The best books to discover the power and variety of revolutions across history

Jack A. Goldstone Author Of Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction
By Jack A. Goldstone

Who am I?

I have studied revolutions for over forty years, trying to understand how people fought for liberty and democracy--but also to understand how things so often went wrong!  I have worked at universities in the US, the UK, Japan, Germany, Russia, and Hong Kong, gaining a global view of how societies change. I have learned that everywhere people have to struggle for their rights.  Whether in ancient Greece or in modern Cambodia, the resulting revolutionary drama unfolds sometimes with wonderful results, but sometimes with tragedy.  No events better display the very best and worst that we can accomplish.  I’ve chosen the books on this list to convey the power of revolutions, their grand successes and tragic failures.

I wrote...

Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction

By Jack A. Goldstone,

Book cover of Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction

What is my book about?

This short book introduces readers to the full range of revolutions across history, from ancient times to the Arab Uprisings of this century. Goldstone presents theories of why revolutions occur, examines violent and non-violent revolutions, and still manages to give special attention to constitutional revolutions, communist revolutions, and more recent color revolutions. To understand how and why revolutions have changed history, and the men and women who led them, this slim volume is the best place to start.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory

By Josiah Ober,

Book cover of The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory

Why this book?

All through my school years, I heard that democracy began in Athens, in ancient Greece. But I never understood how that could have happened. To me, constitutions and democracy began with the American and French Revolutions. It turns out that Athenian democracy too began with a revolution! And it was a situation very similar to our own origins: A democratic revolution in a slave-owning society! And at a time when a “national” identity was just being formed out of local and regional ones. This is a book of essays, and you don’t have to read them all. But Josiah Ober is the foremost modern expert on Athenian society and the origins of its democracy, and his essays on that topic in this book are the best accounts we have.

He clearly presents a world that is thousands of years away from us and very strange, but shows how they confronted problems of government and political conflicts much like those we face today.

A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution

By Jeremy D. Popkin,

Book cover of A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution

Why this book?

There are a thousand books on the French Revolution, but most of them focus on the foibles of the aristocracy, or the wild rage of the crowds, or the heroism of Napoleon. Popkin’s new history does a masterful job of covering all the key events and personalities in France in the years leading up to the Revolution and in its unfolding over almost two decades. He is particularly good at placing the Revolution in the context of world history (showing its relation to events in the New World, from the American Revolution to the Revolution in Haiti), and in keeping a focus on the role of the French Revolution in the history of liberty. Indeed, through the eyes of the revolutionaries and their followers in this book, you can watch the dawn of liberty arise in the early years of the Revolution, and then fade under the increasingly militarist and imperial rule of Napoleon.   

History of the Russian Revolution

By Leon Trotsky, Max Eastman (translator),

Book cover of History of the Russian Revolution

Why this book?

Of the hundreds of books on revolutions I have read in a decades-long career, this remains the most powerful and enthralling of them all.  Unfolding like a grand Russian epic in the manner of War and Peace, Trotsky tells the story of the Russian Revolution and the triumph of the Bolshevik Marxists over every challenge and tribulation.  No other book gives you the feeling of being a revolutionary like this one, as Trotsky takes you from the meetings of workers in the factories of St. Petersburg to the halls of the Winter Palace, all the while debating whether the events he is witnessing, indeed the history he knows he is making, conform to the Marxist vision of history that inspires him. No other account of revolutions offers such a combination of theoretical brilliance and detailed, almost cinema-like descriptions of feelings and events. 

The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East

By Marc Lynch,

Book cover of The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East

Why this book?

 All the books in this list worry about the relationship between revolutions and liberty and democracy. Is democracy desirable? Does it mean the same thing in different societies? Do revolutions bring democracy closer? Or do they start conflicts that make it more distant? These questions arose again in the Arab Uprisings against dictatorships from Tunisia to Syria that occurred in 2010-2011. Unfortunately, instead of bringing democracy, they brought instability, and in some cases horrifically violent civil wars, that continue to this day. Mark Lynch is angry about this outcome, but he is also one of our finest scholars of Middle East politics, and has written a passionate, detailed account of these uprisings and how they produced anarchy and violence.

Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century

By Sharon Erickson Nepstad,

Book cover of Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century

Why this book?

When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989, it was just months after a similar peaceful protest calling for democracy was thoroughly smashed in Beijing.  Why did one non-violent protest succeed, while the other failed? Indeed, since 1989, a host of non-violent, so-called “color” revolutions have occurred in the Philippines, Ukraine, Georgia, Myanmar, Armenia, and elsewhere. In this book, Nepstad carefully describes how and why some nonviolent movements are able to disarm militaries and overthrow governments, while others fail to do so. Using cases from Latin America, Africa, Europe, and Asia, Nepstad gives a solid, systematic explanation that shows readers how nonviolent revolution is possible, and can even be successful. But Nepstad is a careful scholar, and also shows how and why such non-violent movements often fail. This is the best single guide to understanding the surge of non-violent revolutions around the world.

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