Revisiting Revolutions, a Comparison

Image of mouse being broght to the guillotine - illustration fore the article "Revisiting Revolutions"
After a fitful fever (1) of debates and round-tables, often packed with common sense and sometimes with uncommon nonsense, the dust of antique time (2) may gradually settle on the memory of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

In 2117, assuming but not given that schools may still teach history, a question in a standardized test may read, “Which of the following countries is associated with the 1917 Revolution? (mark one) – Bangladesh, Denmark, Russia, Vanuatu, Uganda.”

But this year the controversy was still agitated with great vehemence, and some disputants seemed to be walking upon ashes under which the fire is not yet extinguished – especially those addicted to the radicalization of inequality. Anti-egalitarians, corrupted by ill-gotten wealth, and fearful of even a remote threat to their privileges, employed all the force of ingrained malevolence and sarcastic contempt to berate the event and its memory.

On the other hand, sections of whatever is left of the Left of old, continued to pace through their dialectical labyrinths, and to argue whether the shortcomings of the revolution were Stalin’s fault for having confined Communism to one nation, instead of striving for global Communism, as advocated by Trotsky.

It should be noted that while people make history, their lives (of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Nicholas II, Kerensky, etc.), can only be reliably written from personal knowledge, which grows less every day, and in a short time is lost forever. Unfortunately what is known in the present (I refer to the actual times of the Russian Revolution) can seldom be immediately told; and when it might be told, it is no longer known. With the obvious conclusion that historical truth can be at best acknowledged in the gross, with much latitude left for conflicting interpretations.

In the circumstances, rather than telling my twentyfive readers what they already know or have already heard, I will here examine the mechanism, the similarity, the differences and the circumstances that affected the major revolutions that we know of – however narrow be the limits of a blog.

Two different situations may break up a regime. Skepticism may alter established beliefs and disrupt mental habits. If so, only naked power can maintain social cohesion. Or a new ideology, involving new modes of thought, filters through the minds at large. Eventually, the new ideology becomes strong enough to establish a government in tune with the new convictions, replacing those become obsolete.

If so, the new revolutionary power is different both from traditional and naked power. The adherent of a new ideology are not (usually), power-grabbing adventurers. Their effects and actions are more important and more permanent.

The first revolution of our era, historically defined as Christian, has indeed to do with Christianity, considered as a social organization rather than a religion. From what we know, at its inception, Christianity was apolitical, a characteristic of most small sects. But the Christians gradually increased in numbers, and the Church in power. They became a group and group-power directly or indirectly ends up influencing the State.

Why emperor Constantine converted to Christianity is unknown – which is why myth is a tolerable substitute for uncertainty of information – in the instance, the appearance of the Cross in the sky, during Constantine’s victorious battle against Maxentius in 312 AD.

That myth, however, also means that Christianity had become influential. And given the antithetical difference between the doctrines of the Church and of the Roman State, Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as a state religion, may be the most important revolution in the history of Western civilization.

Towards power, the Church’s position was firm: man must first obey God rather than the Emperor. To be fair, Pagans accepted the divinity of the emperor without believing it. Lucretius, in his scientific poem “On the Nature of Things” had cast irony and sarcasm on the divinity of the Pagan Gods at large. But for Christians metaphysics was (then and now), irrefragable truth, and often they opted for martyrdom rather than risking damnation.

But how are God’s commands conveyed to man? Directly (Luther), or indirectly via the Church (the Pope). Only Henry VIII held that God’s commands came to man via the State.

It follows that Christian doctrine weakened State power, in favor of private judgment or the Church. But private judgment leads to anarchy, at least in principle. And the primacy of Church doctrine leads inevitably to a conflict between Church and State – a conflict that, theoretically, has never been resolved. Or rather, any resolution has been at first an accommodation until, from the end of the Middle Ages onwards, Christianity (in its official Catholic and Protestant versions), became de facto a supporter of Capitalism, with the State as its pillar.

But things are never simple. After Constantine, the first Western Christian Emperors were Arians (for whom Jesus was almost but not fully divine in nature). This caused clashes between the Christian Church and the State (Christian but now heretical in its leaders), lasting at least 400 years. And when the Eastern Christian Emperors became Catholic they clashed with Egypt, where Christians were monophysite (for whom Christ had only one nature). Furthermore, most of Western Asia was Nestorian (for whom Christ has two natures, one earthly and one divine).

