States and Social Revolutions

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States and Social Revolutions
States and Social Revolutions.jpg
AuthorTheda Skocpol
Pages407 pp.

States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China is a 1979 book by political scientist and sociologist Theda Skocpol, published by Cambridge University Press, which explains the causes of revolutions through the structural functionalism sociological paradigm comparative historical analysis of the French Revolution of 1789 through the early 19th century, the Russian Revolution of 1917 through the 1930s and the Chinese Revolution of 1911 through the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Skocpol argues that these three cases, despite being spread over a century and a half, are similar in the sense that all three were social revolutions.

Skocpol asserts that social revolutions are rapid and basic transformations of a society's state and class structures. She distinguishes this from mere rebellions, which involve a revolt of subordinate classes but may not create structural change, and from political revolutions that may change state structures but not social structures. What is unique about social revolutions, she argues, is that basic changes in social structure and political structure occur in a mutually reinforcing fashion and these changes occur through intense sociopolitical conflict. A convergence of peasant rebellion on one hand and international pressures causing state breakdown on the other hand cause revolutionary social movements.[1]

The book was highly influential in the study of revolutions, and has been credited with ushering in a new paradigm.[2]


The book uses both J.S. Mill's methods of agreement and difference in the case selection.[3] The book is not intended to be generalizable: it only applies to the specific cases that are studied in the book.[3] The book employs process-tracing.[4][5] While the primary focus is on France, Russia and China, she also examines "moments of revolutionary crisis" in 17th century England, 19th century Prussia and 19th century Japan.[6] Those additional cases prevent Skocpol from "selecting on the dependent variable" – looking only at cases where revolutions occurred as a way to understand the causes of revolution – which would have been a methodological flaw.[6] The additional cases serve as "controls."

Before social revolutions can occur, she says, the administrative and military power of a state has to break down. Thus pre-revolutionary France, Russia and China had well-established states that stood astride large agrarian economies in which the imperial state and the landed upper classes partnered in the control and exploitation of the peasantry but monarchy in each country faced an extraordinary dilemma in dealing with foreign power intrusion on the one hand and resistance to raising resources by politically powerful dominant domestic classes on the other. A revolution such as the French revolution also presented itself with a significant factor of power conducted with social, political, and economical conflicts. She describes the processes by which the centralized administrative and military machinery disintegrated in these countries, which made class relations vulnerable to assaults from below.

Chapter 1: Explaining Social Revolution: Alternatives to Existing Theories[edit]

Chapter one of States and Social Revolutions, entitled "Explaining Social Revolutions: Alternatives to Existing Theories", starts by explaining not just the rarity of social revolutions, but also their momentous occurrences in the history of the world. These revolutions change the lives of every citizen of the country; they completely alter the organization of the state, including their class structures, as well as the prominent beliefs and theories held by the people. The rise of the new regimes in these countries completely exceeds the previous, prerevolutionary establishments. In France, the revolution allowed for the country to become an omnipresent, conquering force in Europe, the Russian Revolution created an unstoppable military and industrial superpower, and the Chinese Revolution was finally able to unify and transform a previously broken China. Such revolutions not only alter the state of the nation in question, but also impact the world as a whole, for a number of these countries (especially France, Russia, and China) have gone on to become Great Powers. Once they gained such a status, these countries were seen as examples of what needs to and should happen in nations even hundreds of thousands of miles away. Revolutionized countries gave others the hope that perhaps one day, if they fought for it, they could also possess a strong military, a solid economy, and rights that every human being deserves. It is without a doubt that other factors can lead to social and political change, however, social revolutions deserve special attention for their specific pattern of sociopolitical change.

Social revolutions are unique from all other transformations because they alone have the ability to change both social and political organization rapidly. Two occurrences are key in order for such revolutions to occur, first there must be class-based upheavals that cause societal-structural change, and secondly there must be a coincidence of political with social change. These two changes, social and political structure, occur simultaneously and go hand-in-hand due to sociopolitical conflicts. Therefore, the definition of social revolutions makes it clear that it is crucial to not leave out any of their complexities (for example, developments both at home and abroad should be considered), and secondly, that an actual change in nation and class structure must take place.

A Structural Perspective: Chapter one then brings to light the four social-scientific theories of revolutions. First and foremost there is the Marxist family, which seems to be the most steadfast in attempting to understand the science of social revolutions. The key to Marx's approach to revolutions is interpreting them as a class-based movement that stems from structural contradictions occurring in conflict-ridden communities. Marxists further emphasize the mode of production and class structure (pertaining to land ownership and surplus). According to Marx, the primary source of revolutionary contradiction is the appearance of disconnect between the method of production between social forces and social relations of production. This disjuncture causes an immense disconnect between classes, increasing class conflicts. Revolutions occur due to the class action that is led by a rising revolutionary class, who tend to gain the support of others. Revolutions, over all, are seen as developing from class-divided methods of production, and altering one mode of production into an entirely new one through class conflict.

Next is the Aggregate-Psychological Theory, by Ted Gurr. Which explains revolutions by psychological motivation for taking part in political violence. The key concept in this theory is how people act and how the minds of those opposing the government work. The essential arguments of Gurr's theory in understanding why revolution happen include understanding relative deprivation, interpreting people's justification and beliefs about political action, and analyzing the disconnected between the crowds capacity to act and the method in which they organize themselves.

In 1966, Chalmers Johnson came up with the Systems Value Consensus Theory, which explains revolutions as a violent reaction to ideological movements. In order for a successful revolution to occur, Johnson claims that there must be both change and violence; there is no such thing as a non-violent revolution. The Systems Value Consensus Theory departs from others in that it claims revolution is a form of social change, it does not equate social change.

Lastly, there is the Political-Conflict Theory, created by Charles Tilly, which states that a conflict between a government and an organized group occurs when the two contend for power. However, the groups cannot engage in political action unless they're part of an organized, connected group that is led by a leader. The Political-Conflict Theory posits that a revolution aims to produce a common goal, so that many people become eager to join the fight.

International and World-Historical Contexts: Skocpol also discuss the role of the international community in social revolutions. It is assumed that each nation learns from the example of others, for example, modernization takes off from Western Europe, since that is where commercial-industrial and national revolutions originated. After being modernized, nations often fall into revolutions due to the change in values, the unity and mobilization of people, and temper, and once the revolution is successful the state can undergo more socioeconomic development. Another chain of events Skocpol describes is that hasty and disorderly economic expansion encourages and disturbs mass expectations, leading to unanimous dissatisfaction and political violence, that in turn destroys the current government. This, in turn, leads to new ideological movements that diminish the authority of existing structures and recreate societal values. Overall, a state's relationship with other countries and the international community in general helps to determine the outcome of its revolution. Not only do nations look to each other as examples of how to properly execute a revolution, but they also lean on others for support during one.

The Potential Autonomy of the State: It is common knowledge that social revolutions begin with visibly political crises. It is also clear that they continue because of the struggles of political parties and factions and they eventually lead to a culmination in the fortification of new state organizations that ensure socioeconomic transformations. In other words, Skocpol explains, the uprising of certain social classes and socioeconomic transformations are tied tightly to the fall of the old regime and with the strengthening and functioning of the new regime. Of utmost importance when attempting to understand social-revolutionary transformations is understanding the state as a macro-structure. The state is “a set of administrative, policing, and military organizations headed, and more or less well coordinated by, an executive authority. Any state first and fundamentally extracts resources from society and deploys these to create and support coercive and administrative organizations”. Within these systems there are institutions that convey social interests in state policymaking. In essence, the “administrative and coercive organizations are the basis of state power”, and the degree to which these state organizations are independent from control of the dominant-class depend on the case. There is often a struggle, or a clash of interests between the dominant-class and the state. For this reason, it is important for analysts to take into account not only the relationship between classes, but also between states and between states and both dominant and subordinate classes (according to Marxists). It is important to look at state relations internationally, and class-structured economies and political interests when trying to understand state organizations.

A Comparative Historical Method: Attempts to study social revolutions have been avoided because most feel as though there are not enough cases to conclude from. The Marxist theory has been used the most due to its historically grounded categories. These theorists have found class struggles and changes in class relations that arise during revolutions, but have been unable to conclude whether these factors vary between revolutions and other transformations. However, even this seemingly better method of analysis “missed identifying the distinctive political-institutional changes that set revolutions apart from nonrevolutionary patterns of national development”. The comparative historical method aids in developing an explanation for revolutions that shows both general patterns of causes and outcomes as well as aspects that are particular to each case. Within this method, two or more historical trajectories (nation-states, institutional complexes, or civilizations) are compared side by side. Even further, there is a comparative historical analysis, which develops, tests, and refines hypotheses about occurrences crucial to nation-states. This method is made specifically to explain phenomena of which there are only a few existing cases. Problems with this method include trouble finding the historical case needed for a comparison; the method assumes the two events being compared and independent from one another, but that is not the case with revolutions; and lastly, it can only be applied in addition to another theory.

