George Walford: Rethinking Revolution

Toward the end of 1979 Margaret Chisman invited me to give a talk to South Place Ethical Society under the title: A SYSTEMATIC IDEOLOGIST LOOKS AT REVOLUTION. As a former Marxist I had long been interested in revolution, but since taking up systematic ideology I had never really sat down and thought about it. When, under the stimulus of having agreed to give a talk on the subject, I did so, the results surprised me. It was not merely that revolution turned out to be connected with the ideological development of society,rather than its class structure; that I had expected. The surprise was twofold. Firstly, it turned out that revolution is not something that can occur, given the right conditions, at any point ideological development; it is a feature of one specific transition, a once-for-all occurrence. Secondly, this transition does not (except incidentally) involve the epidynamic or paradynamic ideologies. The connection of the self-styled “revolutionary movements” – Communism, Anarchism, revolutionary Socialism – with revolution is an aspiration rather than a reality, and the indications are that it will remain so. Revolution is the process whereby one particular major ideology comes to be recognized and accepted in the structure and functioning of society, but that ideology is not the epidynamic or the paradynamic.

The original talk was delivered to an audience unacquainted with systematic ideology and was designed accordingly; similarly with a written version now being prepared. The present abridged account, specially prepared for IC, is intended for people who have at least as much knowledge of the subject as may be obtained from AN OUTLINE SKETCH OF SYSTEMATIC IDEOLOGY. The original talk, and the fuller written version, both begin by showing the Marxist or class theory of revolution to be inadequate; here it is assumed that readers of IC do not need these preliminfaries. We go directly to our own material.

The term “revolution” is used in many connections, some of them frivolous; we shall use it only in its central reference, we shall be concerned only with those cataclysmic upheavals that bulk large in the history of nations. We shall not attempt to study all revolutions, nor to specify precisely what does or does not constitute a revolution. We shall take as specimens six events to which the title “revolution” is accorded by common consent and leave the reader to decide how far any conclusions we may reach are applicable to other candidates for the name. Our specimens will be the English revolution (otherwise known as the Civil War), the American, French, Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions. I think it has to be agreed that although this body of material is not exhaustive yet it is substantial; these are not trivial events. Revolution affects many of the systems and activities that go to constitute society, but we shall speak almost exclusively of systems of government; it is, after all, largely government that immediately decides whether the organized power of society shall support or oppose changes in other areas.

Each of our six countries, before its revolution, was under what we shall call personal rule, the system under which a single person stands at the head of government. It appears under various titles: dictatorship, tyranny, despotism, absolute monarchy and others. The personal ruler rarely or never rules alone; he or she (nearly) always has assistants, advisers, deputies and representatives, and is usually subject to legal or customary restrictions. But these are subsidiary and peripheral; the core and root of the system, the principle upon with it operates,is rule by a single person, the principle expressed in England by the phrase “the divine right of kings” and in France by the remark of Louis XIV: “L’etat c’est moi,” I am the state.”

The presence of personal rule in pre-revolutionary England, France, China and Russia is familiar enough; in Cuba it was exercised by the Spanish monarchs. America (that is, the English colonies in North America, later the USA) may appear to be an exception; at the time of the American revolution England was a constitutional monarchy. But the complaint of the colonists was that they were not ruled constitutionally; they were taxed but not represented, ruled by persons in whose decisions they had no voice. The chief of those persons was George III; to the Americans he was a personal ruler. Even today Americans speak of their soldiers sent to suppress their revolution as “King George’s redcoats.” Each of our six countries, prior to its revolution, was under personal rule.

No personal ruler was ever completely secure. History is full of kings, emperors and tyrants who were overthrown by external enemies, rival claimants or their own subjects. But, in each of our six countries, whenever one personal ruler was overthrown he or she was replaced by another. There was opposition, sometimes successful opposition, to this or that personal ruler but, until shortly before their revolution, there was no substantial, widespread opposition to the system, the principle, of personal rule. That was all but universally accepted.

