The Uses of History, 9 – From France, 1812 to Russia, 1917, 6

Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed.

Mao (quoted in Metaphors Be with You, 2016)

Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.

Ronald Reagan (quoted in Metaphors Be with You, 2016)

The garb of religion is the best cloak for power.

William Hazlitt, 1819

Idealism is the noble toga that political gentlemen drape over their will to power.

– Aldous Huxley (quoted in Metaphors Be with You, 2016)

(Image credit – Wikipedia)

Mao’s dictum from The Little Red Book, which launched the horror of the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s, is easily and just as truthfully applied to Revolution. For Revolution is the ultimate form of political warfare practiced on the political revolutionary’s own people. In a sense, while professing great love and desire to serve and save his/her people, the revolutionary leader is willing to subject that same beloved people to all sorts of atrocities and contraventions of basic human rights and decencies in the name of freeing them. “It’s for their own good,” say they, just as an angry parent says while preparing to use the rod or the belt or the fist on a recalcitrant child.

This is not to suggest that there is not sometimes a case of such desperation where armed resistance to tyranny and murderous despotism is not justified. The problem is that, if the armed resistance succeeds, as fallible and fallen humans, the victors are just as prone to and capable of coercion and injustice to all their opponents, former or more newly minted, as the old oppressors were.

In modern liberal democracies built largely with either the example of the British or American models in mind, a system of checks and balances is supposed to rectify and hold in check the innate human tendency to, eventually, enjoy the hard-won power too much and begin to see it as the right of the power-wielder to use their position to gain both personal and group advantage for their preferred adherents and supporters.

Since the birth of modern Revolutions in England in the 17th Century, we see this principle in action. One of its most masterful and original exemplars is Oliver Cromwell, England’s Lord Protector from 1650-1658, when England was, momentarily, actually a Republic called the Commonwealth (of Great Britain and Ireland). Just to be clear, the modern “Commonwealth of Nations” has no relationship to it. Cromwell openly used religion as the chief bulwark of his ideology – in his case the most extreme interpretation of the religious ideology called Puritanism. Having been victorious he could claim to “rule by God’s will”.

Victory was the only proof needed. All 50 000 of his elite shock-troops, called the “Ironsides”, were required to unreservedly subscribe to the official theology and to swear loyalty to the Lord Protector (Cromwell). However, it was not their fanaticism which made them invincible in crushing King Charles 1’s Royalist “Cavaliers” between 1645 and 1649, but Cromwell’s iron discipline, elite training methods, and ruthlessness in following up his victories on the battlefield.

For the American Revolutionaries of 1775-83, the religious zeal of their “righteous cause” was formulated in Enlightenment language about “inalienable rights” “endowed by their Creator” making “all men equal” (excluding women, Afro-Americans, Native Americans, etc). It is often forgotten in the semi-sacred rhetoric of the American revolutionaries and their numerous myth-making apologists since then that their interpretation of inalienable rights and divine favor was held, to more or less degree, by about only a third of the adult white population of the Thirteen Colonies. Another third was diametrically opposed to their ideas and their violent methods of seeking to redress their broken relationship with the Mother Country. The final third were desperately seeking to avoid being dragged into the whole terrible mess.

As the Romans said, “History is written by the victors.” American histories and revolutionary historians strongly tend to ignore the truly ugly and unromantic side of those times. They portray the era as a unified colonial struggle to emerge as a newly forged great people on the world stage to champion liberty. They imply that victory was inevitable because their cause was so noble and, just possibly, harkening back to the Puritanism of Cromwellian vintage transplanted to Mew England, God-ordained.

Their Revolution was in fact the First American Civil War, with pitched battles and full-blown atrocities on both sides, at times even without British forces involved in the Southern colonies. It was also a war with two Great Powers (Great Britain and France) fighting another round in their generational contest to see which would gain European and even world imperial supremacy. Another much neglected aspect of the official American tale of victory over the world’s then greatest empire was that without direct and very significant intervention by France, even on American soil itself and by the French Battle Fleet off the Atlantic seaboard, it is quite possible the American cause would have failed, or at least that some of the colonies, especially in the South and New York, would not have become part of the United States in 1783.

