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.