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Violence and the Origins of the Modern World, Episode S15/148

The Great Revolutions

by R. Anthony Arnold
May 2022

This is Smart Politix, and I’m your host Anthony Arnold. A lot of what I try to do on this show is to provide context. To go beyond the headlines, the breaking news, and search for the details and context that helps the news make sense. There’s always more to the story, and everything is more complicated than it initially seems. For the next few episodes I’m taking that approach and applying it to the subject of political violence.

Last year, we witnessed a shocking act of political violence. The riots at the Capitol were a reminder that while we may wish the United States was immune to that kind of chaos, the truth says otherwise. And in the aftermath of that event, there were many well-intentioned people who stated that violence must always be condemned, and that it can never be a part of the answer to political questions.

But the Capitol riots aren’t the only example of recent politically motivated violence. There were also the protests, and yes riots, that swept the country as a result of the ongoing mistreatment of Black Americans by police.

And for reasons related partially to politics, the responses to those two events could be very different, even when it was the same person responding to both.

It’s tempting to say that these reactions were motivated entirely by partisanship. That your view of their appropriateness was a direct result of how much you relate to the people responsible.

Violence is complicated, in part because our history is filled with so many examples of it. Wars, revolutions, protests and assassinations are scattered across thousands of years. In fact, you can’t really understand the history of the West without studying violence.

And, as opposed to always condemning these acts, there are plenty of examples that we hold up as not just good in terms of the outcomes, but that we consider justified. For instance, few people in this country would make the argument that the American Revolution was unjustified, or that the cost wasn’t worth it.

This complexity has led us to simply not talk about it, at all. And that would be fine, if the future didn’t have any chance of future violence.

Except it does, and that’s the main reason I’m tackling the subject. Political violence doesn’t happen somewhere else, and it’s not just a part of our past. It’s routinely happened throughout the history of not just the broader world, but throughout the history of the United States.

It’s not some impossible outcome. The potential for violence is a very real possibility. Guarding against it requires understanding its history, and recognizing how close it still is.

The most sensible place to start is with the acts of violence directly led to the creation of the world today. The Great Revolutions.

You will find a lot of disagreement about exactly which revolutions belong in this category. I’m not claiming that my list is either exhaustive or definitive. You could spend a lifetime reading about revolutions and still not have an answer to that question.

But, I do think there are five that stand out. The American, French, Haitian, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions are the pillars that the modern world is built upon.

For the West, the intellectual and moral foundations of the world today were established and hammered out in the bloodshed that occurred in the American and French Revolutions. Ideas about liberty, self-determination, and the appropriateness of violence itself were transformed from academic talking points into rallying cries used to inspire generations of people.

Here in the United States we look at the men who led the American Revolution as heroes. While some of the shine has worn off of men like Washington and Jefferson, that shouldn’t distract us from the fact that Mount Rushmore stands as an eternal monument to our reverence. The most popular musical of the modern era was about Hamilton, a man who was transformed into a household name centuries after his death.

Their legacies will always be complicated. People are messy. But the war itself, and the ideas behind it, are less so. We internalized the idea that freedom is always worth fighting for, that tyranny is always worth resisting, and that the spilling of blood is sometimes a justifiable outcome.

But if the American Revolution is the one that established these ideas as good, then the French Revolution is the one that established their limits.

Today, the French Revolution is a cautionary tale. Any would-be revolutionaries are met with claims that they’re another Robespierre, the idealist turned tyrant who represents both the promise and peril of resistance. And the ending of the French Revolution, which ushered in a new era of tyranny under Napoleon, represents the worst case outcome for many.

However, even in failure, it looms large. The phrase “liberty, equality, fraternity”, which first showed up in this revolution, is today the national motto of France. But its influence has extended well beyond France’s borders. The spirit of those words shows up not just in other countries' documents, or in their political parties, but in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by the United Nations in 1948.

Article 1 of that document reads as follows: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Liberty. Equality. Fraternity.

