The Story of the Decembrists

Russia went through a number of rebellions in its past, but somehow the Decembrist Rebellion of 1825 had a different feel to it than some other rebellions. Maybe it was that the philosophy and nature of the rebellion was different from what one is often accustomed to.

I, for one, am accustomed to looking at peasant rebellions like the Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-1774, but the Decembrists were demographically the absolute opposite of the Pugachev Rebellion. The Decembrists, in other words, were actually a group of intellectual elites rebelling over the fact that the ideals of the French Revolution have not infiltrated into Russia.[1] Another demographic note about the Decembrists (and a striking one as well) was the fact that many of them were very young, so young that they were viewed as being child-like in a lot of ways.[2]

The best way to describe the Decembrists’ aims was this: they wanted the political system in Russia to change drastically. From their wanting to rid the government of certain elements of autocracy, to wanting to eliminate serfdom, the Decembrists clearly wanted to shake the Russian government up.[3]

These aims were not achieved by the Decembrists. Yet, in spite of their failures, Nicholas did not execute them all. To the contrary, many of the Decembrists were allowed to live on an talk freely about their experiences.[4] Raeff thinks that maybe the decision to allow the Decembrists to live on transformed the fate of their actions from an obscure part of Russian history to a really important part of Russian history.

[1] Marc Raeff, The Decembrists: 11

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 27.


Raeff, Marc. The Decembrists.

Lenin – Mouthpiece for the Future

Vladmir Lenin, a Russian Communist and revolutionary, was one of the most crucial, yet controversial, individuals of the twentieth century. Despite being born into a wealthy middle class family, he became interested in socialism and communism after Russian officials executed his brother in 1887.[1] Lenin wrote the text, What is to Be Done, just before the split of his party, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, into the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.[2] In his writing, Lenin depicted the type of revolutionary and system of organization that he wanted most and thought would work the best. He argued that the list of potential revolutionaries should be as wide and public as possible, that is, inclusive not solely of the working class, but others that wanted to join the cause as well. Lenin envisioned having revolutionaries based in multiple sectors of society. Furthermore, Lenin wanted his revolutionaries to treat the situation as an additional profession, if not their only profession. That meant that individuals who wished to become revolutionaries had to go through training and learn the necessary skills to be reliable and efficient. Lenin believed that if revolutionaries were trained, the organization would be harder to track down and it would allow more people to join up.  Lastly, Lenin emphasized that revolutionaries need to be willing to organize and work together, promoting stability; and thus allowing leaders to maintain continuity. Lenin concluded with a plea that demonstrated that too many current “revolutionaries” were using excuses and were not trained enough to complete their assignments. With his efficient system in place, Lenin believed that the revolution would work out better and that there would be no excuses for failure.

What makes Lenin’s theories so intriguing is that he essentially wants his revolutionaries to be trained like police officers or those in the military. While Lenin was not the first necessarily to propose this idea, it is apparent that other revolutions do not carry this form of revolutionary organization. Peasants and factory workers carried out the French Revolution. Factory workers especially pushed through the Revolutions of 1848. What’s further intriguing is that Lenin lays out a modern take on how to carry out a revolution. From the French resistance movement in WWII to the Chinese Communist Revolution, future revolutionaries follow Lenin’s guidelines. Furthermore, terrorist cells today are run on the exact same principles: include everyone you can who is willing, train them well, and respect authority, so as to keep stability and continuity. While Lenin may not be the first to try these tactics, it is his role as a mouthpiece to and for the future that makes his ideas so important.


Question for Commenters: Are there any other examples of those who may follow Lenin’s ideas on what it means to be a revolutionary?

[1] “Vladmir Lenin.” Wikipedia. Accessed March 24, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

