The Nature of Revolution

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Revolutions: Finished and Unfinished, from Primal to Final. Paul Caringella, Wayne Critaudo, Glenn Hughes, eds. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2012.


Revolution is a term that has found an enduring place within the lexicon of Western civilization over the past century. It would not be much of a stretch to characterize the 20th century as one of revolutionary fervor; and nearly a decade and a half into the 21st century, we find ourselves continuously inundated with the term.  Revolutions in economics, technology, genetics, robotics, engineering, and medicine (not to mention politics) are routinely pronounced. In that context, the term is tied directly to progress and novelty, but it is important to note it need not refer to either. In a remarkable volume edited by Paul Caringella, Wayne Cristaudo, and Glenn Hughes, a variety of authors explore the broad topic of revolution in a penetrating, lucid manner. The topics explored include the American, English, French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions along with the recent “Arab Spring.”  However, the volume extends beyond these types of revolutions within particular governments to include chapters on the managerial revolution, the transhumanist revolution and the primal revolution of prehistoric man.

The philosophy of Eric Voegelin and Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy is what ultimately ties these diverse essays together. Each author relies on one or both of these thinkers to elucidate his own view on revolution. The differences between Voegelin and Rosenstock-Huessy are more pronounced than their similarities and it is therefore fitting to find in the Preface to the work the following proclamation: this “volume was born out of tension.” The reference to tension, however, is not meant solely as a comment on the philosophical differences between Voegelin and Rosenstock-Huessy. Rather, both emphasized “tensionality” within their own works. Voegelin focused primarily on the spiritual tension created by existence within the metaxy. The challenge for man is to live his life in order and to maintain a balance of consciousness. Doing so is not easy and man has a tendency to want more certainty than tensional existence in the metaxy provides. Thus, man revolts and convinces himself of the possibility of reordering, not just his life, but reality itself. This occurs by neglecting one of the poles of existence (the immanent or transcendent) and imaginatively reconstructing the order of being in its absence. Of course, the order of being does not change simply because man wants it to, and Voegelin points to the disastrous political consequences that result from such attempts. For him, the Bolshevik and Chinese (Maoist) revolutions offer vivid illustrations of these political consequences and the spiritual disorder they provoke and reflect.

Rosenstock-Huessy also acknowledges tensionality as a crucial aspect of revolution. He focused his attention on “total” revolutions and argued that modern man and Western civilization itself were borne out of revolutions. Revolution, not evolution, explains the emergence of civilized man in Europe and America (199). Instead of seeing revolution as an existential threat to civilization, Rosenstock-Huessy focuses more on the positive effects that can arise from it. And unlike Voegelin’s emphasis on spiritual individualism, Rosenstock-Huessy focuses more on the collective and places faith in the power of dialogue to resolve political crises.

Before turning to some of the individual essays collected in the volume, we can see that the term revolution has multiple meanings. It can refer to a restoration (the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution) or something wholly new (the French Revolution). For some, a change in the institutions and/or leaders of a society is sufficient to invoke the term, while others reserve it for totalizing attempts to change human nature and consciousness itself. And it need not refer to overtly political matters at all. The managerial and transhumanist revolutions of the twenty-first century have little, if anything, to do with regime change or a radical transformation of political institutions. One strength of the collection as a whole is its compelling exploration of each of these aspects of revolution.

Thomas Hollweck (to whom the volume is dedicated) demonstrates how Voegelin’s work, although lacking an explicit theory of revolution, can offer a penetrating analysis of revolution. Hollweck focuses primarily on Voegelin’s later work in The Ecumenic Age and especially on the tension that arises with new insights into the order of being. These insights often make previous symbolic orders of society seem inadequate, and thus those who experience these “disturbances in being” are potential revolutionaries. As Hollweck explains, “they more or less unwittingly became elements of disorder in their respective societies, because theirs were insights into the ‘true order,’ which is different from the established order” (114). Hollweck emphasizes Voegelin’s reluctance to draw any grand conclusions about whether man’s self-recognition as “interpreter of being” will lead to beneficial or deleterious consequences. This newly gained autonomy “can be used in the service of truth as well as untruth” (120). Thus, the response to such insights proves decisive. Hollweck rightly emphasizes the participatory element of Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness. In the context of the late modern period and man’s alienation from God (and therefore from himself), Hollweck explains there are only two ways out: a Platonic metanoia or a total and radical revolution (126).

