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Fire in the Minds of Men

Street protests in Kiev (Anri Gor / Shutterstock.com)

[Earlier this fall, James H. Billington retired as Librarian of Congress. Appointed by President Reagan in 1987, he stewarded one of America’s great cultural institutions for nearly three decades. Also a leading scholar, his book Fire in the Minds of Men, first published in 1980, probed the origins of the modern revolutionary impulse. In honor of Dr. Billington’s service, we present a selection from this classic study of men who believed they could remake the world—Ed.]

Modern revolutionaries are believers, no less committed and intense than were the Christians or Muslims of an earlier era. What is new is the belief that a perfect secular order will emerge from the forcible overthrow of traditional authority. This inherently implausible idea gave dynamism to Europe in the nineteenth century, and has become the most successful ideological export of the West to the world in the twentieth.

This is a story not of revolutions, but of revolutionaries: the innovative creators of a new tradition. The historical frame is the century and a quarter that extends from the waning of the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century to the beginnings of the Russian Revolution in the early twentieth. The theater was Europe of the industrial era; the main stage, journalistic offices within great European cities. The dialogue of imaginative symbols and theoretical disputes produced much of the language of modern politics.

At center stage stood the characteristic, nineteenth-century European revolutionary: a thinker lifted up by ideas, not a worker or peasant bent down by toil. He was part of a small elite whose story must be told “from above,” much as it may displease those who believe that history in general (and revolutionary history in particular) is basically made by socio-economic pressures “from below.” This “elite” focus does not imply indifference to the mass, human suffering which underlay the era of this narrative. It reflects only the special need to concentrate here on the spiritual thirst of those who think rather than on the material hunger of those who work. For it was passionate intellectuals who created and developed the revolutionary faith. This work seeks to explore concretely the tradition of revolutionaries, not to explain abstractly the process of revolution. My approach has been inductive rather than deductive, explorative rather than definitive: an attempt to open up rather than “cover” the subject.

The revolutionary faith was shaped not so much by the critical rationalism of the French Enlightenment (as is generally believed) as by the occultism and proto-romanticism of Germany. This faith was incubated in France during the revolutionary era within a small subculture of literary intellectuals who were immersed in journalism, fascinated by secret societies, and subsequently infatuated with “ideologies” as a secular surrogate for religious belief.

The professional revolutionaries who first appeared during the French Revolution sought, above all, radical simplicity. Their deepest conflicts revolved around the simple words of their key slogan: liberty, equality, fraternity. Liberty had been the battle cry of earlier revolutions (in sixteenth-century Holland, seventeenth-century England, eighteenth-century America) which produced complex political structures to limit tyranny (separating powers, constituting rights, legitimizing federation). The French Revolution also initially invoked similar ideas, but the new and more collectivist ideals of fraternity and equality soon arose to rival the older concept of liberty. The words nationalism and communism were first invented in the 1790s to define the simpler, more sublime, seemingly less selfish ideals of fraternity and equality, respectively. The basic struggle that subsequently emerged among committed revolutionaries was between advocates of national revolution for a new type of fraternity and those of social revolution for a new type of equality.

The French national example and republican ideal dominated the revolutionary imagination throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Exiled Francophile intellectuals from Poland and Italy largely fashioned the dominant concept of revolutionary nationalism—inventing most modern ideas on guerrilla violence and wars of national liberation, expressing their essentially emotional ideal best in mythic histories, vernacular poetry, and operatic melodrama.

Rival social revolutionaries began to challenge the romantic nationalists after the revolutions of 1830; and this socialist tradition increasingly predominated after the forming of the First International in 1864 and the movement of the revolutionary cause from French to German and Russian leadership. Social revolutionaries expressed their essentially rationalistic ideal best in prose pamphlets and prosaic organizations. Their hidden model was the impersonal and dynamic machine of factory industry rather than the personalized but static lodge of the Masonic aristocracy.

