The Idea of Revolution

The Idea of Revolution

The spontaneous movement that erupted out of Greensboro last year is laboring forth an ideology. This is a difficult period for so young a movement, especially one relatively lacking in politically sophisticated leadership. The students are further handicapped by an accident of history: their revolt has come at a time in the United States when the revolutionary tradition lies wounded, and radicals contemplate their own disillusionment. The legacy of the thirties is a modern distaste for revolutionary lines of thought and a disinclination to confront the question of social power.

I believe Michael Walzer’s “The Idea of Resistance” [DISSENT, Fall 1960] reflects this disinclination. In his effort to construct an ideology out of the sitins, Walzer turns to the Middle Ages for clues and proceeds to mangle history badly.

The burden of his article is that there is a terrorless alternative to Revolution—the Idea of Resistance. Resistance, he explains, predates Revolution, which does not emerge in Western thought until the 17th century. Resistance, as a response to oppression, was operative “long before men conceived of a plastic political order which could be refashioned at will.” (Curious language with which to describe the evolution of the state.) In addition, Resistance was not “aggressive and transforming but … defensive and limited … designed to defend natural law, traditional rights or legal order.” Techniques of Resistance included the “nonpayment of taxes, the refusal to publish the king’s decrees, the passive refusal to stir at his command,” etc. Finally, those techniques “can be enacted at many different social levels, down to the smallest community of men…”

The extrapolation of modes of human conduct from their historical setting is in general a risky business. Without discrediting the techniques of resistance described above, it should be plain that they were particularly appropriate in medieval Europe. Under the feudal social structure, authority was at a distance. Nation states were only in the process of formation, and even later, when centralized authority had been established by the king over the nobility, he depended heavily upon their fealty. The “traditional rights” the nobility defended were those of the older feudal order against the encroachments of monarchical centralization. On the other hand, “aggressive and transforming” movements are led by classes and groups demanding rights and privileges in the main not recognized by the old order. (Obviously the Negro students, civil defense protesters and the like are demanding rights not recognized by the old order. Though they may appeal to “higher laws” they are not defending, by any means, the “legal order.”)

With the formation of the nation state, Resistance explodes into Revolution. It becomes recognized that t...

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