Do revolutions eat their children?

Usually, yes. They do. I don’t think it is unavoidable, though, and I’d like to think about it with you today. The “revolution” I have in mind today isn’t really a revolution in the strict sense; it is the women’s liberation movement. I do think there are some common elements, however, and those will the the subject of today’s essay.

How revolutions work

Here is a perfectly acceptable introduction to this expression. I found it on Yahoo Answers and in some other circumstances, there are things I would quibble with but it’s just fine for today. The question posed was, “What does the saying mean: ‘Revolutions eat their children’?”

In general, it refers to the fact that after the initial successful revolution, there comes a period of revolutionary justice. Initially, the revolutionary justice is applied to the members of the old regime. Then, as the revolutionaries begin to fight each other for power, the same techniques that were used to justify the necessity of killing and imprisoning the former rulers are now used to justify the killing of the members of the revolution that have fallen out with the powers that be.

However complicated the actual dynamics of a society might be, the need for revolutionary fervor requires that those dynamics be simplified. We are good—at the very least, our aims are good—and those people are bad. Now it is true that they oppose our legitimate aims, but that isn’t why they need to be cast into outer darkness. They need to be cast into outer darkness because they are evil. Did I mention that there is some simplification involved.

It isn’t that these people “do evil things;” it is that they “are” evil. And it isn’t that they domoderates 8 “some evil things” along with all the good things; all the things they do are evil because they, themselves, are evil. And their evil character is obvious. It doesn’t require group decision making or the preponderance of the evidence or anything like that. It is obvious to everyone.

Well…in practice, things are more complicated and the people running the revolution—not, as a rule, the people who started it, but the people who took it over from the ones who started it—do some morally ambiguous things. They also make mistakes. It would be hard not to.

In the next step, a well choreographed sequence, someone who has the long-term success of the revolution at heart, points out those actions endanger the success of the revolution. This phase of the revolution requires an infallible directorate of some kind. If, as this friendly partisan points out, they have gone too far, then they are not “infallible.” So either the claim of infallibility has to go or the person who raised the obstacle needs to go. Given the choice, they turn against their former comrade and he goes to the guillotine or to the Gulag or into exile, which resolves the problem in the short run. The very very short run.

moderates 6And there are more people, it turns out, who were true blue revolutionaries but who really hate to see this good-hearted friend of the revolution killed for “crimes of good judgment” and they object. At which point they follow him to the guillotine (or wherever) because the logic of infallibility still prevails.  And that is how the revolutions eat their children.


Revolutions produce dictators

But revolutions produce a great deal of disorder and in the long run, people really demand order. Not just an end to the killing, although that would be nice, but a return to the days when things worked. You could go to work or raise a family without being taken by the mob. At that point, some strongman domes along. Napoleon ended the revolutionary fervor in France, Hitler ended the period of national disgrace in Germany, Stalin protected “socialism in one country” in the Soviet Union. There’s always somebody, when it goes that far.

But what would it be like if it didn’t go that far?

So now let me come back to the current phase of the gender wars in the United States. There have been a lot of very famous men recently, who have seen their careers implode because of accusations of sexual harassment. In noting that, I am not saying that they should not. For some of these men, the career-imploding decisions happened a long time ago and justice has been tardy. But then, the logic of expansion takes over. It turns out that the sense of power that comes from successfully accusing a man of misbehavior is a very heady sense. Also, it’s the right thing to do. And also, if you don’t, you are letting down your sisters. And also, if enough women want to get in on that experience, they create a logic that drives downward the standard for the crimes you can be accused of.

In this phase, accusation is very nearly the same thing as conviction so the scale of those moderates 5convicted moves from hardened sexual predators to occasional predators to men who suffered instances of bad judgment to people who were insensitive to the response a woman might have had to what had appeared to be a consensual act at the time. So when I say that accusation feels so good—it is “empowering”—that it drives downward the standard for crimes committed, it is movement along this scale that I have in mind. [1]  I found this a fascinating collection of familiar faces and Cosby was well into his practice of predation by this time.

I suspect that there are quite a few women who would like to see the men whose offenses are at the “misunderstanding” end of the continuum spared the treatment that is so richly merited by the men at the “predator” end. In practice, this would amount to distinguishing sexual “felonies” from sexual “misdemeanors.” It would separate misunderstandings from intentional violations of women who make no secret of their opposition.

