The Revolutionary Mode

on July 4, 2010

If what I’ve written previously about the “romantic break” that gave rise to late 19th century occultism is correct, it ought to be possible to find an equivalent in other cycles.

There should, for example, have been a moment in the late 18th century when the increasing subordination of the hierarchy vision to the reason vision triggered an attempted reversal — one in which an updated version of hierarchy was seen as superior to reason, and society was regarded as holding an almost magical power to improve human nature.

According to the comparative timetables I worked out years ago, the period equivalent to 1877-83, when occultism emerged, would have been around 1783-94. And there was, of course, precisely such a reversal during those years: the French Revolution.

The French Revolution was a product of the era of hierarchy-and-reason, during which the old medieval notion of society as a pyramid — with the king at the top and the peasants at the bottom — was increasingly displaced by appeals to rationality.

When the hierarchy-and-reason partnership was created in the 1760’s, for example, it seemed perfectly acceptable for kings to continue to rule, as long as they did so as “enlightened despots.” But by 1776, the mood had changed to the point where even a parliamentary monarch like George III of England could be described in the Declaration of Independence as “marked by every act which may define a Tyrant.”

The recent discovery that in an early draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson wrote “subjects,” and then defiantly smudged the word out and substituted “citizens,” catches a conscious rejection of hierarchy in the very moment of its occurring.

This shift in attitude provided room for the development of hierarchy’s successor, the democracy vision, whose ideals of freedom and equality were explicitly anti-hierarchic. But the more general impact was to accelerate the subordination of hierarchy to reason.

The men of wealth and property who drafted the United States Constitution in the summer of 1787, for example, were eager to throw off the yoke of tyranny when it rested heavily on their own shoulders, but were far less enthusiastic about any democratic impulses that might threaten their social superiority.

The form of government laid out in the Constitution might fairly be described as a heavily rationalized version of a traditional hierarchy. There were no kings or hereditary nobles, and legitimate political authority came from the rationality of the system itself rather than divine right. But very little power was placed in the hands of ordinary citizens — who could not even vote for the president or senators — and until the Bill of Rights was added in 1789 at the demand of Jefferson and others, there were no guarantees of personal rights or freedoms.

The French Revolution, which began with the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, started off on a very similar basis, as the revolutionaries instituted a sweeping program of rationalizaton, not only in government but even in such things as the metric system of measurement. But as the Revolution progressed, it turned into something very different.

In October 1793, with France beset by enemies both internal and external, constitutional government was suspended and replaced by a “revolutionary government,” which was defended by paramilitary units and enforced by the Reign of Terror.

Robespierre, the most prominent leader of this revolutionary dictatorship, even stated explicitly, “If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror. … The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.”

In these words, we can see the ideal of despotism which was central to the aging hierarchy vision being given a radical new twist. And this revolutionary despotism was conceived of as the protector of “virtue” — a word used at the time to represent the highest moral values of the reason vision.

During the Reign of Terror — which lasted until Robespierre himself lost his head to the guillotine the following summer — there was a frantic attempt to do away with every vestige of the old order. The Catholic Church, for example, was briefly supplanted by a Cult of Reason, and even the calendar was rationalized and renumbered, with the establishment of the republic as Year 1.

This was most assuredly Revolution as magical thinking, Revolution with the objective of forcing people to be rational, whether they liked it or not. As such, it was a reversal of values precisely equivalent to the reversal that would occur in the 1880’s when occultism reframed the fading reason vision and declared it superior to science — but carried out at a far greater cost in blood and lives.

The French Revolution failed on a multitude of levels, but it had set a powerful example that endured through the 19th and early 20th centuries. It offered a beacon of hope after the defeat of Napoleon, inspiring resistance to the forcible re-imposition of the old aristocratic order. And when the hierarchy vision finally collapsed, about the time of the Revolutions of 1848, the revolutionary mode became associated with utopian aspirations towards a more perfect society.

The democracy vision was also developing rapidly during this period, but it was still in the emergent phase and except in the United States was culturally marginal. From 1848 to the 1930’s, there was no dominant socially-based vision — and it was precisely during those years that the revolutionary mystique exerted its most powerful grip, from “The Communist Manifesto” (1848) to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

It was only after the science-and-democracy partnership became solidly established that the revolutionary mode started to wane. During the wave of populism that marked the late 30’s, much of the radical left — disgusted in particular by Stalin’s show trials of 1936-38 — either made common cause with the democracy vision or shifted its focus to the first intimations of democracy’s successor, the multiculturalism vision.

The full-on revolutionary mode did maintain some degree of influence for another full cycle, and even enjoyed a final surge of attention when the science-and-democracy partnership collapsed in the 1960’s — only to crumble and be swept aside during the heyday of the the democracy-and-chaos partnership in the late 1970’s and 1980’s.

By then, it was only the fanatical anti-communists on the right who still took the Red Menace seriously — and even today there are still some who shake in their boots at the word “socialism,” lie awake at night obsessing over Barack Obama’s plans for a Marxist dictatorship, or spin elaborate conspiracy theories that lead directly from the French Revolution to the now-disbanded anti-poverty group ACORN.

But speaking of the right brings up a very interesting point, because it seems that the right generated its own variants of the revolutionary mode, following exactly the same timetable as the left.

The earliest and most moderate of these was proposed by the Anglo-Irish statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke. Burke had been a supporter of the American Revolution and was initially inclined to offer cautious approval of the French Revolution — but within a few months he was proclaiming with horror that “the Elements which compose Human Society seem all to be dissolved, and a world of Monsters to be produced in the place of it.”

In November 1790, Burke published a pamphlet titled Reflections on the Revolution in France, which laid out the philosophical basis for his objections. His central argument was that because human society and human nature are too complex to comprehend rationally, established institutions and opinions which have withstood the test of time should not be tinkered with blindly, but should be respected as the most reliable supports of virtue.

By putting his faith in society rather than reason, Burke showed himself to be as much a product of the romantic break as the revolutionaries. But where the revolutionary mode on the left was radical in nature, aiming to do away with the old order, Burke’s ideal was to hold onto the collective wisdom of the past and add to it only in small incremental steps.

Burkean conservatism retained its essentially sober and moderate quality throughout the 19th century — which is to say, for as long as the reason vision remained dominant. But when the reason vision failed in the course of World War I, a far more virulent form of conservatism — fascism — was born in Italy out of a fusion of right-wing nationalism and left-wing revolutionary aspirations.

The chief hallmarks of fascism were a determination to subordinate the destiny of the individual to the will of an all-powerful state, along with a contemptuous rejection of Enlightenment values. In other words, it represented the ultimate assertion of the dominance of hierarchy over reason every bit as much as Soviet communism.

The reactionary dreams of fascism destabilized the world for a generation before being forcibly brought down by the military might of the science-and-democracy partnership. And following the fall of fascism, in the late 40’s and 1950’s, Burkean conservatism made an impressive comeback in a form which had largely come to terms with the democracy vision.

But now Burkean conservatism itself is on the decline, Traditionalism and anti-communism have fallen on hard time since the fall of the Soviet Union — and even though contemporary tea partiers may mouth many of the same old slogans, they show no signs of understanding the true Burkean temperament.

It is still too soon to say for certain — and these inverted visions do have unusual staying power — but for the moment it seems as though the long run of the revolutionary mode may finally be over, on both the left and the right.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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