Revolution: By Design…or Accident?

To what extend is revolution the result of design,  of intent; to what extent an accident?

…il n’y eut rien de systématique dans la création du gouvernement révolutionnaire. Presque tous les faits ci-dessus relatés montrent que ce gouvernement ne fut l’application d’aucun système, d’aucune idée préconçue, qu’il se forma empiriquement, au jour le jour, d’éléments imposés par les nécessités successives de la défense nationale, dans un peuple en guerre contre l’Europe, armé tout entier pour défendre son existence, dans un pays qui était devenu comme un vaste camp militaire. Le gouvernement révolutionnaire, expédient de guerre, était sans cesse annoncé comme devant prendre fin avec la guerre. [Aulard, Histoire politique, 462.]

A defensible hypothesis would be that the French Revolution resulted as much from the extreme hostility of European kings and from the political plotting by Louis XVI as from any revolutionary plan in the minds of those now considered to have been the leaders of the Revolution. Aulard’s comment that the revolutionary regime “was not the application of any system, of any preconceived idea” brings to mind a host of Russian Revolution events described by Solzhenitsyn in his Red Wheel novels, e.g., the haphazard decision-making surrounding the effort to persuade the Tsar to resign, the general confusion among the leaders of the new post-tsarist regime about what their goals should be, the chance absence of General Gourko at the key moment when the Army could have intervened, and the analogous arguments within the leftist camp about whether to join the government, interact with the government, or flatly oppose the government.

Aulard goes further, arguing that the leaders of the French revolution were forced by external events to betray their own liberal convictions:

Obligés de faire la guerre pour être libres, obligés d’être soldats pour rester citoyens, c’est une discipline militaire qu’ils organisèrent, et ce gouvernement révolutionnaire fut le contraire de leurs rêves, de leur idéal. [473.]

Revolutionary Sociology

To view a revolution, among the most complex of sociological processes, as “good” or “evil”–regardless of which side one favors, is to believe in a mirage. French novels of the French Revolution offer rich examples, such as Honore de Balzac’s Les Chouans: Ou La Bretagne en 1799, a fascinating portrayal of the Breton Chouanerie, a counter-revolt closely allied with but distinct from La Vendee.

In a brief depiction of a minor battle between Revolutionary forces from Paris and their urban Breton allies on one side against counter-revolutionary Breton peasants, Balzac neatly exposes the complexity of the composition of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary coalitions:

L’esprit belliqueux de cette petite ville et le caractere breton se deployaient dans cette scene qui n’etait pas nouvelle. Ca et la, quelques meres, quelques soeurs apportaient elles-memes a leurs fils, a leurs freres, une gourde d’eau-de-vie ou des pistolets oublies. Plusieurs vieillards s’enqueraient du nombre et de la bonte des cartouches de ces gardes nationaux deguises en contre-chouans, et dont la gaiete annoncait plutot une partie de chasse qu’une expedition dangereuse. Pour eux, les rencontres de la chouannerie, ou les Bretons des villes se battaient avec les Bretons des campagnes, semblaient avoir remplace les tournois de la chevalerie. Cet enthousiasme patriotique avait peut-etre pour principle quelques acquisitions de biens nationaux; mais les bienfaits de la revolution, mieux apprecies dans les villes, l’esprit de parti et un certain amour national pour la guerre, entraient aussi pour beaucoup dans cette ardeur. [Les Chouans, Bruxelles: N.J. Gregoir, 1839, public domain reprint), 272-273.

Historian Aulard, discussing the earlier Vendee counter-revolutionary insurrection, identifies a different process. Balzac is referring to the construction of a coalition from a variety of groups with differing goals; Aulard instead focuses on shifts over time in the goals of a given group:

Les paysans vendéens, bretons, angevins ne s’étaient pas levés d’abord pour le roi, mais pour leurs curés et contre le service militaire. [485.]

Both conditions betray the degree to which a revolutionary or counter-revolutionary program may be arbitrary and vulnerable to modification by adversaries capable of implementing delicate pressure in carefully considered directions. What can be put together can be pulled apart.

