Is it idle, or at least premature, to talk about “revolution from the Right”? Whether it is or is not, that is exactly what leaders of the Right have been talking about for some years, from Pat Buchanan’s “Middle American Revolution” and his imagery of the “Buchanan Brigades” and peasants with pitchforks rebelling against “King George,” to Newt Gingrich and his now-forgotten jabber about the “Republican Revolution.” Of course, when Buchanan and Gingrich invoked the imagery of revolution, neither gentleman meant by it what most of the more infamous revolutionaries of history meant — the violent overthrow of the government — but the mere invocation of the concept of revolution by leaders of the Right today ought to tell us something significant.
The Right, of course, is supposed to be anything but revolutionary. The Right, after all, consists of those born to wealth and privilege who benefit from the status quo, and conservative thought has always flourished most in defiant response to yelling for revolution from the Left. Edmund Burke, considered to be a bit of a radical throughout most of his political career, actually founded classical conservatism with his denunciations of the French Revolution, and the renaissance of conservative thought in the United States from the 1930s through the 1960s was largely a reaction against the revolutions preached and practiced by the Progressives, liberals, Communists, and New Leftists of the same era.
What is significant about the invocation of revolution by leaders of the contemporary Right, then, is that it assumes that the Right no longer necessarily consists of those who gain from the way things are; that the Right, whoever it is and whatever it means, consists of those who believe they would benefit from a drastic and sudden, if not violent, alteration of the status quo. Moreover, it’s not just the leaders of the Right like Buchanan and Gingrich who use the imagery of revolution; they use it because that imagery attracts a following, and it attracts a following because rank-and-file adherents of the Right (note I do not say “conservatives”) share its assumption. To a large extent, the Right in America today, at least its more radical and populist wing, is defined by its attraction to the concept of revolution, violent or not, and the Left, for the first time in history, is defined by its opposition to the concept.
Of course, not everyone on what is usually called the “Right” harbors sympathy for revolutionary change. Soon after Buchanan started talking about peasants storming the castles with their pitchforks, Bill Kristol was dragged forth by The Washington Post to enlighten us with his own cogitations. “Someone needs to stand up and defend the Establishment,” he whined. “In the last couple of weeks, there’s been too much pseudo-populism, almost too much concern and attention for, quote, the people — that is, the people’s will, their prejudices and their foolish opinions. And in a certain sense, we’re all paying the price for that now . . . After all, we conservatives are on the side of the lords and barons.”
Mr. Kristol is correct. “Conservatives” — those who want to conserve — are on the side of the lords and barons, and the fact that the delusions and pathologies of the Left have long since acquired political and cultural hegemony in the United States means that real conservatives like Mr. Kristol wind up defending the achievements and interests of the Left. When he, his colleagues among the neo-conservatives, and the mainstream of the Republican Party denounce Buchanan and his followers for their attacks on the “Establishment,” they merely betray the reality that all their Right-wing affectations are masks for the defense of the incumbent system of power.
Nevertheless, the rhetoric of revolution on the Populist Right persists and even seems to be blossoming. In the last year or so, some on the Right appear to have taken it a bit more seriously than was perhaps warranted, and the FBI has actually busted more than a few bands of “extremists” who supposedly were plotting bombings or stashing weapons against Der Tag. There is, of course, no “Right-wing terrorist underground” such as the Anti-Defamation League or the Southern Poverty Law Center insists exists, a coordinated clandestine movement dedicated to burning Negro churches, blowing up federal buildings, murdering abortionists, and committing hate crimes, but there are random crackpots who have been captured by the crumbling legitimacy of the system that Mr. Kristol and his friends are so zealous to bolster.
And if there is any certain indication that talking about “revolution from the Right” is not premature, it lies in that very crumbling. Opinion polls in the last couple of years have begun to show that increasing numbers of citizens simply do not trust the government, and virtually any unusual event, crime, or disaster is now immediately enveloped in labyrinthine webs of conspiracy theories. The death of Vince Foster, the death of Ron Brown, the crash of TWA Flight 800, the Waco massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing and the trials of its suspects, the O. J. Simpson case, and even the killing of Bill Cosby’s son have all been absorbed into these webs. Some of these theories may even contain some truth, but what their popularity and ubiquity show, if nothing else, is that scads and scads of Americans simply no longer believe anything the government or the establishment media say and even suspect the government and media of complicity in the conspiracies.
There is also now an institutionalized network by which these theories and the delegitimization of the system that they breed are communicated. Talk radio, short-wave radio, the Internet, militia meetings, and gun shows, and several nationally circulated popular magazines, newspapers, and newsletters devoted exclusively to the weaving of the webs, ensure that the distrust of the system is not going to abate. And the same sort of communications network exists for publicizing views of the world that are profoundly at odds with the worldview on which the system rests. They offer radically different views of religion, history, race, government, economy, and even the universe from what is taught in most schools and universities, discussed in most mainstream media, and gabbled about by public political figures. In addition, there is the underground educational system, consisting of home schooling, private schools, and parochial schools that often instill these alternative worldviews into students at an early age.
The emergence in just the last few years of this populist underground and the continuing and ever-escalating popularity of what it has to offer are perhaps the best reasons to believe that the system so beloved by Mr. Kristol and his allies cannot long endure. What is occurring is what scholars of the revolutionary process call a “crisis of legitimacy”: more and more subjects of the regime are ceasing to believe that what the regime (the government, the dominant culture, and the economic elite) do and say, and tell them to do and say, possesses any legitimacy, and gradually they are withdrawing their allegiance, their everyday activities, and their minds from the regime. In place of the institutions of the regime — its media of communication, its schools, its churches, its political formulas and belief-systems — they are elaborating their own system, under their control and directed toward doing what they want it to do.
