Ever since I knew enough to remember, there has been talk of revolutions around the world. Tea Party folks declared one would occur if Obama violated their freedoms, leftists did the same under Trump, Arabs bathed in the blanketed feel of their springs, and Hong Kong residents attempted to defeat their colonial government. Whether successful or not, these movements become a romanticized conception of life, a cause that for some seems worth more than all the cost.
Yet they seldom succeed. This isn’t to say political revolutions don’t occur; after all, there is only so much time corruption can stand before the pieces crumble. Instead, the preliminary forces which make such actions possible tend to fizzle out by the time people have gotten a taste of power – and the wealth accompanying it. The average activist doesn’t want to spend their entire life protesting or undermining the system because doing so might cause them to miss out on the niceties of each day. Much like intensely religious people often lapse into the vices of an enjoyable existence rather than remaining pious and stoic forever. The risk of missing out appears too great to ignore.
A book which outlines this dynamic brilliantly is Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky. Besides offering a syrupy account of court intrigue under the Germano-Russian dynasties, Radzinsky dedicates much of the text to documenting the various revolutionary attempts and assassinations that brought down various tsars and their supporters. At the start, he quotes one of the first terrorist revolutionaries:
“Our work is destruction, a terrible, total universal and ruthless destruction. The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has not interests, no work, no feelings, no ties, no property, not even a name. Everything is consumed by the single, exclusive interest, the sole thought, the sole passion: revolution. Poison, dagger, and noose—the Revolution sanctifies everything.”
The level of intensity and faith required to observe such convictions for a time –let alone years—is uncommon in any human society. It demands a level of selflessness, along with humble individualism, to be anywhere near triumphant. That might seem contradictory, but in a sense the person must remain individualistic to the extreme that separation from others based on hiding or imprisonment will not drive him mad or create a backbone for misery. A stoic, minimalistic worldview is demanded, at least once the campaign is in motion.
On a different angle, the anarchist Bakunin tried to explain the revolutionary ethos as being a prime objective of life:
“Engulfing Russia, the fire will spread to the while world. Everything will be destroyed that is deemed holy from the heights of modern European civilization, because it is the source of inequality, the source of all of man’s misery. Bringing into motion a destructive force is the only goal worth of a rational man.”
His view is even harder to square with typical human behavior. It was none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky who began as a revolutionary only to turn against the concept after spending years languishing in one of the tsarist concentration camps. After being released he began producing work with a cynical view of revolutionary figures and the disorder which they bring.
Dostoevsky’s ideological shift is something which the radical Nechaev believed could only be avoided by effectively maintaining the revolutionary spirit and ensuring no one had the liberty to slink back towards bourgeoisie ways. He would go so far as to allow correspondence to be intercepted that landed a number of young radicals in prison. The logic is described here:
“In the first two years, students rebel gleefully and enthusiastically. Then they get caught up in their studies, and by the fourth or fifth year, you see that yesterday’s rebel is house-trained, and upon graduation from university or academy, yesterday’s fighters for the people are turned into completely reliable physicians, teachers, and other officials. They become paterfamilias. And looking at one of them, it is hard to believe that he is the same person who just three or four years ago had spoken with such fire about the suffering of the people, who thirsted for exploits and seemed ready to die for the people! Instead of a revolutionary fighter we see spineless scum. Very soon many of them turn unto prosecutors, judges, investigators and together with the government they start to stifle the very people for whom they intended to give their lives. What should be done? Here I have only one hope, but a very strong one, in the government. Do you know what I expect from it? That it put away more people, that students be kicked out of universities forever, sent into exile, knocked out of their usual rut, stunned by persecution, cruelty, injustice, and stupidity. Only that will forge their hatred for the vile government and the society that looks on indifferently at the brutality of the regime.”
In other words, the situation must become so horrendous that the inconvenience and suffering affects everyone, and thus they have no choice but to unite against authority with absolute fervor. Of course in modern terms this is more complicated than radicals want to believe. Until the printing press runs dry (or inflation takes it all), there will be enough monetary security to safeguard the football watchers, comic book fans, and Netflix aficionados. Enough fancy cars and lifted trucks to addle the brain’s aspirations, or Tinder swipes to keep hope alive. Life will go on in general peace.
Perhaps then Francis Fukuyama was correct, albeit not as he intended. Consumer capitalism and liberal democracy are hardly causing Muslim fundamentalists to abandon their viewpoints and surrender to the modern outlet mall. Rather, the happy slush of processed food and streaming entertainment allows us to feel maximum pleasure, and thus no inclination towards revolution.
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