Modern History and Revolution


The listings in the following sections do not pretend to be representative, much less exhaustive. It should not be assumed that I fully agree with all the works mentioned, merely that I consider them of some interest if you are exploring the particular topics involved. The emphasis is not on history in the abstract, but on works that may be useful for understanding and transforming the present social system.

The sections begin with the revolutions of the late eighteenth century and end with those of the late twentieth century. With the exception of a few accounts of the latter, I have listed scarcely any works that were written after 1970. I chose that particular cutoff date not only because it marks the conclusion of the sixties, which can be seen as a historical divide in many regards, but because it also marked a divide in my own life. It was the year that I discovered the situationists and, inspired by their example, first began an autonomous radical practice of my own. As a result, my views on many post-1970 authors and issues have already been expressed in my other writings (mostly collected in the book Public Secrets), so there is less point in going into them here. In any case, recent works tend to involve more contentious issues, and this does not seem to be an appropriate place to go into sufficiently detailed critiques to do them justice.

Meanwhile, the whole terrain of political discussion has been altered by the advent of the Web. Events of the sort that would previously have been belatedly examined in a few books or pamphlets of limited circulation are now reported and debated online almost instantaneously by countless people all over the world, in many cases soon enough to enable people to do something about them while they’re still going on. This is all to the good, but it means that the most relevant texts on current events are more likely to appear on websites than in book form. Thus, there are no books listed here about the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement, which are among the most promising developments since the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and East Europe.



Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Régime and the French Revolution
      Tocqueville did not live to complete his projected study of the French Revolution, but this preliminary volume has some good insights into its nature and causes.

Georges Lefebvre, The French Revolution (2 vols.)  [1964]
      Perhaps the best general history.

Peter Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution  [1909]
      Dated but still worth reading. Kropotkin covers only the 1789-1793 period and pays more attention to popular struggles than to the dramatic political events that are emphasized in most histories.

Daniel Guérin, Class Struggle in the First French Republic  [1973]
      Examines the struggles between the reigning bourgeois order and more radical popular tendencies, 1793-1795.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Recollections  [1893]
Conservative but insightful first-hand account of the 1848 revolution in France.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Revolution of 1848–1849
Compilation of articles on the revolutions in several European countries.

Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France: 1848–1850
      A pioneering example of radical social analysis.

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon  [1952]
      Continuing the above account in an even more brilliant work, Marx sums up the revolution of 1848 and analyzes the factors leading to the coup d’État of 1851.

Karl Marx, The Civil War in France  [1871]
      Short work about the Paris Commune of 1871, which led Marx and Engels to revise their views on the state.

Henri Prosper Olivier Lissagaray, History of the Commune of 1871  [1886]
      Classic account by one of the participants.
      [Situationist text on the Paris Commune]

Gwyn A. Williams, Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Communism in Italy, 1911-1921  [1975]
      Good examination of the Italian political and social struggles during and after World War I. Williams also translated Paolo Spriano’s The Occupation of the Factories: Italy 1920.

Richard M. Watt, The Kings Depart: Versailles and the German Revolution  [1968]
      Good history of the German revolution of 1918-1919, set in the context of the international diplomatic maneuvers following the end of World War I. Another good account concentrating more specifically on the revolution is A.J. Ryder’s The German Revolution: 1918-1919.

Jan Valtin, Out of the Night  [1941]
      Gripping autobiographical account of a German Communist militant’s experiences as an underground Comintern agent and prisoner of the Nazis.

Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism  [1933]
      Brilliant elucidation of the psychological factors that fostered the development of fascism in Germany.

Daniel Guérin, Fascism and Big Business  [1945]
      Complementing Reich, this study examines the economic factors of fascism.

Manuel Grossi, The Asturian Uprising: Fifteen Days of Socialist Revolution  [1935]
      Written by a participant, this is the only book I’ve seen on the October 1934 insurrection in northwestern Spain. That revolt, one of the most radical and uncompromising in history, has been strangely neglected, perhaps because it doesn’t quite fit in with anyone’s political line. It was carried out by socialist and communist workers (mostly miners, referred to as dinamiteros because for lack of any other arms they used dynamite as their main weapon) but in a mass-participatory manner more characteristic of the Spanish anarchists at their best; yet it was defeated in part because the Catalonian anarchists failed to hold up their end of the joint uprising that had been planned. It also indirectly affected later history: One of the main reasons that the Spanish anarchists abandoned their usual electoral abstentionism in 1936 was that the Popular Front candidates promised to release the thousands of Asturian rebels who had been imprisoned following the repression of the revolt. I read the French version, L’insurrection des Asturies, but Socialist Platform has recently published an English translation under the above title.

Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth  [1943]
      Excellent background on the different forces in play in the Spanish civil war and revolution (1936-1939).

Burnett Bolloten, The Spanish Civil War  [1991]
      This is the best general history. The product of decades of conscientious research, it incorporates substantially all the material from the author’s previous works, The Grand Camouflage (1961) and The Spanish Revolution (1979). Another good history is Broué and Témime’s Revolution and the War in Spain.

Franz Borkenau, The Spanish Cockpit  [1937]
      This was one of the first books to give outsiders a sense of what was really going on in Spain, notably the Stalinists’ sabotage of the revolution.

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia  [1938]
      Orwell’s account of his experiences fighting in the ranks of the POUM militia was another early revelation of the counterrevolutionary role of the Stalinists.

Mary Low and Juan Breá, Red Spanish Notebook  [1937]
      First-hand accounts by two radicals who, like Orwell, fought in the POUM militia.

Victor Alba and Steven Schwartz, Spanish Marxism versus Soviet Communism: A History of the P.O.U.M.  [1988]
      A detailed history of the revolutionary Marxist group, which allied with the anarchists and opposed the Stalinists.

Abel Paz, Durruti: The People Armed  [1972]
      Biography of the great anarchist revolutionary and militia leader Buenaventura Durruti.

Camillo Berneri, Guerre de classes en Espagne: 1936-1937
      Collection of articles by the estimable anarchist theorist, assassinated by the Stalinists in 1937. This collection has not been published in English, but translations of several of the articles can be found online at http://struggle.ws/berneri.html.

Sam Dolgoff (ed.), The Anarchist Collectives  [1974]
      Selections from several detailed studies (by Augustin Souchy, Gaston Leval, José Pierats, etc.) of the functioning of the Spanish workers’ and peasants’ self-organized collectives.

Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution  [1953]
      A noted anarchist argues that the state-collaborationist compromises of the Spanish anarchist movement were not as necessary or “practical” as they were thought to be.

Murray Bookchin, To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936  [1994]
      Two brief essays. Bookchin also wrote a longer background history, The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936.

Noam Chomsky, Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship
      This text, recently reprinted as a separate book, originally appeared in American Power and the New Mandarins (1969). Chomsky compares American scholars’ views on the Vietnam war with analogous illusions regarding the Spanish civil war. In the process, he gives a good brief summary of the factors in play during the Spanish war and revolution.

Dominique Eudes, The Kapetanios: Partisans and Civil War in Greece, 1943-1949  [1972]
      Greece was one of the most volatile regions during World War II, and its postwar fate was not determined until the conclusion of several years of struggles among a complex range of forces, including behind-the-scenes deals between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. This book goes into them all in detail.

Andy Anderson, Hungary ’56  [1964]
      Excellent brief account of the Hungarian councilist revolution.

Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski, Open Letter to Members of the Polish Communist Party  [1964]
      This document, for which the two young authors were imprisoned, was one of the most advanced theoretical critiques of Stalinism from within. There have been several English-language editions under different titles: An Open Letter to the Party; A Revolutionary Socialist Manifesto; Revolutionary Marxist Students in Poland Speak Out; and Solidarnosc, the Missing Link.

René Viénet, Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement  [1968]
      By far the best book on May 1968. Includes numerous photos, comics, posters, leaflets and other documents. Some of the documents are online here. Lots of the graffiti are online here. Some criticisms of the English translation can be found here. See also Guy Debord’s subsequent analysis, The Beginning of an Era.

Roger Grégoire and Fredy Perlman, Worker-Student Action Committees: France, May ’68  [1969]
      Good first-hand account by two participants.

Alain Schnapp and Pierre Vidal-Naquet (ed.), The French Student Uprising  [1969]
      Large collection of documents from the various radical currents in May 1968.

Phil Mailer, Portugal: The Impossible Revolution?  [1977]
      Comprehensive first-hand account. The best book on the Portuguese revolution of 1974-1975.

Wildcat Spain Encounters Democracy, 1976-1978  [1979]
      Collection of agitational documents following the death of Franco.

Loren Goldner, Ubu Saved from Drowning: Class Struggle and Statist Containment in Portugal and Spain, 1974-1977  [2000]
      Later, more analytical examination of the above two movements.


Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms (Ken Knabb, 2004).

No copyright.