A mass of books on revolutions has overflowed our desks, especially in the last ten years, making one wonder if we are not now rapidly approaching the point of diminishing returns. At least two streams can be distinguished in that rushing flood. One, represented mostly by historians, tries to fulfill its task without sacrificing the extreme variety and complexity of the phenomena under study, while assuming that man is able to learn from the past as well as to avoid repeating his mistakes. The other, mainly sociologists and political scientists, searches for an analytical unit—generally political violence which once labelled “revolution” will make possible its operationalization and subsequent quantification. The task of the analyst would be then to inquire for the determinants of “internal war” to predict, hopefully, its occurrence, and presumably to make its prevention feasible. The present work evidently belongs to the latter current of thought.
The author, a South African, was motivated to write this book while contrasting his ill-fated experienced in trying to overthrow the apartheid regime and the glowing victory achieved by the Cuban revolutionaries in 1959. Why did total defeat occur in the first case and total victory in the second? The oddity of the question becomes obvious after a brief reflection. It implies that if President Batista had attempted to establish a South African-like regime, the Cuban revolutionaries would have suffered a fate similar to that of the author and his associates.
To improve the validity of his findings, Mr. Russell selected from the section “history” in the Encyclopedia Britannica thirteen more contemporary successful and unsuccessful revolutions—he prefers this term to rebellion. And since his language capabilities apparently did not match so ambitious an undertaking—he seems to believe that Brazilian sources are in Spanish (p. xii)—a collaborator proficient in that language was found. The outcome of such an effort is developed here in only eighty-nine pages. A model of rebellion is set up; a typology lumping together such diverse phenomena as the deposition of an Albanian Premier in 1924, Vargas’ accession to power in 1931, and the Mexican, Chinese and Cuban revolutions, is offered; the Cuban and South African cases are “explained;” the universe of fourteen rebellions compared; and the conclusions are drawn. He mainly concludes “that in no case of successful rebellion did the regime retain the loyalty of the armed forces.” But he postpones for a future study the job of explaining the performance of the crucial variable.
As for the rest of the book, two chapters describe in capsule form the fourteen rebellions. For example, China, 1949, eight pages; Spain, 1931, two pages, and so on. And three appendices deal with the operationalization of the term rebellion, diagrams, and the assessments of scale of rebellions sampled. The present reviewer is compelled to conclude that historians will not learn very much from this book.