Why France, Russia, and China?: While there are certainly other successful revolutions, France, Russia, and China are three perfect examples, and were chosen for a few reasons. First, in each of these countries the state and class structures were not newly created or altered by colonialism. Secondly, each revolution occurred after an extended period of class and political struggle, culminated in the strength of revolutionary state power, and long enough ago to allow proper study and comparison to be made. Furthermore, each country exhibited similarities in Old Regimes and revolutionary processes and outcomes. Each of the states was wealthy and agrarian, “the revolutionary outcome in each was a centralized, bureaucratic, and mass-incorporating nation-state with enhanced great-power potential incorporation of the New Regimes”.[7]

Chapter 2: Old Regime States in Crisis[edit]

This chapter highlights the old regimes in crisis, such as France, China, and Russia. These states set the precedent for old regimes in crisis and help to outline pre-revolutionary conditions and the leading causes. Skocpol states that revolutionary crises are created when the old regimes fail to modernize with the evolving international situation (Skocpol 1979, 48). The reason that the old regimes were in crisis was because the upper classes could not defend against peasant rebellions on a local basis; therefore, they supervise society to maintain order (Skocpol 1979, 48). The landed upper class relied on the monarchical class to bolster their status, prerogatives, and they built their fortune on state services to have such opportunities (Skocpol 1979, 49). Thus, the economic interests of the landed upper classes were in part obstacles to be overcome. These states were caught in a tough situation where the state decided to update their status in the international arena or fix the domestic class structure among the rich and the poor (Skocpol 1979, 50).

The first state discussed in a domestic crisis is France, this state was one of Skocpol's primary definitions of an old world revolutions. The two themes demonstrated in France's revolution is the rise of bourgeoisie and the emergence of the enlightenment ideology which is the characteristics that defines a revolution (Skocpol, 1979: 47). The first crisis in Frances old regime was the state and Louis XIV the absolute monarchy that led the country (51). The second crisis in the old world regime is the economy. Peasants accounted for 85 percent of the national population of the twenty six million people at the time. The progress of industry relied heavily on peasants fulfilling the labor of the agriculture and the taxation from that agriculture, yet all the money would help fund the wars(54). The third problems were the dominant classes’ jurisdiction and control of the hierarchical structure. There were distinctions between the first class, nobles, and the third estate, depending on those who were privileged and those that weren't (57). It all relied on “proprietary wealth” and taking the form of land exploited through rents from tenants who held or used pieces of domains, farms and other forms of land (59). The divisions between the different estates were the true barrier at the middle level of the social order based largely on wealth and office holding of the noble class over that of the peasantry class (58). The fourth problem with France were the wars and fiscal dilemmas held within the state (60). The monarchy could not financially maintain the military yet alone (IDK what this is supposed to say but not this) not continue to maintain the soldiers' quantity of the military because there weren't enough members of nobility. The last problems were the revolutionary political crisis; the upper nobility would propose new taxes on all lands when funding was needed (64). The dominant class then wanted representative body to advise the king of taxation. The king went against his counsel triggering administrative chaos and military breakdown (64). The people leading the chaos were the rich nobles, non-nobles, and poor country nobles. In 1788 to 1789, the French dominant class was united in wanting a less absolutist more representative national government (65). The absolutist reinforced their advantages against the poorer through political means; the state-enforced taxes hindered the opportunity of the peasants.

The second state discussed in chapter two was Manchu China in the 19th century (Skocpol 1979, 67). This civilization was in a tension filled state filled with pressures on the government to provide for the state and conflicts between gaining status in the international arena and the domestic conflicts within the state (67). The second old crisis in the Manchu-China was the agrarian economy and society of villages involved in locally focused marketing networker and imperial state administration that recruited and deployed educated individuals certified by an elaborate examination system (68). The land was owned, rented, bought, and sold in small units to peasants. The population was 80 percent peasant agriculturalists living in villages. Another old crisis occurring in China was the state itself, the emperor ruled an absolute and legally unlimited monarch with several of the imperial clans who clustered around him in support (69). “Each province was divided into smaller unites designated as tao or circuits over which intendent presided, Each tao was made up of a fu and the fu, in turn, were subdivided into departments and hsien (under magistrates) (70). Officials were appointed from the literati degree holder, otherwise known as 2% of the population. The Literati were protected by the imperial officials and these individuals passed their metropolitan examinations (70). After that group came the lower literati who passed basic level examinations. Then the gentry were based on office holding and ownership of surplus land and liquid wealth (71). The gentry lent or rented their land to the peasants that would work the field; supporting the Confucian status-manner (72). The fourth crisis in the old regime was the foreign intrusions and the domestic rebellions (73). China became under extraordinary pressures from imperialist nations abroad, to regulate and expand free trade. This directly affected China's deepening incursions on sovereignty within the state, allowing Britain to further dictate the state. Another problem occurring because of the foreign intrusion was the increase in population growth due to the emergence of industrialism (74). The fourth crisis that the old regime encountered was that the imperial authorities became weaker due to financial and administrative deficiencies in the state (74). Thus, causing the bureaucracy to break pace and disorganizing the authority from the Literati to basic level magistrates supervising a record breaking population (75). The chaos that ensued after the changes of the new imperial figure that invaded China caused Chaos, not only did the western ideology affect China's educational system but it disrespected the Confucianism ideals that China was built upon. The Ch’ing was confronted in the 18th century with peasant based rebellions such as; White Lotus, Taiping, and Nien(75). The fifth crisis that resulted in China's revolution was the loss of resources that created the rebellions because of the economical and population losses caused by massive civil warfare. The last crisis that ensued in old regime, China were the changes in government, the new western style learning for new governmental elite was established in the localities and provinces and in peaking (77). Another change that occurred was the creation of military academies to train officers as well as a new budgeting system that was instituted (78). The last change in government was the creation of representative assemblies in 1908 to support the imperial government. The western ideologies completely rejected the Confucian ideals that were in place for centuries (79).

The last old world regime in crisis was Russia; they were the last underdeveloped great powers that were bombarded by state change as well as the loss of status in the international arena (Skocpol 1979, 81). The Russian imperial state was in crisis due to their multiple defeats in previous wars. In the 19th century, he state developed a competition to be the dominant power in the European state system (83-84). The population during that time was living in cities was 8 to 10 percent or 60 million (82). During this era, there were two types of landlord/serf relations that prevailed and often combined in one estate or intermixed in one locale; black soil provinces, and infertile soil(83). Those who worked in the black soil provinces performed the services on the lord's demesne for one half or more of each week (83). The second system had hard conditions and made the serfs face primitive conditions making their job difficult. The second crisis was the Crimean debacle and reform of Western Europe during the 19th century (83). Imperial Russia was on their defense when it came to controlling the Russian Sea. Russia appeared on the global sphere to be one of the strongest single powers in 1815 but after 1848 they lost their position as a great power in the international arena (84). The Crimean war handed the severe blow to Russia's strength and further displayed Russia's inferiority to other countries in this moment in time (84). The military defeats made the citizens of the state lose confidence in their government forcing them to reform (85). The first sign of reform was emancipation of the serfs, directly limiting nobility's autocracy, further dissolving the imperial state. The third crisis that occurred was the weakness of the landed nobility; this group was the middle class between the serf economy and the imperial state (85). The Russian dominant class was created with the financial funding of the peasantry through the state, the landed nobility was economically weak and dependent on the imperial authorities to control the state (87). The fourth crisis in the old regime was the state guided industrialization that occurred after the post-Crimean reform era, the goal of the state was to spur industrialization from the upper class and did not come until after some initial experiments’ with laissez faire capitalist policies (90). Russia was open to foreign trade and investment believing that they could acquire modern industrial, transportation materials and techniques to speed up the agricultural process. The state didn't predict the possibility of trade and investments leading to the furtherance of Russia's demise; the agricultural productivity declined, the price for grain dropped, the need for imports and indebtedness grew (90). Russia was further dissolved by the war and military measures cost the state as well as created famines in 1891. The Russian economy was tied to Europe's finances, the western market contracted Russian's industry, and grown rapidly in the 1890s, but the crisis created a long recession. Despite the declining economy, Russia still functioned as a competing Great Power in the European arena (94). Yet, the state still couldn't move forward because of the collapse of the agricultural system. The last crisis that occurred in the old world regime was the impact of war. In the 20th century, Russia was caught in the middle of an “crosscurrent” between the international world and the Europe (94). The states goal was to maintain their power and status as the Great Power and the only way this could be done was through war. The biggest war Russia ever became involved in was World War 1, engulfing all of the European states forcing Russia to protect their status and assets (95). The consequences led Russia further downward because of the military defeats, economic and administrative chaos (96).

