23 October 2014

Anatomy of Revolution - Part 2

by Eve Fisher

Where we left off two weeks ago, was with the collapse of old regime governments and the rickety nature of the moderate governments that take over.  That rickety nature is because, as I said last time,
  • The moderates fail to - and indeed cannot - satisfy those who insist on further changes (the radicals) because
  • the moderates must maintain government, want to maintain government, and the radicals want to destroy it.
The Extremists 

Revolutions work in stages:  from moderates to extremists, until finally the lunatic extremists take over.  Now the lunatic extremists are always a minority, and such a tiny minority that everyone discounts them, because obviously they don't speak for the majority.  But the extremists are willing to do ANYTHING to get into power, including attending all those boring committee meetings that everyone else ignores, where they quickly become the secretaries, treasurers, and chairmen.  This means they run the bureaucracy of the revolution:  they control who gets elected, who gets jobs, who gets money.  And, as the extremists' candidates start winning elections, they change the voting rules - the electorate is shaved down, elections are rigged and eventually elections are eliminated, because the extremists have to stay in power in order to "maintain the revolution."

And then comes the Reign of Terror.  Ideological purity is made the touchstone of everything, which makes it increasingly dangerous to be different - and the lunatic extremists keep changing the goalposts, making ideological purity not just harder and harder to achieve, but impossible to achieve. Nobody is ever pure enough.  Let me repeat that point, and please remember it, because it's a dead giveaway, then and now and in future:  Nobody is ever pure enough for the extremists.

The Reign of Terror (and there always is one)

The Revolution has been very busy killing off its enemies:  the obvious Royalists, White Army, capitalists, bourgeois industrialists, or feudalists, Quakers, Anabaptists, Catholics, Huguenots, and whatever other category they deem dangerous.  But now it starts eating its own.  The last thing to be in a revolution is one of the first revolutionaries, because you are going to get killed:  Danton is guillotined; Trotsky gets it in the head with an ice axe; Liu Shaoqi - former President of the People's Republic of China - dies naked and alone in a windowless cell.  Robespierre, Stalin, and Mao all killed almost everyone who used to be their comrades in arms, as well as thousands to millions of innocent citizens.

The other fun things about the Reign of Terror are:
  • Individual liberties are suppressed, if not made illegal, especially free speech and the right to dissent.  As I said earlier, elections are either obviously rigged or banned outright.  
    • NOTE:  This is actually not hypocrisy.  The extremists know that they have the true answer to how men should live, and so any opposition must be wiped out for the good of the country, perhaps even the good of humanity.  To oppose them is to oppose God (or whatever term the extremists use).  
  • Virtue is enforced.  They ban every vice, from gambling to drinking, whoring to theater, and a lot of stuff that just seems like it might be fun, like dancing or reading.  And it doesn't have anything to do with religion:  although some revolutions have been religious in basis (the English Civil Wars were quickly taken over by extreme Puritans, among others), even atheist revolutions (Mao's Cultural Revolution) are extremely ascetic.  
  • Robespierre guillotining the
    executioner after having
    guillotined everyone else in France
    • NOTE:  This is why George Orwell's Big Brother banned sex; as Julia says to Winston, "When you make love you’re using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don’t give a damn for anything. They can’t bear you to feel like that. They want you to be bursting with energy all the time. All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour. If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and the Three-Year Plans and the Two Minutes Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?" 
    • FURTHER NOTE:  Quite a few leaders of the extremists, like Robespierre and Thomas Paine, are Pure Young Men, which only increases the push for extreme virtue and terror, because nobody is ever pure enough for a Pure Young Man, who will, if pushed, kill maniacally in his cause.   For a definition of a Pure Young Man, see yours truly's article in SleuthSayers http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2014/06/emergency-pure-young-men.html.  For an example, watch the scene in "Lawrence of Arabia" where Peter O'Toole's Lawrence starts shooting everyone in sight, with great bloody joy.
  • Extraordinary courts and special revolutionary police are set up - no evidence needed, no lawyer provided, just a quick snatch off the streets, and a rubber-stamp of "guilty - condemned" for all who are unfortunate enough to be hauled before them. 
  • There are mass exiles, imprisonments, and executions.  Endless executions.  Sometimes it seems if the extremists want everyone dead.  Sometimes they do.
  • War is common, indeed necessary:  War is used to spread the gospel of revolution abroad and as a distraction from how bad things are at home under the extremists.  (Sometimes it's imaginary - North Korea's been battling the United States in its own mind for almost 70 years - but it's still effective.)  
The End of Extremism

Here comes the good news:  flesh and blood can only take so much, and eventually the extremists are ousted.  For one thing, the common man and woman just can't take being forced into early sainthood, and fear will not work forever, even if it seems like it.  Some, like Robespierre, call for one too many deaths and are executed themselves. Others, like Mao and Stalin, die of natural causes, and afterwards their supposed followers can't move fast enough to lighten things up.  In China, they arrested the Gang of Four, led by Mao's last wife, Jiang Qing, and blamed them - especially her - for everything; shortly thereafter, Deng Xiaping declared "To get rich is glorious!"

In France, once Robespierre was dead, people opened the bars, pulled out the wine, and women started dressing sexy again, which is how Josephine Beauharnais nabbed Napoleon.  It's a giddy time - everyone is free, free, free!

Madame Recamier, by David, bringing sexy back
Return of Absolutism

And then comes the Restoration.  Literally in England, with Charles II.  Brezhnev in Russia.  Calles in Mexico.  A brief empire under Napoleon Bonaparte in France, and then the Bourbons returned.  (Talleyrand said of them, "They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing," which is why the restored monarchy only lasted until 1848.)  The Chinese Communist Party clones, president after president.


