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Society for Latin American Studies (SLAS)

Social Revolution: A Latin American Perspective

Author(s): Alan Knight
Source: Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1990), pp. 175-202
Published by: Wiley on behalf of Society for Latin American Studies (SLAS)
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Bull.LatinAm.Res.,Vol.9, No.2, pp.175-202,1990. 0261-3050/90$3.00+ .00
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Social Revolution: a Latin American


Department of History, University of Texas at Austin, USA

The more celebrated comparative studies of social revolutions have tended

to concentrate on European and Asian cases, especially the great triad of
France, Russia and China. With the exception of Wolf (1973), they have
given little attention to Latin America. Moore hazards the passing observa-
tion that many Latin American cases may fit within his category of 'semi-
parliamentary governments', engaged on a 'revolution from above' (Moore,
1969: 438); Skocpol obliquely mentions?and misinterprets?the Mexican
Revolution (Skocpol, 1979:288). Brinton (1965), Johnson (1968), Baechler
(1975)?to name but a selection?confine themselves rigorously to the Old
World. In short, the 'great' Latin American revolutions?Mexico, Bolivia,
Cuba?have rarely been integrated into the mainstream debate concerning
the causes, character and consequences of social revolution.
This paper suggests some tentative conclusions concerning these revolu?
tions, their place within the broader category of social revolution, and certain
theories which claim to illuminate that category. Part of the exercise is
negative: I criticise both the state-centred approach favoured by Skocpol
and, more generally, theories which purport to find recurrent patterns in the
etiology or process of revolutions. More positively, I argue the importance of
class relations as against state-building in the analysis of revolutions, and I
suggest that conventional chronological and geographical compartments
(such as 'twentieth century' and 'Third World') are often misleading and
should be broken down.
Recent theories have tried to put the state back into revolutionary etiology.
Skocpol's influential thesis seeks to show that the diagnostic feature of social
revolutions has been their intimate relationship, both causal and functional,
to state-building and the international state system (Skocpol, 1979: 19-32).
International competition leads to an overburdening ofthe state, fiscal crisis,
even delegitimising military defeat. But the ensuing revolution serves, over
time, to recast and fortify the state. As Skocpol, echoing Tocqueville and
invoking Weber, puts it: 'strengthened national states were not the only
accomplishments of the French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions, but such
changes in the state order were among the most striking and important
revolutionary transformations' (Skocpol, 1979:285). Meanwhile, as the very
choice and organisation of data make clear, Skocpol avoids alternative
categories of revolutionary definition and explanation. Notions of class
conflict, of 'bourgeois' or 'socialist' revolutions, are either rejected, or

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subordinated to the primary, state-oriented criteria of relevance (Skocpol,

This approach exerts a strong appeal. Historiographically, it consorts with
the powerful revisionist trend in French revolutionary studies which has
attacked?and even pronounced the demise of?the old 'social' inter?
pretation of the Revolution (Cavanaugh, 1972; Furet, 1981). It rejects highly
schematic class analyses, involving simple base-superstructure determinism
and the crude choreography of social classes (Cobb, 1972; xvii-xix). It forms
part of that renewed interest in the state which has affected both Marxist
theorists and empirical historians (Holloway and Picciotto, 1978). Finally, it
panders to the powerful appeal?apparent in the initial reception accorded to
Paul Kennedy's somewhat banal bestseller?of international systems analy?
sis, which plots the rise and fail of the great powers, stressing the inexorable
constraints of the system, rather than the endogenous social structures of its
participants (Kennedy, 1987).
But fashion is a poor guide to truth. In the three Latin American cases
considered here, the 'statist' approach proves highly deficient. It cannot
explain why revolutions occurred, nor why they occurred when and where
they did. Nor does the emphasis on state-building necessarily get to the heart
ofthe revolutionary experience and outcome. Of course, case studies cannot
refute high-level theories. But when three major cases, in a limited sample of
social revolutions, raise such problems, the validity ofthe approach must be
questioned and alternative approaches scouted.
In the Latin American cases, international competition had little to do with
the Mexican and Cuban revolutions. Of course, Mexico, Bolivia and Cuba
shared a dependent relationship with the USA (albeit the form of their
respective 'dependencies' differed). But this relationship was quite distinct
from the geopolitical rivalry, involving arms races and fiscal crises, wars and
defeats, which allegedly preceded and precipitated the French, Russian and
Chinese Revolutions. As regards this Skocpolian etiology, neither Mexico
nor Cuba fit (I will consider Bolivia, a better candidate, shortly). Mexico's
army had fought no foreign foe since 1867; its military budget had been
slimmed and its national finances were buoyant. There was no
'administrative-military breakdown of [the] preexisting state' in Mexico prior
to the Revolution; indeed, the state had never looked stronger (Skocpol,
1979: 287). It was the Revolution which caused the breakdown, after 1910;
that breakdown was in turn a consequence?and diagnostic symptom?of
popular revolution.1
Skocpol (briefly) recognises that the Mexican Revolution 'did not emerge
as a result of confrontations of historically autonomous and well-established
imperial states with foreign competitors or intruders'; she therefore (vaguely)
invokes the 'legacy of Spanish colonialism', the feebleness of the Porfirian
regime, and unspecified shifts in foreign investment and US government
policy (Skocpol, 1979: 288). She also resorts to the old argument that small
nations, being small and therefore dependent, are more conditioned by
external forces than major nations, like France, Russia and China. This adds
up to an admission that the state-oriented approach works badly in the
Mexican and Cuban cases. Competition in the international arena, the

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original analytical insight, is replaced by something resembling economic

dependency. Big states are buffeted by geopolitical rivalries, little states by
economic dependency. But?even assuming this to be empirically true?the
distinction is a crucial one and the explanatory shift is revealing. For if
international rivalry is not the key factor, if revolutions are not precipitated
by war and its associated fiscal burdens, then the 'statist' rationale loses its
validity. At best, it applies to Great Powers, or those Little Powers who (like
Bolivia?) misguidedly ape their betters. In most cases, however, Skocpol's
argument assumes that the revolutions of lesser powers must follow a quite
different rationale (one that relates, in ways Skocpol does not clearly specify,
to their lesser power status and their economic dependency).
But this does not work very well either. I shall pass over the question of
whether Skocpol's thesis fits even the great powers on which she focuses. I am
concerned, rather, with its broad relevance or (as she would claim) irrelev-
ance to the more populous universe of lesser powers. First, the distinction is
unclear. The great/little power distinction appears as an ex post facto
rationalisation. It assumes a neat dichotomy, when in fact these categorisa-
tions are fluid and relational: Mexico is a minor power vis-d-vis the USA but
a major power vis-d-vis Guatemala; Argentina, a lesser global power but a
major regional power, played a significant role in the gestation ofthe Bolivian
Revolution. Second, there is the empirical question of what happened in
Bolivia. On the face of it, Bolivia was impelled towards revolution by the
Chaco War, ostensibly a classic example of (regional) power politics. In fact,
the story is more complex: domestic tensions led President Salamanca to
engineer a foreign war in the hope of re-establishing domestic credibility and
the attempt backfired. If the later social revolution partly stemmed from the
war, the war was itself a product of domestic social tension; it was not thrust
upon Bolivia by an inexorable international system. In addition, the Bolivian
Revolution, the only Latin American case which perhaps obeys Skocpolian
etiology, failed to establish a powerful and durable state, which, in Skocpol's
model, is the hallmark of successful revolution. In contrast, the Mexican and
Cuban revolutions, which had little or nothing to do with international
rivalry, did precisely that.
To substitute 'economic dependency' for 'rivalry in the international states
system' is to alter profoundly the explanatory framework of revolutionary
causality. It shifts the emphasis away from the state?its trials, tribulations
and eventual collapse?and towards socio-economic factors; trade, foreign
investment, the commercialisation of agriculture, the dispossession of the
peasantry, the rise of the labour movement. Here we enter an explanatory
universe quite different from Skocpol's. Here we encounter social groups or
classes whom theorists have linked to specific forms of revolutionary
mobilisation: Eric Wolfs insurgent 'middle peasantry'; Jeffery Paige's
revolutionary estate migrants; Charles Bergquist's militant export-sector
workers (Wolf, 1973: 292; Paige, 1978; Bergquist, 1986). Here, too, we
confront a wide range of explanatory options. Wolfs analysis of Mexico
remains evocative and convincing; but the inclusion of Cuba among his
'peasant wars of the twentieth century' suggests a certain Procrustean striving
to make topic fit title. Both Paige and Bergquist offer original and stimulating

