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  • Scripting Revolution: A Historical Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolutions ed. by Keith Michael Baker, Dan Edelstein
  • Eric R. Smith
Scripting Revolution: A Historical Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolutions
Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein, eds.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015; 448 pages. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 9780804793964.

Nikki Keddie, a historian, edited the 1995 book Debating Revolutions. While interdisciplinary, the collection’s sociological approach hung over the volume, with one scholar claiming that he could now accurately predict revolutions before they happened. With Scripting Revolution, Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein offer an approach grounded firmly in history. In this meticulously edited and deeply valuable collection of essays, we discover a historical framework—the historical “script”—for studying revolutions comparatively. As the editors assert early on, historians have long criticized social science for de-contextualizing the study of revolution and only now have offered an alternative method—the script, which both contextualizes specific revolutions and transcends them as new revolutions refer back to earlier examples. [End Page 170]

One of the obvious results of this approach is the interdependence of the chapters of the volume, and the result is one of the most well-edited books readers are likely to encounter. Each author shows familiarity with the other essays and refers to them in due course. Spanning seventeenth century England, the American and French Revolutions, Haiti, Europe in 1848, Russia, China, Iran, and the Arab Spring, the historical arc of the revolutionary script—and this volume—impresses.

The English Civil War offers the original script here, and as such the early essays lay the most foundational work and provide some of the keenest insights. The word “revolution” itself evolved through the course of the seventeenth century, eventually arriving at our current conception of its meaning. If, as Hobbes maintained, a ruler’s legitimacy is divine and rebellion is a sin against God’s will, then the social contract is set and cannot be broken. John Locke’s insistence that rebellion can be justified—and in the wake of the events in 1688, his Second Treatise (begun some years earlier) published the next year appeared to vindicate the turn—means that it is God’s will that certain monarchs should be cast out. The Levellers, these essays reveal, ushered in a revolutionary tradition.

Jack Rakove’s especially insightful chapter on the American Revolution elaborates on the long-recognized Lockean script the rebels followed. The “appeal to heaven” that justified the Glorious Revolution in Locke’s theory informed Thomas Jefferson’s declaration of King George’s train of abuses to offer justification to the rebellion. The resulting constitutionalism used the script of English history of the previous century and set up the norm in the nineteenth.

We come to see the shift from a constitutionalism to permanent revolution as the French try to follow the American example in Dan Edelstein’s essay. The Instrument of Government, which empowered Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, was not only Britain’s sole constitution, it also established a separation of powers, even if Cromwell’s dictatorship suggested otherwise. This constitutionalism differed greatly from the events of 1793 in France, when the new constitution was suspended and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just’s decree made revolution itself the foundation for the revolution; constitutionalism was abandoned for permanent revolution. While nineteenth-century revolutions would follow the constitutional model, Marx would write his revolutionary script based on the French one, setting up a twentieth century of revolutions in this mode. [End Page 171]

A number of scholars see the need to integrate Haiti into this history, and Malick Ghachem’s chapter on the Haitian revolution offers a glimpse well beyond Haiti. Using Abraham Lincoln as an example, he unpacks the “tensions of these competing visions of the Haitian ‘threat’” (162). Lincoln finally brought the United States around to recognizing Haiti while also signing a contract with a Charleston businessman to settle 5,000 African Americans in the country. Only the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued the next day redeemed his action (and the “act of justice” phrase in the document wasn’t Lincoln’s but his Treasury Secretary’s). Here...


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