And yet, something has changed.  Just as nobody survives a deadly disease without some change to their psyche, so no country survives a revolution without some changes to their society.  Not habits:  human habits are hard to change, or at least were before mass media required us all to mimic Hollywood images. But ideas did change, took root; civil rights were expanded; there was some redistribution of wealth and/or land.  In France, the Revolution left behind a secularization, universal education, the metric system of weights and measures, and governmental centralization that is still in place, and, thanks to the Napoleonic Empire, was spread all around Europe.  In both China and Russia, the peasants got land and permission to engage in some capitalistic behavior, in exchange for which the Party was allowed to stay in power.  What were once revolutionary symbols - the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star Spangled Banner, the Marseillaise, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" - become the national liturgy.  And each revolution "proves" that revolution can work - if you just get it right, so maybe next time...

And the memory of the Great Revolution is enshrined, if not downright embalmed in holy incense, as a sacred time when people were unified and pure.  Or as a time of amazing excitement and brotherhood, such as never has been known since.  It is a Golden Age.  Except, of course, to the families of those who were killed.  But who's listening to them?  After all, "You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs" - that came out of the French Revolution, too.


  1. A sad illustration of the maxim that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it!

  2. Wow, this is fantastic reading. Thanks for putting it all together.

    Our nation is about 238 tears old, but with the way politicians are out of favor with the general public and with the decrease of the buffering middle class and the increasing wealth gap between the rich and the lower class, I'm starting to wonder how close we are to the beginning of a slow slide towards our next revolution. Unless of course, those same politicians can delay it with trade-offs to stay in power similar to what the Chinese are doing, but on a less coercive scale. A little here, a little there.

  3. An excellent post. I wonder if you might expand on the roll played by media in the immediate to intermediate revolutionary situation. It's certainly not by accident that Putin systematically eradicated free media outlets within the Russian Federation, for instance.

    Here at home, I have become more and more concerned by previously dependable news sources (both print and broadcast) moving further from fact-based reporting toward unrecognized opinion-making. Certainly, this has always been a problem for news outlets to handle, but in the past editors seemed to do a better job of either spiking such stories, or providing clear indication that the piece was opinion and not just hard news -- seemingly on both sides of the political aisle.


  4. I'm with Janice and RT.

    I may have a partial answer for Dixon. The internet has changed a lot and not always for the better. Blog after blog brags it has the 'true facts' which the 'mainstream media' won't tell you.

    But in fact, the grand newspapers which appear to be collapsing worked hard to vet their stories, checking facts, rechecking sources. Reporters attended journalism school and took ethics courses. In cases where the news failed to adhere to the straight and narrow, at least there were standards to aspire to. Indeed, if the NY Times or the Washington Post, the Boston Globe or the Cleveland Plain Dealer got a story wrong every decade or so, it became a story in itself, if not a major scandal. Look at the damage done to 60 Minutes when, in half a century, a producer hadn't vetted her source. It didn't mean the story was wrong, only that it wasn't right (if you follow what I'm saying).

    Then along came Rupert Murdoch and News Corp, the same people who told their news outlets not to criticize China because they didn't want to upset their leaders. Thanks to that same organization, you wouldn't know that same conglomerate has been involved in a major scandal in the UK: News Corp courted politicians and governments, offered bribes and services, and simultaneously subverted and thwarted police investigators in both politics and murder. Yes, murder. Meanwhile, Murdoch and son claimed they didn't know or didn't remember. Here at home, Fox News claims it presents the 'other side', which is a curious statement when talking about facts.

    So if we don't know why we're getting bad news, at least we know how.

  5. As a 5th grader, I’d read all the books on the junior shelves and moved on to the high school library. There I found Animal Farm. Adults condescendingly told me I wouldn’t understand it. They were wrong. I not only grokked it, I never forgot it.

    Your article reminds me of Felix Dzerzhinsky who ran the “All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-Revolution and Sabotage” and dealt death to tens of thousands real or imagined opponents. And of course Adolph Hitler eliminated many of his early political and army buddies.

    I saw a news photo a few hours ago of North Korea’s Dear Leader poring over military plans. On the wall behind him is a chart titled something like “Plans to attack United States mainland.”

    Whew, Eve, intense. I think I’ll do something relaxing like watching Costa-Gavras’ Z or L'Aveu.

  6. Interestingly, I was thinking about this just last night, Leigh, when I saw that Ben Bradlee had died. I recall seeing him interviewed about the Watergate stories, years later, and he explained how hard he worked to be sure his reporters were writing things based on actual fact, and not just theory or suspicion. I have to say, from what I saw and heard in J-school, it seems the new, younger, editors are less inclined to be so diligent.

  7. Speaking of media, one of the major players in the French Revolution is a relatively unknown (in the US) man named Nicolas Edme Restif de La Bretonne, who wandered the streets of Paris and reported on everything he saw: he was, among other things, a disciple of Rousseau's, a social realist, the coiner of the word "communist" (long before Marx!), and a foot fetishist. The key is, while the elites read Voltaire, et al, the common man read Bretonne, mainly because he printed his own stuff and sold it cheap, spiced up his writings with sex and naughty titles ("Le Paysan Perverti", for example). He also helped spread some fairly nasty rumors about Marie Antoinette. He did more to work up the average sans-culottes than anyone else, at least until Danton started giving speeches!


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