Another important aspect of this chapter was Meiji Restoration and the Prussian Reform Movement (100-111). A series of states (France, Prussia, Japan, China and Russia) were subjected to military pressures from more financially stable states abroad and all states encountered societal political crisis (110). France, Russia, and China were the states to be immersed into the social revolutions but Prussia and Japan adapted to the pressures by adapting through reforms given by the authoritarian figures (110). The precedent of Social Revolutions began in France, Russia, and China through the internal and external crisis seen at the time. The surfacing of the(se) “revolutionary political crisis” were created by the nobilities control on the agrarian structure of taxation on the old regimes limiting the peasant's opportunities (111).

Chapter 3: Agrarian Structures and Peasant Insurrections[edit]

Chapter 3 analyzes the situation of the peasantry and its contribution to the great Revolutions. Attention is given to the conditions for and against peasant insurrections. Skocpol states that societal political crises alone were not sufficient enough to produce social-revolutionary situations in France, Russia, and China. Urbanites and peasantry were dependent on each other. Peasant revolts have been crucial in almost all successful revolutions to date, especially in the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions. This is not surprising since social revolutions have usually occurred in agrarian countries where peasants made up the major producing class. Peasant revolts destroyed the old agrarian class relations and weakened the military and political supports for liberalism or counterrevolution. Successful revolts by urban workers may not have been necessary in the Revolutions, but peasant revolts against landlords were definitely a necessary ingredient in all three Revolutions. The peasant revolts of the three Revolutions were all directed particularly against landlords. Skocpol defines peasants as primary agricultural cultivators. Because of political and social marginality as well as socio-economic immobility, peasants must bear the burden of combinations of taxes, rents, interest rates, and discriminatory prices. They always have grounds for rebellion against landlords, state agents, and merchants who exploit them. The issue at hand is the degree to which grievances that are always at least implicitly present can be collectively perceived and acted upon. Peasants struggled for concrete goals such as access to more land, or freedom from claims on their surpluses.

Main points of Chapter 3:

  • Skocpol's definition of peasants (115)

-primary agricultural cultivators

-always have ground for rebellion against landlords, state agents and merchants

-always exploited

  • “agrarian sociopolitical structures that facilitated widespread peasant revolts against landlords were the sufficient distinctive causes of social revolutionary situations commencing in France, 1789, Russia, 1917, and China, 1911” (154)

-peasant revolts are crucial in almost all successful revolutions to date

-societal political crises alone were not sufficient enough to produce social-revolutionary situations in France, Russia, and China

-urbanites and peasantry dependent on each other

  • France (155–156)

-Old Regime

--> landed-commercial dominant class has power within semi-bureaucratic absolute monarchy

--> agrarian economy growing but no breakthrough to capitalist agriculture

--> villages were autonomous under supervision of royal officials

--> peasant smallholders owned less than 40% of land but worked 80% or more in small plots

--> individual property was established, but peasant community opposed seigneurs because of their collection of dues and tithes

-Reaction (157)

--> peasant revolts against seigneurial claims

  • Russia (155-156)

-Old Regime

--> landed nobility has little political power within highly bureaucratic state

--> extensive growth in agrarian economy, but little development in core regions

--> villages sovereign under control of tsarist bureaucracy

--> strong community of peasants based upon collective ownership (obshchina)

--> peasants own 60% or more of land and control process of production

--> pay rents and redemption payments

-Reaction (157)

--> peasant revolts against all private landed property

  • China (155–156)

-Old Regime

--> landed-commercial dominant class has power within semi-bureaucratic absolutist state

--> no developmental breakthrough in agrarian economy; near limits of growth

--> peasants 50% or more of land and work almost all land in small plots

--> pay rents to gentry

--> no peasant community

-Reaction (157)

--> spread of agrarian disorder, but no peasant revolts against landlords

Chapter 3, Section 1: Peasants Against Seigneurs (French Revolution)

Chapter 3 is divided into four subsections; the first is titled Peasants Against Seigneurs in the French Revolution (112–127). In this section, structural conditions (118–120), the impact of the political crisis of 1789 (121-125), and the limits of the French peasant revolution (126–127) are discussed. On August 4, 1789, members of the constituent assembly denounced and renounced “feudal” structures of French society and politics. But these liberal nobles and Third Estate representatives assembled at Versailles would never have initiated these reforms had not an agrarian revolt against the seigneurial system been present, forcing the reluctant hand of the nobles and representatives. Peasant resistance to the payment of dues and tithes, as well as escalating violence against chateaux and individuals, forced the men of property and privilege at Versailles to make concessions. It is believed that without the peasant revolution, the Constituent Assembly would most likely not have struck so severely against the feudal regime. Furthermore, without the aid of the peasant revolution, the Revolution may never have developed beyond constitutional reforms. An agrarian social structure peculiar to France made possible the potential for the peasant revolts that erupted in 1789. Socioeconomic and political conditions influenced the ability of peasants to react against exploitation. Unlike the serfs of Eastern Europe, the French peasantry owned a substantial portion of the land of France and therefore controlled the use of most of the land involved in agricultural production.

Chapter 3, Section 2: The Revolution of the Obshchinas (Russian Revolution)

Turning from revolutionary France to Russia, the second subsection is titled The Revolution of the Obshchinas: Peasant Radicalism in Russia (128–139). In this section, the agrarian conditions after the emancipation (128–132), the impact of the political crises of 1905 and 1917 (133–136), and the leveling outcome in Russia (136–139) are discussed. The French and Russian Revolutions shared similar factors: rentier agriculture, peasant community structures, and the breakdown of the repressive machine. Serfdom was considered the basis of the Russian autocracy. Chained to estate lands, communities of peasants were held collectively responsible for payments and labor service to nobles. Once the Imperial regime was established, heavy taxes and provision of military recruits were added to the obligations of the serfs. Peasants could express no more than sporadic, localized resistance. The 1861 “Emancipation” of the serfs was initiated by the tsar and his bureaucrats. Its purpose was to improve the social stability and political spirit of the Imperial system. The Emancipation set the stage for the agrarian revolution that uprooted the pre-revolutionary social order in 1917. The institutional basis of the Emancipation was based on the obshchina: a village commune that controlled property in land and distributed access to it among individual households. What the peasants wanted the most out of the Russian Revolution and what they immediately achieved was possession of the land and the available means for working it. It was the obshchina’s collective interest in expanding its landholdings, as well as its weakening of private property rights, that contributed to the Russian peasant revolution and its accomplishments. The accomplishments of the 1917 Russian peasant revolution contrast in important ways with the accomplishments of the French peasant revolution of 1789. In France, the rebellious peasants abolished seigneurial claims and controls. But the peasants respected private property and did not attack it, including large estates and rich peasant farms. In contrast, the Russian obshchina did not legitimate private landed property as such, but rather believed that “all land belonged to God.” The only ones who came out winning big within the French peasantry were those rich and middle peasants who already owned their own land. The peasant revolution in Russia, however, not only abolished rental claims of landlords but also seized and redistributed most private landed properties. This benefited the less well-to-do and land-poor peasants. Although the accomplishments between these two peasant revolution contrast in important ways, the processes of the French and Russian peasant revolutions were similar in many ways. One vital similarity was that in both Russia and France, the peasant village assembly provided the organizational basis for spontaneous and autonomous revolts. In both cases locally controlled peasant revolts were influenced by society-wide political crises within the context of which they occurred. An internal political development was the primary revolutionary crisis in France, first impinged upon the villages when the king called for elections to the Estates General. The revolutionary political crisis in Russia was the sudden breakup of the huge armies that had been mobilized to fight World War I in Russia. It had come in the midst of national defeat in a massive and modern war. Essential to the success of the Russian peasant revolution, the breakup also influenced the shape of the peasant accomplishments. Unlike in France where the village assemblies were convened and led by the usual (older as well as richer) community influentials, in Russia they were led by younger men, with guns and ideas brought home from their wartime military experience.

