History's Locomotives: Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World

TitleHistory's Locomotives: Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialMalia, Martin


PublisherNew Haven & London: Yale University Press
ISSNSBN-10: 0-300-11391-9
Review year


Full Text

In this highly significant, posthumously published volume of historical synthesis titled History's Locomotives: Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World, Martin Malia, one of the eminent American historians of the Soviet Union/Russia with a special interest in intellectual history, explores the deep roots of revolution in European history. The exploration was conducted above all in the history of ideas with the aim of tracking the radicalization of the European revolutionary tradition. Thereby Malia wanted to arrive at a proper contextualization of what he viewed as the “logical though extreme” culmination of this tradition in the Bolshevik Revolution – a revolution that was long anticipated, in unmistakably millenarian fashion, as the Second Coming of 1789 and was supposed to institutionalize revolution as regime and become the revolution to end all revolutions.[1] In other words, the goal of History's Locomotives is to develop a properly historicist and comparative approach to the European revolutionary tradition that accounts for patterns as well as escalation, compares similar phenomena across time and sees them as part of a chain of events (what the author appropriately terms sequential comparison). Malia meant this historical study as the generalization of Tocqueville’s insight into the workings of the modern democratic impulse and also aimed to combine it with a Weberian sensitivity to the social role of Christianity.[2] While this undoubtedly sounds like a grandiose undertaking, the author at times consciously preaches humility and refrains from providing definite answers.
Malia understands revolutions as political-constitutional and cultural-ideological transformations in the first place, as the transformation of state structures and legitimacy. Accordingly, in this version, revolutions are driven by crisis politics and ideological intoxication, for the analysis of which understanding agents and their perspectives are crucially important. Malia thereby opposes overly ambitious attempts to explain revolutions socially, let alone simplistic claims that they were the results of the ambitions, interests and acts of single classes – at a crucial point in the book, he claims that 1640, 1848 as well as 1905-07 were accumulations of aristocratic, bourgeois, popular and peasant revolutions (p.281). Instead of searching for and continuously refining what might prove to be the ultimate model of explanation, the author was interested in revolutionary processes, various alliance systems that governed them and forms of radicalization that made revolutions so difficult to end.[3] He argues, in a clearly ironic mode of viewing history that “the activist “overkill” of a millenarian impulse is necessary to fuel the initial revolutionary breakthrough; and then a thermidorian retreat is necessary to preserve the concrete results that the breakthrough achieved” (p.58).[4] 
Though Malia does not aim at theory-building as such, the closest he comes to formulating one appears on p.264 where he writes “For the overthrow of an Old Regime is not a socioeconomic transition from “feudalism” to “capitalism,” as Marx argued. It is a political, ideological, and cultural break with immemorial tradition; its essence is the passage from a corporate and hierarchical world that was given by history and/or divine ordinance to a world where men consciously order and mold their society. […] such a transition […] can occur only once in the life of a given Old Regime polity.” The reader can sense in this quote that perhaps the most important stake of History's Locomotives concerns the relations between 1789 and 1917, a point of contention ever since the Bolsheviks took power. Malia ultimately claims that there existed two distinct families of revolutions, as symbolized by the dates 1789 and 1917 (p.298).
Rather than trying to provide a coherent model, most of History's Locomotives is distinguished by a piecemeal, inductive explanation gradually emerging through thoroughly argumentative individual chapters that all include narrative presentations as well. The Hussite movement appears as a proto-revolution that already in the 15th century offered the “maximal revolutionary formula” and played out the basic scenario of European revolutions prior to 1789. Malia also stressed that a national focus, a state needs to be present to give concentrated force to rebellion and fanaticize politics. The Dutch revolt, being “essentially a military, national-territorial war of liberation, analogous to that of the American colonies against England” (p.129), was no revolution in the stricter sense. The latter is even called “the least revolutionary of modern upheavals” (p.168). The English revolution is presented as the first modern one, even though it was still fought in religious terms. On the other hand, the French Revolution, which had an extreme amount of “backlog” to overthrow in Malia’s perception, was open-ended in its radicalism since it fused political and social questions for the first time. While it was secular and this-worldly, it also compressed sovereignty and sacrality. Malia rightly identifies the historiography of it as “the most pivotal for understanding revolution as such” (p.179) from which “the new age of anticipatory revolution […] drew its inspiration” (p.216), and provides an excellent brief summary of it. 
Malia identifies a number of crucial shifts in the revolutionary tradition of the modern era. Firstly, towards the primary goal of eliminating social inequality, which was an ultimately illusory aim in his judgment and, through the denial of political liberty, ended in the inversion of Western development in the Soviet Union. Secondly, towards more backward countries and also more radicalism – though this is no simple linear gradient from West to East, as central Europe appears as the region of revolution interrupta, which is clearly not a form in between (p.97).
Though I find History's Locomotives a thoroughly learned and immensely valuable historical presentation and analysis of European revolutions, I would like to express four reservations, three relatively minor ones and one touching on a more central matter. Firstly, though it makes sense to compare cases belonging to what Malia calls the same culture, he, unconvincingly in my view, wanted to restrict the geographical scope of revolutionary phenomena to Europe, understood as Christianity’s terrain, and places impacted by it. In this context, it would be interesting to hear what he thought of the concept and reality of Islamic revolutions – particularly in Iran, which managed to convince many structuralist analysts of the crucial role of culture and ideology. Secondly, though Malia identifies a shift between the 17th and late 18th centuries from backward- to forward-looking revolutions, he does not connect this to the emergence of the novel, modern time horizon, so brilliantly explored by Reinhart Koselleck.[5] Thirdly, his teleological understanding of Western history leading to the welfare state and the stark contrasts he presents between Eastern ethnic and Western political nationalism (p.236) does not conform to new evidences of the last decades.[6]
Fourthly, and most importantly, Malia’s denial of the historical validity of the October Revolution and his more general identification of history with primacy and progress has the unfortunate consequence of diminishing the importance of the historical experience of people living outside the leading countries of the world. At certain points, he even seems to deny the reality of the communist experience – for instance where he talks about “the real logic of history” from which the Soviet Union is excluded (p.277) or where he states that “in real modern history there exists only the political republic” [Emphasis added – FL] (p.278). Such derogatory statements contradict Malia’s claim that the concept of revolution as political liberty shaded off into revolution as the drive to social equality by 1848 (p.295) and the point that real revolution came to be regarded as socialist in the 20th century (p.298). Ultimately, this is an inherent problem of a grand narrative focusing on the spread of political liberty which also attempts to account for the emergence of the Soviet Union, seen as opposing this goal. It is a contradiction between Malia’s objective of describing a historical process culminating in the Bolshevik Revolution and his normative anti-communism. This leads to a curious ambivalence whether 1917 and all that followed from it was a logical outcome or an abhorrent perversion, and whether it was central or peripheral to European history.[7]