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analyses of peasant and labour movements, respectively, suggesting the

structural factors which facilitate mobilisation and militancy. But the Latin
American loci on which they focus (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela
and Peru) are all strangers to social revolution; conversely, the loci of social
revolution in Latin America (Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua) are
Furthermore, analyses of peasant or labour movements per se, however
illuminating, can provide only partial explanations of social revolutions
which, as almost all students of the subject concur, are complex phenomena,
embracing different classes, ideologies, and contingent factors. Historians of
Mexico are nowadays much given to asserting the multiplicity of the Revolu?
tion, in which respect they echo Lefebvre's view 'the the [French] Revolution
is a complex entity \fait], that there is not one Revolution but several' (Knight,
1986, Vol. 1: 2; Lefebvre, 1954: 248). Wolfs 'peasant war' can be found in
revolutionary Mexico but it is harder to locate in Bolivia and Cuba.
Bergquist's radical export-sector workers are evidenced in the Bolivian tin
mines and Cuban sugar industry, but they failed to make a real mark in
Mexico (although cf. Hart, 1987). The individual components of revolution
may be comparable, but the way they are put together, the resulting machine
and its workings, differ profoundly. Social actors display similar characters,
but they enact a different plot.
Indeed, the complexity of the 'great revolutions' is such that common
features or patterns are hard to find, especially at the level of cause or process
(I will turn to the crucial question of outcome later). As regards revolutionary
etiology, presumed common features do not show up with any consistence. I
have already questioned the notion that revolutions are necessarily preceded
by collapses in state power (cf. Johnson, 1968:99-104). Skepticism is also in
order when it comes to the related notion of mounting pre-revolutionary
tension, a notion often conveyed by means of 'organicist', febrile metaphors
(Brinton, 1965: 16-17; Hobsbawm, 1986: 8). The Bolivian revolution was
signalled in advance by mounting political mobilisation, state instability, and
premonitory revolts (successful in 1943, abortive 1949). Here, perhaps, was
the 'fever' which preceded the revolutionary spasm. Still, the revolution of
1952 came as a 'great surprise' to some.2 Yet more clearly, the Mexican
Revolution astonished victims and protagonists alike. After a tumultuous
period in the mid-nineteenth century, the country had enjoyed a generation
of political stability and relative social peace. True, the 1910 insurrection
followed two years of intense electoral politicking, but there was a quantum
jump?and an unforeseen one?between this political effervescence,
common enough in other Latin American countries such as Argentina or
Chile, and the sudden popular insurgency of 1910-1911 (Knight, 1986,
Vol. 1:78-246). The Cuban Revolution, like the Bolivian, was preceded by a
long wave of political mobilisation, which can be roughly dated to the revolu?
tion of 1933. But 1933 marked less a new political departure (Cuba had
never known a period of stable oligarchic rule, as Mexico and Bolivia had)
than the entry ofa new generation upon the political stage. Thereafter, Cuba
experienced political violence and instability, corruption and gangsterism, an
oscillation between praetorian and civilian politics. If these were febrile

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symptoms, they were endemic for a generation. As a result, Castro's descent

on Oriente in 1956, three years after his abortive Moncada attack, did not
raise expectations of imminent revolution. As late as January 1958 'corpor?
ate optimism' still ran high and informed observers were confident that 'there
does not seem to be any prospect ofa change in government in the immediate
future'.3 Batista's fall, less than 12 months later, was sudden and surprising;
furthermore, most observers doubted that it would lead to profound changes
in Cuba.
If premonitory symptoms were often lacking, so, too, were the progressive
stages of revolution?the 'dramatic dialectical dance'?which comparative
analysts have discerned (Brinton, 1965: 16-17; Hobsbawm, 1962: 84-85,
1986:20-21). Contrary to some assertions, the Mexican Revolution (1910-
1920) avoided the classic?that is, the French and, perhaps, the Russian?
progression from moderate to radical to Thermidor. Popular radicalism was
coeval with the political revolution of 1910-1911: whether social radicalism
or political moderation is seen as dominant depends largely on where an
observer looks, not when. The Carrancista regime of 1915-1920, though
more hardheaded and ruthless than its Maderista predecessor (1911-1913),
was not necessarily more radical (Knight, 1986, Vol. 11:494-496). Over the
longer term, too, the revolution displayed a capacity for recurrent shifts to
the left (1920-1927, 1934-1938) and to the right (1927-1933 and 1938-
1946). The Bolivian revolution lurched first to the left (1952-1956) then?
under domestic and international pressure?tracked to the right after 1956.
The military coup of 1964, far from representing a dramatic U-turn,
continued this process; though political power changed hands, the social
reforms of the revolution were preserved and, in the case of the agrarian
reform, extended. The Cuban Revolution, initially moderate (or, at least,
opaque), soon moved left, for reasons we will mention. But, despite many
shifts in policy since 1959, no discernible Thermidor has stopped the
Revolution in its tracks. Even today, glasnost and perestroika have made less
headway in Cuba than in other socialist states.
Theories which posit patterned causes or processes seem to offer little by
way of genuine insights into the Latin American revolutionary experience or,
indeed, any such experience. A 'theory of revolution' which operates at this
level risks being tautological (for example, by turning diagnostic features?like
'regime collapse'?into causes) or plain wrong (it asserts the generality of
patterns which are evident only in certain cases). In this sense, revolutions are
probably no more amenable to general theories than holes in the ground
(Maclntyre, 1971: 260). There is another sense, however, in which revolu?
tions may be said to follow common patterns. This concerns outcome rather
than cause or process. Before switching to this more positive tack, it is
necessary to explain and justify the concept of 'social revolution'. There are
two key attributes to the concept which most analysts accept, even though
they may describe them in different terms. A social revolution (a) involves
substantial political mobilisation in pursuit of causes which matter suffi-
ciently to elicit both voluntary (not coerced) commitment and significant
opposition and it leads, via some serious governmental breakdown, to (b)
profound socio-political structural change (Skocpol, 1979:4-5; Huntington,

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1971: 264). The first feature (a) is descriptive?it describes what a social
revolution looks like in processual terms. The second (b) is functional?it
denotes the structural consequences of revolution. These two features may
not be proportionate. In social as in biological evolution we must guard
against 'the false equation between magnitude of effect and intensity of cause'
(Gould, 1983: 111). Phases of massive mobilisation can lead to comparat-
ively inconclusive outcomes. Revolutionary mountains strain to bring forth
political mice. Tupac Amaru's revolt convulsed Upper Peru in the 1780s, as
Hidalgo's did New Spain in 1810. In each case the Spanish authorities, hand-
in-glove with an alarmed creole elite, restored control. Ultimately, the creole
elites achieved independence on their own, limited terms, avoiding social
revolution. The Taiping rebellion met all the descriptive requirements of a
social revolution, but it overthrew neither dynasty nor gentry.
Conversely relatively minor mobilisations can presage substantial social
change. The Cuban revolution was (descriptively) small beer compared to
the Mexican. Castro's armed forces would have been swallowed up in
Pancho Villa's Division of the North; total casualties?even allowing for the
difference in population?were two-hundred times heavier in the Mexican
than in the Cuban revolution. Yet the Cuban revolution ushered in a phase
of more rapid radical change than did the Mexican. The Bolivian 'revolution'
was, in terms ofthe decisive seizure of power in 1952, an urban insurrection
which took only three days and involved less than 5000 casualties, dead and
wounded. In these two cases, the 'revolutionary1 label is justified not only by
the functional outcome?rapid and substantial socio-political change?but
also by the fact that the insurrectionary episodes were themselves embedded
within broader processes of political mobilisation and conflict (the same
may be said of the French revolution). The Bolivian revolution built upon
the militant traditions of the tin miners, who had mounted strikes and
endured repression since the 1920s; it capitalised, too, on peasant griev?
ances, manifest in the case of the Cochabamba Valley, latent on much of the
altiplano (Dandler and Torrico, 1987). Castro's guerrilla struggle in the
Sierra Maestra was complemented by urban terrorism, strikes, and constant
opposition politicking. Armed insurrections were only part of a bigger
picture, chronological and spatial. Violence was a necessary aspect of the
revolutionary process, but an approach which focuses on violence per se?
for example, by compiling compendious lists of violent events?is likely to
prove mechanistic and misleading. As Hobsbawm observes, 'the question of
"violence", a term which is usually left ambiguous and ill-defined, may be
inseparable from revolution but is peripheral to it1 (Hobsbawm, 1986: 7).
Only in Mexico was the passage of arms itself prolonged, traumatic and
decisive. In Mexico, as in China, the revolutionary struggle per se served to
transform society, irrespective of the purposive actions of revolutionary
groups. (Debray and Guevara argue that the guerrilla struggle transformed
the Cuban revolutionary leaders: even so, the latter constituted only a tiny
fraction of a population, for the great majority of whom the armed
revolution was a spectacle, a nuisance, a threat, or an inspiration?but not a
transforming experience) (Debray, 1968: 68-69, 113; Guevara, 1968: 96-
97.) In Mexico, the very process of the revolution?the fighting, upheaval,

