Today’s conservative philosophers, self-help gurus and self-described “thought leaders” uphold the primacy of Western secular values, but they overlook the necessity of the revolutionary events that midwifed them into existence. This article discusses the relevance of the French and Haitian Revolutions to the present political climate in which, with little serious reflection, new calls for the guillotine are being heard in some quarters while in others the call for revolution is being dismissed as a choice that could lead only to chaos and mass atrocities.

French proverb: The worst is escort of the best (Le pire côtoie le meilleure)

You say you want a revolution… We all want to change the world, but when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out? Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right? You say you got a real solution. We’d all love to see the plan. You ask me for a contribution, but if you want money for people with minds that hate, all I can tell is brother, you have to wait. We all want to change your head… You better free you mind instead… if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao, you ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow. Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right?

Revolution, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, 1968

In late 1968, John Lennon renounced the possibility of revolution in Western nations. With his song Revolution he helped create the attitude toward social change that has reigned ever since. With his fighting words condemning the rebels of his time for flawed thinking, talk of destruction, and lack of a plan, John Lennon expressed, and helped create, a lasting belief in non-violent protest and pursuing peace through personal transformation—freeing your mind instead, as he put it.

When the song appeared, the far left abandoned Lennon, calling him a bourgeois celebrity gatekeeper for the establishment. But for the right it was still important to think of him as the limit of what was thinkable as the extreme left. In the following years he was harassed by the FBI and almost deported from the US. Culture critics on the right said that his pacifism was just cover for his radicalism. Later songs like Give Peace a Chance and Imagine were adored by fans, but dismissed by some on both right and left as utopian treacle. These songs continued the message that no radical action was necessary. Patience and incremental reform through peaceful protest became the prevailing approaches to changing the world.

In Lennon’s defense, one could note that his attitude was aimed at radicals within Western countries. He believed violent tactics served no purpose in that context because, in spite of the appearance of revolution being in the air, there was no mass support for revolution, and no major crisis within the political establishment. It was obvious that circumstances in 1968 did not meet Vladimir Lenin’s three necessary conditions for a revolutionary situation:

The ruling classes are no longer able to rule in the old way. Factions in the elite have exhausted themselves by fighting each other.

All the vacillating, wavering, unstable, intermediate elements of society have sufficiently exposed themselves in the eyes of the people and bankrupted themselves politically.

The ruled can no longer tolerate being ruled in the old way. A mass sentiment among the exploited and oppressed masses, in favor of supporting the most determined, supremely bold revolutionary action, has begun vigorously to grow.

In contrast to 1968, the second decade of the 21st century is being called a time that is ripe for revolution, so it is worthwhile to examine this premise and consider the prospects for revolution.

Word frequency search results for the words guillotine and pitchforks started to rise after the 2008 financial system collapse, and it’s a safe bet that they took a sharp rise after the US election in 2016. One can now hear many voices on the street saying it’s time to “hang the bankers” or “bring back the guillotine.” This is very peculiar to see in a nation that has not seen a revolution in the past two centuries—and not really a revolution at that. The American Revolution was an independence war, and it involved no struggle to emancipate slaves or the working class. It is strange, in one additional way, to see the call for blood coming from young people who were born after 1967-1970, the last time there was significant social unrest in such places as Detroit, Chicago, Paris, Prague, Mexico City, Bangkok and Kent State. Many of the people now calling for heads to roll have little knowledge of the history of revolutions, let alone direct experience of the extreme instability that precedes a revolution.

So John Lennon was correct as far as his own situation was concerned, but outside of Western nations, in the places suffering from Western military invasion, Lennon’s pacifist message would have seemed laughable to people such as Nelson Mandela and Ho Chi Minh.

We’d all love to see the plan.

A naive view of revolution might see it as a deliberate and sudden violent upheaval that quickly replaces one government with another that is radically different in terms of ideology and allegiances. It was inevitable. It’s time had come, and nothing could stand in its way. However, actual revolutions tend to be protracted and bloody, with victory being rather ambiguously defined as the conflict drags on. The revolution comes about without a plan, without designated leaders, and it is triggered by small events that quickly lead to others of great consequence. Most revolutions are stillborn or short-lived. The color revolutions of the early 21st century were quickly overtaken by reactionary governments that looked a lot like the old status quo. Just before and during the initial phase, no one knows a revolution is about to happen. It emerges out of the accelerating decay of the old regime, and those who have been waiting for revolution usually have to scramble to take advantage of the occasion.

