Revolution and Human Agency

24 July 2010


In day before yesterday’s Three Conceptions of History I recounted three distinct attitudes one might take toward the role of human agency within the world. These three attitudes are 1) the political, which explicitly recognizes the role of human agency in the world, 2) the cataclysmic, which explicitly denies the role of human agency in the world, and 3) the eschatological, which subordinates human agency in the world to non-human agency. I derived these three attitudes to history from Anatol Rapoport’s three conceptions of war as given exposition in his introduction to Clausewitz, and which I earlier discussed in More on Clausewitz.

If we understand the political conception of history to be predicated upon the presumption of human agency in the world, the cataclysmic conception of history to be predicated upon a presumption of the lack of human agency in the world (i.e., human non-agency), and the eschatological conception of history to be predicated upon the presumption of the agency of non-human agents in the world (i.e., non-human agency), then there remains the possibility of non-human non-agency. This latter possibility could be identified as an Epicurean conception of history, since Epicurus maintained that the Gods were utterly indifferent to the deeds and fates of men. However, Epicurus did not maintain that the Gods were unable to intervene in the world, only that they were uninterested in doing so. There is also a sense in which non-human non-agency can be identified either with naturalism or Stoicism. This is a very interesting question, but I will not pursue it further at this time.

I concluded day before yesterday’s post with the observation that:

…the very idea that there can be such a thing as grand strategy implies that human beings have at least some degree of agency in the world, however compromised and limited. However, we certainly could formulate conceptions of grand strategy based on alternative conceptions of history, to whit: political grand strategy, cataclysmic grand strategy, and eschatological grand strategy… A little more thought might furnish further interesting (and unfamiliar) examples of Weltanschauungen and the grand strategies that follow from them.

Sometimes I think of interesting instances in the world and wonder how to categorize them within some conceptual schematism; in this case the conceptual schematism — viz. the distinction between political, cataclysmic, and eschatological conceptions of history — came first, and with that initial conceptualization I lacked any clear examples, and had to search my mind a bit to find some initial examples so as to make my point slightly less opaque. Thus I have continued to think about examples to illustrate this way of conceptualizing history.

In that post I referred to my own attempted definition of grand strategy (integral history subordinated to human agency) as an obvious example of the political conception of history, assuming, as it does, the efficacy of human agency in the world. I also cited the example of Byzantine history as an instance of the eschatological conception of history, since Byzantine armies had the reputation of conceding victory to the side that seemed to have the blessing of divine providence (as evidenced by success on the battlefield). It would be difficult to find a more eschatologically permeated society than that of Byzantium; the Byzantines acted concretely upon their views of the hand of divine providence in human affairs. (I also discussed this when I quoted Gregory Nazianzen.)

I did not, however, offer an instance of the cataclysmic conception of history, although a particularly interesting example occurs to me now, and that is the example of Marxism. I have previously quoted a humorous passage from Bertrand Russell in which he compares Marxism to Christian eschatology (in Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization), and it is many times be remarked that communism is a substitute for religion. Russell wrote that it is, “…this emotional content, familiar to those who have had a Christian or a Jewish upbringing, that makes Marx’s eschatology creditable.” This is really quite a remarkable statement to make, and I agree with it. For many, then, Marxism is clearly an eschatological conception of history, and I do not dispute this. But there is more to Marxism that this.

Marxism is a complex historical phenomenon. Like other great intellectual traditions (for example, as in Christianity), there are aspects of all three conceptions of history to be found in the many strains of Marxism. Any great historical tradition that endures and influences the lives of countless peoples around the world, eventually draws into its orbit men of diverse temperaments, attracted for different reasons to the core message (mere Marxism, if you will, like C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity). Such men of diverse temperaments give expositions and contribute developments to the movement that go beyond the core message, sometimes taking the doctrine in directions that are alien to the spirit that initially motivated the whole enterprise. Thus while Marx’s historical schema, according to Russell, gets its credibility from an eschatology parallel to Christianity and Judaism, it has other aspects as well.

I derived this tripartite division of conceptions of history from Anatol Rapoport's discussion of Clausewitz.

Clearly we can single out aspects within Marxism that exemplify the political, the cataclysmic, and the eschatological conceptions of history. I mentioned above the theme of Marxism as a secular substitute for religion, and the Christian eschatological background of its tenets. And we have this from Marx himself regarding the political nature of communist revolution:

“Every revolution dissolves the old order of society; to that extent it is social. Every revolution brings down the old ruling power; to that extent it is political.”

Critical Notes on the Article: “The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian,” Karl Marx, Vorwarts!, No.64, 10 August 1844

This quote is of particular interest to me because it not only discusses the particular views Marx had of a millennial communist society, characterizing this as essentially political, but explicitly identifying the revolutionary means to this millennial end as political. Engels in his remarks at Marx’s graveside said that, “Marx was before all else a revolutionist,” and in the above quote he reveals his essentially political conception of revolution. But revolution, like Marxism itself, is a complex historical phenomenon; revolution is not one, but many.

The idea of revolution as essentially political is of particular interest to me because I attempted to sketch what I considered to be the essential elements of a true revolution, and I now realize in retrospect that I was approaching a cataclysmic conception of revolution. I suggested this twice, first, somewhat indirectly, in A Note on The Internal Structure of Revolutions:

Revolutionary cadres are often credited with fomenting revolution, directly inspiring the masses who engage in direct action such as killing, looting, and reprisals. But the intellectual elements that seem to foment and direct revolutionary action are often powerless to control the revolution once it starts, and such cadres can retain their credibility only by confirming the facts on the ground, essentially giving rationalizations and justifications for what has already been done in the name of a revolution.

In other words, once a revolution is in full swing, it is outside our control. We do not direct a revolution, it is something that happens to us, like an earthquake or a flood or any other natural disaster of Act of God. Later in Revolutionary Violence I elaborated on this theme:

…in the case of true revolutionary violence, not something engineered from above but a movement growing from below that spills over suddenly and unexpectedly into violent insurrection, a mass of people swarms over, around, and through any technology — whether social technology or hardware technology — designed to stop a riot. One could define the difference between a riot and a revolution such that a riot can be checked and stopped by riot police, whereas in a revolution the numbers of those involved overwhelm police and security services, and in fact the police and security services may join the revolution and turn on their leaders.

There I suggested that this could be called revolution sensu stricto or the strong sense of revolution, and for such a conception of revolution, a revolution is a cataclysm.

But no revolution is simply and only a cataclysm that happens to us. Even a cataclysmic conception of history can recognize some trivial degree of human agency, and in this way: in the eschatological conception of history, we recognize human agency in the form of the propitiation of unseen powers; similarly, in the cataclysmic conception of history, we can recognize that human beings do indeed set events in motion, if only as a trigger to events that might have been triggered in some other fashion, but that once events are set in motion, they are beyond our control. We suffer history; it happens to us, and there is little or nothing we can do about it. And so too for revolution in the strong sense: we suffer revolution.

The cataclysmic conception of history is the philosophy of history embodied in the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice (to use a romantic era myth), or (to take a classical myth) the unhappy fate of Phaëton when he attempted to drive the chariot of Helios across the sky and discovered that he lacked the mettle to do so. Such hubris is always punished in the tragic cosmos of the Greeks, and such hubris is still punished today.

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2 Responses to “Revolution and Human Agency”

  1. T. Greer said

    This is interesting. I shall have to reflect on the matter a bit, but I think this warrants a whole post in response.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I look forward to your reflections and any post that emerges from the reflection.

      Best wishes,


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