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©2015 Herbert Snorrason

Revolutions Deserved


2011-11-16

Everyone gets the revolution they deserve.1

A curious statement, if ever there was one. It was made shortly after references to the lawyer from Arras and the (very real) threat of a western uprising going very wrong indeed. Now, as it happens, I have an interest in revolutions; both generally and particular ones. And though I say so myself, I’m not the worst-informed about the French Revolution, the appearance of the Terror, and the roles played by Robespierre, Danton and Marat.

And what a revolution it was! There’s a reason it’s often considered to be the dawn of modernity. Preceded, comparatively shortly, by the American Revolution and immediately followed by the Napoleonic Wars, this is where the contemporary concept of state reaches full maturity and becomes inextricably intertwined with that of nation. It’s also where the horrors of placing ideals above humanity are first to be seen in their unadulturated form in European history. You see, Maximilien Robespierre was sometimes known as “the incorruptible”. He was principled to an extent we scarcely believe politicians can be today. The problem? His principles were those of Rousseau. The General Will, absolute and undivided, represented the true interests of France; the Convention interpreted the General Will, and the Committee of Public Safety protected the Convention and implemented its decrees. Those who opposed the Committee opposed France, and must therefore be either forced to comply or be done away with.

Was this revolution deserved by Louis XVI? By the general population of France, who were overwhelmingly the victims of the guillotine, despite disproportionally many aristocrats and priests being executed? By even Robespierre himself, a man of unquestioned virtue and principle, however much we may despise his ideas and actions?

Any revolution is an extremely complicated interplay of factors. They are all unique, and the precise course of events is usually hard to understand, even with copious documentation. There are, nevertheless, a few commonalities and generalisations that can be made, and one of them is this: Things will go wrong. To be sure, that doesn’t have to include the execution of sixteen thousand people in a few months — not, all things considered, the worst of excesses in political conflict in the last two-and-a-bit centuries — or the imprisonment, extermination or deportation of anyone who seriously disagrees with you. Those are, indeed, avoidable mistakes, and we should make an effort to avoid them. But it is a little harsh to say that anyone ever deserved these things; something unmistakably implied by the quote at the top. And that’s quite apart from the rather important point that revolutionaries are usually the ones doing things to other people, and not on the receiving end. Well, unless you happen to be a revolutionary that disagrees with the revolutionaries that for one reason or another — usually ruthlessness — got to the top. The fate of the Russian anarchist movement in the years after the Bolshevik coup is one example of revolutionaries who paid a cost of a revolution directed by others. They are not alone: Robespierre, Danton and Marat all died during the French Revolution, along with innumerable others who had badly-timed quarrels with whatever group of revolutionaries happened to be in charge at the time.

These are not simple consequences of a revolution happening “unprepared”, so to speak. Indeed; they happen chiefly when small but well-organised groups are able to gain enough traction to take over the violent enforcement apparatus from the old regime. Those small groups usually have a very well-defined agenda, and they tend to be extremely dogmatic about that agenda. (Which is not the same as saying “they’ll keep their campaign promises”.) There are reasons to suspect movements of precisely this description exist within the overall banner of the Occupy movement; a cause for worry. There are also reasons to believe that the recent crackdown will result in a more insurrectionary atmosphere amongst protesters; again a cause for worry. The police, largely forced to follow the dictates of the ruling class — although it must be admitted that some of them like it — has been directed to be harsher; yet another sign of trouble. But a revolutionary situation it is not. If things ferment for a little while more; perhaps. To be honest: I hope so.

But to suggest that it is inevitable, or even likely, that a Robespierre-like figure, purging the banking sector with a righteous Terror should arise from the present Occupy movement seems strange. And if one did, and that was the revolution we got — what have we done to deserve it?


  1. Vinay Gupta, in a tweet.

    [return]