How the spark of revolutionary faith becomes an inferno
Modern revolutionaries are believers, no less committed and intense than were the Christians or Muslims of an earlier era. What is new is the belief that a perfect secular order will emerge from the forcible overthrow of traditional authority. This inherently implausible idea gave dynamism to Europe in the nineteenth century, and has become the most successful ideological export of the West to the world in the twentieth.
This is a story not of revolutions, but of revolutionaries: the innovative creators of a new tradition. The historical frame is the century and a quarter that extends from the waning of the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century to the beginnings of the Russian Revolution in the early twentieth. The theater was Europe of the industrial era; the main stage, journalistic offices within great European cities. The dialogue of imaginative symbols and theoretical disputes produced much of the language of modern politics.
At center stage stood the characteristic, nineteenth-century European revolutionary: a thinker lifted up by ideas, not a worker or peasant bent down by toil. He was part of a small elite whose story must be told “from above,” much as it may displease those who believe that history in general (and revolutionary history in particular) is basically made by socio-economic pressures “from below.” This “elite” focus does not imply indifference to the mass, human suffering which underlay the era of this narrative. It reflects only the special need to concentrate here on the spiritual thirst of those who think rather than on the material hunger of those who work. For it was passionate intellectuals who created and developed the revolutionary faith. This work seeks to explore concretely the tradition of revolutionaries, not to explain abstractly the process of revolution. My approach has been inductive rather than deductive, explorative rather than definitive: an attempt to open up rather than “cover” the subject.
The revolutionary faith was shaped not so much by the critical rationalism of the French Enlightenment (as is generally believed) as by the occultism and proto-romanticism of Germany. This faith was incubated in France during the revolutionary era within a small subculture of literary intellectuals who were immersed in journalism, fascinated by secret societies, and subsequently infatuated with “ideologies” as a secular surrogate for religious belief.
The professional revolutionaries who first appeared during the French Revolution sought, above all, radical simplicity. Their deepest conflicts revolved around the simple words of their key slogan: liberty, equality, fraternity. Liberty had been the battle cry of earlier revolutions (in sixteenth-century Holland, seventeenth-century England, eighteenth-century America) which produced complex political structures to limit tyranny (separating powers, constituting rights, legitimizing federation). The French Revolution also initially invoked similar ideas, but the new and more collectivist ideals of fraternity and equality soon arose to rival the older concept of liberty. The words nationalism and communism were first invented in the 1790s to define the simpler, more sublime, seemingly less selfish ideals of fraternity and equality, respectively. The basic struggle that subsequently emerged among committed revolutionaries was between advocates of national revolution for a new type of fraternity and those of social revolution for a new type of equality.
The French national example and republican ideal dominated the revolutionary imagination throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Exiled Francophile intellectuals from Poland and Italy largely fashioned the dominant concept of revolutionary nationalism—inventing most modern ideas on guerrilla violence and wars of national liberation, expressing their essentially emotional ideal best in mythic histories, vernacular poetry, and operatic melodrama.
Rival social revolutionaries began to challenge the romantic nationalists after the revolutions of 1830; and this socialist tradition increasingly predominated after the forming of the First International in 1864 and the movement of the revolutionary cause from French to German and Russian leadership. Social revolutionaries expressed their essentially rationalistic ideal best in prose pamphlets and prosaic organizations. Their hidden model was the impersonal and dynamic machine of factory industry rather than the personalized but static lodge of the Masonic aristocracy.
No less fateful than the schism between national and social revolutionaries was the conflict among social revolutionaries that began in the 1840s between Marx and Proudhon. The former’s focus on destroying the capitalist economic system clashed with the latter’s war on the centralized, bureaucratic state. This conflict continued between the heirs of Marx (principally in Germany and Russia) and of Proudhon (among Latin and Slavic anarchists, populists, and syndicalists).
The word intelligentsia and the thirst for ideology migrated east from Poland to Russia (and from a national to a social revolutionary cause) through the Russian student radicals of the 1860s, who developed a new ascetic type of terrorism. Lenin drew both on this Russian tradition of violence and on German concepts of organization to create the Bolshevism that eventually brought the revolutionary tradition out of the wilderness and into power.
The revolutionary faith developed in nineteenth-century Europe only within those societies that had not previously (1) legitimized ideological dissent by breaking with medieval forms of religious authority, and (2) modified monarchical power by accepting some form of organized political opposition. In northern Europe and North America, where these conditions were met by Protestant and parliamentary traditions, the revolutionary faith attracted almost no indigenous adherents. Thus, the revolutionary tradition can be seen as a form of political-ideological opposition that arose first against authoritarian Catholicism (in France, Italy, and Poland) and then against other religiously based autocracies (in Lutheran Prussia, Orthodox Russia). The most dedicated and professional social revolutionaries—from Marechal through Blanqui, Marx, and Bakunin to Lenin—came from such societies and tended to become that rarest of all forms of true believer: a militant atheist. They and other pioneering revolutionaries were largely middle-class, male intellectuals with relatively few familial attachments. Revolutionary movements tended to become more internationalist and visionary whenever women played a leading role; more parochial and pragmatic whenever workers were in command.