Monday, December 5, 2011

On Truth and Revolutions

Revolutionism will ultimately fail. By revolutionism I mean the belief that the current social and/or political order will always need to be overthrown.[1] This is not simply a belief in the need for any given revolution. Rather it is a belief in the constant need for overthrowing the status quo—regardless of what that status quo is. I envision three possible outcomes of serial revolutions:
  1. Total or near-total annihilation
  2. Endless revolutions with no net progress
  3. A culminating revolution that eliminates the need for further revolutions
Let's discuss each one.

The potential exists for a revolution to be so drastic that the eventual result is destruction of the human race. This can be short-term or long-term. Alternatively, it could so drastically reduce the human population that the struggle for survival would supercede the need to overthrow an imperfect social or political order. Current media clamoring may incline us to believe that such a catastrophe will come because of nuclear war, overpopulation, or global warming. But it isn't limited to these. Population reduction measures could lead to a genetic bottleneck, resulting in the accumulation of deleterious alleles, further reducing the population. We have seen this in leopards, Northern elephant seals, golden hamsters, wisents, American bison, etc.[2] There is no reason to suppose that it wouldn't happen to humans, too. Another example: a sudden drastic reduction in CO2 emissions would lead to economic destabilization and anarchy like we saw in New Orleans when it was struck by Hurricane Katrina, only on a global scale. Regardless of which revolution brings about the demise of humankind (and some radical environmentalists have this as their goal [3]), once this has happened, revolution cannot continue.

Another possibility is that the revolutions will go on but no real progress will ever really be made. This is evident in the etymology of the word revolution.[4] Bernard Shaw wrote, "Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder."[5] Each age sees the follies of the previous age but fails to see that their own age is no closer to the truth. Thus mankind is "tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine". (Eph. 4:14) Today postmodernists suppose that the progression has been halted because they've tried to move to the center of the circle. But that is no guarantee of truth or permanence. We can be confident that postmodernism will eventually be just another bolded heading in a history text book. At a glance revolutionism seems to have succeeded. In the least it has guaranteed its own survival. But because it provides no lasting, meaningful progress, it stagnates. It is a destructive or at best a futile cycle, not a true revolution.[6]

Finally, it may be that all these revolutions are heuristic—that there is an ultimate goal. If so, then what appears an interminable cycle from one point of view is revealed to be an upward spiral from another. But this upward progress cannot continue indefinitely. It must have a goal. Science has aims of achieving perfect understanding of and control over the world around us. Christianity proclaims a final revolution at Christ's Second Coming. Really the goal of revolutions is to form a society wherein all needs of all individuals are met. They may seek this by abolishing old forms (the status quo) in favor of new, experimental forms; others seek it by eliminating groups that prevent (or seem to prevent) this goal. Rarely do all parties involved agree to the specific goals or to the means utilized to achieve these goals. But once all needs have been satisfied, the need for revolution would be eliminated. Some may suppose that such a world would be "boring" and revolution would be needed to "shake things up". But if revolution were needed to "liven things up", then all needs wouldn't have been met, yet, and so the end of revolution would still be unrealized.

I conclude that revolutionism is not a timeless principle.[7] Either it will some day serve its purpose and cease (bring about its own destruction). Or else it serves no purpose and needs to cease (i.e. a revolution to end the endless cycle of revolutions). Personally I believe that most revolutions have little or no divine inspiration behind them—they are simply the philosophies of men.[8] And what thousands of years of history has taught us is that the philosophies of men never solve any of our problems. But I think there's a point to that. Only by experiencing personal failure can we realize that the only means of salvation (i.e. solving all our problems and meeting everyone's needs) is through a divine intermediary: Jesus Christ. Hopefully someday we'll all wake up and realize that we've only been "kicking against the pricks".[9]


[1] For example, following Shay's Rebellion, Thomas Jefferson said, "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." (In a letter to James Madison dated January 30, 1787. The whole letter can be read here.)
     More recently, Ken Kesey, proponent of the counterculture movement of the 1960s, named the main character of his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 'Randall Patrick McMurphy', intending his initials (RPM) to stand for 'revolutions per minute'' (Yannella, Phillip R. (2010) "American Literature in Context after 1929." Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 80–81. ISBN-13: 978-140518600.)

[3] See my post on Responsible Environmentalism.

[5] Shaw, George Bernard. "The Revolutionist's Handbook" in Man and Superman. Maryland, USA: Wildside Press, p. 155. ISBN-13: 978-1434477804.

[6] A variation of this is a random walk that never arrives at any destination. See walk.

[7] It is not timeless, but it has existed for a long time. For example, in the history of class struggle there have many revolutions. The first was a struggle between monarchs of the European nations and the Catholic pope, who ruled over the whole Church and thus over all of their subjects. Eventually the monarchs overthrew Papal authority and began asserting their own "divine right" to rule. The next struggle came between the king and his nobility, which eventually resulted in establishment of Parliamentary systems. Soon thereafter, rich but non-gentry citizens—the bourgeoisie—vied with the gentry for control. Marx and Engel, in The Communist Manifesto, imagined a final struggle where the common workers (the proletariat) would overthrow the capitalists (i.e. the bourgeoisie) and establish a communist state. And there are many people in this world who, despite the failures of Russian and Chinese communism, wish for a communist revolution.

[8] Compare Jacob 5:30–32.

[9] This phrase is from Acts 9:5 and 26:14. It makes perfect sense in King James English, but our language has evolved since then. I once believed that this meant something akin to struggling when you've fallen into a thorn bush—the more you kick and wiggle, the more pain and bleeding you cause yourself. However, I was mistaken. The word for "prick" in Greek is κέντρον (kentron), which means "goad" or "sting" (see here and here). The imagery intended is that of a cow which, when goaded, kicks against its master. In doing so it can injure itself on the sharp goad. Thus this phrase is a warning about the dangers of foolishly resisting authority. And in Paul's case he was resisting the ultimate authority: the Almighty God.

Image attribution:

Revolution Fist is by Tim Dalinian Jones, available at

"Washington Crossing the Delaware" was painted by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in 1851. Photograph by Yi Yu, available at

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