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Revolution in America?

Are there grounds for taking seriously the prospects of revolution in American society? One way to answer this question is to examine the variety of conditions that in the past have led to the creation of revolutionary situations and movements, and that have affected the subsequent fate of these movements. Then one can try to determine the extent to which such conditions may or may not apply, currently or in the future, to the situation in the United States.

It is hardly necessary for me to stress that the procedure cannot yield perfect answers. By the nature of the case, everyone interested in the problem, activist or observer, suffers in varying degrees from the same limitations. Revolutionaries themselves, like generals and scholars, march into the future facing resolutely backward. Puritan revolutionaries looked back to the Bible; the French to the Romans and the Greeks; the Russians to the French and to what Marx thought he saw of the future in looking at nineteenth-century capitalism, an imaginary world that was about as far from Russian conditions as could be imagined; latest of all comers, the Chinese Communists looked back to the Russians and again to Marx while they went ahead and did something that had very little to do with either of them.

To the extent that revolutionaries did succeed, they often did so in large measure by avoiding slavish adherence to past models and by displaying ingenuity in devising new social mechanisms and new policies for unprecedented situations. Granting the importance of these considerations I still think that historical reflection may help us to distinguish between rhetorical pipe dreams and real possibilities. Significant though the element of creative improvisation in politics may be, it never starts from scratch, and it always works within a set of limiting conditions.1 Finally, the past and the present provide the only possible evidence we can have in any effort to think rationally about these issues.

In previous patterns of revolutionary change it is possible to discern three sets of mutations that have occurred within the dominant classes prior to the outbreak of serious revolutionary violence. One of these Crane Brinton has named “the desertion of the intellectuals.” It is something much deeper than desertion: a challenge to the prevailing modes of thought and to the whole perception of the possible causes of and remedies for human suffering. In the modern world generally, we are at a point where both reigning orthodoxies, official liberalism and official Marxism, are subject to vigorous challenge. Neither one can any longer provide a convincing explanation of the causes of human misery in the twentieth century. The justifications for horrifying forms of cruelty and oppression that both liberalism and Marxism have put forward, in the service of great powers, have more and more discredited both ideologies. So far, on the other hand, no intellectual current has emerged as a clear alternative, certainly not in the sense that Enlightenment doctrines, for all their variety, came to constitute an alternative to traditional views of the social hierarchy.

A second mutation has been the appearance of very sharp conflicts of interest within the dominant classes themselves. In all major revolutions so far, the symptom has been apparently insoluble financial problems. Behind the symptom have been acute disagreements—insoluble contradictions might for once do as a meaningful empirical term here—over how to resolve stresses posed by the rise of new social relationships and, more specifically, over which social groups are to bear the costs of these new arrangements. This split in the dominant classes has quite different causes in successive historical epochs and in different countries. Hence there is little to be gained by efforts to reduce it to a single pattern of events. Whether such a split will occur in the United States depends upon how long and how satisfactorily the predatory solution of token reform at home and counter-revolutionary imperialism abroad continues to work. In my judgment the system has considerable flexibility and room for maneuver, including strategic retreat. There is even a slim chance of peaceful change within the democratic framework, or rather of recreating this framework with and through a limited amount of disorder that falls short of real revolutionary upheaval. Indeed, it is worth noticing that these two generalizations about the dominant classes apply, with only slight modifications, to non-revolutionary changes.

They cease to apply when we come to the third mutation among the dominant classes—loss of unified control over the instruments of violence: the army and the police. Where a section of the dominant classes breaks off and takes with it part of the armed forces, historians are accustomed to calling the result a Civil War. When the police and the armed forces refuse to obey, they are likely to call it a revolution. Actually, as in the Chinese Revolution, there can be a mixture of the two processes. In the United States now, there is no more than a hint that the decomposition of the military forces may be beginning. And without control or neutralization of the government’s armed forces, revolutionary movements do not have the shimmer of a ghost of a chance.

If we consider the lower classes, we find in general more variety in the patterns that experience so far has revealed. Here it is important to distinguish between revolutions whose main base has been in the cities and those in the countryside.

An urban revolutionary mass provided the main destructive impetus in the French Revolution; in the continental revolutions of 1848, particularly in the most important upheavals in Paris; in the Paris Commune of 1871; in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 (both February and October) in Russia; and in the abortive revolution of 1918 in Germany. One process is common to these events: the transformation of a more or less atomized and diffuse urban plebs or of a proletariat into a politically active revolutionary mass.2 These were all revolts of desperation, certainly not of rising expectations as some liberal theorists of revolution might lead one to anticipate.3

Contrary to what one might expect on the basis of Leninist theory too, there is almost no evidence that prior organizational work and propaganda played a significant role, and a good deal of evidence to the contrary. (Bolshevik organization did play a part in the October revolution of 1917 in Russia, but not in the more important February revolution that overthrew the Tsar and inaugurated a period of disorder upon which the Bolsheviks were able to capitalize.) Though the influence of prior forms of social organization, pre-existing habits, and general outlook is a topic that requires further investigation, I have come to suspect that it too plays a much less important role than immediate circumstances in creating a revolutionary mass. However, organization does play a part in sustaining revolutionary élan and making the mass politically effective, a state that apparently can be sustained for no more than a few years at most. (The Great Cultural Revolution in China, about which we know very little, might just possibly disprove this generalization.)

