Sunday, May 21, 2006

Revolutionaries and regret: Eleni

In my post on the unfortunate tendency of revolutions to devour their own, Elmondohummus made the following comment:

Such movements, such revolutions, tend not to be the wonderfully exciting, meaningful, free places that participants imagine, but coldhearted, calculating monoliths of purpose unimagined by the individual participants caught up in the heady romance of the moment...But to be openly abused, jailed, even executed... Such a betrayal... yet, time and time again, you read of people in Ghotbzadeh's shoes, true believers chewed up and spit out by the momentum of the movement, a mere commodity to be used to the movement's own ends.

Most revolutions do tend to turn on their own in time--and often not all that much time. But there's a further aspect of it I want to discuss here, and that is this: when revolutions change into something unforeseen by their original-- sometimes starry-eyed, idealistic, and naive--proponents, those early advocates often turn into opponents of the very revolution they launched. Their efforts to undo what they've unleashed are usually futile. That is apparently what may have happened to the sardonic Ghotbzadeh, who did not have the last laugh, after all.

Back in 1983 I read Eleni, Nicholas Gage's testament to his mother's life and a depiction of her execution by Communists during the Greek Civil War in the 40s. It's an extraordinary book for many reasons, and its power is difficult to describe. It's long and complex, with so many characters that, halfway through, I wished I'd kept a chart with all the names and familial relations graphed, because every now and then I got lost in the maze. But, even though at the time I was the exhausted mother of a young child, it was so compelling that I exhausted myself still further by staying up night after night until I'd finished it.

It's one of those books where you know the ending right at the beginning--Gage comes right out with it in the introductory chapter. But that doesn't diminish the story any more than knowing the plot of a Shakespearean play takes away from the experience of seeing it again. Gage's mother Eleni is a true heroine, a woman of epic courage and love (as well as great intelligence, despite her lack of formal education). I submit that the book cannot be read by any feeling person without its pages becoming wet with tears.

But in the days after I read Eleni, I realized on reflection that Gage tells another story in addition to his gripping personal story. He attempts to describe the Greek Civil War itself. In this, by the way, he has drawn some fire from those who believe he hasn't given the Communist guerillas their due.

But when I read Gage's book I actually thought his portrait of said Communists was somewhat sympathetic. It's hard to forget his description of them; one in particular was the local schoolteacher, initially a gentle idealist, as I recall. The book delineates, step by careful step, how over the course of time these people compromised and hardened until they were all but unrecognizable, their dreams soured and their cause utterly transformed into something they wouldn't have recognized (or supported) at the outset. To me, that was a twin tragedy.

The two brothers, Prokopi and Spiro Skevis, the locals who, in Gage's words, "sowed the seeds of Communism" in Lia, his home village, both were killed in battle rather than at the hands of their own. But Gage writes that, after the execution of his mother and four other villagers:

Spiro Skevis' success in bringing Communism to the Mourgana villages had turned to ashes in his mouth. The execution in Lia of his five fellow villagers tormented him. A captain in his battalion later told me how, shortly after the retreat from the Mourgana, Spiro went out of control and tried to kill one of the chief aides [to the judge in the trial that led to Gage's mother's execution], drawing a gun on him and screaming that the man was a criminal, a murderer of women. Other guerillas jumped Spiro before he could pull the trigger. He went to the grave tormented by the perversion of the movement that he and Prokopi had begun with such high intentions.

I don't think Spiro would be alone among revolutionaries in having such regrets. Ghotbzadeh, Robespierre, Trotsky, and the rest--what were they all thinking in their last moments?


At 3:47 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

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At 3:49 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

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At 3:51 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

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At 3:56 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

oh god your not doing this again,,,,what do you think washington was not a revolutionary?

or is it only non us revolutionaries that attract your arch comments?

and why remove my harmless comments and leave yrmdwnkrs violent ones and the little apple thiefs racist ones? is it cos you agree with them?

At 4:08 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Kurt said...

I'm curious to know if you ever saw the movie and what you thought of it. I remember seeing the movie at some point in the mid-80s when I was in college in New England, though whether it was 1985 or 1986, I cannot recall with any certainty. I remember thinking that it was a moving and compelling story, but what I remember most clearly was that, on my way out of the movie theatre, I heard one of the more vocal, left-wing activists on campus talking dismissively of the movie as mere propaganda.

At 4:13 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Kurt--the movie was dreadful. A mere shadow of the book, not worth seeing. The book is infinitely superior.

At 4:49 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger SC&A said...

Neoconned, there is a not so subtle difference between Washington and the communist revolutionaries.

Then again, if you have to be reminded of Stalin's purges that killed millons and the establishment of the, gulag you are an idiot. There is no question of that. Don't argue. Lok in the mirror and make your case. That way, you won't embarass yourself.

Neo, see the film 'Z' for another look at the Greek Civil war. Hertbreaking.

At 5:05 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Elmondohummus said...

The movie was dreadful? Shoot, Neo... you had to go say that... I was hoping to save some time and just rent the movie.


What? Read the book? When??? I'm blowing all my spare moments on these blogs, I haven't got the time...

Damn internet...


At 6:02 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Jack Trainor said...

It is interesting to ask why the American Revolution led to an unusually stable democratic government, while most others--not just communist--led to unstable or despotic forms of government.

What other revolutions have been as successful as the American Revolution?

At 6:19 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Jack Trainor said...

He went to the grave tormented by the perversion of the movement that he and Prokopi had begun with such high intentions.

Closer to home, I wonder about the shift in the sixties liberal movements which began with idealism supporting civil rights, feminism, and opposing war and poverty before mutating into the Weather Underground bombings and the near-hatred of everything white, male, and American. That legacy lives on.

My first college roommate had been SDS before it exploded into revolutionary factions. I admired him and was sympathetic, though the revolutionary types always seemed to be pretty unpleasant people.

Until 9-11 I was in the progressive camp but since then I've been doing a lot of rethinking, which is why I read this blog.