No less fateful than the schism between national and social revolutionaries was the conflict among social revolutionaries that began in the 1840s between Marx and Proudhon. The former’s focus on destroying the capitalist economic system clashed with the latter’s war on the centralized, bureaucratic state. This conflict continued between the heirs of Marx (principally in Germany and Russia) and of Proudhon (among Latin and Slavic anarchists, populists, and syndicalists).

The word intelligentsia and the thirst for ideology migrated east from Poland to Russia (and from a national to a social revolutionary cause) through the Russian student radicals of the 1860s, who developed a new ascetic type of terrorism. Lenin drew both on this Russian tradition of violence and on German concepts of organization to create the Bolshevism that eventually brought the revolutionary tradition out of the wilderness and into power.

The revolutionary faith developed in nineteenth-century Europe only within those societies that had not previously (1) legitimized ideological dissent by breaking with medieval forms of religious authority, and (2) modified monarchical power by accepting some form of organized political opposition. In northern Europe and North America, where these conditions were met by Protestant and parliamentary traditions, the revolutionary faith attracted almost no indigenous adherents. Thus, the revolutionary tradition can be seen as a form of political-ideological opposition that arose first against authoritarian Catholicism (in France, Italy, and Poland) and then against other religiously based autocracies (in Lutheran Prussia, Orthodox Russia). The most dedicated and professional social revolutionaries—from Marechal through Blanqui, Marx, and Bakunin to Lenin—came from such societies and tended to become that rarest of all forms of true believer: a militant atheist. They and other pioneering revolutionaries were largely middle-class, male intellectuals with relatively few familial attachments. Revolutionary movements tended to become more internationalist and visionary whenever women played a leading role; more parochial and pragmatic whenever workers were in command.


Before attempting to chronicle the drama, the dogmas, and the disputes of this new, secular religion-in-the-making, it is important to linger on the mystery and the majesty of faith itself.

The heart of revolutionary faith, like any faith, is fire: ordinary material transformed into extraordinary form, quantities of warmth suddenly changing the quality of substance. If we do not know what fire is, we know what it does. It burns. It destroys life; but it also supports it as a source of heat, light, and—above all—fascination. Man, who works with fire as homo faber, also seems foredoomed in his freedom to play with it as homo ludens.

Our particular chapter in history unfolds at a time of physical transformation in Europe that was almost as momentous as the first discovery of fire must have been in the mists of antiquity. The industrial revolution was permitting men to leash fire to machines—and to unleash fire power on each other—with a force undreamed of in earlier ages. In the midst of those fires appeared the more elusive flame that Dostoevsky described in the most searching work of fiction ever written about the revolutionary movement: The Possessed.

He depicted a stagnant (tranquil?) provincial town that was suddenly inspired (infected?) by new ideas. Shortly after a turbulent literary evening, a mysterious fire broke out; and a local official shouted out into the nocturnal confusion: “The fire is in the minds of men, not in the roofs of buildings.” Dostoevsky was writing under the impact of two great fires that disturbed him deeply and heralded the transfer of

revolutionary leadership from France to Russia. These fires had broken out in imperial St. Petersburg in the spring of 1861 (where the emancipation of the serfs seemed to have inflamed rather than calmed passions), and in imperial Paris ten years later (where the flaming defeat of the Paris Commune ended forever the era of romantic illusions).

The flame of faith had begun its migrations a century earlier, when some European aristocrats transferred their lighted candles from Christian altars to Masonic lodges. The flame of occult alchemists, which had promised to turn dross into gold, reappeared at the center of new “circles” seeking to recreate a golden age: Bavarian Illuminists conspiring against the Jesuits, French Philadelphians against Napoleon, Italian charcoal burners against the Hapsburgs.

When the most important anti-Napoleonic conspiracy was ridiculed for attempting “to use as a lever something which is only a match,” its leader replied that

With a match one has no need of a lever; one does not lift up the world, one burns it.

The leader in spreading the conspiracy to Italy soon noted that “the Italian flame” had spread “the fire of freedom to the most frozen land of Petersburg.” There the first Russian revolution occurred in December 1825. Its slogan, “From the spark comes the flame!” was originated by the first man to predict an egalitarian social revolution in the eighteenth century (Sylvain Marechal) and revived by the first man to realize such a revolution in the twentieth (Lenin, who used it as the epigram for his journal, The Spark).

