Saturday, December 10, 2005

On revolution

The idea is this. With the French Revolution, a new concept entered the languages of the world, a cancer that metastisised and invaded every part of the body politic and social.
Before that, we can talk about rebellions, the more serious of which would overthrow the country's rulers and put in their places a new set, but always occupying the same positions in a structure that was basically unaltered. The English Civil War went further in that it sought to replace one class with another in a structure that differed markedly from its predecessor. However, and this is the point, it did so by calling on values that were long established and perceived as lost. So, too, the American Revolution was a cry for the restoration of rights that had been lost and never retrieved.
The French Revolution went beyond all this. Here, by 1792, the attempt was made to erect a structure that had never existed before, to prepare which its founders would start again from ZERO. It was not just to be a new political system; it was a new man. Previous to this, it had been intellectually impossible to make this move; it was literally inconcievable. At least applied to an entire society. As an idea, it had been around for almost 2 millennia, but it had a different name and regarded a completely different relationship. It was called salvation, and it was an event that was purely personal and was something that happened between one person and God. As a religious impulse involving the conscience, acts of sin, contrition and penance leading to a moral and spiritual rebirth, it could only happen inside the heart of an individual man or woman. During the 18th Century, it somehow became possible to think the unthinkable: that just as a man could be saved, so too could a society. But because, from the past came only superstition, corruption and error, it would be necessary, for society's own salvation, that the old structure be razed to the ground so that the new could rise in its place.
The possibility of this thought brought something entirely new to the world. It made Marxism possible, and so Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. These are the most egregious examples, where the thought crushed lives and whole societies. However, its ramifications have been far more widespread and insidious. It has entered the mental patterns of the West and props up almost every radical movement of the 20th Century. It has undeniable power because it breaks down every barrier; no social structure is immune to an analysis that begins (or rather, ends) at Ground Zero. Combined with a view that sees power only as win-lose (those that have power do so only by taking it from those under them), it underpins the guilt that lacerates westerners.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 200 years after the upheaval that brought it into being, was its death knell, at least for those that could hear.

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