Thoughts On Revolution from a Volume by Richard Pipes

“A revolution is not a trail of roses.…” — Fidel Castro

Santiago, Chile, 2019. Photo by Elias Arias on Unsplash

This year I’ve been reading quite a bit about the Russian Revolution. Though primarily Solzhenitsyn’s perspectives, I’ve gleaned some from Leon Trotsky’s book on the Russian Revolution. In sharing insights from Solzhenitsyn on Medium, someone left me three other book recommendations including two volumes by Richard Pipes, a Baird Professor of History at Harvard. I found Pipes’ books in our library and have begun the smaller volume, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. (416 pages)

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Blockade in 1905. Public domain.

The following two excerpts from the introduction caught my attention, specifically in light on the ongoing night time protests and violence in some of our cities, particularly Portland and Seattle.

Pipes wrote:

Nineteenth-century Europe witnessed the emergence of professional revolutionaries , intellectuals who devoted themselves full-time to studying the history of past upheavals in quest of tactical guidelines, analyzing their own time for signs of coming upheavals , and once they occurred, stepping in to direct spontaneous rebellion into conscious revolution. Such radical intellectuals saw the future as marked by violent disturbances, and progress as requiring the destruction of the traditional system of human relations.

A little further on he writes:

It is radical intellectuals who translate these concrete concrete complaints into an all-consuming destructive force. They desire not reforms but a complete obliteration of the present in order to create a world order that has never existed except in a mythical Golden Age.

How much are we paying attention to what is going on right now? How concerned should we be about the threat to our way of life?

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Unlike any other book on this subject that I’ve read, Pipes lays groundwork by explaining a few concepts that I’ve never had pointed out. Chapter one is about life in Russia in 1900. It is essential for establishing the context in which these events took place.

For example, 80% of the population consisted of peasants living off the land, totally untouched by the Westernization that had been occurring in the rest of Europe. Pipes explains the three key institutions of peasant culture: the family, the village and the commune. These words have different meanings, though, from the way we understand things in America.

Another definition early on was also helpful. All my life I’ve heard reference to the “intelligentsia” when reading about the Revolution. I assumed it was just another word for the educated or intellectuals. Pipes notes that intelligentsia and intellectuals are two separate categories. Intellectuals are those who merely talk about about issues. They may be erudite, but not personally invested in the social upheaval their ideas toy with.

On the other hand, the intelligentsia that Pipes describes are opportunists actively looking for opportunities to disrupt, to change the course of history. Philosophers interpret the world, the intelligentsia seek to reshape it.

How concerned should we be when we go online and see people calling for revolution today? Or when I come across tweets like this one:

When we choose revolution, we do what is morally right instead of picking a lesser or greater evil. Choose revolution.

The image at the top of the page here is from 1905 where revolutionaries set up a barricade in the streets of Moscow. Except for the clothing, it doesn’t seem too different from Seattle this summer.

I’ll ask one last time. How concerned should we be about what’s going on?

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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