Thursday, April 15, 2010


Communist Party and Left Front mark 91st anniversary of October Revolution

By happenstance I recently joined a small, informal philosophy reading group. They use the term philosophy relatively loosely. From time to time the group’s reading list intersects with this blog’s concerns. Zizek, for instance, has made their syllabus. Look for a post on Robespierre in the not-too-distant future.

Last week, the group started to read Eric Hoffer’s book True Believer. I’ve skimmed an excerpt from the book and its thesis (partly borrowed from German sociologist Karl Mannheim’s Utopia and Ideology.  I would think) seems directly relevant to the Russian Revolution and its aftershocks in the 1920s and 1930s. Hoffer makes the case that mass movements of any epoch or any political orientation are essentially alike. The participants are motivated by a desire to renounce the fragile, insecure, even wounded “self” in the interest of the quasi-religious ecstasy of self-denial and self-renunciation.

The irony of modern movements is that the ideological substance of specific movements is often less important than its psychological message. For this reason, Hoffer is not surprised that fascists and communists often fought for the same slice of the German population;  that is to say, the parties of either extreme were most successful recruiting people who were looking for some kind of messianic response to their own psychological insecurity. The fact is that a fascist often had more luck appealing to former socialists than he did when appealing to the unaffiliated. Mussuloni's own turn from socialist to fascism is the most famous example of this phenomenon.

There was, at bottom, a psychological if not political unity to interwar mass movements. Hoffer makes a number of useful observations about revolutionary upheaval, although his attempt to equate self-denial with all great social and economic transformations, including the Crusades, the Reformation, and Industrial Revolution, might unnecessarily dilute the descriptive power of his theory of modern mass movements. Hoffer notes, for instance, that the disgruntled must be economically aggrieved but not so oppressed that they have no sense of their own power. This distinction is relevant to the French Revolution. Historians argue that this famous revolt occurred either as a direct result of the bourgeoisie’s rising strength or, as Hoffer prefers, as the inevitable outcome of an emerging Enlightenment faith in the power of human reason.

In the case of the Bolsheviks, this idea that oppression must almost paradoxically be combined with empowerment makes a lot of sense. Certainly the Russian intelligentsia gained a sense of its own strength during the 1905 Revolution and later in the midst of the First World War. More importantly, the rhetoric of working class solidarity and entitlement (in addition to institutions such as unions and soviets) gave workers (whether they had fragile egos or not) a very strong sense that the future would be better than the past.

With Max Weber, Hoffer also knows what Sheila Fitzpatrick and other Soviet historians know, and that is that revolutionary enthusiasm has its limits. The people can be whipped up (or can whip them themselves up) for only so long before they stop being “true believers” and respond only to more traditional motivational strategies such as rewards or coercive action. In any event, the initial phases of the Russian Revolution make no sense without a very deep appreciation for its quasi-religious aspects. Russian Marxists, before, during, and after October 1917, were motivated by faith, self-denial, self-surrender, ecstatic hope, belief that the individual could be and should be transcended in the interest of something greater, etc.

They may also have motivated by insecurity. However, how can one go about proving this assertion? Is it really possible to separate out a religious personality from a non-religious one? Is it possible to say that Leftists were more insecure than political moderates?  And, if this is possible to say, what does it tell us? Is insecurity a bad thing if it leads to the overthrow of unjust institutions?

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