A recurrent mythic model for revolutionaries—early romantics, the young Marx, the Russians of Lenin’s time—was Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods for the use of mankind. The Promethean faith of revolutionaries resembled in many respects the general modern belief that science would lead men out of darkness into light. But there was also the more pointed, millennial assumption that, on the new day that was dawning, the sun would never set. Early during the French upheaval was born a “solar myth of the revolution,” suggesting that the sun was rising on a new era in which darkness would vanish forever. This image became implanted “at a level of consciousness that simultaneously interpreted something real and produced a new reality.”

The new reality they sought was radically secular and stridently simple. The ideal was not the balanced complexity of the new American federation, but the occult simplicity of its great seal: an all-seeing eye atop a pyramid over the words Novus Ordo Seclorum. In search of primal, natural truths, revolutionaries looked back to pre-Christian antiquity—adopting pagan names like “Anaxagoras” Chaumette and “Anacharsis” Cloots, idealizing above all the semimythic Pythagoras as the model intellect-turned-revolutionary and the Pythagorean belief in prime numbers, geometric forms, and the higher harmonies of music.  Many of the same Strasbourg musicians who first played La Marseillaise in 1792 had introduced Mozart’s Magic Flute to French audiences in the same city only a few months earlier; and Mozart’s illuminist message seemed to explain the fuller meaning of the jour de gloire that Rouget de Lisle’s anthem had proclaimed:

The rays of the sun have vanquished the night,

The powers of darkness have yielded to light.

The rising sun brought heat as well as light, for the fire was generally lit not at high noon on a tabula rasa by some philosopher-king, but rather by some unknown guest arriving at midnight amidst the excesses of Don Giovanni’s banquet. “Communism,” the label Lenin finally adopted, was invented not by the great Rousseau, but by a Rousseau du ruisseau (Rousseau of the gutter): the indulgent fetishist and nocturnal streetwalker in prerevolutionary Paris, Restif de la Bretonne. Thus the revolutionary label that now controls the destiny of more than one billion people in the contemporary world sprang from the erotic imagination of an eccentric writer. Like other key words of the revolutionary tradition it first appeared as the rough ideograph of a language in the making: a road sign pointing to the future.

This study attempts to identify some of these signs along the path from Restif to Lenin. It follows sparks across national borders, carried by small groups and idiosyncratic individuals who created an incendiary legacy of ideas. We will say relatively little about either the familiar, formal organizational antecedents of contemporary Communism (the three Internationals, the Russian Social Democratic party) or the actual revolutionary conflagrations of the period. We shall exclude altogether the contemporary era in which the stage has moved from Europe to the world, and revolutionaries from the anticipation to the exercise of power.

We shall deal repeatedly with the linguistic creativity of revolutionaries, who used old words (democracy, nation, revolution, and liberal) in new ways and invented altogether new words like socialist and communist. Their appealing new vocabulary was taken over for nonrevolutionary usage—as in the adoption of republican and democrat for competing political parties in postrevolutionary America, or in the conservative cooptation of nation, liberal, and even radical in late nineteenth century Europe. Revolutionaries also originated other key phrases used by nonrevolutionary social theorists in our own century: cybernetics, intelligentsia. Even speculation about “the year 2000” began not with the futurology of the 1960s, but with a dramatic work written in the 1780s by the same figure who invented the word communist.

The origins of revolutionary words and symbols is of more than antiquarian interest; for, in the contemporary world where constitutions and free elections are vanishing almost as rapidly as monarchs, revolutionary rhetoric provides the formal legitimation of most political authority.

The historian’s path back to origins leads, however, into often murky labyrinths; and requires a willingness to follow seminal figures in leaps of fantasy to remote times and on long marches into distant spaces. Revolutionaries (no less than prophets of the Judaeo-Christian-Moslem lineage) seek to find their “holy other” in historical time. They tend to become more extreme in the present as they idealize an ever more distant past. Those who glorified pre-Christian druids tended to outstrip in fanaticism those who looked only to the early Christians.

