Every Great Revolution is a Civil War

Civil war is bloody, regressive, and destructive. Revolution is forward-looking, positive, and regenerative. Yet, says historian David Armitage, even the noblest revolution bears traces of the primitive violence of civil war.

Learn more: Read David Armitage's Every Great Revolution is a Civil War


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. This week it’s a great honor to welcome Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at Harvard University, David Armitage. He’s widely published and just as widely lauded for his research and writing. He joins us here as a part of the Chautauqua Institution’s Emerging Citizenship series, an examination of liberty and democracy in revolutionary times. David, thank you so much for being our guest today.

David Armitage: It’s an enormous pleasure to be here Harmony.

Harmony: I’ve seen you described in several places as an intellectual historian. Tell me what that means, and what that means about your approach to history.

David: It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m an intellectual myself, though I am a historian. It means I study the ways in which people think about the worlds that they inhabit. What are the ideas that they use to make sense of their world? What are the ideas that they use to argue with other people? What are the ideas they use to justify their own actions to other people, especially in the political realm where political ideas and what we call political thought is a great way of digging back into the mental worlds of the past.

Harmony: Why have you made this your specialty? Why do you find special joy in this approach?

David: I think these ideas are so fundamental to the way in which the world is shaped, but we don’t often realize where our own ideas come from. In some ways we speak a language which has been given to us, but we don’t know quite where it came from, or exactly what we’re doing with it.

Part of my job as a historian is to almost be like an archeologist to uncover the layers beneath our own political language, to uncover the implications of the way in which we talk about our world and try and talk to each other about our world, but also to try an unpick some of the confusions that we have as well that sometimes arise from very different ideas from the past or from different places coming together in our own language: maybe in simple terms or simple words that we use, which turn out to be much more complex when you unpack them in a historical fashion.

Harmony: When you look at things this way do you find that many of the same conflicts and many of the same tensions arise over and over again in these different incarnations?

David: Absolutely, that’s one of the great lessons of history that, in particular, the idea that I mentioned to you earlier, civil war has been a subject of argument really since it was invented. It was actually invented as a term in Latin by the Romans just over 2,000 years ago and even when they invented it, it was almost a deliberately oxymoronic term, a term that was paradoxical, that at its very heart had a collision between the idea of war, which for the Romans was always a just cause, a just conflict, but a war in this case against fellow citizens.

That’s what the word “civil” means literally in Latin: a war among citizens. And by definition, a war against your own fellow citizens could not be just. So this was a war which should be just against those people who are your own citizens and therefore it couldn’t be just so it was at its very heart unstable and incendiary in a way. One can follow through the whole history of the term “civil war,” in many other contexts and see the ways in which it comes back again and again and again as an object of argument, an object of very ferocious controversy, especially when in the modern period, the last, let’s say 200 or 250 years we also have the term “revolution” in play as well, an equally explosive term.

Once you have the terms “revolution” and “civil war” in dialog with each other, then some very interesting but very deep political and often ethical disputes arise in the situations that we might think of as revolutionary: the American Revolution, the French Revolution as well as the great revolutions of the 20th century and indeed the protests, the popular protests, that we see going on around us in the world right now, right here, right today.

Harmony: You brought up the perfect opportunity for us to talk about the topic of discussion that you’re joining us for this weekend as part of the Chautauqua Institutes conference. Your paper titled “Every Great Revolution is a Civil War.” What a wonderful idea, but I think before we begin to unpack it, we need to think about some of the baggage, some of the connotations of those terms: “revolution,” and “civil war.” They might seem almost analogous, but they have a sort of a different, different flavor to them. Talk to us about those two ideas are different and what kind of themes they carry with them.

David: Let me give you a brief example ripped from the headlines just yesterday to give you a sense of how we might look at those definitions and how they relate to each other. Here as we sit speaking in February 2014, there are violent street protests going on in Ukraine at the moment. Very bloody, very contested territory at the moment, but also contested in the political realm, the ideological realm we might say as well.

A protestor this morning from the burning barricades in Kiev said that he was fighting a revolution, but revolutions are always violent. Just yesterday, 24 hours ago, a representative from the Russian Parliament said, “This is not a revolution, this is not a political process, this is a quasi civil war,” he said. And I think the difference between those two conceptions of what’s going on in Ukraine right now gives us a sense of the different meanings, the different baggage as you nicely said, behind those two terms.