So when John Lennon sang “We’d all love to see the plan” he was asking for the impossible. Plans are for NGOs, think tanks and election campaign manifestos, or the state security agencies that actually foment what the public believes to be the color revolution of the day.

The seeds of revolutions are made by the new ideas, inequality and anger that develop over decades, but the seeds sprout only when the desperation of a populace has reached the point where there is nothing left to lose by taking action, and prognosticators are very poor at predicting when that time will arrive.

But when you talk about destruction…

Shortly after Revolution was released, the US intensified its bombing campaign of Cambodia to a level that, by 1973, exceeded to tonnage of bombs dropped on Japan in World War II, which still was not enough to defeat the Khmer Rouge (in Cambodia) or the Vietcong (in Vietnam). No doubt these armies wouldn’t have thought much of Lennon’s pacifist message because they didn’t give up until they had prevailed. Millions of people were willing to sacrifice their lives to repel the invader from Southeast Asia, regardless of its willingness to escalate the violence to atrocious levels. Lennon believed it was “gonna be all right” if the oppressed unilaterally swore off of violence, but the Vietcong disagreed.

The bombing of Cambodia illustrates what happens in any struggle that threatens to bring about significant change. The reactionary forces will use all measures at their disposal to kill the revolution, firstly by striking it directly, and secondly by forcing it to discredit itself with its own extremism. Once the revolution is put in this position, the reactionaries have begun to destroy its popular support. They have created the propaganda that there is no alternative: Look. They’re sadistic tyrants. They just wanted power.

Synopsis: The French Revolution

Outline of the French Revolution

1789: End of absolute monarchy. Economic crisis creates an opening for the third estate—representatives of “commoners” who are actually members of the bourgeois and the capitalist class vying for a say in who would be taxed to resolve the economic crisis. They are given seats in the Estates General (the legislature under the ancien régime). Revolution is triggered by the third estate succeeding in bringing members of the clergy and nobility to its side, taking over this body and renaming it the National Assembly.

July 1789: Storming of the Bastille. Popular resistance on the street strengthens the National Assembly and weakens the role of the monarchy, nobility and clergy.

1789-1793: Constitutional monarchy. Foundation of the Republic prepared in the constituent assembly.

September 1792: First Republic declared by national convention, aims to remove monarchy from any role in government.

January 1793: Execution of Louis VXI, decisive end of a role for monarchy in government. Left-leaning Jacobins gain power.

April 1793: Committee for Public Safety established, run by executive branch (Reign of Terror). Thousands of executions, civil war, wars with foreign powers.

1793: New constitution drafted, ratified by popular vote in August. “Emergency” requires suspension of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

July 1794: Thermidorian Reaction, founding of new right-leaning government called the Directory. Execution of Jacobin leader Robespierre.

1799: Economic crisis. Ongoing war and terror. Government incompetence leads to a coup. Napoleon takes power in a government called “the Consulate.” Slavery re-instated in the colonies.

1804: Napoleon becomes emperor. First Republic abolished.

1814: Bourbon Monarchy Restoration (constitutional monarchy).

1830: July Revolution. Transfer of power from the House of Bourbon to the House of Orléans (constitutional monarchy).

1848: Overthrow of monarchy. Second Republic declared.

1851: Coup. Second Empire led by Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon I.

1870: Third Republic.

March 28 – May 28, 1871: Paris Commune.

1946: Fourth Republic.

1958~: Fifth Republic.

The revolution occurred in July 1789 when the third estate became dominant in the National Assembly and commoners attacked the Bastille, but in a philosophical sense it is impossible to say when it began or when, or if, it ended. In 1972, Chinese premier Zhouen Lai quipped about the French Revolution that it was too soon to judge its impact. He thought he was answering a question about the unrest in Paris in 1968, but the comment was so accidentally clever that it became a legendary insight into the human condition.

