Considering how often revolutions have produced cataclysms, the word revolutionary has—at least for many people, especially when young—surprisingly positive connotations. The author of this short book, more extended essay than a history of revolutions in the two centuries that followed the French Revolution, sets out to explain why revolutions have so often been followed by slaughter on an unprecedented scale. Pascal said that he who sets out to be an angel ends a beast: to which we might add that he who sets out to create a heaven-on-earth creates a hell.
Professor Chirot writes extremely well and is never less than clear. He uses no jargon and he has a gift for condensing complex historical events into a short compass without resort to procrustean simplification. I would imagine that he is an excellent teacher.
He does not claim to have found a universal law of history that applies at all times and in all places, but he says that large-scale revolutions in the modern world have had a tendency to go through four discernible stages. First, an outmoded governing power refuses to accept that change is necessary and consequently refuses to make the necessary concessions to save itself. This leads to overthrow by relatively moderate leaders who would once have accepted compromise but see that change can only come about by revolution. Second, there is a counter-revolutionary reaction by those who do not accept their loss of power and who provoke a civil war or call for foreign intervention, or both. As a result, much more radical revolutionary leaders come to the fore and defend the revolution by increasing repression of enemies or supposed enemies. Third, the radical leaders, because they hold extreme views and are imbued with unrealistic notions of the complete redemption of mankind from all its earthly ills, impose experimentation on the population which is economically and socially disastrous. Fourth, in the case of its evident failure, the revolutionary regime loses its ideological ardour, and settles down to a kind of routine and less violent authoritarianism accompanied by large-scale corruption and cronyism.
Theodore Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journal, the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of many books, including Out into the Beautiful World and the recently published False Positive: A Year of Error Omission, and Political Correctness in the New England Journal of Medicine (Encounter Books).
Top photo: Fleeing crowds in 1917 during the Russian Revolution which resulted in the seizing of power by the Bolsheviks under Lenin. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)