What makes a viable revolutionary movement (meaning “can get people to actually fight for it”)?
Some distinctions: “Revolution” is a modern concept. There were lots of widespread social conflagrations in the premodern world, but none aimed at the overthrow of the existing social order. Spartacus, for instance, didn’t want to end slavery (indeed, that concept wouldn’t even have made sense to him). He just wanted his own personal freedom. The Socii of the Roman “Social War” didn’t want to destroy Rome; they wanted full citizenship rights within what was at that time still (barely) the Republic. Medieval rebellions like the Jacquerie were basically large-scale riots, initially problematic but invariably crushed.
At minimum, then, a revolution requires a teleology (a goal, a final end). What will society look like after we win? You can get troops to fight a long, bloody civil war on the answer “just like before, but with us in charge” — but you can’t get a revolution. Civil wars end when one army or the other is defeated. Revolutions can carry on for generations.
[I’m aware that all of this stuff is basic, indeed obvious. But as Orwell said, sometimes simply stating the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men].
Successful revolutions keep the teleology simple for the masses. In Communist revolutions, for instance, most of the people actually doing the fighting think “Communism” means little more than “free land.” You have to go pretty high up the chain of command before you’ll ever hear the word “Marxism” spoken, and you practically have to be in the Inner Party itself before you’re allowed access to the Scriptures. I’m not going to say that’s all there is to it, but if you just look at land-tenure patterns in China, Vietnam, etc., you get a pretty good idea of why things went the way they did.
Successful revolutions aren’t just about the masses, though. The leadership needs its teleology, too, and unlike the “free land”-type myths that are sufficient to motivate the rank-and-file, the cadres’ teleology has to be fairly robust. The leadership, after all, invariably comes from the middle classes — upwardly mobile peasants at the lowest; low aristocracy on the skids at the highest. These guys join the revolution because their way up is blocked, or their way down is wide open. It’s not enough to promise them “the world turned upside down,” because they don’t want to be ruled by the Proletariat any more than they did the Elite. You need to give them some kind of universalizing myth that just so happens to end up with them on top.
A good example is Mao Zedong’s “mass line.”
In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily ’from the masses, to the masses,’ This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action.
In other words, you create a secular priesthood. “The masses” don’t actually have ideas — if they did, they wouldn’t be “the masses” in the first place. It’s the cadres — the peasants with something on the ball, the low-level civil servants, the self-hating aristocracy on the skids, the “intellectuals” — who fancy themselves as having ideas. Those “ideas” — carefully spoon-fed to them by The Party, such that they think they came up with them all by themselves — motivate cadres to do the tedious, often dangerous grunt work of organizing, planning, etc. that “the masses” can’t pull off. Intellectual vanity is these folks’ cardinal weakness. Play it up, and they’ll do anything you tell them to.
This suggests an obvious line of attack from people in Our Thing. Despite their fearsome reputation as Communist fanatics, lots of Viet Cong surrendered to American forces, including many low-level cadres. Both American military interrogators and RAND Corporation researchers got a crack at the defectors, and both came to largely the same conclusions: Once they realized they’d been duped — that “Communism” in practice just meant exchanging one exploitative landlord for another — these ex-cadres surrendered as fast as their feet could carry them.
Alas for both the South Vietnamese and Our Thing, what came next was: Nothing. The same conditions that spurred the cadre to join the Viet Cong in the first place — economic stagnation, corruption, lack of opportunity in general — still persisted. He might be disillusioned, our defector, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to take up arms for us. Outside of some temporary, local intelligence, the net effect of his defection is zero, because even though he now knows Communism isn’t the solution, all the problems are still there. To get him over to our side, we need a counter-teleology.
That’s where things look bleakest for Our Thing. All this “revolution” talk is of course metaphorical — please note well, FBI goons, metaphorical — but even though we of course mean “legitimate political action at the ballot box,” we’re still screwed, because we just don’t do teleology. What could we promise a disillusioned cadre — a feminist, say, who watches Unplanned and realizes she’s been lied to all these years? A “male feminist ally” falsely accused of rape? Hell, what could we offer a Joe Crowley, who was third in line to the throne before getting knocked off by Chiquita Khrushchev? Someone like that surely sees which way the wind is blowing… but what can we offer him, that would make him do something about it?
I dunno, but we’d better find out pretty fast. It’s not totally hopeless, though, in that I can suggest a place to start looking. How did the American Revolutionaries do it? What teleology did they actually offer? (Please note that bromides about “freedom” and the like would’ve been meaningless in a rough frontier society. See e.g. the Whiskey Rebellion. What exactly was the difference between King George and George Washington in that case? How did “the peasants” see it? Was there any meaningful change in their day-to-day lives, being ruled by Congress not Parliament? These are NOT rhetorical questions).Loading Likes...