Notes on the Counter-Revolution

Counter-revolution has gripped the American imagination. Neo-Conservatism was the dominant ideological expression of the new millennium and the Tea Party is today on the march. They have roots in the beginnings of American history and, like their predecessors everywhere, they are the reaction against the prospect of radical — if not always — revolutionary change. Modernity is the crucible in which both counter-revolution and revolution were forged. Both make reference to a notion of progress that speaks not merely to the growth of capitalism but to the privileging of individuality, social equality and the liberal rule of law. There never was a true ideological consensus. Counter-revolution and revolution always provided fundamentally divergent responses to the constraint on arbitrary institutional power. The point for departure in theory and practice, indeed, was the burgeoning bourgeoisie of the 17th century that began an attack upon the ancient regime with coalitional support from other classes contemptuous of throne and altar. Partisans of this undertaking sought to substitute capitalism for feudal social relations, a republic for the monarchical state, and a new secular ideology for religious dogma. With its insistence upon individual enterprise and scientific innovation, the liberal rule of law and the assault upon traditional authority, scientific reason and moral autonomy, the Enlightenment crystallized what became known as the “age of democratic revolution.”

The crowning achievements of this enterprise were the three great democratic revolutions that occurred in England (1688), the United States (1776) and France (1789). All of them were predicated on the vision of a new constitutional order in which equal citizens of diverse background and different interests might determine their fate together peacefully under the liberal rule of law. Constitutionalism and suffrage rejected—in principle—the idea of individuals living without explicit human rights in a “community” bound together by land and custom. The principle, of course, did not instantly translate into fact and, thus, there began the long struggle for suffrage by excluded groups. All of their most important representatives — from Mary Wollstonecraft to Martin Luther King, Jr. — pointed to the implicit demands generated by universal ideals and the prejudiced society that denied them. It only makes sense that the formation of a liberal and secular order should have been welcomed not only by those Jews seeking entry into gentile society, but—what is so often forgotten— also by those seeking freedom from the theocracy of the provincial ghetto.

Eighteenth-century constitutional revolutions tore down the walls of the ghetto, opened society, and—finally—enabled Jews to claim their rights as equal citizens. The failings of these revolutions with respect to implementing equality among citizens, it should be noted, were due less to the inadequacies of their Enlightenment supporters than the unrelenting assault upon their most basic political values by those who would form the counter-revolution.

Counter-revolutionaries trembled. Edmund Burke warned against severing the bonds “between the dead, the dying, and the yet unborn;” Gustav le Bon identified democracy with the “mob;” Johann Georg Hamann lauded irrationalism; Joseph de Maistre and other traditionalists decried the new tolerance accorded women and “alien” groups like the Jews. Critics of the new age felt themselves justified by the instability and terror generated through the French Revolution, and the years following the Napoleonic Wars were dominated by attempts to introduce a “restoration” of the past. Authoritarianism blossomed with the sanctification of tradition, established forms of hierarchy, and fear of both the “masses” and the “other.”  Experience, intuition, and conspiratorial visions were given philosophical primacy over reflection, critique, and the logic of historical development. Christianity was resurrected, so to speak, in the assault upon secularism and German nationalists introduced policies based on the “purity of race.” Everything associated with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, in short, came under suspicion.  Stendhal appropriately called the period, stretching from 1815—1848, a “swamp.” It was, indeed, dominated by the army and the church or, using the title of his most famous novel, “the red and the black.”

Integral nationalism and absolutist understandings of religious faith have always intoxicated the advocates of Counter-revolution. Herein lies the basis for their contempt of liberal notions of toleration and individualism as well as what would become socialist ideals of equality and an extended understanding of “rights.” With the attack upon the republican ideal of the citizen came the attack on the rights of the other. Rejection of all ideas concerning natural rights and human dignity, which the Enlightenment inherited from the Renaissance, enabled counter-revolutionaries to dispense with cosmopolitan values and embrace explicit doctrines justifying racism, sexism, and the like. Tensions between these two outlooks would simmer for the next three decades following the fall of Napoleon in 1815. They exploded with the demands for republics that, especially in France, would prove, both “democratic” and committed to the “social” good in the Revolutions of 1848.