The collapse or erosion of the legitimacy of a regime is one of the critical developments in the emergence of what scholars of revolution have come to identify as a “revolutionary situation,” a condition of society in which not only the power but also the authority of the incumbent regime is vulnerable. There is a good deal of back-and-forth among scholars as to what the other features of a revolutionary situation are, but most agree on at least two others in addition to the crisis of legitimacy.
One is a “critical event” that exposes the incapacity of the regime to govern and to carry out the other functions it is supposed to be able to carry out. If the crisis of legitimacy is the collapse of the authority of the regime to do what it is supposed to do, the critical event is the collapse of the power of the regime to do it. The critical event is what Lenin was thinking of when he wrote that no government ever falls unless it is first dropped. The critical event is the act of dropping it. In the French Revolution, the critical event was the financial crisis and insolvency of the government, which required Louis XVI to call the Estates General for the first time in 175 years. Once the Estates took their seats, they proceeded to rid the country of the King, the Queen, the Church, the aristocracy, and the other vestiges of the old regime, and there was little or nothing Louis and his allies could do to stop them (or at least nothing they were willing to do). In the Russian Revolution, the critical event was the collapse of the Russian army in the First World War.
In the English Revolution of the 1640s it was a war with Scotland, coupled with rebellion in Ireland, that required Charles I to call Parliament in order to get money with which to fight the war. Today there is no obvious “critical event” in the United States such as these historic ones, but such is the situation in this country that such an event could occur at any time. The perennial budget crises, the increasing arrogance of the courts, the incompetence of the government to control crime and immigration, and the decline of legitimacy itself all suggest that a revolutionary critical event could occur in the United States in the not-too-distant future. What if the Congress should just refuse to approve a budget and the government has to shut down more or less permanently? What if the Crips or the Bloods or some other gang decides to take over a city or even a state? What if some states or parts of the country secede or refuse to pay taxes, enforce federal laws, or obey federal court orders? What if the armed forces refuse to carry out the orders of the Commander-in-Chief to enforce federal laws and court orders? I do not predict that any of these situations will occur, but it is no longer unimaginable (as it was in, say, the 1950s) that they will not occur, and if any of them do occur, it could constitute the very “critical event” that precipitates revolution.
The other feature of a revolutionary situation that is probably necessary for the completion of actual revolution is the existence of a revolutionary apparatus. Lenin obviously had one at his disposal in the form of the Bolshevik party. The English revolutionaries also had one, in the form of Puritan cells, churches, and eventually a political party that dominated the Parliament Charles I was forced to call. In the American Revolution the apparatus consisted of the “committees of correspondence” that coordinated communications and activism among the Patriots. In the French Revolution there were several apparatuses, including salons, where Enlightenment doctrines were crafted, discussed, and disseminated, and Freemasonry, which served similar purposes. Such apparatuses, in historian Crane Brinton’s words, “begin to go beyond lobbying and propaganda, begin to plan and organize direct action, or at least a supplanting of the government in some dramatic way. They are the beginnings of . . . the ‘illegal government,'” and eventually, if their work is successful, they essentially become the real government and replace the old government that can no longer perform its functions.
In the United States today there is no such apparatus, but there may be the beginnings of one, or several. The populist underground described above may be its embryo, and if today all it seems to do is weave sometimes preposterous conspiracy fables, it may soon in the future turn to planning and organizing direct action of some kind or other. Some portions of it are already involved in such action, at least politically, and the victory of such populist initiatives in recent years as Propositions 187 and 209 in California, Amendment 2 in Colorado, and the grassroots defense of the Confederate Flag in several Southern states are indications of such incipient activism. Their political activities are not yet revolutionary, but given the absolute refusal of the incumbent regime to accept their fairly moderate reforms (cutting off welfare to illegal aliens, ending affirmative action, denying affirmative action privileges to homosexuals, etc.), it would hardly be surprising if they started pushing more radical causes.
But the apparatus, in so far as it now exists, is far too rudimentary to act as an effective revolutionary agent. Its doctrine is vague and sometimes incoherent, centering merely on the criminality of the present system and its leaders and lacking a clear vision of what it wants in place of the system and how that can be achieved. Some parts of it are religious to the point of fanaticism, others are only nominally religious or outright pagan. Some demand the restoration of the Constitution, but many betray no more command of the meaning of the Constitution than the courts themselves. Until the populist network articulates a coherent and credible doctrine, develops a means of spreading and enforcing its doctrine on its adherents, and is able to represent itself as the emergent de facto government, it will not function as an effective agent of revolution.
The transformation of the American Right from a conservative force intent on preserving the present system into one that at least espouses sympathy for the imagery of revolution shows that the Right has at last begun to grasp the truth that it no longer exercises control of the country. That is an anomalous situation for many who conceive themselves to be on the Right, and much of the lack of preparation they exhibit derives from the anomaly and the discomfort those of the Right experience when the techniques and tactics of revolution are seriously discussed. It may be premature to talk very much about “revolution from the Right” today, but it is not idle to do so, and the sooner the Right completes its understanding that it no longer has any business being “conservative,” the sooner its revolutionary impulses will quicken in the womb.
This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in July 1997.