Russian Revolution Tipping Point: Facts and Counterfacts

The future may roll out according to plan, by virtue of the constraints of the natural environment or the momentum supplied by an organized social order. On the other hand, the future may take a sudden turn as the result of some unforeseeable chance circumstance. Enough such chance circumstances and ordered simplicity is replaced by incomprehensible complexity: perhaps a man “makes history” or perhaps his absence equally makes history, albeit going unnoticed.

At what seems to have been a key tipping point in the course of Russian history, the Tsar’s abrupt abdication having left behind a power vacuum revolutionaries and moderates were scrambling to fill, it so happened that WWI was effectively on winter holiday, leaving the massive Russian army organized, the only national force holding real power, and with nothing to do. It also so happened that strong-willed General Gurko had just left his position as chief-of-staff to become commander of the western front—an entirely reasonable move in view of the anticipated spring German offensive. It further so happened that his replacement in charge of all Russian forces was mild-mannered, cautious General Alekseyev. And thus, by a chain of chance occurrences with unforeseeable consequences, all the best laid plans of men set in the concrete of laws, bureaucracy, intentions, and power dissolved into a complex-adaptive system of interacting, semi-independent, self-organized groups driving each other’s political evolution…and Russia’s last, best chance was lost. At least, so it seemed to a very frustrated General Gurko, who was out of the loop.

Так покойно было фронтовое сидение этой зимы, так планомерно сгущалось вооружение, снаряжение, и война как будто выходила на перевал, с которого можно было видеть и конец её, — и вдруг обрушилась революция!….

генералы стояли во главе превосходных вооружённых сил, сторожили дремлющего внешнего врага — и не дано было им обернуться, не дано вмешаться, и даже не спрашивал никто их мнения, как лишних и чужих! Состояние паралитика: голова работает, сознание чётко, а пошевельнуть нельзя ни пальцем. А у Гурко было особенно досадливое состояние: что это меж его пальцами протекло, сквозь его энергичную хватку!…И воли, и твёрдости, и быстроты ума — всего этого в генерале Гурко избывало, и будь он сейчас начальником штаба Верховного — он минуты бы не дал делу колебаться и плыть…[ КРАСНОЕ КОЛЕСО, Узел III — МАРТ СЕМНАДЦАТОГО Книга 3 (главa 407).]

Si calme avait ete le front, cet hiver, si regulierement s’amassient l’armament, l’equipement, et la guerre semblait meme devoir deboucher sur un cold u haut duquel o pourrait en voir la fin – et soudain une revolution qui vous tombait dessus!….

…les generaux commandaient des forces armies excellentes, surveillaient un ennemi extgerieur sommeillant, et ils n’avaient pas eu la possibilite de se retourner, d’intervenir, on ne leur avait meme pas demande leur avis, comme s’ils eussent ete des inutiles et des etrangers! Comme chez un paralytique: le cerveau fonctionne, la conscience est claire, mais impossible de remuer le petit doigt.

Gourko se trouvait, lui, dans un etat de particuliere contrariete, car l’affaire etait passee sous son nez, elle avait echappe a sa forte poigne….Volonte, fermete, promptitude d’esprit – le general Gourko avait de tout cela a revendre, et s’il avait ete en ce moment chef d’etat-major du Commandant Supreme, il n’aurait pas laisse une minute les choses vaciller et s’effilocher…[Alexandre Soljenitsyne, La roué rouge, troisieme noeud, Tome 3, Mars dix-sept, 195-6.]