The 18th century had been such a tumultuous challenge to reigning monarchies that the previous decades could be seen as the long prodrome to revolution. Voltaire’s triumphant return to Paris in 1778, after twenty-eight years in exile, was one of many signs that the divine rights of kings would end soon. We could be in the prodrome stage of the second American revolution now, but there is no saying how long it will last. There has been much talk in recent decades about the end of the “divine right” of corporations to rule the world, the two political parties are disintegrating, and power holders have lost control of the media and the message just as surely as they failed to stop Voltaire’s essays from reaching the masses.

Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet… summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street… Well, what can a poor boy do except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band because in sleepy London town there’s just no place for a street fighting man… the time is right for a palace revolution… where I live the game to play is compromised solution… I’ll shout and scream. I’ll kill the king. I’ll rail at all his servants.

Street Fighting Man, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 1968

What goes down in history books as the start of the revolution may have, at the time, looked like just another event in a series of incremental changes and power struggles among wealthy factions of society. In 1788, there was no revolutionary leader, and no one had a plan or a vision for what lay ahead. New forms of media (the printing press) had spread the ideas of the Enlightenment and undermined the authority of the first and second estate (the nobility and the clergy) to control property and decide popular opinion and fashions. Endless war, economic crises and crop failures had pushed the masses to the brink. Bankers were bearing down on the monarchy to tax the nobility and clergy (who had massive land holdings and revenue from parishioners) to pay off the national debt. The common people no longer took their cues from the nobility and religious authorities, and they demanded to be recognized and empowered as the third estate. The king was aware of everything the Enlightenment philosophers were saying and of England’s revolution and transition to constitutional monarchy (which occurred roughly from 1640-1688). Louis XVI was attempting to manage a transition that would allow him to stay on the throne.

Thus the French revolution began as a moderate reform that Louis XVI had to consent to. The third estate was given a place in the king’s legislative assembly alongside the nobility and the clergy. Once they had a place in the system, things took a turn that was unprecedented and unforeseen. The third estate brought enough members of the clergy and nobility to its side to gain control over the assembly just as demand for change exploded in the streets. Commoners stormed the Bastille and seized armaments. Foreign armies that had come to defend the king were struck by the French army’s lack of interest in the same task.

Later, a violent women’s march on Versailles forced the king to return to Paris. The king was controlled and tolerated there for the next three years, and he used his granted veto powers in the new republic to stall progressive legislation. After three years of upheaval caused by conservative reactionaries, civil war, and foreign wars, the king and queen (Marie Antoinette) tried to flee in 1791, but they were caught and brought back to Paris. Exiled nobility and foreign monarchies were constantly agitating to put Louis XVI back on the throne and restore the ancien régime. Louis XVI protested that he was loyal to the Republic, but his attempted escape increased suspicions that he was biding his time, waiting for and conspiring with domestic and foreign supporters who could help him recover his throne. Finally, the republican government could no longer risk having him alive. He was guillotined on January 21, 1793. Marie Antoinette was executed in October that same year.

The republican government now led by the Jacobins fell into the classic trap that confronts by most revolutions, described aptly by Frederick Engels:

The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents, and for the realization of the measure which that domination implies.[1]

To the left of the government, the masses who had supported the revolution were complaining they had gained little. Instead, they were continually being asked to toil on their farms like they did before, or to fight in the endless wars to secure the final victory for the revolution. To the right of the government, there was endless opposition from dispossessed clergy and nobility, and from foreign monarchies who feared the spread of the revolution. And the revolution had been initiated, after all, by the wealthy creditors who wanted a resolution of the financial crisis. The popular revolt was helpful to them, but their interests didn’t align with it. Thus the initial predominance of the leftist Jacobins was always in a defensive position, so they reacted to the reactionaries with the persecution of enemies that spiraled into the famous “terror”—thousands of public executions by guillotine, as well as other forms of mass murder of unarmed citizens. In addition to the elimination of political opponents, there was more widespread violence in the countryside, where much of the killing was done under ideological cover to settle scores or to seize property and scarce resources. There were also allegations of false flag terror attacks being perpetrated to discredit Robespierre.

