Revolutions Are Nasty

by Jonathan Wallace

In 1969-1971, I rubbed shoulders with a few people who talked about the "revolution" as something imminent in American history. They began sentences, "After the revolution...." and "When the revolution comes...." I associated with them at the time because we shared some goals--such as ending the Vietnam war-- and out of a desire for justice and a belief they were being unjustly treated. But I realized I was completely unable to imagine the revolution they believed in; it was impossible from a practical standpoint, and if by some lunatic chance it were to succeed, it would be completely undesirable, because they were not the people one would want to have in charge.

A few years later, I went to hear William Kunstler speak at Harvard Law School. He had been a hero of mine for his defense of the Chicago Seven and of other people whom the government was trying to crush. I still admire him today as a courageous man and a constitutional advocate and in particular for his willingness to take on unpopular causes. But I left his lecture very disillusioned. Since I cannot remember his exact words, I may be being unfair; I based my opinion more on inferences than on his words. I thought that Kunstler believed in his clients' revolution, and that his own actions were intended to keep them free and effective. If so, the Bill of Rights he used so skillfully in their defense was not an end to him, as it is to me. It was a means, and as such it would no longer be needed if his clients ever succeeded.

Revolution and myth

What I had heard in the sixties--and what Kunstler apparently still believed circa 1978--was a myth of revolution, that is adopted in some form or another by every country that has ever had one. Our beautiful legend is the American revolution; even the British, who despised ours, honor their Glorious Revolution, and some honor Cromwell's of some decades before it. Somewhere in my education I had acquired the vague sense that the French Revolution represented a shining line between modern times and everything that went before.

Twentieth century Americans who advocate another American revolution can be divided into two categories, those who connect what they desire to the original American Revolution and those who deny that the latter was even a revolution. People of the right--well represented by Timothy McVeigh-- believe that their desire for violence represents a reaffirmation of the ideals of the founders, which have been hijacked by a modern and brutal big government. People of the left, like the ones I knew circa 1969, have always denied that what happened in 1776 was a revolution--or at best, call it (as I believe Marx did) a bourgeois revolution, as opposed to the more desirable revolution of the proletariat.

Of course, the latter group has always had, at least until recently, some other revolution to connect to: the Russian or the French. We are creatures of analogy, and the hardest thing in the world is to persuade people to believe in, let alone implement, something which has never existed. We must always make it palatable by linking it to something that has gone before.

Those who connect their own wild violence to Thomas Jefferson are the most dangerous of people; they are the Robespierres of today, so convinced of truth and of their own legitimacy that there is no persuading them otherwise. Below, I will discuss this personality further.

There is another basic human mechanism at work. Societies born in a revolution have a natural wish to believe in the nobility of their own origins. It would not be an exageration to say that every modern nation was born in a crime, or grew or consolidated itself by means of one. The U.S. (extermination of the Indians) and Australia (the aborigines) are two of the most glaring examples. Cromwell's massacre of Catholics, French massacres of Protestants, or the rampant murders of the French revolution are all examples of inconvenient bloodshed (convenient at the time, of course) which must either be forgotten or incorporated somehow in the national romance. Renan said accurately that a nation is founded both on what it remembers and what it has forgotten, and gave the forgotten massacres of Protestants as an example.

There are few humans who believe that their nation was born in crime, because holding such a belief leaves one nowhere to go. Unless one is a monster, a nation born in crime is one without legitimacy. A citizen of such a nation would feel that he owned nothing and deserved nothing, and would desire to leave it, or to perform whatever surgery was necessary to gain legitimacy. This is a possible, if fanciful explanation of the remarkable phenomenon we have seen in the last decade in which governments simply give up. There are other explanations, and possibly stronger ones, for what happened in the U.S.S.R. and South Africa (pragmatism, the economic failure of socialism). But the failure of a romance (of socialism in the one case, apartheid in the other) and a peaceful desire to stop defending it, seem to me to have played some role in both places.

Under the vague impression that the French Revolution, despite some excesses, held a shining place in modern history, I began looking into it in college. What I found, of course, was a bloody mess, a series of spasms including waves of murders, first of the aristocrats, then of other groups, culminating in successive groups of murderers disposing of their predecessors. Then a return to autocracy, then to monarchy, then another autocracy and another monarchy, before a series of attempts at democracy. The events of 1848 and 1871 seemed to confirm that nothing had been learned. Instead of studying a magisterial procession from darkness into light, I found myself studying the uncontrollable paroxysms of a man with a knife in his hand.