At 6:19 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

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At 6:21 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Back in 1983 I read Eleni, Nicholas Gage's testament to his mother's life and a depiction of her execution by Communists during the Greek Civil War in the 40s.

It truly is amazing how many civil wars and dates of independence we see coming from the very nations that look down on America as a young and impulsive regime. Canada only recently was granted their independence, civil war in Greece, of all places, and English Magna Carta dates.

and why remove my harmless comments and leave yrmdwnkrs violent ones and the little apple thiefs racist ones? is it cos you agree with them?

I don't think the 3 posts above conned was deleted by neo.

I suggest keeping the baiting in the Iranian thread, and not let the contagion spread out to fresh healthy cells.

With Robesppiere, you can see even if the leaders of the revolution maintain power after the revolution... that still doesn't mean everything is peachy. Rob wanted to save the Revolution, by destroying the Revolution through purges.

Washington was a true war hero before the Revolutionary War. He slept with his men instead of apart from them in officer's quarters, ate the same ratios that they did. It is a human paradox that you cannot gain power without being a populist, along with the fact you can not produce stable civilizations if you use populism. Yet if you aren't populist, then you will not have the power to change anything, because power rests in the people.

Washington broke the mould. He and his compatriots did what no other Revolutionaries have accomplished recently. Which is, he overthrew the ruling class without overthrowing the ruling class. He got the support of his men, and yet he was still part of the men who were loyal to him.

There tends to be the problem that leaders of populist movements elevate themselves above their class. Communists got all the luxuries, the peasants got nothing. Washington never lost sight of the fact that he was made a leader by the people for the people, not for Washington's ambitions and greed. But for the safety and future of the people, Washington's militia soldiers and citizens.

Because Washington broke the paradox of humanity (sorta like that time paradox you see a lot on Star Trek where it keeps repeating itself) and therefore assured future generations (like Lincoln) a chance for success.

A lot of people argue that the Founding Fathers failed to stop slavery. What most people don't realize is that the success of the Founding Fathers was a god damn fluke, due to as much luck as divine providence.

It was amazing that the Constitution and the Confederation lasted for enough decades, so that when Lincoln had to fight a Civi lWar, the entire country would not have combusted. Which would have happened had this occured less than 10 years after the Revolution.

At 6:26 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger chuck said... in particular was the local schoolteacher, initially a gentle idealist, as I recall.

I seem to recall that Gage exalted over the death of one of the brothers, shot in the mouth, the great orator justly served by the furies. I think there was also a woman betrayer, a beauty, who died disfigured by cancer. A certain sense of divine vengence hung about the various denouements. Very Greek, I thought, like the tragedies.

I don't think Robespierre had regrets, there wasn't time. Trotsky, a believer in the Marxist science of history, theorised and made rationalizations. I don't think he ever accepted personal responsibility for putting in place many of the tools of tyranny, and indeed employing them. He did confess that he was too serious for those erstwhile revolutionaries who just wanted to play cards and have a bit of peace and comfort, but that strikes me as a bit too cute. Claiming to be too virtous in a world of lesser beings isn't a serious confession. Judging by his autobiography the man was a bit of a prig.

I remember talking to Iranians during the revolution; our school excelled in irrigation science and had long cultivated connections to the country, so at the time there were perhaps 100 Iranians on campus. Come the revolution there were demonstrations and fights between those supporting the different factions. Anyway I told them to beware the witch hunts, that no good would come of them, but they dismissed historical precedent. Less than dismissed, they didn't even note it. So it was.

The beauty of the American revolution was that so little actually changed in law, religion, and custom. It too could have been a bloody mess otherwise. Even so, many Loyalists fled to Canada.

At 6:36 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger confusedforeigner said...

What other revolutions have been as successful as the American Revolution?

Ummm, the French would say their's was. The English, although it was more of a metamorphosis than a revolution per se, could argue that they were successful. India has a case. China, albeit with some serious stutters. A few others. The Iranians successfully kicked out the puppet Shah and have a nascent democracy.

It depends on your definition of success though doesn't it. And how you define what is a revolution or something else.

At 6:38 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

We are very grateful to Canada, for giving us a path to get rid of so many "loyalists".

It really allowed us to avoid the problem of what to do with them, whether to imprison them, deport them, starve them, or just execute them.

At 6:40 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Sally said...

It might be useful to consider the difference between a rebellion and a revolution. The former is primarily political -- it changes leaders and governments, and sometimes entire political systems, but stops short of attempting to "revolutionize" society itself. The latter, properly so-called, typically has more ambitious aims -- it does want to alter fundamentally society itself, including the culture and often enough the very nature of the human. But this it can't do without considerable violence on a social level -- violence that, at the start, is always inadequate for its aims, so leading inexorably to greater, more extreme violence and slaughter, bringing to the fore ever more "radical" revolutionaries, until finally the bloodshed itself calls a halt to the process, like gravity drawing back a pendulum. But not before it's "devoured", as you say, many of those who, with a great irony of justice, were prominent initiators of the process itself.

In this sense, Washington was a rebel, certainly, but not a "revolutionary" in the style of Marat and Robespierre.

At 6:42 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Becareful who you ask about revolutions. Cause there are four kinds of revolutions. Bloody ones that fail. Bloody ones tha succede. Peaceful ones that succede, peaceful ones that fail.

Oliver Cromwell tried to revolt against the corrupt monarchy. He didn't quite succede.

Tianamen Square did not succede. As has been already discussed, the Leftist Revolution in Iran ended up with many of the Leftists being purged, the Revolution for freedom hijacked by the Revolution to rape women and then execute them for it. Which I suppose, might be a success, if one were in league with Dark Forces of humanity that is.

At 6:44 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

weasel words sappy

at that time overthrowing kings was revolutionary

At 7:04 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Jack Trainor said...

Ummm, the French would say their's was [a success].