Chapter 3, Section 3: Two Counterpoints (English and German Revolutions)

The third subsection of this chapter is titled Two Counterpoints: The Absence of Peasant Revolts in the English and German Revolutions (140–147). The English Parliamentary Revolution (140–143) and the failed German Revolution of 1848–50 (144–147) are briefly discussed in this section. The peasant revolts that greatly contributed to the French and Russian social revolutions were able to occur because both Old Regimes were prone to agrarian upheavals against landlords. Agrarian class relations and local political arrangements in France and Russia provided solidarity and autonomy to peasant communities, allowing them to strike out against the property and privileges of the landlords. But such favorable conditions to peasant revolts were not present in all countries. This absence could account for why a successful social revolution could not occur, even with a societal political crisis present. In this section of the chapter, positive cases for social revolutions are contrasted to cases in which social revolutions were not successful. The seventeenth-century English Revolution and the German Revolution of 1848–50 are two such cases. Their characteristics and outcomes were quite different: the English Revolution was a successful political revolution, while the German Revolution was a failed social revolution. Both cases were prevented from becoming successful social-revolutionary transformations. This was largely because agrarian class and political structures of the English and German Old Regimes gave ruling power to landlords and not to peasant communities. The significant point in this subsection is that, unlike France and Russia, English and German landlords couldn't be successfully challenged from below, even during political crises.

Chapter 3, Section 4: Peasant and Gentry (Chinese Revolution)

The last and final subsection of this chapter is titled Peasant Incapacity and Gentry Vulnerability in China (147–154). This section turns to the third positive case of social revolution and discusses China's structural conditions (148–150) and patterns of agrarian unrest (150–154). The Chinese Revolution is the most obviously peasant-based social revolution of the trio (France, Russia, China) presented in this book. Despite some similarities to France and Russia, the agrarian class and local political structures of old-regime China resembled those of England and Prussia. Although a peasant revolution against landlords did eventually occur in China as in France and Russia, the peasants of China lacked the solidarity and autonomy that allowed the peasant revolutions in France and Russia to react quickly to the collapse of the central governments of the Old Regimes. Unlike the French and Russian agrarian revolution, the Chinese agrarian revolution was more protracted. In sum, in Chapter 3 Skocpol argued that “agrarian sociopolitical structures that facilitated widespread peasant revolts against landlords were the sufficient distinctive causes of social revolutionary situations commencing in France, 1789, Russia, 1917, and China, 1911” (154).

Chapter 4: What Changed and How: A Focus on State Building[edit]

While Part 1 of the book analyzed the causes of societal crises, Part 2 proceeds to show what changed in the French, Chinese, and Russian Revolutions and why those changes emerged from these social revolutionary situations. The second part of the book is titled Outcomes of Social Revolutions in France, Russia, and China (161-173) and explains shared patterns across all three Revolutions as well as key variations among the Revolutions. The second part of the book is divided into four chapters. Chapter 4, What Changed and How: A Focus on State Building, is the first chapter within the second part of the book. This chapter analyzes the processes and outcomes of the Revolutions by focusing on the struggles surrounding the creation of new state organizations within the social revolutionary contexts. Each Revolution is examined from its original crisis of the Old Regime to the created sociopolitical patterns of the New Regime. These changes are followed according to the emergence and consolidation of new state organizations and the deployment of state power in each revolutionized society.Why is this approach taken to analyze the outcomes of the Revolutions? The reason for a focus on state building is because as Samuel P. Huntington writes: “A complete revolution involves...the creation and institutionalization of a new political order” (163). The Revolutions were only fully achieved when new state organizations were created among the conflicts of the revolutionary situations. Social revolutions not only affect social and cultural life, but also make changes in the structure and function of states. Therefore, an emphasis is placed on state building because of the importance of political consolidation and of state structures in determining revolutionary outcomes.

Main Points of Chapter 4:

  • Social revolutions affect structure and function of states

-State building within the social revolutionary contexts determined revolutionary outcomes

-Revolutions only fully achieved when new state organizations were created

  • Similar patterns of change between Chinese, French, Russian Revolutions (164-168)

-Revolutionary ideologies were key to the nature of all revolutionary outcomes (169-171)

-Peasant revolts

-Landed upper classes lost control of peasants

-State-building leaderships

-New state infrastructure is more centralized and rationalized

--> Greater popular incorporation into state-run affairs

--> More effective in society and more powerful against international competitors

  • Differences between outcomes of Revolutions (164-168)

-France and Russia

--> Professionalized and hierarchical state


--> Professional-bureaucratic state

--> National markets and capitalist private property

-Russia and China

--> Rise to party-led state organizations

--> Development-oriented party-states

--> Control over national economy


--> Highly centralized and bureaucratic

--> Party or army organizations asserted control over all society and state administration

Chapter 4, Section 1: Political Leaderships

A short and concise chapter, Chapter 4 is only divided into 2 subsections. The first subsection is titled Political Leaderships (164-168). Skocpol views the political leaderships primarily as state builders rather than as representatives of classes. Social-revolutionary crises aroused the political and class struggles of France, Russia, and China, ultimately leading to structural transformations. All three Revolutions shared important patterns of change. Agrarian class relations were transformed through peasant revolts against landlords, bureaucratic and “mass-incorporating” national states replaced autocratic and proto-bureaucratic monarchies, and the prerevolutionary landed upper classes no longer retained exclusive privileges in society and politics. Under the Old Regimes, the special privileges and institutional power bases of the landed upper classes were considered hindrances to full state bureaucratization as well as to direct mass political incorporation. Political conflicts and class overthrows removed these hindrances. The landed upper classes lost control of the peasants and shares of the agrarian surpluses through local and regional quasi-political institutions. During the same time, political leaderships started to emerge and were challenged to build new state organizations to consolidate the Revolutions. Because these emerging political leaderships could mobilize lower-class groups that had previously been excluded from national politics, such as urban workers or the peasantry, these leaderships were able to successfully meet the challenges of political consolidation. Thus, in all three Revolutions, the landed upper class lost out to both the benefit of lower class groups and to new state infrastructure. In each New Regime, there was much greater popular incorporation into the state-run affairs of the nation. The new state organizations produced during the Revolutions were more centralized and rationalized than those of the Old Regime. Therefore, they were more effective within society and more powerful against international competitors. Yet, of course there were also variations within the outcomes of the Revolutions. The Russian and Chinese Revolutions gave rise to party-led state organizations and resembled each other as development-oriented party-states. These organizations asserted control over the entire national economies of the two countries. In France, however, a professional-bureaucratic state coexisted with national markets and capitalist private property. The Russian regime though, exhibited some important similarities to France. Both Revolutions gave rise to a professionalized and hierarchical state aligned to the administrative supervision of social groups. In China, a state was generated that was highly centralized and in some ways thoroughly bureaucratic. Unlike in France and Russia, the Party or army organizations served not only as means of control over the state administration and society, but also as agents of popular mobilization. The most striking contrast to France and Russia has been the mobilization of peasants for rural development. In sum, the revolutionary leaderships that were produced during the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions were state-building leaderships. They created administrative and military organizations and political institutions that replaced the pre-revolutionary monarchies.

Chapter 4, Section 2: Revolutionary Ideologies

The second subsection within Chapter 4 is titled The Role of the Revolutionary Ideologies (169-171). By examining the role of revolutionary ideologies, this subsection aims to answer why revolutionary leaderships ended up creating the specific kinds of centralized and bureaucratic state structures that they did. It is often argued that the ideologies to which revolutionary leaderships are committed to provide the key to the nature of revolutionary outcomes. It is further believed that ideologies also reveal the strategies that revolutionary leaders followed as they acted to produce the outcomes. Revolutionary ideologies and people committed to them were necessary ingredients in the social revolutions of China, Russia, and France. In short, existing structural conditions have greatly limited ideologically oriented leaderships in revolutionary crises. Thus they have typically ended up accomplishing very different tasks and producing quite different kinds of new regimes from those they originally ideologically intended.

Chapter 5: The Birth of a “Modern State Edifice” in France[edit]

The French Revolution was formed by the outcome of the revolutionary crisis where the individual's independence and liberties seemed unfeasible and after the masses mobilized together their goal was centralize the state (Skocpol 1979, 174). This chapter highlights the French Revolution and the developments that occurred to create modern-day France.

