History shows revolutions are a disaster

From left to right, Eric Clapton, John Lennon (1940 - 1980) and Keith Richards performing together at the Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus, Internel Studios in Stonebridge Park, Wembley, December 1968. (Photo by Andrew Maclear/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Karl Marx was wrong about revolutions - in practice, they beget Caesars and Napoleons.
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John Lennon’s 1968 song ‘Revolution’ gave The Beatles’ verdict on contemporary demands for the transformation of the world by revolutionary action. Lennon described many of his lyrics as political broadsheets and ‘Revolution’ was especially pointed in its message, taking on agitprop revolutionaries and Maoists. 

Revolutionaries, Lennon said, talk about destruction. He responded, ‘you can count me out.’ During the recording process in mid-1968, Lennon’s views vacillated. On the slower, acoustic version of the song he sang that when it came to insurrection ‘you can count me out, in.’ In the faster, electric version used as the b-side to Hey Jude he switched to ‘count me out’, sparking criticism from the New Left.

Two years later Lennon reversed his position. ‘Power to the People’ was penned after a meeting in 1971 with Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn from the New Left Review. Now with the Plastic Ono Band, Lennon supported immediate revolutionary action: ‘We better get on right away’. In one of his last interviews before his assassination, Lennon stated that the views expressed in the single ‘Revolution’ had been authentic and that he wished he had stuck to his anti-revolutionary stance.

Lennon’s views matter because they captured a general ambivalence about revolution evident by the late 1960s. By this time the event that was at the time seen on the left to be the greatest revolution of the twentieth century, that of the Russian Bolsheviks, had turned sour. Victory in the Great Patriotic War and the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics did not translate into happy lives characterised by liberty or wealth. Rather, it was increasingly said that the USSR was a totalitarian empire that crushed dissent, where there was no rule of law and where the deaths of millions of citizens was deemed acceptable as necessary to the socialist cause. In 1956 thousands died during the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising by the invading Russian military. The Prague Spring of 1968 met a similar fate. Alexander Solzenitzyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) had been published with official sanction during a short period of the relative thawing of state control after Stalin’s death. Revelations about the existence of brutal labour camps for the re-education of dissidents caused shock waves within and beyond the USSR. After 1964 the oppression of literature critical of the regime was returned to and intensified. At the same time samizdat literature began to circulate revealing the truth behind the Soviet veil. Solzenitzyn’s brilliantly titled Gulag Archipelago provided a first-hand indictment of the Russian communist system when it appeared 1973. However justified the revolution of 1917 against Czarism might have been and however many people had welcomed it, the creation of a socialist society in Russia had resulted in decades of war, famine, terror, censorship, oppression and death. The lives of those who refused to toe the party line, and many who were dedicated party members, was often miserable. State oppression was both a fact of life and recognised as being frequently arbitrary in nature.

As Lennon’s 1968 lyrics indicated, if the reputation of Soviet Russia had been tarnished by events, the left continued to express faith in the Maoist alternative. As in the Soviet case, there was a general lack of information about what was happening in such a closed society.

Revolution in China was often presented as a variant on the Marxist model. There were parallels. China had undergone between the late 1950s and early 1960s the forced transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. As in Russia, famine had resulted. In the Chinese case as many as 30 million people had died. Mao’s response to the Great Leap Forward, as the economic ‘progress’ had been termed, was to purge society of what were described as being the residual capitalist and bourgeois elements at the ideological level. In other words, people had to be trained to think like Maoists so that their socialist behaviour would become habitual. The decision was taken, however, that many people could not be trained and ought instead to be killed, all in the name of social progress towards a better society. Some of the massacres justified during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution made the evils of Stalinism look like Marxism with a human face. The Maoists in the West in the early 1970s who tried to persuade Lennon of its benefits were not aware that up to another 20 million people were being sacrificed at the altar of Chinese communism. The abandonment of the Cultural Revolution by Deng Xiaoping only occurred between 1978 and 1981.

That revolution became the archetypal political tactic of left reformers in the twentieth century had everything to do with the authority of Karl Marx and Marxism. Sometimes the pull of Marxism is difficult to appreciate these days. It has to be acknowledged that the ideology that has done more than any other to shape our world is Marxism, either directly through revolution or as the bugbear to justify measures to prevent the Marxist virus from spreading; remember that this was Hitler’s aim in promoting Nazi National Socialism in the 1930s just as it was Truman’s in justifying the Cold War in 1947.

Marxism as a philosophy was powerful because it promised to heal the ills of society and predict the future, being the supposedly inevitable transition from the unjust capitalist system to one based on the labour of all (socialism) and then to a society where the needs of every person would be satisfied (communism). Historical analysis and societal improvement could be combined in a straightforward fashion, yielding real dividends in the form of indisputably ‘true’ policy, being in accordance with the ‘science’ of historical materialism and the public good defined on a world scale.