Yes, I'm aware that the French celebrate their revolution and Bastille Day is coming up (July 14).

However, unless one measures a revolution only by its ideals or by what it overthrows, it's hard to see how the French Revolution can be called a success. It led almost immediately to despotism and the Reign of Terror. Within ten years Napoleon Bonaparte gained power and established a dictatorship.

Given these historical realities I wouldn't call the French Revolution a success.

At 7:06 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Historically, slave rebellions don't tend to succede either. Simply because, it is either ultra-violent, or the slaves just don't want to do anything else. Spartacus actually escaped the Roman Legions and could have gone North over the Alps to "freedom", but he and his men chose to go back and fight some more. Fighting was the only thing they had ever known, the brotherhood of gladiators the only family they had.

Another thing was, America already had a self-autonomous system of governance. Therefore the transition was very smooth.

The Civil War was a rebellion by the Southern Rebels. Yet it was obviously not the Revolutionary War. I think the difference lies in political vs grassroots revolutions and rebellions. The Civ War was a political rebellion, but it was not a grassroots revolution or rebellion.

The Revolutionary War required the support of the people, like any guerrila war or revolution. Politically, it is more similar to secession and rebellion than overthrowment and the New Order, but for the people they were rebelling at their leaders. In the Civ War, the people's leaders were rebelling against the Union. People like Lee went back to their states to fight for the Confederacy because their leaders were their STATES, not the President of the United States.

For many colonists in the New World, King Bush was their ruler.

There's some complex variations on the theme here.

At 7:11 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I also think the conclusion of a war is not set in stone. The bravery, the patriotism, the competence shown by former members of the British Empire, revolutionalized history and political experiment.

Thus I tend to see it as just, and fitting, to recognize the only revolution worthy of the name, one of the few rare successfull Revolutions. And most assuredly, THE most successful Revolution in the history of mankind. It might not have appeared to have been a revolution, and it might not have been intended to upset the history of misery in human affairs, but what it ended up doing was something else entire.

Wars tend to do that. From saving the Union, to a war of liberation. From preserving the safety of Americans and the national interest of America, to a crusade against darkness, ignorance, savagery, and despair in the Middle East.

At 7:16 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger chuck said...

Oliver Cromwell tried to revolt against the corrupt monarchy. He didn't quite succede.

In what sense didn't he succeed? He retired from office without incident and was succeeded by his son, who likewise soon retired. Charles II himself returned after a new election brought forth a royalist parliament who asked him to back. On the whole, the monarchy was decreased and made subservient to parliament. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 followed soon upon the succession of James II who forgot this fact. Seems to me that Cromwell succeeded wonderfully in changing the nature of British government. Perhaps, however, he didn't succeed in his own estimation. I don't know.

At 7:23 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger confusedforeigner said...

"He retired from office without incident"

I wouldn't repeat that to an Irishman if I were you.

At 7:30 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Death and posthumous execution

Cromwell suffered from malaria (probably first contracted while on campaign in Ireland) and from "stone", a common term for urinary/kidney infections. Yet, he was in generally good health. In 1658 he was struck by a sudden bout of malaria, followed directly by an attack of urinary/kidney symptoms. Although weakened, he was optimistic about the future, as were his attendants. A Venetian diplomat, also a physician, was visiting at the time and tracked Cromwell's final illness. It was his opinion that the Lord Protector's personal physicians were mismanaging his health, leading to a rapid decline and his death.

Within two years of Cromwell's death on September 3, 1658, Parliament restored Charles II as king, as Cromwell's son Richard Cromwell had proved "an unworthy successor", who had unwisely allowed the split between Parliament and the New Model Army to go too far, and had supported the Parliament against the Army.

In 1661, Oliver Cromwell's body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey, and was subjected to the ritual of a posthumous execution – significantly, this took place on January 30 – the same date that Charles I had been executed. Cromwell's body was hanged, drawn and quartered. At the end, his body was thrown into a pit. His severed head was displayed on a pole outside Westminster Abbey until 1685. Afterwards it changed hands several times, before eventually being buried in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1960.

I don't think if we treated Washington like this, we could say with a straight face that his Revolution was an unmitigated success.

At 7:48 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger chuck said...

I don't think if we treated Washington like this, we could say with a straight face that his Revolution was an unmitigated success.

Hey, he was dead, what did he care? I think his son was executed, though. Anyway, Cromwell instituted reforms in education, government, and particularly the navy that carried forward. I don't know that much about the era, but that much I seem to recall.

At 8:12 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

So you're basically saying Parliament took credit for Cromwell, and then dug his corpse up just for kicks. An interesting description of a hijacked revolution.

At 9:59 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger chuck said...

IIRC, Charles II conducted a purge when he returned. However, he liked the ladies - Nell Gwynne among others - and I think that distracted him from the serious business of repression. The later replacement of his brother James II by Mary and William of Orange (James daughter and nephew) was remarkably smooth, showing, I think, that Kings had come to be regarded as an essential part of the government, but not as government wholly in themselves.

Ah, and there is this little gem, James tried to regain his throne starting in Ireland and using French troops. After the Battle of the Boyne he fled,
"earning the Irish nickname Séamus á Chaca (James the Shit)." Heh.

I admit to a soft spot for Queen Ann and Marlborough, so the era launched by the glorious revolution appeals to me.

At 10:59 PM, May 21, 2006, Blogger nyomythus said...

Goerges Danton, the great orator of the French Revolution, fought bitterly defending himself against his accusers. At his trial his verbal lashings were so pronounced that the Tribunal, in fear that he may rouse spectators, said enough of this – taken him out. And out and onto the Guillotine he and his party went, "I leave it all in a frightful welter!" he said; "not a man of them has an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is dragged down by me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than meddle with the government of men!" Danton's last words were addressed to his executioner. He said to him "you will show my head to the people, it is worth seeing".

