Revolutionary Man

4 July 2012

Wednesday


It is always a pleasure to celebrate the armed struggle of the American people against the oppression of the Old World, with its true believers in autocracy, hierarchy, patronage, and privilege, and its Old World tolerance of corruption, ineptitude, and failed institutions.

The emergence of revolutionary man — Homo revolutionibus — in history is no small matter. This idea that was first given concrete embodiment in the American Revolution has gone on to shape not only the politics of the world ever since that time, but moreover to shape the very idea of humanity itself — what humanity is, what humanity ought to be, and what humanity might reasonably hope to become.

In the PBS documentary Liberty! The American Revolution, there is a quote that makes clear the anthropological dimensions of the advent of the American Revolution:

As the British army fell to the American rebels commanded by Washington and laid down their arms at Saratoga, they saw for the first time the face of their conquerors. Row upon row of plainly dressed citizen soldiers. Old men and young boys. People of all colors. Ordinary Americans. A British officer would write that he felt he was “looking at a new race of men.”

I tried to find the original source of this quote, but I have not yet been successful, so that British officer in question must remain nameless for the time being — a nameless, faceless representative of the Old World tradition of individuals subordinated to arbitrary royal authority. Yet this British officer was not so blind to an incommensurable paradigm that he could not see the emergence of something new in history.

A parallel formulation of the American project as productive of a “new race of men” is found in Crèvecoeur:

Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.

Great changes in the world indeed. Such changes have already occurred, and further changes continue to shake both the New World and the Old. Wherever today there is entrenched privilege and power, there is also to be found a popular insurrection against this entrenched power. It does not matter the extent to which power seeks to co-opt the masses and to take for itself the mantle of the people — such charades are easily seen through by revolutionary man.

To what extent may we identify this New Man, revolutionary man, with that other New Man of the modern world, the Übermensch? In other words (the words of Borges, to be specific), to what extent are all of us of the Western Hemisphere vernacular supermen?

Precisely to the extent that we seek to make ourselves over as revolutionary men and to overcome the corrupt, all-too-corrupt taint of the Old World and its old institutions that have no claim upon us but tradition, revolutionary man and the Übermensch are one and the same.

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2 Responses to “Revolutionary Man”

  1. Your last paragraph is intriguing. I will have to think about that. In one sense I see exactly what you are saying, however, I wonder if “revolutionary man” begets the “Last Man” through an over “bourgeoisization” that is actually only realizable through the revolution itself.

    Perhaps, “Revolutionary Man” is an open-ended question, a continuation of Man as Rope in Nietzsche’s phrase, “Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman–a rope over an abyss… What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end…”

    Perhaps, Revolutionary Man is right in the middle of such a rope. In one direction is Ubermensch, towards the other, the beast and embarrassment that is the Last Man. In some ways, Old World tradition might lead to more greatness than the technical skills and desire for renumeration common to the bourgeoise.

    I like the provocative nature of this piece and will ruminate for awhile longer…

    • geopolicraticus said

      Hi Greg,

      You’ve made several interesting points here.

      I’ve never thought of bourgeois-ization as an historical process, but you are right to identify it as such. We can easily cite many instances of revolutionary states that have attempted to resist bourgeois-ization by taking extraordinary measures in the attempt to maintain the revolutionary flame. For example, Mexico’s PRI party is the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party, i.e., a formal attempt to institutionalize a revolution. China had the Cultural Revolution, since it wasn’t enough that the communists simply won political and military control of the country in 1949.

      It seems to me, prima facie, that one has two alternatives here; the attempt to preserve the radical character of the revolution, or to foment one revolution after another. Neither of these seem very promising, as historical instances of each are disastrous.

      I agree that Revolutionary Man is in the middle of the high wire, where it is almost as difficult to move forward as to move back, and the easiest thing of all is to fall off. But then that’s the end of the story, so if we want the story to go on, we must try to balance even while we are at the same time also trying to go backward or forward.

      The way you have developed this idea in a Nietzschean context is really a wonderful formulation, and when I write about this again I will probably use the image of Revolutionary Man between the Overman and, if you will, the Underman, i.e., the Last Man.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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