On Democratic Revolutions

By Elisabeth Clemens

American Insurgents, American Patriots

Breen, T.H. 2010. American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People. Hill and Wang.

In the final years of the eighteenth century, political insurgents on both sides of the Atlantic attempted something radically new:  to institute government by the consent of the governed.    Yet these efforts played out rather differently in France and the United States.  As exemplars, these two cases have long informed the theoretical imaginations of political sociologists and social movement scholars.  Two recent works at the intersection of history and social theory, however, suggest that we may all need to recheck some of our basic assumptions.

With American Insurgents, American Patriots:  The Revolution of the People (Hill & Wang, 2010), T.H. Breen has produced that rare work of scholarship that one actually might want to read in a hammock or a beach chair.  Exploiting the organized obsession with the American Revolution, embodied in so many wonderful local history associations and library collections, Breen reconstructs the close-to-the-ground processes by which some communities remained loyal to the British Empire while in others the social network pressures to join the insurgency became close to irresistible.

Breen’s title makes a key argument:  insurgents precede patriots.  Before a revolution has succeeded, would-be founding fathers were simply notable rebels and the many who had earlier chosen to defy the British empire merely a rebellious rabble:  “Without tens of thousands of ordinary people willing to set aside their work, homes, and families to take up arms in expectation of killing and possibly being killed, a handful of elite gentlemen arguing about political theory makes for a debating society, not a revolution” (p. 4).  In contrast to the distinguished historical literature on the intellectual origins of the American Revolution (to echo the title of Gordon Woods’ classic study), Breen focuses attention on the passions that led ordinary people – farmers, craftsmen, housewives – to turn against the British empire, by speaking out (sometimes first in whispers), aiding and abetting, or taking up arms.

In the process, Breen does something that has long been out of fashion in social movement research.  He takes grievances seriously, seeking the sources of the “rage” against the British that fueled insurgency (these included longstanding lines of ethnic and religious grievance, experiences of insult and humiliation).  But this analysis of political passions is coupled to a close reconstruction of the processes by which these emotions were channeled into new forms of political and military organization, the components of a successful and enduring democratic revolution.  Through a rich and engaging reconstruction of the lives of many of those insurgents who would become patriots, Breen succeeds in making the American Revolution freshly relevant to readers in a time marked by new and multiplying insurgencies.

Ronsavallon, Pierre. 2007. The Demands of Liberty: Civil Society in France since the Revolution. Harvard University Press.

Ronsavallon, Pierre. 2007. The Demands of Liberty: Civil Society in France since the Revolution. Harvard University Press.

Once the beach has become a fond but distant memory and you feel the need for a challenging read, turn to Pierre Ronsavallon’s Demands of Liberty:  Civil Society in France Since the Revolution (Harvard, 2007).  For Ronsavallon, and his project of developing a “social history of the political,” the problem of the democratic state entails both a process for establishing legitimate authority through recognizably democratic means and then organizing the implementation of those democratically-authorized activities.  His problematic, therefore, is jointly defined by Rousseau and Weber.

For the French case – and the literature on the modern state more generally – the challenge posed by Rousseau is more novel.  Revolutionaries faced the question of how to organize a method for constituting a general will – understood in Rousseau’s distinctive fashion as an “immediate” expression of individual wills rather than as the product of a deliberative process.  This formulation locates France as one instance of solving a general problem of democracy rather than as a specific expression of French Jacobinism.

This dual challenge of the democratic state is played out on multiple levels.  First, Ronsavallon understands politics itself as central, capturing this commitment in his attention to democracy as a form of “political imaginary.”  On this level, the problem lies in reconciling an understanding of authority as stemming from a sovereign people and the model of state action required to translate popular and legislative actions into policy as well as in counter-acting the social fragmentation seen as a troubling consequence of foundational individualism.  On a practical level, much of this debate in France turned on the role of intermediary bodies, associations, and corporations.  As partial publics, they were understood to interfere in the formation of a fully general will (thus the revolutionary Le Chapelier law outlawing corporations).  Yet, at the level of implementation, they were recognized as appealingly practical auxiliaries to executive power.   For conservatives and classical liberals, such intermediary bodies had the added advantage of providing alternatives to the unbounded expansion of central state powers and therefore as functioning as protectors of liberty grounded in the particularity of specific communities or domains of activity.  As a consequence of these political concerns, the heirs to the French Revolution inherited a very different form of modern state than did their counterparts across the Atlantic.  The comparison should be illuminating on either shore.

Like so many fields, the theoretical imaginary of social movement scholarship has been founded on specific exemplary cases.  For accounts of mobilization, the French Revolution figures prominently along with the American civil rights movement and the protests of the New Left in both the United States and Europe.  For general assumptions about the relationship between social structure and mobilization, American civil society provides an orienting imagery for those who are not committed to strong forms of class analysis.   By flipping case and question – looking at mobilization in the American Revolution and the institutional framework of post-revolutionary civil society in France – these two important studies bring into question many of those assumptions and expand our sense of the possibilities for making democratic revolutions and preserving their accomplishments.


1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Great Books for Summer Reading 2014

One response to “On Democratic Revolutions

  1. J’ai parcouru ce post et si je peut juste je desirerais vous recommander quelques choses que vous n’avez pas preciser
    ou vous apporter quelques conseils


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