The revolutionary

Revolutionary lost its threat as a word sometime in recent decades. Revolutionary is now just another exaggeration from the advertisers in today’s commerce-drowned world. But I recall within decades people who still lived their lives by this creed. It is said that the splendidly delusive Australian Marxist or Maoist revolutionary and historian, Humphrey McQueen truly believed the revolution was imminent in 1970s leafy Canberra, and that his angry denunciations of all that was wrong about the country he shared with me would bring the day of this coming closer.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The black-clad, intense and hairy revolutionaries of the 1970s have grown old, tired and disappointed. They are surrounded now by technological ephebes celebrating the disruption of whole economies caused by hailing a cab by using a mobile phone, and keeping the fares down by paying no tax and ignoring all the rules. Their tradition, their culture has been trashed.

In the 1970s some of these revolutionaries followed Nechayev’s creed through to its stated goal. They acted as implacable enemies of the society which they would only dissemble belonging in. The Baader Meinhof gang and others long ago showed the fascination for a certain group of young idealists of a life at war with simple life. There is a great movie by Visconti, The Conversation Piece (1974), which portrays the affluent, lost youths of Europe who are seduced by the lives of violent revolutionaries amidst the cultural collapse and moral aimlessness of their lives. These people have not gone away, but they now rarely go by the name of revolutionaries; instead, Hackers, Extremists, or just plain terrorists.

But the long sad siren’s song of Nechayev’s creed still exerts its charm. It was laid down in a catechism by Bakunin and Sergei Nechayev in 1869.

“The revolutionary is a lost man; he has no interests of his own, no cause of his own, no feelings, no habits, no belongings, he does not even have a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion – the revolution. In the very depths of his being, not just in words but in deed, he has broken every tie with the civil order, with the educated world and all laws, conventions and generally accepted conditions, and with the ethics of this world. He will be an implacable enemy of this world, and if he continues to live in it, that will only be so as to destroy it the more effectively.” Catechism of a revolutionary (1869) quoted R. Evans The Pursuit of power: Europe 1815-1914


The revolutionaries embrace the doom that faces us all, and brings this same tragedy down on the heads of all of us. Such determination, steel and despair at existence seems a long way from the brand-conscious pleasure heads of today’s identity politics. They appear only to borrow the second hand clothes, newly fashionable of revolutionaries.

But might we see another turn to violence by those infected with the creed, and now convinced they are surrounded by greater evils. An “illegitimate” president of the USA, who in turn treats political conventions as traps for chumps; societies sickened by excess wealth; the protest that floods the plains but cannot run off anywhere constructive; national security agencies out of control. And then there are all the nationalists who wank to make their country great again, and may threaten violence with violence. The world seems headed for dark times in which I fear the violence of the revolutionary may make a comeback. 

If it does, remember Nechayev was a murderer. If it does, beware of your implacable enemies down the street.  If it does, read Dostoyoevsky’s The Possessed again. If it does, tend your garden.

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