The title of this book, The Third Revolution, is taken from what may seem an extraordinary historical coincidence. The demand for a “third revolution” was actually raised in two great revolutions: the French Revolution in the closing decade of the eighteenth century, and 120 years later in the Russian Revolution during the opening decades of the twentieth.

The revolutionary sans-culottes of Paris in 1793 raised the cry to replace the supposedly radical National Convention with a popular democracy — the Parisian sections — that they themselves had established during a series of insurrections, often against the wishes of the Convention’s Jacobin leaders who professed to speak in their name. In another place and another time, in 1921 in Russia, the revolutionary workers of Petrograd and the famous “red sailors” of Kronstadt, the capital’s nearby naval base, raised the identical cry. They, too, sought to overthrow an authoritarian, seemingly radical regime — in their case, one led by Bolsheviks — with democratically elected councils or “soviets.”

In surveying the events of these two periods, it struck me as fascinating — and more than a mere coincidence — that this very same demand, word for word, was raised in both Paris and Petrograd toward the end of two historically crucial revolutions that were separated by such a great span of time.

The two peoples who raised the demand profoundly differed in their cultural and social conditions. Neither the Petrograd workers nor the Kronstadt sailors were schooled, as far as I can discern, in revolutionary history — certainly not in the details of 1793 — and they could not have known much about the Parisian sans-culottes. Yet they directed the identical cry against a seemingly revolutionary regime that they had helped bring to power and by which they now felt betrayed.

What was it about the dynamics of these two great revolutions that caused such a demand to be raised twice? What brought these revolutionary populaces into open, even bloody opposition to the leaders, organizations, and regimes that claimed to be radical to one degree or another?

In both cases a “first revolution” had been directed against a patently obsolete monarchy — the Bourbons in France and the Romanovs in Russia — because of the gross incompetence of the royal regime. A shapeless but earnest coalition of liberals, radicals, and even dissatisfied members of the courtly ruling class had taken over the reins of government in this “first revolution,” replacing the monarchy with a new and moderate but irresolute representative government. Accordingly, in both cases, a “second revolution” had followed the first one, in which a radical government that had the support of the most insurgent people proceeded to overthrow the moderate one. But once in power, the radical government, too, became discredited to a point where the revolutionary populace demanded still a “third revolution” to reclaim the power they had lost.

A number of writers on revolution, perhaps most popularly Crane Brinton in The Anatomy of Revolution, have advanced a “stages” theory of revolutions that accounts very well for the first two revolutions. According to Brinton’s approach, the English, French, and Russian revolutions all underwent a series of fairly distinct steps that followed a rough schematic pattern, somewhat as follows:

Initially, the people are drawn into a more or less unified revolt against a monarchy, which leads to the establishment of a moderate regime — or what I (and they) in retrospect call the first revolution. After its initial success, the revolution moves in an increasingly radical direction, followed or accompanied by a civil war that awakens broad sectors of the lower classes, in which extremists engage in a struggle with their formerly moderate allies, thereby leading to the second revolution. In time, however, conflicts within the revolutionary camp are resolved by a military regime, which itself is supplanted by a restoration of the old regime. According to Brinton’s approach — and that of Marx, I should add — this counterrevolution is never entirely successful. The revolution, viewed as a whole, wins in the sense that its social conquests cannot be removed by the restored old regime and are thus institutionalized as a permanent historical advance, despite the nominal defeat of the revolution and its military sequelae.

Besides Brinton, theorists influenced by the “human ecology” ideas of the Chicago School of urban sociology have also advanced such a highly idealized pattern. So, too, have Marxist historians. Leon Trotsky contended to the end of his life that Stalin’s rule over the former Soviet Union constituted a “Thermidor” comparable to the counterrevolutionary rule of the Directory — the moderates who overthrew Robespierre and the Jacobins — in France.

In fact, the “stages” theory is not completely bereft of truth. Stages there surely were in the major revolutions, successful and unsuccessful alike. The extraordinary similarity, at least in the sequence of events, between the English, French, and Russian revolutions raises fascinating questions, some of which bear on the nature of revolution itself.

