You say you want a Revolution?
Last updated 1/11/2023 at Noon
While I was out delivering your Nugget a couple of weeks ago, I listened to the final episode of “Revolutions,” a podcast by historian Mike Duncan.
Many a Tuesday evening of chucking newspaper bundles has been filled with this monumental achievement of historical storytelling, which started back in 2013 with the English Civil Wars of the 17th Century and concluded last year with a deep dive into the Russian Revolution.
I am of the belief that you can’t understand the world we live in today without understanding the tremendous spate of political and social upheavals that shaped the modern world. The way we are governed and the very way we understand our place in the world — the nature of freedom and liberty, economics, justice, faith — all of these things are shaped, whether we recognize it or not, by the great revolutions of the early modern and modern period.
Our basic concept of “left” and “right” in politics is an artifact of where people sat in the first National Assembly thrown up by the French Revolution of 1789. Our political and social actions often echo and replay the conflicts that erupted within the great revolutions.
If understanding revolutions is important, “Revolutions” offers a mighty pleasing means of sharpening that understanding. It’s like having a multi-unit college course in your pocket — with an especially engaging and accessible professor.
Duncan himself notes that the podcast really hit its stride in Season 3, when he abandoned his plan to confine each revolution to 15 episodes, as he did with the English Revolution of 1641-60 and the American Revolution of 1776-87. The French Revolution is too wild and weird, too complex and significant to put such constraints around it. So Duncan just sent it, recording 55 main episodes and five supplementals on that world-shaking event. The Russian Revolution would be covered in a whopping 103 episodes.
Along the way, Duncan also devoted significant attention to events that are often overlooked or have even been more-or-less erased from history, like the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. He does a magnificent job recounting the complex and wild course of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 — a game of thrones in which ever single major player died violently in a hail of assassins’ bullets.
When you study the great revolutions, clear patterns emerge, patterns that repeat with eerie consistency. The ancient regime gets itself into trouble financially and economically, usually through colossal mismanagement by an out-of-touch elite, often exacerbated by the strains of war. This causes a crisis of political legitimacy, where a significant proportion of the population simply ceases to accept the right of the ruling elite to govern. Often, political leaders seek reform, which is sometimes granted, but always too little, too late. The spark for a real-deal revolution can be a small one, but the conflagration accelerates quickly.
If the revolution is successful in overthrowing the old regime, there is almost inevitably a falling out between more moderate revolutionaries and the radicals, who aren’t content with mere political change and want to revolutionize the economy and society completely. Duncan calls this “the entropy of victory.” This rift often leads to civil war and revolutionary terror — which is much more violent than the original revolutionary upheaval.
Civil war, sometimes accompanied by external conflicts, throws a society into exhausting chaos, which is resolved when a strongman — think Cromwell, Napoleon, or Josef Stalin — seizes and consolidates power.
Revolutions that start as an effort to overthrow a repressive regime tend to end up massively expanding the scope and power of the state — and creating something that is far more repressive and violent than the regime they replaced. The Jacobin Reign of Terror in France was a totalitarian horror show far worse than anything the Bourbon kings ever perpetrated. The Okhrana of Czar Nicholas II had nothing on the monstrous apparatus of state terror set up by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution.
Meet the new boss, WORSE than the old boss.
This all begs the question of whether revolutions are a bloody but necessary means of creating a better society by advancing the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, or cataclysmic earthquakes that cause far more destruction than beneficial progress.
That’s a question Duncan opens but doesn’t answer for us — because it’s really up to us to decide what the legacy of these tremendous events was, is, and will be.