Jonathan Israel’s latest book claims to be ‘an overview of the revolutionary process in the Western and colonial worlds down to the 1850s viewed from the particular perspective of the American revolutionary example, experience and ideas’. And so, in part, it is. It covers the stories of the North American, French and Haitian revolutions, the wars of independence in Spanish America, the ‘nationalist’ – although Israel forcefully rejects the use of this term – uprisings in Europe in the 1830s and the democratic republican revolutions of 1848 in exhaustive detail and with all Israel’s wide-ranging, resolutely unprovincial erudition, though everything of substance he has to say about the French Revolution is drawn from his Revolutionary Ideas of 2014. It is a subject that, as Israel rightly says, has been ‘rarely examined and discussed in broad context’.
But The Expanding Blaze tries to do far more, and offers much less, than this. For Israel is a man with a mission. Ever since 2001, in a series of (very long) books, he has been trying to argue for one simple but all-embracing thesis. Simply put, it