extremists stage a coup on the moderates and once again execute, or alienate the surviving moderates.  This is now the Crisis Stage.

            In this Crisis Stage, the government leaders move one more step to the Left.  It is now a radical government.  There is need to maintain power and force is the answer.  However, force is not just physical it is mental force.  Force through psychological state of mind.  There is a religious dimension and a desire to bring virtue to the people.  The concepts of liberty are still heard.  There must be an establishment of human betterment here on earth in the new society.  Dictates are established by a strong central government, special courts, the military, renaming persons, places and things and strongly enforced codes of moral and ethic.  The moral and ethic issues in particular, but in combination with the force and renaming leads eventually to much strain for common outsiders and some insiders.  The ordinary man in particular is left to flounder (256).  Eventually, this sets the stage for convalescence. 




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

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: