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An Anatomy of Revolution

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

When friends and enemies of the Roosevelt administration united in calling it revolutionary, the word revolution entered the vocabulary of American politics in a new way, for which no adequate preparation has yet been made. However hard the political campaign speeches may strain at parallels, they cannot successfully portray contemporary America as a mirror of Soviet Russia or Fascist Italy. The epithet “Tory” fails to establish a resemblance of present events to those of 1770. If the New Deal is a revolution, it belongs to a species hitherto unnoted by the American political observer, who might profitably extend his catalogue of types to include some specimens of the less familiar varieties.

The idea of revolution comes to us as a political conception from the Greek experience in city government, where it was associated with the turning of the wheel of Fortune, which brought one party up and sent another down. The nineteenth century, with the example of the French Revolution so manifestly before it, used the word to describe great institutional changes. Moreover, in connection with a Darwinian thought-pattern we have come to use the word to designate a certain tempo of change: revolution is rapid, evolution is slow.

We expect to find all three of these elements in a revolution: displacement of power, important institutional changes, and a tempo of crisis. How far does the Roosevelt administration show these characteristics? How great is the real displacement of power in America, and how profound the institutional change? Has the change been as sudden as it seems, or have we merely come to see that gradual and continuous developments are now approaching a configuration that we had not previously happened to notice?

We are still willing to call a change a revolution though it lack some of these elements, and the Roosevelt revolution may be of such a class. The industrial revolution, for instance, involved a displacement of power, but took place gradually; the average Latin-American revolution is a sudden and violent displacement, but is not accompanied by important institutional changes. That it is also possible to have a revolution without any displacement of power is illustrated in the history of the Prankish Kingdom of the eighth century.

The school books used to tell the story of the long-haired Merovingian Kings of the Franks who in some way became “weak,” and ceased to rule actively. They were the “do-nothing” kings. The Mayors of the Palace, on the contrary, exhibited strong masculine characteristics, and revelled in activity. So it came about that Pepin the Short, Mayor of the Palace and father of Charlemagne, with the approval of the Pope, displaced the Merovingian line and set himself up as King of the Franks. It used to be implied that there was nothing in this interesting episode that could not have been prevented by feeding the Merovingian kings more spinach and cod liver oil.

There is another way of understanding the story. The Prankish kingdom of that day was a backwoods area in which the principal form of property was land; there were few cities and very little money economy. In this area a Germanic tribal king had fallen heir to the relies of a Roman administrative apparatus which he did not understand, and made an alliance with the Church, which served him as a broker in his relations with God, demons, and people.

Whether because of the absence of an adequate political training, or because the decline of the cities rendered government of the Roman type impossible, it came about that the Frankish kings could no longer protect life and property in their realm. Then there developed, partly out of the old Frankish institution of mainbour, or sworn companionship, and partly out of the relics of Roman landholding institutions, a system that came to constitute a secondary government parallel to the Frankish state. This extensive main-hour system bore a certain resemblance to the structures of modern racketeering or machine politics. The little man who needed protection would get it by becoming the pledged follower of a magnate who would accept him. He might surrender his land to the leader, receiving it back on dependent terms corresponding to his pledged allegiance. The protector could procure from the king a royal letter of immunity exempting him from royal jurisdiction.

The system lent itself like the corporate organization of modern business to the creation of widely ramified mergers, The family that succeeded in becoming the head of the most extensive combination of all—a kind of consolidated land trust incorporating all the chief magnates of the kingdom with their folio wings—was the family of Pepin of Heristal, whose family fortune had been built up by marriage and by graft in the service of the king. His place was analogous to that which might have come to the House of Morgan if the elder Morgan had been able to carry out the plans of trust formation attributed to him, while adding the resources of a political boss and gangster chief to his repertory.

From such a strong position, the Mayor of the Palace was naturally tempted to strike for the crown. One of them tried it, but failed because the superstitious reverence of the Franks for the Merovingian line made it seem to them impossible that a member of another family could occupy the throne. Seven hundred years before this time the keen Roman observer, Tacitus, had noted that the Germanic tribal kings were always chosen from the blood royal. A king of the authentic blood seemed a necessity, if for no other reason than for the sake of the calendar, in order that the year might be dated correctly from his reign. This reverence for past traditions was good enough in ordinary times, but in 732 came a crisis in the kingdom—the Moorish invasion.

