This article is about the idea of ideologies today and the effects of revolutions years afterwards.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1989. 3 pages.

The Rise and Fall of Ideologies

A Conservative Reaction⤒🔗

Political utopianism — specifical­ly the belief that all the world's ills can be cured by means of revolution — ap­pears to be losing its appeal. This is the message that has been coming to us in recent years from the communist world, with its problems and uncer­tainties. It has been reinforced in this bicentenary of the French Revolution: the crisis of the revolutionary ideology was the topic of many a commentary on the bicentennial celebrations.

Because of this changing ideol­ogical front, the anniversary became a bit of an embarrassment. Traditional­ly, the majority of Frenchmen hailed their Revolution. They were proud to proclaim that it was their ancestors who had delivered the deathblow to despotism and privilege, and paved the way for liberty, equality, and fratern­ity, first in France and then elsewhere. Traditionally they also basked in the admiration of the rest of the world. To anyone located left of center on the political spectrum (and that includes the majority of those who mould pub­lic opinion) the French Revolution was the great liberating event of the modern period, if not of all history. Those who questioned this opinion formed a mi­nority, one that was considered conser­vative or even reactionary.

But things have changed over the past few years, and in this bicentennial year it has been widely admitted, at least implicitly, that the conservative minority was not altogether wrong after all. This realization has not prevented the French from staging the biggest birthday bash ever, or from singing the praises of their Revolution. The old revolutionary fervor was lack­ing, however, and often the songs of praise sounded a bit routine. Much at­tention is also being given this year to the dark side of the Revolution: the Reign of Terror, the government-ordered pogroms, the barbaric cruel­ty and bloodthirstiness of the masses, the regicide and genocide, as well as the subsequent despotism of Napole­on, and the endless revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

Why this Changing Perspective?←⤒🔗

In this declining faith in the ef­ficacy and messianic character of the French Revolution, and indeed of revolution in general, we witness a kind of conservative reaction. How does one explain such a drastic about-face? And what are its consequences?

As to the causes of the change, one important factor is undoubtedly the worldwide communist fiasco. Marxism was an offspring of the French Revolution. It was inspired by it and it shared its utopianism: its faith in man's ability to establish, by means of revolution, a heaven on earth. It received more time than the French radicals to prove its system, and it failed dismally. If anything has con­vinced the world of the futility of gran­diose utopian-revolutionary schemes, it is the message coming from Russia and China, Poland and Hungary, and indeed from the entire communist world, that Marxism brings the op­posite of what it promises: oppression instead of freedom, hatred and fear in­stead of brotherhood, famine instead of abundance.

There are other reasons for the conservative reaction of recent years. Throughout history, it has been the have-nots, the people with nothing to lose, who were willing to support revolutions. The possessing classes were, generally speaking, suspicious of egalitarian schemes. Present-day Westerners, including Frenchmen, belong to the possessing class, and have a great deal to lose. They there­fore tend to be essentially conservative, even if they call themselves socialists. Revolution has lost its appeal for them.

Furthermore, while the West received what the revolution promised: liberty, equality, and unprecedented prosperity for all, it got much of it by non-revolutionary means. Prime Minister Thatcher may have been tact­less when telling the French that they could have learned something from the English with their Magna Carta and Glorious Revolution, but she was right, and everybody knows it. The English example shows that evolu­tionary pragmatism does more to guarantee order and decency and the good life than revolutionary idealism.

The End of an Era←⤒🔗

The decline in revolutionary fer­vor, then, can easily be explained. But this should not blind us to the fact that we witness a very important develop­ment here, one of the truly epochal changes that we have experienced in this tumultuous decade. Nor should it blind us to the revolutionary charac­ter of this ideological change, and to the fact that its full consequences can­not yet be foreseen.

How, then, are we to react? It goes without saying that, on the one hand, one has every right to heave a sigh of relief when noticing the decline of revolutionary ideologies. For two centuries now they have caused great havoc in Europe. The French Revolu­tion and the Napoleonic period had scarcely ended when Europe entered the age of revolutionary unrest of the early nineteenth century — the times that inspired Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto. Later in that century the revolutionary spirit moved, as Groen van Prinsterer rightly observed, from Paris to Berlin. The militant national­ism of Bismarck and Wilhelm II, and also the fascist versions of Hitler and his colleagues, were part of the old utopian quest for a manmade para­dise. And the same goes for militant communism, that other scourge of the twentieth century.

