Romanticizing the Revolution

Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of the Discursionists’ birth in the heady days of the early Obama administration is that our posts are skewed toward politics more than we’d normally like. I promise to write a series of posts about music very soon, but the 60 or so “Tea Party” events across the country yesterday, protesting the stimulus and ballooning federal deficit, brings up some interesting thoughts about political ideas and historical reference points.

Not only are conservatives and libertarians opposed to the president’s economic policies trying to appropriate the historical meaning of the Boston Tea Party, but the rallies and internet buzz surrounding them were replete with other American Revolution references– Don’t Tread On Me flags, talk of Intolerable Acts, etc.

I know it may seem obvious–and it’s probably been said many times before, a lot better– but might we be able to tell a lot about a political movement by the kind of revolutions it romanticizes? After all, historical revolutions that persist in societal memory are driven by the kind of ideas that resonate with us today. So, while the Right feels affinity with the classical liberal movements of democracy, liberty, natural rights and limited government, some on the Left lay claim to, as a gross over-simplification, the moral ambiguity of the French Revolution, its deification of the general will, and its attempt at social engineering. Interesting, too, that conservatives like to trumpet the collapse of Soviet Europe by giving credit to Reagan and Thatcher, however misplaced it may or may not be, while a Marxist revolutionary like Che Guevara is among many liberals’ 20th century romantic heroes.

Meanwhile, in a related manner but not having to do with revolutions per se, supporters of Obama in the last election were able to iconicize the now-president in the style of communist propaganda posters with a straight face, to the horror of conservatives.

I’ll make no secret that I tend to view this romanticizing phenomenon as partial affirmation of my particular political views, given the historical realities of each of the examples cited above, although all of them led to mixed consequences (some more than others). And as an amateur historian, I also realize historical realties are much too complex for a 400-word blog post, so each case is too simply summarized. But perhaps my friends from the other side can provide some more flattering examples of historical reference points liberals like to utilize, or dispute what I’ve ascribed to the events and people above? Or maybe the way I’ve characterized these past revolutions are indicative of the people who respectively revere them, and we just disagree on the merits of the ideas these historical events symbolize?


Filed under Brandon

4 responses to “Romanticizing the Revolution

  1. GCC

    Smart. Real smart.

  2. czfinke

    As a liberal, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you. What I would stress is the imagining of these historical events to become what they weren’t.
    Regardless of your politics, it is very convenient to to pick a figure or period that can suit your specific needs (the Boston Tea Party), and use it for political gain today (protesting Obama). What is very unimportant about the original, or the new tea parties, is them actually having anything in common. It’s the historical imagination in the general populace that matters.
    It’s the same with Che. He was a murderer in a bloody conflict, but his role in the imagination fits well with the liberal movement. I won’t say I don’t find Che appealing for his more Romantic ideals, but he doesn’t actually matter in the slightest to my politics. And he was a ruthless murderer.
    Claiming that the “American Revolution” is somehow a Conservative Revolution and the Marxist/Communist revolution is somehow the Liberal one is both true due to our historical imagination, but also only true because it is propagated to be our historical imagination.

    And if we claim the French Revolution because of its moral ambiguity, I would say it is because we liberals are filled with it, and find it everywhere, complicating the world and the decisions people make to try and improve it.

  3. blraatikka

    Fine thoughts, CZF. I was hoping someone would temper my thoughts a bit and advance the ball too. So, you’re saying that this phenomenon rests on certain prevalent perceptions in each case, whether right or wrong. I agree with this, and I suppose I could have just as easily have said that you can tell a lot about a political movement by the revolutions it misromanticizes (or is taught to romanticize, which I think was your other point). I don’t think that impacts the larger point that much, actually, but something to keep in mind, and a further testament to the power of perception and imagination.

  4. Joseph

    I will say, as a person running in leftist circles for years, that I’ve never heard a single mention of the French Revolution in conversation. Most modern American leftists abhor the sort of violence involved in the affair, along with the crimes of Stalin, Mao, etc. (Remember it is the leftists who have those Free Tibet stickers on the cars). Even if our sometimes hypocritical actions have yet to actually free the Tibetan people, our sentiments are typically with the peaceful revolutions. The small percentage of violent leftists out there always tell the rest of us that this is why we never accomplish any of our goals 🙂

    An more romanticized revolutionary, at least in most leftist circles, would be Ghandi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. While neither men stood necessarily for socialism or communism (themes commonly associated with the “left”), they were working against conservatives in both cases who wanted to preserve an established order.

    I think the left also lays claim to the American Revolution to some degree. After all, the men involved have always been painted as the change agents of their day. Conservative members of early American society are seen as the Tories, at least from behind the paisley-colored glasses of the leftist.

    The major point that seems to be made, intentionally or not, is that people take what they want from history and use it to excuse current behavior. Any incident (or set of incidents) can be shaped into a battle cry. The problem is setting up a maxim for revolution based on these previous events. The old saying, “You never stand in the same river twice” comes to mind.

    There will never be another situation like the French Revolution, or like Che’s Central and South America. So maybe in one sense, Brandon is correct in saying that we can tell a lot about a movement by looking at who it holds in high regard. If a group holds any one movement up as the gold standard, there will be room for disagreement from all sides, within and without, about which pieces of the movement are likely to come to fruition. Better to start with a new goal in mind, and work forward. Looking to recreate the past is an impossible task.

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