All this is not to imply that vacillation in the face of sudden crisis constitutes bad policy: indeed, given the very real possibility of immediate civil war, vacillation was, at the time, probably the best available option both for the new bourgeois regime and the Tsarist military command, though the post-Tsarist regime might well have made a more sincere effort to understand the needs of Russian industrial workers for a shorter day and of Russian peasants for better crop prices. However rational, vacillation did not save Russia from vicious civil war or the degeneration of socialist dreams into Stalinist oppression, but that came later; vacillation at least postponed violence, giving peaceful reform a chance. Who knows if a “man on horseback” focused on winning the war and presumably insensitive to the desperate plight of the Russian peasant or the pent-up frustrations of the Russian worker would have accomplished anything with his heavy hand but laying the groundwork for an even more violent future explosion. Gurko’s own account stresses the rapidity with which discipline was collapsing even among the frontline forces, so Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of Gurko believing he could have controlled the situation may not be an accurate representation of Gurko’s thoughts. [See Gurko, War and Revolution, Ch. 26.] Whatever the ultimate impact of history, factual or counterfactual, a chain of minor accidents—the precise timing of the revolution, the precise timing of the recovery of a sick commander and his return to central HQ, the differences in the personalities of the outgoing and incoming commanders—set up an historic turning point and controlled, momentarily, its outcome.

Consequences

We all know that things have consequences, albeit without foreseeing those consequences very clearly, but the understanding…in practice…that those consequences are likely to be of another order, e.g., more intense as they benefit from the momentum of the event they follow, is a lesson we all seem to find hard to learn.

C’est ainsi que la chute du roi avait entraîné la chute du système bourgeois, et que l’insurrection populaire contre Louis XVI, inspirée par des sentiments patriotiques, par la crainte du péril extérieur, aboutit, le jour même de sa victoire, à l’établissement de la démocratie. [Aulard, 296.]

It did not follow that overthrowing Louis XVI would automatically and instantly provoke the collapse of what Aulard calls the “bourgeois system,” i.e., the 1792 regime that institutionalized for a year a middle class elite-run monarchy that arbitrarily granted the right to vote only to the rest of the middle class club, thereby trying carefully to avoid the much feared democracy dreamed of by revolutionaries. It also did not follow that the popular insurrection against Louis provoked by his secret plotting with foreign governments against his own people would lead directly to democracy.

There may be a logic to these linkages but it is tortured and complicated. As is often the case, the ruler, by his shortsightedness and obstinate rejection of compromise eagerly offered (by the bourgeoisie even after his secret plotting with foreigners was revealed), managed to defeat himself far more definitively than was necessary. Fortunately for those of us who are neither rulers nor satisfied with those who are, rulers seem never to learn this lesson.

Revolution and Honor

A time comes in every revolution when the distinction between moral positions and tactical alternatives blurs, coalitions split, friends become antagonists. That time reveals the true nature of the “heroes” combatting “injustice.” Do we grant our former allies the right to make their own decisions and go their separate ways in peace or do we demand obedience, punish disagreement with death, and launch the revolution down the path to its own repressive immorality?

In his historical novel about Li Zicheng’s peasant rebellion that caused the collapse of the Ming dynasty, Yao Xueyin captures the moment of truth when a trusted general decides to split with Li after a disastrous defeat by Ming forces and desert the revolutionary movement. Li must decide whether to take revenge against his subordinate and former friend or allow him to leave in peace.

A loyal soldier charges up to the revolutionary forces’ military HQ, leaps off his horse, and demands at the top of his lungs that Li punish the dissident general:

闖王!家有家規,軍有軍法。像郝搖旗這樣的人,平時居功自滿,遇到艱難的時候又不肯同心協力,常發怨言,闖王你度量寬,容忍了他,已經了。現在眼看著他嘩變,拉人馬逃走,不加阻攔,這就沒法叫全軍將士心服。闖王,郝搖旗放走不得!”

  “放走不得!”許多聲音附和說。[Li Zicheng, Vol. 1, Ch. 14.]

“Charging King! [WM: Li’s Battle Name] Families have family rules; armies have military law. Considering that this guy Flag-Shaking Hao [WM: General Hao Yaoqi’s nickname], typically self-promoting and self-satisfied, is unwilling when he runs into trouble to support the group and quick to criticize, Charging King, your tolerance and forgiveness toward him have gone far enough. It is now obvious that he is rebelling and dragging others with their horses to run away; not to hinder him can in no way be considered by the whole army’s troops and officers to be a persuasive policy. Charging King, do not let Flag-Shaking Hao go!”

