1968, Books, Non-Fiction

The Revolution of the Saints (19968) by Michael Walzer

Many years ago, I read a history of ideas about radical/left-wing politics, Main Currents of Marxism by Leszek Kolakowski, which felt to me like the definitive statement on the religious origins and nature of ideologies. The only thing lacking with that book, to my mind, was its scope was limited to the left; whereas liberalism and conservatism are very much the same.

But reading Walzer’s book, I feel like a crucial point was missing. Main Currents of Marxism mentions Calvin three times in 1200+ pages. But clearly Calvinism played a crucial role in the evolution of socialism.

When I was in school, we were taught that ideas drove action. This was rarely explicitly stated, but it was an underlying premise that was rarely challenged. Call it yet another legacy of Scorates and Plato. But in my reading since I finished school I have too often discovered the opposite is true: real world experience create, inform and shape ideas, and then those ideas are expresses as ideologies and philosophies. (Yes, there is some interaction and it’s not always causal in one direction. But without experience, there are no ideas.) Reading a lot about liberal history has led me to see that the version of liberalism that I got – i.e. Hobbes >> Locke >> Mill >> Rawls >> The Present – is very, very wrong. Liberal behaviours and policies existed before liberal philosophy did. This book of Walzer’s makes the case that, before the French and Germans could write about radical ideology, it existed, albeit in the form of Cavlinism, Hugenotism and Puritanism. But it’s not that these people didn’t write about their ideas – they absolutely did, which is why we know what they thought – but rather they were trying to solve real world problems, not systematizing ideas that were then adopted by the average joe.

Walzer makes a strong case that the origins of radical politics – and the origins of the Russian and, yes, even French, Revolutions – can be primarily found in the experiences of the English Civil War (which he characterizes, perhaps rightly, as a revolution) and the ideas that helped cause that war. These ideas, in term were created by the experiences of the Calvinists in France (the Hugenots) and those that fled the reign of Mary I (the Marian Exiles), and then further hardened into Puritanism, which bears striking resemblance to the ideas of the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks (minus the God thing, obviously).

The book is well worth reading, if you are interested in such things, for a coherent and well-thought-out explanation of the germination of radical ideas in experience, rather than in philosophy and theology (though the latter clearly played a major role). And for its demonstration of the importance of the English Civil War/Revolution in our conception of revolution.
But there are some pretty big issues that render this book rather difficult for the average person:

It is a PhD thesis and it is written like one. Though Walzer does get the occasional humourous remark in, it’s mostly dry and academic. But worse is that it was clearly written for a PhD committee (and an academic audience) made up of scholars: Walzer does not give any context to the ideas he discusses that he does not think necessary. So there’s no brief history of the Calvin and his thought, or the Hugenots, or the Marian Exiles, or the Puritans. The reader is assumed to know all this. It’s clear Walzer never imagined someone without the background ever reading this. At least I had the internet – I can’t imagine reading this in 1970 or so without an in-depth history of the Reformation at my disposal. When he introduces people, we’re supposed to know who they are. When he introduces groups of people, we’re supposed to know who we are. And we’re supposed to have a chronology of the whole thing in our minds. I have to think there’s a history of Puritanism out there (or the Reformation in general) that both provides the context and also gets into the ideas of these people and their relevance for us today.

Another thing is that is is really Anglocentric. Yes, the book is indeed about the Puritans primarily, but it’s as if the Puritans are the only group of protestants to influence modern politics. Walzer focuses on the Hugenots but decides they aren’t radical enough for him. (After all, they didn’t execute their king.) But I have really hard time imagining that it is just in Puritanism that these radical antecedents can be found. In fact, I know it’s not true. Walzer needs to keep his focus sharp – this is a 300+ page book after all – but he could acknowledge the outside world more. This is a huge problem in Anglo-American philosophy that hopefully is not still true today.

Finally, because this is a history of ideas, Walzer completely ignores the human cost. It’s clear he at least partially sympathizes with the Puritans – which is necessary if you are going to write this book – but he even seems to justify them at times. As someone who is happy to have spent a life almost entirely free of physical violence, I have to say that I find people who sympathize with utopian warriors and murderers to be distasteful. The English Civil War was awful for the people it harmed. The French Revolution was awful for the people it harmed. The Russian Revolution was awful for the people it harmed. This is the germination not of something noble, but of a problem. Walzer does an excellent job examining why it happened, but he doesn’t seem to see the human cost on the other side of it at all. I guess that’s not a prerogative in a book like this, but I can’t help but notice.

All that aside though, this is a compelling argument that it was the Puritans and their experiences, rather than the Pilosophes and their ideas, that helped create a world in which revolutions occur.


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