Commentary Magazine

Fire in the Minds of Men, by James H. Billington

Political Mania

Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith.
by James H. Billington.
Basic Books. 677 pp. $25.00.

Revolution and its political opposite, reaction, are usually approached by scholars in quite different ways. Where the revolutionary tradition tends to elicit analysis in terms of political ideas, reaction is often taken to be a problem of psychology, the response to change of frightened and often paranoid elites.

In The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter explored the psychology of far Right movements in American history. But even as his book was being published in 1965, the emotional politics he described was migrating to the revolutionary Left. James Billington, then just beginning his research on revolution, appears to have been influenced by this development. For in Fire in the Minds of Men he shows that, like reaction, revolution has always been at least as much a matter of impulse and emotion as of a considered politics.

Billington is hardly alone in being influenced by the 1960’s. That period taught the key significance of symbolism, ritual, passion, the irrational, youthful high spirits, sexual styles, and avant-garde ideas in the formation of a revolutionary politics. Whatever one’s point of view, one came in the 60’s to appreciate the ways in which all of society may participate imaginatively in radical agitation.

Non-Marxist scholars have for some time looked for ways to account for the phenomenon of Left revolutionism, the persistence of which among intellectuals appears more and more surprising in view of the perennial brutalities and documented social and economic failures of revolutionary regimes. It is in this connection that Norman Cohn’s study of medieval religious messianism, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), now seems a prophetic work. In the 1970’s J.L. Talmon in The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy and Guenter Lewy in Religion and Revolution both extended Cohn’s push beyond the usual political and philosophical categories in their attempts to get at the nature of the revolutionary impulse. And now James Billington has gone a step further by interpreting revolution in terms of behavior instead of professed aims. The effect is to separate the revolutionary tradition from its past associations with both Enlightenment and “scientific” socialism.



Fire in the Minds of Men is a long and difficult work, teeming with personalities, movements, manifestos, and ideas in numerous countries from France in 1789 to Russia in 1917. Billington dazzlingly invokes scholarship in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Czech, Croatian, and Polish, as he moves across Europe to South America, and very briefly to the United States. The narrative is filled with what have heretofore seemed the irrelevant arcana of revolutionary history. There are sections on the symbiosis between underground organizations and the secret police, documented instances of political conversions from revolutionary Left to extreme Right and vice versa, and illustrations of the ways in which public celebrations and music not only inspired revolutionaries, but as in the cases of Piedmont and Belgium in 1821 and 1830, sparked the riots that led on to revolution.

How this colorful material bears on the nature of the revolutionary idea is made clear by Billington’s treatment of the French Revolution. He argues that occult and romantic sources were at least as decisive in that upheaval as the factors usually stressed by historians—the evolution of Enlightenment thought and the bankruptcy of the Old Regime. Not so much the philosophy of Rousseau, it develops, as German romanticism in general and in particular an underground German occult organization, the Bavarian Illuminati, laid the mental and emotional groundwork for the Revolution and its shocking excesses.

Founded in Germany in 1776, the Illuminati was a revolutionary political organization made up of secret cells based on a Jesuit model. It recruited members among the politically neutral Masons, at the same time adopting many Masonic ritual practices. While Illuminism was unsuccessful in Germany, and never reached America, it did influence the more radical leaders of the French Revolution. Thereafter, it provided the mechanism and élan for underground revolutionary organizations throughout the world.

The story of revolution as Billington tells it is a fantastic mélange of German mystical beliefs and practices gradually being adopted by the rest of Europe. In France the obscure tradition of Illuminism found its way to the Palais Royale, the public pleasure gardens of the Duc d’Orléans, who was the doomed King’s cousin (and a Mason). The galleries, cafés, and bordellos of the Palais, part of which was fittingly built underground, were characterized by an iconoclastic atmosphere compounded of pornography, sex exhibitions, drugs, and utopian thought. The extremist spirit of the Palais (from which the crowd that marched on the Bastille departed) exerted a powerful influence throughout the Revolution. And afterward—after the public song and spectacle, the beheading of the king and queen, and the Terror—the Palais style remained to form the basis of modern revolutionism.



Although for the most part Billington refrains from drawing parallels between the period of the French Revolution and our own outburst of radicalism in the 1960’s, the latter period is inescapably evoked by his discussion of such phenomena as the conflation of madness and sanity in the pornographic poetry of Saint-Just (a habitué of the Palais and eventual agent of the Terror), the Revolution’s elevation of youth, its cult of primitivism, its “radical thirst for revolutionary simplification,” its combination of egalitarian theory and elitist practice, and its worship of violence.