Byzantium was repressive with both heresies. As a result, heretics in those countries welcomed the Muslims for being more tolerant.

In the West, the Church usually prevailed in the contest with the Emperor. Victory may be attributed to better organization and a general decline of enthusiasm and pride in the State. Previously, Rome’s victories had fed citizens with the pride of reflected glory.

Even today we find echoes of reflected glory used to boost the popularity of government – see Obama’s emphatic references to the US as the “exceptional nation’ or Trump’s aim at “making America great.”

However, in the fourth century, the sense of satisfaction at reflected glory had vanished from Rome – there wasn’t much glory left anyway. Enthusiasm for the State only returned with the rise of the nation states almost 1000 years later. Hence Henry V’s exhortation at the Battle of Agincourt, “Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’”. (3)

More in general, a successful revolution shakes authority and complicates social cohesion. Upheavals following the conversion to Christianity by the Roman Empire, and subsequent revolutions, proved that the Church-State conflict could not be avoided. The individual conscience, the anarchic fire of Christianity becomes a problem once the revolution(s) succeed.

In fact, a revolution that brings secular revolutionaries to power requires that they justify the revolution. But they cannot claim that all revolutions after the last are wicked. A solution is to shelter potential conspirators from the knowledge of what prompts a revolution and of what it takes to make it.

For example, after the Russian 1917 revolution, some students were supposedly involved in a plot to murder Stalin, as reported in the book, “The Letter of an Old Bolshevik.”

Says the anonymous ‘Old Bolshevik’,

“From the accused students, threads were drawn to professors of political science and party history. It is easy to find pages in any lectures on the history of the Russian revolutionary movement, highly conducive nowadays to the cultivation of critical attitudes in respect to the government. And young hotheads always like to buttress their conclusions concerning the present by exciting facts that they have been taught in school to regard as officially established. All the accuser (of the students’ plot) had to do was to pick the professors who, in his opinion, were to be regarded as a fellow conspirators. This was how the first batch of defendants in the trial of the sixteen was recruited.”

The anarchic strain in Christianity remained alive in the Middle Ages, witness the burning of heretics. But it exploded with the Reformation, which had a double effect – it weakened the Church and strengthened the State. Until then the Church had routinely proved stronger than secular organizations. (Those interested in the dynamics, characters and anecdotes related to the Reformation may watch the video of the Historical Sketches series, “The Protestant Revolution”)

Luther could not succeed in his struggle without the support of secular princes. Which explains why the Lutheran Church remained always loyal to non-Catholic princes.

As an example, the revolutionaries of the “Peasants’ War”, erupted in Germany shortly after the Reformation, appealed to the Gospels for the relief of oppression. But Luther firmly opposed them, and inveighed against those who wish to “strike, smite, strangle and stab” established authority. And a “(reactionary) prince can better merit Heaven with bloodshed (of the peasants), than another prince who instead uses prayer.” He also added, “No one should think that the world can be ruled without blood. The civil sword shall and must be red and bloody.”

Tawney, author of “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism” wrote,

“… the axe takes the place of the stake. The maintenance of Christian morality is to be transferred from the discredited ecclesiastical authorities to the hands of the state. Skeptical as to the existence of unicorns and salamanders, the age of Machiavelli and Henry VIII found food for its credulity in the worship of that rare monster, the God-fearing Prince.”

As a result of the Reformation, the Church ceased to exist as an independent power and it became part of the machinery enforcing submission to the secular government. Then, through its Calvinist strain, the Protestant Revolution further evolved and ended by giving social and theological grounds and reasons for the triumph of capitalism.

History has a long tail – it’s not hard to see a Calvinist connection in the addition of “under God” to the American dollar bill, in 1954.

The inventive Henry VIII, by making kings and queens of England the equivalent of Rome’s pope and popesses, made religion secular and national, while keeping most of the rituals that previously helped maintain obedience to the Catholic Church among the masses.

It followed that in England the king could alter dogmas essentially at will and execute those who objected. The attendant dissolution of the monasteries increased the crown’s revenue, which also proved useful to repress revolts by rewarding the repressors.