Capitalism and its critics

  1. The Legacy of Robert Owen to the Population of the World – Robert Owen (1834)
    1. Author
      1. Robert Owen (1771-1858)
      2. English cotton manufacturer
      3. “Utopian” socialist
      4. Advocated for universal education for children and workers’ rights
    2.  Context
      1. Owen is addressing members of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union of Great Britain and Ireland
      2. Written during a time of rebellion
    3. Language
      1. Negative and outraged at the foundations of society.
    4. Audience
      1. For people in rebellion of the unjust system put in place.
    5. Intent
      1. To have people ignore the system and the ideas it puts in individuals. Advocate the value of man and producers of wealth.
    6. Message
      1. Society creates evil and prevents the good that man is evidently destined for.
  2. The Incoherence and Disorder of Industry- Comte de Saint-Simon
    1. Author:
      1. Claude Henri de Rouvroy – Comte de Saint-Simon
      2. European observer of early industrialization
    2. Context
      1. Written during the French Revolution for people of the Third Estate.
    3. Language
      1. Positive and persuasive writing.
    4. Audience
      1. His fellow commoners of the third estate.
    5. Intent
      1. Change the economic system that is intended on destroying your enemies to gain wealth, happiness and glory.
    6. Message
      1. The system needs to be changed to address the needs of the commoners.
  3. Estranged Labour – Karl Marx (1844)
    1. Author
      1. Karl Marx
      2. German philosopher and revolutionary socialist
      3. Created Marxism
    2.  Context
      1. Marx set out to develop a theory of Socialism grounded in a better understanding of both economics and philosophy.
      2. Analyzes labor industry and how its cycle affects workers.
    3. Language
      1. Positive and assertive, using economic facts and to assert his ideas.
    4. Audience
      1. Meant for intellectuals and people that are in the workforce.
      2. The commoner and the proletariat
    5. Intent
      1. To demonstrate alienation as the idea that human beings can become out of sync with the world they live in arguing that alienation arises from the way human beings regard their own labor.
    6. Message
      1. The products don’t belong to the worker. The more the worker produces, the less the worker has.


The French Political and Cultural Revolutions

****Response to Friday’s prompt that I was having issues posting
The transition from absolutism to enlightenment brought a new set of societal ideals that impacted both the political and social structure of France. By turning the hierarchical political system on its head, a significant cultural revolution was bound to accompany it.
Kant, in his analysis of enlightenment described it as man’s ability “to make use of understanding without direction from another” (Kant 1). This new emphasis on reason and self-reliance very directly confronts the old absolutist hierarchy, where everyone is reliant upon those higher in the social/political estate system. Similarly, Turgot also reflected on these changing principles by underlining the self-sufficient providers and farmers of the third estate as the most important part of society. This in hand with economic hardship and ideological influences from the American Revolution encouraged the third estate to fracture from the old absolutist system in favor of one where each individual voice had the opportunity to express his opinions.
France’s cultural revolution tailed on the heels of the countries crumbling political structure. As the estate system turned upside down, individuals began searching for their voice in the new system. During the absolutist regime the church was a huge part of the broken political system, so symbols of this past regime were abolished as quickly as possible. A new calendar was erected, churches were renamed, and names of former Kings and Queens were banned. This vast cultural upheaval was a direct reflection of the political upheaval that had just taken place. People simply wanted out with the old and in with the new. In this case, the old was marked by the church and monarchs and the new was marked by reason.
Another huge cultural phenomenon that was intertwined with the political revolution was a newly born French nationalism. In La Marseilles, a new French identity is expressed in lyrics such as “sacred love of the fatherland, guide and support our vengeful arms” (Modern History Source Book 1). People who had fought together suddenly identified with their fellow countrymen, and culture began taking on a French identity instead of a regional one. This would again connect with the political phenomenon of the former third estate having a say in political affairs; people had a reason to unite culturally after having united politically. Having a new voice in the system, those in the far corners of France suddenly felt more connected to the capitol.

Germany Becoming Germany

Back in 1806, Johann Gottlieb Fichte made his thirteenth address to the German Nation. Fichte was a German philosopher who was also a supporter of the French Revolution and the ideas behind it((Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. To the German Nation. Fordham University, 1997)). When the new country of France invaded the German states, Fichte was not as supportive anymore. He saw how the Frenchmen were different from the German people and thought the Germans could unite together like the French had.

In his thirteenth address here, Fichte was trying to rally the people of Germany together. Though his language gets a little complicated towards the end, Fichte was writing to the everyday people of Germany. This was his thirteenth address so the common people would have understood him by then. The common people were the ones that led the revolution in France, so the German common people could do the same.

Fichte was trying to get people to understand that the battles that the French had held with and for them was on German soil and German blood had been split. He indented to make a nation out of the German people who could understand each other, unlike the foreign Frenchmen.

Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind

Johann Gottfried von Herder was a German philosopher associated with the Enlightenment. He wrote the article, “Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind” in 1784, and he discussed the idea of nationalism. Paul Halsall provided an introduction to this article. There have been different types of nationalism, such as cultural pride, …right to self-government, and …national superiority” (Halsall 1)

He established the central ideas of nationalism, which are that people can be defined as having a “common history, language, and tradition” and that a nation “has a unique claim to be considered a legitimate political basis for sovereignty” (Halsall 1). In general, the people of nations do not necessarily consider themselves as members of a given nation. They are more aware that they belong to a smaller group, such a family or a town whereas nationalism is in a broader sense.

For France, the concept of nationalism was difficult because most residents of France did not speak French. Ultimately, a French national identity was created by having all people learn to speak French. For French thinkers, an nationalistic France was not complicated because France had been established as a united state. However, for German thinkers, the idea of nationalism was more difficult because heterogenous groups of people were interspersed. For example, people had different religions, languages, and traditions. THe idea of nationalism can be created throughout language because “to deprive a people of its speech is to deprive it of its one eternal good” (Halsall 2).

How do you think that the United States establishes its own sense of nationalism and how does this compare to the idea of nationalism in France during the French Revolution?

The French Revolution and its Impacts

Throughout class this week, we have looked the French Revolution and how the revolution shaped French culture and politics.  Yet before looking at how the revolution shaped this new France, one must understand the reasons why people started to believe in the revolution in the first place.  One of these reasons was Maximilien Robespierre, author of The Cult of the Supreme Being.  In this piece, Robespierre justifies the revolution for he claims that the Supreme Being “did not create kings to devour the human race” (Robespierre 1), which was what the Crown was doing to the native French people.  Furthermore, Robespierre claims, “O generous People, would you triumph over all your enemies? Practice justice, and render the Divinity the only worship worthy of Him,” (Robespierre 1) and “Frenchmen, you war against kings; you are therefore worthy to honor Divinity,” (Robespierre 1).  Here, Robespierre is trying to fire up the native peoples and explain to them that the Supreme Being would want them to overthrow the King, for if they did they would be found “worthy to honor divinity.”  Lastly, Robespierre does a tremendous job because he is purposefully ambiguous by never mentioning God; for he appeals to both believers (for they think the Supreme being is God) and atheists (for he claims that all people are meant to help one another).  By appealing to both believers and non-believers, Robespierre is able to unite the people of France through his work, firing everyone up about fighting back against the Crown.

Once the revolution was under way, the French experienced many changes involving their culture and politics.  In order to change their culture, frenchmen and women deemed it necessary to eliminate their past and start over.  In order to eliminate their past, one can argue that they took extreme measures.  For instance, children would not be named Louis, Henry or Francis, for those represented old France and the evil rule known as the Crown (this can be seen as both cultural and political change).  Continuing this pattern, the French eliminated bishops, kings and queens as chess pieces and playing cards; for it brought them back to the Crown and their rule.  Furthermore, the French changed their salutations all together and vowed to never say the words, “obedient and humble servant,” for the believed that they were not subject to the King and his rule anymore.  While these actions may be considered somewhat radical of the French, it was deemed necessary for the fact that they have lived under the Crown for so long and this was a way in which they could start over, forgetting about their troubled past with the Crown.

How the political and cultural revolution worked together in France

Before the French Revolution, there was a separation of power in France based on the way the country segmented their society. The society was split into three groups: the clergy, the nobility and the third estate. The leaders of the French Revolution sought to alter the power and create their own culture to overthrow the monarchy run under Louis XVI and establish an entirely new society.

In Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes’ What is the Third Estate? he argues that the Third Estate of France was entitled to more respect and power than they were currently given, being that the Third Estate makes up the majority, “nineteen-twentieths”, of France (Blaisdell 72). Sieyes motivates his people in the text by challenging them to rise up against the limitations placed on the third estate, as it “contains everything that pertains to the nation” (Blaisdell 74). Sieyes pushes this revolution on the grounds that a monarchy isn’t necessary for the people of France to operate and that they would live in a better society if they were to overthrow the monarchy.

In order to unite the people of France, culturally speaking, Maximilian Robespierre wrote The Cult of Supreme Being, advocating for the revolution under religious grounds. He advocated against the catholic church because many of the followers perceived the church as a way of repression and subjugation by the monarchy. Robespierre incorporates many atheistic views, under the concept of reason in his new religious system. Under this system there are many religious views of deism, where there was belief in a god, but a god that didn’t intercede with the plans of the people of the Third Estate. He also argues that humanity was designed to exist in harmony but the tyrants in power have polluted the system of power in France by oppressing its people. Without the writings and leadership of Robespierre, the French Revolution may not have been possible.

The French Revolution’s success can be attributed to the combination of the political and cultural revolution that occurred before it. Without revolutionary writers and leaders like Robespierre and Sieyes, motivating the majority of the Third Estate wouldn’t have been possible and the shift towards a more enlightened society would never have became a reality.