The first section questions if the revolution was meant primarily for the bourgeois revolution. The author criticizes Marxist “social interpretation”(174) which held that the revolution was led by the upper-middle class (bourgeoisie) to replace feudalism and gentry with capitalism instead (174). Marxist highlights the bourgeoisie creating a transition from the feudal hierarchy towards capitalist mode of production to rid the system that prevents the individuals within it to move up on the hierarchy (175). Skocpol offers more depth within the section stating that revolution and economic development occur because the political elites didn't take control over the economy to create industrialization; instead they strengthened private property ownership further (175). Not to mention that the regional, estate, and guild class had been removed from the national market. Over time, France did eventually become a capitalist industrial government (175-176). The men who dominated post revolutionary France were not industrial class who were better fit to equip this new governmental state(176). But they were bureaucrats, soldiers, and owners of real estate, thus giving all classes an opportunity to be a part of the state (176). The base of the bourgeoisie were still wealthy, ambitious, and where in control over the private property. Yet, this new state was still agrarian despite the fact that they were modernized to an industrial and capitalist society (176-177). After 1789, the society barely picked up their economic situation after the revolution halting progress. The situation continued to deteriorate, after 1814, the French new industry couldn't compete with Britain, they lacked connection, and “know how” (177). The state was in a mode of celebration because they accomplished the resolving of domestic, military, and removal of the feudal system (177-179). Domestic problems in the state where resolving themselves when the bourgeoisie elites were conquered by the new bourgeoisie (178). It is also important to acknowledge France's accomplishment of participating in European wars from 1792 to 1814. The French Revolution accomplished the removal of the feudal system The new state was ruled by “bourgeoisie only” because it simplified and improved property rights into an individualistic and exclusive form of private property (179). This new state was capitalist explicitly by clearing away corporate and provincial barriers and expanded competitive and national market economy in France. The French Revolution in this section attempts to reveal that this historical event can be relatable or caused a bourgeois revolution (179-180). The second section highlights the 1789 effects of Frances social revolutionary crisis (181). The peasant revolts were the key to revolution, and the key to change in France (181). The dominant classes were divided from the very beginning over what kind of king should represent the French state (182). This division established the creation of the Estates General, which was only known as only as historical precedent. No real change came of the creation of this assembly because the 3rd estate had only 1 vote, causing the other 2 estates; nobility and gentry to ban together against them (182). The existing political privileges would be at stake if the provincial estates, parliaments, and voting by order would be sacrificed for the new national assembly that became implemented for show (182). The national assembly benefitted from the Municipal Revolution, they were given more rights to decide on specific decisions. The assembly was orientated towards the approval of society and was used as a political strategy that had no administrative power (182). Another outcome of the revolution was the creation of the French local authorities; they represented the different interest of the state (182). The revolutionary liberal government that emerged in France received its origin from English parliamentary government. Another highlight of the French Revolution was the impact of the peasant revolts, thus created by the dominants control over the administrative decisions of the state, denying the lower class their autonomy and means to survive (183). The repercussions of the peasant revolts were the appearance of a uniformed, well balanced administration, and modernized legal system that outlined the modern France of the 1790s. The peasant revolts caused further separation of the classes (183).

The third section in the Modern State Edifice in France was war, the Jacobins, and the Napoleons (185). This section is about the three figures that were an intricate part in France's Revolutionary process. The declaration of war on Austria in 1792 was the first international conflict that led to the liberal phase of 1789-91, this act set the process of government centralization (185). Thus leading to the discontent of the state and mobilization for revolutionary dictatorship hoping that the declaration on Austria would unify the state together, but the state further resented each other further (187). The state would also become more knowledgeable on the political awareness of the happenings in the state. The discontent of the state's citizens and the bombardment of other international states competing for the administrative control of France caused further tension(187). France the decided to create another form of government reformed in an attempt to protect the state creating a more arbitrary system as well as dictatorial (188). The reform of the state caused the army to expand enormously as well as enlarging the committee on Public Safety. Despite the new army that was created, the troops framework of the line armies did not completely dissolve in 1789-92 (191). After the revolution the state building commenced on land warfare, the Montegnards fell under the dictatorial rule of the committee of public safety the armies of the post-revolutionary France turned to undermine the confidence of France and defeats to victories (191). The dissatisfaction of the Montegnards dictatorship led to the summer of 1794, Robespierre and his lieutenants were sent to the guillotine as the convention revoked their support for the Committee of Dictatorship (191). Yes, the Montegnards did provide leadership to allow peasants to purchase land but they still were in favor or private property rights (191). The Montegnards were examples of proletariat s class in the time of Revolutionary France. The Montagnards and the Committee of Public Safety both lacked unity and both eventually fell apart by the spring of 1794 (192). The goal of the state was to search for stability, this was done through the pro-revolutionary France who became more centralized and hands on than ever before (192-193). Napoleons’ rise of leadership over France was meant as a means of authoritarian rule that would provide stability among the state (194). Yet, Napoleons constant need to conquer the European continent would be the French states demise (195). Napoleon progressed the French state farther than Montegnards, and Jacobin. Yet, Napoleon like the other leaders was removed by foreign intervention after the military collapsed (196).

The last section of the “modern state edifice” in France was the post revolutionary France's new regime. There were several changes implemented on the state and organizations within France such as: the army, the civil state, and the state in society (196-205). The army became professionalized and the emergence of the national army. The army was originally 90 percent noble before 1789 but after an influx of men could join without being noble (196-197). Napoleon Bonaparte helped to organize the army and helped to give soldiers rank based on experience and education rather than class. The civil state changed due to the French Revolution, it became less monarchical and authoritative (198). They became a more democratic government with bureaucratic administrative qualities providing citizens with equal opportunities in the running of the state (198). The state in society had a stronger grip on functions and organizations within the state, such as education, settlements within the church, and the intrusion of the state (202). The French Revolution created a new coexisting society that was centralized and professional-bureaucratic state with a society dominated by small, medium, and large owners of private property (204). This was done to maintain social order and provide more autonomous opportunities. The French Revolution swept away the monarchical dictatorship that only provided opportunities to the rich and modernizing France was given equal opportunities to all with a democratic government with bureaucratic organization (205).

Chapter 6: The Emergence of a Dictatorial Party-State Russia[edit]

Chapter six of States and Social Revolutions is entitled The Emergence of a Dictatorial Party-State in Russia. The Russian Revolution is known to be the most complete or thoroughgoing of the modern social revolutions. In the matter of a few months industrial workers, peasants, and soldiers came together in revolts, undermined the capitalist classes and sealed the fate of the tsarist regime. The leaders of this revolution were devoted to socialisms ideas of equality and proletarian democracy. However, these ideas ended up creating a centralized bureaucratic party-state that later came to push hasty national industrialization through terror tactics. When the Russian Revolution finally broke out, it was when the tsarist state had already been destroyed by the seemingly never-ending involvement and defeats of World War I.

Dilemmas for the Provisional Government: Various attempts were being made by leaders of political parties in 1917 to stabilize the Russian Revolution in a liberal-democratic manner. “The Provisional Government declared itself head of government…until a Constituent Assembly could be elected to create a new constitution”. The tsarist regime was effectively replaced with a network of councils, of which the Provisional Government relied most on the Petrograd Soviet. However, as problems continued to pile up, it became evident that the liberal system was even less capable of dealing with them than the old autocracy was. By 1917 Russia was experiencing severe bankruptcy and their only solution was to stay in the war so their western allies would continue to provide them with support. As the war was kept in play by the Provisional Government, peasants continued to take over rights and lands of the gentry, popular revolts gained power, and the soviets began to involve themselves in administrative matters more so than ever before. The Provisional Government had neither the authority nor the power to end the attacks on the privileged, and soon after the February Revolution much of the Imperial administration, such as the police, disintegrated. From this point on, it was uphill for the peasants, workers and soldiers, who were able to revolt in ways they could not before. At this point, the only hope for national order was in the hands of the various political parties fighting for popular support.

The Bolshevik Struggle to Rule: In the spring and summer of 1917 the Bolshevik Party, which was initially the smallest and the most socialist party, was able to gain popular support through rebellions calling for “peace, land, break, workers’ control, and all power to the soviets”. These tactics helps tem win the elected majorities.

The Party Claims Exclusive Sovereignty In October 1917 the Bolsheviks were finally able to push aside the Provisional Government in a military coup without any immediate military opposition. The Bolsheviks continued to find ways to weaken opposing parties without alienating too much popular support. In the face of difficulties, the Bolsheviks “turned to organized coercion…against foreign and domestic counterrevolutionaries but also…against the mass constituents of the Revolution as well”. Soon after, the Cheka, political police, was organized to fight counterrevolutionaries in any way that seemed necessary. Even then, peasants represented a large chunk of Soviet citizens and therefore, their products were essential to the health of urban Russia, and they therefore, had to be included in the New Regime. The peasant dilemma appeared in the development of the Red Army. This was the Russian Army that had to be built from bottom-up after the old Imperial armies disappeared. The majority of the Red Army was composed of peasants under the role of Leon Trotsky and Lenin. Between the years of 1918 and 1921 the Red Army was able to defeat counterrevolutionary threats as well as develop a secure basis for “continued highly centralized rule by the Bolshevik-Communist Party”.