The Jacobin leader Robespierre (read here his speech to the convention, 1794/02/05) was eventually pushed out and executed, after which the right-leaning bourgeois government took power then had its own era of terror and corruption. This new regime’s corruption and incompetence eventually created a public desperation for stability. When Napoleon became first consul after a coup in 1799, the First Republic was for all practical purposes finished. It was officially ended in 1804 when Napoleon declared himself emperor.

Jacques-Louis David’s painting, The Death of Marat (1793), portrays the murder of Jacobin radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat

Anyone who wishes for a revolution to fix things now has to keep in mind this fifteen-year trajectory and ask what was really accomplished, or how such a series of events could be avoided. In spite of the decades of war and misery that followed the Revolution, it exemplified the proverb cited above: the worst is escort of the best (le pire côtoie le meilleure). The revolution is credited with establishing in law and custom all the positive values of Western civilization: it led to the suppression of the feudal system, the emancipation of the individual, the greater division of landed property, the abolition of the privileges of noble birth and the establishment of equality. The revolution led to the rise of republics and democracies elsewhere. It was a focal point in the development of political ideologies such as liberalism, radicalism, socialism, nationalism, and secularism. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen also inspired movements for universal suffrage and the abolition of slavery. In spite of these positives, the Revolution fell short of delivering a radical change in the lives of the poor and the working class. With the American Revolution, it ushered in the age of economic liberalism, which has been constrained only for a short period between 1945 and 1975.[2]

If one is to judge the Revolution by its violence and its campaigns of terror, these have to be put in perspective with all that had happened, and would have continued to happen, under rule by the divine right of kings. The table below puts the violence of the Revolution in perspective:

Tally of deaths in wars France was involved in 1500-1815

(from Wikipedia):

French wars of religion (16th century): 2 to 4 million

Seven Years War (1756-1763): 800,000-1.4 million

Napoleonic wars (1803-1815): 3.5 to 7 million

French revolutionary wars (1792-1802): 1 million

(These figures of one million or more deaths include the deaths of civilians from diseases, famine, etc., as well as deaths of soldiers in battle, massacres and genocide.)

Twain on the Terror

If we condemn the French Revolution, we deny the good that came from it, as well as what more could have come from it if it had not been so violently opposed. If, because of the terror of Robespierre, we conclude that revolution will always fail and always lead to a “tyranny” worse than or equal to that of the present, we are saying revolution wasn’t necessary then, either. We accept the violence and structural violence of the status quo of that time, which included all the evils of feudalism, constant warfare, the Atlantic slave trade, and plantation slavery in the colonies. On the topic of revolution’s use of authoritarian means, Engels wrote:

A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon—authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune [1871] have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?[3]

The Revolution in Saint-Domingue (Haiti)

An overview of the French Revolution would not be complete without mention of the revolution it inspired in the French colony Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). News of the Revolution spread throughout the world, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was taken at its word by the slaves there. The colony was described at the time as a volcano ready to explode because of the huge slave population (250,000) relative to the population of white settlers (32,000). The revolution in France split the loyalties of the settlers, many of whom wanted to form an independent republic like the United States—one that would still permit slavery without the interference of the “do-gooders” back in the metropole who made laws to restrict the cruelty of slavery, or who might soon abolish it. The colony also had a population of mulattos and freed slaves. A rebellion was ignited by 2,000 insurgents who plotted to destroy plantations on the night of August 21, 1791. By November it was an army of 80,000. The leader who emerged, Toussaint Louverture, was similar to his counterpart in France, the lawyer Robespierre. Both had been the sort of person who could have lived comfortably among the bourgeoisie, but they nonetheless sided against their personal interests to fight for the liberation of others.

toussaint louverture

Louverture was a freed slave who managed a small farm and even had slaves of his own. He was not initially involved in the insurgency, as he had reason to wait and see which way it was going to go. He was worldly enough to understand the broader consequences of what would happen after the initial wave of violence. He was Catholic and socially conservative, with an understanding of how the colony’s agricultural economy would have to remain productive in order to support a prolonged war and an independent nation. He was interested in ending slavery by turning slave labor into salaried labor, without creating high expectations that would equate freedom with not having to toil on a plantation.