The “Patriots” gave the 33% of neutral American colonists the choice of accepting the result and subscribing to the new reality, or being labeled as Loyalists and, ergo, traitors. In order to avoid being shamed and excluded from the life of their own communities, most finally subscribed to the new nation as it became clear how it would turn out. They hoped they would now be left in peace. A good many of these found that, once it was over, they were still shunned and shamed and shut out of normal life by many of those around them because they had never been “true Patriots”.

The “Loyalists”, as the 33% of colonists who openly opposed a break with Britain became known, were subjected to great tribulation and frequently to confiscation of everything they could not carry away with them when they chose or were forced to go into exile. Thousands saw their properties pillaged, and even burned. Tens of thousands of these war refugees made their way to Canada in the 1780s, followed by thousands more in the second and third waves in the 1790s and into the early 1800s. Thousands of others left for the Caribbean and Britain or other colonies. A great many revolutionaries and Johnny-come-lately revolutionaries used the Loyalist evacuations to greatly enrich themselves with property and confiscated valuables, settle old scores, and become powerful in the new United States of America based on their credentials, real or concocted, as “Patriots”.

In our modern age in the West, ideology now largely replaces religion. The God-shaped void in the human soul must and will be filled with something. With Christianity now largely treated as irrelevant, ideology readily steps into the vacuum. Often, the ideology just slithers into the emptiness via materialist rewards, peer pressure, educational indoctrination, and popular culture. With the modern doctrine of the separation of Church and State cemented in place, even many professing Christians leave their religion inside the Church door, then lock in a set of ideological constructs, sometimes sprinkled with Holy Water or, in the Fundamentalist formulation, with the “Blood of Jesus”, to salve their consciences. Thus we justify policies and proposals that, if objectively considered in the light of the Good Book, would be flagrantly opposed to either or both of the Two Great Commandments to (1) “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength” and (2) “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

By their nature, revolutions are not “peaceable assemblies” or likely to lead to “loving your enemies”, as Jesus once told his disciples to do. The testimony of history has yet to give us a single example of such an outcome.

Ronald Reagan jokingly compared the profession of politics to prostitution. Joking aside, many who delve with any seriousness into politics will well understand the truth behind his witty quip. Winston Churchill, one of the greatest wits to ever win political greatness, certainly made the same comparison more than once with the same tongue-in-cheek nod towards the comment’s justice.

Perhaps revolutionaries are among the most prostituted of political zealots. They contravene many of their own lofty declarations about defending and fighting for basic rights and freedoms and violating those same rights and freedoms as they get hold of the inexorable levers of State power machinery to enforce their will on everyone “for the greater good”. Hazlitt saw this clearly in 1819 as he looked back upon the previous thirty years on the 30th anniversary of the French Revolution. he accused Britain’s Evangelicals in their reforming zeal of the same sin. Power is its own temptation, even for saints in office. That is why Jesus warned about not being able to serve two masters no matter how well-intentioned someone may be to begin with.

The French Revolutions of 1789-99, 1830, and 1848 which we have so far observed confirm the previous examples of revolutionary outcomes. Even when there was at times less outright slaughter, the lessons remain the same. As we move forward to the next Revolutionary events to be considered in this series, is there any chance to see something truly different emerge as people desperate for freedom rise up against their oppressors and even occasionally turn the tables on them?

Before we get to Russia in 1917, both the United States and France have more to tell us.


Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher, Educational Consultant, and author in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for almost 50 years and has 4 grown children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He has recently published his first novel, Book One in a Historical Fantasy series called "Dragoonen". The first book is "Awakening" and is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. He is currently working on further books in this series and a number of other writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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