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Skocpol: States and social revolutions

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Skocpol. 1979. States and social revolutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

In Brief

Skocpol argues that the voluntaristic (rational choice) theories common in political science miss something important about revolutions: By focusing on how purposive action brings about revolutions, such theories fail to perceive the structural forces that create a revolutionary situation. To fill in this gap, Skocpol approaches revolutions from a structural perspective.


A "social revolution" is both a change in state institutions (a political revolution) and a change in social structures. The American revolution was only a political revolution, not a social one, since it did little to change social structures. The Chinese revolution, on the other hand, was a social revolution; not only did the state institutions change, but the entire social order changed with it.

A social revolution occurs in two stages (which correspond to parts I and II of the book), and in each stage two structural variables determine what happens next. For more details about the four structural variables, see pages 280-281.

A Revolutionary Situation

In Part I, two variables cause a revolutionary situation. These two variables are jointly sufficient for a "social revolution" to occur. The key word is "sufficient": This is a deterministic theory. If both structural variables are in place, a revolution should always occur.

First, there must be a "crisis of state," often provoked by international factors, such as increasing economic or security competition from abroad. It is a crisis, not merely a challenge, because this is a challenge that the state cannot meet given its current institutional constraints. As a result, elites (and the army) become divided over what to do and loyalty to the regime weakens. This crisis of state creates the revolutionary situation.

Second, patterns of class dominance determine which group will rise up to exploit the revolutionary situation.

The result is a social revolution; the patterns of class dominance merely determine who will lead it.

Revolutionary Outcomes

In Part II, she considers what the outcome of a revolution will be once it begins. Again, there are two structural variables.

Fist, the "obstacles and opportunities shaped by" the specific form of the crisis (from Part I).

Second, just as the prior regime was brought down by socioeconomic and international constraints that it couldn't manage, the revolutionary leaders face similar constraints. These socioeconomic and international constraints affect how the revolutionary regime will establish itself and rebuild the state.

The result is the specific revolutionary outcome. She observes that France ended up with liberal capitalism, Russia with a dictatorship, and China with a mass-mobilizing party-state.

The Role of the State

The role of the state in the above process should be evident. She criticizes the four earlier approaches to explaining social revolutions (see her introduction for a summary of them) for focusing too much on the revolutionary classes and groups while ignoring the form of the prior regime. It is the form of the prior regime (its constraints and such) that determine whether it will be able to respond to a change in its environment (international economic and security competition, also domestic socioeconomic issues). Thus, the form of the prior regime determines whether a "revolutionary situation" will obtain in the first place. And if no such situation obtains, then it doesn't matter whether Marxist proletarians or Gurr's deprived groups (or any other social group) wants a revolution. There must first be a revolutionary situation, and only then these social issues (specifically, patterns of class dominance) can determine who will rebel.

The arguments in this book are not generalizable to other cases due to (1) the unique historical and international circumstances of the nations and (2) world-historical changes in military technologies and in the fundamental structures and bases of state power.

Case Study: China

The puzzle in this section: Why did China end up as a mass-mobilizing party state?

Chapter 7 (from part II: this chapter looks at why China's revolution ended with the modern Chinese state--she considered in earlier sections why the revolution happened in the first place).

The basic idea: the Communists were building up in the rural areas while the Nationalists were in the cities. The Japanese occupied the cities and the Nationalists were very weak when they left. But the Communists remained strong through WWII. So these structural variables favored the Communists after WWII.

The social-revolutionary situation after 1911: The formerly centralized imperial regime disintegrated, and state power devolved to the regional, provincial, and local centers. Similar to France and Russia, opportunities for political participation and initiatives became much more widespread as purportedly representative institutions replaced the emperor. Local warlords controlled independent military-political groupings which fought with one another over control of resources and territory. In their effort to raise finances for these competitions, warlords over-taxed peasants and merchants.

Unlike the French and Russian Revolutions which began with a complete disorganization of the imperial states followed by the quick undermining of the dominant classes through revolts from below, there was no social revolution in China in 1911. In spite of deepening political disintegration and increasing social tensions, local gentry and their warlord allies were able to thwart revolutionary attempts and maintain their power over the peasants.

Two parallel revolutionary political movements emerged out of the collapse of the imperial state. Kuomintang (KMT) based itself primarily upon urban support and resources. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) depended on their ability to penetrate rural communities, displacing the remnant gentry. Originally acting on Soviet advice, the KMT and CCP agreed to unite and work together for a nationalist democratic revolution. Their goals, nonetheless, differed. CCP and leftist-KMT saw the campaign to unite China as a prelude to substantial social reform. Rightist-KMT leaders distrusted both leftists and the mass movements. They only wanted a unification of China and nothing more in terms of upsetting the existing social structure

The KMT's failure to consolidate national control was primarily due to the fact that they simply did not have enough resources. China lagged far behind in her industrialization and railroad development. KMT, furthermore, demonstrated very little capacity or inclination to reorganize village-level politics and enforce socioeconomic reforms. The gentry remained intact. In fact, the KMT regime relinquished to local and provincial rulers the claims to land taxes. Instead it depended entirely on the easy-to-collect urban revenues: excise taxes on consumer necessities, tariffs on international trade, and borrowing through high-interest bonds issued by government-controlled banks. Lastly, the KMT ceased to recruit popular supporters and lost the decision-making and coordinating functions it had exercised during the period of Soviet tutelage.

The peasant-based red army was a "fish swimming in the sea of the people." Peasants were the main supply of manpower for the CCP. Peasants could not just be forcibly drafted into professionally led standing armies directed and supplied through urban centers. They had to be persuaded. CCP used mass-mobilization techniques for drawing rural resources to their armies.

After Chiang Kai-shek no longer needed the Soviets and turned to the West for assistance, he eliminated almost all the leftist elements in the KMT. The CCP retreated to the northwest part of China. In the military coup in Xi'an, Chiang was forced to agree to work with the communists to fight with Japanese. This was CCP's much needed respite from fighting and chance to expand their appeal to the educated Chinese.

The Japanese invasion was a disastrous blow to the KMT because the invaders occupied mostly China's important urban centers, which were traditionally KMT's powerhouse. Not enough manpower to penetrate the countryside, the Japanese essentially allowed the CCP to grow in the rural areas.

There are three reasons for China's distinctive outcomes. First, CCP abandoned the Soviet strategy of developing the heavy industry alone. Instead, it wanted to "walk on two legs," which pointed to both industrial and agricultural developments. Second, international relations and strategic conditions affected the development of CCP regime. Chinese feared the U.S. because of the Korean War, but also wanted Soviet help in conquering Taiwan. China broke with the Soviet Union when she developed her own nuclear weapons. Thirdly, because they already developed a relationship with the peasantry, the CCP had a much easier task to consolidate power and undertake national development.

Research on similar subjects


Skocpol, Theda (author)Comparative PoliticsRevolutionsRebellionAuthorityStatesResearch Design

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