A revolution, we tend to assume, is something that’s forward looking. It’s a positive change. It may be very violent, but it’s violence being used for a greater purpose; perhaps a utopian purpose to open up a whole new future. That was certainly one of the meanings that revolution took on in the context of the French Revolution for instance; starting over again, moving forward into a new world, wiping the slate clean, but always progressive, always positive and forward looking.

Civil war, as again that exchange perhaps showed, is usually thought of as something that’s bloody, destructive, backward looking, has no positive effects, something that must be avoided at all costs, something that perhaps has a kind of ancient resonance to it, something that goes back to very dark heart of human aggression itself. Not something that is liberating, not something that’s opening up, a positive glistening new vista for the future.

And those different conceptions of civil war as dark, bloody, backward looking, something to be avoided; revolution as something illuminating, utopian, transformative, positive and forward looking come to us mostly from the 18th century, where those two terms as you say, had some overlaps between them. They’re both very violent. They’re often about quite fundamental political change. They’re often about changes in sovereignty in particular, states or commonwealths or societies, but they come apart in the 18th century. And these different valuations of revolution as broadly positive and cumulative civil wars as broadly destructive and intermittent, not adding up to anything, retarding human progress. Those implications are still very strongly with us I think.

Harmony: We’ve established that a revolution is something with a noble purpose; that a civil war is usually thought of as something with a sort of more primal cycle of violence. So when you say that every great revolution is a civil war what are you getting at with that idea?

David: I’m taking on, unusually for me, a Leninist tinge. Lenin said in one of his pamphlets just after the Russian Revolution that every great revolution was a civil war in terms of a class war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. And what I wanted to do was to take that quotation and open it up a little bit to help us think about the ways in which every revolution does involve collisions within itself between different classes and different interests.

And not just collisions, for instance, at the ideological level, but also often in collisions that are very violent themselves as well. I think this is particularly important not just in relation to some of the classic revolutions of the modern period like the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution for instance, which I think inevitably even in popular imaginations we think of the violence accompanying them.

But to go back, for instance, to the American Revolution and to consider that not just as, again, a forward looking liberatory movement, but one that was deeply divisive within the Atlantic empire of Great Britain in the 18th century, deeply divisive within the colonies as a whole, and deeply divisive in individual colonies in individual communities and often between families as well. To think about the ways in which division itself was at the heart of the revolution rather than a single common cause for all of the so-called revolutionaries of the American Revolution to remind us that this was a very bitter conflict, a very contested conflict and a very violent conflict as well.

All revolutions look back to earlier revolutions. The American Revolutionaries looked back to the so-called Glorious Revolution in England of 1688 to 1689 but the French revolutionaries themselves looked back to 1776 and the years afterward, and of course many of them had fought in the American Revolution and they saw that as one their precedents, one of their analogs for thinking about their own revolutionary situation and the events that they were undertaking after 1789.

Harmony: You’ve done some writing about the Declaration of Independence and you’ve noted that it didn’t exist in a vacuum. There were other examples, “It was not unparalleled,” was your quote. When we look at the American Declaration of Independence what is unique about it and what does it borrow from history?

David: It borrows some of the same arguments and forms that one can find in an English legal documents going back at least to the 17th century. It also borrows some very important relatively new language in 1776 from what we would call international law, what 18th century people would call the law of nations. There was a very important book, a book I always describe as the most important book from the 18th century that no one has ever heard of by a Swiss author called Emerich de Vattel called in its English translation “The Law of Nations.”

Repeatedly in that book he says that the definition of sovereignty is freedom and independence, freedom and independence, repeated again, and again and again. in that book. Those words should resonate with anyone who knows the Declaration of Independence. That language of free and independent states was somewhat avant-garde in 1776, but it was also key to the understanding of the way in which the American revolutionaries, as we now call them, were inserting the former colonies -- now states -- into the international order of the 18th century. And that was what was unprecedented.

This was the first Declaration of Independence, so called. It was the first Declaration which declared independence for states in that language of freedom and independence in 1776. When I wrote the book, which you so kindly mentioned I assumed that there would be many earlier examples of documents which did the same thing. Unfortunately, I couldn’t discover any which did exactly the same thing. There are some. A couple of analogs from earlier periods, but not using the same language, not for the same effect, not using the same arguments, not using the same form.

So the American Declaration of 1776 is the first-ever Declaration of Independence for a new state or states, and at least 120 other Declarations of Independence have been issued successful and unsuccessful documents since 1776. It’s the beginning of what I call a contagion of sovereignty which is spread across the world from Philadelphia in July 1776.