…and so a moderate and much needed voice was silenced. The shouters at these points in a Revolution drive justice underground. They are like bodiless heads whose shouting [knobless radios] reminds us that we may follow their destiny.

At 12:09 AM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

The funny thing is that because of American history, America's power is now dedicated to protecting the very fake revolutionaries that seek to overthrow America as the leader of the free world.

It is as if they believe they can do so much better.

At 1:20 AM, May 22, 2006, Blogger douglas said...

Hmmm, I thought the movie was pretty good, but then I didn't read the book. Likely that is why I thought the movie was good. ElMondo, go ahead and rent the movie if you don't have the time for the book. Why not?

At 3:56 AM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Tom Grey said...

Revolutionaries are rather like teen drunks driving, no?
"It can't happen to moi"
Until it does.

Mobs are more like babies, just wanting to have an EFFECT. Listen to our shouting, we want to make a DIFFERENCE.
Off with his head -- that's a difference.

typo question? "how over the course of time these people compromised and hardened until they were all but recognizable" -- unrecognizable?

At 8:43 AM, May 22, 2006, Blogger grubby said...

How much different would the American Revolution been if George Washington had been crowned King as many wanted him to be. Or if instead of not running for President after his second term, he had just continued on as President for Life as others do. I do believe the kinds of people who ran our revolution gave us the country we have today.

At 8:52 AM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Jack Trainor said...

Ummm, the French would say their [revolution] was [a success].

Further follow-up, because I enjoy taking apart posts which start with "Ummm":

France is now in its Fifth Republic. This means that the French government has collapsed and been reconstituted as a republic five times--the First Republic being the result of the French Revolution and the Fifth Republic established by De Gaulle in 1958 as a response to the Algerian Crisis.

These five republics don't include the intervening periods of dictatorship, monarchy, and occupation since 1792. France has had neither a stable nor IMO a particularly admirable history since the French Revolution.

However, this does not prevent French politicians from lecturing the world, especially the United States, on enlightened political conduct.

Those who equate the French Revolution with the American Revolution are either ignorant of history or unconcerned with historical results.

At 9:54 AM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Elmondohummus said...

Oh, Douglas, I was just making a joke about being on the internet all the time. I plan to do both -- read the book and see the movie -- when I get the chance to.

I was also making a sideways joke about movie quality, given how all my friends were reporting disappointments with current releases, like M:I:3, Da Vinci Code, etc., but the humor in finding a past release "disappointing" too didn't really come through in my post.

At any rate: What were they -- Ghotbzadeh, Robespierre, Trotsky, and the rest -- thinking in their last moments? I've wondered that myself. I've wondered if they thought their revolutions were heading in the wrong directions but were at least still essentially the proper path to follow, or if they had doubts about legitimacy (not "legality", I'm talking moral legitimacy) of their revolutions themselves. In other words, did they lament the direction but still think the movement good at heart? Or did they, in their last moments, reject the entire endeavor? For some odd reason I suspect it's the former, but I need to think that through first. I don't know enough about those individuals to speak definitively yet.

At 11:04 AM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

David Weber created a weird juxtaposition with the Republic of Haven in his Honor Harrington series. Where Haven was first run by Legislaturalists, a sort of monarchist patronist style of government where everything is beholden to the rich and aristocrats. Then came "Rob" and the Revolution. Eventually "Rob" had to purge a whole bunch of people to "save the Revolution".

It was interesting seeing the French Revolution from the perspective of someone trying to change things, and in the end simply installed something worse, yet he could not stop. Because the thing he set into motion took on a life of its own, a hunger of its own. Riding the tiger is all good and nice, until you want to get off and realize the tiger is going to eat you if you do.

At 11:11 AM, May 22, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Tom Grey: Thanks, typo fixed.

At 11:15 AM, May 22, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Elmondohummus: re the whole question of movies and books and which are better, see this post of mine on the subject.

At 11:29 AM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

It is worth considering that revolutions are likely to turn out badly because they are so often the result of extreme situations.

For example, the Russian Revolution, one that I am sure is not so popular on this site, was largely the consequence of a highly corrupt and incompetent autocratic monarchy fighting a war in which the lives of poor people were simply wasted. It is very unlikely that Bolshevism would have got anywhere if it were not for the extreme circumstances of the time. It is also worth considering about what the Germans were thinking when Lenin was sent to the Finland Station.

The mayhem then continued as the provisional government was overthrown by Lenin, western forces intervened - ineptly - allowing the red army et al to paint a paranoid picture of a country under threat, then....well i am sure you know the rest of the sorry tale.

The point I make is that it is not simply the revolution that is the cause of violence but the whole process. Authoritarian governemnt, oppression, revolution, chaos and bloodshed as the revolution tears itself to bits. In the end the Russian people were glad of someone to take control of the whole mess. Even someone as murderous and deranged as Stalin.

One of the many reasons why democracy is the best method of government is that it, generally, does not treat its people so badly that they feel they have no avenue other than violence. In the event of violence democratic governments have a, sensible, tendency to avoid a simple crackdown, usually looking to deal with the causes of the outbreak. This puts a safety valve into the system which stops the whole process.

However. The question remains as to what you should do when you are in an extreme situation of exploitation. Remain quiet and put up with it?

or rebel?

Or is the only acceptable form of revolution the American one, and that was a one off and should never be repeated.

For th epoeple of Cuba in the 1950's the situation was not all sweetness andlight. Castro didn't become popular because he had a nice beard. It happened because the people were treated like dirt by a nasty little dictatorship supported by US corporations and government. Meanwhile US organised crime was turning the place into an offshore gambling house come brothel.

Protests against Batista's illegal regime were fiercly put down and the whole mess got going. And yes Castro turned out to be a dictator, but at the time what were the Cuban people supposed to do. Remain low wage sugar workers for ever? Or hope to move into the employ of casinos and whorehouses?

Or have a radical change?

ditto Venezuala and lots of other places that I am sure you all find despicable but whose people did not want to be pushed around any more.