These utopian dreams have caused endless wars, unprecedented destruc­tion, and untold human misery. Mil­lions upon millions have been sacrificed upon the altar of the revolutionary idol. It would be gross insensibility if we did not rejoice in the fact that at last this idol is being recognized for what it is: a devouring Moloch; the result of one of the most tragic errors, and at the same time one of the most demonic deceptions ever encountered in human history. Even many non-Christians welcome what they hope is the advent of a non-revolutionary world. Christians, who are aware of the anti-Christian nature of modern revolutionary ideologies, have even more reason to do so.

A Spiritual Vacuum←⤒🔗

But it continues to be necessary to discern the spirits. The French Revolu­tion was not only a political and social revolution, but also a spiritual one. It helped inaugurate the post-Christian world, and replaced the God of the Bi­ble with the spirit of revolution. Now that this idol, which has inspired mankind for so long, is losing its credibility, an ideological vacuum threatens. One is reminded of Christ's parable about the man who swept out his house upon the departure of the one unclean spirit that had inhabited it, but who then saw that clean but empty house invaded by several other spirits, more evil than the first. That same danger threatens our civilization and our world.

We don't know yet what will replace the revolutionary ideology, but it is possible to point to some conse­quences of the present vacuum. They include the latter-day ills of relativism, uncertainty, purposeless, and bore­dom, but also those of hedonism and materialism. Especially the latter. Marx may have been wrong in his economic analysis, but he was right in drawing attention to the overriding im­portance of economics.

Marx did not, of course, consider that to be a characteristic of the modern age only. And it is true that money has always spoken loudly, also in past centuries. It was not always allowed, however, to do this quite so uninhibitedly. Spiritual, idealistic, and ideological considerations were gener­ally admitted to be of a higher order. It is in the modern age that mankind seems to have shed these inhibitions. Wealth is now more and more ack­nowledged, quite openly, as the measure of all things and the proper motivation of all action. Some strik­ing examples from the political field: it was economic crisis that precipitated the departure from Marxist orthodoxy in the communist world. And it is economic expansion — the quest for ever-increasing accumulations of material wealth no matter what the cost to man himself and to the rest of creation — that is the great incentive also in the policies of the Western world, nationally and internationally. And what applies to the collectivity ap­plies to the individual.

Our Calling←⤒🔗

This situation poses challenges for the Christian. Let me mention two of them. Believers have to realize first of all that the revolutionary spirit, while in one sense it is undoubtedly being discredited, has nevertheless not real­ly been exorcized. The idea of socio­political revolution may be losing much of its appeal, but that which was at the basis of the ideology, the rebel­lion against God, has not ended. The spirit of revolution, therefore, is still abroad. Its nature has not changed; it has merely altered its tactics. And we should be aware of the fact that the new approach may pose greater dan­gers than the old one did. Faced with movements like the French Revolu­tion, nazism, and communism, Chris­tians had no difficulty recognizing their anti-Christian spirit, and there­fore rejecting them. It is much harder to detect, and fight against, the temp­tation coming with a worldview that exalts material wealth and comfort as the highest goods. But unless Chris­tians guard against this temptation, they become a salt that has lost its flavor. And they will lack the strength to resist ideologies (such as the increas­ingly popular New Age movement and other pseudo-religions) that promise to fill the spiritual vacuum of our days.

For that vacuum will be filled. And here lies the second challenge: the present crisis of ideologies provides believers with an opportunity to show the world, by word and deed and life­style, the true nature of its malaise and the only means of healing. We are told that during the demonstrations in Beij­ing Chinese Christians, students and others, showed this spirit of compas­sion when in the midst of Tiananmen Square they opposed the cross of Christ to the symbols of revolution. Their gesture received little or no at­tention in the secular press, yet they alone offered hope and healing to their oppressed nation. And they reminded Christians elsewhere of their task in this world: to be a salt that retains its saltiness, and to be a lamp whose light can indeed be seen.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.