Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Revolutionary Measures: The Disastrous Move to Secrecy and Centralisation

For mid-19th century radicals seeking a more equable society the revolutionary life had a romantic appeal. But, as ever, the achievement of their ideals proved to be a more complex matter than they had anticipated.

There are two lines of approach to the overthrow of an existing social order. The would-be revolutionaries may support, or instigate, a popular insurrection. If this is successful, the group will attempt to maintain their influence over the course of revolutionary events. Alternatively, the conspirators may choose to achieve their aims as a small, secretive cell of 'professional' revolutionaries, directing the progress of the insurrection according to clear, premeditated aims based on a clearly formulated theory of how the revolution ought to proceed. Historically, the latter approach derived from the perceived failure of the first.

Naturally, every sort of revolutionary feels validated by the justice of their cause, but whereas revolutionaries of the former kind rely on a wave of popular resentment against the old order and place their trust in 'the people’ or 'the masses', the loyalties of the latter are entirely towards their own organisation. A revolutionary group of this kind may indeed feel justified in acting against the wishes of 'the people' - until such time that they are deemed to be sufficiently enlightened to realise what is in their own best interests. In practice these differences of approach have never been as clearly defined as indicated, but it is fair to say that of the two major Revolutions in the modern period the French was more characterised by the first, the Russian by the second.

The model of insurrectionary activity in the modern period, based on the activities of a few dedicated, ideologically grounded individuals can be confidently dated to 1795, the period when the French Revolution (and its accompanying Terror) had run its course, during the period when the Bonapartist state was about to be established. At this time it was becoming clear that despite all the upheavals of the previous few years the well to do were once again in charge of the country. Most radicals had become utterly disillusioned by the outcome of the Revolution, but a group of die-hard revolutionaries, lead by 'Gracchus' Babeuf and the Italian Filippo Buonarroti plotted to restore the 1793 Constitution in a 'Conspiracy of Equals'. This last attempt to restore the ideals of the Revolution was, however, betrayed and its leading figures imprisoned by the newly appointed Directory.

During their incarceration Babeuf and Buonarroti formulated a new conspiratorial modus operandi. As a result of their bitter disappointment with the outcome of the Revolution they had both come to the conclusion that any future uprising could only succeed if it were firmly directed from the very beginning by a determined leadership with a clear grasp of what they wanted to achieve (which was, of course, a just and egalitarian society), and a clear strategy to achieve this end. Those sympathetic to the cause could join the organisation, but at various lower levels of knowledge and responsibility. If necessary, policy would be conducted behind a facade of stated intentions. In other words, it was felt that, for a revolution to succeed, it should be directed from the outset by the members of a small, dedicated and necessarily secret society, supported by a hierarchy of lower-level initiates. This model for bringing about radical change was to prove very influential. For the rest of the 19th century (and indeed up to the present), it became the dominant pattern for revolutionary activity.

Babeuf did not live long enough to put his conspiratorial precepts into practice - soon after being released from prison he organised an armed revolt, but was captured, sentenced to death and summarily executed. Buonarroti, on the other hand, went on to enjoy a long and highly influential revolutionary career, gaining a reputation throughout Europe as the Grand Old Man of revolutionary secret societies. Most of the groups that he founded were short-lived and fantastical in their aspirations, but their eventual impact on the course of European (and world) history was profound indeed.

Buonarotti founded the first of his political secret societies in Geneva in the 1800s. This was the Sublimes Maitres Parfaits - the name and organisational style of which derived from the European masonic tradition, which by this time had become strongly associated with the cause of liberalism. The workings of this group are shadowy, but it appears to have been structured around three grades of initiation and knowledge. There were Perfect Sublime Masters, Sublime Elects and Areopagites; the lower grades were not privy to the full aims of the society. The Perfect Sublime Masters only knew that they were part of an anti-government organisation, the Sublime Elects were aware that the group intended to replace the existing authority with a republican form of government, but only the highest grade, the Areopagites, were fully aware of the societies ultimate aims, which were nothing less than to utterly abolish private property and establish a completely egalitarian state.

Buanarotti's ideas on the organisation of radical groups fitted well with the rising mood for the application of rational, 'scientific' solutions for the betterment of society. Just as enlightened groups of scientists were improving the material fabric of society with their discoveries, so the radicals would improve its moral and political foundation. There would be reactionary resistance to these new ideas of course, and precautions would have to be taken to safeguard their commission. As a result, the precept of 'reserved secrets' became embedded in revolutionary thinking. Unfortunately many of these conspiratorial theories were less sound than their protagonists imagined. They tended to take an oversimplified, self-dramatising view of complex social processes - and proposed over-simple solutions. In reality many of the doctrines that were to emerge in the course of the 19th century, particularly those of Marx, were not so much scientific theories as metaphysical hopes.

There is no record that the Sublimes Maitres Parfaits ever, in fact, achieved anything - except, when they were exposed, to confirm the worst suspicions of the authorities with regard to the influence of secret societies, a development that also set the tone for the future. Both the authorities and the revolutionaries, each for their own reasons, tended to greatly exaggerate the extent and influence of these organisations. As a result specialist branches of police were formed to counter and infiltrate them - a move that, in turn, tended to make political groups even more secretive and inward looking.

In summary, a new kind of political drama had been set in motion. Progressive sympathisers (to the extent that they could find out anything about the activities of revolutionaries at all) tended to admire and respect these groups, and to credit them with rather more power and effectiveness than they deserved. And it was the case that subversive secret societies were implicated with a great deal of the revolutionary activity that took place throughout Europe during the first half of the 19th century. Although this upheaval (which culminated in the Year of Revolutions, 1848) was ultimately inconclusive it was a foretaste of even greater social turmoil to come. The newer ideas of Socialism, Anarchism and Communism began to emerge - and now, almost as a matter of course, most revolutionary groups adopted Buanorroti's model of a closed organisation with a centralised leadership.

This plan of action always had its critics however. Even at this early stage it was obvious to some that if political power were concentrated in the hands of a ruling clique, unanswerable for their actions, the movement that they controlled could easily develop into a dictatorship. But the notion that the revolution should be led by a dedicated, elite corps had a compelling romantic appeal - added to which there was a real and increasing need for secrecy as a defence against inquisitorial police tactics. Unfortunately, although this strategy was frequently successful, it led directly to the horribly repressive Dictatorships of the 20th century.