Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World

I bought Jack Goldstone’s Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World after reading some of its ideas referenced in Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power. It sat on my shelf for a few months until a vacation earlier this year provided an opportune quiet time to start reading. It’s a dense, academic book and it’s unlikely I remember many of Goldstone’s ideas. There are a handful, though, that I want to detail and hope to remember.

Theory of revolution

Goldstone’s guiding question throughout the work is why state breakdown on a worldwide scale occurred in two waves separated by a century of stability. He focuses on demographics and looks at how worldwide population trends impact early modern states and social institutions. Goldstone ultimately ties state breakdown across Europe, China, and the Middle East to a single process: population growth leading to changes in prices, shifts in resources, and increasing social demands that overwhelm a state’s ability to cope.

The societies he details shared a handful of common traits, most notably that they all relied on an agrarian economic base.1 This tied the bulk of state revenue to direct taxes on agricultural production. It also made much of state revenue, expenses, and debt subject to the swings of population trends, disease, and climate.

Eventually these large agrarian states (England, France, China, and the Ottoman Empire) experienced population increases in excess of the productivity gains of land. They raised taxes but faced a worsening fiscal crisis. Within a century populations doubled, prices and rents rose, and elite competition increased.

Poverty and Puritanism

A shift in the nature of poverty was, at least in the case of England, a contributing factor to revolution. Goldstone writes that:

In the early sixteenth century, poverty was hardly unknown. But the poor fell into readily comprehensible groups: the aged, the mentally or physically handicapped, the widow and her family. Young men of working age and families with the male head of household present were not among the poor. Over the course of the sixteenth century, however, this situation changed. As land and employment failed to keep pace with the growth of population, substantial numbers of men and their families were unable to keep above the line of dependence on charity.2

This increase in poverty overtook the state’s ability to provide for its people. And it contributed to the increasing popularity of Puritanism, which had become a more revolutionary movement and developed into a crusade offered as a panacea to cure the nation’s ills.

France and urban taxation

Much of the state breakdown in mid-18th-century France tied to the state’s massive debt and ultimate bankruptcy. Goldstone connects this to the state’s taxation patterns. France relied on agriculture for much of its tax revenue. And during the 18th century this sector of the economy was stagnant at best. During this time agricultural production fell 4% but agricultural tax rose 95%!3

Over the same years France’s urban and commercial sector was booming. But the state had sold privileges to municipalities that allowed them exemptions from many taxes. With a declining return on agricultural taxes and a political limitation or commercial taxes the state turned to borrowing. That led to an increasing debt and interest payments that were untenable.

  1. It was the 16th century after all.
  2. Jack A. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World pg. 126.
  3. Jack A. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World pg. 207