Revolution begins with the overthrow of personal rule; it ends when the country is once again under stable, accepted government (there are two intervening phases which I omit from this abridged account). Just as our six countries were all under the same system of government before their revolutions began, so they are all under the same system of government when their revolutions have ended. They are all under a system incorporating representation.

This proposition is not likely to be readily accepted, and indeed it must be added that not one of these governments comes anywhere near being completely representative. In neither Russia nor China do the general body of the people have a direct voice in the selection of leaders; in the countries which have a multi-party system it is only those supporting one or the other of the two major parties who can hope to see their views given effective expression in the actions of government.

But, defective though the practice may be, yet the principle of representation has been accepted. In each of these countries its own system is claimed to be the truly representative one. No ruler in any of them now claims to rule by divine right, or declares that he or she personally is the state. Each one of these six countries has come to accept, since its revolution, the principle of representative government.

This, however, is not the whole story. Each of these countries has, at the head of its formal governmental structure, some collective body, its members representing various bodies of opinion, geographical areas, interest groups or other constituents of the society. But not one of them is content to have that body alone at the head of affairs. Each of them also has, as an integral part of the highest level of its governmental system, some one person; a President, Prime Minister or the equivalent. This person takes an active part in ruling and, whatever constitutions may say, he or she is in practice very much more than first among equals. These Presidents, Prime Ministers, Chairmen and the like may not enjoy the full range of powers and prerogatives that once belonged to the pre-revolutionary personal rulers, but each of them does carry more than a touch of the divinity that used to hedge a king. They are the persistence of personal rule along with the newly-adopted principle of representation. Mrs. Thatcher has just said, very helpfully: “I don’t mind how much my Ministers talk as long as they do what I say” (Observer 27 January 1980).

It is not only at the top that personal rule is found along with representative government; it extends all the way down the pyramid of authority. Parliament makes the laws but it is the judges who interpret and apply them; each judge is a personal ruler over those who come before him. Each bureaucrat and each constable has to decide, personally, whether this or that law or regulation is to be applied to any particular person or event. Representation is rather the form and outward appearance of the system, personal rule its content. At the top of the system there is a person alongside the supreme representative body. And, as it were, at the other end – on the ground, at the grass-roots – it is by decisions made by separate personal, by personal rule, that government actually operates. Each of our six countries, after its revolution, stabilized under a system combining personal rule with representative government.

It is often assumed, particularly by the reformers and intellectuals, that personal rule was imposed upon subjects who wanted a different system of government, but the evidence is against this view. Personal rulers were sometimes overthrown but they were replaced by others. There was no significant, widespread opposition to the principle of personal rule, and this tells us something about the ideological condition of the countries concerned. The absence of substantial opposition to the system of personal rule, a system which makes no provisions for the expression of political divisions, shows that such divisions were assumed not to exist. It shows that the only ideology present as a significant social influence was the one including the assumption that the social group, the nation or country, is or ought to be a homogeneous political unit. This ideology is of course the protostatic. Where personal rule is the only principle recognized in the official system of government the protostatic ideology is the only one present as a significant social influence.

When the revolution begins, or shortly before that, simple personal rule ceases to be almost universally accepted, and this indicates the emergence, as a significant social influence, of another ideology. Which ideology this is appears when we consider the new principle which comes to be incorporated into the system of government after the revolution, the principle of representation. To accept that government is to be representative is to accept the assumption that there are two or more factors to be represented, that the social group is not a homogenous political unity but is (at least) a duality, that it is constituted of two or more elements each of which possesses validity. The acceptance of this assumption in the formal or official system of government indicates the presence, as a significant social influence, of the epistatic ideology. This ideology appears in social practice as representation but also as the rule of law and as the type of skepticism that recognises two sides to every question and, consequently, that those who disagree with oneself are not to be suppressed or eliminated.

Revolution, then, is the process whereby the epistatic ideology comes to be recognized and accepted, along with the protostatic, in the official system of government of a country.