Revolutionaries have also pursued a geographical quest for some ideal place where the “holy other” could be wholly present. Activists have often sought out a small, clearly encompassed area within which perfection could become material. The earliest Utopias of the imagination and the starting places for many key nineteenth-century revolutionaries were often islands. In their search for sacred space, the original revolutionaries made judgments through an apotheosis of location: left vs. right or mountain vs. plain in the French National Assembly, an inner circle of the dedicated within a broader circumference of the affiliated in their revolutionary organizations. What Cloots called the “world-map of revolution” was explored and charted by a new breed of politicized artists and writers. Flags and songs provided a semaphore of salvation. The bourgeois Third Estate sartorially celebrated its liberation from the aristocratic Second Estate by lowering its knee britches and becoming sans-culottes—only to don the tight new uniforms prescribed by the revolutionary citizen-state.

The revolutionary faith was built more by ideological innovators than by political leaders. He who held actual power during the original French Revolution was generally “a provisional being … a creature of exceptional circumstance . . . not a professional of the Revolution.” Professionalism began later with a different kind of man: an intellectual who lacked political experience, but saw in revolution an object of faith and a source of vocation, a channel for sublimated emotion and sublime ambition. If traditional religion is to be described as “the opium of the people,” the new revolutionary faith might well be called the amphetamine of the intellectuals.

But such characterizations are neither fair to the believer nor helpful to the historian. The wellsprings of this faith are deep, and have sustained men and women on the way to the scaffold of an executioner as well as to the platform of power. The youthful intellectuals who were the prophets and priests of this new secular religion were largely crying in the wilderness throughout the nineteenth century, struggling against overwhelming odds for revolutions that they saw coming mainly with the eyes of faith. It was not self-indulgent pity that caused one of the most militant and original early revolutionaries to compare his wandering life of exile to an eternal purgatory of “suffering without end and without hope”:

I no longer have a friend … no relatives, no old colleagues … no one writes me or thinks about me any more. … I have become a foreigner in my own country, and I am a foreigner among foreigners. The earth itself refuses to adopt me.

Revolutionaries were generally sustained in such loneliness and despair—and protected from ridicule and indifference—by secularized nineteenth-century versions of the old Judaeo-Christian belief in deliverance-through-history. At a deep and often subconscious level, the revolutionary faith was shaped by the Christian faith it attempted to replace. Most revolutionaries viewed history prophetically as a kind of unfolding morality play. The present was hell, and revolution a collective purgatory leading to a future earthly paradise. The French Revolution was the Incarnation of hope, but was betrayed by Judases within the revolutionary camp and crucified by the Pilates in power. The future revolution would be a kind of Second Coming in which the Just would be vindicated. History itself would provide the final judgment; and a new community beyond all kingdoms would come on earth as it never could in heaven.

A classical, contemporary statement of this belief lies in the founding manifesto of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement, History Will Absolve Me. He represented his own original revolutionary assault on the Moncado barracks as a kind of Incarnation. The subsequent torture and martyrdom of his virile fellow revolutionaries was the Passion and Crucifixion; and Castro’s trial by Batista was Christ before Pilate. The Cuban people were promised corporate Resurrection, and their revolutionary apostles Pentecostal power. The coming revolution would fulfill all the Law (the five “revolutionary laws” of the Moncado raiders) and the Prophets (José Martí).

Such total belief in secular salvation is uniquely modern: the sublime creation of the age of political religion ushered in by the American and French Revolutions. Previous political upheavals—even when called revolutions—generally sought a new leader rather than a new order. The norm was revolt rather than revolution—either the “primitive rebellion” of outlawed “social bandits” or the “pursuit of the millennium” by religious prophets seeking to move beyond nature into a state of grace. Never before was the word revolution related to the creation of a totally new and entirely man-made order. With the militant, secular French Revolution “a new era opens, that of beginnings without return.”

