Review: Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements

4 Star, Insurgency & Revolution
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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Primer Lacking in Some Substantive Respects
July 7, 2010
James DeFronzo
There is no question but that this book would be an excellent undergraduate primer, but it is lacking in a number of substantive respects. The shortfalls first:

1. Needs to add understanding and summary of “secret war” and covert action dimensions underlying each revolution and its counter-revolution. Although there are some references, the reality about the CIA and others that comes out in books such as Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA or None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam is simply not there. In this vein, the author focuses too much on world “permissiveness” for revolution as a factor, and not enough on the grave sorrows inflicted on humanity by US sponsorship of dictatorships (see Ambassador Mark Palmer's utterly sensational Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025. While the author does address CIA's role in subverting both Guatemala and Iran (and in Guatemala, of Che Guevara's being there to witness the illegal over-throw), generally this book lacks a system of systems approach to the raw disconnect between government and people across political-legal, socio-economic, ideo-cultural, techno-demographic, and natural-geographic factors.

2. Needs to add understanding and summary of the role of multinational corporations in both sponsoring and suppressing revolutions. From Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporations to War is a Racket: The Antiwar Classic by America's Most Decorated Soldier to The Global Class War: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future – and What It Will Take to Win It Back, the role of elite corruption sponsored by the USA or USSR or China or Iran is simply not adequately integrated.

3. Needs to add understanding and summary of the role of criminal networks as substantive players in any and all revolutionary movements, not just whatever poster child the US Government wants to emphasize that day. Criminals, terrorists, revolutionaries, and white collar criminals all share the same smuggling and money-laundering spectrum of networks. See Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy.

4. Would benefit from adding a Preface or Appendix on Failed States, and an analytic model on revolution. The five conditions the author focuses on are interesting, but not at all comprehensive [see the three links at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog–not being Amazon books, they are not allowed here however relevant.] This is where the point can be made that the failure of states to achieve legitimacy with the masses is the core foundation for–but neither a precondition nor a precipitant of–revolution. See Max Manwaring et all, The Search for Security: A U.S. Grand Strategy for the Twenty-First Century

5. There is no mention of the 5,000 plus secession movements around the world, all of them gathering steam. There are not enough guns to keep everyone down, the Internet and cell phones have broken the death grip elites had on information, the “new world order” (and disorder) is going to be bottom up panarchy, and most elites have no idea what the word panarchy means.

Now for the high points:

1. Great bibliographies, although skewed toward the 1980's and 1990's, missing many still relevant work from earlier decades, e.g. Ekstein. He cites Crane (1952) and Davies (1962) but too many primary sources have been slighted in favor of more current tertiary sources.

2. Government and media are failing to educate their publics about fundamentals of good and bad governance and hence the nature of revolutionary movements.

3. VITAL POINT: Most–including Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, and Viet-Nam, reacting to foreign interventions and occupations. The author's coverage of all of these is generally on target but rather superficial. HOWEVER, the author does a superb job of showing the common sense nature of leaders such as Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, and how the US literally blew them off because it favored corrupt profits over indigenous democracies.

4. The author touches on the difference between reform and revolution, and it is this treatment that pushes me over the edge–I am going to have to publish an updated version of my 1976 thesis (free online at Phi Beta Iota) since no one seems to have figured out what I knew and organized in 1976.


1. Mass frustration

2. Dissident elite actualized in political movements

3. Unifying motivations

4. Severe political crisis

5. Permissive or tolerant world context.

It is here that I get irritated. This is a very superficial model, and one that does not reflect the difference between a precondition (Somoza family abuse of the Nicaraguan population for decades) and a precipitant (a major natural disaster followed by the Somoza family trying to steal most of the aid being delivered).

I am fascinating by the author's artfully diplomatic discussion of how the US in Latin America executing a double-whammy: first, people saw that Cuba could make a revolution stick, with the Bay of Pigs being a major error; and second, when the Alliance for Progress began encouraging democracy, it scared the elites of several countries into reactionary take-overs: he mentions in this regard Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay.

There is a useful discussion, particularly in relation to Iran, of how it modernized economically but not politically. The contrast with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey is worth studying further.

The author treats films as a separate bibliographic contribution to the end of each chapter, with a full page or two of listings to complement the preceding bibliography of articles, books, and chapters. This was a new and appreciated twist for me.

I find the author's treatment of Joffe's scholarship, to wit that Islam is struggling with the West because of “profound” asymmetries” rather than any “clash of civilizations” to be exactly right. The Muslim Brotherhood opposed violence, and most policymakers would rather not have us understand the Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush or The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Vintage).

In discussing the emergence of Islamic radicalism the author does not do justice to Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times or Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 or the blatant global funding of extremist Wahabbism by the debauched Saudi royals, or how Pakistan played the US for a fool for decades, beginning with Brzezinski, who gave them the nuclear bomb (the SUNNI nuclear bomb, the real reason Iran wants a SHI'ITE nuclear bomb).

Separately from the discussion of Islam the author points out that Nelson Mandela has to give up economic reform (e.g. leave the white minority owning the mines and the guns) in order to achieve political reform, the story of South Africa and its revolution is unfinished.

I put the book down thoughtful–this was a good read for any level of reader, and certainly the best starting point I have seen for undergraduates. Latin America is about to enter a new era of leftist Presidents who are non-violent and staunchly against corruption. If a new hybrid form of regional uplifting can succeed in South America and the Caribbean, it can be migrated to Africa. As I squint out at our summer garden, I see butterflies, and I feel hope. Revolution is a good thing. We need more revolutionaries, to the point that every individual being exploited by any government, any corporation, any non-governmental organization (e.g. the thieving Red Cross) becomes a revolutionary.

See also (only at Phi Beta Iota, where null Amazon links to Amazon books are all live):

1976 thesis on revolution (Lehigh University)
1992 paper on revolution (Marine Corps University)
1976 graphic on the preconditions of revolution

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