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Crane Brinton’s views on revolution

In his classic study, Anatomy of Revolution (1938), Harvard Professor Crane Brinton compared the four great political revolutions (English, American, French, Russian) to a “fever” that contained several stages, eventually ending in a new and invigorated society but still based upon  cultures inherited from the past. That is to say, revolution was a sickness of the body, cleansed and healed, but within the same inherited physiology. For example, Russia’s political structure and ideology can be overturned, but Russia’s geopolitical reality is permanent.  Russian soldiers facing German armies in 1941 cared little whether or not the leadership was Stalin or Nicholas.

Brinton was also careful not to condemn revolution as a phenomenon itself, noting how the phrase has innate connotations that depend on cultures, philosophies, and locations. The British were proud of their own Magna Carta (1215) but far less charitable of the American one (1776). Americans, similarly, were conceived in revolution but condemned both the French (1789) and Russian (1917) ones. As Brinton himself wrote, “biologically, fever in itself is a good thing rather than a bad thing for the organism that survives it. …the fever burns up the wicked germs…”

Brinton was most famous for his contribution that revolution, rather than being derived from oppression and dominion, actually was conceived at the precise time that society had achieved a degree of movement or “progress.” Cruel and unusual regimes cannot be overthrown precisely due to their nature; it is only when that nature retreats that opportunity for change begins. To apply a metaphor: with no light at the end, the tunnel stays “dark;” movement can only begin when light appears. After that, it’s “off to the races.”

Acknowledging that “untouchables very rarely revolt,” Brinton found that a “cross-section of common humanity” actually inspire revolt and that economics were never critical. This was certainly true in eighteenth century America, probably the wealthiest place on earth at the time, where “general economic conditions … show increasing wealth, … no class ground down in poverty.”

Far more important than objective conditions for revolution were the subjective factors, particularly among the intellectual class. The term alienation was found to be a common catalyst for class action in the four major revolutions that Brinton uncovered: “the desertion of the intellectuals is a real uniformity in the societies herein studied.” While noting that intellectual alienation is “normal in the modern west,” he nevertheless identified this phenomenon as the true springboard for wholesale societal change:

“… if he has a full or tolerably full belly and a grievance, a sense of being treated undeservedly, unjustly, if something inspires in him that feeling that, it would seem no other animal can have, that of moral indignation, he will revolt; or rather he will make a revolution, not a mere revolt.”


All these observations apply to the past; what is their merit now? I.e. is history relevant or not? If not, then we all start each day brand new; if so, the “past is prologue,” i.e. guides the present and future.

Is there “alienation” in American culture today? Has anyone read the papers? Are the American universities calm and studious or hotbeds of unrest and revolt? The most popular American history book is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), a Marxist tract that excoriates U.S. history and culture each step of the way. Nothing, repeat nothing, is positive or even benign. Yet this book has sold over 2.6 million copies for American schools and has reached “an almost iconic status” according to one reviewer. Among other things, Zinn compares Franklin D. Roosevelt with Adolph Hitler and the atomic bombings of Japan to Japanese atrocities in China. Despite horrible reviews by most traditional historians (“incoherent,” “deeply pessimistic,” “a scissors and paste pot job,” “a Manichean fable,” – to name some), Zinn was also labeled by the great historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as “a polemicist, not a historian.”

But, was Zinn’s purpose history …or revolution? By his own account, he had no inclination toward “disinterested scholarship,” but wanted foremost to bring on “a revolution in the academy.”

That he has done, along with a number of other “alienated” personages and institutions whose primary aim is change …that is, “revolutionary” change.

Today’s political culture in the United States is widely “infected” with the revolutionary “fever,” from the academy, theater to the media. “Identity” politics has replaced analysis and scholarship with a series of radical “isms” that effectively place history, biology, and sociology (with most other studies) into neat “compartments” in a continuous struggle for either “equality” or “supremacy” or a combination thereof.

“White supremacy” confuses the two: is it descriptive or disparaging? If one is truly, “truly,” opposed, show the world and throw out your computer (among another ten thousand items).



Crane Brinton foresaw this resentment in 1938 by noting that “one of the hardest things to do on this earth is to describe men or institutions without wanting to change them.” He, thus, would not be surprised to learn of today’s New York Times “Project 1619” that intends to change the “birth” of America from July 4, 1776 to August 20, 1619, when the first slave ship arrived in North America (alleged). By reversing the American “experiment” from the hope of liberty to the despair of slavery, the Times has gone from reporting events to making them. The newspaper, thus, is now an agent of revolution.

A “fever” is not a rational or a coherent conception; it does not answer to “reason.” “Moral indignation” will not be calmed by laws or sympathies. This insight was captured by another Harvard historian, Bernard Bailyn, in describing how the revolutionaries of 1776 were viewed by “Loyalists”:

“Committed to the moral as well as the political integrity of the Anglo-American system as it existed, the Loyalists were insensitive to the moral basis of the protests that arose against it  …they could find only persistent irrationality in the arguments of the discontented …they did not sense the constriction of the existing order, often because they lived so deeply within it …They were outplayed, overtaken, bypassed.”

Is there a “fever” today? What is America’s “temperature”?

Will it live? As what?