Harmony: What a wonderful phrase. I’m going to have to try to remember that.

The ideas in the Declaration are ones that still resonate today. What are some of the global implications of that document? Can American democracy be exported in whole or in part?

David: I think those are actually two very different questions. If one looks at the way in which the Declaration itself spread and was taken up around the world. One of the other surprises in my research for that book was finding that the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the guarantees of freedom and liberty as we as Americans may now understand the great messages of the declaration as a document of human equality. For instance, all men are created equal; That has actually very little uptake in the wider world. What the wider world was most interested in in most of the time for most of the last two centuries was the Declaration of Independence. The formal declaration to the international community of the emergence of a new state or states in the international realm.

So there are actually two messages in the Declaration of Independence. A message of individual equality and freedom classically expressed in the second paragraph. But also a message of the freedom and equality and independence of states expressed in the opening paragraph and the closing lines of the document. And it’s mostly the opening and the closing that have a big effect in the wider world, not so much the second paragraph. So those two things can be taken apart.

And certainly in terms of the wider global reception of the Declaration of Independence it’s the bits that most Americans forget, or pay little attention to which have the big impact and it’s that second paragraph which is so dear to Americans, almost the American creed in a sense, which has relatively little uptake in the broader world.

Harmony: So you’ve said I actually snuck in two questions in the form of one question. You answered my first question. So can you talk then about whether American democracy can be exported? Whether we should have any expectation of it?

David: If we look back over history, let’s say going back to the late 19th century, the success record of the attempt to export American democracy has not been so great. Most other countries are not necessarily tremendously interested in having something alien imposed on them. They’re very happy to have assistance and to have encouragement for the growth of their own indigenous forms of self- government whether we call it democracy or something else.

But to export American democracy in particular -- especially now as we still bear in some way the psychological scars of the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war for instance – I think that’s a project which is, to put it mildly, very much on hold for the United States of America and one that’s very unlikely in a form that we might have experienced it from say the late 19th century in the context of American empire in the Philippines for instance forwards to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It’s very unlikely to come back again in any of those earlier forms or fashions.

Harmony: Historical record notwithstanding, the idea that American democracy is not the best thing for every other emerging democracy is anathema to a lot of Americans that we would say, “This is working for us, it’s perfect, of course it would work for you.” What are we not understanding when we think that we can take this philosophy that works for us and transpose it on another society? What are we missing?

David: You may be missing the ways in which it’s actually not working in the United States itself. And I don’t mean something as simple as the system of gridlock in Congress for instance, but to look for instance at the economic inequality in the United States, the lack of basic human services which are taken for granted in large parts of Europe and other parts of the developed, world which Americans are still fighting for in this country, as well. That the kinds of expectations that many parts of the world have for the care for the most vulnerable in their own societies and for some leveling of the vast economic inequalities in their own societies seen from those outside the United States to be really quite remarkable. Unintended consequences perhaps of American democracy in this country itself.

So that may be something Americans are not looking to. If we think about how others from the outside might respond to the export of American democracy. Any form of self-government has to be literally self-government. It has to be chosen by those people who themselves wish to govern themselves. They may have a wide range of models to choose from. They may be offered aid and assistance and encouragement to do that, but they must find their own form of self-government, not one that’s bought in a box as it were. As it was said for instance in the Iraq war, bringing government in a box, putting it down in an alien environment and then finding that it doesn’t take root in the same sorts of ways that people from the outside might expect.

If one wanted to be prejudicial about that one could say that the idea of government in a box being exported is imperialism, what we’ve always called imperialism, rather than genuine self-government which must be found by peoples themselves, not brought in from the outside and certainly not imposed from the outside.

Harmony: You’ve given us so many fascinating ideas to think about. What’s next for you? What can we look for you coming up with next?

David: I’ll have to finish my crazy book on civil war from ancient Rome to the present and then I have a few other projects in mind one of which relates to my long terms interest in the intellectual history of the state. I’m trying to think now about what happens when there is not state. What kind of politics you have without a state so I might actually do a book on anarchism; the intellectual history of anarchism around the globe.

Harmony: You’ve given us so many fascinating ideas to think about. It’s been a real pleasure and a great honor to have you here with us today. Thank you so much, David Armitage, for being our guest today.

David: The pleasure was all mine, Harmony. Thanks so much.


  1. […] was in a drunken stupor.’” In more serious news about the American Revolution, the Colonial Williamsburg podcast this week features an interview with David Armitage, proposing that “every great revolution […]

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