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…

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