Since the West is now in the grip of what Lenin called a “revolutionary situation”, one is reminded of the aphorism in the title.
After the storming of the Bastille, Louis XVI asked La Rochefoucauld if there was a revolt under way. To which the courtier replied: “Non sire, ce n’est pas une révolte, c’est une révolution.”
I don’t know if the duke was fully aware of how profound his statement was. For, if we grasp the difference between a revolt and a revolution, we’ll understand the nature of all revolutions, features they all have in common.
A revolt may break out haphazardly, prompted by any grievance that’s bad enough. It may be a famine, a pandemic, an increase in taxation, an introduction of a law perceived as unjust or anything else that annoys people enough for them to rebel.
Once the pressure has built up, all it takes is a gifted rabble-rouser, a Wat Tyler type, issuing a battle cry, along the lines of “We’ve had enough of [fill in the blank]!” A revolt will ensue.
The authorities may either satisfy the rebels’ demands or suppress the revolt violently. One way or the other, that usually spells the end of the matter.
A revolution, however, won’t go away so easily. In fact, if experience is anything to go by, it won’t go away at all. And even if it ostensibly ends, it’ll always leave permanently festering wounds behind.
Unlike a revolt, a revolution results from a deep and widespread cultural shift, with most people feeling that a support for the ancien régime has somehow become impossible or at least embarrassing. That feeling is always reflected in the language – revolutions too start with the Word.
Since all Western cultures, different as they might be at the periphery, have the same core, revolutions, as distinct from revolts, are hardly ever contained within one country. Revolts are always national; revolutions, international.
Thus the American Revolution of 1776 was followed by the French one in 1789, 1848 happened across Europe, the 1917 Russian revolution triggered similar events in Hungary, Finland and Germany (including – and this never gets the attention it deserves – the Nazi putsch).
Just like a revolt, a revolution puts forth slogans seemingly reflecting its key objective. Yet for a revolt, trying to achieve this objective is the genuine cause. For a revolution, it’s merely a pretext.
If a revolt is prompted by the introduction of, say, an unpopular poll tax, the rebels demand its repeal. They’d be unlikely to change their opinion along the way and decide that, on second thoughts, the tax doesn’t matter.
Revolutions, however, are perfectly capable of changing their slogans more frequently than revolutionaries change their underwear. If Slogan A doesn’t elicit the desired effect, they’ll try Slogan B – and so forth, all the way down the alphabet.
For that reason, the slogans of revolts are usually more rational than those of revolutions. The people have a particular grievance, understandable and easy to articulate. Revolutions, on the other hand, seek to deepen, broaden and consolidate the comprehensive cultural shift that happened already.
Since that desideratum is hard to express in a catchy phrase, it usually stays in the background, hiding behind any number of interchangeable slogans that seldom have any rational content.
Thus, though the American, French and Russian revolutionaries decried tyranny, they were trying to depose the least tyrannical monarchs imaginable, George III, Louis XVI and Nicholas II respectively.
The specific slogans of those revolutions don’t stand up to scrutiny. Thus taxes, which seemed to be the bugbear of the American revolutionaries, were at the time actually higher in the metropolis than in the colonies. Even the cost of tea, which produced that jolly Boston party, was much higher in England.
“No taxation without representation” wasn’t particularly clever either. The underlying assumption, that representation is the only legitimate basis for taxation, is simply false – and in any case, many English taxpayers weren’t represented either. Incidentally, once the colonists won their independence, their taxes went up so steeply that they realised they didn’t like them even with representation.
The slogans of any revolution of note can be taken apart in the same manner, but neither the revolutionaries nor their audiences really mind. They know it’s not about slogans.
It’s about destruction, for the real purpose of a revolution is always negative. Revolutionaries know exactly what they hate, but they tend to be hazy on what they love. Revolutions are always against, not for.
The cultural shift that adumbrated today’s mess started with a systematic chipping away at the foundation of Western civilisation, Christianity. This process goes by the misnomer of the Enlightenment, but in fact there was nothing enlightening about it.
It knocked out the foundation in the poorly expressed and never really felt hope that somehow the walls would remain standing and the roof wouldn’t come down. Predictably, the building collapsed, and another one has to be constructed on the newly vacant lot.
So it was, but the structure was rickety to begin with, and grew more so with time. It’s interesting, however, to observe how even extremely intelligent materialists of today sound a great deal less intelligent when trying to repel attacks on the Enlightenment.
Their arguments, characteristically, all have to do with material progress. There was much human misery before the Enlightenment, infant mortality and epidemics were rife, sick people suffered tremendous pain, so did dental patients, there were famines – well, you know how that goes.
Yet all those things have improved thanks to the progress in science and technology. Ascribing it solely or even mainly to the Enlightenment is merely committing a gross logical fallacy known as post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
There’s no rational reason to claim that scientific progress wouldn’t have happened if most people had continued to go to church every Sunday. Somehow the pre-Enlightenment Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Leibnitz, Pascal and Descartes didn’t find faith and science incompatible.
However, the current “revolutionary situation” is directly ascribable to the spiritual and cultural vacuum created by the Enlightenment and made progressively worse by our progressive modernity.
Nietzsche’s statement that “God is dead” was a precise diagnosis. What that coroner to divinity meant was that at the time, in the 1880s, educated people had grown to regard religious faith as rather infra dig.
However, wrote Chesterton a few decades later, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” Moreover, he could have added, they have a desperate need to believe in anything.
The liberal democratic state that, after many trials and tribulations, emerged out of the ruins of Christendom, rests on a strong material base, but a weak spiritual and cultural one. And, because the latter is weak, the former gradually crumbles away too.
The present “revolutionary situation” bears every harbinger of an impending outburst. The requisite cultural shift has either occurred already or is in its late stages. The disease has set in, and the symptoms are there for all to see.
Law and order is disintegrating in the USA, the first, and indeed reference, country of modernity. Yet Western European countries shouldn’t gloat – they are but half a step behind.
That the conflict between blacks and whites is nowhere near as febrile in, say, Britain than in America is a moot point. As with all revolutions, the objective is to destroy the existing order. The slogans under which that’s accomplished are immaterial.
Historically, the racial conflict in America presents the best banner under which destruction can proceed apace. Slavery, especially the attendant dehumanisation of the blacks, left a wound that no amount of affirmative action will ever close.
Black Britons don’t have quite the same experience, and it’s only for copycat solidarity that they join BLM riots. But that doesn’t mean that our malcontents will be short of slogans when push comes to shove.
They, the malcontents of leftish persuasions, have already won their cultural revolution in the battle for the language. They can dictate, on pain of unemployment and increasingly prosecution, how language is used and what words constitute unbreakable taboos.
Even worse: they now have the power to dictate not only what people can’t say, but also what they must say. Like all revolutionaries, they are in a position to demand not just passive acquiescence, but enthusiastic endorsement.
What stratagem they’ll use to seal their victory is an interesting question to ponder, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. It may be BLM, Muslim emancipation, global warming, homosexual and transsexual rights – wait and see.
Once the cultural revolution has emerged victorious, any number of causes can act as pretexts for physical destruction. The pressure is high, the cauldron is bubbling, and the lid can be blown off at any moment.
We’ve seen it all before, in different guises. It’s just that so many of us fail to recognise the essence behind the guise. Then again, there’s nothing new about that either.