“Letting him go is unacceptable!” A multitude of voices repeated.

Emerging slowly from the door, Li quietly responds:

“郝搖旗原不是咱們老八隊的人,我不能拿他同你們一樣看待。如今咱們打了大敗仗,日子十分艱苦,還要加緊操練,還要嚴厲軍紀。郝搖旗同他的手下將士受不了,願意離開,就讓他們離開吧。我此刻心中有事,許多話不能詳細對你們談,事后你們會明白的。”

  自成的神情和口氣是那樣誠懇,那樣充滿感情,所以雖然隻簡單幾句,而且聲音很低,卻把大家的忿怒不平之氣平息了大半。盡管人們心中還有委屈,但誰也不再了。


“大家辛苦了一天,”闖王又說,“不是守夜的人,都去睡吧,睡吧。明天天不明還要下操哩。王大牛,你今天才回來,還不去休息麼?去吧!”

Flag-Shaking Hao was not originally one of our Old Unit Eight people; I cannot treat him the same as you. If we have now been defeated and life is difficult, even more we must intensify training and tighten security. Flag-Shaking Hao and his subordinate officers and men cannot endure and wish to depart, so let them go. I cannot talk to you in too much detail about this painful event; later, you will understand.

Zicheng’s expression and words were so sincere, so full of feeling that despite being only a few simple sentences delivered, moreover, in a low voice, they calmed by half everyone’s unquenchable anger. Despite still nursing a grievance, no one uttered a sound.

“We have all had a hard day,” Charging King said. “Those of you who are not on night duty go get some sleep. Come what may, tomorrow we will deal with it. Big-Cow Wang, don’t you want to take a break? Go ahead!”

And in the end, after Li had essentially destroyed the Ming but himself died and his rebellion had failed to seize power, the historical rebel general Flag-Shaking Hao rallied to the now-patriotic Ming cause of defending China against the invading Manchus, as Li Zicheng himself might well have done.

Under Ground

One may be under ground in the literal sense of hiding in some hole where one will be safe from the prying eyes of those “others” who are always trying to judge you or in the figurative sense of serving in a profession not held in good repute by society. Either way, the longer one lives under ground, the more one risks becoming introverted; the more introverted one becomes, the more one risks the development of a biased perspective, which in turn transforms easily into contempt for those from whom one has hidden oneself. The rest of us, we who live conventionally as part of society, equating that conventional behavior with goodness, have many words for those who live under ground—crazy, lunatic, extremist—but what we are really saying is “different:” we reject such people, shove them further into their isolation, feed their lunacy, their “distinctiveness.” This is dangerous for what we sneer at, they do indeed come to see as their distinction, their justification for pride, and then their marginalization can become the source less of weakness than of power.

The madman who lived under ground–well…either he is mad or all of us are and since there are a lot more of us, I conclude that the fault is his—and who so meticulously noted down his self-absorbed ravings may indeed have been a pathetic and insignificant creature proud of his diseases [Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground (Russian Classics in Russian and English, 13).], but from that self-absorption to a transformative drive for power can be an astonishingly short step.

Whether Dostoevsky was predicting Lenin, or Lenin discovered himself in Dostoevsky, or Solzhenitsyn had Dostoevsky’s underground man in mind as he depicted Lenin hiding helplessly in his own self-absorbed Swiss underground as the February Revolution unfolded, it is hard to tell where the brilliant ravings in Notes ends and masterful Leninist revolutionary strategy begins.

Жгло, что сам — не там, невозможно вмешаться, невозможно направить. [СОЛЖЕНИЦЫН,  КРАСНОЕ КОЛЕСО , Узел III — МАРТ СЕМНАДЦАТОГО,  Книга 3 (главы 449).]

Il se consumait de n’etre pas la-bas, de ne pouvoir imposer sa direction aux evenements. [Mars dix-sept (Fayard, 360).]

In his first sentence, Dostoevsky’s imaginary underground writer admits…and proceeds to make the case quite persuasively:

Я человек больной… Я злой человек. [[ Фёдор Михайлович Достоевский, Записки из подполья —Часть I, Глава I.]

