Monday, April 7, 2014

Les Miserables on revolution: An Anarchist Review

Can you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men, that is the music of a people who will not be slaves again!  - From Can You Hear the People Sing in Les Miserables

Here they talked of revolution
Here it was they lit the flame
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came
Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs and empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more
-From Empty Chairs and Empty Tables in Les Miserables



Les Miserables is a fantastic tale of love and loss, justice and mercy, revolution and power. It has enchanted and inspired millions. The interplay of personal stories interwoven into the grand story of the failed French Revolution of 1832 is fantastic. There are so many applicable topics The Anarchist Review could cover in this story: religious freedom versus political freedom or Justice versus mercy, but I have chosen the topic of revolution.

Multiple questions are brought up by this tale: What is Revolution? Who starts revolutions? What is Revolution good for?



A little background on Victor Hugo, the author, and why he wrote about this. Hugo personally witnessed some of the proceedings of the 1832 revolution or June Uprising as it is referred to. As in the play/book/movie, the uprising lasted only two days: from June 5 to June 6. It was in fact a pretty minor blurb, especially considering the large number of uprisings and revolutions that France has been through. If it were not for Victor Hugo this uprising of 3,000 people, would have faded into the annals of history known by only to a few erudite historians. 

Thanks to Hugo, however it is one of the most well-known events in history. Hugo himself was a Republican, and strongly sided with the republican revolutionaries.

Now to the tale of revolution. During the song Red and Black, Enjolras, the revolutionary leader, asks if revolution is “simply a game for rich young boys to play?” He says (or rather sings) this at the ABC pub where wealthy middle-class men come to discuss politics. Most are young, some are sons of aristocrats. These young men feel they are liberating the poor from oppression and “They will come one and all. They will come one and all” to support them in their just cause. However, their prediction is fatally wrong.

Revolution is often assumed to start with poor disgruntled workers who rise up to shake off the shackles of their oppressive governments. Yet Les Miserables is saying the opposite, that it is a bunch of wealthy middle class men who get angry and try to stir up the masses. 

So what is the revolutionary story? As one who has considered tattooing, “Liberty or Death” across his back, it would be nice to sympathize with revolutionaries. Perhaps, however, the story of Les Miserables has lessons, particularly for young fire-brands like me.

So without further ado, The Anarchist Review takes a quick plunge into the history of revolutions to uncover the truth.



Revolutions generally go through three stages, the fall of the old regime and rise of a moderate regime based on the old paradigm just adjusted, rise of a radical (and often tyrannical) government, and a return to moderate in the so-called Thermidorian reaction. Crane Brinton notably analyzed this in his book The Anatomy of Revolution. Though it is not a perfect fit for all revolutions, many of the large revolutions in history have followed this pattern, most notably the English, the French, and the Russian.

Brinton points out that it is not the super poor who start revolutions. Genuine lower-class revolutions are almost non-existent with the notable exception of Haiti’s slave revolution. The revolutionaries are generally idealistic middle-class white guys, “born of hope,” as Brinton puts it.



In the first stage, the moderate stage, the relatively unorganized middle-class men who have gained support of the lower-classes often because of extreme conditions are able to take down the first regime. This is the exciting stage where the lower-classes are involved. They are not the instigators, but they jump on the cause, mostly because they assume things cannot get worse than the status quo.  This group often is unorganized and lacking a strong leader, they often do not want to completely oust the former government as much as they simply want to change it. In France this meant forming a constitutional monarchy. They wanted to keep the king, just add restraints and grant more power to the middle-class. After all it is a middle-class revolution, the poor are involved in creating chaos, but when the tables come out and negotiation begins, they are not present.

The next stage is where an organized radical group with a strong leader sweeps in and takes control. In England it was Oliver Cromwell, in France, Robespierre, in Russia, Lenin.  Are these men from humble backgrounds who strive to help their fellow poor brothers? Let us have a look:

Oliver Cromwell: He was born into the middle-gentry, i.e. upper-middle class. He was a land-owner and politician for most of his life. Not exactly what we would consider a “worker.”