To what extent did political factors outweigh economic ones? To what extent were the outcomes different from what revolutionary leaders had intended — and if greatly so, why? What emancipatory directions could the revolutions have followed, had certain specific events not altered their courses profoundly? In what ways and with what goals did the popular movements — more specifically, ordinary people themselves — affect these revolutions?

The fact is that the stages theory describes only the first and second revolutions. Remarkably, the insurgent people who called for a third revolution seem to have dropped out of the historical schema worked out by Brinton, Trotsky, and others. Yet they were an abiding presence throughout the revolutionary era, and more than any of the revolutionary figures and parties that loom over most historical accounts of the great revolutions, they were the authentic radicals in the events in which they participated.

For the insurrectionary people, almost alone, were seeking to reclaim and expand highly democratic institutions that had been established during earlier phases of the revolutionary cycle and whose power had been subsequently reduced or usurped by the parties and factions that professed to speak in their name. The French sans-culottes sought to extend the authority of their neighborhood popular assemblies or “sections” at the expense of the increasingly powerful, centralized, essentially Jacobin-controlled state apparatus. The Russian workers and sailors wanted to democratize and reinvigorate their grassroots councils or “soviets” as a substitute for the increasingly authoritarian Bolshevik-controlled state apparatus. In demanding a third revolution, they in effect articulated a popular desire for the establishment of a radical democracy, a demand that reached the point of outright insurgency. Ultimately, their uprisings were quelled when the self-styled revolutionary organizations of the second revolution turned against the popular movement and suppressed it with military force.

The failure of insurrectionary people to achieve a popular democracy has nonetheless profoundly affected the events of our own time. Indeed, seldom has the past been so integrally part of the present, for we live under the shadow of the failure of the French and Russian revolutions to this very day, all recent claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Whether directly, as in the case of the Russian Revolution, or indirectly, as in the case of the French, they profoundly shaped the course of the twentieth century and of the century that is soon to follow — and we cannot afford to face the future without learning what they have to teach us.

It was not only in the French and Russian revolutions that the demand for a third revolution arose: radical popular tendencies have emerged repeatedly in revolutionary movements of the past, essentially voicing the same demands of the French and Russian insurgents, albeit in different words and different ways. Nor have they been simple popular explosions that lacked direction, purpose, or leadership.

Revolutionary “mobs” or crowds seemed to erupt like elemental forces in major revolutions, yet they were hardly as formless or “chaotic” as many historical accounts and reminiscences would lead us to believe. Episodic crowd eruptions or “riots” should not be confused with the more lasting and underlying popular movements that slowly crystallized from small groups in neighborhoods, towns, and villages into increasingly larger ones during revolutionary periods. Before huge crowds surged around the Bastille on July 14, 1789, in Paris, or confronted tsarist troops in the avenues of Petrograd on February 23 and 24, 1917, the people had already established vital political networks in the slums and working-class neighborhoods of both cities.

Such networks existed not only in urban but in village milieus. In the countryside, village life itself often fostered among its members, for all their internal status differences, highly intimate ties and a deep sense of collective mutual responsibility. Radical historians in particular tend to overstate the extent to which the European peasantry was dispersed and atomized and therefore incapable of joint action. They echo too closely Marx’s disparagement of the peasant world in general as mean-spirited, based on his perception of the egoism of the French peasantry of his own time. If all peasant societies resembled that of nineteenth-century France, it would be difficult to explain the peasant movements that fought so zealously and with such self-sacrifice in the Mexican Revolution of 1912, not to speak of the Vietnamese War against the Japanese, French, and American colonialists. The great jacqueries of Europe and Russia would remain mysteries to us if we did not understand that they were rooted in the strong and collectivist village ties of precapitalist agrarian communities.

From the largely medieval peasant wars of the sixteenth-century Reformation to the modern uprisings of industrial workers and peasants, oppressed peoples have created their own popular forms of community association — potentially, the popular infrastructure of a new society — to replace the oppressive states that ruled over them. Generally these popular associations shared the same goal: the de facto political empowerment of the people. In time, during the course of the revolutions, these associations took the institutional form of local assemblies, much like town meetings, or representative councils of mandated recallable deputies.