At 11:53 AM, May 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can anyone comment on two different revolutionary characters: One who wants to restore an old order or repair an existing one vs. one who wants to destroy the existing order and put something new in its place? Is one frequently more successful than the other?

I'm not an historian, but it seems to me that the English and their offspring (Americans, etc.) tend to think of their revolts and revolutions as efforts to fix an existing system that's somehow become dysfunctional. They would consider their form of government to be the most enlightened in the world, but occasionally hijacked by bad characters. From Wat Tyler to the American Revolution, the rebels typically claim that they're merely seeking the rights due them as Englishmen. The French and various Marxists/socialists, on the other hand, considered their old systems irredeemably broken and sought to replace them with something totally different.

It seems like, in the English case, there is a base of commonality among the parties involved - they're all Englishmen and they all agree, more or less, about certain basic rights. Their party affiliations tend to cut across social and economic classes. In the other cases, one party or class is clearly identified as the enemy, and must be completely disempowered if not destroyed. The French had their aristocrats, and Marxists their bourgeois parasites - all for the chop or the gulag.

So I'm wondering if "restorative" revolutions tend to be less bloodthirsty than "destructive" revolutions.

At 12:09 PM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Jack Trainor said...

Or is the only acceptable form of revolution the American one, and that was a one off and should never be repeated.

No one has said that. However, I would say that not all revolutions are equal and the more history I read the more impressed I am with the American Revolution and the sadder I am about most, though not all, other revolutions.

Also the more history I read the more of mess I realize human life has been from the beginning, and the need to respect those things that have worked and learn from those that haven't.

At 12:12 PM, May 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Good point - oppression leads to desperation. Unfortunately, desperation often leads to more oppression. While I can sympathize with the plight of Venezuelans, Cubans, Russians, and others, I think it's unfortunate that they continue to allow their governments to be hijacked by every el jefe who promises them more money, more security, and by the way Death to America. Did they learn nothing from the Russians, the Germans, the Cambodians?

More importantly, are there any alternatives for them that cannot be subverted by corrupt or foolish politicians bent on hogging all the power? And if there are, can those alternatives be implemented without a lot of bloodshed?

Ya got me - I'm just asking.

I think a lot of it depends on the character and history of the populations involved. I was reading about Wat Tyler's revolt and comparing that to the Peasants' Revolt in France. Tyler and his followers marched on London and tried to present their grievances to the King. The Jacques marched through France trying to kill every noble they could get their hands on. If I understand correctly, an English peasant believed he had certain rights - although limited ones, while a French peasant was basically chattel. The Englishman believed someone might listen to his complaints; the Frenchman believed no one would listen. Hence the difference in the character and outcome of the two revolts. (Admittedly, the peasants lost on both counts, but the French ones lost big.)

I'm not familiar with the Greek revolution. Were the Greek people oppressed by their government, with no avenue for redressing their grievances?

And how do you explain the presence in relatively stable, prosperous countries like France, Germany, and Italy, of so-called revolutionary groups who seek to overthrow systems that, while not always fair, certainly cannot be described as oppressive?

At 12:16 PM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

some in the english civil war were not trying to fix the old monarchical system so much as to build heaven on earth. They killed a King after all which was a BIG deal at the time and considered a serious break with what had gone on in the past.

I don't think the divide is between restorative and destructive revolutions so much as between successful e.g. the us and unsuccessful e.g. Cambodia. It may be that the "great big change" revolutions are more likely to be a consequence of the roe extreme situations.

It is worth thinking that Mussolini came to power by a form of revolution and his whole ethos was restorative of some ill defined glorious past. Also Pinochet's coup in Chile was restorative in ideology but extremely unpleasant and divisive in practice.

At 12:19 PM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

And how do you explain the presence in relatively stable, prosperous countries like France, Germany, and Italy, of so-called revolutionary groups who seek to overthrow systems that, while not always fair, certainly cannot be described as oppressive?

spoilt middle class brats - well if you are discussing the red brigades etc.

At 12:39 PM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Protests against Batista's illegal regime were fiercly put down and the whole mess got going. And yes Castro turned out to be a dictator, but at the time what were the Cuban people supposed to do. Remain low wage sugar workers for ever? Or hope to move into the employ of casinos and whorehouses?

This idea that dictatorship is a successful result of a revolution because it "improves" the welfare of the "people" has a problem, and not a slight one at that. Simply because there has been no dictatorship, except benevolent dictatorships, that have improved the standard of their followers.

You would think that this idea or "philosophy" that anything is better than nothing because nothing is the worst, should have applied in people's treatment of the US invading Iraq to install democracy. Presumably people living in democracies prefer to live in democracies and not anything else.

The Cuban people actually had a higher living standard than they do today. As reporters have found out in Cuba, many people can't find jobs, so whoring is a way to make some quick bucks to pay for education.

There is a logic gap present. When people believe dictatorship is better cause well you know the Cubans had nothing but whorehouses before, and now they got more whorehouses now so it is better. Well, the logic would work if it really was better. However, would people have tolerated Batista's so called "illegal" government if it meant giving the people of Cuba a good economy? Isn't that the logic shown here, that even dictatorships should be tolerated if it is good for the "people"?

The argument then in the end is whether the Cubans and Iraqis were better off before or after. Nobody'll ever agree on that, simply because the West is too busy playing power politics than try to improve the lives of Cubans and Iraqis. The one time that the US spent any attention in the worst places of the world, they were upbraided for disrupting the status quo.

Can anyone comment on two different revolutionary characters: One who wants to restore an old order or repair an existing one vs. one who wants to destroy the existing order and put something new in its place? Is one frequently more successful than the other?

Well, I think it has to do with conservatism. I can't comment on success rates. When I was studying European history and military history, I didn't exactly catologue how many revolutions were successful and when they happened. I was more concerned with how to win revolutionary wars, not what to do afterwards.

