Thoughts on revolution.

How stupid is it to lionize Che Guevara? Depends on your point of view, I reckon, but certainly any self-respecting revolutionary deserves better than the kind of empty-headed bravura Evan rightly criticizes. He’s not the first former Wildcat columnist to register his disgust with the Che cult, either.

Of course, the kids who worship Che — more a cartoonish abstraction of Che — don’t actually want to live under a totalitarian dictatorship, any more than kids obsessed with Twilight want to be sucked dry of their blood by reanimated corpses. Like so many other icons, Che was absolved of all earthly guilt by his death. Not only of guilt, but of meaning; the Che on the T-shirts is just a floating image cut free from any possible context, a signifier that means anything you want: violence, rebellion, revolution, cool hair.

The real Guevara was certainly a ruthless, bloodthirsty son of a bitch, and his real-world (as opposed to cultural) legacy is a grim one. The fact that he’s become the central icon of revolution tells us something about the way revolution is regarded nowadays. Revolution is primarily defined by what it is not — that is, whatever we already have. It’s defined as anything that violates the status quo. Anything that “changes the norm,” as one student quoted in the Wildcat inelegantly put it. As anyone who’s ever hung around a coffeehouse in a university well knows, every disaffected left-of-center student’s favorite complaint is that “We’ll never have a revolution in this country.” There you have it: Revolution as the ultimate cure for boredom.

Well, of course, we did have a revolution in this country, and one that was virtually unprecedented in human history. While the French Revolution, whatever its roots in popular disgust and loathing of the monarchy and aristocracy, was usurped and dominated by power-crazed ideologues, the American Revolution was, to a surprising degree, a popular revolution, sparked and led by the people. Even more remarkably, it wasn’t crushed by a Napoleon figure; political power was so dispersed by the very nature of the American colonies, and the one man who could have become a Napoleon (Washington) so decent and unambitious in his character, that the American republic entirely escaped the fate of most other revolutionary countries. Even more remarkably, with the exception of the attempted secession in 1860, the United States never came close to any kind of revolution again. How that happened would take a book to explain, but it’s safe to say that if America ever experiences an armed revolution again, it probably won’t be of the 1776 kind.

As the great Hannah Arendt wrote in On Revolution, the American and French revolutions set the pattern for all future revolts against authority. But while the American Revolution was simply a struggle for liberty and political representation, the French Revolution was an attempt to bring about total social equality by force. This didn’t simply fail because it was impossible (though it more or less is, barring the Second Coming or the discovery of the Shmoo); it failed because no political leader can be entrusted with such an insanely ambitious goal. The leaders of the French Revolution took it upon themselves to save humankind from injustice, and this meant essentially wiping out a good portion of humankind. Valuing actual humans less than they did justice, they transformed the state into an instrument of equality. So it was with Robespierre and Marat, and their twentieth century descendants.

They were all of them ideologues, and notably less than reluctant to impose their ideologies on a nation of inferiors. Since most of the nations they trampled — France, Russia, China — had existed under strict societal hierarchies for centuries, it was often a task of replacing a weakened authoritarianism with a rigorous one. What made it different from other, previous forms of authoritarianism was not its use of violence and terror, but how effectively those instruments were wedded to a political theology. Stalin differed from the 16th century Anabaptist leader John of Leyden, who took over the city of Münster in 1534 and advised his starving subjects to eat the cobblestones from the street, only in how successfully he imposed his madness on a population.

“Lenin was a saint,” D. H. Lawrence would write in Apocalypse, reflecting on the evil of great men. “He had every quality which defines a saint. He is worshipped today, quite rightly, as a saint. But saints who try to kill all brave power in men are vile fiends.”

Needless to say, societal and political injustice continues to flourish in this Republic, some of which our political system seems ill-equipped (or unwilling) to combat. One can sincerely hope, however, that if a “revolution” ever sweeps across the land, it will be neither sparked nor led by the Che cultists.

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2 Responses to “Thoughts on revolution.”

  1. Evan Lisull Says:

    So, I suck at not only formulating decent comments, but composing them in a timely fashion.

    But anyways, I think the thrust of any point I would make would be to bring up the argument by Russell Kirk that the American Revolution wasn’t as revolutionary as it’s often made out to be. In summary, this argument holds that the American argument was less about abstract “rights of men” a la Locke and Rousseau, but more about the loss of rights that they deserved as British citizens . Rather than a revolution, it was a restoration of those rights which the tradition of common law had entitled them to. This is also why America succeeded where France (and, later, Russia) ultimately failed.

    Now, I go back and forth on this one, almost day by day. But it’s an argument that almost never gets aired outside of the conservative cocoon, and IMHO worth considering.

  2. thecivicspirit Says:

    I can see a lot of truth in that argument — certainly the colonists didn’t see “liberty” as an abstract thing, but as something that they all recognized in their lives that they were being deprived of. It doesn’t completely work, I think, because the colonists might have just wanted to rid themselves of a particular king at first, but they eventually wound up throwing out the whole idea of kingship. They also threw out the basic principle of government that Burke had held to be indispensable: the principle of divided government. There was also no British equivalent of the local participation in politics that formed the core of the Revolution.

    However, I can see a Burkean argument being made that these were freedoms which had evolved naturally in the colonies because of their distance-enforced autonomy, not freedoms that the colonists had just made up.

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