Friday, October 23, 2009

Conservative Critique of Revolution

The Russian Revolution of 1917 wouldn’t have made sense without the French Revolution of 1789. The French Revolution defined radical struggle as well as its inevitable byproduct: self-conscious conservatism. The terms, Left and Right, emerged as a result of the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly. So Ivan Bunin’s critique of Red Russia was not a recent invention. Edmund Burke has said it all before in Reflections on the Revolution in France more than hundred years previously.

Edmund Burke

Burke’s critique of the French Revolution was predicated on a wider critique of the Enlightenment. Although he was a reformer, Burke stood firmly against the notion that society could or should be improved by rationality alone. Burke’s argument is complex, perhaps even a touch defensive, because the case for Revolution was strong. People knew the Ancien Regime was corrupt, abusive, arbitrary, and illogical.


On the face of it, thinking people could no longer accept the principle of autocracy, which allowed the king to rule by divine right with little regard for the welfare of his subjects, the rule of law, or the dictates of reason. The king’s arbitrary power was only the most obviously irrational aspect of pre-revolutionary France. The church ruled vast swathes of land and enjoyed immense privilege, including an exemption from taxation. The aristocracy enjoyed similar rights, which ranged from the right to carry weapons and the right to be executed by a dignified beheading as opposed to a more plebeian hanging.

The French system was rooted in feudalism, which was rooted in local privileges for local aristocrats who exercised enormous influence over the lives of serfs and peasants. The bourgeoisie, while gaining in influence from one decade to the next, were lumped together as a group with everyone in France who had no claim to aristocratic or clerical privilege. In these circumstances, the Revolution had a lot going for it. The new order it promised seemed fairer, smarter, and more efficient, that what it proposed to displace.

Queen At Tribunal

Burke rejected the logic of revolution, but respected that logic and made his case without relying on purely religious sentiment. Instead, he maintained that society was a slowly evolving organism that embodied the mystical but important lessons of history. If England’s system of government appeared irrational—with kings, lords, and an uneven electoral franchise—the system had evolved over many generations, contained myriad checks and balances, and worked well enough to preserve the people’s liberty. The conservative approach to politics was applied to Russia. While it might appear that the revolutionaries were overthrowing a destructive autocracy and an exploitative economy, Russian traditions had evolved over time for good reason.

Bunin, for instance, believed that—for all Russia’s flaws--the wisdom of the ages was contained in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Aristocracy, and other traditional institutions. If Old Russia represented a host of injustices, anti-Semitism included, Bunin thought that quick solutions would make things worse—much worse. Quick solutions, based on short-sighted claims to utilitarianism, reason, and universal truth, would result in violence and the triumph of an impoverished conception of humankind. We know now that Bunin turned out to be right: revolutionary Russia did make things worse.

The hubris of revolutionaries helped them to do away with the Tsar, but also with all other institutions that might have put a break on the government’s power, including the Church, the peasant commune, the Duma, independent judiciaries, the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, the Jewish Bund, the intelligentsia, the arts, the military, and subject nationalities. Eventually, Stalin even moved against the family as an institution, and private life in general.


  1. I have a problem with your first sentence..."The Russian Revolution of 1917 wouldn’t have made sense without the French Revolution of 1789." Are you saying that it wouldn't have happened? Or are you saying that you personally can't make sense of one without the other?

  2. I'm saying it wouldn't have happened, and I'm saying the Russian Revolutionaries wouldn't have known what to do.

  3. So you are saying there is only one way to hold a revolution?

  4. I think at the time there were very few models for what a revolution should look like. It's one thing to overthrow a government, it's another to come up with a plan for a new one when you have no experience whatsoever in the business of government. You naturally turn to the past for models...