Remembering Revolution in a Time of Rebellion

4 July 2013


revolutionary years with dates

Like 1968 and 1989, 2013 is looking a little like the original “Springtime of Nations” in 1848, when popular rebellions against entrenched power spontaneously emerged in widely divergent societies. While the energies released in these revolutionary movements proved to be too scattered to form the basis of a new political order that could replace the established political order — and far short of the ideal Novus ordo seclorum imagined by Virgil — the high political drama of such events leaves an impression that should not be denied or trivialized.

It is the historical exception that the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Bolshevik Revolution resulted in far-reaching political changes that shaped the future of the planet entire. The first of these, the American Revolution that we celebrate today, far from being a mere ephemeral moment like the protests of today, established a political institution that was to dominate the planet, requiring less than two centuries to grow into the sole superpower in the world. Few Revolutions can boast of such an issue, but whether we want to celebrate the prescience of the Founding Fathers in pursing the expedient of regime change through political revolution and armed struggle, or whether we see this as the opening of Pandora’s Box is another matter.

How are we to understand revolution? The best summary that I have found of the nature of revolution itself is a paragraph from Sartre’s essay, “Materialism and Revolution.” This essay dates from before Sartre became a Marxist and a Maoist apologist. Mark Poster discussed the origins of this essay in the context of the post-war French communist movement and Sartre’s troubled relations with prominent French communists:

With the unrestrained polemics against Sartre from the Communists multiplying day by day, Sartre felt called upon to defend himself and his ideas. His response came in a lecture in 1945 called “Existentialism is a Humanism,” and in an article in Les Temps Modernes of 1946 entitled “Materialism and Revolution.” In these ripostes Sartre advertised his own existentialism as a true humanism, the only suitable philosophy for a liberating politics, over against the Marxism of the French Communist Party, which was a dehumanizing materialism. He proposed naively that the CP substitute existentialism for its own diamat. It was at this point in the controversy between Marxism and existentialism that the two camps were most sharply opposed and that the Communist criticisms of Being and Nothingness were most poignant. It was also at this point that Sartre was attacked by the Trotskyists because his lecture attacked Naville. Sartre’s response to the Communists was based, in general, on a defense of his concept of radical freedom as a needed ingredient in revolutionary theory: “…the basic idea of existentialism is that even in the most crushing situations, the most difficult circumstances, man is free. Man is never powerless except when he is persuaded that he is and the responsibility of man is immense because he becomes what he decides to be.”

Mark Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1975, pp. 125-126

It is a salutary exercise to remind ourselves that the later Sartre was but a shadow of his former, younger self, when he defended freedom and had not yet capitulated to Marxism — a capitulation that itself might be characterized as a failure of freedom, since Sartre capitulated to the apparent historical inevitability of Marxism, and the belief in inevitability is a form of fatalism and an abandonment of freedom (mauvaise foi, no less). In any case, here’s what Sartre wrote about revolution when he still thought that human freedom was central to revolutionary action:

“…a revolutionary philosophy ought to set aside the materialistic myth and endeavor to show: (1) That man is unjustifiable, that his existence is contingent, in that neither he nor any Providence has produced it; (2) That, as a result of this, any collective order established by men can be transcended toward other orders; (3) That the system of values current in a society reflects the structure of that society and tends to preserve it; (4) That it can thus always be transcended toward other systems which are not yet clearly perceived since the society of which they are the expression does not yet exist — but which are adumbrated are in, in a word, invented by the very effort of the members of the society to transcend it.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Literary and Philosophical Essays, “Materialism and Revolution,” New York: Collier Books, 1955, p. 235

There is a lot going on in this passage. Its vision of a society that continually transcends itself through revolution is an explicit negation of Comte de Maistre’s finitistic political theory, which shows both Sartre and de Maistre in their true political colors: Sartre as a revolutionary, and de Maistre as a reactionary.

This passage also formulates a social and collective expression of what in Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I called Sartre’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Individuals, or, more briefly, Sartre’s Principle. I contrasted Sartre’s principle as an individualistic principle to Gibbon’s principle — namely, that no assembly of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own — which is a collective or political principle. But now I see that I could have dispensed with Gibbon and formulated the principle both in its individualistic and collectivistic forms with reference only to Sartre.

In Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I argued that the individual principle, Sartre’s Principle, was ultimately the foundation of the freedom of societies and social wholes; in other worlds, social freedom supervenes upon individual freedom.

The nearly unique value placed upon individual liberty in the American revolution is significant here: this was a revolution that was successful because it recognized the supervenience of social liberty upon individual liberty. The French and Bolshevik revolutions gave way to terrors and atrocities because their vision was of a Rousseauian majoritarianism in which the individual was to be “forced to be free.” That didn’t turn out to well.

Many of those protesting and marching and rebelling today also believe in the possibility of society transcending itself to another order, even if they cannot precisely imagine what that order will be; these efforts are likely to be successful only in so far as they respect individual liberty as the foundation of social liberty. To the extent that this grounding of liberty in the individual is denied — indeed, in so far as it is denied in the US today by fashionable anti-individualists — these efforts will fail to bear fruit.

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Happy 4th of July!

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Grand Strategy Annex

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