Part of the romance of a revolution that gave rise to us is the concept of "necessity". This is another common human mechanism: whatever has happened, happened of necessity. To believe anything else is frightening, because in a world where random events occur, we are all chips tossed in the waves. It is easier to believe that John F. Kennedy was assassinated as part of the plan than that a lucky shot by a madman took him away. If it was simply a random and meaningless event in Dallas, then the Vietnam war might have ended earlier, lives saved, Watergate avoided, and the world completely different. Thus we have a natural tendency to incorporate events into the romance, and an event which forms part of the progression of a romance appears to be a necessary event. The Arthurian legend does not permit us to ask the question, what if Arthur never pulled Excalibur from the stone. Arthur was destined at birth to pull the sword from the stone, and according to the same rules of legend, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison et al were destined from birth to foster the American revolution.

Phrased differently, we are married to the idea that there is progress and order in human affairs. If human life is a walk through a wilderness, we want to believe that every league of the way we are stronger, more intelligent, and have more possessions, and also that we are progressing towards a desirable destination. If human life were perceived instead as a random walk, where we wander around aimlessly, sometimes getting a little stronger and then weakening again, picking up and then losing possessions, and ending up noplace in particular, who would want to live it?

In this context, Gibbons' declaration, after a lifetime of studying the Roman Empire, that history is the record of human folly and misfortune, is quite poignant.

But the creation of a romance of necessity masks any moral considerations, because anything necessary cannot be immoral. We never stop to wonder if gravity is moral, or if it is moral that our heart beats. All this reveals, of course, is the imprecision of our language; I have just used the concept of necessity in two different contexts, once to describe a law of nature, and then a physical act which happens without volition. But to say that a revolution was necessary is to use the word in a third way, and this third use of the word is largely free of semantic content, but is instead a simple stand-in for romance.

A woman writer once said that when men say that something is necessary, they are about to do something cruel. In such contexts, "necessary" is a placeholder; because of its semantic emptiness it effectively is a tautology rolled into one word. It is a way of saying, "It will happen because it will happen," or "it happened because it happened." I have written elsewhere that the word "God" is often used in a similar fashion, as a stopsign that means only "Stop asking questions." Answering a question "because it was necessary" is about as meaningful as simply answering "because", as parents often do with children. A popular t-shirt takes this one step further: "Because I'm the daddy." This too is a hidden meaning of the word "necessary".

Since revolutions typically involve killing, and often involve mass killing, it is quite relevant to ask what is meant when we say that a killing or series of them was "necessary". It is hard to see how killing can ever be necessary in the same sense that gravity or even the beating of a heart is. Excluding killings we are completely unaware of, like ants or larva dying in crushed soil under our feet, killing is always an act of will. Here, we may guess that "necessary" is used as a replacement or shorthand for some quite different statements. For example, a man who kills an armed thief in his house may say, "It was necessary," but what he means is really "It was either him or me," which is morally a quite different statement. Even the latter can be expanded into "Another human who should not be in my house aimed a weapon at me, and based on a cost-benefit analysis I decided on self-preservation and shot him." This was, nevertheless, a choice, and therefore not appropriately described as a necessity. We can perform a moral analysis and decide that, because performed in self-defense, a killing is acceptable, but we can never say that it was "necessary".

Revolutions, which involve killing, may be characterized as morally proper if they can be analogized to acts of self-defense. Most people, even when befuddled by romance and the language of necessity, vaguely know this. However, this line of analysis ultimately leads nowhere. The man shooting a thief in his house is responding to an extraordinary incident of threatened violence. Revolutions typically involve an overthrow of the status quo, in which those who are revolting either are the first to take up arms or at least to intensify the violence beyond the systematic but intermediate violence of the forces of the status quo. A response to extreme violence, such as that intended to exterminate a nation or class of people, would more likely be seen as a war than a revolution. The concept of revolution implies that it would have been possible, even if unbearable, to live under the yoke of the oppressor, but that we chose not to. Thus, a better analogy to revolution is a situation in which a man goes into someone else's house and shoots him, alleging some past series of acts by the victim which justify the act.

