Niagara Gazette — The Beatles’ hit of 1968, “Revolution,” somewhat ironized on that phenomenon, which in a badly-split America of the period, and other parts of the western world, nonetheless seemed possible.
It still feels possible, but authentic revolutions generally bring pain, though often commencing in a festive manner (think of hopes initially aroused by the Arab Spring). Illusions proliferate at the start of such upheavals, but then comes an increasingly horrid, violent reality.
Napoleon once said that people forget what revolutions are like (that is, when they try to create new ones); and he was correct. True revolutions — I don’t include America’s struggle to separate from Britain — end up ever more extreme, with dictatorial violence ultimately causing much fear and misery, as new tyrants (in pure “Animal Farm” style) take over.
An old book, “The Anatomy of Revolution,” by the late Crane Brinton, remains relevant — there’s indeed, a common anatomy to real revolutions, including in warning signs and stages, as formerly secure “freeway lanes” (my term) disappear. You keep edging over and the screws keep tightening, until ruthless toughies at the top take over fully (think of Cuba’s Castro showing true colors, or China’s bloodthirsty Mao).
Brinton discusses the English Civil War, which got rid of a king and ultimately brought a puritan dictator, Cromwell; the French Revolution, ending in a Reign of Terror under guillotine-happy Robespierre, followed by interminable Napoleonic wars; and the Russian Revolution, spawning a tyrannical Lenin and an even worse Stalin, whose gulag became gorged with millions during the ‘30s, almost all ending up under the snow there. (We’re still lucky to have Solzhenitsyn’s great little book on it, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”)
Why then should common warning signs and stages of revolution, along with results, interest us? Because sticking with warning signs alone, we have ‘em all up the yin-yang! Resembling rays circling the sun, they’re little different from ones that converged before earlier revolutions noted here.
One is much intellectual sniping, seen during the French Enlightenment and in Russian Marxism, and now with talk radio or cable news channels dinning critically day after day. A second warning sign: weak central authority (in the English case, Charles I, in the French, Louis XVI, in the Russian, Tsar Nicholas and wife Alexandra). Today’s Washington? No one has to be told how well it’s functioning these days, nor are governments in Rome, Paris, or London doing that much better.
Another spoke in the wheel is financial difficulty, including outright bankruptcy (pre-Revolution France, for instance, devoted 50 percent of its budget to service its huge debt). When it comes to indebtedness, everyone knows where we’re at today, but the problem again extends to virtually all countries of the “affluent” western world. When massive debt becomes unpayable because there’s no consensus on how to reduce it, look out!
Fourth is an economic malaise after boom times (the French 18th century mostly a growth era, before a pre-revolution downturn, and Russia’s economy also growing big time before the grave problems of World War I). People don’t like to go backward, retrench, call it what you will; and that remains true today.
Enough warning signs? Perhaps, but one more comes to mind, and that’s elites gone comparatively rotten! In the old days this meant nobles who were both too coddled and too liberal/tolerant, and today? We also have much spoiled privilege which can’t be altered, and simultaneously, more and more people “below” seething with class envy.
Other examples of spoiledness? Look at the culture, including a now iconic “Seinfeld” and many less adept follow-ups, and more generally, at today’s pampered, self-important Hollywood. Or look more generally at a suicidal, “buy-off” ethic that recalls old regime aristocracy at its worst.
Look, too, at upper class luxury, which on the plus side offers much employment to others, but on the minus? You might read G. Bruce Knecht’s “Grand Ambition” on costly complexities in making huge yachts for the rich, and particularly, parts on what a “fairing compound” to render such boats smooth does to an illegal immigrant’s health.
The “occupy” movement as small potatoes? For sure. A real revolution will be much worse, but unfortunately, possible.B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.