Particularly after the revolution turned to terror in 1793 and to retreat in 1794, many realized that the revolutionary process would not automatically bring deliverance and social harmony. A new species of man, the professional revolutionary, emerged during the “Thermidorean reaction” to keep the dream alive. He argued that the French Revolution was incomplete, and that history required a second, final revolution and a new type of man dedicated to serving it. The full-time revolutionary profession began not with the ruling politicians but with the intellectual activists in Babeuf’s “Conspiracy of the Equals,” who had little in common with earlier revolutionaries “except in the imagination of the police.”

Yet the tradition that developed from the “people of Babeuf” cannot be divorced altogether from “the imagination of the police.” For revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces often lived in a kind of symbiotic relationship. The same writer who first prophesied a new revolutionary society for France in the late 1760s also coined in the early 1780s the prophetic phrase les extremes se touchent. We shall repeatedly have occasion to note the interaction and often unconscious borrowing between the extremes of Right and Left.


A work of history is, of course, a product of its own time as well as a description of another. This study originated in graduate university teaching during the 1960s, when some Western intellectuals began to think of themselves as revolutionaries. Their voices were often shrill and rarely heeded. Most people in the West remained attached to either their material possessions or their spiritual heritage. Yet within overdeveloped universities even more than underdeveloped economies there was often a kind of fascination—compounded sometimes with fear and/or secret delight—at the perceived reappearance of a political species long thought to be nearing extinction.

Yet the perspective of history seemed strangely missing among revolutionaries, antirevolutionaries, and voyeurs alike. Activists seemed largely uninterested in the substantial academic literature that had already accumulated by the mid-sixties; and new writing often seemed unusually narrow or polemically preoccupied with immediate issues. There seemed as well to be deeper ideological, cultural, and even professional reasons for continued historical ignorance of the revolutionary tradition.

Ideologically, historical understanding has been muddied in the postwar era by the rhetoric of superpower politics. The American and the Soviet states are each the product of a revolution: the first to proclaim, respectively, a new political and a new social order.

The American Revolution of 1776 was a classic contest for political liberty secured by constitutional complexity. But American sympathy for the simpler cause of nationalism elsewhere (including within the Soviet empire) has often blunted the ability of American leaders to distinguish between revolutions seeking limited liberties and those seeking the more unlimited gratifications of nationalistic fraternity.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the classic revolution for social equality. But the Soviet leaders adopted as well the language of liberal and national revolutionaries—and debased the entire revolutionary vocabulary by using it to rationalize imperial despotism. Rejecting Marxism as the progenitor of Stalinism, the liberal West proved, in its technocratic era, almost equally hostile to the anti-authoritarian, Proudhonist alternative to Marxism within the social revolutionary tradition.

Culturally, historical understanding was complicated in America by the voracious overuse of the word revolutionary in a generally non-revolutionary society. Not only was the word abused by advertisers to announce the most trivial innovations in taste and technology, but also by social commentators anxious to contend that a “revolution” was occurring in the politically conservative America of the early 1970s. The revolutionaries were variously identified as drifting flower children, as the technological innovators they rejected, and as humanistic capitalists who presumably had little in common with either. It was only marginally more absurd for a bizarre drifter named Rasputin to characterize his free-form sexual-religious commune of affluent youth as “revolutionary”—and to invent the verb “to revolute”:

… let the people do what they want . . . keep them revoluting. Revolution, constantly changing, going on to the next thing …  

All of this preceded the cacophonous deluge of Bicentennial messages about the enduring importance of the American Revolution variously interpreted. The day after the two-hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the leading newspaper in the American capital featured a proclamation of “the new American Revolution.” But its “new American Maoism” for a “post-Copernican Age” seemed little more than a final sprinkling of intellectual confetti left over from the Age of Aquarius.

Such confusion flows in part from the general modern tendency to attach “a magical, binding and unique meaning to the word ‘revolution,’ ” in an age when “the word ‘revolution’ is always construed in a positive light.” Yet even if the word has been “emptied of all meaning by constant overuse,” it does not necessarily follow that it will “soon cease to be current.”

