History and Historiography

The Road to Revolution

Stanley Payne is an expert on the Spanish Civil War and on 20th-century fascism. He describes the events leading to the Spanish Civil War.

By Stanley G. Payne, First Things

The classic theory of revolution was formulated by Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed in The Ancien Régime and the Revolution that “it was precisely in those parts of France where there had been the most improvement that popular discontent ran highest.” Revolution is not generally provoked by deteriorating conditions; rather, complaints tend to increase after conditions have already begun to improve. “The regime destroyed by a revolution is almost always better than the one that immediately preceded it, and experience teaches us that the most hazardous moment for a bad government is normally when it is beginning to reform.” The absolutist government of Louis XIV had provoked less resentment than did the milder rule of Louis XVI.

Tocqueville’s observation has been borne out by history. Modern revolutions take place not in the most traditional societies, but in polities in which a certain degree of reform and modernization has already occurred. The preliminary revolution, called by Jonathan Israel the “revolution of the mind,” consists of rising expectations. Once such attitudes have taken hold, some new crisis or setback, which may or may not be important in itself, can trigger revolution.

Revolutions succeed only where the old order is relatively weak. Because the existing regime offers little resistance, the revolution’s initial stages may be comparatively easy, not accompanied by great disorder or bloodshed. Over time, though, the revolutionary process leads to greater radicalization and greater carnage, often involving civil or foreign war. It may stimulate violent opposition and, in some cases, a counterrevolutionary movement that may be almost as radical, though with a very different program.

Spain provides the only example of a full-scale, mass, violent collectivist revolution developing out of a modern Western liberal democratic polity. The Second Spanish ­Republic of 1931–39 had created the first liberal democratic system in the country’s history, with, at first, impartial elections based on universal suffrage and broad constitutional guarantees of civil rights. This achievement did not prevent revolution and civil war.


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