In comparing the Church of England with the Church of Rome, the king was functionally equivalent to God, while the Archbishop (of Canterbury), performed the Papal function – in Rome the Pope served God, but in England the king was God. A setup that proved the job of any Archbishop of Canterbury to be quite hazardous to his life and safety.

Henry VIII’s penchant for changing wives, and his quarrel with the Pope for refusing to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, have obscured a more important issue. Namely the similarity or even identity, in England, of the root causes of the Reformation Revolution that had just occurred in Germany. Namely, the corruption of the Church, in turn associated with its wealth and the independent administration of that wealth.

But those who hoped that the English Reformation be true to its reforming objectives were sorely disappointed. The dissolution of the monasteries was similar (allowing for changes in time and circumstances), to the rape of the Soviet resources in 1991, literally stolen by sordid profiteers, instantly turned billionaires.

In England, the wealth of the dissolved monasteries attracted a similar strain of profiteers, thieves, greedy merchants, speculators and usurers, who drove the majority into poverty and despair, especially those employed in agriculture. Rebellions comparable to the Peasants Wars in Germany were quickly crushed in blood.

The original sincere Reformers could not believe their eyes. Martin Bucer,  tutor of Edward VI, Henry VIII’s son who briefly reigned before dying of illness, wrote a manual for the young king. Appalled at the turn of events, Bucer outlined in the manual what an orderly reformed kingdom should be. Just one quote is illustrative,

“It (the kingdom), is to take a high line with the commercial classes. For, though trade itself is honorable, most traders are rogues – indeed, next to sham priests, no class of men is more pestilential to the Commonwealth.”

Make minor lexical changes and it’s like reading about Wall Street.

Still, the religious arrangement with the King as God was shaky, but then with Elizabeth I, it became necessary to defeat Spain, a very Catholic empire – wherefore Church-of-England Protestantism become associated with a new form of nationalism.

A few decades later, the Left, represented by Cromwell, sprang into action, leading to the English Revolution and the Civil War of 1642-1648. Though Cromwell’s Protectorate was defeated and King Charles II returned, the situation could not satisfy the growing number of Independents who rejected both State and Church as theological authorities.

They claimed the right to private judgment and religious toleration. That ideological trail led to a revolt against secular despotism. Hence the Glorious (English) Revolution of 1688. ‘Glorious’ because England was still tired from the Civil War and the shift from the Stuarts to the  Hanoverian (German) royal dynasty was essentially bloodless.

But if everyone has a right to his own theological opinion, may he not have other rights as well? How far could a government intrude into the life of an individual? These ideas, developed and matured in the 18th century, issued in the Rights of Man. Those very ideas, already carried across the Atlantic by Cromwell’s defeated followers, were embodied in the American Constitution by Thomas Jefferson, and were brought back to Europe via the French Revolution.

In a sense, the French Revolution was the Revolution of the Rights-of-Man. It produced a bloody Civil War, just as the Civil War in Russia that followed the 1917 Revolution. And, just as in Russia, foreign powers gathered their forces to defeat the French and their new ideology.

They finally succeeded at Waterloo, but unlike in England immediately after Cromwell, the restoration of the old regimes did not go according to plan. For by 1848, the Rights-of-Man movement transformed itself into nationalism, in Germany and throughout Europe. And in the end, the idea of nationalism overpowered that of the Rights-of-Man. Overpowered, but not dead, for we still enjoy today the freedoms it helped to win. Including the principle that no man should be deprived of life or liberty without due process of law.

Similarly, the forces of reaction managed to end the Soviet Union and to reduce Russia for a while to the brink of starvation. But the spirit of egalitarianism that was the cornerstone of the USSR is not dead.

To ensure that it is, the usual spit-lickers, on the occasion of the 1917 anniversary, have resurrected the ghost of Stalin’s repressions, that caused “100 million victims” – one pundit said. Citing millions of unsubstantiated victims for political purposes is established practice.

Nor they spared nonsense and deformations about life conditions in Eastern Europe, as if they had been better before the Revolution, under Czarist, Hapsburg, or Ottoman autocracies. While conveniently omitting that currently, in Eastern Europe, there is some longing for the older times and remorse for having believed as true what proved false about the West.

