The Magazine

Revolts of the Masses

Revolutions make history, and vice versa.

Feb 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 21 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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As for the American Revolution, as Malia notes, most historians agree that it was not a classic revolution--its social aspirations were limited and it failed to "devour its children." On the other hand, Malia says that it was "revolutionary" in that it set in motion revolutionary aspirations that are still current all over the world. Yet Malia almost glosses over perhaps the profoundest point about the American Revolution: Its worldview was "at variance with European Enlightenment optimism." Americans thought that, tempted by political power, human beings would likely turn wicked. It was natural of them to think that. By the end of the 18th century European culture was profoundly secular, and American culture was still overwhelmingly Christian.

Then came the French Revolution, of which the 24-year-old William Wordsworth wrote, "Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, to be young was very heaven." Of course, it wasn't bliss for the 20,000 or so Frenchmen and women guillotined during the Terror of 1794. Yet the French Revolution accomplished something without which none of the 20th-century revolutions would have taken their peculiar, violent courses: the abstraction and universalizing of human rights. In France the slogan was "liberty, equality, fraternity," but over time the unifying aspiration of all revolutions was to become egalitarianism.

As for the "final form" of European revolution, October 1917, Malia suggests that Marxism came to Russia primarily because Russian intellectuals "needed a new theory of revolution" after the collapse of the Populist movement of the 1870s. There was never a workers' seizure of power in Russia, Malia asserts: "What triumphed in October," he says, "was not a social class of flesh-and-blood workers but a political party of ideologues purporting to incarnate the workers' revolutionary consciousness."

Readers should be warned that History's Locomotives, though brilliant, is not an easy read. Wide-ranging and almost encyclopedic in its historical references, it is also dense with references to prominent historians and sociologists and their works. There are also occasional phrases that might have been composed after a bedside overdose of Lenin: "Thus the Hussite proto-revolution, which fought out basically in religious terms, in fact furthered an untheoreticized constitutionalism." But that solecism is hardly typical of this book, which resonates long after it has been put down.

To come across the following sentence in reference to the great arc of European revolutionary thought is to encounter a mind of formidable originality: "Thus did the Western revolutionary tradition traverse the millennial trajectory from salvation religion as surrogate politics to salvation politics as surrogate religion."

The millennium? Salvation? Red October? Those Hussites set in motion more powerful forces than they anticipated.

David Aikman, senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, is writer-in-residence at Patrick Henry College.