“… The Scottish revolution of 1638 introduces a last group of provincial rebellions in which the external aspect was decisive. Despite their many differences, all shared the fundamental common property of originating in the grievances of subordinate or provincial kingdoms within dynastic unions. Either the absentee ruler and paramount state were guilty of unaccustomed demands and innovations that violated the autonomous liberties of the provincial kingdom, or they inflicted upon it an increasingly repressive government that finally became intolerable. Whether the one or the other, or some combination of the two, rebellion erupted.
“We see such cases in both the Spanish and the English monarchies. The revolt of Aragon in 1591 and the revolutions of Catalonia and Portugal in 1640 were alike a resistance to the pressures and intrusions of the central regime in Madrid. The several revolts of Ireland and the Scottish rebellion of 1638 were directed against subjugation or domination by England. We need pause for only a brief glance at the revolt of Aragon against Philip II to see how it fits into the picture of provincial rebellion. In its kingdom of Aragon, the Habsburg monarchy was confronted by a Cortes and other indigenous institutions that restricted its powers in considerable ways. With Aragon was also associated the famous (although historically fictitious) oath, according to which subjects were bound to render obedience only if their prince observed their privileges, otherwise not (si no, no).71 These privileges, or fueros, often served as a cover for local misgovernment and aristocratic oppression; however, they also stood as a real obstacle to royal absolutism.
‘The revolution ended in May’, Mikel Muñoz’s 2015 film (Spanish with French subtitles) on the five days of infamy and treachery that ended Spain’s social revolution. In the Spring of 1937, with the anti-fascist war at its peak, the pro-Stalinist ‘socialists’ of the PSOE, led by Finance Minister Juan Negrín, the communist-led PSUC (The Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia) led by Juan Comorera, supported by right wing nationalists of the Estat Català, moved against the power bases of the anarcho-syndicalist workers’ militias in Catalonia, starting on April 25 with the customs post at Puigcerdá on the French border, and culminating in the attempted seizure of the Barcelona Telephone Exchange. The latter action and the call for the CNT employees defending the building and adjoining barrio barricades to abandon their positions and give up their arms was endorsed by the infamous ‘notables’ of the higher committees of the CNT, particularly anarchist ministers Federica Montseny and Juan Garcia Oliver, and CNT National Secretary Mariano T. Vazquez. The following account of the ‘Events of May’ is from ‘Building Utopia’.
The revolutions selected for consideration in this book almost all occurred in the century and a half between the beginning of the sixteenth and the middle of the seventeenth century. Moreover, with the main exception of the German peasant war, they belong almost entirely to the history of three states: England, France, and the Spanish empire. The rationale for this choice of locale in space and time as the basis for a study of early modern revolutions is explained by a number of reasons.
Far across the abyss of time, before the French revolution and the emergence of industrial society, lies spread out and stretching backward into the past the Western Europe of the old society. Dominated in its polities by monarchies and princes and in its social structures by nobilities and aristocracies, still rural despite its great capital cities, still agricultural despite its commerce, manufactures, and bourgeoisie, this is the society that grew out of the feudal world and was eventually to be transformed during the nineteenth century into the industrial world. One phase of its life history, the last, which was disrupted by the French revolution, is usually known as the ancien régime. The whole of its history is commonly described as the early modern era, extending from about 1500 to the late eighteenth century and the outbreak of the French revolution.
There are at least two reasons that might be cited for undertaking the historical and comparative investigation of revolution. The first is the desire to make a revolution, the second is the desire to prevent it. Perhaps nearly everybody is susceptible to the one reason or the other, but there is yet a third reason that gives the study of revolution a compelling interest and significance, even though its appeal is doubtless much more limited. This is that the understanding of revolution is an indispensable condition for the fuller knowledge and understanding of society. Depending on how we define it, revolution may be common or uncommon, frequent or rare. But in the case of societies, nations, and communities that have experienced revolution, we cannot claim to understand them adequately without understanding their revolutions. In a deep and therefore a nontautological sense, it is true that every people gets the revolution it deserves and equally true that it gets only the revolutions of which it is capable.
Buonarroti’s last years blended the myth and the reality of the secret societies as never before. Each, too, was then at the peak of its strength. This book has been about the first; it has argued that though secret societies existed in large numbers in Western Europe between 1750 and 1830 and strove to influence events, their main importance was what people believed about them. This always mattered more than what they did and their numbers and practical effectiveness were in no way proportionate to the myth’s power. This is their true instrumental importance as well as their interest for the historian; what was believed about them was an important part of the information shaping men’s reactions to great events.
If this is granted, then can we hope – ought we to try? – to understand any more about this fact than its historical context? The mythology is, after all, a historical artefact. It is one characteristic achievement and expression of a particular age, a collective dream of one particular culture. We feel able to understand quite a lot of the social context in which, over eighty years or so, it was born and grew to its full stature; we ought therefore to have a fair chance of discerning what there was in it that locks the mythology into that particular culture at that particular time. Most of what has gone before in this book perhaps expresses that view implicitly. Yet this does not seem to exhaust the matter. Although the mythology has its peculiar features it is also based on elements which recur in other historical situations and it has itself shown astonishing powers of survival and adaptation. Long after the years which saw its birth, these powers have renewed its life at many times and in many places. Continue reading…