Robespierre: A politician and lawyer descended from lawyers. Robespierre, despite being from a somewhat troubled home (born out of wed-lock), he was just about as middle-class and white-collar as they come.

Some revolutionary spirit during Robespierre's Reign of Terror

Lenin: He was born to nobility. Yes, you read that right, Lenin, the Marxist radical of Russia was born into a noble family. It is not true that his parents were not born noble, however they were born rich. Before Lenin was born they were basically awarded a title and became “hereditary nobility.” Lenin, like so many Marxists, knew more about the plight of finding a good chef then they did about the plight of workers.

This is not meant to be an expos√© or surprising revelation. These men are not really considered great men of history. All three were at the helms of extremely violent and bloody regimes. But they fit the bill of the radical revolutionaries of the world. Men with great idealistic visions which when attempted to put into practice end up killing loads of people. For example, Robespierre’s short rule in France led to over 40,000 deaths.
After the radical stage there is a return to a moderate stage, and often, in the long run a return to the former government. In France and England a King was returned to the throne (albeit with constitutional restraints), and Russia, well Russia still has the sort of strong dictatorial leaders it has head since the time of the Russian empire.

Revolutions results? Day to day life of workers ends up being basically the same. Religions and habits remain unchanged. As Brinton says, “[The revolutions’] results look rather petty as measured by the brotherhood of man and the achievement of justice on this earth. The blood of the martyrs seems hardly necessary to establish decimal coinage." Basically in the end the revolutions are, like most wars, fights between rich people about who can exploit who, with the lives of poor people often being tossed around as collateral. A few of the rich kids playing the revolutionary game die as symbols, but most of the blood shed is the blood of workers whom the revolution is supposed to benefit. The Reign of Terror in France which was meant to uproot all royalist support, killed far more people from the lower classes then it did nobility or royals. 

From looking back at history it seems Victor Hugo had revolutions about right. One of two things happens. The middle-class revolution gets support from the lower-classes and causes chaos and uprising. The government changes three or four times and ends up basically how it started. The other possible scenario is the one told by Hugo. The lower-classes do not come to support the cause because of misjudgment of how bad their plight actually or unwillingness to die for the cause. In either case if you start the revolution you probably end up dead with your friends wondering what your sacrifice was for.

Here at The Anarchist Review we have plenty of revolutionary blood. Those that know me know I am anti-establishment and idealist. Lots of people probably assume I would be the first one running down the street waving a Gadsden flag to start the next American revolution.

However, I have to side with history. Revolution in the end is a game for rich white boys to play which almost always ends in meaningless violence. It is a bunch of rich kids who look at the lower-classes and say, “I know what they need.” When in reality they care more about aggrandizing themselves, then helping the poor. They have grandiose ideas not rooted in reality. They claim to fight for liberty when in the reality they are seeking power.  Outside of the American Revolution, it is difficult/impossible to find a revolution which could be remotely described as “successful.”

Despite all my fiery gusto for change and revolution, I am afraid it is the slow gradual changes that win out. Why? Because people are gradual changers, society changes gradually. And while government is not society (a common error); government, at least partially, reflects society. Ultimately government only changes because it has to. Society changes government, it is impossible to do it the other way around. People, not power, rule the world. So despite my radical leanings and position, I feel I must give deference to that great conservative thinker Edmund Burke who predicted the French Revolution spiraling out of control.

“It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare.” – Edmund Burke



My suggestion for young men like me who so greatly yearn for change in the world is not to turn to guns, violence, and revolution, but rather to reason and technology, thinking and persuasion, that is how we will win the war.

Do not go start political revolution. Stay home, get married, have children, raise them peacefully, write a book, and live another day.

 If we go the path of revolution we will end up like those of Les Miserables, with “empty chairs and empty tables, where [our] friends will sit no more.”


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