Taine on Revolutionary Intellectuals

Thomas Bertonneau’s latest post reminds me of what Hippolyte Taine wrote about the role of frustrated quasi-intellectuals in revolution. Taine describes a character you have almost certainly known, and may possibly have been.  If not, you met him in Conrad’s Secret Agent or Dostoyevsky’s Demons.

Taine tells us that the soul of every young man burns with a “passion for being something.”  Young men thirst for honor, eminence, and esteem (1).  Like the sex drive, this ambition is a powerful force that society can harness, impelling men to useful feats of invention, industry and valor.  But ambition is also a destructive force because the demand for honor always exceeds the supply, and bitter disappointment is therefore much more common that sweet success.

There consequently exists, in every society, a class of men who are unable to rise to the positions of honor and emolument that they desire and believe they deserve. These men normally possess some talent and education—the later often owing to charity; but, because of their origins in the “the lower stratum of the middle class and the upper stratum of the lower class,” they have no connections or further advantages, cannot advance, and therefore languish “discontented with their calling or profession” (2).  Their “passion for being something” is therefore frustrated, and they become restive subalterns with a grudge against the world that has humiliated them.

Owing to this mix of disappointment, injured pride and intellectualism, the restive subaltern adopts a characteristic attitude towards life. He is, first of all, acutely conscious of defects in the social order, most especially the injustice of undeserved privilege and unrewarded merit. He broods on his resentment. Second, this cosseted resentment makes him highly receptive to political theories that predict and justify a revolution that will lead to a “just” society in which true merit is recognized and rewarded. Third, if the restive subaltern embraces such theories, and especially if he joins a club where they are repeatedly discussed and praised, he will develop a “mania for theorizing,” and very often a belief that theorizing prepares him to wield political power competently. This vainglorious delusion builds on his preexisting conceit, for the restive subaltern typically protects himself from the real or perceived humiliations of his humble station with an inflated sense of his own capabilities and moral probity.

In a society sufficiently self-possessed to defend itself, the best of these restive subalterns will eventually advance to more satisfactory positions, but a majority must submit to obscurity, humiliation, and drudgery.  A healthy society prevents itself from being torn apart by ambition by compelling resignation in the mass of its members.   In times of “social decomposition,” on the other hand, malcontents are not kept in place, men are emboldened to give voice to their resentments, and the restive subaltern breaks out as “the coffee-house politician, the club haranguer, the stump-speaker, the street rioter, the committee dictator—in short, the revolutionist and the tyrant” (3).

Should the ensuing revolution succeed and the restive subalterns assume power, Taine observes that they typically bring from their past experience a dangerous disposition to “exaggerated self-conceit and dogmatism.” Their dogmatism is a legacy of the slogans and abstract theories they used to criticize political and social institutions when they were coffeehouse politicians, and which they now, as real politicians, mistakenly employ as political policies.   Their self-conceit is, of course, a legacy of the psychological mechanism they employed to defended their egos from real or perceived humiliation when they were restive subalterns. In resisting humiliation, some men loose their capacity for humility, and this is why the restive subaltern raised to power very often becomes a monster of rank arrogance, grotesquely certain of personal righteousness and murderously contemptuous of all who oppose him.

  1. Hippolyte Taine, The Origins of Contemporary France, vol. 2 The Revolution John Durand (London: Sampson Low, 1881), p. 10
  2. Taine, Origins, vol. 2, 25-26.
  3. Taine, Origins, vol. 2, 12, 9.

14 thoughts on “Taine on Revolutionary Intellectuals

  1. The air today being ripe with the stink of “social decomposition”, our subalterns know in their bones that their hour has come round at last.

    We had best be paying attention, and thinking ahead. Things have been changing gradually long enough that they will soon change suddenly.

    • That’s what the word “justice” means in their mouths. I have yet to meet a revolutionary who expects to be demoted by the revolution. “Equality” always means a personal promotion. I have the same intimation that we are approaching an inflection point, rather like a canoeist who enters the rapids that presage a waterfall.

  2. Maistre — Taine — Le Bon: These are stellar names in the Francophone reactionary tradition, whose insights are at least as applicable to the Twenty-First Century as they were in their own respective days. Alas, to the legion of contemporary assistant professors and graduate students, those names are entirely unknown. This is not merely to say that such people have never read Maistre, Taine, or Le Bon; it is to say that the very names would be outside the horizon of familiarity.

    • I hadn’t heard of Le Bon until I read your recent essay. I first heard of Maistre and Taine when I was in in my forties, and in those pre-internet days it took me a while to hunt down their books. The bookstores were filled with the fads of the day, the used bookstores with the fads of the day before, and all of these fads were progressive. It is a great irony that the revolution in information technology has allowed us to rediscover traditionalism.

    • Yes, thank you for bringing Taine to our attention, JMSmith.

      I’ve read a little bit of The Origins of Contemporary France by Taine: in the part I read, he presents a lucid explanation of liberalism and its telos. He demonstrates that liberal freedom and equality result first in anarchy and ultimately in despotism with all power residing in the state, which will have vanquished all rival institutions and traditions in order to ensure that man is free to determine things for himself. I found it quite perceptive. It reminded me a bit of Plato’s analysis of democracy.

      So I concur with Prof. Bertonneau’s assessment that Taine’s insights are still applicable today.

    • The idea is the same, which strongly suggests that they are describing something real. And as both men point out, mass education and public expense exacerbates the problem.

  3. Pingback: Taine on Revolutionary Intellectuals | Reaction Times

  4. The great 20th century reactionary aristocrat Joseph Schumpeter in his work Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy considers this at the essence of capitalist evolution. Essentially he agrees with the socialists that capitalism will burn out and be replaced by socialism but disagrees as to why. He disagrees that capitalism will immiserate society except for a few rich capitalists; rather, its problem (among others) is that it creates enough wealth to finance a hostile intellectual class that works to undermine the society that failed to give them the rewards they imagine they deserve. (This is also a less than subtle dig at the worth of socialist intellectuals.)

      • I was pondering this further. Schumpeter is a man of the right and mainly loathes the bourgeoisie, but as an economist has great admiration for what (particularly Anglo-American) capitalism achieved. So how does he find a way to admire it? By saying that socialism will win and that capitalism is therefore a romantic Lost Cause. A rather interesting trick! He could admire capitalism only by becoming a Carlist of Capitalism. I believe you’ve made the point that devotion to lost causes is a key feature of the conservative mind; this is a point of illustration.

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