Quest for Revolutionary Community

In recent weeks, we have been accosted by scenes of mayhem in our great cities. Statues toppled, businesses looted and destroyed, public property seized and occupied. What do the looters and rioters want? The answer, in short, is community. Bear with me while I sort this out. 

Bill Smith’s excellent essay “Understanding Antifa” offers an account of the origin of thought and action of our present revolutionaries in the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau, reflecting the spirit of Irving Babbitt’s critique of Rousseau and Rousseauian politics. Smith’s analysis is impeccable, focusing on how these present-day revolutionaries have imbibed the revolutionary ethos of the French Jacobins and does much to explain the violence that we are seeing today. I want to offer a similar analysis but drawing instead from the twentieth century sociologist and prophet of community Robert Nisbet to understand that what we are seeing in a wholesale rejection of the laws, history, and culture of our particular political society is not a rejection of community per se, but a destructive form of man’s eternal search for community. 

Nisbet is most famous for his thesis in The Quest for Community (1953) that the motivations of human beings are largely communal and that the structure of modern political and economic order makes meaningful community difficult for many people, driving them to pursue unhealthy forms of community in totalitarian states or withdrawing into alienation and anomie. Why is the drive for community so strong in the individual? For Nisbet, it is because human beings are essentially social beings. The fear of being alone is the primary driver of human thought and action. Since the fall of the kinship group as essentially the sole organizational model for human community, human beings have sought community in other ways. 

Nisbet defines the revolutionary community as “fundamentally political in character: concerned with the calculated overthrow of some existing political order, using as much force and terror as are deemed necessary to effect radical changes in men’s moral, economic, social, and intellectual lives.”

Twenty years after publishing Quest, Nisbet published The Social Philosophers: Community & Conflict in Western Thought (1973), an unjustly neglected book. The Social Philosophers, like much of Nisbet’s work, pursued the same theme as Quest, but he organized the volume around various conceptions of community. His argument is that Western social philosophy is largely the quest for community in forms of politics, religion, and war. The great works of Western philosophy have been written in times of perceived social breakdown, of widespread alienation, and each is an attempt to overcome social breakdown with a vision of the true community. Plato’s Republic was written during the decline of the polis providing a “lasting portrait of the political community” that has influenced every major work of politics since. Augustine’s City of God was written after the sack of Rome and the crisis of empire. Lasting community could not be found in the city of man, so, Augustine concludes, true community is the religious community found in the City of God. Likewise, in times of  external threat, many found communal refuge in the warband whose chieftain not only provided a robust source of authority for individual warriors, but also liberation from the authority of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the traditional families. This is true of the Caesars, rising at the end of two centuries of external and civil wars that had undermined the filial foundations of the old republic and it has been true many other times in history. 

Politics, religion, and war, these three forms of community have vied for personal allegiance for thousands of years. Today, each one is associated with established institutions, the military, the political order, and the plethora of religious institutions that permeate our society. Many people seek community in one of these forms. But, for some, community is to be found in challenges to these institutions, which takes two forms: withdrawal from the dominant political, religious, and military institutions (i.e. seeking monastic and related forms of community) and revolution, an overturning of traditional institutions. When ascendant, this latter form of community takes on properties of war, politics, and religion with the goal of total transformation of society and a complete rejection of the institutions associated with these older forms of community.

Nisbet defines the revolutionary community as “fundamentally political in character: concerned with the calculated overthrow of some existing political order, using as much force and terror as are deemed necessary to effect radical changes in men’s moral, economic, social, and intellectual lives.” The political state has only been the potential source of total social control and social reconstruction since the eighteenth century, the very type of reconstruction sought by revolutions. This makes political power especially important to partisans of the revolutionary community. But the revolutionary community is more than political, it is religious and military as well. Political transformation is the end goal of revolutionary community, but the overwhelming zeal of the revolutionaries is thoroughly religious and their tactics and ethos often military. We see this in demands of public repentance and prayer as well as the sartorial preference for jackboots and military fatigues.  

Violence isn’t just necessary, it is good—as long as it serves the ends of the revolution. All oppressions, all acts of indecency, are righteous, all are acts of virtue if they are done on behalf of the revolution.

Nisbet provides seven elements of the revolutionary community. Each can be seen in actions of our current revolutionaries that otherwise seem curious and even contradictory. The first element is myth, “some form of goodness lying in human nature or in society, requiring only the liberative action of revolutionary violence to become manifest and dominant. This myth of human goodness is so absolute and so essential to human nature that any institution that seems to weigh upon human beings must be exterminated.” The police, religion, local government, local businesses, neighborhood associations, all of these have provided examples of oppression to the revolutionary mind. The good they may incidentally produce, such as police patrols making for safer streets in minority neighborhoods, is irrelevant. They are intrinsically corrupt and therefore they must be destroyed. Reform is inadequate.

Second is the necessity of violence. Revolutionary movements all “declare violence and force, even all-out war and terror.” Lenin was critical of other European socialists who did not embrace all violence that advanced the workers’ revolution. In our own situation, consider the destruction of small businesses by rioters and looters, which disproportionately hurts those who do not wield political power or have responsibility for powerful social institutions. Our current revolutionaries are in lockstep with their forebears. Nisbet writes, “[T]rue social change requires revolution; revolution is unthinkable without violence, hence violence is necessary.” 

The third element is the holiness of sin. Violence isn’t just necessary, it is good—as long as it serves the ends of the revolution. All oppressions, all acts of indecency, are righteous, all are acts of virtue if they are done on behalf of the revolution. “Acts such as murder, kidnapping, treason, torture, mutilation, vandalism, and arson” are not sinful, they “take on the quality of nothing short of holy when committed in the name of revolution.” 