It has to do with conservatism because a society and a civilization cannot sustain itself basically on New Age philosophy. There has to be something solid, something that has been proven to work, to prop up the entire edifice. If you don't have that, then you're basically building a skyscraper without a good foundation. Something bad will happen, like when the Tower of Piza started sliding in the mud.

The military is probably one of the most conservative organizations in history, in the sense that the military has always relied upon what has been proven to "work" against an enemy. An army constructed upon entirely new and different training and fighting methods will not succede. A lot of people have died proving that. However, you get a problem. Because when something new does occur, like the carrier in WWII, you have a bunch of battleship admirals that keep fighting the carrier philosophy because they want to go with what has worked before. In peacetime that might be tolerated, in a war of survival, it cannot be tolerated. You cannot refuse a technological or tactical advantage simply because you are afraid to try something new. A society that does not change, will stagnate and die. A society that changes too much, will mutate and kill itself.

Therefore reforming a government is always going to have more chance of success than instituting a new government. The reason why you should not expect a democracy in Kuwaitt (One tribe gets elected to PM all the time) and democracy in Iraq/Afghanistan to look the same as our government. Not because we should not expect them to uphold the same human rights as we do, right to bear arms in self-defense, right to free speech and practice religion. No, we should not expect them to be same because all politics are local. Which means, all politics derives their systemic foundation from the specific societal rituals and histories.

The Arabs are governed by tribes, patriarchy. If you reform it as Kuwaitt has done, and make each tribe a "democratic grass roots organization" with the leader being the "patrician" then you have democracy, but not democracy as we know it here in the US. We have parties and special interests, our organization is not organized around family politics. There IS family politics, but the political organization at the TOP is not based upon families, but PACs, fund raisers, etc.

This has to do also with trying to bring an anarchic nation to full civilization. That does not work all that often because the "stress" upon the society is too much. Engineers probably know more about. There is such a thing as "Social Engineering" but there's not a job market out for them. "Social Engineering" is what an engineer does if he is asked to rebuild a society from the ground up, to something better. Gradual reformation and improvements are best, like here in America. (Because there really aren't that many social engineers out there with the power to do anything) Slavery didn't get eliminated immediately, neither was racism or discrimmination or jim crow. However, if you are absolutely required to jump start a country like Iraq, then if anyone can do it, America can.

Remember how people kept saying that there would be like a more advanced civilization out in the stars, and that they would come and teach us why war is wrong and stupid and all that? That's social engineering. However, you really can't engineer war out of the equation, because some things are irreducible and non-transformative. You can't transform helium to hydrogen, for example, there are some human as well as physical limits to change and engineering.

At 1:20 PM, May 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aliens. I figure if they do show up one day they'll either enlighten us or eat us. 50/50 chance either way. Bets?

I'm not sure about the English revs starting out to build heaven on earth. I think they just wanted Charles to behave himself (and stop being Catholic). But the Puritans and their religious fellow-travellers turned out to be the most powerful factions ideologically and financially, so they got to set the agenda. I guess that's an important aspect of any revolution: who gets to say what it's "about."

I'm not the expert, though - especially concerning the Protectorate and the Restoration. Did the English under Cromwell feel like their revolution had succeeded? Failed? Or was it another case of simply welcoming somebody strong who could impose order on chaos?

And again, regarding current revolutions - why do people keep doing things that have failed (or at least been only questionably successful) expecting that this time it'll be different? Socialist revolution. Islamic revolution. Are we really that bereft of ideas now? Nothing new on the horizon?

Evolution seems to work better than revolution.

At 1:43 PM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

And again, regarding current revolutions - why do people keep doing things that have failed (or at least been only questionably successful) expecting that this time it'll be different?

Either the populist propaganda sounds good so they jump on the bandwagon. Or they are useful idiots straight out of college or in college, and they don't know enough history to fill a condom.

At 4:25 PM, May 22, 2006, Blogger eatyourbeans said...

Give old Stalin his due. He shot 'em all shot.

At 5:46 PM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

SB if you want to get a bit of an insight into the mindset of the english during the protectorate an dafter the reformation the biography of pepys by claire tomalin is really good. Pepys was on both sides at different times. The book is really well written

This site is also really helpful. The point i made about heaven on earth is true. Some of cromwell's men where seriously radical- religious revolutionaries - and not so keen on romwell.

"Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?"

Gerrard Winstanley The New Law of Righteousness, 1649

the Diggers were serious about very radical change

At 1:43 AM, May 23, 2006, Blogger douglas said...

If years afterwards, people are debating whether or not your revolution was successful, it probably wasn't, eh? Seems like a fair test to me. I like studying the details for my own information, and to further construct my world view, but in the end, the answers tend to be fairly simple.

Re: Movies/books- If you're a highly visual reader, seeing the movie after reading a book is always a dicey affair...

At 1:51 AM, May 23, 2006, Blogger douglas said...

Here's a thought- maybe Sally was right. The American Revolution was a revolution politically (overthrowing a king), but culturally, it really was a rebellion, we held onto the major principles handed down to us through western civilization and particularly the British tradition. The ideas that were formalized in the Declaration and Constitution had been around, mainly in the british system, but the monarchy prevented them from going beyond a certain point. We, with distance, and time, were able to take that step. In that light, you might see the revolution as being a long one of British origin, but I think that's constructing too long a continuum to hold.

So I think I'll stick with this- for the most part, revolutions fail (in the long run) and rebellions sometimes succeed. Probably in no small part because revolutions invariably start to self-immolate from the internal friction of ideological purity and the paranoia of tyrants.

At 5:25 AM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

Just out of curiosity do you consider the Chinese Communist Revolution successful? It was certainly more than a rebellion and the chinese appear fairly happy with it. In economic and miltitary terms it seems to be doing well.

At 9:00 AM, May 23, 2006, Blogger nyomythus said...