Liberals in the United States would fuse these two strands of the Enlightenment into a philosophy capable of gripping the masses first in the form of Progressivism during the beginning of the twentieth century, then in the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, next in the Civil Rights Movement, and the Poor People’s Movement of the 1960s. But the defeat of the Revolutions of 1848 by reactionary forces, fighting against republicanism and socialism in the name of values inherited from the Counter-Enlightenment, led continental liberalism to surrender its radical impulse. European liberals wound up exchanging the original cosmopolitanism associated with the Enlightenment for new imperialist aspirations, the old emphasis upon republicanism and civil liberties for support of existing monarchical regimes, and the spirit of social reform for an almost unqualified belief in the market. Thus, in contrast to its Anglo-American variant, continental liberalism ultimately served as little more than the political philosophy of the bourgeois gentlemen. Its advocates throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth century, would essentially act as brokers between the authoritarian movements of the right and the socialist movements of the left. Until the anti-communist rebellions of 1989, in fact, continental liberal parties were never able to secure a mass base for their worldview—and, even today, they still have their problems. Nevertheless, from 1848 until the present, both political democracy and social equality would serve as targets for the counter-revolution.

This ongoing battle of differing value systems was generated less by some abstract “dialectic” than a concrete and empirical conflict between the partisans of revolution and counter-revolution. That becomes apparent not so much in The Communist Manifesto, which can be understood as a testament to the Revolutions of 1848, but in the stunning set of historical works that chronicled the events like Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany by Friedrich Engels and The Class Struggles in France as well as the classic Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon by Karl Marx. Rarely noted is that here, for the first time, a general theory of the counter-revolution is articulated. Marx insisted that the issue is not merely one of reactionary ideas, or the attempt to transfer symbols and myths from an earlier time into the present, but rather a set of ideas directed at the two most progressive ideologies held by the two dominant classes of the modern production process: the liberalism of the revolutionary bourgeoisie and the socialism of the working class.

According to this logic, pre-capitalist values and ideologies should hold a particular affinity for pre-capitalist classes like the aristocracy, petty bourgeoisie (or, in German, the Mittelstand), the peasantry, and even the notorious Lumpenproletariat, who are rooted in a community bolstered by religious and traditional values. These pre-modern classes feel themselves threatened by the urban character, the cosmopolitan quality, and the scientific character of the modern production process. Just as they all resent the exploitative hegemony exercised by the bourgeoisie, and they all fear being reduced to an anonymous mass proletariat, they cannot embrace either liberalism or socialism without existentially denying themselves. Marx and Engels maintained that counter-revolution is embraced by the losers or those who feel they might become losers in dealing with the economic, political, and social forces comprising modernity.  With its authoritarian nationalism, its preoccupation with prejudice and inequality, counter-revolution thus becomes the underside of the revolutionary struggle for cosmopolitanism, political liberty and social equality.

Perhaps it was because 1848 solidified the linkage between political democracy and social equality, and because the reaction to these values was so clear cut, that Marx and Engels were able to elucidate their theory of counter-revolution when they did. It would remain a staple for concretely analyzing every form of counter-revolution that has emerged since Napoleon III and Bismarck propagated an even more intensified commitment to integral nationalism and the organic community following the defeat of the international revolutions of 1848. Counter-revolutionary ideas of this sort inspired the rise of anti-Semitic and populist movements in the last decades of the nineteenth century led by Adolf Stoecker, the court chaplain of Kaiser Wilhelm I in Berlin, as well as Austrians like Karl Lueger and Georg Ritter von Schoenerer—both of whom were admired by the young Hitler—who were already successfully employing slogans like “Germany for the Germans” and “From Purity to Unity.”

But nowhere was this more the case than in France during the sensational Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s that surrounded the trumped-up conviction for treason of the only Jew on the General Staff  by a military tribunal.  Heirs of the Enlightenment and 1789 like Emile Zola and Jean Jaures, the great socialist leader, took up the cause of Captain Alfred Dreyfus and decried the verdict. But their defense was predicated on placing reason above experience, evidentiary truth above tradition, and a universal sense of justice above the needs of the national “community.” Reactionaries analyzed the matter differently.  Literary figures like Maurice Barres, crackpot thinkers like Charles Maurras, and journalists like Paul Bourget insisted that bringing universal standards of justice to bear on the case would result in a denigration of the national interest. Equal treatment for a Jew as a “citizen” of France would, they believed, result in further “deracination” of the country and the erosion of its Christian heritage by an elitist group of “intellectuals.” Advocates of the counter-revolution maintained that their rejection of universal “abstractions” like the rule of law and their willingness to privilege intuition over reason allowed them — as against their liberal opponents –  to remain “rooted” in their community and stand in a genuine experiential, or “organic,” relation to the “people.” Little wonder then that the Dreyfus Affair should have solidified the connection between republicans and socialists even as it generated a movement, Action francaise, whose ideology basically anticipated that of fascism.