The main factors that create a revolutionary mass are a sudden increase in hardship coming on top of quite serious deprivations, together with the breakdown of the routines of daily life—getting food, going to work, etc.—that tie people to the prevailing order. The grievances of man as a consumer appear to be more important than those of man as a producer in providing fuel for such explosions. However, their proximate cause is the general breakdown of the flow of supplies into the city. If there are no goods upon which to work, artisans cannot go to their workshops nor factory workers to their factories. (Or if they do, as in Petrograd in 1917, it may be mainly to stir each other up.) The final spark that sets off the conflagration among floating groups of desperate men (and sometimes more desperate women, who face even more directly the problem of getting food and keeping the household going) is likely to be some punitive act or threat by those in authority. If the authorities are already quarreling severely among themselves, the result may be a revolutionary upheaval, especially if the police and the army have ceased to be dependable. Otherwise there may be no more than a brief period of bloody disorder.

Hence in an urban lower-class population the creation of revolutionary solidarity resembles what happens when a bolt of lightning fuses into a single mass some chunks of metal that happen to be lying close to one another. Dramatic threat overcomes the atomization that the proliferation of different occupations creates in the city. This type of rapidly created solidarity breaks up again rather easily as individual interests reassert themselves. Such a breakup is not a matter of individual versus collective interests, at least not in any metaphysical sense. When a person joins a revolutionary crowd or even goes to a dramatic political demonstration, as an individual this person gains certain psychological satisfactions by seeing that other people have similar passions and by merging his own with those of the crowd.

Under such circumstances there is a release of inhibitions, an opportunity to vent feelings of moral outrage, sentiments of moral superiority toward those in authority to whom respect is ordinarily due, in other words a whole set of pleasures whose indulgence is ordinarily unsafe and imprudent. But the revolutionary crowd does not and cannot provide an adequate social mechanism for meeting the individual’s other needs for food and shelter on a regular and recurring basis. Therefore the solidarity of the urban mass sustains itself only so long as it promises results. When all the food stores have been pillaged,4 to speak metaphorically, the revolutionary crowd may turn on its own leaders or desert them. That is a theoretical extreme point, rarely approximated in real life, where revolutionary solidarity dissolves of its own accord.

More often solidarity dissolves as more and more people return to the search for a private and more familiar everyday solution to their problems. There is a drift back to work. In the meantime a new authority armed with revolutionary legality may speed up the process with a judicious application of terror, accusing the leaders of the revolutionary crowd of anarchist and counterrevolutionary tendencies. Or, as happened in 1848, the forces of the old order may retain control of the army and be able to defeat the revolutionary crowd in bloody pitched battles at the barricades—real confrontations instead of symbolic ones. In either case, whether revolutionary solidarity evaporates of its own accord or suffers violent suppression—or some combination of the two—once destroyed it is impossible to recreate it for at least a generation.

So far, then, urban revolutionary movements have been very short-lived, even if very important, agents of social change. There has never been any such thing as a long-term revolutionary mass movement in an urban environment. That is, there has not been a movement with a mass basis that has sustained a revolutionary impetus for more than a generation. A fortiori there has never been a long-term urban revolutionary movement that has succeeded. Sooner or later, urban movements that start off with the aim of revolutionary change either turn into reformist movements or succumb in competition with reformism and pure trade unionism. That is what has happened in England, France, Germany, the United States, even to a great extent in Tsarist Russia.

  1. 1

    For a brilliant discussion of the limiting conditions on revolutionary movements see Otto Kirchheimer, “Confining Conditions and Revolutionary Breakthroughs,” American Political Science Review, Vol. LIX, No. 4 (December, 1965).

  2. 2

    The term plebs is convenient for the sans-culottes and similar movements made up mainly of small shopkeepers, artisans, journeymen; proletariat for factory workers. There has yet to be a successful revolution (in the sense of seizing and holding power) in a country where the proletariat constitutes a larger segment of the lower classes.

  3. 3

    There is, on the other hand, an element of hope produced by some break in the ranks of the dominant classes, some sign, such as the Supreme Court’s decision on educational desegregation in 1954, that changes are possible after all. In situations where people feel utterly hopeless their response is more likely to be apathetic acceptance of “fate”; in extreme cases, found for example in concentration camps, people may give up and die in response to the general situation, not as a result of any single act of cruelty.

  4. 4

    Or all the land distributed, as Harold Hinton points out for an area he observed in China. There are some similarities between urban and rural revolutionary movements.

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