The great romance and fear of bloody revolution--strange blend of idealism and terror--have been superseded by blind faith in the bloodless expansion of human rights and global capitalism. Flying in the face of history, violence is dismissed as rare, immoral, and counterproductive. Arguing against this pervasive wishful thinking, the distinguished historian Arno J. Mayer revisits the two most tumultuous and influential revolutions of modern times: the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Although these two upheavals arose in different environments, they followed similar courses. The thought and language of Enlightenment France were the glories of western civilization; those of tsarist Russia's intelligentsia were on its margins. Both revolutions began as revolts vowed to fight unreason, injustice, and inequality; both swept away old regimes and defied established religions in societies that were 85% peasant and illiterate; both entailed the terrifying return of repressed vengeance. Contrary to prevalent belief, Mayer argues, ideologies and personalities did not control events. Rather, the tide of violence overwhelmed the political actors who assumed power and were rudderless. Even the best plans could not stem the chaos that at once benefited and swallowed them. Mayer argues that we have ignored an essential part of all revolutions: the resistances to revolution, both domestic and foreign, which help fuel the spiral of terror.
In his sweeping yet close comparison of the world's two transnational revolutions, Mayer follows their unfolding--from the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Bolshevik Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling and Exploited Masses; the escalation of the initial violence into the reign of terror of 1793-95 and of 1918-21; the dismemberment of the hegemonic churches and religion of both societies; the "externalization" of the terror through the Napoleonic wars; and its "internalization" in Soviet Russia in the form of Stalin's "Terror in One Country." Making critical use of theory, old and new, Mayer breaks through unexamined assumptions and prevailing debates about the attributes of these particular revolutions to raise broader and more disturbing questions about the nature of revolutionary violence attending new foundations.
Co-Winner of the 2001 Award for Scholarly Distinction, American Historical Association "[An] impressively measured, frank and thoughtful book... Ambitious ... Continuously suggestive and inquiring."--John Dunn, The Times Literary Supplement "[An] enormous and ambitious work... Comparing the French and Russian revolutions, Mayer focuses on how they reflected the struggle between revolutionary ardor and counterrevolutionary resistance, antireligious fervor and religious intransigence. He stresses the contingencies affecting revolutionary terror rather than the ideology or psychology of leaders. [Mayer's] examination of conceptual signposts such as revolution, violence, vengeance, and terror is a useful contribution to the history of ideas."--Stanley Hoffman, Foreign Affairs "A courageous and dispassionate reflection on the French and Russian revolutions. This is the first serious attempt to answer the revisionist historians, many of whom insist on viewing the past through the prism of present day requirements. Mayer reminds us that revolutions by their very nature provoke a violent response from those being deprived of power."--Tariq Ali, The Financial Times "Probably the best comparative study of the French and Russian Revolutions to date. Carefully researched and filled with cogent and insightful analysis, it is mandatory reading for all scholars in the field."--J.W. Thacker, History "Mayer's absorbing recapitulation of these ultimately tragic events leaves the reader with the desire to read more about the French and Russian Revolutions: the best compliment any historical work can receive."--Library Journal "There are many ways to read this long, rich and idiosyncratic book. As Mayer warns, objective and value-free study of the subject is impossible ... Mayer traces the road from reform to rage and terror, one of menace and fear, vengeance and countervengeance, exhilaration, self-delusion and mutual carnage. He has wise things to say about the blending of traditional enmities and new war cries, and about the clash between urban imperialism and rural distrust, about the satisfaction of butchering familiar enemies rather than complete strangers, about the rise of informing as a civic virtue... [A] long, rich, and idiosyncratic book."--Eugen Weber, New York Times Book Review "Mayer boasts a long record of intellectual provocation... [Here he] minimizes the rold of both ideology and the personality of the revolutionaries. Violence, he argues, resulted from seismic collisions of old order and new... Indeed, Mayer demonstrates, some of the bloodiest episodes of both revolutions occurred as old animosities between Christians and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, and contending groups in the countryside turned into armed antagonisms."--Corey Robin, Boston Review "[Mayer] insists that contrary to such conservative scolds as Edmund "Burke and Hannah Arendt, violence is not the product of ideological intoxication; it is an objective historical necessity in all polities. Citing an array of hard-headed thinkers from Machiavelli to Hobbes to Carl Schmitt...Mayer affirms that violence has been indispensable to every 'founding act' in history, even in such legalistic polities as our own--a proposition which it is difficult to dispute."--Martin Malia, Los Angeles Times Book Review