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Revolutions are a dangerous business. I suppose my instincts are inherently conservative (in the Edmund Burke sense) when it comes to this subject, because when people invoke the “to the barricades!” war cry of revolt and insurrection, I tend to recoil. It’s not so much the tumult and disorder of revolution that creates a sense of dread in me — it’s knowing what comes after.
Meet the new boss, worse than the old boss.…
We Americans were very fortunate in the nature of our Revolution. While it was a nastier piece of work than our anodyne school education would lead us to believe, it ended astonishingly well — in an ordered, constitutional government. Most revolutions don’t end nearly so well. Most revolutions resolve chaos through terror tyranny, and they tend to consume the best of the revolutionaries and exalt the worst.
The French Revolution at the end of the 18th Century set the template for revolution-as-disaster, a template perfected and expanded upon in Russia, China, Mexico and elsewhere during the 20th Century.
In France and Russia and Mexico (the revolutions I know best) the ancien regime deserved to be taken out. The inequities of their societies were grotesque, and the the ruling class had immolated any claim to legitimacy through callous incompetence. Though there was a surprising number of honorable exceptions (looking at you Marquis de Lafayette), much of the effete aristocratic class (in France and Russia in particular) had, for generations, been a parasite on the body politic, obsessed with sexual games, court intrigue, and the maintenance of privilege — utterly disconnected from the life of the nation. It’s difficult to feel any sympathy for their plight at the hands of enraged revolutionaries.
Trouble is, of course, once the guillotine gets to work, there’s precious little discernment as to whose neck the blade falls upon.
The spontaneous outbreak of protest leading into insurrection and ultimately revolution is not only completely understandable, it was justified. But revolutions, like wildfires, create their own weather and — with a tragic inevitability — the great revolutions slid down a blood-slicked chute into horror. The pattern is clear:
• Crisis of legitimacy, brought on by fiscal emergency, failure in war, disruptions to food supply and loss of confidence/faith in the person of the ruler.
• Unrest, riot and rebellion in the street.
• Organization of “the street” into a paramilitary force; disintegration of the state’s ability to impose/maintain order, including defection of police/military to revolutionaries.
• Overthrow of the ancien regime followed by a moderate and representative government that proves unequal to the task of establishing a functioning and effective government.
• Radicalization of the street; coup by hardcore revolutionaries overthrows the moderates, who are branded as counter-revolutionaries and forced into exile or killed.
• Actual counter-revolution; foreign intervention — imposition of revolutionary Terror.
• Civil War — Terror on all sides.
• Emergence and triumph of an authoritarian (or totalitarian) leader/party.
Meet the new boss, worse than the old boss.…
While I recoil from the clarion call of revolution, I remain fascinated by the phenomenon — and the way it is depicted in popular history and culture. I am intrigued to see, in the midst of our own period of social and civic unrest, the arrival of a French “reimagining” of their Revolution. La Revolution drops today (October 16) on Netflix. It seems to promise a fantastical and lurid take on the Revolution, which trips the same trigger for me that the wild, weird and sublime Le Pacte des Loups does.
It is inevitable that we will see in the series’ visual iconography resonance with the French anti-government Yellow Vest Movement that roiled its cities periodically for months in 2019 and 2020 and the rioting in American cities this summer.
The French, after all, perfected the art of the urban riot, and revolutionaries ever since have self-consciously adopted the songs, the symbols and the tropes of 1789.
So… sitting in the autumn twilight pondering the nature of revolution — as one does — memory kicked up thoughts of one of my very favorite historical novels: The Revolutionist by Robert Littell.
Publisher’s Weekly offers a succinct summary:
A clever mix of history and fiction, carefully researched and vigorously written, this hefty novel focuses on a Jewish idealist, Alexander Til, who returns to his native Russia from the U.S. to participate in the Bolshevik Revolution, only to witness its brutal betrayal by Stalin. In addition, his best friend assumes a high position in the secret police. Til falls in love with Lili, the sister of Prince Yusupov, killer of Rasputin. He cares for her daughter when Lili falls victim to the regime and finally survives imprisonment and torture to become a film translator, a post that brings him fatefully close to Stalin, a keen movie buff himself. Vividly portrayed are such famous events as Lenin’s arrival at Petrograd’s Finland Station, the storming of the Winter Palace and Stalin’s Purges; and such historical characters as Trotsky, Tsar Nicholas, Kerensky, Beria, Khrushchev and poet Osip Mandelstam (under the name Ronzha) whose courageous poem attacking Stalin stimulates opposition to the dictator while endangering his own life and the lives of his friends.
For my money, it’s about the best depiction I’ve ever read of the seductive urge toward radicalism and revolution, the inevitable disillusionment of the honest and honorable man, and the manner in which revolutions consume those who make them as the brutal apparatus of the state asserts control.
Littell, whose magnum opus The Company (as in CIA) is also excellent, is a top-tier writer of serious espionage fiction. He gets the history right, and he’s got the storytelling chops to wrap you in an enthralling — if dark — tale.
If you’re interested in taking a deep dive into Revolutions, I also highly recommend the Revolutions Podcast by Mark Duncan. Really first-rate work, and it makes a long drive or a tedious chore go smooth and easy.
Greg Walker says
I shall read it.
While listening to the Beatles classic song on the same subject.
The weird part about the situation we are in is that the effete upper class is paying the would be revolutionaries. A lot of silicon valley magnets are financing the various activist groups.
I’m not sure why the American Revolution went off as well as it does since all others I can think of went real bad.
Quixotic Mainer says
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re getting a big budget series on both John Brown and the French Revolution right now. The Zeitgeist is, like the outlaw Dan Suggs; “feeling a bit bloody”. There are plenty of folks that are all too giddy to give it the spur too. On a less grim note; Ethan Hawke’s John Brown series looks fantastic, and I appreciate the heads up on the tale from our Gallic cousins.