Since a revolution is more of a pre-emptive strike than a response to total violence, we are again on a false moral road. The man who enters someone else's house to kill him, but alleges the victim's past acts, is essentially relying on what I call the "he had it coming" defense. This leads us back to an old Testament morality we like to believe we have left behind, of an eye for an eye, or even worse, of an eye for a tooth.

It is in an effort to solve this problem that we resort, as we did in the Declaration of Independence, to the language of "inalienable rights":

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights....that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it....

It has often been pointed out that the inalienable rights of the Declaration are almost as much of an empty place-holder as the doctrine of necessity. Much of moral philosophy from Plato to the present has been devoted to the question of what "rights" are and from whence they are derived. Suffice it to say here that I believe that rights are (to borrow William Gibson's definition of cyberspace) a "consensual hallucination" of human beings. Despite attempts to base them in the laws of the universe, God, or biology, the best description I can give of rights is that they are a set of agreements between humans. If this is true, then the Declaration of Independence itself is a romance, because by definition, no rights could exist under British government not consented to by that government. Therefore, an existing right infringed by the government--a strong moral basis for revolution--becomes something quite other, something which does not exist but which is merely desired. But if we recognize this, then we must rewrite the Declaration--and the romance--to say something like the following:

"Desiring to institute a set of agreements among ourselves to which the British government will not consent, we have decided to alter or abolish it...."

Now we have at last reached the heart of the matter, and have some meaningful statements we can work with. A desire to institute a new set of agreements may in fact be a sensible, even a moral, basis for a revolution. But in order to determine that, we must still answer several questions raised by the new and more meaningful form of words we have found:

The consent of the governed

At once we run into a question that is almost impossible to answer.

Renan called the nation "a daily plebiscite", meaning that we wake up each morning deciding whether to join it anew. (I think he later said that this language was a little too colorful and grandiose for what he intended.) But a daily plebiscite is actually impossible; we don't have the means to carry one out, and even if we instituted a new government entity, the Polling Department, with the technological means to consult the opinion of all Americans every day, we would be no further advanced. Our language is too imprecise, and we all know that the results of polls are affected by the way the questions are written. People will tell one pollster that they don't want a social safety net called "Welfare" for freeloaders and another that they believe single mothers in need should be helped under an "Aid to Families With Dependent Children" program. Welfare and AFDC are the same thing, and both responses will be counted on opposite side of the welfare issue.

Besides the fact that language is fuzzy and easily manipulated, we also have the problem that a large segment of the population may not really know what it wants at any given time, at least if the question being asked pertains to something more abstract that immediate needs. ("It would take a lot of Watergate," said a college professor of mine, "before they stopped delivering milk to my door.") So democracy (really the best of an inadequate lot of forms of government) is itself a romance. The Declaration says that in order to secure these inalienable rights (why do we need to secure them if they cannot be alienated?) "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." These are beautiful words, but in all human history we have never solved the problem of knowing when we have the "consent of the governed." Consent is not a scientific quantity, observable by objective instruments. Mechanisms such as voting, if carried out fairly, can tell you who won an election, but are very inadequate ways of judging that you have the consent of the governed. A majority may not vote in the election. Those who vote may do so grudgingly, under coercion, or trying to make the best of a system in which they no longer believe.

Much of today's unrest--spreading across the spectrum from the revolt of the Contract Republicans to the frightening far right beliefs of the Randy Weavers and Timothy McVeighs--is based on the premise that the existing U.S. government (what the lunatic fringe calls the ZOG, or Zionist Occupation Government) has lost the consent of the governed. Certainly, the US government lost the consent of Timothy McVeigh and Randy Weaver. But presumably that fact is not enough for the government to take a bow and retire, even if you add in the suffrage of some thousands of their fellow travellers. Therefore, what percentage of consent must a government lose before it becomes illegitimate and we have a right to alter or abolish it?

Hannah Arendt blames Rousseau for the French Revolution. In Le Contrat Social, Rousseau advanced the idea of the "general will" (volonte generale). Rather than being the individual, half-formed, contradictory opinion of millions, the "general will" was an abstraction formed of what is left when you cancel out the contradictions. This abstraction-- in fact, this impossibility--gives the absolutists an excuse to say that they, and they alone, know (in fact, embody) the "general will".