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inflation, dearth, migration?probably had a greater impact than any

revolutionary legislation, certainly prior to 1920 (Knight, 1986, Vol. 11:
While mass mobilisation?our first, descriptive, criterion?thus character?
ised all three cases, no common pattern of mobilisation can be discerned.
Revolutions appear as processes amenable only to discrete historical
analysis: they are, as Wolf puts it, 'just-so stories', narratives that depend on a
peculiar concatenation of events (Wolf, 1971: 12). So far, then, we have
followed the Maclntyre line: as regards both etiology and morphology,
revolutions are as resistant to meaningful generalisation as holes in the
ground. If, however, we turn to our second criterion, that of function or
outcome, more positive conclusions can be hazarded. First, one source of
potential confusion must be eliminated. To qualify for membership of the
select species of 'social revolution', a case must demonstrably succeed: it
must have a social revolutionary function or outcome. Otherwise, it joins the
ranks of the Tupac Amaru and Hidalgo insurrections, Taiping, the
Colombian Violencia: revolutionary tales 'full of sound and fury signifying
nothing' (or, at least, nothing commensurate with their prodigal expenditure
of life and resources). Success is defined in terms of substantial and
irreversible socio-political change. But that may not imply success for the
revolutionary actors themselves. As Skopcol rightly points out, the course
and outcome of revolutions rarely correspond to the purposive intentions of
their participants (Skocpol, 1979: 15-16). Often, they resemble 'vast
impersonal forces', like the metaphorical hurricane which, in imagery of the
Mexican novelist Azuela, swept the country, carrying hapless humans as if
they were dry autumnal leaves (Rutherford, 1971: 122-123). Change
occurs, but in ways that are unplanned and unforeseen.
This, we may argue, was particularly the case with bourgeois revolutions,
those which help dismantle feudal relations and reinforce?without neces?
sarily creating de novo?capitalist ones. Why? Socialist revolutions have,
almost by definition, been the work of vanguard parties, committed to a
project of socialism. Of course, like all political elites, these have not enjoyed
outright autonomy and they have been buffeted by events (notably foreign
invasions). But they have subscribed to an active, interventionist political
philosophy and undertaken massive experiments in economic planning and
social engineering: Soviet collectivisation, the Great Leap Forward, Che's
industrialisation drive in Cuba. These were planned, purposive, top-down
projects, even if outcome did not always match purpose. Bourgeois revolu?
tions differ in several respects. Vanguard parties have played a far less
prominent role and, even when they have taken power, they have proved less
adept at retaining and deploying it?chiefly because the relation between
party and society under bourgeois capitalism is very different from that
which prevails in socialist states (Hobsbawm, 1986:27). No bourgeois party
led the French revolution; the Mexican Revolution gave birth to a would-be
vanguard party only after the event (the PNR, 1929). Bolivia's MNR won
power partly by default and proved able to hold it for only 12 years.
Bourgeois revolutions have been typically characterised by a confusing
welter of social forces which lack coherence. Tannenbaum's description of

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the Mexican Revolution, written in the early 1930s, is evocative: 'There is no

Lenin in Mexico. There is no doctrine, no program, no definite end, no
crystallised formula which must be achieved at all costs, no pattern for the
reform of all mankind. The whole thing has grown piecemeal, in patches, in
places' (Tannenbaum, 1966:118).4
However, the failure of a given party (such as the MNR) to hold power
over an extended period in no sense disqualifies a revolution from 'great' or
'social' status: that is to confuse regime change with societal change. The
Bolivian Revolution made for a fundamental transformation in Bolivian
society, which subsequent regime changes did not and could not reverse (in
comparison, note the reversal of the short-lived Guatemalan Revolution,
following the Castillo Armas coup of 1954). From the MNR's point of view,
the revolution ultimately 'failed', in that the party proved unable to maintain
its post-revolutionary hegemony (Whitehead, 1975; Mitchell, 1977). From a
historical viewpoint, the revolution succeeded, in that it brought about
substantial and irrevocable socio-political change, which may be termed
'bourgeois'. By analogy, the '12 who ruled'?France's Jacobin 'dictators'?
ruled for barely a year, yet they signally accelerated the demise of feudalism
and the establishment of the new bourgeois nation state. And it is surely the
long-term structural 'success' of revolutions which counts, more than the
longevity of men or regimes. It is less important that the MNR failed
politically than that the Bolivian Revolution succeeded socially, permanently
transforming Bolivian society.
It is that transformation which is both worthy of, and amenable to,
comparative treatment. Here we say goodbye to Maclntyre's holes in the
ground. If Latin American social revolutions?and, I would go further, social
revolutions elsewhere in the world?seem to defy descriptive generalisations
(they do not seem to obey common patterns, as regards their causes,
components, or processes), the same cannot be said of their functional
outcomes. Outcomes are amenable to comparative analysis, but not along
the lines of Skocpolian state-oriented theory. The Cuban Revolution
engendered a strong?for some a 'totalitarian'?state; the Mexican
Revolution?over time and after many vicissitudes?similarly gave rise to a
strong (authoritarian) state. The Bolivian state, in contrast, proved incapable
of dominating a fractious civil society (Whitehead, 1975). 'Statist' criteria are
not particularly helpful when it comes to analysing and disaggregating such
revolutionary phenomena. Of course, differences in state formation are
important, but the fundamental significance of social revolutions is to be
found in their remaking of civil society, rather than the state. The trans-
formations wrought by bourgeois revolutions have proved compatible with a
variety of regimes. Bolivia has gone from competitive party politics to
military rule and back again; military rule has embraced both leftish populism
and reactionary praetorianism. Post-revolutionary France, of course,
shuttled from absolutist to constitutional monarchy, from republicanism to
Bonapartism and back to republicanism. The relations between state and
civil society under developing capitalism thus permit a variety of regimes.
The chief contribution of bourgeois revolutions has not been the immediate
installation of 'bourgeois democracy', but rather the decisive acceleration of

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trends conducive to capitalist development: the break-up of pre-capitalist

tenures and labour systems, the encouragement of capital accumulation, the
formation of an integrated national market.
My argument is, first, that the concepts of'bourgeois' and 'socialist' revolu?
tions still offer the best global categories for making sense of these revolu?
tionary phenomena; and, second, that contrasting 'bourgeois' or 'socialist'
outcomes are not random or conjunctural, but rather implicit in pre-revolu-
tionary society. For example, the Cuban Revolution, in contrast to the
Mexican and Bolivian, created a socialist society characterised by state
ownership of most productive resources, a very limited private sector, a
command economy, a commitment to certain egalitarian principles.5 No less
obviously, this involved a major transformation of pre-revolutionary Cuba.
This was not the work, solely or even primarily, of Castro's genius (inspired
or demonic, as you prefer), nor even of US counter-productive pressure. Pre-
revolutionary Cuba differed markedly from Mexico or Bolivia, in ways which
made a socialist outcome logical. As in south-central Brazil or coastal Peru,
the combination of export plantations and slave production proved highly
conducive to capitalist development in the post-abolition period. Old
bastions of slavery became, in a matter of years, new bastions of free labour
(Scott, 1985: 261-262). Sugar production continued to boom, based on a
three-tier system of large, centralised mills, tenant and freehold cane farmers
(colonos), and a large rural proletariat, which suffered chronic unemploy?
ment as a result ofthe industry's seasonal cycle. Before long, Cuba possessed
a large organised working class, whose allegiance hovered between semi-
official confederations on the one hand and more militant?initially anarch?
ist, later Communist?associations on the other. Cuba's peasantry was small
and concentrated in Oriente, where smallholders and squatters eked out a
precarious existence. The sugar colonos were not peasants (according to
conventional definitions):6 they produced a cash crop for the market; rich
colonos, who employed wage labour, were petty capitalists; poor colonos
approximated to piece-rate workers. Most colonos, including those who
rented their land from the mills, enjoyed security of tenure (Martinez-Alier,
1977: Ch. 4, 5). Unlike the squatters of Oriente, whose grievances included
the 'traditional' peasant demand for land, the colonos were more concerned
with sugar prices and marketing arrangements (i.e. profits or pay, depending
on their status).
The higher level of development achieved by pre-revolutionary Cuba can
also be conveyed statistically (and comparisons with contemporary Bolivia
are illuminating). Cuban life expectancy stood at 59, Bolivian at 40. The adult
literacy rate reached 78% in Cuba, 32% in Bolivia. Cuba possessed more
radios than any other Latin American country and its per capita consump?
tion of newsprint was five times Bolivia's. A pioneer of Latin American
railway development, Cuba was a highly integrated country, linguistically
homogeneous, lacking powerful provincial particularisms, unfamiliar with
clerical challenges to the secular state. Again, pre-revolutionary Bolivia?
and Mexico?offered marked contrasts. Slavery, followed by a 'successful'
abolition, had laid the basis for a relatively integrated, developed, market-
oriented society.

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Two 'revolutionary' consequences followed. First, Cuban class antagon-