Many of the slaves in the colony had memories of feudal hierarchies and monarchs in their native cultures, and before the revolution they had seen Louis XVI as a possible ally. Ironically, it had been the French kings who tried to regulate the excessive cruelty and greed of slave owners in Saint-Domingue. Their code noir set out permissible forms of punishment and methods by which masters could free slaves and slaves could purchase their freedom. During the revolution, it took slaves a while to figure out whether their loyalties should be with the monarchy or the Republic. The Republic did not grant freedom to slaves in the colonies until February 1794, and that was done more for strategic reasons—to prevent full independence and to keep the Spanish and British out.

When Louverture joined the rebellion, he turned it into an effective military campaign that stunned European armies. Yet once the revolution had succeeded, he was faced with the same dilemma faced by the French republicans: how to respond to the brutal tactics of reactionary forces while convincing supporters to go back to the farms to produce the food and exports that would sustain the fight.

Like Robespierre, Louverture responded with his own harsh control of the domestic population. He lost much support because of it, and it was not until later in the war that Haitians realized the necessity of these measures. They realized that all the European powers, republic or monarchy, were determined to not have a free black republic anywhere in the world setting an example for others. When Napoleon rose to power in 1799, he simply asked his advisors under which regime the colonies had been most prosperous, and upon hearing that it was the ancien régime, he restored slavery and mulatto discrimination.[4]

Napoleon launched a new war on Saint-Domingue and had Louverture arrested and brought back to France, where he died soon after in solitary confinement. Now, as a martyr, he had no opposition in his homeland. His death galvanized a renewed war against the French. Napoleon would later regret his campaign against Saint-Domingue and Louverture as a great blunder. On January 1, 1804, the new nation named Haiti (from the indigenous Taino language) became the first nation in the Caribbean to declare its independence.[5]

What stands out in this story once again, in contrast to John Lennon’s message, is how much devastation people were willing to endure in order change their world. When towns could not be held, plantations and cities were burned down by retreating Haitians, and water fountains were filled with animal corpses just to ensure that the invaders would have no way to sustain themselves. No one said, “Count me out” if you’re talking about destruction.

Free your mind instead

With the admonition to “free your mind instead,” Lennon followed the Western psychic drift away from the political to the personal. From the 1970s onward, it was all about the inward journey. Pop psychology peddled the notion that “a paucity of positive thinking… is the source of individual angst, alienation and suffering in general under the neoliberal order.”[6] It’s a significant coincidence that billions of dollars have been made in the self-help industry ever since this time when the US shifted off the gold standard and the postwar era of economic nationalism gave way to neoliberal economics.[7] This was also the time when class consciousness was killed off and substituted with identity politics. Former CIA operative Gloria Steinem emerged as a leader of the feminist movement, and various other groups emerged, all focused on their own campaigns, to the detriment of labor unions, international solidarity, and a coordinated resistance to militarism, Cold War antagonism and the economic forces that would erode the standard of living for the next fifty years.[8] On the right, social malaise is often attributed to leftists who abandoned Marxism and became “neo-Marxist” post-modern destroyers of all that is good about Western civilization, but conservative critics of this faux-left consistently overlook what these changes did to weaken the left. To identify the cause, ask cui bono?

One could even wonder if the entire field of psychology has been distorted and used in an intelligence agency psy-op, so effective has it been in convincing atomized individuals to look inward for solutions to their problems. A recent article in Best Schools listing the “top 50 psychologists in the world” named academics who were all based at universities in the English-speaking world.[9] Here we have a US-based organization “comprised of a dedicated group of educators” applying the “best in the world label” when they could not possibly be capable of assessing the work of psychologists in the non-English speaking world. Is there a name for this obliviousness combined with high self-regard? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders may have a term for it.

The advice in the self-help books worked pretty well for Americans as long as one had started out in life with some advantages and there was a relatively strong economy within which one could self-actualize. But as structural problems and inequality worsened, the limitations of psychological counseling became obvious. It would have been obvious to anyone in 1970 that talk therapy wouldn’t be much use to someone living on the street in Calcutta, but it didn’t occur to many that structural disadvantages could one day be a limiting factor in the lives of middle-class white Americans.

In spite of the obviousness of the need for political and structural reform, the self-help meme stubbornly persists, perhaps even more stridently because it’s not such an easy sell now. Of course, it’s always been half true. No one can deny the common sense wisdom behind the advice to develop inner strength and to cultivate one’s own garden (see Voltaire’s Candide, published in 1759).