We can venture to say that we know when a government is highly legitimate (say, the governments of Switzerland or Costa Rica, which don't seem to have any significant internal opposition) or highly illegitimate (the dictatorship just assumed by Hun Sen in Cambodia, overthrowing a democratically elected legislature). But these lie at opposite ends of a spectrum, and we are ill able to define the gradations between them.

Of course, in the case of successful revolutions like the French and the American, we are quick to say that the regime which was overthrown was illegitimate, but history is written by the victors. The fact that a government or a nation is destroyed does not, in itself, mean that it deserved to be (this is another facet of the false doctrine of necessity). Nor does the fact that another government replaced it quite answer the question of whether the new government is legitimate.

The picture is muddied even further when we ask if a group withholding consent must be a majority of an existing (arbitrary) nation-state. Most people concede, based on historical experience, that sub-groups with their own romance contradicting that of the majority also have a right to withdraw and found their own nation. Pakistan and Bangladesh are two examples. Again, our history is rife with double standards; we have seen more unsuccessful "rebellions" of this type than successful "revolutions", yet no-one could formulate a fair rule distinguishing situations in which minorities should be permitted to separate from those in which they should not. Renan formulated the only rule which seems always to work: no-one should ever be forced to form part of a nation unwillingly.

If this is true, we must see the American Civil War in a completely different light than our romance teaches us. It was a revolution with as much (or as little) right to succeed as the American Revolution. (Before anyone thinks I am defending slavery, please note that both the Revolution and the Civil war were fought by slave-holding populations against political entities which banned slavery.) Forcing the South to remain part of the United States against its will is a major wound in the side of the Declaration and the romance of "consent of the governed".

A review of successful revolutions leads to the inevitable conclusion that their relationship to the consent of the governed is also at best highly ambiguous.

The majority of opinion on the Russian Revolution today holds that it was a coup, carried out by a powerful, violent and well-organized minority, and that the government it overthrew (that of Kerensky, not the Czar) was weak but not illegitimate. Since the French Revolution quickly degenerated into mob rule, it is impossible to determine what the consent of the governed was; the only measure of it at any moment was who could raise the largest, loudest and most violent mob. At the same time that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 ended peacefully in England without bloodshed, the English will was being imposed violently in Ireland, with no regard to the consent of the governed.

All revolutions are carried out without the consent of some group who is nevertheless subject to the new government created by them. Rather than being able to postulate a universal rule for the legitimacy of revolutions, we are left with the fact that revolutions are yet another fuzzy human phenomenon, subjective and romantic, and that a revolution is legitimate if it is ours and especially if it succeeded. If it was against us, and especially if it failed, it is illegitimate.

Any lover of the American Revolution would benefit by reading the history of Shay's Rebellion (a successful rebellion is a revolution, but a failed revolution is a rebellion.) There was an agrarian class which, immediately after the revolution, felt that the whole experiment had been carried out to its detriment. Laws which seem to us unjust today were passed in most of the New England states, squeezing farmers to the benefit of the merchant and banking class. Farmers everywhere were thrown into debtors' prisons and their farms taken in foreclosure. Naturally bemused by the ringing words of the Declaration, this group assumed that they were facing a government which was working towards the destruction of their inalienable rights, and moved to alter and abolish it. They were put down by the new American republic with ruthless determination and force. Everyone has forgotten Shays' Rebellion today, though we remember two famous phrases of our leading hypocrite, Thomas Jefferson, inspired by them:

"I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere."

And upon hearing that Shays' Rebellion had resulted in the loss of some lives:

"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

Revolutions and responsibility

An issue rarely discussed is one's potential responsibility to the existing government, despite its defaults. While we may think that no-one is justified in taking up arms against Switzerland and that everyone would be justified in doing so against Hun Sen's government in Cambodia, again there is a wide spectrum of governments and dissatisfactions in between. The often inflammatory rhetoric of revolutions (including the Declaration) is entirely rights-oriented, without any mention of responsibilities. When is one justified in taking up arms? And, based on our knowledge of fuzzy thinking, human incomprehension, miscommunications and impulsiveness, there is the related question of how we may know that objective conditions justify a revolt.

A mediocre or unsatisfactory government may still have significant consent from the governed, and may have done much to protect the population and guarantee the security of property and commerce. There is no better example than the relatively benign British government; British troops in America were not exactly an instrument of disappearances, torture and theft at the time of the Revolution. In fact, revolutions seem to occur more often when an existing government is distant or weak than when it is strong and brutal; the American, French and Russian revolutions all fit this model.