Marxism was attractive to high minded moralists and cosmopolitans, enemies of national borders, inequality, war or division. The battle against the ruling capitalist bourgeoisie might be bloody but history was moving in a single direction. A better world was inevitable and death in the struggle might well be the most laudable of sacrifices. Today it is often said that we are the first generations to live in a global world. This is nonsense. Marx self-consciously advocated global revolution from the 1840s with the aim of the entire planet enjoying a single system that he was certain was in accordance with the true interests of every person on earth. Revolution was the necessary means to this end.

If there are in the present few advocates of Stalinism or Maoism, Lenin often gets a good press along with Trotsky, Castro or Chávez. It is frequently said that what we all need is the right kind of revolution. What this means is a revolution without the murder and shattering of countless lives that have accompanied all of the revolutions of modern history. Marx’s model was of course the French Revolution that commenced in 1789 with declarations that the rights of man and the citizen were being realised on earth, that a paradise of liberty, equality and fraternity was on the horizon. The French Revolution then descended into Terror. Factions took control of the government more interested in destroying those held to be deviationists (i.e. the people who disagreed with those in power) than with adhering to a moral system asserting the virtues of compromise or non-violence. Terror worked not only because it removed from the stage revolutionaries suddenly perceived to be enemies of the ‘true’ revolution but also because there is nothing like state-sponsored massacre to unite a population in need of a bogeyman to define itself against.

Commentators upon the French Revolution in the following two generations frantically attempted to find means of having the benefits associated with the Revolution, an egalitarian republic without monarchy or aristocracy, without the element of Terror. Marx’s own response was characteristically brutal. In his view the French Revolution had necessarily to be terroristic because it could only succeed by destroying the existing ruling class. Those who tried to promote non-violent revolution were naïve utopian fools. Marx was certain that the tactics he was advocating were proven by history. The shedding of blood would be worth it. Marx especially warned against those who argued that changing the government of a society mattered. The whole point of revolution was social transformation or nothing. This is why Marx would have considered events such as the largely non-violent Velvet Revolution that Czechoslovakia experienced in October to December 1989 or the subsequent ‘colour revolutions’ of the early twenty-first century not to have been worth the name. If you don’t break the old society you are not really creating a new one. Revolutions only work if you have a class war. Wars are only wars if they are violent.

Revolutionary tactics and the language of revolution still permeate radical discourse. John Lennon was uncomfortable with the idea of revolution but he did not really come up with an alternative beyond ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and ‘Imagine’: ‘There’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion, too.’ A different way of approaching the question is to ask whether genuine radicals have to be revolutionaries? Marxist historians have often answered the question in the affirmative. Looking back, history is scrutinised for revolutions from the Roman Revolution that put an end to the rule of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the Athenian Revolution that cast out the tyrant Hippias, the removal of the Umayyad Caliphate or the Puritan, Industrial and Digital Revolutions that are said to mark substantial social change past or present. It is unlikely that Marx would have considered all of these events to have been worthy of the epithet ‘revolution’; the point is that even if few of us consider ourselves to be Marxists, when discussing change we remain addicted to Marxist perceptions and tactics.

One way of generating an alternative is to recover lost traditions of radicalism. This is one of the things intellectual historians can do. From a Marxist perspective there is single radical tradition through history which can evaluate individual historical actors as good (proto-Marxist) or bad (not revolutionary in a Marxist way). Many radicals who sought change, especially in early modern Europe, worried about revolution as a political tactic. The reason was that revolution tended to lead to the rise of Caesar figures. In January 49 BCE Julius Caesar had been fighting Rome’s enemies in Gaul for ten long years. He was about to be replaced as a general by the Senate. Just south of Ravenna, Caesar addressed his troops. He asked them to march on Rome to allow him to take control of the empire. The reasons given were selfish. The troops were not being paid and would not be given land for their victories. The soldiers, however, were patriots. They believed in the Roman Republic. A veteran sergeant named Aurelius stepped forward. He was, he reported, reluctant to fight and kill members of his own family. That was what Caesar was asking of them. But his loyalties, Aurelius decided, lay with the general rather than the state. The soldiers followed Caesar across the river to establish a military dictatorship by means of civil war. Caesar was initially victorious. Despite his assassination on the Ides of March, liberty died at Rome.

If a revolution is to be successful it needs a leader. All leaders in conditions of political crisis and revolution turn themselves into Caesars and tyrants. They become more important than the cause. They initiate violence and turn the world upside down. Leaders who do this have always been men. They tend to have acute rhetorical or demagogic skills, what Max Weber called charisma. They are able to weave a web which makes it appear to the would-be cadre that there is no other option available, that apocalypse is the alternative to bowing down to the revolutionary/tyrant and carrying out his bidding. Even republicans who believed that God sat on their shoulder and was judging every action they took, such as Oliver Cromwell, ended up justifying terror. Even republicans who saw themselves and were seen by others to be the most virtuous in a society, such as the ‘incorruptible’ Maximilien Robespierre, ended up justifying massacre.