Nor mention was made of the structure of advanced societies and the social protections developed during the XXth century. Protections and social advancements that owe their existence to the presence of a Communist entity. Entity powerful enough to frighten the ruling bourgeoisies into granting concessions otherwise impossible. Proof being that as soon the USSR was gone, the same bourgeoisies have launched a furious aggression against the previously conquered rights.

Looked-at in the same spirit adopted with those previously reviewed, the Russian Revolution preached doctrines, like early Christianity, which were international and, at least at the beginning, anti-national. Like Islam, but unlike Christianity, the Revolution was essentially political and it challenged Liberalism.

Paradoxically, until 1917, only reactionaries challenged Liberalism. Marxists advocated democracy, free speech and free press. But when the Soviet Government seized power, it adopted the teachings of the Catholic Church in its days of splendor. Namely that it is the business of authority to propagate truth, by positive teaching and by suppressing rival doctrines.

Inevitably, this led to establishing an undemocratic dictatorship in the name of democracy. Though we should consider that the Western bourgeoisie kept Russia under siege, but for the short and brutal five years of WW2.

For what is worth, historians who make a living by repeating the establishment’s line, usally omit referring to the conditions arising from a siege mentality. Equally, they conveniently disregard some social and psychological traits, uniquely Russian, which had a significant weight in the prelude, the preparations and the denouement of the 1917 Revolution. Those interested may watch my video of the “Historical Sketches” series, “The Historical Roots of Russian Communism – part 1”

Aso, new and unique to the Russian Revolution was the amalgamation of political and economic power, which gave unlimited rein to government control. On the other hand, the Revolution’s rejection of Liberalism was extraordinarily successful and enthusiastically imitated, in Italy at first and then in Germany, thanks to Mussolini and Hitler. And even in countries that remained ‘democratic’, Liberalism lost much of its popularity.

For example, true Liberals maintain(ed) that if terrorists destroy public buildings, a serious effort should be made by the police and the law courts to discover the actual culprits. The new political executive(s) of the 1930s believed that the guilt should be attributed, through manufactured evidence, to whatever party, personality or state they dislike. As it happened with the fire of the Berlin’s Reichstag.

But in similar circumstances, the American neo-Liberals, when dealing with 9/11, behaved very un-liberally – when they attributed to 19 Saudi bunglers the organization and implementation of the operation. An operation that could be conducted only by a State or Entity with a direct interest in its bloody and apocalyptic success – and with sufficient weight, power and cover, already established in the targeted country, to make the venture feasible.

In summary, we can say that, common to all revolutions, the impetus to reform springs in every age from realizing the contrast between the external order of society and the moral standards recognized as valid by the conscience or reason of the individual.

Finally, a (probably) neglected point of personal psychology. When Mark Twain said that “In all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane,” he said more than he thought he did in jest.

For it may happen that after reaching our personal conclusions on historical, social or psychological matters, we may say to ourselves, “yes… but,” or “yes… however.” That ‘but’ or ‘however’ are the Doors of Doubt. And here doubt is the tip of a curiously slippery slope.

It starts with “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet). It continues with “Truth is in the eye of the beholder” (anonymous), “Truth is a matter of style” (Oscar Wilde), “There are no facts but only interpretations” (Nietzsche) etc. And at the bottom of the slide we find Pascal’s “To understand everything is to forgive everything.” Which, following Pascal’s discovery to its logical conclusion, makes a mockery of our established notions of good and bad, and of good and evil.

In a similar spirit, at the end of our brief meditation on past revolutions, readers may concur with the idea that history resembles the number π (‘pi’), where every new added digit increases accuracy without reaching precision, for π is an irrational number, with an infinite number of decimals.

Just like any new addition to our historical knowledge, augments perspective without nearing truth – one of the several paradoxes of life. Paradoxes that tend to fill an individual with uncertainty or anxiety, and at times make him feel “like one upon a rock, surrounded with a wilderness of sea, who marks the advancing tide grow wave by wave, expecting ever when some envious surge will, in its brinish bowels, swallow him.” (5)

Which may be why many prefer dogmatic certainty to articulate uncertainty, even when certainty is absurd.

** 1. Macbeth
** 2. Coriolanus
** 3. King Henry V
** 4. Hamlet
** 5. from Titus Andronicus

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