isms were conducive to a socialist transformation. The role of the insurgent
('traditional') peasantry of Oriente is stressed by both Guevara and Wolf
(Guevara, 1968: 90, 97, 147, 181-184; Wolf, 1973: 270-271, 299).
However, its role was relatively less important than that of the Chinese,
Mexican, Russian, or even Bolivian peasantries in their respective revolu?
tions. Castro's victory depended on a broad array of forces, many of them
urban, few of them peasants.7 In addition, the final outcome ofthe revolution
was determined on the plains (the llano,'m Guevara's formulation) not in the
mountains (sierra). For it was there that the revolutionary leadership
confronted pent-up working-class demands for full employment: demands
which arose from the structural logic of the sugar industry, which had been
militantly voiced in 1933, and which, with the triumph of the revolution,
pushed that leadership towards policies of expropriation and collectivisation
(Martinez-Alier, 1977: Ch. 5; Zeitlin, 1970). Now the second characteristic
of Cuban society became apparent. Not only the forces of production but
also the powers of the state were relatively highly developed. Just as Castro
could set about reorganising existing large-scale economic enterprises, so,
too, he could take advantage ofa developed state apparatus and a politicised
population. Of course, the tasks facing the would-be socialist regime were
immense. But the regime did not have to undertake much of the basic
spadework (the 'historic mission'?) of bourgeois revolutions and regimes:
establishing national unity and national markets, 'rationalising and national-
ising' a disparate, particularist people. The Cuban Revolution adopted a
socialist project in part because it was pushed by popular demands, in part
because the revolutionary leaders believed they had the tools to do the job.
It is clear that the Mexican and Bolivian revolutions, palpably different
from the Cuban in terms of both structural preconditions and revolutionary
agendas, were not socialist; but it is more contentious to assert their
bourgeois character. By 'bourgeois' I mean a political economy premised
upon a market economy, free mobility of labour, capital accumulation linked
to technological innovation, the private ownership of the means of produc?
tion and the private appropriation of surplus. ('Bourgeois' is roughly
synonymous with 'capitalist', but I avoid the term 'capitalist revolution',
which carries connotations of the economic longue duree.) My definition is
economic, but it implies the existence of favourable socio-political condi?
tions. Several of the key criteria (a national market and relatively free
mobility of factors of production, including labour) seem to correspond
roughly to the goals of modernisation sketched by Barrington Moore
(Moore, 1969: 439, 467-458). Since I do not include democracy among
these criteria, I avoid the automatic pairing 'bourgeois-democratic'. A
bourgeois political economy may be a necessary condition of bourgeois
democracy but it is not a sufficient condition: hence Moore's concept of the
'revolution from above' which, to me, looks suspiciously like the early stages
of a functional bourgeois revolution, minus certain redeeming democratic
Of course, this definition ofa bourgeois revolution is an ideal type, which is
compromised in reality. Post-revolutionary Mexico and Bolivia both possess

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sizeable (though currently shrinking) state sectors. However, so long as state

enterprises are required to conform to an overriding market system, they
cannot be said to be incompatible with capitalism (even developed capitalist
societies have their own equivalents, of course: post-war France has probably
possessed a more planned and statist economy than Mexico or Bolivia). The
predominance of market imperatives is clear enough. Even at the height of
post-revolutionary radicalism, when the state sector made impressive
advances in Mexico, that sector remained subordinate to market demands.
Cardenas nationalised the railways and petroleum companies, but both state
enterprises were required to pay their way (Hamilton, 1982). Bolivia's tin
mines were similarly nationalised, but then subjected to strict market
discipline (Thorn, 1971:186-212). If a significant state sector is compatible
with capitalism, so, too, is dependency. It may be true that Latin American
bourgeoisies fail to conform to some notional, Eurocentric model: thrusting,
innovative, nationalist, 'hegemonic'. But then a good many European
bourgeoisies have failed to conform to the model, too. They compromised
with 'pre-capitalist' elites in the nineteenth century and with US capital in the
twentieth; even the mighty British bourgeoisie, it has been argued, was a
feeble class, lacking a true class project.8 Analyses which depreciate Latin
American bourgeoisies for their supposed failure to carry through their
designated historical project usually depend on ahistorical abstract assump?
tions. Furthermore, it is not difficult to find, even in 'dependent' capitalist
societies like Mexico or Bolivia, bourgeois elements who not only fulfil the
historic role of private capital accumulation, but who also, like Mexico's
Monterrey Group, do so with a certain self-important rhetoric or, like the
business interests of Bolivia's Oriente, effectively translate their burgeoning
economic strength into political power, as they did with the Banzer regime
(Saragoza, 1988;Ladman, 1982: 321-331).
It is one thing to argue the capitalist character of Mexico or Bolivia;
another to attribute this to the revolution. Here, three basic points need to be
made. First, my definition of 'capitalism' focuses on relations of production,
not circulation. Antiquity, feudalism and absolutism were all acquainted with
market production, which is not, by itself, diagnostic of capitalism. It must be
linked to a dominant free wage labour system, in which labour power
functions as a commodity in a pervasive market. Indeed (and this is a point
which participants in the 'Latin America, feudal or capitalist?' debate have
tended to neglect) without dominant free wage labour, market relations in
general are likely to remain inhibited, often confined to limited areas, such as
a few major cities and export enclaves. Colonial plantations?in Cuba, Brazil,
coastal Peru?were quintessential creations of the international market, but
their domestic relations of production were not capitalist. Markets?of a
pretty managed and manipulated kind?pervaded colonial and nineteenth-
century Mexico, but they coexisted with a wide variety of non-capitalist
labour systems which, in turn, constricted the scope and dynamism of the
domestic market. The same was true, afortiori, of Bolivia, where, on the eve
of the Revolution, the 'urban-monetised' economy embraced perhaps one-
fifth of the population, who had a combined purchasing power equivalent to
that of Charlotte, North Carolina (Thorn, 1971: 158). The notion that

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capitalism requires a dominant free wage labour system is not, therefore,

some arcane theoretical shibboleth, but a logical inference which is
historically grounded.
Defining capitaUsm in 'productionist' terms, I contend that the Mexican
and Bolivian revolutions, by virtue of making decisive contributions to the
development of capitalism, were bourgeois revolutions. However, I do not
argue this in the strong?or simplistic?sense that is sometimes implied. The
Mexican and Bolivian bourgeoisies did not storm the Bastilles of feudalism
and promptly install capitalism. This caricature deserves qualification in two
respects, concerning (a) the speed and (b) the agency of capitalist transforma?
tion. First, it cannot be sustained that either revolution wrenched society out
of a thoroughly feudal (or, to be safer, 'pre-capitalist') mould and installed
capitalism. There was no such drastic shift. Modes of production do not shift
like gears in a well-oiled gearbox; they change more slowly, painfully, and
grindingly. They also obey a different time-scale compared to political
revolutions. Modes of production change over the longue duree; revolutions,
at least in their descriptive aspect, belong to the realm of lfhistoire
evenementielle. It hardly needs adding that revolutions, even some revolu?
tions with claims to 'social' status, can occur independently of transitions in
the mode of production (for example, anti-colonial revolutions) while,
conversely, such transitions can occur in the absence of social revolutions
(Argentina did not require a social revolution to achieve capitalism). Marx
himself appears to have been ambivalent concerning the necessity of revolu?
tion as the midwife of socialism (Larrain, 1986: 27; Hobsbawm, 1986: 11).
The relation between revolution and social transformation is therefore
variant. And, even where revolution and transformation are functionally
related, the precise relationship is complex, given that the two phenomena
obey different historical timetables; they pertain to different orders of
historical magnitude. In the pioneer British case, the transition to capitalism,
involving the dissolution of feudalism, the development of free wage labour,
the triumph of the market and the initiation of capital accumulation, spanned
a good three centuries (which is not to say that revolutionary events in the
seventeenth century were not decisive in advancing the transition).
The case of France is also illustrative. True, some historians reject the very
notion of a French bourgeois revolution (they do so in part because they
require a degree of suddenness and immediacy which is historically elusive
and, I am suggesting theoretically nai've). But those who adhere to the notion
no longer see the abolition of (juridical) feudalism in 1789 as sufficient proof
of a bourgeois revolution, of a transition to capitalism. Rather, 17 8 9 is placed
within a longer-term process, pohtical and economic. Feudalism?in the
specific sense of seigneurialism?was abolished in 1789 (strictly, 1789-
1793); but the development of capitalism and the rise of the French
bourgeoisie spanned a longer period. For some historians, the transition was
delayed until the 1830s; for others, it had to await the creation of an effective
railway network between 1840 and 1870 (Moore, 1969:106; Soboul, 1976:
295-305; Price, 1981:21,67-72).
So, too, with Mexico and Bolivia. Mexico had been acquainted with a
vigorous mercantile capitalism at least since the eighteenth century. But

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Bourbon hopes of rapid capitalist development, modelled on the British

pattern, were dashed, and post-colonial Mexico in fact underwent com?
mercial involution, even 'refeudalisation'. A phase of rapid growth ensued
after 1876, as political stability conspired with foreign capital and improved
communications. But in its bid for fully fledged capitalist development the
Porfirian regime (1876-1911) still laboured under mighty handicaps. The
growth of market production in agriculture was not accompanied by the
spread of productive free wage labour; on the contrary, forms of peonage and
sharecropping continued to thrive, as landlords took advantage of their
overwhelming political power and (in many regions) their near-monopoly of
land, especially good, irrigated land. Labour remained cheap; landlords did
not need to pay competitive money wages, or even money wages at all. They
relied heavily on remuneration in kind (food rations for peons) or on
tenancies involving rent in kind or labour. In some parts of the south, where
the (export) market was vigorous, quasi-servile forms were revived, or
introduced de novo. The growth of the market, in other words, did not
necessarily foster a transition to free labour. Sometimes it engendered a kind
of second serfdom, as in early modern Poland (Kula, 1976). Sometimes it
involved greater exploitation of small peasant producers, like the share?
croppers of the Bajio, who resembled the metayers of the French Midi. As a
result, the domestic market remained constricted and, although industry
developed, it lacked an adequate base for continued expansion and capital
In pre-revolutionary Bolivia the case is even clearer. Here, demesne
production for the market was much smaller than in Mexico. There was no
dynamic export crop. Most of Bolivian agriculture consisted of small peasant
plots (sayanas), whose production was exploited by a parasitic landlord
class. Peasants had to yield crops and labour to rentier landlords who played
little or no managerial role, who ran their estates on the basis of primitive
technology and often draconian social control, and who confined themselves
to marketing a small surplus in the towns (Dandler and Torrico, 1987: 336-
340). Though three-quarters of the population were engaged in agriculture,
the latter produced only one-third of GNP and Bolivia had to import
foodstuffs. Again, the domestic market was exiguous and?appreciably more
than in Mexico?industry was primitive. Artisanal production still met most
consumers' basic needs. The motor of the money economy was the tin mining
industry, which provided 90% of Bolivia's exports and over half the govern?
ment revenue. The mines depended on free wage labour, but miners
numbered less than 3% of the labour force, while agricultural workers
comprised 79%. The mining industry's linkages to the rest of the economy
were limited (timber, for example, was imported from Oregon) and hardly
conducive to development. The monetary earnings which found their way
back to the peasant communities served to reinforce rather than to dissolve
traditional peasant agriculture. And the profits of the 'big three' mining
companies, notwithstanding their being largely Bolivian-owned, tended to
flow abroad, as ore was exported for smelting, and as Bolivian mining
magnates, such as Patino, converted their enterprises into multinational