Like the American Revolution before it, the men behind the violence are complicated. But their ideals and values are so strong that we accept, at least in theory, that roughly 40,000 deaths between the two of them is a price worth paying.

But no revolution represents those ideals more purely, while also showcasing the way politics warps our responses, than the Haitian Revolution.

You could go a lifetime without hearing anything about the Haitian Revolution. You won’t read about it in many textbooks. There aren't any Hollywood movies and shows about it. A name like Toussaint isn’t recognized like Robespierre or Jefferson. If you didn’t seek out a chance to learn anything about it, then you might not ever know it existed.

And yet, no act of resistance better represents a demand for liberty and equality. The American and French Revolutions, while about resistance to tyranny, were largely led by people living lives of comfort and leisure. Washington and Jefferson may have felt stifled and oppressed, but they were still the upper class of their day. They were men of extraordinary means and wealth. The revolution wasn’t about their literal freedom. In stark contrast, the Hatiian Revolution was about fighting for freedom in its most basic way.

The Haitians were slaves, and what they were fighting over was the right to no longer be slaves. They were fighting to enjoy the most fundamental rights that a person would hope to enjoy. They were doing this against France, a nation that claimed fighting for these rights was a justifiable use of violence.

But the politics of the time dictated that, despite the fact that their struggle was built on the ideas of freedom and liberty, their skin color meant that the revolutionaries of France and America wouldn’t be supporting them.

Those lessons are still relevant today. The way that we’ve always responded to the demands for civil rights. The way we ignore the plight of the Uighurs, or the conditions of those in Haiti, today. We built our nation, and our freedoms, with violence. But not only won’t we recognize the justice in others doing the same, we’ll even resort to the violence to stop them.

But, the Western World is not the entire world, and any discussion of political violence must include both the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. I’m putting them together not because they’re the same, but because to those of us in the West they’ve come to stand for the same thing. The dua threats of Communism and Socialism.

Our fear of those ideas stems from the two revolutions that represent them. And in particular, we’ve reduced them down to Stalin and Mao. Two of the 20th century's most terrible monsters.

Now there’s no doubt that those men weren’t good. Their actions, and the violence surrounding them, speak for themselves. But, it’s also true that, in this country, we haven’t extended to them or their ideas the kind of sympathetic reading we’ve extended to our own history, or the monsters that fill it.

In the U.S., we recognize, correctly, that our founding fathers were complicated men, that their failures don’t necessarily wipe out the good they did, or the value of their ideas. We give them the benefit of the doubt, trying to walk the line between worshipping them and disrespecting them. We don’t extend that courtesy to others, though.

Instead, we’ve chosen to believe that the violence represents an irredeemable flaw in their ideologies, and in the people who would practice it. We deny them the right to be complex.

But, that's the point of this first part.

Everything mentioned today is political violence; and few topics are more complicated.

The words, ideals, and values may have been different. They weren’t all fighting for the same thing. But, from the United States to Haiti to China, separated by half a world and centuries of time, it really was violence that shaped the world, formed countries, and established the new order.

The problem with attaching an absolute value to political violence is that not only do you find yourself unable to grapple with it in our own past, but you also can’t make sense of the modern world. If violence is bad, and the people who practice it are evil, then what does that say about our own revolutionaries? Would you apply that logic to the Civil War? Or either of the World Wars?

If it’s a matter of the morality behind the violence, then what explains our lack of support for Haiti in their day? Or the Uighurs in our present day? If any group of people could be justified in using violence, they certainly have a strong case. Here at home, should Black Americans resist violence from the state with violence of their own?

It’s that last example that’s going to drive the next two episodes. Because we’re going to turn away from the world, and focus on political violence here, in our own country. I’m going to take a look at three of the social movements that shaped our nation directly, and the role that violence played in all three of them.

That doesn’t mean the answers get any clearer. The history of the world may be complicated, but it pales in comparison to our own messy relationship with political violence in our country.

So, join me on the next episode as I take a look at the two movements that shaped the early 20th century, women’s suffrage and the labor movement.