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Revolutionary power has no self-regard


The Parthenon

Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013 11:02

Last week, I wrote on western political power’s relation to the state. I argued government relies on people’s consent to be governed, then I hypothesized all governments, whether western democracies or authoritarian regimes, swindle people into believing they need their government.  In the former case, the state uses external threats and in the latter case, it relies on internal threats.  
The common denominator between these governing styles is they exercise power to preserve their station in society.

Revolutionary power, on the other hand, has no self-preservation instinct.

Nothing better describes the nihilistic suicide mentality of revolutionist doctrines than Sergey Nechayev’s 1869 manifesto,  “The Revolutionary Catechism.”

Nechayev hit the Russian revolutionary circuit in the early 1860s.  A self-educated former house painter, Nechayev conned the anarchist and utopian societies of St. Petersburg and the secret police into believing he was the leader of a 4 million member revolutionary organization that extended from Lisbon to Moscow. Nechayev died in 1882 in the Peter and Paul Fortress, after being convicted of murdering a fellow student.  His career became the basis of Dostoyevsky’s “The Possessed.”

“The Revolutionary Catechism” describes the duties of a revolutionary to himself, his friends, society and the masses.  Nechayev argues the revolutionary must server emotional and social bonds, focusing all energy and activity on destroying society by any means necessary.  Revolutionaries should kill every person that opposes the cause, regardless of age, creed, color or position in society.  Conventional morality and decency, along with culture, religion and class, should be destroyed because they are obstacles to the overthrowing of the government.  Friends are cannon fodder, the revolutionary’s own life is expendable and the people’s suffering is intensified to provoke them to insurrection.  
Nechayev’s views were in 1869, as they are today, were extreme.  But his words bear a lot of truth about the nature of revolutionary power.  Revolution is a fleeting action. It is only devoted to usurping an established social order.  Once it consummates power, the revolution no longer exists, because it is now the established power.  The act of revolution destroys the state and itself in one motion.  Because of its short life span, no power is more dangerous in action than revolutionary power, because its triumph is its termination. Therefore, revolutionaries are always willing to die in the service of their cause, because they are conceptually dead as soon as they succeed.

While the United States does not have an underground revolutionary movement to draw any attention—pot smoking anarchists aren’t 1917 Bolsheviks—, there are certain sectors of the political landscape that naturally embrace aspects of Nechayev’s revolutionary writing. The tea party is a prime example of this.  Their lack of compromise and stone walling in the fiscal cliff talks at the end of 2012 indicate they are willing to sacrifice the economy in order to prove their ideological points.   
The funny thing about the tea party is, they were all anti-establishment candidates in the 2010 midterm election.  However, just as I said about the revolutionary, as soon as they took office, they became part of the establishment.  Too bad their stone walling antics has contributed to  one the most dysfunctional Congresses in American history.

Next week, I will continue my study into the relationship between power and ideology.   
Henry Culvyhouse can be contacted at

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