The holiness of sin in the name of revolution explains the curious phenomenon of how black police officers have been treated by white protesters and the relative lack of concern over the deaths of black police officers and civilians in the wake of widespread violence. Normally, white youths shouting at black men (required by their professional situation to be silent) would be the very substance of despicable racism and racial privilege, but in the name of revolution, this behavior is apparently right and good. The deaths of many innocents over the last month are but the necessary cracking of eggs in making the revolutionary omelet. 

Which brings us to the fourth element of the revolutionary community, terror. As a strategy of control, terror has been utilized for millennia. Consider the mass execution following the sack of a recalcitrant city by nearly every conqueror in history or the Roman practice of crucifixion. They are done to set an example, to instill terror in those who would challenge the authority of those in power. Such a strategy works for the maintenance of political power and, since 1789, terror has been a key element in every successful revolution. The mass murder under Stalin and Mao was essential to their success in achieving and maintaining control. 

Nisbet uses the rather chilling metaphor of hot steel applied to a gangrenous wound to illustrate the element of terror. For revolutionaries, terror acts as a cauterizing agent upon the supposed infections of the unjust society that is being overthrown, as a sort of protective quality against the injustices of that society. Terror in the forms of public humiliation, threats, and death can be effective means of change, of immunizing the future society from present evils. 

Terror is central to the current crisis. Samuel Gregg among commentators has mused about the relationship between the French Revolution and today’s upheaval. In Seattle, the link was made explicit, with a call to violence against all who opposed the demands of the revolutionaries. One speaker shouted, “Does anybody here know what happened to the people who did not get on board with the French Revolution?”

“CHOPPED,” the crowd responded.

“That is the message we need to send,” the speaker said. 

Even for those who see the violent deaths during riots as lamentable, they have the benefit of instilling terror in the opponents of the revolution. Similarly, the public humiliation of public figures is likewise a form of terror. No person, as a community-seeking being, wishes to be the target of scorn, on his knees, begging pardon from his fellows for his existence. 

The fifth element is totalism. The claims of the revolutionaries are total over its members and over the society it seeks to revolutionize. Like religion, the revolutionary community demands that its members be utterly devoted to the goals of the revolution. Nisbet writes, “No other allegiance, whether to family, nation, or religion, is recognized as warranting the slightest withholding of loyalties to the revolutionary dogma by those sworn to its support. Indeed members of the revolutionary community prove themselves through their willingness to cast off, to renounce publicly, or even to betray relatives, friends, and fellow citizens.” 

Totalism is evident in the curious destruction of Union monuments. Whatever one might think of the destruction of Confederate monuments, at least it makes sense. Victory by the confederacy in the Civil War would have preserved slavery in that part of the world. But the removal (or attempted removal) of memorials to Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and even the Massachusetts 54th? How does that fit in? The revolutionary community demands the total reconstruction of society. That Lincoln and Grant and the Massachusetts 54th were on the right side of the Civil War and the issue of slavery is irrelevant. The crucial point is that they defended a society that needs to be uprooted altogether. The fact that their actions ended a great evil is immaterial. The revolutionary community requires the total reconstruction of society and that means the destruction of all monuments associated with that society. 

Sixth, every revolution is instigated and led by an elite, a vanguard of the revolutionaries. When revolutions come, they do not come through popular uprisings. Nisbet writes, “The heart of every revolution, successful or unsuccessful, lies in small minorities—elites, as they are known in modern social theory—composed of dedicated, often professionally trained individuals, conscious of themselves as communities, and working with technical knowledge as well as moral zeal toward the overthrow of a political order by whatever means are necessary.” The revolutionary community, as Nisbet describes it, begins with persons who see themselves as a community of revolutionaries. Marx was explicit on this point and as with the Jacobins in France, the Communist Party in Russia and China, and Antifa today, there is in the revolutionary community the understanding of the necessity of an elite who plan and drive the revolution. This too follows on the religious community. Just as religions have prophets, as well as sects devoted to particular prophets, so the revolutionary community has an elite, a class of prophets who create and cultivate disciples who carry out their will.

This is not to ignore social and economic conditions of inequality or oppression that cause there to be at least some popular support for the revolutionaries. The severe economic downturn during a world-wide pandemic has put millions out of work, some of whom are desperate and some of whom are bored. Well-publicized bad behavior by police officers (exhibit A: the strangling of George Floyd) give revolutionaries some popular support. Their claims of the prevailing injustice in society have before them a prominent and undeniable example. But this would come to naught without the work of “trained Marxists.” 

Seventh, centralization. Revolutionary communities are not debate societies. The revolutionary community prior to victory is often highly disciplined with a central command structure and no room to brook dissent. Like religious communities, they demand firm adherence to the dogmas of the revolution; and like the military community, they demand strict obedience to the instructions of the revolutionary elite. The result is that those societies that are brought into being through revolution are highly centralized. This was true of post-revolution France as well as of the Communist dictatorships of the twentieth century. 

This element seems much less applicable in our current circumstances due to what we seem to know about that flat organizational structure of antifa “affinity groups.” But what Nisbet is getting at is the rigidity of the revolutionary sect and the centralization of each of those groups. How many members of the antifa groups are allowed to disagree with the use of violence or the calls for the total destruction of capitalist society? Beliefs and order within these groups seems to be centralized in a military manner and religious in intensity of belief and obedience. Their beliefs are consistent and systematic and their actions are organized and coordinated.

The rioters and looters may actually be right on one thing: our social institutions have failed them, but not in the way they think. Our political, religious, and military institutions have failed, for one reason or another, to adequately integrate these persons into meaningful community so they have turned to revolution in word and deed in their quest for community.