Between our contemporary concepts of revolution and modernity there is an intimate mutual dependence. She who does not understand revolution does not understand modernity, and he who does not understand modernity does not understand revolution. Both notions denote a rupture with the past, an affirmation of the innovative capacity of the present, and a vision of the future as an open horizon, on which new lands will be discovered and new houses built, never seen before. The history of modernity is a history of revolutions: scientific, industrial, post-industrial, info-tech; sexual, artistic and, last but not least, political—American, French, Russian and Anti-Colonial. It is no surprise there should be a close, if by no means invariable, connexion between scientific or aesthetic avant-gardes and revolutionary politics, from the socialism of Einstein to the communism of Picasso.

Up to the 1790s, the term ‘re-volution’ normally signified a movement backwards, or a continuous rotation, in a circular or cyclical direction. The entry in the Encyclopédie, the collective summa of the French Enlightenment, refers to astronomy, watch-making, and cog-wheels. It does also mention a political usage in the ‘modern history of England’, viz. the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. But upheavals that we consider revolutions today, like the English or American, were in pre-modern times typically conceived as rebellions to restore ‘ancient rights and liberties’—or ‘the knowne lawes and statutes and freedome of the Realm’, as the 1689 Declaration of Rights put it—violated by a tyrant. More loosely, the word could by the mid-18th century, as in Voltaire, refer to changes in a general sense. What the term definitely did not denote was a break with a traditional political system, opening the gate to a novel future. Thomas Paine’s words in early 1791 marked a turning-point: ‘It is an age of Revolutions, in which everything may be looked for’.

From the 19th century onwards, revolutions—as extraordinary events, the object of intense passions, vast mobilizations and dramatic social conflicts—have always been popular topics for research and debate. In the 1960s and 1970s, the apparent actuality of revolution multiplied the number of such studies and widened their analytic and geographical range. Two influential new approaches were Theda Skocpol’s focus on the role of the state—its crisis and post-revolutionary re-strengthening—in social revolutions, and Jack Goldstone’s model of demographic pressures on the fiscal and the institutional base of Eurasian agrarian polities. Subsequently the bi-centenary of the French Revolution and the implosion of the Soviet Union triggered new rounds of literature, much of it politically correct denunciation of the objects to hand.

The result is today an enormous corpus of scholarship on revolution(s), at once creating space for introductory text-books, and raising the stakes for original reflections. Noel Parker’s Revolutions and History falls somewhere between these stools. Attractively written, well read and circumspect in judgement, it offers an essay rather than a systematic guide to the literature on revolution. Parker’s framework is a combination of modernization theory and world system analysis, approaches that sit together here without much mediation. His general argument is that ‘revolutions occur where states are conduits of the pressures from the expanding, modern global system’—the English revolution being a ‘borderline case’, at the late end of the ‘pre-revolutions’ of the Reformation era, before popular overthrows of government proper. But his main interest lies in the meanings that revolutions have held for contemporaries and posterity. His key concept here is what he calls ‘the revolutionary narrative’, or the ‘form within which the events and actions that constitute one revolution or another are interpreted and acted upon’. Even as actual revolutions occurred at ever greater distances from the core of the modern world, revolutionary narratives relayed the impact of these outliers within it.

This is potentially a very fruitful idea. But the genre Parker has chosen does not allow him to elaborate it. Taking ‘willed change towards a better future’ as the central motif of modern revolutions, he overlooks the fact that modernity has generated at least three master narratives—emancipation/liberation, progress/development, and victorious survival (in a darwinist sense). Parker pays no attention to emancipation, arguably the most important revolutionary narrative, or to evolutionary stories of progress, that allow collective efforts for a better future to be conceived as reform rather than revolution. In effect, his subject is ill-fitted to the interpretive essay, a Latin (American-cum-European) speciality often characterized by a reckless drive to originality, rush to judgement, and preoccupation with style. Even a more balanced Anglophone variant is not best suited to tackle a subject where so much detailed scholarship has accumulated.