State Controls in the Economy During the civil war years the War Communism system was created, in which the state took on the role of producer and distributor, with labor strictly under the control of the state and regimentation was compulsory, and the need and use for money dissolved. In addition to this, after the October Revolution nationalization of industries took place, transferring control to administrative organs. Under War Communism, the Russian economy once again fell apart. With people out of work and revolting, the Communist leaders created a New Economic Policy, where “market forces in peasant agriculture…were allowed to revive”. Starting in 1921, the revolutionary New Regime banked on how leadership controlled and executed state power over the Russian society.

The Stalinist “Revolution from Above” By 1926 it was clear that the NEP system had to be revamped in order to salvage the relationship between the Soviet's regime and peasantry.

The Peasant Contradiction In 1926 the Russian industry had recovered, yet the peasants were unable to increase agricultural production or hand over current surpluses unless they found a way to purchase manufactured goods at a fair price. Petty producers, who were increasing in number, had the ability to keep their grain off the market, hold it in anticipation of better selling prices, or keep it for themselves. The Russian peasant revolution expropriated and redistributed private land, which made them even less market oriented than they had been in 1917. Because they were reaping so few benefits from partaking in the economy, they found no reason to do so. They began marketing less and less grain, which led to shrinking harvests in the upcoming years.

The Commitment to Rapid Industrialization and Forced Collectivization Josef Stalin's “left” approach took over. This entailed implementing heavy industries with “administrative imposition of the collectivization of agriculture in order to force the peasantry to grow and surrender grain and to release manpower for the sudden urban-industrial expansion”. Under this new regime the Soviets were able to accomplish more without social oppression and was far more effective and centrally coordinated than the tsar. This new communist regime also brought the elimination of noble and capitalist preference, equality in jobs, education, and more right, allowing people to move up the ladder of success.

The Fate of Workers and Peasants Unfortunately, the post 1928 Soviet regime was unable to increase the welfare of urban workers and collectivized peasants. In fact, their quality of life decreased because wages were too low to compensate for the high prices of necessities. Additionally, the influence of trade unions dwindled. Peasants were organized into kolkhoz, collectively owned and worked on law with fixed prices and low wages.

Hierarchy and Coercion: In the 1930s preferential treatment of officials and skilled workers became much more common. With this, the Soviet regime also began to lean on tactic of terror and coercion (secret police surveillance, prison camps, etc.) in order to rule its people, eventually leading to the “Great Purges”.[8]

Chapter 7: The Rise of a Mass-Mobilizing Party-State in China[edit]

Chapter analyzes developments in China from the aftermath of 1911 through 1949 to the 1960s. The Chapter is divided into four subsections and the first one is titled The Social Revolutionary Situation After 1911 (237-241). China's warlord context and the survival of the local gentry are discussed in this section. The second subsection is titled The Rise and Decline of the Urban-Based Kuomintang (242-251). Its alliance and break with the communists and its failure to consolidate national control are further discussed in this section. The third subsection within Chapter 7 is titled The Communists and the Peasants (252-262). The peasant-based red army, the second united front and its cadre recruitment and administrative control, and the Party's mass mobilization for production, war, and land revolution are examined in this particular section. The fourth and final subsection is titled The New Regime (263-283) and examines a strengthened state bureaucracy, a Communist China and Soviet Russia, a balanced strategy for national development, and political coordination, mass mobilization, and egalitarianism. Reasons for China's distinctive outcomes are also examined in the section.

Similar to the French and Russian Revolutions, the Chinese Revolution was initiated by the breakdown of an autocratic and semi-bureaucratic Old Regime. A New Regime more centralized, mass-incorporating, and more rationalized and bureaucratic than the previous Old Regime was produced. As stated in Chapter 3, social Revolutions in France and Russia depended upon the occurrence of peasant revolts. Revolutionary state organizations were primarily built up with the aid of urban popular support and imposed through administrative hierarchies upon the rural areas. Unlike the Revolutions of France and Russia, the peasants in the Chinese Revolution ended up providing both the revolutionary force and the organized popular basis for the solidification of revolutionary state power. The result was a New Regime devoted to promoting participation and resistant to routinized hierarchical domination by bureaucratic officials. The differences that set the Chinese Revolution apart from the Russian and French Revolutions lie in the particular characteristics of the social revolutionary situation and the surviving characteristics of the Old Regime. When the Imperial state in China fell, gentry landlords remained established in the rural localities, and warlords held a strong influence at provincial and regional levels. Therefore, revolutionary state-builders faced dire obstacles. The Chinese Revolution could only be completed when revolutionary leaders learned to tap the rebellious, productive and political energies of the peasant majority.

Main points of Chapter 7:

  • Autocratic and semi-bureaucratic Old Regime of China
  • New Regime: Communist China (263-283)

-party state



-more rationalized and bureaucratic

-devoted to promoting participation

-resistant to routinized hierarchical domination

  • Surviving characteristics of Old Regime (237-241)

-gentry landlords remained established

-warlords continued to hold strong influence

-mobilization of peasant majority toppled down these surviving characteristics (252-262)

-->peasant-based red army


Skocpol explains social revolutions as being based on four factors: (1) state social structures, (2) international competitive pressures and (3) international demonstration effects, and (4) class relations. Her argument is influenced by the Marxist notion of the class struggle, but she differs from Marx as she sees the state as an autonomous actor within society. Her argument is even more powered by the structuralist argument that revolution is a dysfunctional response to a destabilization of social system schools. The book is also state centric (as shown by the very title of the book). By analyzing how the social institution of the state changed and influenced the social change, the book can also be placed within the historical institutionalism paradigm.

She stresses that international-scale actions (like threats or outcomes of war, and political and economic inequalities) have a major effect on domestic events (like revolutions). This effect can be explained as the outside effects lead to increased destabilization and political crises (financial crisis, elite divisions, mobilization of groups sensing political opportunity) which in turn increases the likelihood that revolutionary forces will arise and act. Skocpol notes that while elites are important, ordinary citizens are also vital, as supported by the fact that most successful revolutions were aided by urban and peasants mobilizations.

Criticism of Skocpol's book centers around her deemphasis of agency (role of individuals and ideology) and her mixed use of comparative methodological strategies.

In her book “States and Social Revolutions,” Theda Skocpol explains the social structural reasoning behind why and how revolutions occur. Her work is based on the work of Barrington Moore, who she was once a student of. Her theory created a new avenue for exploring revolutions and the reasons behind why they occur. Although her book is extremely influential and enlightening, many have found aspects of her theory that they disagree with or find qualms with.

According to Peter Manicas, Skocpol denies claims by historians that social revolutions should be analyzed as separate and distinct movements. She also denies claims that try to over generalize what makes a revolution. Peter Manicas says that Skocpol's work is successful at creating a theory that uses generalizations but is sensitive to differences between states and situations.[9]

Manicas says that Skocpol's intention in “States and Social Revolutions” is to “widen the scope of structuralist analysis beyond the locus of “’conventional’ Marxian analysis.”[10] According to Manicas, Skocpol denies claims by historians that social revolutions should be analyzed as separate and distinct movements. She also denies claims that try to over generalize what makes a revolution. Manicas says that Skocpol’s work is successful at creating a theory that uses generalizations but is sensitive to differences between states and situations.[11]

Manicas’ says that Skocpol's “treatment of the state reflects much of the current controversy and represents a decided advance over many accounts,” Skocpol is very careful to state the differences between modern nation-states and what can be classified as “empires” or monarchical states. She also focuses on the importance in differences between external characteristics of different states that may be experiencing revolutions and contrasts successful revolutions—i.e. France, Russia and China—with unsuccessful revolutions like Prussia and Japan.[11]

Skocpol's theories, according to Manicas, are causal in nature; she explains one event by identifying it as a direct result of another event or phenomenon. She does suggest, however, that there are alternatives and there are times when one event does not necessarily lead to the result expected. She argues that existing structures in society are a result of the intentional actions of humans and a result of the transformations humans have made to them preceding the current situation in any given state. Skocpol also argues that these changes and transformations over time are not made deliberately, they simply occur according to the circumstances surrounding a state at any given time period.[11]

