I have some Conservative friends warning about the dangers of revolution, how revolutions tend to lose their ideals and result in violence. This is true. But focusing on this narrative solely to condemn revolution may not help the present situation. And using it in this way may also evidence a lack of awareness about what sparks revolutionary violence and how to prevent it.
The French Revolution
Look, for example, at the dynamics of the outbreak of violence and revolution in France at the end of the 18th century. (This, I will admit, is a very simplistic overview of the historical situation, about which much more can be said.) Prior to the start of the French Revolution, the country was experiencing various socioeconomic and political insecurities, including an economic depression arising in part because of France’s support of the American Revolution. Ironically, the American Revolution that was partly funded by France led Frenchmen to see the possibilities of revolution for themselves.
Prior to much violence in France, great social unease arose from rumors. Rumors had spread across the country about organized groups that were paid to visit rural communities and commit looting, stealing grain and damaging property. These would later turn out to be just rumors and conspiracy theories. But in response, the French peasants began to arm themselves in an effort to protect themselves and their property. These peasants, then armed, at times became the looters, organizing attacks against others, under the rhetoric of proactively protecting their own property.
These attacks were often directed against aristocrats and their property, and also sought to destroy feudal documents that concentrated land ownership and political power into the aristocratic class. Without advocating for such violence and destruction, it’s important to note that these acts were not directed at destruction of human lives, but were aimed at certain political ends that could not be achieved by political involvement from the lower classes.
Nobility in France became generally fearful. In response and as the National Constituent Assembly was gathering, the monarch increased the military presence around Paris. This, in turn, increased fear across the city (which, to be sure, was also promoted by revolutionary agitators). As military forces descended upon the city, peasants responded with increasing organization. The presence of the military increased social anxiety and correlated with an increase in unrest. Concerns about loss of access to food led to the plundering of a clerical property with stockpiles of wheat and other looting as social chaos increased in the city. On multiple occasions, the sound of gunfire turned angry crowds into violent riotous mobs. This culminated in the end of France and the establishment of a new regime.
It is not clear that the ultimate outcome would have changed if the rural French or the government had acted any differently. But the French Revolution might provide a warning for our interpretation of current protests and riots arising after the death of George Floyd. The French Revolution turned out to be a horrendously bloody affair, with political executions, mass censorship of opinion, and other forms of violence across the country as the French people (perhaps ironically) sought to establish a country of greater liberty and access to political action. We should be cautious, lest America suffer a similar fate.
First, we should be cautious about rumors and conspiracy theories. These increase social anxieties and can bring out the worst in society, especially from more conservative and rural parts of the nation. They can culminate in an amassing of the instruments of violence, which itself culminates in “proactive” acts of “self-defense.” These acts of “self-defense” become the real violences fueling further violence. This is perhaps evidenced by the fact that the only apparent death amidst the riots in Minneapolis last week was of a black man shot multiple times by a store owner.
Second, we should keep in mind the ways in which poverty–whether material or political–can affect the dynamics of violence. General disenfranchisement in society and an inability to feed yourself and your family can leave little room or foundation to personally defend a political order. Without advocating for politicized violence among the disenfranchised masses, it is important to note that violence can at times become the only political (or rather, pseudo- or a-political) activity of the disenfranchised in society.
Third, we should be skeptical of calls to increase governmental armed presence as a way to deescalate social tensions. This can escalate, rather than, quell, violent activity. When considering this point, Baltimore may be a city worth examining. In contrast to protests in other cities over the last two weeks, protests in Baltimore have been consistently peaceful. There was no curfew, and few were arrested. Some attribute this to the police department’s focus on resisting escalation techniques used by other departments, quick statements condemning the killing of George Floyd, and unprompted participation by police in protests and marches. They also attribute Baltimore’s peaceful protesting to the city’s social activist community, which is well-organized, respected by the community, and regularly engaging in demonstrations that are recognized as “part of the city’s fabric.”
I’m thoroughly invested in preventing the violences that befell France during its revolution. That period of history has a lot to teach us. It should challenge us to a greater empathy towards the disenfranchised, a skepticism towards conspiracy theory and the amassing of arms, and a push for deescalation in times of social anxiety. Social change will occur. But the question is whether we have the personal and civic virtue to resist violences, and whether we’re willing to rethink our preconceptions about what will resolve these problems along the way.
Some resources on race, racism, and defunding the police:
- A required reading list, published by US Catholic
- 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
- Anti-Racism Resources for White People
- 10 documentaries to watch about race instead of asking a person of colour to explain things for you
- 10 non-fiction books on why we need to defund the police
- Defunding of police in Camden, New Jersey
- 7 things Catholics can do to combat the #CatholicRacismProblem
- More of my own writings on race here
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.