The Promise and Peril of Revolutionary Times: A Warning From History

“In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

“They who clamor loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society.”  Eric Hoffer – The True Believer

I don’t know about you but it seems that everywhere I look that revolution is in the air.  Revolutionary times can be exciting to watch or even to participate in because all at least initially cater to the hopes of people, the hope of change, freedom, justice and equity are common themes.   As a historian I find it fascinating to observe revolutions and to read about revolutions throughout history.  But I always have a concern about how even the most well intentioned revolts against real or perceived injustice often miscarry and create conditions ripe for civil war, dictatorship and even regional or world war.

The revolutions sweeping the world today and I include the proto-revolutionary movements of the conservative Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements as revolutionary movements are becoming mass movements.  As mass movements they share many things in common even if their ideologies and backers appear to be diametrically opposed.  We now have two diametrically opposed revolutionary movements seeking power in this country and neither side will be satisfied until they achieve it.

Those that dismiss or seek to tame the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street movement are foolish. The anger, resentment and the hatred that these movements have for the established order are too great to be easily dismissed.  The politicians that try to channel these movements for their own benefit or party or that attempt to encourage them without actually addressing their grievances will discover too late that lip service and cosmetic change will not be enough.  Peaceful nonviolent protests can turn violent in a moment with very unpredictable results.

In our country there is great dissatisfaction with the status quo on the right and the left which in large part is due to the actions of those in power in government, media, business and even religion to address the concerns of those on both sides of the political abyss.  Likewise it is the same entities that in order to maintain their power have used every opportunity to create enmity among Americans.

Similar events are occurring on the other side of the Atlantic as the crisis in Greece threatens the economic stability and quite possibly the viability of the European Union.  The extremists on the left and right are garnering support that they have not had in decades from people that until the current economic downturn were content with the status quo because they were doing alright.

Even those revolutions that bring positive change tend to bring in some form of social unrest and upheaval to include the maltreatment and sometimes exile of people that did not agree with the revolution.  One only has to take a look at the large numbers of British colonists in the 13 Colonies who were loyal to the British Crown and lost their place in society and many times their homes and livelihoods as they were no longer welcome.  Many fled to Canada, the British West Indies or had to return to England.

Revolutionaries do not take kindly to those that oppose them, especially when they are kinsmen.  Those officers or Federal officials that remained loyal to the Union during the American Civil War that hailed from Southern States often found that they were no longer welcome in their communities and sometimes disowned by their families.  This was the fate of General George Thomas who remained faithful to his oath despite being fromVirginia. His family turned his picture around and refused to have anything to do with him from that point forward even refusing financial assistance from him after the war.

The English Civil Wars of 1641-1653 were some of the most brutal to occur inEuropeand devastated Ireland which lost some 41% of its population and where the lingering scars are still seen today.

The French Revolution was a bloodletting that shaped France to the present day.  People tend to forget that the root cause of this revolution was a financial crisis brought about by the costs of the Seven Years War with England and the French support of the American Revolution which brought the country into more conflict with England. The antiquated and regressive French tax code put a heavy burden on the middle and lower classes but provided many exemptions to the nobility and the clergy.  When comptroller Jacques Necker proposed ending or reducing those exemptions he was fired.  But the crown was so week that it decided to call the Estates General into session for the first time since 1618 and when the three components of the assembly could not agree on credentials the lower assembly of commoners broke off and formed their own National Assembly and when it appeared that the King was bringing foreign troops to Paris it set off an armed revolt.

The revolution was brutal and unleashed an unprecedented series of wars which engulfed the European continent the West Indies and Egypt.  Eventually a young Army officer named Napoleon Bonaparte did much to secure the new regime’s security by a series of brilliant military victories.  He was so successful that he overthrew the government and became a dictator in 1799 and would proclaim himself Emperor in 1804.  The wars in Europe were devastating and would create a situation where a weakened Spain and Portugal would lose their colonies in Central and South America.

When Napoleon was finally defeated for the last time at Waterloo in 1815 the Congress of Vienna reestablished a conservative order and peace inEurope.  There was a brief revolutionary period in 1848 and the wars that led to the unification of Germany and the defeat of France by Prussia in 1870-71. But for the most part stability reigned until the First World War as European powers focused on using their power in imperialist ways in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.   The war set in motion revolutionary movements that would lead to the overthrow of empires and birth the mass movements of Communism, Fascism and Nazism that would be responsible for some of the most destructive wars and crimes against humanity ever seen by the world.

Other revolutions have caused immeasurable suffering, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Iranian revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to name a few. The Spartacus revolution in the early days of the Weimar Republic helped doom it and led to the Nazi revolution in Germany. The Nazi revolution was brought about through legal means with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor after which his revolutionary policies were put in place.

The revolutions in the Soviet Union and Warsaw pact in aftermath of the Cold War have brought a multiplicity of outcomes, some which appear to have brought forth societies where human rights and individual liberties are respected and others which have become or are in the process of becoming dictatorships.

And so today we live in an age of revolution which is heightened and moves across the globe like a wind fanned wildfire due to the instantaneous nature of the communication and media that we now enjoy.  There is the Arab Spring and the beginnings of revolutionary movements in Europe, Asia and now even North America.  Governments seem impotent to do anything about the conditions that have moved these revolutionary groups to action and have given the ideologues on the left and right respectability that they could have never enjoyed before.  The ideologues make their money by providing a platform for the airing of the grievances of their readers or listeners real and imagined by playing on the need for hope.  The motive of the listener or follower is finding something to believe in a hope and promise, hope around the corner not hope deferred.  Eric Hoffer noted “To have a grievance is to have a purpose in life. It not infrequently happens that those who hunger for hope give their allegiance to him who offers them a grievance.”