It is a truism--the subject of many graduation speeches by high school principals--that rights are balanced by responsibilities. Responsibility to a bad government may be attenuated, but still exist. It is one of the first actions of all revolutionaries to sweep away any lingering feelings of responsibility to the status quo, something which is usually accomplished by shrill, or eloquent, rights language.

The tract that did more than any other in this country to accomplish that purpose was Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Paine called Americans' vestigial attachment to the British constititution an "obstinate prejudice":

And as a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife, so any prepossession in favour of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.

In fact, revolutions are carried out not because they are necessary but because the revolutionaries can. Revolutions, both the good and bad ones, are opportunistic grabs for power which are then wrapped in a romance.

Means and ends

Today I received a letter from a woman who had read my Holocaust compilation, An Auschwitz Alphabet. A college senior, she agreed that certain other examples I had cited were valid examples of human crime. In particular, she mentioned the Sand Creek massacre, after which the U.S. general responsible had defended his decision to murder Indian women and children with the memorable statement that "nits breed lice." But she took extreme exception, like many of my correspondents, to my decision to include the Israeli massacre of Palestinians at Deir Yassin in the list. Did I not know that the Arabs had refused a settlement and were looking to grab more land, that Israel was being attacked on all sides, that its opponents had vowed to drive the Jews "into the sea", etc.?

I responded that there is no basis to draw any moral distinction between Sand Creek and Deir Yassin, where 248 Arab civilians were put up against walls and shot. A moral rule that says that it is wrong to murder unarmed civilians EXCEPT when you are encircled, etc. is highly tendentious. And she wasn't even arguing such a rule, I think; she was, instead, saying, like most humans, that all murders are wrong except those which we ourselves committed in pursuit of some valuable end.

Moral rules (of which rights are a category) are nothing more than human agreements. Those agreements work best which can be stated in very simple and clear language. "Congress shall make no law....abridging the freedom of speech," is a prime example of a clear rule. A four hundred page treatise on freedom of speech written by the founders could not have given better guidance than that sentence. In a way, that last statement is counterintuitive, for the four hundred page treatise might arguably have answered many of the questions we have debated for more than 200 years. But it would have, in software development terms, represented the code or implementation at the expense of the design. A moral rule is metadata; it is a mission statement. We can accomplish what we need to do more surely if we bear the metadata in mind while dealing with the constantly changing data. And no-one can with any certainty write a 400 page rulebook to deal with the unanticipated circumstances of the human future.

The primary metadatum to apply in analyzing revolution is the commonly accepted agreement that "Thou shalt not kill." (I have already had a few people write me to point out that these words would have been better translated from the Hebrew as "thou shalt not murder", further pointing out that the Old Testament actually condones killing a variety of people, including adulterers and homosexuals.)

Few people are willing to say out loud, as Marx did, that the ends justify the means, but most people believe this at least in connection with some set of murders somewhere, as the college senior did about Deir Yassin. The problem, of course, is that such beliefs, if we try to codify them in logical language, either defy any attempt at codification or (if taken seriously) destroy all morality. Essentially, the only rule we can write is "Killing is wrong unless I tell you otherwise," which leads naturally to the riposte, "And who are you to say?"

Part of the romance of the American revolution is that the stupid British soldiers only knew how to stand in lines in the open and fire their muskets. We clever, brave Americans invented the tactics of slinking around in the woods and shooting from behind trees. However, our self-congratulation on this score cannot be morally distinguished from the following statement: "Those stupid Americans only know how to send in helicopters and fire SAM's. We clever, brave terrorists invented the tactic of the shaped charge of Semtex placed over the fuel tank of an airplane."

Revolution, like war, is a state of chaos in human affairs in which we typically seem to suspend our moral agreements. This is bad enough, but afterwards, wrapping these shameful circumstances in a romance just makes things worse. It helps us deny that agreements lose force the more easily and often they are suspended, until they mean nothing at all. If we agreed that the default state of both war and revolution is crime, then we could concentrate on making both unnecessary rather than writing romances about them and rules for the commission of crimes.