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Neither pre-revolutionary Mexico nor (a fortiori) pre-revolutionary

Bolivia had achieved a decisive breakthrough to capitalism. Of course, there
had been important advances, especially in Mexico. In both countries exports
and investment had grown apace since the 1880s. Successive regimes had
also tried to accelerate capitalist development by breaking up the corporate
landholdings of church and peasantry. Political strategies (and the ensuing
political conflicts) thus served 'bourgeois' ends, even if the protagonists did
not employ these terms. But neither political reform nor economic change
had proceeded far or fast enough to.ensure sustained capitalist development.
Peasants lost land, but the beneficiaries were often rentier landlords, or
demesne producers who relied on unfree labour.9 National capital was
locked up in landholding; the domestic market remained exiguous; and
industry stagnated. The Mexican and Bolivian revolutions, by helping to
remove these obstacles, constituted decisive episodes within a long-term
transition. A strong version of this argument would go further and assert that
bourgeois groups perceived these obstacles and prosecuted the revolution
precisely in order to remove them. There is some truth in this strong
contention, but it cannot be asserted starkly. Neither revolution was the work
of a purposive, planning, revolutionary bourgeoisie. (Nor, of course, was the
French revolution: in this the revisionists are certainly correct.) The Mexican
and Bolivian revolutionary regimes eventually came under the sway of
elements who were 'bourgeois' by virtue less of their original class
background (that is a complex and, in my view, over-emphasised question)
than of their commitment to capitalist transformation. In Mexico, Obregon
was a 'petty-bourgeois' farmer, in Bolivia, Paz Estenssoro was a middle-class
professional. Many of their key supporters in the Sonoran and MNR regimes
lacked identifiably 'bourgeois' backgrounds. But they shared a commitment
to capitalist development: to a market economy, a dynamic private sector,
and national capital accumulation. They also attacked the 'feudal' landlords,
breaking landlord political power and, with it, the landlords' ability to extract
a surplus from a dependent peasantry. In doing so they impelled the agrarian
economy towards a more dynamic and fully-fledged capitalism and brought
the peasantry under the aegis of the new revolutionary state.
Each revolution thus achieved 'capitalist' results. In the Bolivian case, the
outcome was arguably more purposive: by the 1950s, agrarian reform was a
familiar nostrum, not least because of the now familiar Mexican example.
The MNR program was quintessentially bourgeois-democratic: The
country of Indians governed by lords would disappear with the revolution.
The lords would turn into democrats and bourgeoisie and the Indians into
citizens, integrated into an independent and egalitarian sovereign state,
founded on the solid ground of the internal market, and the recovery of the
export economy by the state' (Rivera in Albo, 1987: 382). These objectives
were reinforced by intense US scrutiny and pressure. To Latin America as a
whole?the USA sought to show?Bolivia offered an example, Guatemala a
warning. Mexico's bourgeois revolution, 40 years earlier, had also depended
to a degree upon conscious policy?that of the Constitutionalists and their
Sonoran successors?as well as a measure of comparable US tutelage. Never?
theless, in both cases, the Mexican in particular, the 'bourgeois' outcome of

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the revolution reflected much more than purposive 'bourgeois' strategy. As

in France, revolution proceeded amid a welter of conflicting groups?
bourgeoisie, workers, peasants, nationals and foreigners?and outcomes
derived from a complex parallelogram of forces which no-one consciously
planned and no-one could even foresee. In several instances, the 'bour?
geoisie' had to be prodded to enact 'bourgeois' (or anti-feudal) policies. Just
as the French peasantry pressed for the abolition of feudalism in 1789, so the
insurgent peasantry of Mexico, especially the Zapatistas of Morelos, forced
agrarian reform upon the agenda of timorous, property-conscious regimes
(first Madero's, then Carranza's and Obregon's). In Bolivia, too, the agrarian
agitation in Cochabamba helped convice the MNR of the necessity and utility
of a broad agrarian reform which, once initiated, acquired a momentum of its
own in many parts of the altiplano. In both countries, but in Bolivia espe?
cially, working-class mobilisation pushed the revolution to the left (later, it
would be wrenched back to the right). International factors?imported
ideologies as well as direct US pressure?also played their part, especially in
As I have already said, the sheer complexity of these factors makes
generalisation concerning revolutionary etiology and process risky and
probably futile. The interaction of social classes, of internal and international
pressures, does not suggest recurrent patterns. Why, then, do I assert that
outcomes are in some respects patterned? That, even if the purposive
projects of bourgeois elements are easily exaggerated, the outcome of the
Mexican and Bolivian revolutions was bourgeois, contrasting very obviously
with the Cuban outcome, and that these contrasting outcomes were not
simply random, contingent, or imposed from without, but, rather reflected
the internal logic of these societies?
I have suggested that the Cuban transition to socialism followed a certain
structural logic, linked to the island's level of development under capitalism.
An analogous argument can be applied to Mexico and Bolivia. A key feature
of their revolutions was a massive peasant mobilisation?sometimes abetted
by bourgeois reformists?in opposition to a long-established traditional
landlord class. In Mexico this opposition was initially violent, localised, and
relatively spontaneous and autonomous (we may term this form of peasant
movement 'primary': Knight, 1988). After roughly 1920, however, it was
followed by 'secondary' peasant movements which responded to increased
political opportunity, incitement, and education (a good example would be
that of Yucatan: Joseph, 1982). In Bolivia 'secondary' mobilisation tended to
be the norm. As the victorious MNR began to sponsor a (somewhat
calculating and instrumental) agrarian reform, Indian peasants organised,
rebelled and mobilised, breaking the traditional political and economic
controls of the landlord class. In both cases, the revolution was part cause,
part consequence of peasant resistance to landlord hegemony. The latter, of
course, depended squarely on political power: the power of an oligarchic
state whose police and army had traditionally maintained the property and
customary rights of landlords, and whose policies had cosseted the landlords
with highly favourable judicial, fiscal, and tariff arrangements. Political
power had thus made possible a relatively inefficient agriculture, based on

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pre-capitalist labour systems and a highly inequitable distribution of land.

Capital investment and technological innovation were constrained,
especially in Bolivia. The revolution's ouster of the old regime dealt a severe
blow to the traditional agrarian order. This outcome followed a distinct
historical logic. Landlord hegemony depended upon political power (some
might wish to call it 'extra-economic coercion'). Social revolution, by
definition, undercut both landlord political power and the socio-economic
hegemony which accompanied it. The combination of sustained peasant
insurrection and?albeit instrumental?bourgeois reformism destroyed or
decisively weakened landlord power; if landlords were to prosper under the
new regime they had to bend with the wind, relinquish traditional
latifundismo, with its reliance on landed monopolies and coercive controls,
and compete in the free market for labour and profits: to become, in other
words, agrarian capitalists. As Ernest Gruening observed, concerning the
Mexican landlords' strenuous opposition even to the modest reform of the
1920s: 'essentially, the hacendados' objection was not so much to parting
with a few acres of their vast estates, but to losing their serfs' (Gruening,
1928: 145). This was not an overnight transformation. In Bolivia, the
abolition of formal feudalism (service tenancies and personal obligations)
was rapid, but the dismantling of latifundia and the reconstitution of a
smallholding peasantry were more gradual processes. So, too, in Mexico
(where formal feudalism was weak), the erosion of the hacienda and the
reconstitution of the peasantry proceeded over 20 years of continued
struggle, litigation and politicking (Knight, 1985:17-24). That this transition
was a protracted, messy process rather than a sudden apocalyptic event is
hardly surprising: witness the parallel of the French Revolution. However,
the process fully deserves to be called 'revolutionary' because it was
decisively impelled by the revolutions of 1910 and 1952, and because,
without those revolutionary impulses, the process would have been both
slower and, arguably, different in character. In the absence of revolution, we
may speculate, the result would have been a continuation or reinforcement of
landlord hegemony, which, in turn, would have either obstructed the
transition to capitalism or ensured that it proceeded according to Lenin's
'Junker road' or Barrington Moore's 'revolution from above' (Lenin, 1964;
Moore, 1969,433-442).
The historic association between peasant insurrection and bourgeois
revolution, posited here, is of course far from original. Engels loosely
associated peasant insurrection and Reformation?'the number one bour?
geois revolution'?in early modern Europe (Engels, 1977: 188). Lefebvre,
with more historical insight and subtlety, saw the French Revolution as being
'bourgeois' in terms of its historical role and 'peasant' in terms of its social
make-up. He not only stressed this historic association, but also noted the
post-revolutionary contradictions which it engendered: for the peasant
assault on 'feudalism', which made possible an alliance with bourgeois
reformers, could carry over into more radical attacks on property rights in
general. Peasant anti-feudalism elided into peasant anti-capitalism
(Lefebvre, 1954: 249-255). Precisely the same contradictions emerged in
Latin America. Bourgeois agrarian reform placated some peasant groups,