[1] As Malia characteristically describes it at another point of the book, “the transcendental German theory for completing the French Revolution landed on earth as the rude praxis of the Russian Revolution” (p.252), which he judges it as a vulgar “coup” in form, but ultra-revolutionary in content (p.270).

[2] In practice this implied going far back in time to tackle the early revolutionary impulse as Christian, particularly millenarian and apocalyptic heresy. As Malia beautifully expresses it, there was a “millennial trajectory from salvation religion as surrogate politics to salvation politics as surrogate religion” (p.9).

[3] Moreover, the author remained highly critical of social-scientific explanations as well as various ideological distortions that surrounded the contested, multidisciplinary terrain that is the study of revolutions. Moore and Skocpol, both highly influential and widely respected authors, are accused of having neglecting the crucially important dimensions of history, politics, culture and ethics and receive particularly unfavorable reviews (pp.307-315) in the article called “Social Science and “Staseology”” featured as Appendix II.

[4] He maintains that in the case of the French Revolution, for instance, “all the crucial decisions of the overall process were made between May and December 1789” (p.197) while this consequential year also contained the seeds of future divisions and intoxication. Similarly ironic is his point that committed attempts to renew and purify the Church lead to secularization, among several others.

[5] Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time  (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985)

[6] On the critical reading of the latter stereotype please see the important work of Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992)

[7] Another important point is that Malia fails to link his discussion to recent exploration of Fascism, its relation to modernity and revolution, particularly the Bolshevik, which could have complicated his argument immensely. This lack of considerations concerning counter-revolutionaries in their own right also makes his presentation of 1848 somewhat imbalanced. The simple model of an escalating revolutionary tradition cannot really incorporate the anomaly of the conservative victory of this first modern and transnational revolution.