Movements such as these prevented Enlightenment ideals and proponents of the democratic revolution from achieving ideological hegemony over Europe until after World War II.  All of them had their mass base in some combination of pre-capitalist classes and in the least economically advanced areas of the nation. Fascism and Nazism were no different. They, too, were conscious responses to the Enlightenment and its two progressive political offspring, liberalism and socialism. In Germany most of the bourgeoisie identified with an increasingly impotent set of parties embracing a continental variant of liberalism while the majority of the working class voted until the end for their social democratic parties. All these political organizations supported the Weimar Republic and all were avowed enemies of the Nazis who made war on them in word and deed. What was true in Germany, moreover, was true for Europe in general. Social democracy maintained the loyalty of the great majority of the working class throughout the twentieth century; it introduced the first democratic parties to Europe; and, still officially clinging to the ideology of “orthodox Marxism,” it served as the mass base for the republics that sprung up all over Europe in the 1920s. Indeed, beginning during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the European socialist movement shouldered that a “dual burden” that involved defending the universal liberal political values inherited from the bourgeoisie while, simultaneously, furthering its own particular economic interests. Or, to put it another way, social democrats attempted to link what today we call “negative liberty” with “positive rights.” Thus, it only made sense that the socialist movement should have been the most consistent opponent of totalitarianism.

Fear of communism helped produce the new fascist movements that arose in Italy, Hungary, Germany, Romania, Spain, and elsewhere. Mussolini and Hitler often expressed their admiration for Lenin and Stalin. Other than from 1939-1941, of course, communism and fascism bitterly fought one another. But this was ultimately a matter of expediency. There remains much debate concerning whether — or, better, to what extent — communism fits the counter-revolutionary paradigm. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was clearly committed to furthering social equality, a radical “soviet” version of democracy and an internationalist ideology. With the rise of Stalin, however, meaningful social equality was decimated by terror, iron dictatorship supplanted democracy; and internationalism gave way to the crudest nationalism. Communism generated its own counter-revolution. But, then, it is also the case that the uprising had nothing to do with the historical stage theory of Marx and Engels. The Russian Revolution occurred at what Lenin called “the weakest link in the chain,” that is to say in the most underdeveloped “capitalist” nation, and that increasing fear of losing the battle for modernity helped propel the most terrible crimes of the communist regime. Thus, there is something legitimate in speaking about “red fascism” and interpreting communism as a form of counter-revolution.

Both fascism and communism explicitly opposed liberal republicanism. Communism first gained its political identity, in fact, when Lenin sought to differentiate his movement, with its new commitment to a party dictatorship, from social democracy with its republican ideals. By the early 1920s, moreover, the Communist International had already passed resolutions stating its refusal to support parliamentary democracies and Stalin’s famous refusal of 1928 to form a common front with the socialists against the Nazis hurt the anti-fascist cause far more than its enemies. With the same venom, movements of the far right despised liberals and social democrats everywhere in Europe. Germany was only the most notorious instance: its fascists condemned the “traitors” — especially the social democrats — who supposedly provided their nation with a “stab in the back” during the First World War as well as the “November criminals” who signed the humiliating Treaty of Versailles and brought about the Weimar Republic. Both communism and fascism embraced a military vision of the political party, identified their party with the state, relied upon a “cult of the personality,” and ruled through a mixture of propaganda and terror. Stalin employed conspiracy theory as surely as Hitler. Both also considered terror a means and an end, ultimately embraced anti-Semitism (though in dramatically varying degrees), and participated in the creation of what has justly been called a “concentration camp universe.”

In the wake of Auschwitz and the Gulag, the disclaiming of responsibility by the criminals during the Nuremburg Trials, totalitarian ideologies lost their appeal and legitimacy. Liberal ideals and the dignity of the individual were accorded a new standing as calls arose for extending democratic rights to people of color, gays, and women. The Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King initiated what would become a general challenge to racist, patriarchal, and homophobic prejudices that had become ingrained elements in the mainstream understanding of how society was organized and the character of the national “community.” These concerns blended into a rejection of imperialism and colonialism, which was expressed in the opposition to the Vietnam War in the United States, and a general call to “work through the past” in Europe. Sexual relations became less rigid, new experiences were sought, egalitarian educational experiments were attempted, and a new sympathy emerged for “the other.” But “the ‘60s” was not merely about “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” any more than it was simply about culture and morality. With the “new social movements” in the United States came a slew of new and transformational economic and social programs known as “the Great Society” and attack on inequality more expansive even than the New Deal of FDR. In tandem with this came legislation that enabled people of color to vote, overturned racist electoral laws carried over from the collapse of Reconstruction in the 1870s, and thus produced the most radical extension of the franchise since women won the right to vote in 1919. Finally, with respect to the struggle to end the Vietnam War, there emerged an assault upon the traditional insular and formation of foreign policy by the political establishment.