Louis Herman’s essay on the “Primal Revolution” is instructive not just for the answers it provides, but for the valuable questions it raises for future research in a relatively neglected area of study within political science. Herman traces the development of the primal revolution from 200,000 years ago to its culmination in the emergence of “an ancestral Bushman population of hunter-gatherers, which seems suddenly to burst out of Southern Africa 50,000 years ago, quickly colonizing every continent on the planet” (51). Herman argues that there are actually several “leaps” in the history of Being, including humanity’s emergence from a common primate ancestor six million years ago and the development of primates from mammals thirteen million years ago. However, he focuses his attention of the San Bushmen of South Africa who are the products of the aforementioned primal revolution. Since the San remained relatively isolated from modern civilization until recently, they provide an invaluable glimpse into “what it might have been like living off the fruits of our ‘wilderness Eden’ – a paradigmatic primal politics” (66). Herman argues that we can learn a lot from San political practices and characterizes the San as “traditional, hunter gatherer – stable, yet flexible, egalitarian and democratic yet fostering individuality and creativity” (66). He paints a picture of a society in which all individuals can flourish in a community that “actively pursues egalitarianism within an ethic of caring and sharing” (66).

This of course stands in stark contrast to the Hobbesian state of nature, which is often used to characterize primitive peoples. Herman’s characterization of the San is much closer to Rousseau’s noble savage. But whether this reflects a romanticized version of the past or an accurate portrayal is of secondary concern. Herman persuasively argues that the political symbols of the San (and related groups) demonstrate a complex understanding of reality. The tension between wilderness and civilization, the individual and community, and man’s place in the cosmos are consistently outlined throughout San mythology and can also be found in cave paintings throughout South Africa and Europe.

Limited space precludes a close examination of all of the essays in this impressive volume, but several standout for mention, including a penetrating analysis of the spiritual vacuity of the Bolshevik revolution by Glenn Hughes, a brief but incisive look at the “final revolution” of transhumanism by Klaus Vondung, and an engaging piece on the managerial revolution by Christopher Hutton.

Several other contributing authors develop useful typologies for the study of revolution, including Thomas McPartland, with his distinction between radical (total and soteriological) revolution, which necessarily leads to disorder/decline, and revolution in the general sense (which often leads to genuine progress). Michael Bernstam, developing a primarily economic argument (revolution as social fraud in which wealth is simply redistributed from one set of elites to another), provides a useful taxonomy in which there is a division between sectoral/technological and systemic/social revolutions (with a further distinction between distributive and non-distributive revolutions). Matthias Riedl’s provocative essay on the Gnosis-thesis will be of particular interest to Voegelinians and Wayne Cristaudo’s essay comparing Arendt and Rossenstock-Huessy on the French Revolution provides an accessible glimpse into Rossenstock-Huessy’s corpus.

Manfred Henningsen argues against the culturally reductionist accounts used to explain the “regimes of terror” (Russia, Cambodia, Germany, Italy, and China) of the 20th century. He points to a deeper, spiritual disorder that underlies these movements. Far from being a culmination of their particular cultures, these regimes of terror sought “social transformation on a scale unheard of an never initiated in those societies before” (150). William Ratliff considers the history of revolution in Asia (and especially China) and ponders whether the 21st century might bring a “convergence of the Western and Asian ecumenic ages that Voegelin mentioned” (295). Glenn Moots delves into political theology and outlines the interconnectedness between reformed Protestantism and the American Revolution, and Arie Amaya-Akkermans analyzes the recent revolutions in the Middle East and assesses the prospects of meaningful change.

There is something in this volume for everyone interested in the nature of revolution. Taken together its various chapters and approaches bring theoretical clarity and analytic coherence to a complex subject while also providing fertile ground for future dialogue and research.

David Whitney

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David Whitney is Associate Editor of VoegelinView and Associate Professor of Political Science at Nicholls State University in Louisiana. He is author of Maladies of Modernity: Scientism and the Deformation of Political Order (St. Augustine's, 2019).