Roundtable

Miracles and Manure

An introduction to our Spring issue, “Revolutions.”

By Elias Altman

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lamartine in Front of the Town Hall of Paris, 1848, byHenri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux.

It’s a popular dismissal of revolutions to say that they always end in the tyranny they sought to overthrow. What use is the whole bloody mess if the oppressed becomes the oppressor? Fair enough, but the former tyranny had also ended in tyranny, and holding too dearly to the inevitability hypothesis resembles writing off the project of birth by proving the surety of death. Still, what’s in between can be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, particularly in the early years of a brave new world. Things have to get worse before they get better, we’re told. They might also get worse before they stay worse. If you’re sympathetic to the abolition of kings or tsars, there are dates you can cite that brand you as a man of the people without besmirching your good name, a year when things went too far—the inauguration of a reign of terror (Paris, 1793), say, or the crushing of a sailors’ uprising (Kronstadt, 1921).

Abigail Adams didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing when she wrote her husband, away at the Second Continental Congress, in March 1776. “I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” she wrote, while also counseling John not to “put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.” By way of evidence, she offered, “That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute”—a truth universally acknowledged, as it were. That’s quite a view of man’s nature, and not quite wrong. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies,” Abigail warned, “we are determined to foment a rebellion.” To which the venerable second president of these United States replied, “I cannot but laugh.” It would become a multi-front war if women were to rebel, since the future signatories of the Declaration were already dealing with “Tories, land jobbers, trimmers, bigots, Canadians, Indians, Negroes, Hanoverians, Hessians, Russians, Irish Roman Catholics, Scottish renegades.” John wondered whether a compromise was in order: When’s a good time for me and my rights, though, and what sacrifices am I willing to make in the meantime? That’s a central question of revolutionary politics—and of marriage.

How the revolution will end can be speculated long before it comes and debated long after it goes. In 1790 Edmund Burke didn’t feel the need to wait for the guillotine to fall on Louis XVI—that was three years off—to reflect that the revolution in France was awry. “They have found their punishment in their success,” he wrote of the French rebels:

Laws overturned, tribunals subverted, industry without vigor, commerce expiring, the revenue unpaid yet the people impoverished, a church pillaged and a state not relieved, civil and military anarchy made the constitution of the kingdom…Were all these dreadful things necessary? Were they the inevitable results of the desperate struggle of determined patriots, compelled to wade through blood and tumult, to the quiet shore of a tranquil and prosperous liberty? No! Nothing like it.

Burke is certain no good will come—as certain as the Jacobins that it would.

Certainty is a precondition for challenging the status quo: revolutions need men and women of action—Lady Macbeths, not Hamlets. Already excommunicated from the Church, Martin Luther remained firm at the Diet of Worms in 1521 and declared, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me.” He would not and could not recant his position, having allowed no room for ambiguity when he posited in one of his Ninety-Five Theses that “to say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up by the preachers of indulgences, is of equal worth with the cross of Christ, is blasphemy.” Jesus Christ was equally sure when he turned the money changers out of the temple, and while his way of speaking was more cryptic than Luther’s, his meaning was not lost. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables,” Matthew wrote in his gospel, “they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.”

Prophets often bring unwelcome news, and even if, as the messengers, they’d prefer not to be shot for it, they relish their roles as disturbers of the peace. Sigmund Freud was proud to inform the crowds that “humanity, in the course of time, has had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages against its naive self-love”—Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory of heliocentricity and Charles Darwin’s of evolution by natural selection—“but the third and most irritating insult is flung at the human mania of greatness by present-day psychological research, which wants to prove to the ‘I’ that it is not even master in its own home, but is dependent upon the most scanty information concerning all that goes on unconsciously in its psychic life.” Freud elected himself the third man in the unholy trinity. He didn’t wait to receive the nomination.

Once the ball starts rolling it can be hard to stop or direct, and this raw energy, itself uncertain, is all the more alluring for it. Although an Englishman fond of moons and meadows, William Wordsworth wasn’t immune to the excitement unfolding in the dirty streets of Paris. On the subject of being nineteen when the Bastille was stormed, he recalled,

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven! Oh! Times,
In which the meager stale forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in Romance!

High romance indeed, and many men and women who pick up arms do so out of a sort of love—which can of course be blinding. After the Easter Uprising of 1916 had been put down, W.B. Yeats asked about his countrymen in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, “And what if excess of love / Bewildered them till they died?” The course of a revolution, like that of true love, never does run smooth.

Mao Zedong held this truth to be self-evident, plainly pointing out, “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” It’s out of this attitude that a terrible beauty is born, and all can be changed, changed utterly. Life, liberty, and property are all subject to this change, and it was the last of which that worried John Ruskin as he contemplated the effects of the European revolutions of 1848:

Did the cathedral of Avranches belong to the mob who destroyed it, any more than it did to us, who walk in sorrow to and fro over its foundation? Neither does any building whatever belong to those mobs who do violence to it. For a mob it is and must be always; it matters not whether enraged or in deliberate folly; whether countless or sitting in committees; the people who destroy anything causelessly are a mob, and architecture is always destroyed causelessly.

The specter of a mob haunts those in power, and real or not the threat of one is often rationale for a preemptive strike. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer led his raids on subversive elements in 1919 and 1920 because he had “received so many notices and gotten so much information that it has almost come to be accepted as a fact that on a certain day in the future” angry and evil men, mostly immigrants, will “rise up and destroy the government at one fell swoop.” The swoop never materialized in full but that didn't stop Palmer from appointing a twenty-four-year-old named J. Edgar Hoover to head up the General Intelligence Division in the Justice Department, later the FBI. Revolutions can be of use even to those who are threatened by them.

It was Shays’ Rebellion, an armed uprising by debt-ridden farmers in Massachusetts, that prompted some of the same men John Adams had been with at that Second Continental Congress to endorse a call to amend the Articles of Confederation in February 1787. The U.S. Constitution was completed by September. One Founding Father who was not on hand for its drafting was Thomas Jefferson, in Paris serving as minister to France, and he noted of the new document, “There are very good articles in it—and very bad. I do not know which preponderate.” The author of the Declaration of Independence saw from afar that the very men who had led the American Revolution now thought themselves on the other side of the equation: “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion…The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Jefferson knew that the contract between a people and its government was written on paper, not stone, and it was well within the rights of the former to question the legitimacy of the latter; indeed, these are its terms. If tyrants arise, which they will, so too ought the people; they must. “The universal and chief cause of this revolutionary feeling is the desire of equality,” determined Aristotle around 330 BC. Equality in a society is a thing in flux, but one’s share of it rarely increases without a fight and will almost certainly diminish without one. Some, like Abul-Qasim al-Shabbi, whose poem “To the Tyrants of the World” was chanted during the Arab Spring, will call out, “The river of blood will sweep you, / and the fiery storm will devour you.” Others will counsel restraint, as Simone Weil did in 1938, writing that revolutionaries of her day looked upon their cause “not as a solution to the problems raised at the present time but as a miracle dispensing one from solving problems.” Miracles are in short supply, problems are not, and as always it comes down to devising a solution. What the solution will look like is up to the reformers and the revolutionaries—whether they find it in the ballot box or in the barrel of a gun—and this too is a necessary fight, more manure for the tree of liberty.