The revolutionary personality

A good indication of the morality of revolutions is that of the people who attempt them. Considering that this rollcall includes Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, et al., it should be safe to say that believers in revolution range from murderous sociopaths to violent fanatics.

Hannah Arendt has the last word on the work wrought by the revolutionary personality:

[O]nce again fratricide was to be the origin of fraternity and bestiality the fountainhead of humanity...

Arendt gives a fascinating account of the revolutionary human. She blames his violence on his compassion. When compassion sets out to ease human suffering, she says,

it will shun the drawn-out, wearisome processes of persuasion, negotiation, and compromise, which are the processes of law and politics, and lend its voice to the suffering itself, which must claim for swift and direct action, that is, for action with the means of violence.

Arendt notes that absolute goodness shares with absolute evil "the elementary violence inherent in all strength and detrimental to all forms of political organization." And a review of revolutionaries confirms that they are all unbearable people. They meet on that ground where absolute good and absolute evil do in fact merge into each other, where it is impossible to distinguish the gangsters (Lenin, Stalin?) from the fanatics (Robespierre, Cromwell?) from the opportunists (Thomas Jefferson?)

Of course, if we refuse to distinguish between murders, to say "All murders are evil except those I tell you are good", then whether a revolutionary craves power solely or is motivated by a twisted compassion becomes almost irrelevant; it is a matter of only academic interest. In preparing this essay, I spent a few weeks in the literary company of revolutionaries, and around them one cannot breathe. Some, like Lenin, are too frightening. "Lenin," writes Richard Pipes, "treated politics as warfare..."; he "saw its purpose as conquering power and annihilating all rivals." And Stalin was Lenin intensified. Robespierre, by contrast, with his constant references to the will of the people, was probably, as Arendt believes, a monster born in compassion. The absolute certainty of his primitive rhetoric ("il faut une volunte UNE", "one will is necessary ONE") whiffs of the fanatic become demagogue; Arendt surmises that (unlike Lenin, who may completely have lacked this human element) the intensification of Robespierre's rhetoric and violence may have cloaked self-doubt and torment based in the knowledge of his own hypocrisy. Then there is the pious Cromwell, with his constant references to God's will, justifying the slaughter of the King and of Catholic soldiers fighting his revolution. Cromwell, by contrast to Robespierre, is a conservative killer, wreathed in far more legality, attempting to function as part of a government instead of at the head of a mob. But when laws conflicted with his absolute sense of right, or, as he would have put it, with God's will, then laws must give way:

[I]f nothing should be done but what is according to law, the throat of the nation may be cut, while we send for some to make a law...

And Thomas Jefferson is right at home in this hypocritical and demagogic crowd, a patrician, planter and slave-holder with the effrontery to say: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

Many revolutionaries were failures when life was stable, or at least led quiet, ordinary lives until the collapse of structure around them called out their absolutism and opportunism. Thomas Paine, Marat, and Cromwell all emerged late in life. Revolutions are usually not made by those who one would wish to rule afterwards. As we are seeing today in the Middle East, the ability to organize the placing of Semtex charges in airplanes or to inspire young men to become suicide bombers does not qualify one for democratic rule.

I have written elsewhere that the only system of morality worth a nickel is the one rooted in compassion. Arendt's insight, that compassion produces murder, is startling. But it is not compassion alone that makes the revolutionary murderous. It is compassion untempered by humility. The human who is constantly wracked with doubt does not kill; the compassionate human who is also an absolutist, who refers personal beliefs to the Party, the Deity or the People, may also murder.

Sadly, in time of revolution, the self-doubter is sunk and the absolutist rises to the top. "Lenin wanted power," writes Pipes. "[D]eep down, Lenin's rivals did not want it." The man or woman unsure of his or her views, whose compassion extends to rivals and even dangerous rivals, who thinks him or herself too flawed to judge another human being, does not feel qualified to rule, while the violent bear it away. Yeats said, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity."

Was the American Revolution different?

An interesting question is whether the American Revolution deserves to bear the name. Crane Brinton, in The Anatomy of Revolution, argues that despite some obvious differences, the American Revolution shares causes, stages and personalities with Cromwell's and the French and Russian. Arendt, whom Brinton evidently dislikes and who never mentions him, claims that the American Revolution was a different sort of animal entirely from the others:

[T]he passion of compassion has haunted and driven the best men of all revolutions, and the only revolution in which compassion played no role in the motivation of the actors was the American Revolution.