Questions to consider:

Do you think the French Revolution would’ve been possible without the combination of the  political and cultural revolution?

Are there any power shifts (clergy, nobility, third estate) throughout world history similar to the one caused by the French Revolution?


Moving away from Absolutism

France endured centuries of Absolute Monarchs that spent much of their kingdom’s wealth on lavish buildings, monuments, and other signs of status, while the common people, known as the third estate, remained poor, hungry and devoid of power.  Though the third estate lacked power through the traditional estate system, as the clergy and nobility could overrule their political ambitions, it consisted of 96% of the French population.  Because it held the overwhelming majority of the population, members of the third estate believed that they should hold more power over France’s decisions.  Thus power was subsequently moved away from absolute rulers, nobility, and clergy and towards the third estate.

One of the most profound demonstrations of this shift was the change from the state following Catholicism to supporting more general Deist practices.  Revolutionaries saw the clergy as a corrupt entity created to justify a Monarch as well as being a way to neutralize the common man’s power in the estate system.  Therefore, revolutionaries aimed to reduce its power by shifting France’s religion to Deism.  This meant that the clergy and nobility would have less power over the third estate.  Likewise, it meant that the third estate now had control over their own religious preferences and would not have to pay to the church.

Another shift away from the past Absolutist ways of France was the general condemnation of royalty.  Children were prohibited from receiving names of past kings such as Louis, Francis, or Henry.  Kings and queens where removed from games such as chess and cards.  The general attitude of disapproval of royalty was promoted by members of the third estate as they realized their power as their society’s majority.

France underwent a shift away from absolutism towards democracy.  Much of the government supported by the revolutionaries had roots to the Greek concepts of equality and free thought.  These ideas mixed with the third estate’s desire to have political input and led France in its modernization and ultimately its rejection of Absolutist practices.

Heads Would Roll, But That Wasn’t Enough

Just as Louis XIV  created symbols of his power as the absolute ruler of France, such as the palace of Versailles and even himself (he was the “Sun King” and claimed that he was the state/the state was him), so did the leaders of the French Revolution create their own symbols and culture in order to aid their overthrow of the monarchy and subsequent attempts to create a whole  new society.

In a pamphlet entitled What is the Third Estate?, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès wrote that the Third Estate was “everything.” He argued that because the Third Estate made up the vast majority of France’s people (about 96%), and because it was the only segment of the Estates-General that contributed to the maintenance and betterment of the state, that it therefore was the state. Here, Sieyès made the opposite claim as Louis XIV, but he makes his claim for the same reason: to show where the power of France should lay. Instead of making the king the symbol of France, Sieyès made the common people the symbol of the nation. This trend continued in some of the artwork of the revolutionary period, as common people were shown dressed in fine clothing and in improved health but also performing tasks that would be useful to both themselves and the greater good of the state.

When Maximilien Robespierre wrote about the Supreme Being, he did so not out of religious fervor (although that could have played a role) but because the revolutionaries needed another way to unite the diverse peoples of France. Robespierre asserted that the French Revolution would be supported by the Supreme Being, as He created man to seek liberty and punish tyrants. Robespierre cleverly wrote about the Supreme Being in a Deist manner that would allow both Catholics and people of a more agnostic/atheist persuasion to relate to Robespierre’s argument, and his version of the Supreme Being also enabled him to maintain the Enlightenment ideal of Reason without completely trampling religion into the dirt.

Fashion during the revolutionary period also took on an Enlightenment spin, as dressing in clothes inspired by ancient Greece became a trend. The French thought of the people of ancient Greece as great thinkers and writers, so they sought to emulate this society that placed a value on reason that they saw as being like France’s. Additionally, the first known democracy occurred in ancient Greece, and while France by no means became the paragon of democracy at that point, people of a revolutionary mindset wanted to invoke the Greeks as an example of a nation that placed a high value on liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Chopping off some elaborately coiffed heads could not transform France alone; alongside the political actions and ramifications of the revolution, revolutionary leaders changed the symbols and culture of France in order to unite the Third Estate in rejection of the old order.

Questions for your consideration:

How does Robespierre’s treatment of religion compare to or differ from that of other revolutionary leaders (such as those in the American Revolution or the Communist revolution in Russia)?

In what other ways did the revolutionaries of France use symbols to their advantage? What kinds of symbols do we and/or our leaders use in the U.S. today?

Do you agree that the political revolution in France would not have been possible had it not been accompanied by a cultural one as well?