I am going to say in the next section that those women, the ones I imagined in the previous paragraph, should stand up and make their views known. That will mean “reasoning with the mob” in the revolutionary metaphor I have been using, but at the very least, it will involve trying to talk reason to your sisters who are angry at the moment.

If they don’t

But before I get that far, let’s imagine what will happen if they don’t. Following the revolutionary model, there will be two kinds of responses. The first is that people will distort their own lives and thoughts to avoid appearing of interest to the prosecutors who are running the movement by this time. In the time of the French Revolution, for instance, an alternative pack of playing cards was invented, one in which the face cards did not refer to royalty. By the logic of the movement, people who are caught playing with the “old cards,” the “royalty-affirming” cards, will be found guilty and punished.

The second response is that the anger of those who are punished and of those who resent the loss of any predictable social order at all, will provide a backlash. They will become hospitable to anyone who offers to set things right again—Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin all promised that. And after that, there will be some decisively new regime. A monarchy was restored in France; the party leadership became the new elites in the Soviet Union; a democratic government was forced upon Germany by the Allies after a humiliating military defeat. This is the backlash phase.

If they do

Both those phases are unfortunate and, taking the long view, unnecessary. What is needed is for the moderate center of the movement to stand up at the right time and say “enough is enough.” The joy of accusation, the thrill of empowerment, needs to be confined to those men who are operating on the left edge of the spectrum. The people on the right edge need to be defended by the women who, themselves, were a part of the misunderstanding and would like to see communication improved. As a rule, if you are going to improve communication, you will need someone who is willing to talk with you. The threat of the guillotine very seldom produces that kind of willingness.

There is a sense in which all this seems a reasonable thing to do and in one sense, it is. But something else is going on as well. There is a line that could be drawn between premeditated predation in the Bill Cosby style and the misunderstanding a man and a woman had at a party. But that line is not going to be successfully drawn by men for what seem to me to be obvious reasons. (More in a moment.) It is going to have to be drawn by women who see the value of drawing that line and who are willing to pay the price.

There is a logic here that has nothing to do with sexual relations. Adam Serwer, in a recent Atlantic article, makes the same point about President Obama and the wave of anti-immigrant hostility. James Zogby, of the Arab American Institute, is quoted in Serwer’s article. In opposition to the charge that Obama should have spoken out more forcefully against the anti-Muslim hostility, Zogby says:

“I would say that the people he needs to speak to see him as the problem. It was the responsibility of the Republicans to speak out and they didn’t.”

And why was it the responsibility of Republicans? Because it is their movement that is going somewhere they don’t want it to go and because they have the status (we are Republicans, too) to counsel their own partisans. They would be saying something like, “As people who have been with movement since the beginning, we ask you not to drive it into absurdity, not to ruin by your excess, what we all valued in the beginning.”

Women and drawing the line

moderates 7It is the job of the women who care about where the relations between the sexes are going who have the responsibility to speak up. Why not the men? Because they have a prominent interest in not being accused of things and therefore their testimony can be readily set aside. Why not the hard left edge of the feminist movement? Because they are concerned narrowly with “punishing all the bad guys.” They are the revolution in its accelerated form. It is not their job to stop pursuing evildoers. It is their job to care about the unity of the movement and that is why they should listen to their more moderate sisters about how much is too much.

Otherwise, the feminist radicals will destroy the feminist moderates and that is what they mean when they say that “the revolution eats its children.” I’ve always thought it would make a clearer metaphor to say that the revolution eats its parents, but that isn’t how the saying goes.

That means that a substantial body of women need to stand up and say that these acts are evil and should be punished and those are mistakes and should be remedied and these over here are failures to anticipate how women might respond. Those need a little loving care and a little gentle instruction.

The radical edge of the movement puts all those together because the the speed and the breadth of the avalanche require it. But women who would like to save the feminist movement from destroying itself need to speak up now.

There really isn’t anyone else who can.

[1] Eventually, you get to the position taken by Jessica Bennett in the Sunday New York Times of December 17 that “society” has so schooled women that even their saying Yes isn’t really saying yes. That comes very close to the infantilization of women, in my view, and I would hate to see any of the women I care about tarred with that brush.




About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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