It is possible to draw a parallel between John Lennon and his eighteenth-century equivalent Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau, like Lennon, wanted to change the nature of popular music, in Rousseau’s case by creating a new musical notation and writing opera. Rousseau, unlike Lennon, had an acute sense of political tactics. In his sensationally popular novel Emile of 1762 – so influential that it was credited with persuading mothers to start breast feeding their own children rather than relying upon wet nurses – Rousseau warned that the great monarchies of Europe would not last. The continent was ‘approaching conditions of crisis and a century of revolutions.’ Rousseau was throughout his life an arch-critic of existing society. The assaults he launched against fake forms of living, false happiness/politeness in commercial societies during the enlightenment era were at least as brutal as those of Marx upon capitalism a century later.

Yet for Rousseau the idea of revolution was disastrous, amounting to the abandonment of political control and the handing of power to Caesars/generals. Revolutions, he argued, were always ultimately led by Caesars. Their followers, the people who advocated revolution and took to the streets, needed to be identified as soldiers. Soldiers followed their generals, fomented civil war and died for dictators. People recruited from the mass population ended up killing their own kind. Rousseau held that armies throughout history have been recruited from rural populations. Facing economic crisis, people came to the towns from the countryside to get work. Whenever an urban economy went down-hill they joined the army in order to survive, angry at the lack of opportunities offered by their government. When the revolutionary/tyrant called on them they saw new opportunities, willing to take the step into the unknown as they felt that they had nothing to lose.

Rousseau is regularly associated with the French Revolution. Indeed, he is often seen as its author. This is entirely false. Rousseau detested violence and predicted long before 1789 that revolution would lead to the rise of strong men. The outcome of the French Revolution in the imperial rule of Napoleon Bonaparte – of course a republican general who presented himself as the saviour of the people before turning himself into an emperor– was entirely predictable. If Rousseau had been able to read the Marxist version of the old revolutionary story he would have considered it to have been equally predictable in terms of its outcome. For Marx revolution was supposed to begin with the spontaneous rising of the reserve army of the unemployed. At this point Rousseau would have tried to identify the one Caesar figure making promises to the reserve army and making sure they put the ‘right’ persons into power as soon as ‘the people’ took control of the institutions of the state. When the revolutionary leader could be seen to have become a monster, history would be seen to be repeating itself.

There are older and far more realistic radical traditions that we ought to return to in order to develop better political tactics than those with which Marx has swamped the globe. In Rousseau’s case the key argument was drawn from Machiavelli – there was no point in changing a society until the populace was ready for it. Education had to precede change. Otherwise, whatever new laws or institutions were introduced they would fail because the people would not be ready for them. Abrupt change or revolutionary politics amounted to introducing a throw of the dice or random element into everyday life because if the people were not predisposed they could go in any direction. More than likely they would unite around violence towards others. In politics we should talk more about transition mechanisms from where we are to where we might inadvertently end up. So often a new and better world is imagined or described but not how to get there, especially at the level of the state. For authors such as Machiavelli or Rousseau – and all of the contributors to the Commonwealth Tradition of political radicalism including Catherine Macaulay or Mary Wollstonecraft – education had to come before action. This was why education and educators were valued. This was why education had to be about politics. This was why the subtitle of Rousseau’s Emile was ‘On Education’.

At present, change is in the air and discussions widespread about doing things differently. There is little evidence that productive change in politics will come about as a result. Rather, economic crisis is likely to increase the number of would-be revolutionaries and Rubicon crossers across the political spectrum. Revolutionary leaders are especially dangerous when economies are depressed and other states are portrayed as enemies. We become more sympathetic to the rhetoric of grand unsubstantiated promises. Tyrants also thrive in a public culture characterised by the demonization of those we disagree with or the blaming of those we identify as contributing to our woes. When international rivals see such a situation in a country, it can be tempting to give the process a push and intervene to stoke the Caesarist fire. In a febrile atmosphere of identifiable political chaos, it becomes easier for the Rubicon to be crossed, by calling the military onto the streets, cancelling elections or refusing to abide by their outcomes. The institutions protective of liberty can quickly crumble. From an eighteenth-century perspective, nothing is new except that we still have an impoverished sense both of the problems we face and how to address them.

Richard Whatmore

Richard Whatmore is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Institute of Intellectual History. His books include: Republicanism and the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2000), Against War and Empire: Geneva, Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century (Yale University Press, 2012), What is Intellectual History? (Polity Press, 2015) and Terrorists, Anarchists, and Republicans. The Genevans and the Irish in time of Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2019).

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