Revolutionary reading needed!
November 20, 2014 9:09 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to read some great non-fiction books about political revolutions, both successful and failed. I'm particularly interested in the past couple hundred years of history, and in revolutions involving (former?) colonies.

Aside from accuracy, readability and relate-ability are the most important things in this case -- I want to have a sense of the people involved, what day-to-day operations were like, how the conflict affected normal people's lives, as many small human details as possible. This is research for a book set in a fictional world, in which an island nation overthrows colonizers from the continent in a mostly urban, industrial revolution-type setting, but I'm more than happy to read about wars and revolutions that take place in very different settings.

This question from 2008 has some good answers, but it's been six years so...perhaps some new books have come out? Or new members have read things that aren't on that list?

Thank you so much for any suggestions you can think of!
posted by Narrative Priorities to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The Age of Revolution, by Eric Hobsbawm

It's mostly about the American and various European revolutions, but IIRC Haiti is in there, as well as Greece and Latin America.

Also, since Hobsbawm is a Marxist and the next book in the series is all about the Industrial Revolution, Age Of Revolution definitely ties the various revolutions described in with economic, social, and technological changes going on at the time.
posted by Sara C. at 9:16 PM on November 20, 2014

Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857 (ebook) is interesting as a day-by-day sort of collection of original documents related to the Siege of Delhi. It's loaded with letters, depositions, proclamations, etc. giving an on-the-ground view of events. Opening it at random, I see a complaint from the potters in the city about being pressed into service, an official communication telling soldiers to not believe the magazine has blown up, and some random arrest records for petty crimes committed while everything else was going on. Maybe that's the kind of thing that could inspire you.

This isn't a topic I really know much about, so other than that, what's coming to mind is classic stuff like the movie The Battle of Algiers (yt) and the book Rebellion in the Backlands.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:42 PM on November 20, 2014

It's a bit farther back, but I remember Words of Fire, Deeds of Blood (about the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror) being particularly good.

If you're considering fiction, Tamora Pierce's Trickster's Choice/Trickster's Queen books focus heavily on the inner workings of the revolution as an island throws off its colonizers—but in a fantasy setting.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:08 PM on November 20, 2014

The great thing about revolutions, from the perspective of researching them, is that there have been so many (given an expansive definition of that term), so there's a lot to choose from.

The Black Jacobins (Haiti)

The German Revolution

History of the Russian Revolution (also see Victor Serge, Louise Bryant, John Reed and Emma Goldman's accounts of the Revolution or shortly thereafter... moar)

The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (also see George Orwell's account)

Also consider books on the following revolutions: American, Cuban, Chinese, Mexican, French (both 1789 and the Paris Commune), English, Iranian...

Unfortunately I don't think there is a real-world analogy for your fictional setup of an urban/industrial rebellion in a colony... one almost definitional feature of colonies is that they are underdeveloped! Maybe a closer analogy would be urban rebellions against an occupying power during wartime: the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, French Underground... stuff like that. There are also wars of national liberation -- such as in Vietnam or Algeria -- that are uprisings of a colony against an imperial power (sometimes in an urban environment) but they often fail to meet the definition of a bona fide revolution.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 11:16 PM on November 20, 2014

Anything by Kapuściński
posted by mattoxic at 11:26 PM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

"The Anatomy of Revolution" by Crane Britton.

It discusses four revolutions: The US revolution, the French revolution, the Russian revolution, and the English revolution -- and shows a common pattern to the sequence of events in all four. (I wasn't convinced that his pattern fully applied to the US revolution, but unquestionably he was right about the other three.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:01 AM on November 21, 2014

These spring to mind:

The Transformation of the World
Big book but worth it.

Colonialism A Theorectical Overview

In Mistrust we Trust
Krastev looks at revolutions to make his point.
posted by 15L06 at 1:53 AM on November 21, 2014

Not a book, but full of recommendations for books in the show notes, the Revolutions podcast may be right up your alley. He's doing the French Revolution at the moment.

It's by the same guy who did the superb (and now finished) History of Rome podcast.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:17 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

For the Russian Revolution(s), these books completely meet your criteria ("a sense of the people involved, what day-to-day operations were like, how the conflict affected normal people's lives, as many small human details as possible"), and I strongly recommend both of them:

Harrison Salisbury, Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917

Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924

They're long, meaty, well-written books, and if you read them both you'll have a damn good idea of what that particular revolution (or, better, sequence of revolutions) was like.
posted by languagehat at 9:08 AM on November 21, 2014

Barbara Tuchman's The First Salute is a really interesting look at some angles of the American Revolution that aren't often covered. She's super readable and I remember this one as being thoroughly eye-opening.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:14 AM on November 21, 2014

Popkin's You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery -- Detailed narrative-structured history following the players at the time.

Clancy-Smith's Mediterraneans: North Africa and Europe in an Age of Migration c. 1800-1900 -- not quite revolutionary, but fascinating examination of the fundamental changes to that region. Fascinating read!
posted by vkxmai at 12:31 PM on November 21, 2014

Revolution in the Revolution? by Regis Debray is a fascinating insider look at Cuban/Latin America (Guevarismo) revolutions. It's chock full of hilariously bullshit Leninism and Maoism that makes it useless as a current political tract, but it's a fantastic look at what Guevara and Castro were actually doing in terms of tying tactics to socialist rhetoric.
posted by klangklangston at 4:09 PM on November 21, 2014

This is a little askew from your specifics, but it might prove interesting: History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. I'm just going to quote the review blurb: Historical reconstruction is in constant tension with two other more pervasive and influential ways of "knowing" the past - experience and myth. ... Paul Cohen uses the Boxer uprising of 1898-1900 - a major antiforeign explosion and watershed event in Chinese history - as a vehicle for the skillful illumination of these tensions. History in Three Keys juxtaposes the accounts of historians with those of participants and witnesses and sets these perspectives against the range of popular myths that were fashioned about the Boxers. The first part of the book tells the story of the Boxer uprising as reconstructed by historians. Part Two explores the thought, feelings, and behavior of the direct participants in the Boxer experience, individuals who, without a preconceived idea of the entire event, understood what was happening to them in a manner fundamentally different from historians. Finally, in Part Three, Cohen examines the myths surrounding the uprising in twentieth-century China - and, to a lesser extent, the West - as symbolic representations designed less to elucidate the Boxer past than to draw energy from it in the present.

Yeah, okay, it's postmodern as ****, but in a good way.
posted by wintersweet at 8:05 PM on November 23, 2014

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