The latest guru to climb up the pop charts and go viral is University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson. He has many worthwhile things to say about human nature, evolutionary psychology and the roots of hierarchy being in our genes, rather than in a culturally invented patriarchy. He is one of the first secular voices in a long while to strike a chord with young men, inspiring them to be ambitious and virtuous, and to quit slouching through a prolonged, aimless adolescence. There is much to admire and take seriously in his work.

His self-help advice is not very original, however, as it is derived, as he would surely admit, from Judeo-Christian moral traditions and the work ethic promoted during the industrial revolution. His advice to young men is not much different from what conservative Christian groups such as Promise Keepers have been saying for a long time. His own description of chapter four in his recent book, Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is very similar to the fictional self-help method called “baby steps” that was portrayed so comically by Richard Dreyfuss and Bill Murray in the 1991 film What About Bob?[10]

Peterson makes valid defenses of free speech and powerful criticisms of the excesses of political correctness, but he often confounds “leftists” with their pale imitation, the bourgeois post-modern “left.” Peterson blames Western civilization’s demise on this imagined “left” rather than on the alienating effects of capitalism or the privileged beneficiaries of its bureaucracies. He extolls the virtues of Western civilization, but conveniently forgets that socialism and Marxism themselves were products of Western civilization. He loves to decry the excesses of Soviet and Chinese socialism, yet has nothing to say about Western atrocities. He fails to note that Lenin, Stalin and Mao would have agreed with him about the destructiveness of identity politics and political correctness. The socialist revolutions promoted all the same conservative social values that Peterson extolls: be ambitious, competitive and devoted to family and community. There’s no free ride. Condemn vices like gambling, drug abuse, pornography and prostitution. Work hard. Utopia is a long way off because the enemies who despise our achievements never rest.

Peterson’s greatest contradiction arises when he complains that young people should “sort themselves out” before trying to change the world. He literally tells them to clean their rooms before they even think about lifting a finger to change one thing in the outside world. It’s too complex, he says. How are you going to have any plan for fixing the world when you can’t even get your own life together? That’s what leads to tyranny, apparently, because every revolutionary was supposedly a malignant, lazy narcissist with a bloodlust. There is obviously some truth in the advice to improve oneself, but that is precisely why the advice is so annoying. It is so unoriginal and obvious that it can’t be advanced as a solution to the more difficult question of how one should participate in improving the wider world.

The major contradiction in this advice from Peterson—so similar to the views of fellow travelers who call themselves modernists, eco-modernists, techno-optimists, new optimists, or atheists—is that they all tout Western values as the crowning achievement of human civilization, yet they ignore the evident truth that I’ve tried to illustrate in this essay. These values did not become embedded in Western civilization just because Enlightenment philosophers wrote about them. These values took over the world because some very imperfect, young and un-sorted-out people stormed the Bastille in 1789, or because in 1791 rebels in Saint-Domingue followed the vision of their voodoo priest and burned down the plantations that enslaved their brothers and sisters.

Jordan Peterson said in his recent lecture promoting his book that for him too, the work is never done, so this statement only adds to the contradiction.[11] The advice implies that almost no one should ever try to change the world. In an interview on his book tour he was asked by Jonathan Rowson, “If it [sorting myself out] is so difficult, and I need to spend most of my time and energy dealing with that, who are the people who are going to be doing the other work that needs to be done culturally and politically?” The simple answer was, “Hopefully, competent people, with any luck.”[12] He offered no explanation of who would set the standards by which such people are selected. The clergy and nobility of the 18th century would have surely agreed with him, though. Rowson went on to say this advice to young people lacked “social imagination.” I would add that telling young people not to attempt changing the world contradicts Peterson’s own advice to act boldly and honestly in the world. Peterson tells young people to stand straight with their shoulders back, but for what purpose? How are they supposed to learn how to be active participants in society if they are consigned to being passive observers while they are young? He has suggested in his videos that young people should figure out how to make a product or service that someone wants to pay for. That is a fine survival tip for the economic system we live in, but it still leaves the individual excluded from the political sphere.