I am sick…I am a spiteful man.[7.]

The real underground man, upon hearing that revolution is indeed breaking out all over Russia, rejects all cooperation, stressing his own unique grasp of Truth:

И социалистам-центристам, Чхеидзе — никакого доверия! никакого слияния с ними! Мы — отдельно ото всех!

Surtout, n’accorder aucune confiance aux socialistes-centrists, a Tcheidze! Ne jamais fusionner avec eux! Nous sommes—a part! [361.]

Let the centrists form the new regime. To retain power, they must feed the people, but (one can see Lenin smirking), they won’t be able to. Until then, let them all stew in their own juices while we remain in our citadel, safe from the free marketplace of public debate…underground:

И вообще: будет величайшим несчастьем, если кадетское правительство разрешит легальную рабочую партию, — это очень ослабит нас. Надо надеяться, что мы останемся нелегальными! А если уж навяжут нам легальность, то мы обязательно сохраним подпольную часть…

Bien comprendre que ce qui peut nous arriver de pire, c’est l’autorisation d’un parti ouvrier legal par le gouvernement Cadet, cela nous affaiblirait beaucoup. Esperons que nous resterons illegaux! Et si on nous impose la legalite, conservons absolument une activite clandestine: notre force est dans le podpolie…[361.]

As the first few days of the February Revolution pass, Lenin agonizes over whether or not it is precisely the right time for him to return to Russia but quickly focuses on the strategy he will use: repression without pity.

не повторить нам ошибок Коммуны, её двух основных ошибок: она не захватила банков в свои руки и была слишком великодушна: вместо повальных расстрелов враждебных классов — всем сохраняла жизнь и думала их перевоспитывать. Так вот, самое гибельное, что грозит пролетариату, — это великодушие в революции. Надо научить его не бояться безжалостных массовых средств!

Les deux erreurs de la Commune, ses deux erreurs fondamentales, nous ne les repeterons pas: elle n’a pas saisi les banques et elle a ete trop magnanime: au lieu de fusiller en masse les classes qui lui etaient hostiles, elle leur a conserve la vie en esperant les reeduquer. Car le plus grand peril qui menace le proletariat, c’est bien sa magnanimite en periode de revolution. Nous devons lui apprendre a ne pas reculer devant des measures de masse impitoyables! [363.]

Sneered at by “men of action,” the rejected, humiliated “little mouse” seeks safety underground in a hole where it can do nothing but…think.

Доходит наконец до самого дела, до самого акта отмщения. Несчастная мышь кроме одной первоначальной гадости успела уже нагородить кругом себя, в виде вопросов и сомнений, столько других гадостей; к одному вопросу подвела столько неразрешенных вопросов, что поневоле кругом нее набирается какая-то роковая бурда, какая-то вонючая грязь, состоящая из ее сомнений, волнений и, наконец, из плевков, сыплющихся на нее от непосредственных деятелей, предстоящих торжественно кругом в виде судей и диктаторов и хохочущих над нею во всю здоровую глотку. Разумеется, ей остается махнуть на все своей лапкой и с улыбкой напускного презренья, которому и сама она не верит, постыдно проскользнуть в свою щелочку. Там, в своем мерзком, вонючем подполье, наша обиженная, прибитая и осмеянная мышь немедленно погружается в холодную, ядовитую и, главное, вековечную злость. [Часть I, Глава III.]

Apart from the one primary nastiness the luckless mouse has by now succeeded in creating around it so many other nastinesses in the form of doubts and questions; it has added to the one question so many unsettled questions that there inevitably works up around it a sort of fatal brew, a sort of stinking filth, made up of its doubts, emotions, and finally of the spits showered upon it by the direct men of action who stand solemnly around it as judges and dictators, laughing at it with all their might. Of course the only thing left for it is to dismiss all that with a wave of its paw, and, with a smile of assumed contempt in which it does not even itself believe, creep ignominiously into its mouse-hole. There in its nasty, stinking, underground our offended, crushed and ridiculed mouse promptly becomes absorbed in cold, venomous and, above all, everlasting spite. [19.]

