The history of revolutions has gone global. Historians today can hardly avoid a powerful sense of how the worldwide flow of capital, goods, people, and ideas shapes local circumstances. Guided by this understanding, they have now composed a significant body of work showing how similar forces in the past could put states and empires under massive strain, resulting in potentially revolutionary crises. Histories of events like the French and Russian revolutions have always taken their global dimensions into account, but recent work has insisted on the paramount importance of these dimensions. Justin du Rivage’s newly published Revolution Against Empire, for example, casts the American Revolution as the result of a debate within a globe-spanning British Empire as to what form the empire should take. The French historian Pierre Serna has proposed seeing the French Revolution as just one chapter in a long struggle waged throughout the world between elites and the peoples they subjugated, both in overseas colonies and in homegrown “internal colonies.”
Mike Rapport’s lucid, engaging, and evocatively written The Unruly City: Paris, London, and New York in the Age of Revolution seems at first sight like another contribution to this global turn. The three cities were all important nodes of global exchange with diverse, cosmopolitan populations, and the book devotes significant space to the connections between them and their respective countries. But The Unruly City isn’t really a global history, at least in the new sense, for it pays relatively little attention to the cities’ positions in global networks of exchange. Instead, Rapport’s book demonstrates how attention to the specific geography and social forces of a city can illuminate a critical question about which the new global history has little to say: Why do people in some places—but not others—become radicalized, driving revolutions into previously uncharted territory?
Analyses of ocean-spanning empires and trade networks can do much to explain the political, economic, and social stresses tied to globalization that can lead to revolutions breaking out in the first place. However, to understand events like the American and French revolutions, one must look not simply at their origins in the wider world, but also at how particular environments—above all, urban ones—could become crucibles of intense and rapid political change. Both revolutions quickly took on a life of their own and brought about events that few, if any, people had predicted or could even have imagined at the start. The American Revolution rejected monarchy, shook the social structures of the new state, and tied its legitimacy to the sweeping principles proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. The French Revolution went even further in its challenge to the reigning social order: In addition to overthrowing a monarchy, it brought about the execution of a king, the flourishing of utopian visions of human improvement, and an attempt to abolish Christianity on French soil. Great Britain also seemed for a time to be fostering the development of a volatile, potentially revolutionary politics, but there the government and social elites ultimately managed to prevent an explosion.
One reason that global history has difficulty with radicalization has to do with the scale on which it operates. Global history is, by definition, large-scale: Even works that use a single individual to elucidate global processes, like Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, still cover huge swaths of the world. Radicalization, by contrast, tends to take place in relatively small, contained spaces, where like-minded people can exchange news and ideas, reinforce their shared passions, and magnify their outrage at their opponents. Today, we can experience this phenomenon virtually, through social media; those living in the mid-19th century could experience it within the spaces of intensive political socialization provided by revolutionary political parties. But before the existence of such parties, radicalization generally required either an accelerated circulation of printed material, large-scale face-to-face contact, or, preferably, both. And by far the easiest place to find these things was in cities, which offered more than just population density: They had cafés, taverns, clubs, and libraries where patrons could discuss political issues and read newspapers and pamphlets. They had squares and parks where crowds could gather in large numbers, and they had long traditions of popular unrest and mobilization. They also had—especially in capital cities—government buildings and monuments that provided ready targets for these crowds, and whose capture had both practical and deeply symbolic meaning. Cities, in other words, contained a mix of social and cultural elements that could turn volatile, even explosive, with terrifying speed and push dramatically outward the limits of what was politically imaginable.