Peterson’s suggestion that the young should stay out of politics re-opens the old generational war that exploded in the 1960s when Bob Dylan sang The Times They are a-Changin’. This war shouldn’t have to be re-fought, but I’ll just add this: It wasn’t the younger generation that created nuclear arsenals and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Why should young people accept it as a sign of mental competence of the older generation? As far as mental health goes, dissipation takes time. In spite of the advantages of their wisdom and experience, the old are prone to corruption, mental decline, addiction, laziness and incompetence in ways that the young are not, and many are worse people at fifty than they were at twenty. Peterson is a strong believer in the achievements of Western civilization, but his argument here is authoritarian. Perhaps his views have been shaped too much by his work in his clinical psychology practice and his encounters with his most unpleasant critics—experiences which may have led him to exaggerate the number of young people who are “not competent” for life in the public sphere. Following the logic of his argument, however, one would have to conclude that all “un-sorted-out” people should be identified and disenfranchised, and that leads to some very pre-Enlightenment “non-Western” beliefs.


Those who would like to see a second American revolution could ask themselves if the present situation meets Lenin’s three pre-conditions for revolution, or how the events of the French Revolution might play out within the American context. If it were to go the same way as the French Revolution, the scenario might be something like this: The disenfranchised segments of the population, a modern equivalent of the third estate, now emboldened by new information and new media available in recent decades, could take over the Democratic Party from within. Once there, they would push out the old guard beholden to lobbyists, forcing resignations of officials and members of Congress and electing radically new people to replace the incumbents. On the street, popular protests and rioting in Washington would close in on the Pentagon and CIA headquarters, then factions of the armed forces would come to support them. Soon after, a woman’s protest would storm the White House, blocking the president from taking golf holidays, effectively holding him hostage to assure he works with the new government, if he wants to keep his head attached to his body.

A constituent assembly would be elected to draft a new constitution and govern during the transition period. Leaders and policies would emerge on the fly, but some new and inspiring values might emerge from this process. A new Declaration of the Rights of Humanity and the Ecosphere might inspire social transformations throughout the world. A civil war might break out, and external enemies might launch a counter-revolution, but since the US is the most powerful nation, resented for over a century by the rest of the world, it is hard to imagine who the foreign reactionaries might be. Who would have the strength or the desire to bring back the ancien régime? The world would say good riddance. Or it could be a global class war in which national identities mattered very little. The greatest potential for violence would be among the domestic population, and everyone knows which political faction has weapons stocked up.

How would it end? How many millions dead in a reactionary terror? Would a general take charge a decade later to declare himself emperor? And would this decade of upheaval be credited in the future with establishing new fundamental values for the continuation of civilization?

Don’t worry. For now, despite some vague talk about pitchforks, hanging bankers and bringing back the guillotine, a revolution is far off. The situation does not yet meet Lenin’s pre-conditions, but it could if a severe economic crisis arose. Americans are still too comfortable and complacent to revolt, and military personnel are nowhere close to backing any insurrection, as they did in the French and Bolshevik revolutions. The majority of Americans still have a long way to go to reach the level desperation of the French in the 18th century, or the Russians after World War I. Furthermore, modern military hardware could not fall so easily to a mob. Seizing the Bastille was relatively easy compared to what would be needed now to take over the Pentagon, not to mention the command and control structure of a global military network in possession sixty drone bases and 7,000 nuclear warheads.

But this is all beside the point because most of the calls for “bringing back the guillotine” are coming from people who are merely upset that a vulgar huckster became president and tarnished what they believe to be America’s reputation as the light of the world. Few members of “the resistance” have any concern for the global resentment caused by American supremacy over the last 120 years. In fact, the resistance seems to be 90% fueled by a resentment that Trump has blown the nation’s cover and ruined the good thing it had going. Instead of preserving the empire, Trump might hasten a decline that will make America a great but regular country again, one with only its fair share of the planet’s resources.

