“In conclusion, this is the great truth with which the French cannot be too greatly impressed: the restoration of the monarchy, what they call the counter-revolution, will not be a contrary revolution, but the contrary of the revolution.” – J. de Maistre, Considerations on France, R. A. Lebrun (Ed.), Cambridge, p. 105.
Imagine a prisoner digging an escape tunnel. For years, in desperation and longing for freedom, he’s picked at the stones by hand until his fingers are bleeding stumps. Suddenly he emerges and a rush of hope shoots through his veins. This subsides immediately. Before him is darkness. He had severely underestimated the size of the prison, and all this time he was merely tunnelling into another prisoner’s cell.
This situation, familiar to readers of Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, I think pertains to a figure Joseph De Maistre first identifies in 1797, in the aftermath of the French Revolution: the reverse revolutionary. As far as I know, the only other thinker to have dwelt on this character deeply is the conservative Augusto del Noce in the twentieth century, and I shall draw from both to make my case.
First, to define revolutionary. I use “revolutionary” to mean any view that seeks utopian salvation through political or social action, by rejecting traditions of immaterial truth, and an abrupt discontinuity with the past. I don’t necessarily mean one that wants violent upheaval, though usually they do. It’s not the manner that defines a revolution but its content. These ideologies try to sever the link between politics and any truth outside of it. Truth is a socio-political creed. Eric Voegelin’s view that modern revolutionary thought is gnostic serves us here. Ancient Gnostics separated heaven from earth and sought heaven through esoteric spiritual knowledge. Modern Gnostics also separate heaven from earth, but banish heaven from the earth and build paradises out of esoteric political knowledge, without reference to anything beyond it.
A reverse revolutionary is someone who begins as the staunchest conservative. The revolution has come and ruined the world he loves. He’s seen all that he holds good swept aside in a frenzy. Panic ensues, and then rage. What shall he do?
He sets upon pushing back the revolution by what he thinks is a counter-revolution. Whatever the revolutionaries affirm, he’ll deny. Whatever nefarious plans they have, he’ll plan the opposite. Whenever they push, he’ll push back harder. But what he really does is create a contrary revolution. Instead of negating the revolution, he reverses it.
But what’s the difference exactly between negation and reversal? I think it’s the difference between partial and full denial of a revolutionary argument.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Ur-revolutionary, thinks something like this:
“Man is born free but everywhere he’s in chains, so he must be born good and it’s society that makes him evil.“
There’s rather a lot here, but for simplicity’s sake it’s an argument with two parts. “Man is born free and everywhere he’s in chains”, effectively means that humans are naturally equal, but everywhere unequal. Why are we unequal if nature makes us equal? Because “man is born good and it’s society that makes him evil.”. That is, unjust social institutions have corrupted us, and prevent us from living as we would in a state of nature.
We can reverse or negate this position. A reversal would be something like this:
“Yes, man is born good, and society makes him evil. But it’s because by nature he’s unequal, and society is what makes him equal.”
In other words, we agree with Rousseau that society and its institutions are responsible for all injustice. However, we disagree with him that inequality is the problem. The problem is the opposite: equality. In the imagined state of nature, humans are unequal, and it’s society which has imposed an unnatural equality upon them.
If Rousseau’s original position is a sort of egalitarian primitivism, our reversed position is a sort of hierarchical primitivism. Were we to put the latter into practice, it would oppose the former, but create its own revolution to do so. It would resist with equal vehemence the status quo, but for the opposite reasons.
A negation, on the other hand, would read like this:
“Man isn’t born free and he isn’t everywhere in chains, so he isn’t born good, and society doesn’t make him evil.”
While the reversal inverts the premise, but keeps the conclusion, the negation says that the premise and conclusion are both false. It denies them both.
Fair, but why does this matter? Aren’t we just splitting hairs? It matters because reversing a revolution accepts part of its lie. One starts from this lie, then tries to produce from it an opposite effect than so far has been produced. But lies are at odds with reality, because only what’s true is real. By fighting lies with lies one risks ruining the world twice over instead of improving it. Further, since lies by definition don’t correspond to reality, a revolution in reverse is destined to fail. Accepting a lie means to accept something which doesn’t exist, and carrying through this lie into political action means creating a delirium or fantasy. History testifies to the fleeting nature of such things.
To create a revolution in the opposite direction is tempting for those who want to protect themselves from a revolution but have unwittingly drunk from its well. It’s the reaction (in the political sense) of someone unwilling to reflect on the times he lives in or analyse himself as the product of a Zeitgeist. Someone who hasn’t thought that all ideas have a genealogy, and that those ideas he detests might be closer on the family tree than he suspects. The reverse revolutionary, in short, is someone who confuses the familiar with the truth.
Like water through coffee, a revolutionary idea only bursts forth once it has thoroughly saturated the culture. By that point it’s part of a wider background, framing all conversation and extremely difficult to think outside of, like the courtyard surrounding a prison that blocks any view of the distance. Robespierre and the Jacobins normalised political violence as a means of change with La Terreur, and La Terreur Blanche was their mirror. Marxism normalised crude materialism and a murderous utilitarian collectivism, and Nazism was its mirror. Indeed, to get Nazism one must simply reverse, point-by-point, every social creed of Marxism, keep the materialist worldview intact, then embed it in a Prussian context (A. Del Noce, (2014), The Crisis of Modernity, pp. 68-69).
Retreat into so-called centrism doesn’t protect against reverse revolution either. A mild and centrist ideology that opposes a harsh and radical one, can still be a revolution in reverse if it shares the same underlying commitment to a revolutionary ideal. Recall that it’s not the manner but the content that defines a revolution. The reversal of a reductive political utopia must necessarily be another reductive political utopia. Thus, the economic liberal who opposes socialism by curing every ill with market forces is no less revolutionary than the socialist for merely being a centrist. Lastly, that one wishes to achieve one’s aims through gradual change doesn’t make one less revolutionary, for a slow revolution is still a revolution.
In our day such reversals are coming thick and fast on the ground, as they must in an age of crisis and disintegration, though they lack the sophistication of even the crudest Victorian pamphlet. The disgraced and arrested influencer Andrew Tate is a reverse revolutionary of sorts. He accepts the radical feminist vision of the patriarchy as a grand male conspiracy to oppress womankind but considers this a good thing which must be reinstated. The result is a masculinist revolution parallel to the radical feminist one, where everything that feminist revolutionaries decry, Tate applauds. Any existing order which is neither feminist nor masculinist is the shared enemy of both.
In gnostic fashion, Tate has swapped the esoteric knowledge of radical feminists with a masculine counterpart. One thinks, as a revolutionary, that Tate wouldn’t really care if the facts disproved his vision (just as radical feminists don’t), since a political goal has absorbed all reality and replaced truth itself.
I don’t have a simple solution to this problem. There’s no remedy for reverse revolutionaries other than humility, education, and careful thought. The wrathful desire for vengeance especially breeds such people because anger, frothing up, looks for a way to harm the enemy without asking what the tool is. Any tool will do, even if the enemy himself has made it. Perhaps this is why societies filled with wrath are prone to this error.
Maybe we should close with the words of Louis XVI awaiting execution in 1792, to his son the Dauphin: “I recommend to my Son, if he has the misfortune to become King, to remember that he owes himself entirely to his fellow citizens; that he must forget all hatred and resentment, and particularly all that relates to the misfortunes and afflictions that I endure.”