The extremists on both sides of the line in the United States have held sway so long that they have turned the extreme into the mainstream inspiring one of the most amazing displays of left-right groupthink that I have ever seen.  I read a lot of conservative and liberal blogs and websites,some which are considered mainstream by their proponents.  I believe that you can tell a lot about movements by what the rank and file write or share.  One thing that I notice is how interchangeable these blogs are and how much they mirror the talking points of their respective echo chambers.  There is little creative though only the endless repetition of talking points. If one ventures a dissenting opinion on one of these sites he or she will find themselves shouted down and demonized and it doesn’t matter if the site is left wing or right wing, religious or secular.  The purity of ideology and necessity of conformity to the group-think ensures that opposing points of view be shouted down.

I first started noticing this when I returned fromIraqin 2008. At that time I was still listening to conservative talk radio on a regular basis and I started noticing that with minor differences all the talk show hosts sounded alike, the same talking points driven home day after day.  Alternative viewpoints even those that differed only slightly from the party line were ridiculed and demonized. That was eye opening to me and I noticed a similar tone emanating from the left.  Both emphasize that they are being oppressed or persecuted and the rank and file believe that they are oppressed and gladly allow themselves to become parts of these mass movements.

It is the real and perceived feelings of oppression or persecution provide these disparate movements their most fervent followers and energy.

One attitude prominently displayed is an absolute hatred and distain of moderation.  Both have an absolute distain of dialogue and neither appear to want a win-win situation to develop simply because to both sides only absolute victory for themselves and destruction of all that that they oppose matters.  It is a nihilistic zero sum game that both sides play.  Both sides are slaves to their doctrine and the vast majorities of the followers of these mass movements are absolutely unaware of this.  Philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote “A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Revolutionary movements of themselves can be transforming and in the long run quite beneficial but for every one that is such there are many more that in succeeding bring about tyrannies as bad or worse than the ones that they ended.  The evidence of this is widespread.  Much of this is due to a desire not for freedom but for revenge as those that viewed themselves as oppressed or persecuted turn their new found power into a weapon of revenge and retaliation.  Hoffer wrote “It is doubtful if the oppressed ever fight for freedom. They fight for pride and power — power to oppress others. The oppressed want above all to imitate their oppressors; they want to retaliate.”

History shows that in more cases than not that when revolutionaries take power they become oppressors themselves and are perfectly willing to crush dissent by force. They become the conservative faction resistant to change and opposed to dissent.  Hannah Arendt observed that “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”

Eric Hoffer understood mass movements as few in the last century have.  Hoffer’s book The True Believer (1951) is a study of mass movements and since Hoffer had witnessed the mass movements of the 1920s and 1930s that defined the age, Fascism, Communism and Nazism.  Hoffer notes similarities between political, social and religious mass movements and when it was written in 1951 President Dwight D. Eisenhower praised it.  It is well worth the read.  Hannah Arendt also understood how individuals in mass movements could participate in evil including genocide and think that they were just doing their job and helping society.  Her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Revolutionary times are filled with promise and peril. The wise in Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street and other movements around the world need to understand that crucial truth.  Movements such as these can be co-opted and driven in ways that those that began them can little anticipate and the leaders of such movements often become victims of the very movement that they helped create.  The names of such instigators that have become victims is too long to list.

As a historian I find the process that we see unfolding as simply fascinating and I cannot predict how this revolutionary era will play out.  I just hope and pray that things don’t get too sporty.


Padre Steve+


Filed under History, News and current events, Political Commentary

5 responses to “The Promise and Peril of Revolutionary Times: A Warning From History

  1. John Erickson

    The biggest fear I have with any of the revolutions, is they reflect a breakdown in communication. While that is an obvious statement for countries like Libya and Egypt, where there was NO communication between the ruler and the ruled, it is a more frightening prospect for America and Europe. The so-called “First World” prides itself on open and not-TOO-violent discourse between opposing viewpoints, and the presupposition that any problem can be talked about and worked out. The proliferation of protests, especially here in the States and in the economically-strained European countries like Greece and Italy, show that the various sides of the problem are no longer talking, and feel there is no other way to resolve the issues than to protest. And as you point out, it is a short step from peaceful protest to riot, as we saw in London not too long ago.
    Let’s hope that the problems CAN be resolved through calm communication, and don’t end up going towards violence. Otherwise, the “Arab Spring” could quickly transmute into the Fall of the West.

    • padresteve

      I agree John, these are perilous times and nobody seems to see anything in historic context. It is all about winning now and damn the consequences….

  2. First and foremost, an outstanding post. My head is still spinning with the insightful connections between history, today’s situations, and blogs/commentaries.

    I appreciate John’ comment about the lack of communication. But I tie it to your insight of one side not listening to the other … and that is the situation here. It seems the attitude here is “Why listen, we want to get our way because it is better!”

    On a side but related note, the movie set in the Bolshevik Revolution always seem to capture my interest.

  3. Pingback: Padre Steve’s Arab Spring Articles: Tahir Square to Sirte | Padresteve's World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate

  4. padresteve

    Reblogged this on Padresteve's World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate and commented:
    After another long day of working around the house I decided I needed to republish an older article about the promise and peril f revolutionary times while taking in a couple of beers at Gordon Biersch. I took some time to update and edit the original. I think that it is worth the read in light of what is happening around the world and how the Arab Spring has metastasized into a number of bloody civil,wars and Egypt is looking into the abyss. Peace, Padre Steve+

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