She makes a persuasive case for this startling statement. Our revolution, she says, was fought for freedom, not to fill our stomachs. All other revolutions were fought to feed the hungry and to elevate the poor. A desire for freedom leads us to restrain power; compassion for poverty leads us to unleash power, destroying our entire world in a series of spasms as one mob succeeds another.

She concludes, sadly, that we have lost a sort of propaganda war; Latin America, the Middle East, and aggrieved people everywhere look to the French Revolution as their model, while no-one remembers the American Revolution or thinks it has any relevance. Brinton also comments that Americans foster this view by their unwillingness to regard any other revolution as legitimate but their own:

The original revolution becomes part of history... respectable and dead; but current or threatening revolutions become menaces, disreputable, objects of condemnation.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon; our failure in prior centuries to regard Shay's Rebellion or our Civil War as an attempted revolution sets the tone for our failure to sympathize with Algerian, Nicaraguan or other revolutionaries.

I think Arendt is right. The American Revolution was not fought by desperate men; it was fought by comfortable ones. Well-nourished, well-planted men like Jefferson can think in terms of liberties and governments; desperate men do not, nor do the middle- and upper-class types who adopt their cause (Robespierre, for example.) The first revolution of desperate men in America was Shays' Rebellion, and it was mercilessly crushed.

Revolutions and morality

At its worst, a revolution is mass murder; at its best, it is analogous to an automobile accident. Whenever people are killed, some things will change, and some may change for the better; but it is hard work to wrap an auto accident in so much romance as to call it an act of exemplary morality.

It is a natural product of human binary thinking to believe that any response to evil must be good. Many of us were happy when the Tutsis overthrew the murderous Hutus in Rwanda, ending a modern genocide; but when--there and in surrounding countries-- Tutsis massacred Hutus, it became much harder to assimilate the events to the binary model of morality.

On the other hand, most people have probably reacted to at least one war or revolution by hoping that both sides wipe each other out. When China fought Vietnam, many in the West may have felt we had nothing to lose. Senator Jesse Helms, a man generally fond of murder as a tool of political policy, jeered that he didn't care what the "Hutus" did to the "Tutus". Down that road, we find complete nihilism: the people who would enjoy the spectacle if the entire human race eliminated itself in a final spasm.

Our binary style of thinking leads us to assume that anyone who has survived evil is good. But a study I made of Auschwitz persuaded me that in many cases, the best died on the day of arrival or shortly after, while the manipulators and hustlers were better placed to survive. We can regret the horrifying circumstances which we must face without necessarily believing that the human most able to cope with them is a hero.

When the state resigns

Revolutions are usually born in oppression; violent or intemperate behavior by the government leads to organization and then force. (Force may not be applied, however, until the intemperate government also becomes weak.)

Recent events suggest, however, an alternative to revolution. We have always known that revolutions can be avoided where sweeping democratic change is possible within the system; but I am not aware of any historical precedent to the late twentieth century spectacle of governments simply giving up, as we have seen in the Soviet Union and South Africa. I do not pretend to understand the causes of these events, but it makes me hopeful that we may slowly reach a plateau of rationality (joined of course, with compassion and humility) where the oppressor decides to stop more often. The real question is whether, given enough time, most humans will become tired of brutality and wish to be better. Whether this is possible or hopelessly idealistic, there is no substitute for it. Once the revolution begins, there is no going back and there is no cleansing which can put us in the same moral place we would inhabit if peaceful change had been possible.

Conclusion: Revolution eats its own tail

Anyone who knows nothing about Algeria would be well advised to go and rent the movie The Battle of Algiers. As close to objective as a film can be (far more so than Costa-Gavras' State of Siege), it portrays the French murder of prisoners and the Algerian murder of children. The movie shows the face of revolution far better than any dry historical book or essay.

Today, the winners of the battle of Algiers are facing a fundamentalist revolution which is utilizing much of the same rhetoric and many of the same tactics they themselves used, including the bomb and the massacre. Like Robespierre going to the guillotine as a new batch of murders took over, the Algerian government is observing the spectacle of violent, ruthless men hijacking both the means and the romance of revolution and claiming it as their own property. There may be a certain poetic justice, but it is the kind of justice that can bleed the world dry. "An eye for an eye," said Gandhi, "leaves the whole world blind."