Thursday, January 14, 2021

Reconsidering Revolution

Guest Blogger

For the symposium on Gary Jeffrey Jacobsohn and Yaniv Roznai, Constitutional Revolution (Yale University Press, 2020).

Emily Zackin

Jacobsohn and Roznai begin their important look at constitutional revolution with the observation that, while this term appears throughout the literature on constitutional change, there is very little agreement about what it actually means. They point out that most definitions of the term “constitutional revolution” privilege form over function—that is, they require a violent, illegal, and rapid rupture. That focus on process, they explain, is a mistake. The reason we care about constitutional revolutions—arguably the reason that concept is so ubiquitous—is that we care about outcomes. People who study constitutional revolutions are trying to examine transformations so profound that what emerges from them are not merely the old constitutions with some alterations, but actually brand new constitutions. This, our authors tell us, should be our focus—the emergence of constitutional understandings and practices so different that they uproot and dislocate the old practices and understandings. We should investigate, rather than posit, the process through which such radical transformations occur.

Phrased in this way—as a question about how constitutions are transformed—I  think we can begin to appreciate the importance of this work. If we get too focused on one model of constitutional change, and here I think Ackerman’s model of constitutional moments is a good candidate, we tend to spend our energies arguing about whether a certain process meets the requirements of that one particular model.  As I read it, this book is a call to re-orient the scholarship on constitutional change away from a fixation on any particular model of change and toward a more open, honest, and capacious inquiry into how these near-total transformations actually occur. Scholars of constitutional politics should endeavor to understand all of the possibilities, and theorize constitutional revolution by examining them together.

After all of that conceptual heavy lifting, Jacobsohn and Roznai then actually embark on the project they have proposed—examining constitutional transformations that have occurred through a range of different processes in different countries. They demonstrate that there have been many different avenues to giant changes. Such serious, deep engagement with so many constitutional systems is a rare and valuable contribution to the literature on constitutional development in its own right, not to mention a massive scholarly achievement. But the results of their richly textured comparative work also leads them to propose a general theory of constitutional revolution: disharmony accumulates within a constitutional system and, in either a rapid process or through a more gradual one, a new paradigm then emerges and displaces its predecessor.

This theory reminded me of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who famously described scientific revolution as the displacement of an old paradigm by a new one. Those revolutions, according to Kuhn, are also driven by something I think we could call disharmony. As existing paradigms begin to accumulate problems, things they can’t explain or reconcile, shared worlds of understanding and practice give way to new ones.  According to Kuhn:

When “the profession can no longer evade anomalies that subvert the existing tradition of scientific practice—then begin the extraordinary investigations that lead the profession at last to a new set of commitments, a new basis for the practice of science. The extraordinary episodes in which that shift of professional commitments occurs are the ones known in this essay as scientific revolutions. They are the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science.”[1]

I think this analogy to constitutionalism might work pretty well. Most of the time, constitutionalism is a tradition-bound practice. To have a constitution is to share a set of assumptions about how political institutions operate. And yet, sometimes, those assumptions give way so completely, and are replaced with such a wholly different web of understandings and practices that the old and new are actually incommensurable. At that point, we might well say that a revolution has occurred.

I couldn’t find Kuhn’s name in the book, but I wondered whether his work had figured into the conceptual framework offered here.

I also wondered whether a critique of Kuhn might apply to this argument too—that is, that there is actually no such thing as a revolution. Or perhaps a softer version of this critique might go something like this: surely there aren’t just little changes and big changes, but a continuum from trifling alterations on one end to near-total transformations on the other. What is the value in drawing a line somewhere along that continuum and calling everything to one side of it “a revolution”?

The book’s own account of constitutional development acknowledges that it is always characterize by both change and continuity. The roots of the new are always planted in old soil, so that abrupt and total rupture is usually more of a fantasy, or founding myth, than a reality. Some changes happen in shorter periods and in larger increments than others, but the old always gives rise to, and is reflected in, whatever comes next.

Jacobsohn and Roznai reject the terminology of “evolution” to describe the radical transformations in which they are interested, but it struck me that evolution was actually a good description for the developmental process they describe—a process of change with continuity. Land mammals evolved from fish. And the land mammals are definitely new—they’re almost wholly different fish—but no rupture was required to achieve this massive transformation. Despite the continuity, however, we can fruitfully talk about all the new features the land mammal now possesses, and the way those features have transformed (revolutionized?) its identity. Jacobsohn and Roznai so successfully document the varied paths to large-scale constitutional transformation that it left me wondering whether constitutional scholars should simply jettison the concept of revolution entirely. Why not simply acknowledge that change with continuity marks all constitutional development, that some changes are more gradual than others, that some will not lead anywhere much, that others will have very big consequences, and that even very gradual development can result in totally new paradigms? I am convinced by all of these features of Jacobsohn and Roznai’s argument about the nature of constitutional change, but I am not sure how the concept of revolution fits in, or helps us, here.

My other question was what it is that Jacobsohn and Roznai argue is being transformed by a constitutional revolution. They describe constitutional revolutions as transformations in “the conceptual prism through which constitutionalism is experienced in a given polity”(34). To me, this definition suggests a focus on ideas, assumptions, or perceptions. One thing I find appealing about this ideational focus is that it captures the Tinkerbell-like nature of constitutions. They’re real, they constrain politics, but only because (and only if) we believe that they’re real constraints. At times, though, I wondered whether ideas are really all that is at stake in revolutions. What about transformations in the structure of governing institutions or even in material conditions? At the moment, I think the book remains tantalizingly ambiguous on this point.

Let me conclude by saying that I learned an enormous amount from this ambitious and impressive work. It will certainly be a resource and touchstone for my own work on constitutional development, and I suspect the same is true for everyone who grapples with the concept of constitutional revolution.

Emily Zackin, is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University. You can reach her by e-mail at ezackin1 at

[1] Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2d ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Page 6.


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