Manicas says that Skocpol's causal argument is insufficient in the explanation of revolutions because she contradicts herself. According to Manicas, Skocpol puts more emphasis on structure than she does on group efforts, although she does cite the importance of group efforts. However, this does not mean that these group efforts were voluntary or conscious. Manicas brings to light the example of the French Revolution. Skocpol says that the convening of the Estates General in 1789 was essential for the start of the French Revolution. This “is not to say that the king intended to start a revolution.”[12] According to Marinas, “to say this is also to say that the ‘causal arguments’ ...are not sufficient to explain the French Revolution...they leave out precisely what one needs in order to explain the French Revolution, or indeed, to explain any historical event.”[12]

Skocpol’s book “States and Social Revolutions” gives an understanding of the similarities and differences between the structures of prerevolutionary and postrevolutionary societies in each of the revolutions she looks at. Skocpol also shows the connections these states had with the international realm and how these affected the internal structures as well as the public and the revolutionary changes.[13]

Although Skocpol argues against the use of generalizations in historical explanation, she uses some generalizations herself. Manicas says that the use of the term “revolution” is in itself a generalization. In the end of her book, Skocpol points out all the generalizations she uses and admits that they cannot be used to explain all modern revolutions beyond the French, Russian and Chinese. This is because causes for revolution vary due to historical and international circumstances. A second reason Skocpol point to is that “patterns of revolutionary causation and outcomes are necessarily affected by world-historical changes in the fundamental structures and bases of state power as such.”[14]

Manicas argues that Skocpol does not explain why the revolutions in her book happened, but she offers a structural analysis for the understanding of these revolutions. According to Manicas, “history and the social sciences have distinct interests and tasks.”[15] Social scientists attempt to better our understanding of societies in the past, present and future. Historians, in contrast, explain pivotal points in history. The distinction between history and social science is, according to Manicas, “not in terms of time, but in terms of task.” [15]

Dwight Billings relates Skocpol to Marx. He argues that Skocpol's theory is more similar to Marxism than it is to the other three theories she criticizes in her book. Despite this, her “stress on the potential autonomy of the state avoids the ‘class struggle reductionism’ of classical Marxism.” [16]

According to Steve Pfaff, Skocpol’s book “States and Social Revolutions” created “a distinctive genre of neo-Weberian state-society analysis and, more broadly, served as signature work in the new historical and comparative subfields in sociology and comparative politics.”[17] He says that Skocpol presents revolutionary urban middle class in each of the states she studies as “political entrepreneurs” because they take on the reigns of the revolution after the peasant class has successfully weakened the ruling government.[18]

Unlike previous studies of revolutions, Skocpol's book focuses on the importance of structural conditions within a state over the ideological motives behind a revolution. For Skocpol, ideology was simply a means to an end. She asserts that ideologies like Marxism–Leninism “were instrumental: useful to the extent that they were idealistic and universalistic, offering rhetoric and idioms for popular mobilization, and justifying ruthless means in the pursuit of higher ends.”[19] Skocpol overlooks the real purpose of ideologies and only focuses on their instrumental uses. She ignores the differences between ideologies and puts them all in the same boat as instruments of revolution. Pfaff says, “In many instances, it appears as if ideology really did influence the decisions that revolutionary elites made, particularly after they seized power and could implement their ideas of social transformation.” [19]

Pfaff also says that Skocpol focuses too much on big picture characteristics of revolutions and does not say anything about individual motives or how collective mobilization began in the first place. She is vague about revolutionary actors, labeling them in terms of classes. Pfaff believes that Skocpol's revision of class based explanation of revolutions, “it would be more persuasive if collective action were explained and not simply treated as an independent variable.”[19]

Skocpol also argues that successful revolutions “paved the way for centralized, rational bureaucratic administration in the countries she studied.”[19] According to Pfaff, many scholars have argued “while social revolutions removed the old governing class that was frequently an obstacle to significant administrative reforms, they often failed to deliver the degree of rational bureaucratic administration they promised.”[19] In the case of the French Revolution, Skocpol claims that the revolution removed “medieval rubbish” and allowed modern bureaucratization to be created. It has been found, however, that there were “prerevolutionary trends towards greater administrative efficiency that, in some cases, may have been more disrupted by revolution than accelerated.”[20]

Skocpol's book, according to Pfaff, is a clearly identifiable as a product of the politics of the 1970s. She “helped launch a new generation of comparative research on the largest and most consequential of historical questions.”[21] Pfaff goes on to say, even if Skocpol didn't explain the causes that might have triggered state crisis and the mobilization of the people, “and if, in its enthusiasm for revolution, it overestimated the gains of revolutionary transformation, the book nevertheless deserves its place among the canonical works of comparative and historical research.” [22]

In Michael Richards’ review of “States and Social Revolutions,” he says that it is rare that a singular social revolution is studied along with the discussion of a theory of social revolutions. Barrington Moore was the first to make a significant contribution to this kind of writing. Theda Skocpol's book, however, does something similar, but is “a more carefully circumscribed effort,” focusing on three countries rather than six as Moore did and is “less sweeping in its conclusions.” [23]

Richards commends Skocpol for choosing to focus her book on three revolutions rather than bringing to light a large number of successful and unsuccessful revolutions “in hopes of achieving statistical validity or in the expectation of being able to explain a number of related phenomena.”[24] Like Peter Manicas, Richards also finds Skocpol's refusal to create a general theory for all revolutions commendable. According to Richards, Skocpol “recognizes the limitations of comparative study and the dangers of fitting events into relatively inflexible categories.”[25]

Similarly to Pfaff, McNeill believes Skocpol implicitly repudiates “the role of personalities in affecting the revolutionary process she analyzes.”[26] However, unlike Pfaff, McNeill sees this as essential to her argument. To include such a variable would, according to McNeill, “spoil the sociology she seeks to discover in human affairs.”[26]

Jasper and Goodwin believe Skocpol's book was, like the works of many sociologists in the 70s, a result of her disappointment with the lack of revolutionary success in the United States and Britain. According to Jasper and Goodwin, Skocpol articulated the message many had been thinking—that the actions and the ideologies prove meaningless without the proper causes for revolution being present.[27]

Jeff Goodwin argues, in his own analysis of “States and Social Revolutions,” that Skocpol's fame comes in large part, not from a substantial number of people reading her book, but from a small number of “designated readers” critiquing her book and spreading what they believe to be her main ideas. Goodwin says, “A good part of Skocpol’s fame is due to the wide diffusion of several misformulations of some key ideas.”[28] Goodwin explains three major “misformulations” scholars have made about “States and Social Revolutions.”[29]

The first misinterpretation of Skocpol's book says she makes the point that a revolution or a rebellions success depends solely on state institutions. According to Goodwin, however, Skocpol's argument is more complex: it states that the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions are a result of state institutions becoming more susceptible to collapse due to outside influence as well as peasant rebellion.[30]

A second misperception of “States and Social Revolutions” claims that Skocpol denotes the relevance of ideology in a revolution, an argument made by Steve Pfaff, as mentioned earlier. What Skocpol means to argue, Goodwin says, is that no singular group consciously brought on the revolution.[30]

A third and final argument people have claimed Skocpol to make in “States and Social Revolutions” is that a general theory on revolutions can be made simply through the comparison of a select group of revolutions. Goodwin, like Richards, says Skocpol's book does not try to create an overarching theory of revolution by using the three examples of revolutions. To the contrary, “she explicitly warns that her conjunctural explanation for social revolutions in this particular context cannot be mechanically extended to others.” [31]

Himmelstein and Kimmel claim to find “Tocquevillian” tendencies within Skocpol's argument, pinning the roots of her theory to “the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville.” Similarly to Tocqueville, Skocpol “is concerned with the relations between the state as an autonomous institution and society."[32] She sees political centralization as a consequence of revolution. Although less obviously than Tocqueville, Skocpol “presents the irony of revolutions made in the name of freedom but culminating in a much strengthened state.”[33] Himmelstein and Kimmel applaud Skocpol's ability to combine Tocquevillian views of the state to Marxian class based ideology.

Similarly to Pfaff and Goodwin mentioned earlier, Himmelstein and Kimmel see Skocpol's minimal focus on “how human beings actually make a revolution,”[33] problematic. Skocpol's denial of the idea of people voluntarily starting a revolution leads her to forget the importance of human action as “a link between structural conditions and social outcomes.” [34] This ignoring of the mediator between structure and results makes her analysis incomplete.

