Thursday, 18 January 2007

The Thrill of Revolution

Revolution has always had some ostensible end by which its means have been thought justified; and yet, whilst there has never been a revolution that has had for its express purpose the causing of wrack and slaughter, or the causing of a state of society worse than had existed before, such is how it tends to turn out. One might say this is tragically and foolishly accidental, and for the most part, that is how it is; for men are wont to suspend their faculties of sense and sell off their funds of experience for the promise of something great or noble but hitherto unattained. Robespierre for his part wrote:
What is the end of our revolution? The tranquil enjoyment of liberty and equality; the reign of that eternal justice, the laws of which are graven, not on marble or stone, but in the hearts of men. [1]
This undying optimism partly accounts for why — even in the knowledge that revolution causes great misery, and rarely, if ever, brings about the conditions that might compensate for that misery — some are still willing to fly the flag.
…..As I say, however, this optimism only partly accounts for its appeal. Revolution upsets the order, knocks the world off its hinges, and thereby affords a wealth of excitement and new opportunities. Lively and impetuous spirits — erstwhile bottled and corked — are set free, the burdens of responsibility are lessened, and action becomes spontaneous, no longer fettered by the old social obligations. The thrill and infectious enthusiasm may even be enough to sweep along the most pessimistic souls, as Burckhardt noted:
[E]ven a Chamfort, . . . otherwise a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist, . . . becomes with the outbreak of the revolution an accusatory optimist. [2]
Deeds that would thitherto have been thought unjustifiable become in the minds of many not only justified but necessary. The revolution makes manifold the spirit that had formerly been found haunting only the foulest minds:
[T]here is only one way to shorten, simplify, and concentrate the murderous death-throws of the old society and the birth pains of the new, one way only: revolutionary terrorism. [3]
So wrote Marx. Moreover, in the revolutionary’s view, terror may not only be the necessary means but the moral force by which the injustices of the old world are swept away and by which the revolution is sanctified. As Robespierre wrote:
Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue. [4]
It is this eager submission to the terrible means by which the revolution must be carried out, that provokes in me the suspicion that to some extent the means — and the thrill of revolution itself — are the ends. Revolution is such that not even feckless youth could find it boring.
[1] Maximilien Robespierre, Report upon the Principles of Political Morality Which Are to Form the Basis of the Administration of the Interior Concerns of the Republic (Philadelphia, 1794), reproduced online at the Modern History Sourcebook. (Lichtenberg sardonically noted what liberty and justice meant at the time: “In free France, where one can now have strung up whom one wants.” [“In dem freien Frankreich, wo man jetzt aufknüpfen lassen kann, wen man will.”] G.C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1984), J.912 from Sudelbuch J:1789-1793, p. 412.)
[2] [“[S]elbst ein Chamfort, . . . sonst ein in der Wolle gefärbter Pessimist, . . . wird beim Ausbruch der Revolution anklagender Optimist.”] Jacob Burckhardt, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (Krefeld: Scerpe-Verlag, 1948), p.183. (As Nietzsche also noted: “[T]he Revolution as a spectacle has seduced even the noblest spirits. In the end, that is no reason for respecting it more.” F.W. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, tr. & ed. by W. Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1976), p.553; original emphasis.)
[3] [“ . . . es nur ein Mittel gibt, die mörderischen Todeswehen der alten Gesellschaft, die blutigen Geburtswehen der neuen Gesellschaft abzukürzen, zu vereinfachen, zu konzentrieren, nur ein Mittel - den revolutionären Terrorismus.”] Karl Marx, “Sieg der Kontrerevolution zu Wien”, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Nr. 136, 7. November 1848, reprinted in Karl Marx - Friedrich Engels - Werke, Band 5, pp.455-457 (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1959), p.457, reproduced online at Stimmen der Proletarischen Revolution. (As one communist recently pointed out: “Revolutions are not schools of humanity.” Gerry Downing, “
The April theses and permanent revolution”, Weekly Worker, 655, 11th January 2007.)
[4] Maximilien Robespierre, op.cit. (Sartre in his time noted approvingly: “Violence, spontaneity, morality: for the Maoists these are the three immediate characteristics of revolutionary action.” Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Maoists in France”, in Life/Situations: Essays Written and Spoken (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), online at


jomama said...

All part of The Madness of Crowds...

Cirdan said...

The reasons for revolution are slightly more mundane:

"The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind."

Marx, Karl. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. Chapter I.

Deogolwulf said...

Who said there weren’t “mundane” (by which I presume you mean economic/“dialectical material”) reasons for revolution? Do you think it impossible - or so unlikely as to be not worth mentioning - that optimism, moral idealism, adventurism, and the visceral thrill of violence have played any causal role in revolution? Perhaps you should read more Marx and Engels, or spend an hour or two with the average bourgeois radical, angry at mummy and daddy for being boringly nice. Are there not people who positively savour the prospect of upheaval and violence and the spectacle of great events – that is to say, excitement? Of course, if you really are impressed with the Marxian idea that it all boils down to the economic base, then there is not much more I can say. Simplicity is its greatest selling point.

james higham said...

...may not only be the necessary means but the moral force by which the injustices of the old world are swept away...

Trotsky, Georges Sorel. What concerns me and I was in a mini revolution once, is that it is hijacked by the nasty. Always. They are organized for the moment.

Anonymous said...

"What concerns me and I was in a mini revolution once, is that it is hijacked by the nasty."

Not terribly surprising after all - nastiness pays huge dividends in a revolution.

Pietr said...

Everybody seems to be ignoring the American Revolution.
That time we were the organised ones and caught the bad guys napping.