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but others went beyond it to campaign for collectivist solutions. As the

Bolivian agrarian radicals of the 1970s declared: 'we are no longer the
peasants of 1952' (Xalbo, 1988: 390; for Mexican examples, see Bartra,
That is another story. Here, it is the functional alliance between 'anti-
feudal' anti-landlord peasant rebels and bourgeois reformers which deserves
emphasis, since it points to similarities with the European (especially the
French) experience and suggests contrasts with 'Third World' revolutions, in
which peasant insurrection adopted a more radical, anti-bourgeois and
socialist caste, notably in China and Vietnam. The latter cases have strongly
coloured analysis, creating the impression of a paradigmatic Third World
revolution: peasant-based (hence characterised by 'peasant wars'), anti-
colonial and socialist (Moore, 1969:113). Skocpol lumps Mexico along with
such 'dependent' Third World examples (Skocpol, 1979:288). I am suggost-
ing that we break down these rigid and somewhat arbitrary chronological and
geographical partitions ('twentieth century', 'Third World').
Common elements are to be found in many revolutions, and peasant
insurgency is among the most common. Just as peasants, the 'peasant
household' and?some have suggested? the 'peasant mode of production'
are ubiquitous, so, too, are peasant protests and insurrections. But for that
very reason peasant participation offers an excessively loose criterion for
distinguishing between revolutions. In regard to revolutionary outcomes or
functions it is clear that peasant participation can lead to very different
outcomes. In Mexico and Bolivia it contributed to bourgeois revolutions and
capitalist development?as, some assert, it did in France. In China,
Yugoslavia and Vietnam it underwrote Communist revolutions. In the
Chinese case, the bourgeois KMT (a close Chinese parallel to the Bolivian
MNR or the Mexican proto-PNR) failed to mobilise the peasantry and,
primarily for that reason, lost the civil war (Knight, 1986: Vol. II: 516, 527).
Are these contrasting outcomes purely contingent? Do they depend, for
example, on exogenous factors? No doubt contingent and external factors
count for a lot. Three factors deserve mention. First, there is the passage of
so-called 'world time'. Communist revolution entered the global political
agenda after 1917; Mexico, in a sense, was debarred from that option (unless,
of course, Mexican radicals had chosen to pioneer it, which they showed no
sign of doing). Second, to the extent that it emulated the Soviet example and
depended on Soviet support, Communist revolution was geopolitically more
likely to occur in Eurasia than elsewhere. Third, though we need not accept
Chalmers Johnson's formulation of the problem, we may concede that
foreign invasion/occupation and wars of national liberation have been
conducive to successful Communist insurgency. In this respect, too, Asia?
and Africa?contrast with Latin America, which has witnessed no wars of
national liberation in the last century.10 Formal colonialism and informal
neocolonialism are very different forms of external control, which elicit very
different forms of resistance. Skocpol's attempt to equate US investments in
Porfirian Mexico with French colonial rule in Vietnam is strained and
unconvincing (Skocpol, 1979: 288).
None of these factors, however, gets to the heart of the question. After all,

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the Bolivian and Cuban revolutions were roughly contemporaneous (1952,

1959). Bolivia was well acquainted with Marxist parties and theories; it
possessed strong Stalinist and Trotskyist parties (the PIR and POR) and a
militant mining labour movement (Volk, 1975). Yet Bolivia never looked
likely to pursue a revolutionary Marxist course, either during or after the
revolution. Che Guevara's attempt to establish a guerrilla foco?Xo initiate a
war of national liberation?in the Bolivian jungle proved a quixotic failure.
The mere passage of world time did not ensure a socialist outcome in 1950s
Bolivia; or, to put it differently, a bourgeois revolution was still entirely
feasible a generation after the Russian Revolution. Nor were geopolitics so
determinant. Proximity to the USSR may ultimately have helped the Chinese
Communist Party; proximity to the US did not, however, prevent a socialist
revolution in Cuba. This is not to say that Cuba's geopolitical position was
irrelevant: its proximity to the USA, its location within the US mare nostrum,
meant that the Cuban revolution received closer, more critical scrutiny than
the Bolivian. But that scrutiny did not forfend a radical outcome. While both
'world time' and geopolitical location are therefore factors to be taken into
account, they do not appear to be the crucial factors. And while the fact of
formal imperialism offers an important distinction between Asia and Latin
America, it cannot explain differences within Latin America.
We return to domestic socio-political considerations. In societies char?
acterised by the hegemony of traditional landlords (by which I mean
landlords who relied extensively upon the extra-economic exploitation ofthe
peasantry) peasant revolt was primarily geared to the mitigation or
overthrow of that hegemony. Logically, this frequently involved resistance to
the state, which was run by and for landlords. Against the parasitic demands
of state and landlord, the peasantry fought to protect and/or recover peasant
holdings and peasant political autonomy?the two went together. These
fundamental objectives were compatible, especially in the short term, with
alternative national projects, which might emanate from urban cadres. The
latter might be Communist proselytisers (as in China in the 1920s or
Vietnam in the 1940s), or bourgeois reformers (French Jacobins, Mexican
Constitutionalists, Bolivian MNRistas). In the latter cases, the outcome was
an expedient alliance premised on a degree of agrarian reform?which could
be substantial?and supportive of a revolution that was descriptively
polyclassist but functionally bourgeois. In general terms the peasants got land
and liberation from feudal burdens (the latter defined in both narrow
juridical and broader socio-economic terms) and the peasant community was
politically and economically strengthened. Mean while, the peasantry
accepted the rule of bourgeois reformers. Some peasants, of course, cavilled
and resisted: hence the Vendee, or the Cristero rebellion in 1920s Mexico
(Tilly, 1967; Meyer, 1976). Some remained passive citizens, sullenly
indifferent to national politics (Weber, 1976). But other peasant groups
became, if not overnight, stalwarts of an emergent bourgeois nationalist
regime: the 'red' peasants of southern France; the peasant leagues of
Michoacan or Veracruz in Mexico; the MNRista sindicatos of Bolivia,
notably those of Cochabamba and Achacachi (Agulhon, 1982; Fowler,
1978; Kohl, 1982; Albo, 1988: 384).

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Meanwhile, the peasant economy was progressively commercialised. The

elimination?or transformation?of the landlord class enabled peasants to
enter the market more directly. Peasants no longer yielded up a surplus in the
shape of feudal dues and tithes (France), or labour service (Bolivia and
Mexico); landlords no longer barred peasant entry into the market (France,
Bolivia, Mexico to a lesser degree); the extension of peasant holdings (in all
cases) enabled peasants to produce a larger surplus for sale. In France,
Mexico and Bolivia, we might say, NEP was not a brief, 10-year experiment,
but a permanent feature of the post-revolutionary scene. One important
consequence was the expansion of the hitherto constricted domestic market,
evident in Mexico after 1920 and Bolivia after 1953. With commercialisa-
tion, however, came other developments: increased stratification within the
peasantry, including a tendency towards kulakisation; and, as the power of
the landlord withered, the rise of new mediating groups?bureaucratic offi?
cials, political leaders, and commercial middlemen. Each post-revolutionary
state had its cadres of teachers and tax collectors; each peasant community
(French commune, Mexican ejido, Bolivian sindicato) had its new populist
tribunes; and each region had its mercantile elite who bought, sold, loaned,
and profited from the revived peasant economy. In France and Mexico the
schoolteacher played a comparable role, 'nationalising and rationalising' the
rural citizenry. In Mexico and Bolivia the ejido/sindicato became the vehicle
for new political bosses, men of local origin but national vision. And in all
three cases the shadow of the merchant and usurer loomed over the peasant
community, supplanting that ofthe old landed seigneur (Soboul, 1976:289-
290;Pare, 1977; MacEwen, 1975:148-149,153-154).
These post-revolutionary arrangements, diagnostic of a peasant-backed
bourgeois revolution, were not immutable. Peasant resentment against new
elites and new forms of oppression generated new forms of protest. Kulaks,
bosses and 'nationalisers' confronted peasant indifference, sluggishness, and
outright hostility. Some peasant groups sought to go further, to break through
the boundaries of bourgeois reform. But such tensions, characteristic of any
class society, do not invalidate the basic point: that the post-revolutionary
settlements, while reconstituting and benefiting the peasantry, had also
delivered them into the trammels of a new state and new form of market
This outcome, of course, differed markedly from the socialist alternative.
Not because the latter necessarily involved less tension or exploitation:
'communists cannot claim that the mass ofthe people has shouldered a lesser
share of the burden of suffering under their form of industrialisation than
they did under the preceding forms of capitalism' (Moore, 1969: 506;
Skocpol, 1979: 286). It would be a nice normative riddle to adjudicate
between, on the one hand, the trauma of Soviet collectivisation or the
successive lurches in Chinese economic strategy since 1949, and, on the
other, the long, harsh, anonymous struggle of the French peasantry through
the nineteenth century, or of the Mexican and Bolivian through the later
twentieth. More important are the contrasting points of historical departure:
revolutions which linked peasant insurrection to socialist projects in the first
two cases, and to bourgeois projects in the second three. In the Soviet case, of