Thinking in isolation, without action may certainly lead to lunacy, i.e., belief in something unreal provoking irrational behavior, but a short step away in a different direction lies the absolute determination to risk all in a burst of action. The mouse becomes the “direct man of action.” For this to occur, Dostoevsky’s underground mouse must answer the question so innocently posed at the beginning of its analysis of “revenge:”

Ведь у людей, умеющих за себя отомстить и вообще за себя постоять, — как это, например, делается?

With people who know how to revenge themselves and to stand up for themselves in general, how is it done? [17.]

Rule #1: Never Share Power

Yao Xueyin [ 姚雪垠]’s account of the collapse of an incompetent regime (the Ming dynasty) beset by both internal rebellion (provoked by the regime’s incompetence) and foreign invasion (invited by the regime’s declining effectiveness) is perhaps the best example of 20th century Chinese historical fiction. While the leaders argued over whether to defeat the rebels first or protect the country from invasion first, massive state armies tried to surround and overwhelm fast-moving rebel cavalry.

陝西巡撫孫傳庭在潼關南原預設了三道埋伏來截擊李自成。第一道埋伏被農民軍沖殺得紛紛潰逃,隻起了消耗農民軍有生力量的作用,但是這種結果,對作戰有經驗的孫傳庭是早就料到的。他認為,如今李自成是在他布好的口袋裡邊尋找生路,以必死決心向前沖,頭一道埋伏的地形又不夠險要,自然難以將李自成包圍殲滅。作戰的規律總是“一鼓作氣,再而衰,三而竭”,他相信經過上午的一場大戰,又加上繼續行軍,李自成的士氣已經是“再而衰”了,所以他把更大的兵力擺在這第二道埋伏上,並親自督戰。至於第三道埋伏,他隻配備了少數兵力,准備截擊潰散的農民軍。[姚雪垠 – 李自成 – 第十章.]

At the southern entrance to Tongguan Pass, Shaanxi Province Inspector General Sun Chuanting laid out a tripartite ambush to intercept Li Zicheng. By means of a vigorous attack, the peasant army had managed to flee in disorder from the first phase of the ambush, the only result being the rising exhaustion of the peasant army’s power, a result the experienced soldier Sun Chuanting had anticipated. He calculated that if Li Zicheng had pulled an escape route out of his hat by approaching the clash with absolute determination, the terrain of the first ambush also not being sufficiently favorable, naturally it would be hard in the future to surround and destroy Li Zicheng. The rule of war having always been, “Pull it off the first time, fall back the second time, and fail the third,”he believed that having undergone a big battle in the morning, not to mention continuing troops movements thereafter, Li Zicheng’s morale would already have reached the “fall back the second time”point, so he deployed even more forces for the second phase and took personal command of the battle. As for the third phase, he only allocated minimal forces in preparation for attacking scattered peasant troops. [My translation.]

Li did indeed escape from the first trap but was caught in the second trap and, in a dramatic battlefield negotiation with Sun Chuanting—each leader surrounded by his own bodyguard and yelling at the top of his lungs with both armies listening, offered—in the novel, at least—to join forces against the invading Manchus. Li undiplomatically portrayed himself as finding “unbearable”the Manchu intrusion through the Great Wall and surrounding of Beijing:

近來韃子入塞,包圍北京,深入畿輔。

Now the Tartars have come through the Great Wall, surrounded Beijing, and come deep into the suburbs. [My translation.]

It will come as no surprise to any observer of modern politics that the regime general instantly became infuriated, interrupted Li Zicheng (who was engrossed in enumerating the conditions for his cooperation [supplies for his army, respectful treatment, etc.]), and ordered the total destruction of the rebels.

Whether or not this conversation in fact ever occurred, it underscores the fatal hubris of officials who prefer gambling their country’s freedom to sharing power with the people. No wonder Mao liked this novel, though he may have come to have second thoughts later in his career…