How to Write a Revolution: Harold Isaacs and the Political History of Politics

Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:50 PM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Fabio Lanza, University of Arizona
“The author of this book approaches the revolution as a revolutionist, and he sees no reason for concealing it.” This is how Leon Trotsky summarized Harold Isaacs’s approach in the first edition of The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, published in 1938. Trotsky defended that approach: “only a revolutionist – provided, of course, that he is equipped with the scientific method – is capable of laying bare the objective dynamics of the revolution.” To push Trotsky’s point further, only a political approach, one born out of sympathy, can do justice to a revolutionary process, because without the understanding provided by political closeness, idealism becomes folly, violence becomes brutality, sacrifice becomes madness. Throughout the decades (and many reprints), Isaacs’s book thus has continually posed the question, “how do we write the history of revolutions?” Today, when scholars are producing new approaches to the history of Maoism, Isaacs makes this question unavoidable. First, because his 1938 volume, which provides a vivid depiction of the Communist movement between 1925-27, was good history -- good, in part, precisely because it was political, and honestly so. However, and that’s the second point, politics shifted. Isaacs rewrote sections of the book after the Communist victory of 1949 and the meaning of the “tragedy” changed accordingly. This paper takes Isaacs’s work as a case study for the imbrication of politics and revolutionary history, not to dismiss it, but to explore its complexity, and, in a sense, its necessity for understanding both politics and revolution.