Professionally, American academic historians may themselves have contributed— ironically and inadvertently—to the erosion of historical memory about the revolutionary tradition. By devoting inordinate energy to demonstrating either their political “relevance” (the sixties) or their methodological “rigor” (the seventies), many have neglected the enduring obligation of open-minded immersion in the legacy of the past. Cliometricians and cliopetitioners alike may have been too confident that they possessed in the present either a method or a message for the future—and, as a result, were too willing to see the past as an instrument to be used rather than a record to be explored.

As a university-based historian during the early years of this study, my “method” was to ignore professorial debates and to spend my time with old books and new students. The experience gave me an unanticipated sense of “relevance.” I was repeatedly struck in the depths of libraries with precedent for almost everything that was daily being hailed as a novelty from the rooftops outside.

I came to know figures like Thomas (Ismail) Urbain, a Black Muslim of the 1830s unknown to those of today. He adopted Islam and Algerian nationalism a century before the same pattern was followed by other black revolutionaries from the same West Indies. Flora Tristan, the Franco-Peruvian founder of the first international proletarian organization, anticipated today’s radical feminism, by invading the all- male House of Lords in London of the late 1830s and removing her disguise as a male Turk to dramatize her cause. The struggle between the old and the new left recapitulated much of the Marx-Proudhon conflict. Even the marginalia of leftism such as ideological sky-jackers had precedents in the revolutionary high-jacking of Mediterranean ships by Carlo Pisacane in the 1850s.

The concept of a revolution along generational lines was already fully developed in Gerontocracy of 1828 by the future Swiss revolutionary leader, James Fazy. Germany had produced even earlier the prototypical “modern” student counter-culture: rakish dress, long hair, narcotic highs, and sexual lows. Out of this subculture came violent calls for a “propaganda of the deed” long before contemporary terrorists. The anti-traditional musical theater of the early nineteenth century inspired real revolution in a way that rock festivals of the recent past only avowed to do.

But these were minor discoveries of antecedents along the path directed toward constructing an account of origins that might add some insight from fresh historical research to the substantial work that already exists on the modern revolutionary tradition. This study will, it is hoped, broaden the base of enquiry even as it arouses controversy by considering Bonneville and Nodier as well as Babeuf among the founding fathers; Dezamy and Barmby as well as Marx among the communist pioneers; media of communication as well as means of organization; and Radchenko as well as Lenin among the authors of Bolshevism.

This study necessarily deals with only a small part of a rich story. It will not provide the traditional staples of either comprehensive political history or rounded individual biographies. In addition, readers should be specifically forewarned that I am not following any of three familiar approaches to the revolutionary tradition: the hagiographic, the sociological, or the psychological.

Hagiography is the retroactive justification of a revolution in power: the portrayal of precursors in the past for purposes of indoctrination in the present. In this approach, saints and sinners, heroes and heretics are created and catalogued to support the current political judgments of the recognized revolutionary succession. From such an intensely partisan tradition, of course, has come the bulk of historical writing on revolutionaries. The critical historian can find here not only invaluable source material, but also insights from Marxist historical analysis, particularly in the period prior to Stalin when relatively free speculation was still permitted in the Soviet Union.

A massive new Soviet history, The International Workers’ Movement, will provide an authoritative codification of post-Stalinist orthodoxy. The first two volumes cover the same period as this book, predictably stressing the actions of workers and the doctrines of Marx. But the new periodization, the international perspective, and the assignment of specific sections to different authors—all give this work an interest largely absent from earlier versions of the hagiographic genre. A very different line of saints and devils is traced in the philosophically rich history of Marxism by the brilliant, exiled Polish revisionist and critic, Leszek Kolakowski.

The sociological approach predominates among social historians in the West as well as nonhagiographic Marxists. That the revolutionary tradition was intimately related to forces of industrial development, class conflict, and social change in the modern world is incontestable. But it does not follow—as many sociological historians either assert or imply—that the revolutionary tradition is simply produced or “caused” by these processes. Such an explanation may be argued as a hypothesis or asserted as an act of faith. But it can hardly be called a scientific fact—and it may actually serve to rationalize restriction on the range of enquiry, which the open experimental method should always seek to expand.