As long as the Chinese keep their ties to the American economy they will do well. The only thing that could upset this harmony would be a Chinese military coup with expansion on their minds. They have plenty of people that would bear impossible impoverishment, yet they would have plenty to though to a Front in a march through Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan)…

Destination unknown, I'm a long way from home
Destination unknown, I'll be gone, gone, gone
Destination unknown, Destination unknown


…A lil’ musical humor there. :D

At 10:12 AM, May 23, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nnc, et. al - thanks for the link and the thoughtful responses.

At 11:49 AM, May 23, 2006, Blogger sunguh5307 said...

The Chinese answer to a verdict on a 50+ year old PRC government of present day in the context of their 5000 year old civilization would be: too soon to say. They would say the same to queries about the Ming dynasty of 14th to 17th century.... but that's the Chinese.

Overall, some interesting semantic arguments here. The 'rebel/revolutionary' distinction is a nice compromise. I think any serious comparison of the French and American Revolutions will show the difference of result, and rarity of the continuing American republic success, against all historic odds.

At 12:46 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

not really a nice compromise as it is simply a roundabout way to argue that all revolutions are wrong apart from the American one.

What other revolutions are considered acceptable? And what shoudl be the reaction of those people who findthemselves the victim of oppression? Passivity? Acceptance that a revolution will only make things worse?

At 12:56 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Sally said...

Social/political upheavals, like earthquakes, actually come in a range of severities, from simple coups at one end, through various forms and levels of political rebellion/change, to attempts at complete social, cultural, and even psychological transformation at the other end. These are always risky events, and their outcomes depend to a great extent on the worth of the goals and ideals that initiated them -- certainly an important reason why the American Revolution(/rebellion) has been such a notable but rare success.

But it's not just the ideals in themselves that matter here -- the values underlying the American Revolution didn't differ that much from those of the French Revolution after all -- but the limited nature of the goals as well, and here's where the American and French models of revolution diverged significantly. The latter, influenced by the continental Enlightenment generally, and by Rousseau in particular, was really the first major attempt not just at a political revolution but at a cultural revolution, a transformation of society and of the people making it up, top to bottom. This ambition was a direct result of a fatal hubris contained in the Enlightenment notion of Reason -- the idea that, if only we have access to the full power of the state, human beings, their lives, and their social structures can be manipulated or "engineered" in the same way that we manipulate any other instruments or materials in nature. And that idea, in turn, lies at the basis of much of the historical tragedy of the modern era.

By contrast, the American Revolution was influenced much more by the British or Scottish Enlightenment, which had a clearer understanding of the limits of reason (small "r") as well as of state power. If the figure of Rousseau, and the baleful, incipiently totalitarian notion of the "General Will", stands in back of the French Revolution, it's people like Locke, Adam Smith, and Tom Paine, and the powerful emergent notions of the modern individual and the self-organizing community, that stand in back of the American. And it's those ideas that lie at the basis of much of the historical achievement of the modern era.

At 12:58 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

douglass, you might want to start from the Roman Republic and find what happened when the Romans occupied the Britons and especially when they left.

At 1:27 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

There's another side to it sally. Ideas are fine, but if the people you have applying those ideas are ungood people, then you have a problem.

The Scots-Irish and immigrants of Germanic descent really contributed. Demographically, if we get all the dredges and exiles from Europe, and we combine a philosophy that says everyone is equal regardless of class or heritage, then we have a people willing to grab this belief without having to kill anyone for it for oppressing them.

It is a lot more peaceful to go out into the wilderness and risk life and limb to carve out a new future for you and your family, than it is to try to take away power and land from the ruling party back in Europe. Not always peaceful, but it is more peaceful than trying to fight a civil war in Europe.

So we got demographics. People who would rather run the risk of being eaten by a bear and killed by an Indian than stay in the class society that is Europe. Then we have the environment. a Harsh frontier which promotes individualism and not socialism.

The Founding Fathers, in a way, constructed a belief system that individuals could ascribe to. Not because they were forced into it, but because it benefits them. When the people freely enter into a contract that is of mutual benefit to the contractee and the contractor, there is much less instability and revolutionary tendencies.

The Anglo-Saxon argument has some merits. After all Canada and Australia, as former colonies, got their freedom, eventually anyway. So did India.

It's not easy to get a revolution going if people are already satisfied. It is also hard to get individuals to buy onto the propaganda of socialism and revolution. Americans didn't sign up instantly for the Revolutionary War for example. Individuals tend to want to check out the deal before buying into it.

When people live in decadent civilizations, or tribalistic cultures, it is easy for populist leaders like Chavez and Komeini and Mao to get power. You either have a bunch of college students that have relied upon their parents and their government for support. Or you have a bunch of people who don't know any history cause they're too busy starving, and desperate enough to buy into any hope by the communists.

There are anti-Revolutionary safeguards. Without those safeguards, revolutions tend to get out of control and catastrophically fail.

At 1:59 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Jack Trainor said...

What other revolutions are considered acceptable? And what shoudl be the reaction of those people who findthemselves the victim of oppression? Passivity? Acceptance that a revolution will only make things worse?

I like the
Velvet Revolution
and the various "color" revolutions that we've seen in Europe and the Middle East.

I don't think it would be out of line to call what is happening in Iraq a revolution either, assuming one is truly concerned about oppressed peoples taking action to free themselves and create non-oppressive, democratic governments--even if they do get help from the United States.

At 2:04 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

It's the "help", in the form of an illegal invasion, that gets their goat. While they were helpless to do anything good for the oppressed people of Iraq and Afghanistan, and they helpless right now to intervene in Darfur, they are jealous and envious of the US doing what they lied about doing.

Someone living in a fantasy world, harbors a deep hatred of anyone revealing that fantasy for what it is.

At 2:12 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Jack Trainor said...

Ymar -- I'd put "illegal invasion" in quotes and I'd appreciate toning down mindreading like:

Someone living in a fantasy world, harbors a deep hatred of anyone revealing that fantasy for what it is.

nnc is posting substantively and calmly.