These networks were generally impervious not only to police surveillance but to subsequent historical investigation. With few exceptions and only in recent times have historians tried to look beyond the formal revolutionary institutions, such as revolutionary parliamentary bodies, and organizations, such as political parties, to discern how ordinary people, and particularly the anonymous militants among them, engaged in their own self-organization.

It is these subterranean popular movements, their various forms of organization such as committee networks and assemblies, and their often little-known or neglected leaders that I explore in the pages that follow. My own success in this endeavor is necessarily limited, since this hidden area of activity is hardly replete with documentation and objective reminiscences.

Nonetheless, based on what I have been able to gather, I have found that the process of popular self-organization often broadly follows a definite pattern. In the poorer neighborhoods — and in the countryside, in the villages of underprivileged peasants — people initially gather in local taverns, cafés, squares, and marketplaces; in industrial areas they gather in factory “hangouts,” in union halls, or in casas del pueblo (literally, “houses of the people,” or neighborhood centers). There they have access to newspapers, lectures, classes, and the like. Ultimately, these loose gatherings give rise to a distinctive neighborhood political culture, with educational, debating, even choral and literary groups. Such little noticed and poorly explored cultures then undergo a processes of structuration, influenced by an articulate, militant grassroots leadership, so that an organized popular movement begins to emerge. This occurs quite often without the help of any political parties. There is a very real sense, in fact, in which all the great revolutions of the past were civic or municipal revolutions at their base, whether it was a village, town, neighborhood, or city where the complex process of community structuration took place. Hence what often appears to the police, to higher authorities, and even to sympathetic journalists and historians as a “mob” in a period of social upheaval is often a remarkably articulated, communally definable, and well-led popular upsurge.

These communal processes of structuration not only nourish revolutions, they also explain why large masses of people persistently engage in recurring battles with well-armed troops. These popular political cultures and their networks sustain the revolutionary people and its leaders during periods of temporary defeat, which are often followed by vigorous and even more decisive upsurges. In February 1917, when ever-larger crowds from the working-class Vyborg district of Petrograd invaded the center of the city, they were able to repeatedly defy the clubs and pistols of police, the sabers of dragoons, and the gunfire infantry regiments, until finally even the military garrison itself mutinied and helped to pull down the tsarist monarchy. In a very real sense, then, movements of oppressed strata and classes were clearly civic movements, rooted in the communal life of villages, towns, cities, and neighborhoods, not only landed estates, small shops, and factories — a fact that has not received the recognition it deserves from historians of the great revolutions.

Initially, no political party led these people, least of all the principal parties of the Russian Left: the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks, and the Social Revolutionaries. In fact, shortly before the Petrograd workers began their uprising, tsarist police arrested the city committees of the revolutionary parties — perhaps fortunately, since their rather dogmatic ideologies, and their inhibiting notions of the “stages” through which they believed a revolution should go, could very well have impeded the insurrectionary upsurge that overthrew the monarchy.

But this upsurge was neither formless nor impulsive. The victory of the Petrograd people is testimony to the hidden structures that they had already created within their neighborhoods and factories, and to the little-known leaders — the class-conscious insurgents — who, as orators and catalysts, provided indispensable guidance to their neighbors and co-workers in fomenting the revolution. Thus, after temporary setbacks, the people consciously reconvened their forces and, due in large part to their local leaders, continued to attack the official institutions until they had completely demolished them. Like the Russian workers in 1917, the Parisian sans-culottes too were suppressed for a time, then rose up again until they succeeded in pushing the revolution in a more radical direction.

This first phase of a revolution, in which the people and their leaders initially confront the established authorities, may also be called its popular phase. Not only do the authorities of the old regimes seek to control this phase, but they seek to suppress the popular movement — and if they fail, parties, liberal or radical in complexion, try to move to the head of the popular movement. Nor do these parties hesitate to use the very slogans raised by the people and their leaders, to gain control over it, as did Danton and Robespierre during the French Revolution and Lenin and Trotsky during the Russian Revolution.