In short, “the 60s” shook the economic, political and social foundations of the United States along with its ability to conduct foreign policy. Conservatives and liberals too were outraged. By the middle of the 1970s, the United States was experiencing what President Jimmy Carter called a “malaise.” Respect for traditional values seemed to have plummeted. Business elites claimed that the United States had lost its competitive edge in the world economy. Thinkers like Samuel Huntington insisted that there was too much democracy and it was becoming ever more difficult for governments to rule. With the Iranian Revolution of 1979 led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, moreover, it appeared that the United States had lost its standing in the world. Ronald Reagan was elected President in that same year and the foundations were laid for Neo-conservatism during the age of Bush and the Tea Party during the age of Obama. The latter is more of a mass movement and — insofar as it exists outside the halls of power in Washington DC –relies on more on populist anger and conspiracy theory. There is less respect for intellectual argument and somewhat more ambiguity when it comes to support for military intervention and imperialism. Free market capitalist ideology today blends less with imperialist demands than attacks on immigration and an increasingly overt racism. Whatever the differences of emphasis, however, both Neo-conservatism and the Tea Party express a similar contempt for the welfare state, intellectual deliberation, cosmopolitanism, and egalitarian philosophies.  Both, indeed, are products of what Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid strain” in American politics and share a legacy that has its roots in the “Know-Nothings” of the 19th century.

Comprised of reactionary business and intellectual elites threatened by the new global economy, and supported by anti-urban elements disgusted with the decline of tradition and cultural mores, the new movements sought vengeance against the cosmopolitan implications of political liberalism and the socialist tradition. The reaction still rests on the importance of religion, “family values,” and the values of the capitalist entrepreneur. Neo-Conservatism and the Tea Party join hands in an unremitting assault upon all attempts redistribute wealth in a more equitable manner following the largest upward income shift in American history that occurred from 2000-2008. Following the Iraqi debacle, and the ill-fated Afghani war, there is somewhat less concern with “pre-emptive strikes: and the “war on terror” than the bail-outs in response to years of de-regulation and the economic disaster of 2008. But there is still less emphasis placed upon curbing the national security state than dismantling what remains of the welfare state. Phobias concerning the threat posed by Islam combine nicely with contemporary views on immigration. Highlighting the difference between “us and them” remains a cardinal element of reactionary theory and practice.

And amid all this there are the religious fanatics. These are evident in all faiths in a period marked by a world-wide counter-revolutionary resurgence of religion. All fundamentalists look backward for their inspiration. All of them privilege authority over liberty, unquestioning faith over critical reflection, and the community over the individual. All of them have their problems with the rights of women and gays, abortion and patriarchy, censorship and democracy. Each rejects the separation of church from state and the critique of patriarchal hierarchies. Each insists upon the legitimacy of traditions simply because they exist. Intolerance and dogmatism are built into this mode of thinking if only because discussion is limited by the holy words of an inerrant Bible, an infallible Pope, the Islamic Shari’a, or the Jewish halacha.

Advocates of political democracy and social equality were not for the most part advocates of abolishing religion. Their concern was with curtailing the political ambitions of religious institutions with absolutist claims. Or, to put it a different way, the issue for liberal secularists was less belief than conduct. Both in the Occident and the Orient, whatever the differences of social context, the battle is still over whether a single religion, or a single interpretation of that religion, should dominate public life or, instead, whether every religion should be seen as just another private interest in an open society. Rejecting this latter view is not simply a matter of the Church, the Synagogue, and the Mosque acting in accordance with divine law against the incursions of the profane, although it can be turned into that, but of ideological primacy and institutional self-preservation. Thus, the more dramatic the demand for reciprocity the more fundamental will be the response.

Rabid nationalists, religious fanatics, and bigots inspire the counter-revolution of our time. All of them resist the intrusion of political democracy and social equality into their societies. That is because these values inherited from the Enlightenment threaten their power and a set of outmoded legitimating traditions that are sanctified simply because they exist. Freedom is never a problem for the powerful. They already possess it. The “problem” arises only when freedom is demanded by the disenfranchised, the exploited, and the excluded. Reactionaries still fear — above all — the emergence of an individual insistent upon respect and equality who is intent upon knowing more, earning more, consuming more, and living life as he or she chooses. The counter-revolution knows its enemy, the same enemy it has always had, namely, the idea that things can be different.

*STEPHEN ERIC BRONNER is Distinguished Professor (PII) of Political Science and the Senior Editor of Logos. His many works include Socialism Unbound (Columbia University Press) and Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press)


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1