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course, the initial links were weak, hence the draconian subordination of the
peasantry to the Stalinist state in the 1930s. In China, the links were stronger,
forged in the heat of a protracted guerrilla struggle. Well-known parallels
include Yugoslavia and Vietnam.
These are often cited as example of wars of national liberation, qualitat-
ively distinct from the Soviet experience and characterised by powerful,
agglutinative nationalist sentiments (Johnson, 1962). My impression is that
the nationalist glue is less important than the formative experience of
collective struggle against invaders who rode roughshod over peasant
communities. The Chinese Communists, in other words, won peasant
support by effectively combating the Japanese invaders, which the KMT
were unwilling or unable to do. Nationalism was the by-product of an exigent
struggle for survival (Gillin, 1964). Inter alia, that struggle pulverised
peasant communities and weakened traditional forms of collective organisa?
tion; in doing so, it opened the community to new (Communist) leadership
cadres?who, in earlier less troubled times, might have encountered in-
difference or resistance. That the Communists were the protagonists and
ultimate beneficiaries of this struggle, however, was to a considerable degree
contingent (by which I mean it depended on much more than their own
autonomous efforts). Their newly established base in Yenan placed them in
the front line against the Japanese, while the opportunist policy of the KMT
prevented the Nationalists from living up to their name (Selden, 1971). In
Vietnam, too, the success of the Vietminh in mobilising peasant support
depended on several contingent factors: the sudden Japanese ouster of the
Vichy regime in 1945; the failure of rival political forces?such as the Cao
Dai and Hoa Hao sects?to mount an effective challenge to colonial rule
(McLane, 1971). In each case, the Communist mobilisation of the peasantry
was partly contingent: it depended on the sins of commission of colonial
powers, and the sins of omission of potential bourgeois nationalist rivals. The
KMT, whose initial character and ideology are strongly reminiscent of those
of the Mexican and Bolivian revolutionaries, failed to make good its early
nationalist and reformist (especially agrarian reformist) promises. Thus it
forfeited a potential peasant constituency, which the bourgeois reformers of
Mexico and Bolivia acquired.
The successful alliance of Communist cadres and insurgent peasants,
linked in a protracted guerrilla struggle, has never occurred in Latin
America. The Cuban case, which is the closest, fails on two counts: the
26 July Movement was not Communist and (more important) the Cuban
peasantry, strictly defined, played only a minor part in the insurrection.
Batista was toppled by a broad coalition of forces: a rebellious peasantry in
Oriente, a clutch of young radicals in the 26 July Movement, a vigorous
student and middle-class opposition in the cities, a large, organised and
disaffected working class (especially the sugar workers), and a congeries of
dissident politicos and, ultimately, military officers. Che's subsequent
attempt to repeat the revolution?misconceived as a classic peasant
insurgency?led to his defeat and death in the Bolivian selva. Elsewhere in
Latin America, too, the presumed historic liaison between peasant in?
surgency and Communist mobilisation has proved hard to achieve. The

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vigorous Colombian peasant movement, evident in the Violencia of the

1950s and the ANUC mobilisation of the 1970s, tended to resist the
Communist embrace, save in a few specific cases, such as Marquetalia and
Riochiquito (Oquist, 1980: 222-225; Zamosc, 1986). Mobilisation and
insurgency followed different paths and patterns; the outcome was banditry
and bossism, co-option and repression.11
If the argument holds, it prompts a couple of conclusions. While a focus on
Asia suggests the importance, even the inevitability, of wars of national
liberation linking Communist cadres and an insurgent traditional peasantry,
the Latin America experience points in a different direction. Here, major
peasant insurgencies have been frequent; and the insurgent peasantry
contributed mightily to at least two major revolutions, in Mexico and Bolivia.
These did not debouch into socialism. Rather, peasant revolution in Latin
America followed a more 'European' (i.e. French) pattern: it linked to
bourgeois reformism and contributed to bourgeois revolutions, of which the
peasants were short-term beneficiaries but long-term victims. We may posit
three reasons for this. First, modern Latin America knew neither formal
colonialism nor major foreign invasion. The Spanish empire had fallen by the
1820s. The most obvious imperialist invasion?Napoleon III's adventure in
Mexico?provoked popular resistance which linked peasants to a broader
patriotic cause, but that cause was more akin to the Spanish resistance to
Napoleon I than to later wars of national liberation. Sandino's resistance to
the USA offers a closer parallel; but Sandino was no Communist and,
thereafter, US interventions in Latin America tended to be covert, surrogate
and devious. They provoked nationalist ire, but not wars of national
Second, there is the relative weakness?or, we might say, unsuitability?of
Latin American Communist parties. They have sought their constituencies
in the cities rather than the countryside and have tended to oppose rather
than to espouse rural insurrections. Neither Castro's insurrection in Cuba
nor Che's in Bolivia received unstinting Communist support (Guevara, 1968:
195-197; Gott, 1973: 482-498). In this, Latin America's Communists
tended to emulate the Bolsheviks and the CCP of the 1920s (and it is for this
reason that Sendero, which seeks to out-Mao Mao, is distinctly innovative). It
could be argued, therefore, that in global terms the successful rural strategy
of the CCP and Vietminh was the exception and the 'anti-peasant' strategy of
the Bolsheviks, the early CCP, and most Latin American Communist parties,
was the norm. By way of explanation we might cite both the historic anti-
peasantism of much Marxist thought (not least Marx's own) as well as the
resistance of most peasant societies to the interference of urban literati,
except in those rare circumstances (such as foreign invasion) when tradi?
tional peasant solidarities are shredded and certain literati prove themselves
to be trustworthy and effective allies. Such an alliance demands concessions
on the part not only of the peasants but also of the literati, who have to come
to terms with a peasant universe which is alien and ugly. Ethnic and cultural
barriers of this kind are no doubt ubiquitously formidable; but perhaps they
are more easily surmounted in some societies (e.g. China) than others (Latin

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This brings me to a third, final, and crucial point. The contrast between
Asia's record of Communist-led peasant insurgencies and Latin America's
lack of the same can also be related to deep structural causes. In its starkest
form the argument would contrast the Asiatic with the feudal mode of
production and would assume a substantial difference between the two.12
The Asiatic mode, involving the appropriation of the peasants' surplus by a
despotic state, impeded the development of an urban bourgeoisie and
converted landlords into servants of a dominant autocratic state, either as a
servitor aristocracy, as in the Russian case, or a mandarinate, as in the
Chinese. In Latin America, by contrast, the colonial legacy was loosely one of
feudalism, characterised by weak states and powerful landed classes (de
facto if not de jure aristocracies). Feudalism proved compatible with the
development of a vigorous and autonomous urban economy and culture. By
the early twentieth century such a culture flourished in many Latin American
cities: it afforded the basis for a reformist challenge to entrenched landed
elites. Thus, Mexico's Maderistas defied the Porfirian oligarchy; the MNR
confronted the Bolivian Rosca. The regimes which finally took power
carried the genes of these bourgeois reformist parents; in China, by way of
contrast, the incipient bourgeois reformism of the coastal cities was
progressively perverted, co-opted and defeated. Sun gave way to Chiang.
The existence under Latin American feudalism of a class of powerful
landlords, who controlled the oligarchic state more than it controlled them,
ensured that the primary class confrontation in the ensuing revolution pitted
peasants (and their allies) against landlords. An anti-feudal peasantry
logically found allies among bourgeois reformers, just as the latter, eager to
wrest power from the oligarchy, were ready to risk peasant mobilisation.
Indeed, even in the absence of formal alliances, the very process of revolution
tended to undermine the landed oligarchy, whose pre-eminence depended
on extra-economic powers: political muscle, landed monopoly (or oligop-
oly), iabour-repressive' agriculture (Moore, 1969: 434). A successful
peasant insurgency could not but erode landlord power, which in turn helped
deliver the state into the hands of bourgeois cadres (why the peasantry did
not fill the ensuing political vacuum is an old, familiar and contentious
question which cannot be broached here).13 Thereafter, the peasants entered
upon the post-revolutionary world with their political and economic power
enhanced, though at the price of their accepting the supremacy of an
expanding market and nation state.
In societies where the Asiatic mode had historically held sway, a different
constellation of forces prevailed.14 Here, agrarian elites combined landown-
ing with state service and the state weighed more directly upon the peasant
community than it did in Mexico or Bolivia. Peasant revolts in China often
targeted state officials rather than landlords (Skocpol, 1979: 150). Latin
American parallels can be found in the anti-tax rebellions ofthe Andean and
southern Mexican highlands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; by
the twentieth century, however, these had given way to anti-landlord
protests, focusing on land rights and landlord exactions rather than state
taxes (Knight, 1986, Vol. I: 154-155). In Asia, the state's extraction of
surplus from the peasantry increased, under the pressures of industrialisa-

