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Conrad – The Problem with Revolutionaries



In a real revolution–not a simple dynastic change or a mere reform of institutions–in a real revolution the best characters do not come to the front. A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time. Such are the chiefs and the leaders. You will notice I have left out the mere rogues. The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane and devoted natures, the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement–but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims–the victims of disgust, disenchantment–often of remorse. Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured – that is the definition of revolutionary success. There have been in every revolution hearts broken by such successes. But enough of that. My meaning is that I don’t want you to be a victim.

Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes, pt ii, ch iii, p. 133 (1911)

The modern age was ushered in by revolutions. Our times continue to be defined, in critical measure, by revolutions. And yet revolutions are important in human history as a measure, foremost, of failure. They highlight the failings of the ancien régime. But in studying revolutions, we can also chart the failings of the revolutionaries themselves. To succeed, the shallow revolutionary presents a critique of the current power holders, while the more profound revolutionary projects a vision, a light, a way forward. This, he proclaims, is what our society can achieve. In the literature of the twentieth century, the most effective literary engagement with revolution is precisely the study of revolutionaries. George Orwell offers us Animal Farm, a work of cartoon-like simplicity and undeniable, but painful truth. His revolutionaries on the farm unite to espouse their universal values. They come to power. And then they betray their values, one by one, as the narcotic of power takes hold of their lives. The true artistry of this book lies in the stories of the individual failures. “All revolutions,” he tells us elsewhere, “are failures, but they are not all the same failure.” These are words critical to the historian and the political scientist, because they highlight the need to understand precisely how a revolution has failed, which in the end is largely a study of failed revolutionaries.

But the most complex and the most psychologically perceptive study of revolutionaries in the last century certainly comes from a Pole who successfully navigates the Englishman’s soul, Joseph Conrad. In his novel Under Western Eyes, Conrad seems almost to parody the style of Russian writers, just as he populates the novel with characters who could have been cast by Dostoyevsky. But Conrad’s attitude to them is quite different. He could hardly be more critical, or skeptical. And in the quoted passage, a sober voice that I instinctively associate with Conrad (though I could be wrong about this, much of his skill lies in the transposed voice of narration) looks penetratingly at the little nest of émigré Russian revolutionaries in Geneva on the eve of the Great War and offers some withering judgments. What he writes, in 1911, is exceedingly prophetic for the Russia which would emerge within a decade–he has a clear vision of the idealism, the zeal, the cynicism and the betrayal which where then on the horizon. But we should hasten to note, Conrad’s judgments are to be applied universally, not simply as some assessment of the Russian political firmament on the eve of the Great War. And we should stress the wisdom of the admonishment offered here, and reiterated in succeeding lines: do not allow yourself to be a victim of this process. Keep your own counsel. Approach these revolutionaries and their adversaries with a hefty inoculation of skepticism. Listen to their high aspirations and claims of oppression, but remember that this may cloak far baser motives.

I come to this after being swept up this week in a revolution on the other side of the world, in Kyrgyzstan, a country which is almost a second home to me, where I have worked for two decades now and which enjoys a special place in my heart. I write this after examining a photograph from the Tulip Revolution of 2005: Roza Otunbayeva, Omurbek Tekebayev and Almazbek Atambayev appear in it, addressing a crowd as the tumult erupted that brought down Askar Akayev. And this week, a second revolution swept Kyrgyzstan–in some respects a remarkable replay of 2005, in others quite different–and in the dust emerge once again Otunbayeva, Tekebayev and Atambayev as leadership figures for the new government. There can be no denying that the history of the Tulip Revolution is one of revolutionary values quickly betrayed by the man who seized power, drove out his more idealistic fellow revolutionaries, and proceeded to be even more corrupt than his predecessor. Amazingly, he was enabled along the way by the United States, which talked Rule of Law values and did something altogether different. And it’s equally clear that Otunbayeva, who has emerged as the new leader, was the one leader of the old revolution who adhered rigorously to the values she espoused, sharply criticized the failings of her colleagues, and suffered the consequences of a fall from power as a result. Her credibility and integrity are the saving spark of this revolution, so far. How things will unfold for the new government is not to be foreseen. But what can be easily anticipated is the heady mix of human aspirations and weaknesses that drive and then follow in the wake of every revolution.

Listen to the riot scene from the second movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 “The Year 1905” (1957) in a performance of the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. The music is busy, conflicted, menaced by the report of rifle fire, but driven forward by a determined march. It builds to two abrupt climaxes, then subsides into a calm blending hope and horror, with prolonged piccolo and flute melodies, accented by the menace of military brass in the distance. This symphony is one of the most inspired works of programmatic music of the post-nuclear age. You are listening to a revolution transcribed in music:

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