Thursday, October 8, 2009

21 Questions (About the Nature of Revolution)

I’ve read a dozen or so books on the Bolshevik Revolution but it remains hard for me to put my finger on the nature of revolution. What exactly is it? Why does it happen when it happens? How do participants view revolutionary events? How does the ordinary person figure out a revolution is starting or when it’s ending? Does the average citizen see things differently than a czar does a revolution? Are there leaders in a revolution, and, if so, how and when do they emerge? Does the crowd act logically or illogically, or logically at certain times and illogically at other times? When is violence likely to occur?


When is violence inevitable? When can a revolution be overwhelmed, slowed, or reversed? Do women act differently than men in a revolution? Do children? Is revolution like arson, does it get started and spread outwards from a central point? Does it start in one place or many places? Can a revolution be good for a country and, if so, under what conditions? Is revolutionary violence better than counter-revolutionary violence?

Breath again.

Is revolution primarily a political or economic phenomenon? Is revolution more likely to happen in an era of rising or falling expectations? What does it feel like to find out that you are in the middle of a revolution—terrifying or exhilarating or both? To what extent are traditions respected even in the middle of chaotic upheaval? Is revolution truly chaotic or is there an underlying order to revolutionary events, which can be discovered with the proper outlook? How do people talk in a revolution? What visual cues or signs are used during a revolution? Who is likely to die in a revolution? How do soldiers become revolutionaries?

Breath once more.

Are certain classes or religious sects or cultural groups more or less likely to be driven to revolt? Can somebody miss a revolution, waking up to find that the old order has been overturned? Is there a moment when people realize the tide has turned and that the authorities have lost? What do terms like loyalty, love, bravery, ethics, freedom, and power mean during a revolution? What can the various academic disciplines tell us about revolution, especially political economy, history, anthropology, art history, sociology, literary theory, and geography? How does revolution spread from major cities to suburban or rural areas? What role does anger, optimism, pessimism, and hunger play in it? How do people feel after a revolution? What do they remember about it, what do they forget?

E.H. Carr’s Bakunin implies that there are certain individuals who have more answers to these questions than others. Bakunin was apparently such an individual. He found revolution everywhere he went. He lived and breathed it, magically appeared on the barricades, provided leadership to the masses in the midst of chaos, etc. It was said that Bakunin understood nothing but revolution. He was, they said, the man everybody needed when revolution first broke out, and the man nobody needed after it had been raging for a few days. Although he was a Russian aristocrat, he plotted against his homeland, theorized its overthrow, and worked against German and Austrian conservatism before finding himself in the middle of the Paris Commune. Nobody knew revolution like Bakunin, not even Marx, his longstanding rival for the hearts and minds of European revolutionaries everywhere.

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