Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World

Book Cover

Book Title

Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991


Goldstone, Jack A.


Goldstone aims to assess the causes of revolutions and major rebellions, by looking at them as part of worldwide state crises. Given the impact of the French Revolution, the book seeks to examine the problem of defining how one can tell when “a state is truly threatened by revolution?”

Mainly focusing on the English Revolution of 1640 and the French Revolution of 1789, the book extends to other parts of the world, attempting to explain why crises occurred on a broad scale in the particular time frame of 1789 to 1848.

Giving an analysis of how population trends globally affected early modern societies, and assessing its impact on different groups such as workers and elites, the volume is able to expand the role of demography to explain trends in the past. Similarly, the volume develops a conjunctural model of state breakdown, stressing that social order must be understood at many levels, featuring an analysis of social, political, cultural and other such factors. These allow for, in the view of the author, a better insight.

Highlighting the “profound similarities” between European and Asian development, the book sheds light on topics in early modern history- it aims to give a prediction to the reason for the breakdown of states across Eurasia by looking at how prices changed due to demographic fluctuation, which in turn affected many social institutions.

Writing the book as a comparative history, and employing statistics to complement a theory of revolutions, Goldstone finds in this work that “the periodic state breakdowns in Europe, China, and the Middle East from 1500-1850 were the result of a single basic process”; that being demographic change and its effects.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book covers what the author labels the early modern period. More specifically, it deals with the time frame between 1500- 1850. Using a structural and theoretical approach, the book uses models to test the hypothesis it is presenting. Assuming that large states in the early modern period had all faced similar problems and limitations, this is taken and used as a lens to deal with events such as the English and French revolutions, whilst also expanding on topics such as the ideological origins of revolutions.

The book focuses on the many different aspects of society and social breakdown, and eventually weaves it into an explanation for, and study of , revolutionary change.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

By using a largely comparative and theoretical framework, the book aims to test a hypothesis using a number of factors to explain the development of, primarily, revolutions. The theory of revolutions proposed is one where a society is likely to experience a revolution, when simultaneously, three difficulties are apparent: firstly, a state financial crisis, brought about by imbalance between government revenues and its obligations and tasks, second, the presence of severe elite divisions, created by an increase in insecurity and competition for elite positions and finally a high potential for mobilizing popular groups caused by an increase in grievances as well as social patterns that predispose these groups into action (such as more autonomous rural villages). The book therefore takes the approach of opening itself to being tested, and also refuted, the latter of which the author welcomes as a challenge.

Whilst demography features as central to the book, it is not, the author asserts, part of a ploy to advance demographic determinism. Instead, the book looks at demography in relation to its impact on the social institutions. The similarities drawn between societies are institutional similarities.

The book submits the argument that the conditions above were apparent in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as well as the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries featured a lack of population growth- which contributed to political stability rather than revolution.

Demonstrating the link between population growth and price inflation, among others, the book refutes the claim that such historical situations were unique, but rather can be seen as the product of a combination of variables.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh