Why Revolutions Happen

According to historical philosopher Eric Voegelin (see related post), the rise of revolutionary movements can be traced to two main factors: the increase in statism and the emergence of a frustrated intelligentsia. The political climate of this period saw writers, thinkers and agitators who lacked roots in fading cultural and religious traditions, and who likewise had no desire to join the ranks of the bureaucracy or business.

Karl Marx was just one member of this disenchanted intellectual caste. He burst onto the scene, diagnosing the problems of the working class (which he had nothing to do with) and famously denounced the “alienation” supposedly caused by modern factory work. The proletarian, he said, felt no sense of vocation and was disconnected from the purpose and end results of his labor. He had no true economic or social independence. This description was partly correct, but also superficial. The real issue, then and now, is the lack of social mobility – more on the part of the members of the lower middle class than the responsible blue collar employee. This typically occurs where the political order imposes too many restrictions or favors certain classes in the economic realm. Such was the case in pre-revolutionary France and Russia. In both countries radicalism emerged and took root, not in response to severe repression but to incompetence.

Revolutionary thinking derives from a unique set of expectations. One notices that people who are moved to radicalism are seldom worse off than the mass of people. Often quite the contrary. Many revolutionaries are not workers, but rather spoiled and precocious theorists. Their sense of vulnerability (psychological rather than economic) is exaggerated by propaganda which precludes a return to genuine freedom. The paradox is that as radicals become more anarchistic in their personal lives, their capriciousness paves the way for totalitarian control in areas where they have surrendered their responsibility.

According to conservative thinkers like Voegelin or Sowell, Marx was never really interested in alleviating material misery through reforms or wage increases, though socialism is marketed in that way. Digging deeper we find that Marx’s motives were not even economic. And no doubt Communists find it highly convenient that their workers’ state need never really improve conditions. What invariably happens is that the lumpenproletariat (lower class vagabond elements, who are not deemed true “workers” in Marxist terminology) turn out to be the convenient bully-boys who pave the way for tyrants and opportunists. Socialism, as the path to communism, becomes the indefinitely postponed “transitional” period during which time they can freely exercise their lust for power.

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