Scripting Revolution: A Historical Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolutions ed. by Keith Michael Baker, Dan Edelstein (review)
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Reviewed by
Baker, Keith Michael, and Dan Edelstein (eds) – Scripting Revolution: A Historical Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolutions. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015. Pp. 438.

The recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, the “Arab Spring,” demonstrated the continuing importance of revolution to world history. As the editors of this fascinating collection of essays point out, the usual approach to the comparative study of revolutions has been sociological. The basic methodological framework for this approach, which can be traced back to Karl Marx, insists that the essential causes of revolutions are socio-economic conflicts: the political crises that launch revolutions or change their direction are seen as secondary phenomena, indicative of deeper structural tensions. Yet, since the 1970s, investigations of specific revolutions have turned increasingly to hermeneutic approaches. Rather than focusing exclusively on material structures, historians have examined how revolutionaries interpreted their experiences, how ideas informed their actions, and how new political culture gave revolutions meaning. Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein suggest that such approaches can be applied to comparative history using the notion of the “revolutionary script.” Revolutionaries have always been intensely self-conscious of previous revolutions, which offered frameworks to define situations, suggest actions, and project narratives. Revolutionaries have not merely followed existing scripts, but also adapted, revised, and transformed them. This collection makes the compelling case that comparative history should examine how scripts for revolutionary action and understanding are played and replayed, improvised and altered. [End Page 183]

The evolving meaning of revolution as a concept is central to this approach and to the book’s key argument. The modern revolutionary script was written during the French Revolution of 1789 when the notion of revolution as descriptive fact was replaced by the conceptualization of revolution as self-conscious act. The essays in Part I provide background by exploring the genealogies of revolution in seventeenth-century England. Tim Harris points out that the term was frequently employed in a political context, not simply in the classical sense of circular return to starting point, and could be linked to defence of a threatened traditional order. David. R. Como examines how books describing uprisings against the Spanish monarchy normalized the political conception of revolution. David Armitage explores the influence of Roman narratives of civil wars on European historical writing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Part II focuses directly on writing the modern revolutionary script. Baker’s essay argues that, despite celebration of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the shift to conceiving revolutions as being made, not simply occurring, required the Enlightenment’s vision of them as transformations advancing human progress. He suggests that Raynal’s narrative of the American Revolution presented the events as a dynamic process and opened conceptual space for the French Revolution, which sought to achieve universal values, but found them at risk in the contingency of political time. Jack Rakove’s essay examines how the logic of the American script dictated the termination of revolutionary spontaneity as quickly as possible and the restoration of legal rule under constitutional authority. Constitutionalism was also the paramount French ideal in 1789, but Edelstein argues that in 1792–1793 the Jacobins abandoned the constitutional script based on justifications of natural rights or social contract and appealed to a higher authority: the Revolution itself. By appropriating to the state power previously attributed to popular sovereignty, the Jacobins introduced a concept of permanent revolution that would be revived by Marx and used by Lenin. Two other essays explore the importance of this period: Guillaume Mazeau suggests that Marat’s assassination led to invention of the Terror as a new revolutionary script; Malick W Ghachem examines Haiti’s place in the development of an ambiguous anti-slavery script.

If the French Revolution provided the modern script, the essays in Part III examine how revolutionaries and social theorists rescripted revolution in the nineteenth century. The Communist Manifesto was addressed to a radical German readership, but Gareth Stedman Jones argues that it had little value in explaining the events of 1848. Marx and Engels referred not to specific German groups, but conjured an imaginary conflict between abstract characters. Only after memories of the specific...