Finally I list a number of disconnected considerations tending to confirm this conclusion.

Every one of our six countries began when the country concerned was under personal rule. Every one of them ended with it under a system which incorporates both personal rule and (however imperfectly) also representation.

Britain has gone for some three hundred years, France and America each for some two hundred, without further full-scale revolution. During this time each of these countries has undergone changes wider, deeper and faster than it had experienced in the whole of its previous history. Changes in ideology, population, technology, literacy, education, political structure, means of production, economic relations, sexual relations, external relations; changes often described as revolutionary. It is during this period, in the life of each nation, more than at any other time, that the revolution might have been expected, but it has not happened. It has not happened because once revolution has taken place, and the epistatic ideology has been accepted together with the protostatic, representation together with personal rule, then further changes, in whatever field, of whatever extent, speed or profundity, are able to occur without further revolution. The representative system, like the epistatic ideology, is flexible; it is able to incorporate further influences as they arise. In countries under the system of government that result from revolution the groups that find it necessary to resort to methods excluded by the system – such as terrorism – thereby show themselves not to be significant social influences.

Russia, China and Cuba have undergone their revolutions more recently; it may even be held doubtful whether their revolutions are yet fully completed. But it is true of these countries also that in the years since their most acute revolutionary upheavals came to an end they have undergone deeper, wider and faster changes than in the whole of their previous history, and have done so without, at least, a return to the most violent period of revolution.

The indications are that (in the absence of regression) revolution is not a recurrent process; it happens once and for all.

The self-styled “revolutionary” movements strive to appropriate revolution, claiming it as the process by which their own assumptions come to be accepted into the organisational structure of a country. Since these movements emerged they have acclaimed every revolution as it appeared, from the Russian one onward, as the herald of the new dawn, as “the” revolution, the Anarchist, or Communist, or Socialist revolution come at last. But each country undergoing revolution, after an initial period of enthusiasm (which later comes to be regarded as a time of excesses) has followed a course bringing it increasingly close to the “capitalist democracies.” Each of them has developed a structure, a method of functioning and an outlook indicating domination by the protostatic and epistatic ideologies.

The foregoing explanation of revolution is not one of those widely accepted, but in one respect it agrees with the popular interpretations; it speaks of revolutions in the plural, of various countries each undergoing “its” revolution. We normally think of our world as divided into countries, and this view does of course possess validity. But it is a superficial validity. A deeper truth is that what we have today is one world-wide society divided in various ways. It is in that world-wide society that the epistatic ideology has been, and still is, developing and coming to be recognized and accepted as a significant social influence together with the protostatic that was formerly dominant. It is that one world-wide society that has been, and still is, undergoing revolution.

There is only one revolution. It began in England in the early 17th Century (or possibly the 16th) and it is still going on today. Against the life-span of a person that is a long time, but set, as it has to be set, against the whole duration of the history of human society it is the blink of an eyelid. Beginning in Western Europe the revolution at first spread slowly and sporadically, with periods of quiescence, but as developing transportation and communications have overcome the barriers of distance so the revolution has picked up speed until now it is flashing from country to country as an explosion flashes through a heap of gunpowder. We cannot say exactly when it will have been completed, but it seems likely to be within the lifetime of people reading this article.

The one world-wide revolution, by which the epistatic ideology establishes itself alongside the protostatic, is a development, an advance, and every advance carries the risk of regression. The protostatic ideology is able to tolerate representative government, and the other manifestations of the epistatic, but it is not concerned to maintain them. It is for those who value the epistatic and what comes with it – democracy, tolerance, freedom of speech and publication – to insure that the advance is maintained. Unless that is done there can be no further advance. These are the conditions needed for further major ideologies to develop and gain acceptance.

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PROVOCATION: A society is a whole of which the state and the individual are parts.

PROVOCATION: Ideological uncertainty principle: The more precisely an item of behaviour is quantified the less precise
its significance becomes.

from Ideological Commentary 5, February 1980.