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tion (e.g. Witte's Russia) or foreign imperialism, both formal (Vietnam) and
informal (China). Where autocracy prevailed, in other words, it was the
autocratic state (national or colonial) which put the screws on the peasantry;
where landlord oligarchs ruled, as in much of Latin America, it was the
oligarchy which performed this function, responding to the enhanced
economic activity of the later nineteenth century.
'Asiatic' autocracies collapsed for a variety of reasons, often in the course
of war or invasion. No general theory of revolutionary etiology, I have
suggested, can adequately accommodate these reasons. But the outcome of
revolutionary upheaval appears to follow certain patterns. The collapse of
autocracy left the landlord class relatively free from central government
control, but lacking both military muscle and social legitimacy. The Russian
landlord class collapsed; the Chinese threw in its lot with the warlords and
Nationalists, the South Vietnamese ultimately with the Diem regime. During
the prolonged revolutionary crisis, however, bourgeois elements proved too
weak to seize power, and they were ground between the millstones of
landlord reaction and popular insurgency. That the latter eventually assumed
a Communist east was not wholly contingent. Without sinking to the bathos
of 'Stalin-the-Red-Tsar', one can argue that Communist movements
inherited several of the preconceptions which had guided the old regime. To
a degree, this reflected a certain ideological congruence: the vanguard party
replaced the autocratic elite; Marxism cannibalised Confucianism (Wolf,
1973: 189-190). But this congruence had a social and material basis. A
significant element within the Communist leadership?certainly in China and
Vietnam?consisted of deracine members of the old elite: sons of the
mandarinate, nationalist, hostile to the comprador bourgeoisie, committed to
a project of state-building which combined traditional ('Asiatic') and modern
(Marxist-Leninist)philosophies(Wolf, 1973:150-151,184-185). Also, the
peasant community, the building block of Asiatic society, remained
powerful, now reinforced by land distribution. While the modernising
reformists of Mexico or Bolivia conceived of land reform as a means to
combine social justice and political stability with vigorous market relations
and capital accumulation (permanent NEP, as it were), Asiatic revolu?
tionaries placed land reform at the service of a radical, etatiste, collectivism.
Both kinds of regime thus embarked upon 'state-building', as Skocpol
stresses. But the states they built were radically different, not least because of
the profoundly different historical legacies they inherited.
In conclusion: a review of the Latin American social revolutionary
experience suggests that Skocpol's 'lumping' of bourgeois and socialist
revolutions under a single, state-building rubric, is misleading, in that it
assumes the primacy of the state as an organising concept and thus
mistakenly concludes that both the causes and outcomes of social revolutions
are best explained in terms of 'statist' factors. For myself, I am frankly
agnostic concerning the etiology of revolutions and, despite the abundant
literature,151 am not persuaded that meaningful and cogent generalisations
can be found which explain the causes and/or the 'stages' of revolutions. On
the other hand, the outcome of revolution seems to follow patterns which
derive primarily from internal pre-revolutionary social structures and

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conflicts. Nor is this remarkable, in that social revolutions (which by defini-

tion involve certain functional consequences) are essentially decisive
episodes within longer stories of socio-political change. The individual
episodes may vary greatly, but the longer stories tend to be, like fairy stories,
variations on a few well-worn themes. In Bolivia and Mexico, the heartlands
of ancient American civilisations, Spanish colonial rule left a legacy of feudal
latifundismo, a labour-repressive agriculture, and the rule of a landlord
oligarchy. Peasant rebellion, directed primarily against the landlord class,
conspired with bourgeois reformism to dismount the oligarchy and smooth
the path towards capitalism. This pattern contrasted with the 'Asiatic'
sequence, whereby peasants were mobilised by Communist cadres in opposi-
tion to foreign imperialism, amid the wreckage of an erstwhile autocratic
state, whose rationale the revolutionary leadership inherited. This Leninist/
Maoist sequence, of course, involved certain egregious departures from
Marxist theory, especially Marxist theory as interpreted by the Mensheviks.
And this, the 'Asiatic' road to socialism, differed significantly from the
(solitary) Latin American road, the Cuban. Cuba possessed no massive
traditional peasantry; the native American population had been annihilated
and a slave plantation society had been created de novo. The demise of
slavery, coming at a time when the Cuban export economy was still flourish-
ing, facilitated a rapid transition to capitalism. The prior development of
Cuba's productive forces and political integration made possible an
ultimately socialist revolution, in which the working class played a significant
role. 'I don't understand why it should have been the Cubans ...', the
Nicaraguan dictator Somoza is said to have wondered, 'they had the highest
standard of living in Latin America'. Precisely: Cuba's was much closer to a
Menshevik Marxist revolution than anything that happened in Eurasia. Only
after the event did the dead hand of 'bureaucratic collectivism' descend
(Melotti, 1977:158).

1. Some historians maintain that the Porfirian regime imploded before?and thus obligingly
made way for?the popular revolution. They cannot explain what brought about the
implosion (there was no war, no foreign invasion, no governmental bankruptcy);and they
apparently overlook the bloody armed struggles of 1910-1911 and 1913-1914, which
ensured the destruction of a tenacious old regime.
2. 'Bolivia: annual review for 1952', Lomax, La Paz, to Eden, 16 January 1953, British
Foreign Office Records, FO 371/103625.
3. Morley, 1987: 54; FO minute on Fordham, Havana, 13 January 1958, FO 371/132162.
4. Tannenbaum exaggeratessomewhat. The victorious Mexican revolutionarieslacked a strict
canon of ideological texts; they had no Marx to whom they could appeal; but they did not
want for domestic liberal/patriotic symbols and heroes, nor for foreign political and
economic models (notably Republican France and the Progressive United States). Victor
Hugo, Herbert Spencer and Henry George were among their favourite cited authorities.
Their collective ideology was therefore eclectic and amorphous, at least when compared to,
say, Stalin's rigid articles of faith. In this, of course, they resembled the pioneer British
5. This is a working definition, based on 'socialist' practice. I am not suggesting that socialist
practice necessarily conforms to socialist aspirations or to Marx'sown prognostications.
6. Without citing reams of literature,let us agree that peasants are to be defined as low-status

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rural cultivators who enjoy some control over their own means of production and who
produce primarily for family subsistence.
7. Useem (1977) offers a useful review of the literature; note also the comment by Mintz
(1978). Pollitt (1976) voices some valid queries concerning the statistical evidence.
8. See the excellent discussion in Thompson (1978: 35-91). Thompson effectively disposes of
the notion, espoused by Nairn and Anderson, that the British (they tend to say English)
bourgeoisie was a 'fragmented', 'incomplete' and 'supine' class. My argument is that similar
notions, applied to Latin American bourgeoisies, are also strained, ahistorical, and
9. This is a contentious and unresolved question. Was prerevolutionary Mexican agriculture
briskly advancing down a 'Junker road' towards capitalism or mired in a feudal morass?
Since the Revolution happened to happen, any argument in this debate is counterfactual. I
incline to the second view, on which, see Knight (1985: 19-23); Bartra (1975); and
Bellingeri and Montalvo (1982).
10. According to Florencia Mallon, both the French intervention in Mexico (1861-1866) and
the Chilean invasion of Peru (1879-1884) provoked a patriotic reaction on the part of
peasants who not only joined but even took the lead in local armed resistance; here, perhaps,
was the making of a popular war of liberation avant la lettre. See Mallon (1987) on the
Peruvian case.
11. There is, of course, the recent and opaque example of Peru's Sendero Luminoso. The.
problem with deciding whether Sendero promises to break the generalisation ('the
successful alliance of Communist cadres and insurgent peasants linked in a protracted
guerrilla struggle has never occurred in Latin America') is twofold: it is premature to talk of
success (though Sendero has clearly succeeded far beyond anything Che achieved in
Boliva); and it is unclear whether Sendero can be considered 'Communist' in the same sense
as other historic Communist parties, including even the Chinese.
12. A plentiful list of sources could be cited. As the paper makes clear, I am not persuaded by
Anderson's argument that the Asiatic mode should be ditched (Anderson, 1979:462-495),
nor by Wolf s (Wolf, 1982:81-82) that it should be conflated with the feudal mode to form a
single 'tributary'mode. Compare with Melotti (1977: 46-78), whom I follow in including
Tsarist Russia under the 'Asiatic' rubric (Melotti prefers 'semi-Asiatic').
13. While I would generally reject the notion of a 'prepolitical' peasantry, parochially unaware
of national issues, interests and power structure, I would agree with Wolf and others that
peasant rebellions frequently display a 'self-limiting' character, the product more of
organisational constraints than of mental nai'vete:Wolf (1973: 294); Scott (1976: 173-
174); Knight (1986: Vol. 1:160-161, 527).
14. The decline of the Manchu empire can, of course, be interpreted in terms of a drift towards
feudalism, or of what Wolf would see as an 'oscillation' within a single 'tributary'mode. If the
idea of an Asiatic mode is accepted, however, it is not clear that such a mode had been
thoroughly supplanted by feudalism prior to 1911. Domestic revolution and foreign
invasion supervened before any transition could be consummated.
15. In this discussion I have necessarily omitted a wealth of theoretical approaches: some
(Skocpol's 'political-conflict theories', represented by Tilly) are useful but tangential to the
matter in hand; others (such as the 'aggregate-psychological' school, wedded to notions of
'relative deprivation') seem to me to be ahistorical and unhelpful. See Skocpol (1979: 9).

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