Review – Skocpol, “States and Social Revolutions”

Theda Skocpol, “States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China” (1979) – I have some weird background with this book. My first job out of grad school was for a nonprofit that the author started, dedicated to getting social scientists (like herself) to more effectively engage with the policy process. The nonprofit did what they do and my job, which involved trying to hammer into the heads of social scientists that they couldn’t just drop their papers into the laps of elected representatives and expect said politicians to act on the papers’ implications, ended after about ten months. Theda, as they called her in the office, didn’t do much with the day to day but it was understood she was the source of power. We were citizens of the Skocpolis. I only met her briefly. I sometimes wonder if our manager, knowing my socialist leanings and being a somewhat nervous type, thought it wouldn’t be a great idea, the grand old lady of liberal social science, used to decades of Harvard deference, and the red rando who didn’t always know or care about social pecking orders, being in too close proximity…

Anyway! Skocpol was not, in my very limited experience, the compulsive left-puncher that various others trying for influence in the Democratic Party (technically, the group was nonpartisan, but Republicans have their own ways of leveraging their, errrm, thinkers) often turn into. But in this, the monograph that made her reputation in that year of years 1979, she threw ‘bows left and right and mostly left in her effort to define revolution. What makes revolutions? Why do they happen when they do?

Skocpol, she informs us, is no “voluntarist.” It’s structural facets of historical-sociological situations that lead to revolutions! Funny- this is back before Marxists slid into their contemporary reputation as being arch-determinists. Skocpol dings Marxists for attributing too much to the will of revolutionaries, and also for reducing what makes revolution possible to class structure. Class is important! She demurs. But before we get to the “but,” she has to take down her old cohort, the modernization theorists who were well past their expiration date by the late seventies but holding on, as old academics too. You can’t explain revolutions as some automatic process that happens when institutions are insufficiently “modern” for conditions or don’t match public values, or personality types or whatever structural-functionalist voodoo the old modernization guys thought they could do.

“Bringing the state back in” – Skocpol started doing that in the late seventies, and History is such a slow academic field we were still acting like it was a big new deal when I was in grad school thirty years later! It’s actually state structures, and the international scenes in which they are situated, that are what people have been missing about revolutions. Especially Marxists, who “reductively” (shouldn’t “reducing” the chaos of circumstance and making a clear through line be a good thing? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?) dismiss the state as the “organizing committee of the ruling class.” Not so, Skocpol tells us! The state is autonomous! And we need to treat it as such not only to understand how revolutions arose in France, Russia, and China, but also the courses they took towards tyranny etc. 

Here’s the thing: I’ve been on organizing committees. The idea that Marx was trying to say that states acting as organizing committees of a class means that their interest and actions could be reduced to what the class they represented wanted or what was best for that class or even just basic ideas of means-end rationality flies in the face of the nature of committees, organizing and otherwise. Yes, states don’t act straightforwardly in class interest, but they still act in class interest. It’s just that circumstances make things less than straightforward, much of the time. 

So, it’s something of a straw-Marx and, to a lesser extent because some of them were class reductionists or whatever, straw-Marxists, that Skocpol beats on, here. To her credit, Skocpol does not ignore the class situation in her three case studies. She means it when she says class struggle is a part of these situations. But this book’s reputation rests on an analysis of state policies. The funny thing is… that seems more like a job for history, with its eyes for incident and contingency, than for sociology and political science, even historical sociology. The actions of the state actually seem more incidental than structural, down to some “autonomous” nature of the state that can be turned into a general category of analysis which we can “bring back in” anywhere. But this is social science, liberal social science at that, and ideal types are the name of the game. 

Among other things, all three old regimes — the Bourbons, the Romanovs, and in their different ways the old Manchu regime and the Koumintang that followed them — Skocpol deals with had deeply stupid and fucked up priorities when it came to personnel decisions, budgeting, more or less every aspect of governance. Wouldn’t… that seem to imply there’s something about these states that got them to make bad, arguably suicidal, choices? Older “neutral” (read, revolution-skeptic) analysts of these things, from Carlyle on, had answers- the welter of incident and a vague pattern of decay, for the smarter ones, some conspiracy (usually led by, who else, the Jews) for the dumber, meaner, more activist ones. Skocpol punts to the nature of states, to protect and propagate themselves, but… for what? For whom? Might we suggest… a certain… class??

Anyway. This is far from the worst analysis (the non-academically-employed rando said to the two dozen randos who read him out of friendship about one of the most prominent social scientists of her time- and one who has done yeoman service holding back the tide of the quants, to boot, good on her). But the idea that this was, pardon the term, revolutionary social science thinking… well, in an academy where the Marxists themselves tend to be less revolutionary you’d like, maybe, but you know what they say about lands and blind people and one eyed people etc etc. ***

Review – Skocpol, “States and Social Revolutions”

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