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

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Jack A. Goldstone Why did I love 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.

By Josiah Ober,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Athenian Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Where did "democracy" come from, and what was its original form and meaning? Here Josiah Ober shows that this "power of the people" crystallized in a revolutionary uprising by the ordinary citizens of Athens in 508-507 B.C. He then examines the consequences of the development of direct democracy for upper-and lower-class citizens, for dissident Athenian intellectuals, and for those who were denied citizenship under the new regime (women, slaves, resident foreigners), as well as for the general development of Greek history. When the citizens suddenly took power into their own hands, they changed the cultural and social landscape of Greece,…


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

Jack A. Goldstone Why did I love 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.   

By Jeremy D. Popkin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A New World Begins as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The principles of the French Revolution remain the only possible basis for a just society -- even if, after more than two hundred years, they are more contested than ever before. In A New World Begins, Jeremy D. Popkin offers a riveting account of the revolution that puts the reader in the thick of the debates and the violence that led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a new society. We meet Mirabeau, Robespierre, and Danton, in all of their brilliance and vengefulness; we witness the failed escape and execution of Louis XVI; we see women…


Book cover of History of the Russian Revolution

Jack A. Goldstone Why did I love 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. 

By Leon Trotsky, Max Eastman (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked History of the Russian Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Regarded by many as among the most powerful works of history ever written, this book offers an unparalleled account of one of the most pivotal and hotly debated events in world history. This book, released to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, reveals, from the perspective of one of its central actors, the revolution's profoundly democratic, emancipatory character. Originally published in three parts, Trotsky's masterpiece is collected here in a single volume. It serves as the most vital and inspiring record of the Russian Revolution to date.
"During the first two months of 1917 Russia was still…


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

Jack A. Goldstone Why did I love 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.

By Marc Lynch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The New Arab Wars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Marc Lynch's last book, The Arab Uprising, described the then ongoing revolutionary change and prospect for the consolidation of democracy in key Arab countries that still seemed possible. But Lynch saw dark signs on the horizon, especially in Syria. That book ended with the hope that the Arab uprisings heralded a fundamental change over the long-term, but with the warning that Arab regimes would not easily give up their power. Instead, Egypt's revolution has given way to a military coup; Libya's produced a failed state; Yemen is the battleground for a proxy war and will be destroyed; Syria has become…


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

Jack A. Goldstone Why did I love 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.

By Sharon Erickson Nepstad,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nonviolent Revolutions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the spring of 1989, Chinese workers and students captured global attention as they occupied Tiananmen Square, demanded political change, and then experienced a tragic crackdown at the hands of the Chinese army. Months later, East German civilians rose up nonviolently, bringing down the Berlin Wall and dismantling their regime. Although both movements used the tactics of civil resistance, their outcomes were different.

In Nonviolent Revolutions, Sharon Erickson Nepstad examines these two movements, along with citizen uprisings in Panama, Chile, Kenya, and the Philippines. Through a comparative approach that includes both successful and failed cases, she analyzes the effects of…


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Cold Peace: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift, Part I

By Helena P. Schrader,

Book cover of Cold Peace: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift, Part I

Helena P. Schrader Author Of Cold Peace: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift, Part I

New book alert!

Who am I?

I first went to Berlin after college, determined to write a novel about the German Resistance; I stayed a quarter of a century. Initially, the Berlin Airlift, something remembered with pride and affection, helped create common ground between me as an American and the Berliners. Later, I was commissioned to write a book about the Airlift and studied the topic in depth. My research included interviews with many participants including Gail Halvorsen. These encounters with eyewitnesses inspired me to write my current three-part fiction project, Bridge to Tomorrow. With Russian aggression again threatening Europe, the story of the airlift that defeated Soviet state terrorism has never been more topical. 

Helena's book list on the Russian blockade of Berlin and the Allied Airlift

What is my book about?

It is 1948 in Berlin. The economy is broken, the currency worthless, and the Russian bear is preparing to swallow its next victim. In the ruins of Hitler's capital, former RAF officers and a woman pilot start an air ambulance company that offers a glimmer of hope. Yet when a Soviet fighter brings down a British airliner, Berlin becomes a flashpoint. The world teeters on the brink of World War Three.

Award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader tells the backstory of the Berlin Airlift in Cold Peace, the first book of the Bridge to Tomorrow series.

Cold Peace: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift, Part I

By Helena P. Schrader,


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