REVOLUTION IS THE HELL OF IT

After a revolution, of course, the successful revolutionists always try to convince doubters that they have achieved great things, and usually they hang any man who denies it.

H. L. MENCKEN

The case against violent revolution, for an anarchist, is simple. Government exists, ultimately, because most people believe that it performs necessary functions. The most fundamental of these functions is protection against violence and disorder. When people view anarchy as the ultimate evil it is not because they are concerned about mail not being delivered or streets not being cleaned. They are afraid of theft, murder, and rape, riot and arson.

The greater these fears, the greater the degree of government tyranny which people will tolerate, even support. Civil disorder leads to more government, not less. It may topple one government but it creates a situation in which people desire another and stronger. Hitler’s regime followed the chaos of the Weimar years. Russian communism is a second example, a lesson for which the anarchists of Kronstadt paid dear. Napoleon is a third. Yet many radicals, and some anarchists, talk and act as though civil disruption were the road to freedom.

For those radicals whose vision of freedom is a new government run by themselves, revolution is not a totally unreasonable strategy, although they may be overly optimistic in thinking that they are the ones who will end up on top. For those of us whose enemy is not just the current government but government itself, it is a strategy of suicide. Yet it is a strategy some anarchists advocate. What are their arguments?

One is that civil disorder is educational. A government threatened by insurrection becomes more and more tyrannical, revealing itself to the populace in its true colors. The populace, thus radicalized, rises and abolishes the government. Experimentally, the truth of this argument—that revolution leads to repression and repression to freedom—is demonstrated by the thriving anarchist communities now occupying the territories once ruled by the oppressive governments of Russia, China, and the German Reich.

Another, more unworthy, argument for revolution is simple opportunism. There is going to be a revolution whether we like it or not; one must be on one side of the barricades or the other. If a libertarian does not support the revolution, he has only himself to blame if he witnesses its triumph from an exalted position intermediate between a lamp post and the street. Even if he escapes such a fate, he can hardly expect to influence the policy of the revolutionaries if he has not helped to make the revolution.

Even on its own terms this argument is unconvincing. Successful revolutionaries do occasionally end up in positions of power but they seem more likely, on the historical record, to end up dead, courtesy of their comrades. In any case, revolution has its own logic and it is, like that of politics, a logic of power. So revolution, like politics, selects out for success those with the desire and ability to wield power. A libertarian is defeated before the game starts. And by the time the revolution is successful, the population will want nothing so much as order and security. If those who began the revolution have scruples about providing what they want, someone else will be found to end it.

The case seems better, on purely opportunistic grounds, for supporting counterrevolution. There are more old Falangists in Spain than old Bolsheviks in Russia. But the best policy of all, if there must be a revolution, is, on moral as well as opportunistic grounds, neutrality. Climb into a hole, pull the hole in after you, and come out when people stop shooting each other.

A third argument for revolution, one which may have had more influence than either of the others, is the argument from desperation. It holds that there are reasons intrinsic to our present situation which make it impossible to weaken or destroy government by any actions within the system. The only possible strategy, however bleak its chances, is to destroy the system from the outside, whether by nonviolent resistance or violent revolution. The crucial concept in this argument is the ruling class, the set of people who control the current institutions and benefit by that control. In the next chapter I will try to deal with that concept. In the chapter after that I will discuss strategies to achieve libertarian anarchy that seem more productive than revolution.

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!
A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
Hurray for revolution and cannon come again!
The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

W. B. YEATS