History as the Textbook for Making Revolution

By Luyang Zhou

Making revolution is a complicated project, and it cannot be learned openly and legally from textbooks. This paradox raises the question of how revolutionaries learned revolution making. A first quick answer is to “learn by doing”, while the second is learning from the contemporary instructors who had made successful revolutions just recently. Neither answer is fully satisfactory, however. On one hand, starting from scratch could be too slow because practices were so multi-facial that at one time many competing lessons could be drawn. On the other hand, revolution-makers often had no living predecessors, because the most recent revolution had occurred a century or centuries before – as in the cases of the French and Russian Revolutions. If neither “science” nor “authority” sufficed to teach revolution-making, the radicals had to gain knowledge from a third source: history.

To analyze this source, Eric Selbin’s Power of Story (2010) is a book offering great insight. Summarizing numerous researches on the mimeses, myths, memories, and historical writings reflective of revolutions, Selbin reiterates the point that story of resistance must be analyzed if we need to gain full understanding of the identity and motivation underlying revolutionary movements. Selbin suggests three mechanisms of how revolutionaries could benefit from the past: belief, morale, and technique. Bearing successful historical models in mind, conspirators could overcome their own cowardice to be convinced that the seemingly stable old regimes were in fact weak and fragile. Moreover, the appreciation for the heroism, courage, and altruism demonstrated in past rebellions motivated the revolutionaries to fight selflessly against the physically stronger enemies, which often enabled them to withstand repressions and defeats. Finally, history did teach techniques, not only symbols in propaganda but often substantial thought useful to design strategies and tactics.

Selbin speaks of the role of story in a general way, which brings some of his theses to question at specific cases. For example, he holds that story is diffused and omnipresent, but people might ask whether there are some moments the revolutionaries can not learn from the past. The answer is yes. The density of rebellious narratives could greatly vary across societies, which might shape the revolution-makings in each in terms of strategies and ideological flexibility. For example, it was rather easy for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to switch to massive civil war when urban repression occurred, as the Chinese literature and folklore were heavily imbued with the stories lauding the peasant rebellions in history – many of them were successful, textbook-level models! By contrast, the CCP’s teacher, the Russian Bolsheviks, who never contemplated organizing a peasant revolution, grew up in another cultural tradition. Not only did Russian history contain far fewer cases of mass rebellions, the country’s historical writing tended to evade this theme. For example, Orthodox theological texts, accessible stories to even the illiterate, rarely mentioned military issues, let alone eulogized them, even though uprisings and rebellions had been intensive in the Byzantine Empire, the cultural legacy of which Russia claimed to have inherited (Hamalis 2011). Scarcity mattered, setting a low ceiling of how much the Bolsheviks could learn from history. These people’ readings were extensive, but most were literary romances, political economy, and philosophy, rarely containing the stories telling how to technically make a revolution. Even Lenin, the most knowledgeable Bolshevik leader, could not escape from this trend. He did have scrutinized the history of the French Revolution, the 1848, and the Paris Commune, leaving so many notes and remarks, but referred to the Russian native rebellions minimally (see Sharapov 1976).

A second major imbalance is that Selbin offers rich descriptions of story, but gives only brief analysis of its power, implying the assumption that pervasive stories could naturally penetrate the radicals like a Gramscian hegemony. This simplifies the history. While the stock of rebellious stories was largely constant, determined by a society’s history and writing tradition, the access to these resources varies considerably across population segments, often depending on individuals’ political taste and cultural capital. In this regard, both the Bolshevik and CCP revolutions offer good examples. Despite China’s richness of rebellious history, not all CCPs appropriated this cultural tradition. Whereas Mao reportedly read through the 3213-volume Twenty-Four Histories for several times, many leading CCPs of the 1920s with the backgrounds of Western education refuted Chinese classics as “Asiatic poison”, fearing of a reversion to an old-fashion dynastic war (for example, Zhang 1990, 1: 106-07). As the revolution turned to rural areas, however, native stories would gain power – most CCP commanders grew up digesting folklores and traditional dramas that eulogized martial spirits and mass rebellions. To these people the road of waging a war to fight the evil government was natural. Similar variation can be seen in Russia. Although Russia had no successful peasant uprising in history, minor rebellious stories were available at the cases such as Razin, Pugachev, the Old Believers – in Selbin’s term, “lost and forgotten stories”. However, the Bolsheviks were not the persons committed to digging these histories, which distinguished them from the professional historians and green bandits. Such alienation indicated the Bolsheviks’ collective backgrounds: non-Russian ethnic roots, European education, and atheism.

Selbin’s proposal needs to deal with other challenges. A major one is measurement. The reported psychological process has often been censored. When giving public speeches or interviews, Mao always denied the conjecture that his insight of guerrilla war was derived from China’s ancient peasant uprisings, but stuck with the “politically correct” answer that the CCP was learning from “the wisdom of the labor masses” (Takeuchi 1970: 140). It is also known that Lenin’s private library does not contain any volume of Machiavelli, which seemed incredible (Rees 2004: 93-97). Moreover, it is complicated to deal with mixed learning methods. Rebels often drew lessons more from the established regimes than historical rebels, because as revolution unfolded revolutionaries increasingly confronted the affairs of military, administrative management, and diplomacy, to which the short-lived uprisings in history have little insight to offer. Finally, extremely extensive knowledge is demanded, because the “story” was produced in contexts far beyond the historical and linguistic span of the revolution-making itself – whereas Mao favored the Chinese classics created before Common Era, Lenin’s readings crossed French, German, and even Greek and Latin.

Despite all these risks and challenges, the approach Selbin suggests is too important to ignore. We do need to understand why the rebels believe that they can obtain victories and how the historical experiences of “illegal activities” were preserved, transmitted, and applied. Given the extreme complexity intrinsic to this theme, researchers must keep a sufficiently open mind. The method should not be confined to scientific-style analysis, but might incorporate historical narrating and even borrow skills from the fields of literature criticism and political thought studies.



Hamalis, Perry T. 2011. “War.” Pp. 626-27 in The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, edited by John Anthony McGuckin. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Rees, E A. 2004. Political Thought from Machiavelli to Stalin: Revolutionary Machiavellism. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Selbin, Eric. 2010. Revolution, Rebellion, Resistance: the Power of Story. London; New York: : Zed, Distributed in the USA by Palgrave Macmillan in New York.

Sharapov, Iurii Pavlovich. 1976. Lenin kak chitatel’ [Lenin as a Reader]. Moscow: Politizdat.

Takeuchi, Minoru (Ed.). 1970. Mō takutō shū [Collected Works of Mao Zedong]. Tokyo: 北望社.

Zhang, Wentian. 1990. Zhang Wentian xuanji [Selected Works of Zhang Wentian]. Beijing: Zhonggong dangshi ziliao chubanshe.


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