States & Social Revolutions
by Theda Skocpol
Cambridge University Press, 1979
It would be tempting to write off this book as bourgeois sociology, but it would be a big mistake at this stage
of our movement's development. The subject is the French (1789), Russian (1917) and Chinese (1949)
This book serves as an example of general reasoning about historical conditions. It proceeds by naming similar
and dissimilar historical conditions in the revolutions and concluding what can and cannot be considered the
causation of social events if all three revolutions have similar causations. The problem with this methodology is that we may question if enough unique historical events are included to make a generalization--it being only three revolutions. On the other hand, sociologists started with these three and then argued how others fit in with Skocpol's insights. At some distant future date, we can dispense with Skocpol, but for now, we should attempt similar enterprises ourselves. We should not agree with
Skocpol necessarily, but we should use our brains like Skocpol does.
The big benefit of this book for us Maoists is that it serves as a corrective for our movement in particular
and Skocpol as a social-democrat intended it as such. (p. 15) In the discussion of day-to-day party activities and ideological disputes, it may get lost that revolutions are not created by leaders like ourselves, but happen in distinctive historical conditions. This book brings history to bear on many of the questions we need to answer on how these most radical revolutions of recent history happened.
The most important thing that we might not stress enough despite what Lenin said and Skocpol quoted (p. 47) is that
states get themselves smashed--to the glee of revolutionaries. Since even before Karl Marx, pretty much at all times there are people prepared to smash the
state and make social revolution. They only succeed in certain conditions they do not control. One condition is that the old
ruling class is no longer able and willing to rule and the old state has put itself into dire straits by war and accompanying financial degeneracy. In all three cases a dying monarchy was involved.
The French rulers had been at war with the English. The Russians had a disastrous war in World War I and
Mao in China ended up thanking Japanese visitors for the Japanese invasion, because it so thoroughly destroyed the
old rotten order. It is hard to imagine Mao being able to move in and create so much change without such a gift from the
oppressors. Being a party of Leninist vanguard organizers, we are supposed to piss on Skocpol, but we have no problem
with dialectics. The more ferocious the war and repression the rulers unleash, the more thoroughly they prepare their
own grave and the more radical the ensuing revolution.
The fact that Skocpol considers China to be a case of a revolution not in a colonial country is interesting to Maoism.
For her the Japanese invasion was secondary to the collapse of monarchy in 1911. The whole military strategy
of Mao's involving protracted warfare would seem at odds with Skocpol for this and other reasons, but actually the
contrast is a mirage. The strategy of protracted People's War is indeed fraught with difficulties, attacked on the "left"
and right. Countless people told Mao that what he wanted to do was "impossible." It would be easy to
see Skocpol-like people of Mao's day saying that revolution is a passive, historically pre-determined event--
no need for Mao's arduous struggle. However, protracted People's War is only a strategy. It cannot work if the underlying class analysis is incorrect. Protracted People's War does not work for the imperialists because their class interests do not
support such a war. Revolution only succeeds, because there are often those that social-democrats like Skocpol
call "voluntarists" to make revolution with daring and skill.
At the same time, in building the thesis on how states exhaust themselves and fall to be replaced by better ones,
Skocpol is maneuvering for room on how social-democracy can make a difference. Along these lines she speaks of the
autonomy of state structures from ruling classes. In actual fact, Stalin and Mao did not have a problem with the concept
of relative autonomy and included it in their conception of dialectics for the relation of classes to the state and for all
other interconnections for that matter. For the purposes of bourgeois sociology where it
is important to have easily contrasting theories, Marxism came to be defined as either "instrumentalism" or "structuralism,"
both of which sociologists tend to cookie-cut to fit into sociological concerns more easily. On the other hand, if the
sociologists did not simplify and cookie-cut Marxism, they probably would not be able to teach it in college or publish
it in journals at all. It is better to have simple linear ideas of causation to compare sociological theories, because otherwise
the competition would be "unfair," and so bourgeois sociology forces competition on that ground. It's just a little galling to us
Marxists to see this competition between the cookie-cutter version of Marxism and bourgeois sociology. At some point,
social theorists have to consider whether dialectical materialism is necessary or just as many bourgeois sociologists say
too vague to be of scientific value.
Although Skocpol mentions the Mexican Revolution, we would say that
it serves mainly as a negative example and counter-argument to her theories. In Mexico, the physical opportunity for
social revolution existed again and again, but the peasants found themselves defeated because of a lack of Leninist
leadership. In this, the subtext is that Skocpol holds that Stalin's successful revolution did not better the conditions
of Soviet peasants,(p. 286) so in her mind it was better to fail and merely kill some rulers and scare the rest as in Mexico's case. Based on Stalin-era life expectancy statistics offered even by the McCarthy era Congress, we find it hard to see what Skocpol is talking about and she does not offer a concrete measure for her assertion.
Many would say another example against Skocpol is Paris in 1968. Again the physical opportunity for revolution existed, but no
Leninist leadership was in place. So the physical opportunity is not enough in itself. On the other hand, we at MIM would extend Skocpol-like insights by saying that there was no Leninist leadership because there was no French proletariat to give rise to one.
Although Skocpol is correct in handling the French revolution as a matter of an old imperial state in a typical
geo-political collision with another great power, we at MIM attach greater importance to Marx's theories of surplus-value and accumulation taken up in Lenin's theory of imperialism. Our explanation for the modern state-smashing of the old order is Lenin's theory of imperialism, which is about the internal workings of surplus-value extraction and accumulation. For us Marxists,
such surplus-value crises drive imperialism to war on a periodic basis. World War I and World War II were the real
openings for the Russian and Chinese revolutions to be as radical as they were as Skocpol correctly points out. Not a few people have noticed that Bush went into Iraq as the economy was weak at home. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan provide political opportunities for revolution there in a fashion parallel to those of China. Our explanation for how the state ends up in dire straits is
different than Skocpol's ever since capitalism reached the monopoly stage.
In contrast with Skocpol, we hold that even a fully modern and efficient state apparatus would eventually face
a surplus-value crisis as conceived by Marx and Lenin. Less efficient state apparatuses fall more quickly, but
more efficient ones fall more grandly with more profound impact. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that the next
fall of empire will not take the species down with it.
Today with the united $tates invading and threatening so many countries, it's easy to see only the horror. New robotic
weapons seem to be out of a bad science-fiction movie. On the other hand, in the Iraq War of 2003, England has now reached its physical maximum for exertion. It would take a major change in mobilization strategies for England to act in even more countries with more direct troops, but those strategies can easily provoke
even larger mobilizations in antagonism. The United $tates is not quite as far along, but we see clearly the possibility for over-extension of u.$. forces. This process is very familiar to readers of Skocpol.