Billington traces these tendencies through virtually every revolutionary movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, Russian anarchism, the Paris Commune, and the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. He is particularly interested in the periods between major uprisings, for it was then that the secretive, occult side of revolution evolved most richly. He has been accused by reviewers of failing to establish causal linkages among the various revolutions, but he does in fact trace a number of continuities. Most notable among these is the perpetuation of Illuminism’s small, secret cells in later revolutionary organizations. In particular through the long career and writings of Filippo Buonarroti, a participant in the French Revolution, Billington is able directly to link occultism, mid-19th-century revolutionism, and even Marx and Engels to the tradition of Illuminism.

Yet continuities, though fascinating, are perhaps less significant than spontaneous reappearances of occultism and fanaticism. Time and again revolutionary groups adopted the Masonic triangle, the triad, or the Pythagorean prime numbers; time and again they attributed magical influence to the circle or pentagon; time and again they took one or another of these forms as organizational models. Billington relates these numerological and geometric preoccupations to “the radical search for revolutionary simplification.” They also relate to the revolutionary attraction to primitivism in general, to a “primitive vision of the world as a dualistic struggle between the forces of darkness and light,” and to revolutionary violence, denunciation, and terror.



Billington’s problem lies not in any failure to establish continuities of influence, but in his attempt to employ consistently the “fire” and “faith” of his title and subtitle. He is certainly right both to call attention to the ubiquity of “fire” in revolutionary rhetoric (culminating in Lenin’s newspaper Iskra, “The Spark”), and to search out examples of revolutionary “faith.” These terms, however—especially the latter—do not amount to an explanatory system.

Billington employs “faith” in shifting ways: to describe a truly religious attachment to revolution but also to indicate a simply tenacious or spirited adherence to it. In some cases he can point to behavior demonstrably adapted from organized religion, but in others he shows little more than vaguely pious attitudes at work. Thus the history of revolutionary faith ranges from the Illuminist practices derived from religion, to the “faith” that was imbibed from the French Revolution by impressionable Italian and Polish “romantic” revolutionaries, to the religious imagery of 19th-century Communism, to Marxism’s “spiritual” aspirations, “apostolic” leaders, and blindly obedient “faithful.” Finally, we learn that Proudhon compared the anathematizing Marx to Luther, while Plekhanov, speaking of Russian revolutionary terrorism, observed that an acquiescent intelligentsia “believed in terror as in God.”

Billington earlier discussed the worship of terror in The Icon and the Axe, his monumental study of Russian history and culture. There he outlined the “mystical idealism” and “utopian fanaticism of the Russian revolutionary tradition,” and found in the violence of the late 19th-century organization, the People’s Will, “a prophetic anticipation” and actual model of Lenin’s Bolshevist party. In Fire in the Minds of Men Billington has traced comparable expressions of violence throughout revolutionary history: violence appears in a “heroic” mode in Italy and Poland, in a “modernized,” efficient form in late 19th-century France, and as a “stoic, humorless asceticism” with the Russians; eventually, modern revolution everywhere becomes “a grim and prosaic matter.” Viewed in this context, Marxism appears as nothing more than a “mask” for the terrorism that it transmits from the 19th to the 20th century.

“Fanaticism” rather than faith might better have applied to this tradition of violence, while for the related phenomenon of revolutionary extremism the concept of the irrational would seem a useful guide. Billington explicitly rejects “the psychological method,” calling it “a somewhat dated technique.” Nevertheless, in discussing occultism and Masonry he refers to an “increasingly manic search for simple, geometric harmonies,” and in accounting for the “not untypical” sexual deviations of certain revolutionaries, he invokes something he calls the “psycho-sexual element.”

This approach might well have been extended to other forms of extreme revolutionary behavior. One finds, for example, not only sexual libertinism, but its opposite, asceticism (discussed at greater length by Bruce Mazlish in The Revolutionary Ascetic). The revolutionary mentality consistently demands the absolute, sweeping, violent solution, and aims always at achieving not merely a tolerable world but a perfect one. The revolutionary’s greatest contempt is reserved not for his opposite, the reactionary—in fact the two extremes find one another fascinating—but for the moderate. In the French Revolution the “Mountain” on the left and the “Plain” on the right of the National Assembly set the precedent when they joined in despising the “Swamp” of moderates between them.

During the Revolution, Saint-Just wrote: “That which produces the general good is always terrible.” In the 1830’s the French revolutionary, Voyer d’Argenson, declared that “profound convictions are intolerant”; in the 1860’s the Russian Peter Zaichnevsky wrote, “A revolution . . . must change everything down to the very roots . . . we know that rivers of blood will flow and that perhaps even innocent victims will perish.” Francois Noël Babeuf, who conspired to seize power in 1795 in order further to radicalize the Revolution, prayed: “May everything return to chaos, and out of chaos may there emerge a new and regenerated world.”

By emphasizing the centrality of sentiments like these, Billington has redrawn the picture of revolution. Its underside, heretofore neglected, now appears as its essence. The persistence of the revolutionary faith still remains to be accounted for—perhaps by an explanatory concept on the order of Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.” But no discussion of revolution in the future can afford to neglect the massive documentation of violence and fanaticism which Billington has presented.

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