Monday, June 20, 2011

Revolution is neither Desirable nor Necessary

John Quiggin:

The idea that a single violent irruption, followed by a (supposedly temporary) revolutionary dictatorship, can break unending cycles of oppression, and achieve permanent change for the better is intuitively appealing and gains support daily from the failures of more modest attempts at reform, from the peaceful protest march to the Winter Palace in 1905 to the shoddy compromises of day-to-day democratic politics (and particularly in this context, social-democratic politics).

Yet the appeal of revolution is an illusion. Most attempts at revolution fail, leaving the participants and the oppressed worse off than before. Even where revolution is successful, attempts by the revolutionary party to hold on to power usually lead to reactionary dictatorship in short order. . . .

At a deeper level, the appeal of revolution has a substantial residue of aristocratic sentiment. In the course of the last 200 years, and even allowing for the defeats of the past 20 years or so, the achievements of the Left have been impressive, starting with universal suffrage and secret ballots, going on the creation of the welfare state, continuing with progress towards equality without regard to race, gender and sexuality, preserving the environment from the disastrous impact of industrialism and so on. Yet most of this progress has been achieved in a thoroughly bourgeois fashion, through long agitation, boring committee reports and so on. Gains that are ground out in this way, with two steps forward and one step back, are not noble enough for an aristocratic sensibility: far better to fail gloriously.

Equality, justice, freedom and so on are not states that we may reach at the end of some process, whether drawn out or cataclysmic. They are ongoing struggles that will never end. The longing for "revolution" is just another version of the millenarian fantasy: god will come and then everything will be swell. The world is not going to be transformed in some way that brings universal justice and makes us all happy. No matter what happens we will always be people, flawed, faulty, weak, subject to misery and dejection. The experience of the US and Britain over the past 200 years is that real advances in freedom and public welfare can be achieved by the means of ordinary politics. We like to mock politics and politicians but by working together, through our governments, we have made the world a better place and can keep doing so.


Unknown said...

Quiggin's argument seems sound, but who these days would much disagree with it? I wonder who it is that he's arguing with.

I would disagree with a minor point of his, that revolution is a fundamentally aristocratic impulse. It's true that there's a good deal of affected aristo snobbery in 19th-century revolutionists' denunciations of the bourgeoisie. And there were always eccentric exceptions (Philippe of Orleans changing his name to Philippe Egalite for the aristos, Engels dividing his time between revolutionary agitation and managing his family's textile mills for the bourgeois, etc.). But culturally the European aristocracy was basically, and not very ashamedly, about preserving family wealth and status. Suffering for noble (so to speak) causes was mainly an individual choice, or the protest vote of the unhappy, or the consolation prize of losers. In any case, the aristocracy as a class survived the nineteenth century quite well, once they decided they could share power with the moneymen.

The class that really suffered was the artisans, and the more I read, the more it seems to me that revolutionary socialism, at least, was essentially an artisan movement, reflecting artisan bitterness and artisan fantasies. I say this with some regret, since otherwise guilds and artisans excite for me all sorts of self-indulgent romantic nostalgia.

John said...

And especially among educated people with backgrounds in the artisanal class.