Microhistorians of the sociological school have been increasingly critical of those broad histories of the revolutionary era that focus on the diffusion of French power to local elites. There clearly is a need to understand better the widely different regional and social experiences of a complex continent—and for that matter the human variety contained within the French term “Jacobin.”

Since our subject is not the politics of the revolutionary era, but the genesis and spread of the revolutionary tradition, it is necessarily the story of a few ideas and of key people. So many of them have been neglected or forgotten that it seems task enough to enlarge the inventory and provide a historical framework for tracing the development of this small, but immeasurably important subculture of nineteenth- century Europe.

The effort here will be to maintain a kind of agnosticism on first causes while bringing into view some relatively neglected data and advancing some new hypotheses. In those areas where intellectual history can approach scientific precision, however, this work will attempt to trace the origins of key words, symbols, ideas, and organizational forms.

The psychological method is currently much in favor as a means of explaining data about men and ideas. Since revolutionaries are intense people at war with accepted social norms, they have become favorite subjects for this kind of analysis—particularly in America. The suspicion remains, however, that Freudian, even more than Marxist, analysis may itself be a somewhat dated technique—at times more appropriate for the period of the historian than for the historical period.

Aside from the recognized difficulties of retroactive psychoanalysis, the fact is that most of the important early revolutionaries seem surprisingly free of unusual personal characteristics. One of the best studies of the emotional side of the original French revolutionaries points out that “the future revolutionaries were almost all docile pupils of Jesuits and Oratorians.” Like most other French children of their time, they were fond of their mothers, of their native regions, and of mildly sentimental, apolitical literature.

Revolutionaries in the subsequent, romantic era were rarely as idiosyncratic and antisocial as artists and poets, and less committed to violence than is generally realized. The schools of thought that played the most important roles in developing a revolutionary tradition all saw themselves providing the rationality that would end violence. Politicized Illuminists promised inner moral renewal; messianic Saint-Simonians, an organic order to end revolutionary unrest; Young Hegelians, the peaceful completion of Prussian reforms.

The fascinating fact is that most revolutionaries sought the simple, almost banal aims of modern secular man generally. What was unique was their intensity and commitment to realizing them. This faith and dedication made the revolutionary trailblazers bigger than life—and deeply controversial. Their progress represented, for some, humanity emerging on wings from its cocoon; for others, a malignancy attacking civilization itself.

Most Communists and many Third World leaders still profess to believe in salvation-through-revolution; others fear that this belief still retains the power to immobilize intellectuals in the West who lack “the experience of living in a society where that myth has been politically elevated to the status of official doctrine.” Others see this secular faith fading away as a “post-industrial society” moves “beyond ideology” into a “technetronic” era. Others may suggest that belief in revolution was only a political flash fire in the age of energy—now burning itself out on the periphery as the metropole enters the twilight of entropy.

The present author is inclined to believe that the end may be approaching of the political religion which saw in revolution the sunrise of a perfect society. I am further disposed to wonder if this secular creed, which arose in Judaeo-Christian culture, might not ultimately prove to be only a stage in the continuing metamorphosis of older forms of faith and to speculate that the belief in secular revolution, which has legitimized so much authoritarianism in the twentieth century, might dialectically prefigure some rediscovery of religious evolution to revalidate democracy in the twenty-first.

But the story of revolutionaries in the nineteenth century is worth telling for its own sake—quite apart from any concerns of today or speculations about tomorrow. This heroic and innovative record of revolutionaries without power is an awesome chapter in the history of human aspiration. This study will attempt to let the dead speak for themselves without overlooking the continuing concerns of the living.

It is a work of humanistic history: the record of what one man who is not a revolutionary found interesting and important about a number of his fellow humans who were.

Copyright © 1980 by James H. Billington. Republished by permission of Transaction Publishers.

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