At 2:26 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Jack Trainor said...

Many of the most famous revolutions have foundered horrifically on the rocks of despotism. However, in the past 250 years the trend in the world is overwhelmingly towards democracy.

It doesn't necessarily happen as a result of "revolution." Sometimes it occurs after dictatorial governments are defeated militarily as in the case of Germany, Japan, and now Afghanistan and Iraq.

I can undertand opposing wars in general and the Iraq War in particular. However, at some point it seems to me that those who oppose the Iraq War need to address the full picture of Iraq, not just those aspects that support their opposition.

Iraq is now a far more democratic and less oppressive country than it was before, and it appears to be getting better--knock on wood--at a steady rate.

At 5:00 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

i suppose the test of any of these arguments is that if in say, five years time, Iraq is in a reasonable condition - and i would settle for not in a state of civil war, even at the low level we have at the moment then you lot have some reason to claim you were right. As you will if here is a more global move away from extremism and terrorism.....

However I suspect that this "long war" business is going to drag out and get more complex and bloody and covoluted in a whole host of ways that none of us can guess at. This particularly applies if no serious attempt is made to engage with moderate islamic opinion in many parts of the world. onsistent beligerance will only push many muslims into the arms of the radicals.

At 5:02 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Anyone who believes classical liberals like me, neo-cons who are still classical liberals but can't abide the Democrats or the fake liberals, or the Bush Administration that orchestrated the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq from the darkest holes of humanity are themselves the oppressors, is pretty much living in a fantasy land. Or the twilight zone, in which one believes that those who liberate Iraq from the Sunni oppressors and the secret police, are somehow being mean and fascistic toward the freedom loving people in Iraq that blow up women and children.

You might as well start arguing that the victim with the bat is now the bully cause the victim grabbed the bat from the real bully. If you notice Jack, historically the underdogs have been weaklings compared to the mighty and rich aristocratic oppressors of humanity. When the underdog becomes the top alpha dog, that doesn't give you or anyone else free reign to say that Ali Kirsti is the intolerant fascist and not the ones who oppressed people like her in her birth country.

Good people don't become mean and evil if they get power over evil people. And any real historical study will reveal that truely good and wise people do not get corrupted by power, otherwise Washington would have reigned as King supreme and there wouldn't be an America.

That doesn't happen very often, and neither does the liberation of crappy countries like Iraq or Afghanistan. When they do happen, people should encourage it, instead of trying to stop it, or trying to argue that America did an illegal and evil thing. They heap fantastical scorn upon fantastical fantasies when they then begin talking about looking out for the interests of the little guy who has nothing, against the big bad secret police dictatorships.

You'll find little tolerance, Jack, for people who say freedom and economic prosperity is good but that if it comes from the US it then becomes invalid, from me.

Conned can prove he is calm and collected, to you jack, by telling everyone that he supports the liberation of Iraq from the oppressors, and (this is key) this was accomplished by American blood and toil not the freedom loving insurgents. Long wait , I expect.

To go back to the primary point.

Someone living in a fantasy world, harbors a deep hatred of anyone revealing that fantasy for what it is.

It's a logic statement, jack. Logic statements, are logically, not mind reading mysticism. If you want to single out conned, go ahead. But don't pretend I did that, since my statement applies to everyone that lives in a fantasy world. It don't matter who you are jack, humans react in the same manner on the basis of a shared number of stimulis.

Remember the two rules of neo-cons

1. We are right

2. You are wrong. and stupid. and evil.

And now.........

the brand new third rule. Everybody who agrees with uis right and good and clever.

Courtesy of conned. That might seem substantial or calm to you, Jack, but it is rather apparent to me that it is a fantasy world in which the liberation of Iraq by classical liberals sometimes now called neo-cons becomes not a liberation, but a doctrinaire and close minded war of exploitation.

If you want to defend conned, Jack, you have two obstacles before you. You have to explain how and why you took a general statement that applies to everyone, and applied it specifically to conned without any recognition of the fact that it can also apply to other people. The reverse logic then becomes, why did you accuse conned of applying to the standard, not why I applied my statements to conned. 2nd, why conned does not apply to the standards of living in a fantasy world by his own words. You don't think he does, so obviously you should be able to explain why.

Last of all, I'd appreciate not putting words into my statements that weren't there. That's like getting nncon here to say that wars of conquest and exploitation are wrong, therefore nncon has said the Iraq War is wrong. Don't attach logical conclusions to my logic, and act as if it follows. If I wanted to accuse conned of living in a fantasy world, I would have brought along direct quotes of conned. This characterization of yours, jack, is not based upon either good reasoning nor good logic. In fact, if you wanted me to accuse conned of living in a fantasy world, the best thing you could have done would be to get me on the defensive with an accussation that I accused conned of living in a fantasy world when you say his comments are calm and substantial. To which I would reply with the obvious rejoinder that they aren't. But as a reminder, I didn't start out on that path, jack, until you brought the subject up. So let's be clear on who pulled the first hit.

Conned didn't put illegal invasion in quotse, why should I?

it is unpopular because it was an illegal action

So as a summary. When I first brought up fantastical worlds, I was applying it in a very general manner. When you brought it up, you were thinking of conned because that was who you were replying to. Since I was replying to you, I wasn't thinking of conned as much as you were. But I was thinking of conned when I replied to you, cause you accused me of specifying conned as living in a fantasy world, when I didn't. So I obviously had to defend my statement both on what I meant by it and the accuracy of how it applies to conned.

It is not that the other side is wrong it is that they are; weak, stupid, cowardly, psychologically disturbed, incapable of putting together a proper argument etbloodycetera. - conned

Is my meaning clear enough now to avoid unintended distortions and misunderstanding? I prefer to avoid this in the future.

At 5:10 PM, May 23, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

i wish i could avoid you ....the whole rules of neo cons was for your benefit light sabre boy....

At 5:08 PM, May 24, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Quoting brokeback, I see.


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