According to David Laitin, Skocpol “finds history to be moved not by structure or agent but by irony.” [35] One ironic point Skocpol makes is that, despite her emphasis on international pressures, France's revolution came at a time when France was “unequivocally victorious.” [36] Outcomes that cannot be predicted by structure, Laitin says, “are explained by the demonic forces of irony.” [36] Laitin also goes on to say that, although structure is important, Skocpol denies the importance of human choice and action. Irony, says Laitin, is not an element of structure, but Skocpol's attempt at avoiding admittance “that action and fortune play a pivotal role in the drama of history.” [37]

Walter Goldfrank believes “States and Social Revolutions” to be an excellent book. He argues that, while some might see her book to have limitations “in analyzing today’s core,” this does not “damage explanations of yesterday’s semi-periphery." [38] Skocpol's major drawback, Goldfrank says, is her “tendency toward positivist ahistoricity."[39]

Despite this, Goldfrank says Skocpol's book marks a leap forward in historical scholarship. While the focus on Skocpol's book is international conflict and foreign wars, Rosemary O’Kane argues that the focus in understanding social revolutions should be civil wars instead. According to O’Kane, it is important to explore the decisions and policy implementations of the new state to see how they were affected by war, which Skocpol does not do. Skocpol, O’Kane says, “seems to stress the importance of international over national factors,”[40] while still having civil war as an important factor in her argument. Skocpol's lack of focus on civil wars leads to the failure in her analysis. She fails to realize the “centralized control over the revolutionary forces of internal coercion.”[41]

Although published over thirty years ago, Theda Skocpol's book “States and Social Revolutions,” continues to influence historians and sociologists alike today. Skocpol presented a new way to look at social revolutions and analyze then through a structural and state centered perspective. Although her analysis may not be complete in the eyes of many, it offers a new perspective and fills in the holes in many theories before hers as well as the theories of her educators, including Barrington Moore Jr..

Ira Katznelson disputes that Skocpol's use of J.S. Mill's method of difference allows her to overcome the problems associated with many potential variables.[42]


Publisher the Cambridge University Press includes States and Social Revolutions in its "Canto Classics" series, which "draws from the most successful titles published by Cambridge over the past half-century and more," and the book remains in print as of 2016.[43]

Lewis A. Coser, president of the American Sociological Association, wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "I am convinced that States and Social Revolutions will be considered a landmark in the study of the sources of revolution."[44]

In Barbara Geddes's Paradigms and Sand Castles: Theory Building and Research Design in Comparative Politics, she writes that Skocpol's use of contrasting cases (cases where revolutions did happen and did not happen) makes her claims regarding the importance of class structures and alliances in determining revolution outcomes persuasive. But she writes that Skocpol's claim that all revolutionary outbreaks occur as a result of international crises is not well-supported. Geddes notes for example that a revolution occurred in France but France was not at the time more threatened by external events than many of its neighbors. Geddes also argues that Skocpol's choice of cases (and exclusion of other cases) is not particularly well-supported. When Geddes expanded the number of cases to include nine Latin-American countries, Skocpol's theory of social revolution failed replication. Geddes argues that Skocpol includes a number of cases for reasons that are ill-justified.[45]

James Mahoney and Gary Goertz found no evidence that Geddes exclusively picked negative cases to intentionally lend support for her theory; they added additional relevant cases to her theory and found that her theory was consistent with those cases.[46]


  1. ^ George, Alexander L.; Bennett, Andrew (2005). Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences. MIT Press. p. 229. ISBN 978-0-262-30307-1. OCLC 944521872.
  2. ^ Beck, Colin J. (2018). "The Structure of Comparison in the Study of Revolution". Sociological Theory. 36 (2): 134–161. doi:10.1177/0735275118777004. ISSN 0735-2751.
  3. ^ a b Skocpol, Theda; Somers, Margaret (1980). "The Uses of Comparative History in Macrosocial Inquiry". Comparative Studies in Society and History. 22 (2): 174–197. doi:10.1017/s0010417500009282. ISSN 0010-4175.
  4. ^ Mahoney, James (2010). "After KKV: The New Methodology of Qualitative Research". World Politics. 62 (1): 120–147. doi:10.1017/S0043887109990220. ISSN 1086-3338.
  5. ^ George, Alexander L.; Bennett, Andrew (2005). Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences. MIT Press. p. 159. ISBN 978-0-262-30307-1. OCLC 944521872.
  6. ^ a b King, Gary (2012). Designing social inquiry : scientific inference in qualitative research. Princeton Univ. Press. p. 129. ISBN 0-691-03471-0. OCLC 754613241.
  7. ^ Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 16, 19, 19, 27, 29, 29, 29, 35, 36, 40, 41.
  8. ^ Skocpol 1979, 206,207, 209, 209, 213, 214, 215, 215, 218, 219, 219, 220, 221, 222, 223, 228, 228, 229.
  9. ^ Manicas, Peter T. 1981. “States and Social Revolutions (Book Review).” History & Theory. Volume 20 (Issue 2)
  10. ^ Manicas, Peter T. 1981:208
  11. ^ a b c Manicas, Peter T. 1981.
  12. ^ a b Manicas, Peter T. 1981:213
  13. ^ Manicas, Peter T. 1981
  14. ^ Manicas, Peter T. 1981:215
  15. ^ a b Manicas, Peter T. 1981:217
  16. ^ Billings, Dwight B. 1980. “States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russis, and China (Book).” Social Forces. Vol. 59 (Issue 1) : 292
  17. ^ Pfaff, Steve. 2004. “Review Essay: On the Unmaking and Remaking of States.” Sociological Forum. Vol. 19 (Issue 2): 315
  18. ^ Pfaff, Steve. 2004.
  19. ^ a b c d e Pfaff, Steve. 2004:318
  20. ^ Pfaff, Steve. 2004:319
  21. ^ Pfaff, Steve. 2004: 320
  22. ^ Pfaff, Steve. 2004: 320-321
  23. ^ Richards, Michael. 1980. “States and Social Revolution (Book Review).” Journal of Social History. Vol. 14 (issue 1):164-165
  24. ^ Richards, Michael. 1980.:165
  25. ^ Richards, Michael. 1980.:166
  26. ^ a b McNeill, William H. 1980. “States and Social Revolutions (Book Review).” American Historical Review. Vol. 85 (Issue 1):86
  27. ^ Jasper, James M. Goodwin, Jeff. 2004. “Review Essay; Preface.” Sociological Forum. Vol. 19 (Issue 2).
  28. ^ Goodwin, Jeff. 1996. “How to Become a Dominant American Social Scientist: The Case of Theda Skocpol.” Contemporary Sociology. Vol 25 (Issue 3):293
  29. ^ Goodwin, Jeff. 1996:293
  30. ^ a b Goodwin, Jeff. 1996:294
  31. ^ Goodwin, Jeff. 1996:295
  32. ^ Himmelstein, Jerome L. and Kimmel, Michael S. 1981. “States and Revolutions: The Implications and Limits of Skocpol’s Structural Model.” American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 86 (Issue 5):1150
  33. ^ a b Himmelstein, Jerome L. and Kimmel, Michael S. 1981. :1150
  34. ^ Himmelstein, Jerome L. and Kimmel, Michael S. 1981. :1153
  35. ^ Laitin, D.D. and Warner, C.M. 1992. “Structure and Irony in Social Revolutions.” Political Theory. Vol 20 (Issue 1):148
  36. ^ a b Laitin, D.D. and Warner, C.M. 1992:149
  37. ^ Laitin, D.D. and Warner, C.M. 1992:150
  38. ^ Goldfrank, Walter L. 1980. “States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China. by Theda Skocpol.” Contemporary Sociology. Vol. 9 (Issue 3):388
  39. ^ Goldfrank, Walter L. 1980.
  40. ^ O’Kane, Rosemary T. 1995. “The national causes of state construction in France, Russia and China.” Political Studies. Vol 43 (Issue 1)
  41. ^ O’Kane, Rosemary T. 1995.
  42. ^ Irving, Lichbach Mark; Zuckerman, Alan S. (1997-08-28). Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure. Cambridge University Press. p. 93. ISBN 978-0-521-58668-9.
  43. ^ "Canto Classics". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved December 2, 2016.
  44. ^ Coser, Lewis A. (October 31, 1979). "The Sources of Revolt". The New York Times Book Review. The New York Times. pp. 44–45.
  45. ^ Geddes, Barbara (2003). Paradigms and Sand Castles: Theory Building and Research Design in Comparative Politics. University of Michigan Press. pp. 107–114. doi:10.3998/mpub.11910. ISBN 978-0-472-09835-4. JSTOR 10.3998/mpub.11910.
  46. ^ Mahoney, James; Goertz, Gary (2004). "The Possibility Principle: Choosing Negative Cases in Comparative Research". American Political Science Review. 98 (4): 653–669. doi:10.1017/S0003055404041401. ISSN 1537-5943.

External links[edit]

  • [1] An excellent Review
  • [2] Theda Skocpol discusses criticism of this book