Riveting, intelligent, and thoughtful.
A renowned commentator on education and public policy, Robert T. Harris has produced a historical work of sweeping ambition.
Dancing Before Storms looks at five seminal revolutionary movements of the modern world: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the 1848 European revolutions, the Chinese Revolution, and the Russian Revolution.
Harris works an interesting thread through these five periods: the elite and ruling classes were given warning that revolution was in the air, but simply continued to “dance before the storm”, in some cases, quite literally! What he also does is weave together certain personalities, demonstrating how these movements, and particularly the French, American, and 1848 revolutions talked to each other, both in terms of underlying philosophy, and of actual people. Amongst this fascinating parade are such characters as Benjamin Franklin, Jacques Necker, Germaine de Staël, Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin), and Sun Yat Sen. Harris’s research around these connections is meticulous. The five main sections form a whole, segueing from one movement to another, from the Storming of the Bastille to the rise of Stalin.
In a final section, Harris looks at the world today, drawing out the lessons of the past 250 years. Who today is dancing before the storm? And what storm? We witness the rise of Kofi Annan, the revival of the debutante ball in London, and the gilets jaunes movement in France. At the time of his writing, Covid had just hit, so Harris is also able to look at the effects of a global pandemic, shutdowns, and (possibly too soon) re-openings. He also briefly considers the Black Lives Matter movement and the shenanigans around the recent US election.
Dancing Before Storms is deliciously readable. Learned, serious, and fact-heavy, it delivers page-after-page of moments: moments of clarity, moments of horror, and moments of fascination. It perhaps tries to do too much, especially in the final chapter, which is jam-packed but much more pedestrian than the substantive content of the previous chapters.
As well as thorough notes, Harris includes a list of all the people he mentions, grouped by the chapters in which they first appear.
This is a huge work, and one for which Harris deserves admiration. Most importantly, this is a book which captures the reader, and keeps them there throughout some of the darkest periods of recent human history.
Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily of Glam Adelaide.
Distributed by: Wakefield Press
Released: June 2022