Jim Cornelius says
Haven’t looked too closely at the John Brown piece. You’re right, though, we’re getting rumblings of insurrection at a time when we’re getting rumblings of insurrection.
Fletcher Vredenburgh says
I read Doctor Zhivago earlier this year. Unlike the movie, it’s about hoped for change arriving and its betrayal by the revolutionaries. Pasternak, like his character, longed for change, even radical change and saw the almost immediate ascendancy of starry-eyed zealots detached from rational thought and bent on forcing everything to conform to their vision. It does a good job depicting the kindly liberals who support and are devoured by the revolution as well as the scoundrels clever enough to accommodate themselves to its bloody demands and even make a profit. However righteously inspired they are, few revolutions don’t end without bloody-handed tyrants at the helm.
Jim Cornelius says
Those are the ones that I always fail to account for, because I’m not a cynic. There’s a great character in The Revolutionist who becomes a Cheka killer. For him, the Revolution is simply a great opportunity to follow his calling and ply his trade.
There are people who will join any cause if they think they can profit from it or because it gives them freedom to vent bloodlust. Che, for example, may have originally had some concern for the downtrodden (though I wouldn’t bet on it) but by the end he was the later.
Jim Cornelius says
I think Che’s concern for the downtrodden was genuine, but he was in love with revolutionary violence.
Ugly Hombre says
I had a client who was left behind when his family had to flee Castro’s Cuba after Castro who lied and said he was not a Communist showed his true face and fangs, around eight years old he was captured taken as a hostage. Place in a Che secret police ran camp with a lot of other old Cuba kids- they were starved.
The took the kids into a old church with a altar.
” Hungry? get down on your knees, close your eyes and pray to Jesus Cristo for some food!”
“Open your eyes- see and food? NO!”
They took them to another room with a picture of Fidel and Che with food on the table
“Now you can eat Fidel gives you this food!”
They man who told me that story hated Castro and Che with a passion 40 some years later.
And could not believe it when he first saw American kids in Che t shirts..
John M Roberts says
I believe the American Revolution turned out as it did because, paradoxically, it was led by the elites. Those who inspired and led the revolution were lawyers and plantation owners. They had a vested interest in keeping an orderly society with firm property rights and confining the violence as much as possible to the battlefield. The revolution consisted primarily of ejecting a foreign power and replacing it with a liberal government. Changes were kept to a minimum. Very different from the other revolutions that followed.
Jim Cornelius says
I think you have the right of it. They managed to surf the wave all the way in, somehow. It’s not like there wasn’t a mob involved, in places like Boston. The demagogues never seized control of the momentum.
The Godless, lawlessness we have institutionally encouraged for decades and indoctrinated our young and old into, seems the only thing media wants to cover leading into the election. It drowns out meaningful decent Americans trying to to be collectively heard and address needed areas of improvement.
From a prior first responder’s view in a liberal “progressive” part of the US who started my own life as an underdog, this lawless violent and in some cases well funded politically protected agenda doesn’t seem to care about any meaningful dialogue, or the truth. The goal seems to be chaos, without the life experience or character to understand what that ultimately means. There are some in charge who know better and likely, smaller plans of manipulation are contributing to this mess. Local government and private business have been doing this to secure funding and sustain programs for years.
The rioters don’t want an actual revolution, or at least the chaos they envision as one. Most of them wouldn’t survive a week if the silent majority were forced to take arms and defend their businesses; loved ones; freedom; their lives. Some areas are in the early stages of that tipping point already and it will continue to result in injury and death. No progress, just sadness.
The selfless educators, first responders, good parents, business owners, faith groups and all the mentors out there — are pouring in love and service to others everyday. They get zero recognition. As some s**t‑h**d is swinging a bike lock at someone, or throwing rocks at a police officer’s back on the news, others from both sides help clean up the mess without any recognition.
I have very educated academics in my social circle, who underneath the anxious lashing out are good humans. They are getting downright nasty and making increasingly strange arguments? Team Hate America’s mission statement simply doesn’t add up and they simultaneously enjoy the benefits of the system they scream should be destroyed. Not fixed, but destroyed. There doesn’t seem to be any actual plan beyond the #hashtag, inflammatory post, or cancelling of other humans. And now — impersonal violence is an accepted tactic. If some of the progressive liberal fantasy world could actually exist — I say sign me up. I have similar critiques of many of the independent and conservative modes of operation.
If you have even a passing interest in human history; the concept of a creator; the natural world; science; free-will and the spiritual element of our existence larger than our impulses and pleasures, I don’t see how you escape the fact we live in a beautiful fallen world. I have met a few really bad, dangerous human beings and am pretty sure the devil was on the other side of the door, pre-warrant entry a couple times. I wouldn’t mind some innocence back, however I find myself more connected with the battle between good and evil than ever less than one year off the job and an adjusted homeostasis.
I always tried to separate the sin from the sinner (including myself) and professionally respond to the actions needing to be addressed when in mission-mode as a cop. They are two different things requiring an adaptable, sometimes impersonal response initially and ideally followed up with disciplined God centered grace for all involved.
The current narrative and deeply engrained low moral standard, has me more skeptical than ever the current chaos will resolve without significant injury, death and unrest. What will it look like afterwards? What will the new standard be? How much more numb and desensitized (sick) can we become? I’m simultaneously bummed and incredibly grateful I’m off the job at this moment.
I am not without hope or suggesting any of this is beyond redemption, but this is an unsettling time in America.
We’re capable of more
Jim Cornelius says
Thank you TJ, for the depth of your experience and your expression of it. THIS is why this campfire is here.
Thank You and Craig for keeping er going in all this chaos!