What Makes a Revolutionary?

For Friday’s class, we’re reading “The Catechism of the Revolutionary (1868)” and the “Demands of the Narodnaia Volia.” The “Catechism,” written by Bakunin and Nechaev, describes a Russian Revolutionary: how he should act; what he should value; how she should treat others, etc. This document defines a “Comrade” as someone who is irrevocably committed to the cause. He has no external connections or motives other than causing a complete destruction of the current social political order, and he full-on recognizes that he will probably die in this process. The “Demands of the Narodnaia Volia,” written by the organization who assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881, explains the group’s reasons for the assassination. The “Demands” delineate the current social order as oppressive and seek to radically reform it. Their biggest demand is an “Organizing Assembly.” The Assembly will be instituted through a general election by the people, will take the place of the existing government, and then will use their power to construct a new, fairer government that the Russian people need.

Paragraph 13 of the “Catechism” states, “He is not a revolutionary if he feels compassion for something in this world.” I found this rhetoric (and others like it) to be interesting because it implies that a true comrade should have no family: no wife, no children, etc. On one hand, this lack of connection correlates with the Catechism’s message that comrades will be killed. But on the other hand, it leaves how the whole idea of who the comrades are fighting for. Not only is not allowing comrades to have families harsh and unrealistic, it also seems counterproductive. Wouldn’t it be a stronger case to enforce to the comrades that they were bringing about total destruction so that their children can have a better world?

These documents also made me wonder why the Narodnaia Volia put a tsar back on the throne after they had killed his father. If they were so intent on total reform, than why place another hereditary monarch back in power? Why not try to institute a whole new government? (I know that this is coming in the next 40 years, but why didn’t it happen in 1881?)

In Cold Blood: Revolution in Bread and Wine

Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone tells the story of Pietro Spina, a formerly exiled Italian revolutionary attempting to recruit and organize the peasants of his native region of Abruzzi into an effective anti-fascist resistance movement. The novel’s most interesting passages usually take place in the form of discussions between the protagonist and various acquaintances from his conspiratorial past

In one of my favorite passages, Pietro meets with Annina, the former girlfriend of a comrade-turned informant. “Conspiratorial life is hard,” Pietro tells her, “we have to be pitiless” (179). When she tells him that she renounced revolutionary struggle long ago, an indignant Pietro asks her, “how can you resign yourself to ordinary life?” (179).

Contemporary critics would likely read these passages as another pebble added to the mountain of proof regarding revolutionary folly in the twentieth century. Today, public intellectuals call less for revolution or radicalism than for measured demands, for adherence to the requirements of “reality” (a condition more often described by others than experienced first-hand), while reminding anxiety-riddled readers of the blood-soaked “revolutionary” regimes of the past century.

To understand the bridge between true revolutionary thought an action, one must also understand the cold-bloodedness that allows militants like Pietro to look upon such nonsensical abstractions “ordinary life” with disdain. First, one must ask what constitutes an ordinary life. Who can aspire to such a dull goal and actually achieve it? Even if one could realize such an uninspiring aim, could he or she truly gain satisfaction from it? “Ordinary” denotes something commonplace, without distinctive features, something well ensconced within the spirit of its time, thus contrived, conformist, and without great merit. Worse, one can always expect the search for an “ordinary life” or an “ordinary person” to end in disappointment, for each existence depends less on individual actions than on external factors, rendering this quest equally onerous and unimaginative. Hence, the rejection of the moderate or conservative’s celebration of the “ordinary life” has nothing to do with romanticism, but instead suggests devotion to a liberating realism, refusing the constraints placed on existence by comfortable illusions.

Still, let us imagine that one could in fact live an “ordinary life”, and that such a life included all that a reasonable individual might enjoy or desire. Could a militant belonging to a radical cause justifiably look upon it with disdain? I contend that he can only do so. In fact, the proper revolutionary should hate what intellectuals vaguely refer to as “humanity”, that mass of slightly above-average mammals that would stop inflicting indignities on one another if only they did not possess such an inflexible “nature”.

A true revolutionary cannot accept arguments that blur the future and forget the advances of the past in order to privilege a present convenient for some and unpleasant for most. He or she respects individuals and their achievements; they act not in accordance with laws but in agreement with the dictates of their own conscience. One can only describe such an attitude as “pitiless”.  It gives no quarter to clichés like the “common people” or to their legions of self-appointed representatives. A revolutionary like Pietro only understands and responds to empirical evidence of wrongs committed by those in power, and prefers judgments based in philosophical inquiry over easily manipulated representations of popular opinion. Most importantly, the revolutionary life allows no divergence from the individual’s basic moral principals, contrary to what a party leader or fellow militant might claim. As Pietro argues throughout the novel, each revolution belongs to the individual as much as it seeks to improve conditions for the collective. Only in this way can he retain his instinctual socialism, a deeply anti-authoritarian impulse that allows him to maintain empathy for individuals without losing sight of his cause.


examining natural rights in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Men

Written within ten years of each other on the eve of two different revolutions, the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Men remain today as influential revolutionary texts. While both documents examine natural rights, they do so in different contexts, for The Declaration of Independence was the assertion of a fledgling democracy’s right to political autonomy, while the Declaration of the Rights of Men enumerates and demands the protection of the individual natural rights of an oppressed class of citizens. Though the focuses of the two documents are different, examining them in tandem shows us the inextricable relationship between government and individual rights.

The Declaration of Independence lists the colonists’ grievances against the King of England and does not identify individual human rights, believing that these truths were “self-evident” (Blaisdell 63). The extensive list of complaints against King George are concerned with his interference in different institutions within the colonial government – cutting off trade, dissolving representative houses, and “refusing to assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers” (Blaisdell 65). While this declaration is a response to the oppression of the natural rights of a sovereign nation, the Declaration of the Rights of Men was written in response to the oppression of individual rights – namely, those of the Third Estate, the class of all french citizens who were not part of the gentry or nobility. The Third Estate was burdened with “all the really arduous work, all the tasks which the privileged refuses to perform” (Blaisdell 72). The French National Assembly listed fewer grievances in their declaration than the American Continental Congress and instead offered a comprehensive outline of the natural rights of individual citizens, ranging from freedom of speech to the right to property.

Different though their content may be, each declaration examines half of the relationship between citizens and their government. Both the french and americans agreed that a government is instituted to protect its citizens’ rights, and in return for this protection citizens will sacrifice certain rights of their own. The Continental Congress shows us government protection of rights in action – an elected group of officials protesting the abuse of another power against their own citizens. The French national Assembly outlines the second half of this political equation, showing how citizens sacrifice for their government through acts such as paying taxes and limiting their natural right to those which will not infringe upon someone else’s. Together, these documents show us how individuals allow for the creation of government, and how a government allows for the protection of natural rights.