Anatomy of a Revolution Book Summary

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In 'Anatomy of the Revolution,' historian Crane Brinton investigates the similarities and differences between four historical revolutions. In this lesson, we will learn about Brinton's definition of revolution and the trends he discovered.

How to Define Revolution

In the opening pages of Anatomy of a Revolution (1938), historian Crane Brinton struggles to define his object of study. What is meant by the word 'revolution'? It could mean 'change' or 'revision.' The word 'revolution' also carries with it a sense of moving forward, as in 'progress' or 'development.' The word 'revolutionary,' however, is somewhat easier to pin down. Calling a movement 'revolutionary' indicates that it has a force for change. 1960s American counterculture falls into this category, as do civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. But tech giant Apple sums up 'revolutionary' in their slogan: ''Think Different.'' Brinton's book continues to be relevant to the world today as it offers insight into the nature of revolutions.

Brinton sets himself apart from other scholars who narrate history. The author identifies himself as a social scientist and a practitioner of the scientific method. ''To say that history is a fable agreed upon, or a set of tricks played upon the dead, is to slander, or at least to misjudge, the great body of industrious and sober workers who have carried on the study of history'' (13).

In Anatomy of a Revolution, Brinton aims to identify the common trends and ''uniformities'' of socio-political revolutions through a comparative study of four historical events:

  • The English Revolution, also called the English Civil War (1642-1651)
  • The American Revolution, also called the Revolutionary War or the War of Independence (1775-1783)
  • The French Revolution (1789-1799)
  • The Russian Revolution (1917)

Timeline of a Revolution

As a specialist in French history, Brinton uses the French Revolution (1789-1799) as a jumping off point in order to understand the trends in three other wars. In each case, writes Brinton, the events unfold along a similar trajectory.

First, Brinton describes the preliminary atmosphere of a society heading into a period of revolution as the 'Old Regime.' The government is weak, corrupt, and ineffective. The middle class grows in strength. Feelings of injustice, discontent, and disgruntlement are felt toward class difference, religion, government, law, and/or the economy.

Brinton structures the revolution in three distinct chronological phases linked to the successive control of different social groups: moderate, radical, and extremist. When tensions finally break, Brinton says, the revolution begins in a moderate phase. The moderates share a common goal of voicing grievances, but they are disorganized. Eventually, a radical schism emerges, clashing with the moderates. The government attempts to respond to the unrest, but their efforts are unsuccessful. The failure of the Old Regime to suppress the revolutionaries only fuels the power of the radicals. While the moderates represent a progressive, reactionary force, Brinton describes their agenda as revisionist. The primary goal of the moderates is to reinstate a just government and civil society.

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830)

Since the moderates are opposed by both left and right, radical groups emerge with the fervor to overthrow them. For the radicals, a baseline strategy is insufficient. The radicals have higher hopes for a truly free society.

Moderates and radicals clash, leading to the radical phase. Brinton calls it The Terror, after the Reign of Terror which occurred during the French Revolution. Bloody battles ensue. The radicals are well-organized and fanatical (a terrible combination). They spread propaganda and work passionately to disseminate their goals and gain a following.

The emergence of a strong leader marks the succession of a final, extremist phase. As a specialist in French history, Brinton here uses the Thermidorian Reaction (in reference to the execution of Robespierre) as a model for the climax of all revolutions. From the Thermidorian Reaction, Brinton extrapolates that, in the final phase of a revolution a strong leader emerges. He becomes the figurehead of the revolution.

Execution of Robespierre

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account