Whatever happens, strange days are ahead. There may be no revolution, but there will be an unravelling. Historian Alfred McCoy believes we can expect it to come rapidly at any time:

All empires are fragile at the moment of their ascent, when their legions are marching, when they blacken the skies with their aircraft and their ships thunder off the coasts. They march across continents, sweeping petty states before them. They seem so unstoppable, so mighty, so eternal, but actually, unlike the organic resources of even a modest-sized nation state, whose defense and economy and state operations arise organically from the people and the land, these empires are operating overseas far from home, at extraordinary cost. They’re incredible jury-rigged, fragile apparatuses, so they look mighty at the peak of their power, but once they begin to fall apart there’s kind of a cascading effect. They fall apart with an unholy speed.[13]

While writing the essay, I noticed how often the words “head” and “mind” were used in varied senses throughout the literature. In Revolution, Lennon implored “change your head” and “free you mind.” There are heads of state, heads of factions, heads of armies, voodoo heads, heads chopped off in the guillotine, heads filled with radical new ideas. In another 60s pop classic, quoting the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland, White Rabbit offered the best advice for living in revolutionary times: feed your head. But I always heard the line as “keep your head,” and I like that line too. Nurture your head, but also protect it from the therapists’ prescriptions and the persuasions of the latest self-help guru. If you want the guillotine back, keep in mind that there is no telling whose heads will end up in the basket. Keep your head, in every sense of the word, but “feed your head” is perhaps the best advice. Revolution requires imagination, a way to get revolution right next time, without the reactionary wars and the terror that revolutionaries have to resort to in order to prevail. Revolutions come about in times of widespread misery that Western nations are still far from experiencing. No one should want a revolution. We should want revolutionary transformation before revolution becomes necessary. On that note, I conclude with a quote from some new anthropological work that states this case:

It’s probably no coincidence that today, the most vital and creative revolutionary movements at the dawn of this new millennium—the Zapatistas of Chiapas, and Kurds of Rojava being only the most obvious examples—are those that simultaneously root themselves in a deep traditional past. Instead of imagining some primordial utopia, they can draw on a more mixed and complicated narrative. Indeed, there seems to be a growing recognition, in revolutionary circles, that freedom, tradition, and the imagination have always, and will always be entangled, in ways we do not completely understand. It’s about time the rest of us catch up, and start to consider what a non-Biblical version of human history might be like.[14]

From The Man Who Would Be King, Emmanuel Macron, 2015/07/07:

Democracy has always been incomplete because it is not sufficient in itself. In the process and functioning of democracy there is an absence. In French politics, this absence is the figure of the king, whom, I believe, the French people did not want to be killed. The Terror created an emotional, imaginative and collective void: the king is no longer there! We then tried to fill that void with other figures such as Napoleon or de Gaulle… we expect the president of the Republic to fill this function.

This article was revised on February 7, 2019.


[1] Frederick Engels, The Peasant War in Germany (Moscow: Progress, 1956), 138-139.

[2]Mark Blythe Explains Post-World War II Economics,” The Takeout Podcast, CBS News, July 14, 2017, Coincidentally (in this context), this podcast was aired on Bastille Day.

[3] Frederick Engels, On Authority (1872),

[4] C.L.R James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution (London: Penguin, 2001), 219.

[5] Charles Forsdick and Christian Hogsbjerg, Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions (London: Pluto Press, 2017). The overview of the revolution was compiled from this book.

[6] Phil Rockstroh, “Thus Spake Oprah as the New York Times Spots UFOs over the Comb-over Empire.” Off-Guardian, January 28, 2018,

[7]Mark Blythe Explains Post-World War II Economics,” The Takeout Podcast, CBS News, July 14, 2017, Coincidentally (in this context), this podcast was aired on Bastille Day.

[8] Louis Menand, “A Friend of the Devil: Inside a Famous Cold War Deception,” New Yorker, March 23, 2015,

[9]The 50 Most Influential Living Psychologists in the World,” The Best Schools,  See the “About” section for the quote describing the personnel at The Best Schools: “an organization comprised of a dedicated group of educators, editors, authors, and web professionals.”

[10]Jordan B. Peterson on 12 Rules for Life,” How-to Academy, January 16, 2018,

[11]  Ibid.

[12]Twelve Rules for Life: Jordan Peterson.” RSA Replay, January 16, 2018, 20:50~,

[13]Decline of the American Empire with Alfred McCoy,” On Contact, November 26, 2017, 16:15~

[14]  David Graeber and David Wendgrow, “How to change the course of human history,” Eurozine, March 2, 2018,