In the presence of this crisis the Frankish king was unable to raise an army, but Charles Martel, Mayor of the Palace, called upon all his sworn followers, then seized the church lands and gave them out to bring still more followers to his standard. With this army he beat off the Moors in the Battle of Tours. Thereafter it was evident that the sworn following of the Mayor of the Palace was a more effective organization than the traditional government of the king. But it was still necessary to overcome the resistance of tradition to a formal change. This was accomplished by using the authority of the Church against the vestiges of tribal legitimacy. The Pope authorized Pepin the Short, son of Charles Martel, to assume the tribal crown.

There was no shifting of power. The same men, the same families, continued to do the same things in the same way, but the two kinds of government were combined as one. Charlemagne ruled not only as King of the Franks but also as the head of a great body of sworn followers who had taken his pledge.

Modern man also lives under two regimes, to one of which he renders patriotism and loyalty, while to the other he looks for his livelihood. It has often been suggested that the business organization of modern society is becoming more important than its political organization, and that the leaders of business are more powerful than political leaders. Such suggestions encounter resistance in the tradition of popular sovereignty, which rejects Big Business dictatorship in government as an evil. Perhaps this traditional attitude, like the feeling of the Franks for their royal family, might have weakened in time of crisis, and the public might even have allowed itself to be sacrificed to business leadership as the Prankish churches and monasteries were sacrificed when Charles Martel seized their lands. But the American magnates did not go out to meet the crisis, nor win their Battle of Tours.

American business, therefore, is not in a position to have the merging of business and government legitimated under its own control. It is still possible that the future may bring a development resembling that of the Frankish kingdom, if the N. R. A., as a legalized continuation of the trust movement, should leave the same people doing the same thing that they did before, in the same way, excepting that they will be metamorphosed into code authorities with legal powers, just as the Mayors of the Palace were changed into Kings.


Another kind of revolution was engineered by the young Emperor Meiji of Japan in the year 1867. This revolution took place in the presence of a crisis arising out of contact with foreign powers. It put an end simultaneously to the three peculiarities of the Japanese political system: dual government, feudalism, and isolation.

Dual government was the name given to that system by which the Emperor, descendant of the prehistoric tribal leader of the race, continued to be titular ruler while the Shogun governed the country. The powers of the Shogun dated from the mediaeval era, when his office of military commander eclipsed in practical importance the office of the Emperor. It was as if the Frankish Mayors of the Palace had continued as governors acting in the name of the Merovingian kings. When Perry visited Japan he thought the Shogun was the Emperor. He heard that somewhere in the back country there was some kind of a pope who was highly venerated and who lived in august poverty, but the man with whom he made his treaty was the Shogun.

The Shogun’s government was feudal; he had his sworn followers, the Daimyo or heads of the great families, who were committed to hereditary loyalty to his rule. They held the strategic points throughout the Empire. There were also some great clans who were, traditionally and by hereditary transmission, legally hostile to the Shogun. From them he exacted a strict obedience. He made them come up once a year to his capital in Yedo (now Tokio), and leave hostages with him when they went back to their estates.

The third peculiarity of the Japanese system, the policy of isolation, dated from the seventeenth century. Western missionaries entering Japan at that time had exercised bad judgment by getting on the wrong side in one of the civil wars. As a result all foreigners were excluded, and Japanese were forbidden to travel abroad. Only one tiny door was left open at Nagasaki, where Dutch traders were permitted to bring in one ship a year. That was the Japanese regime that lasted from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century: Shogunate, feudal system, and isolation.

In the first half of the nineteenth century there developed in Japan internal pressure against this system. A cultural renaissance was taking place, a revolt against Chinese culture and a new interest in the antiquities of Japan. There was a revival of the native Shinto cult as against the imported Buddhist religion. The historians, responding to this interest, propagated the knowledge that the legitimate ruler of Japan was not the great Shogun at Yedo but the Emperor in his obscurity at Kioto. This historical school received support from the younger branches of the Shogun’s own family, just as the French revolutionary philosophy had an adherent in the Duke of Orleans, of the younger branch of the royal family of France.

There was another cultural movement that seemed to threaten the established order. It was a philosophical school that followed the teachings of the Chinese philosopher, Wan Yang Ming—a pragmatist. Whereas the official doctrine of the Japanese state insisted upon the implicit obedience of the retainer to his lord, the pragmatists taught that action should be governed by circumstances. The gesture that illustrated the meaning of the teaching of the new school was the act of an official who opened the granaries without proper authority on the ground that the people were hungry. The doctrine seemed as dangerous to a feudal Japan as communism seems to modern Japan. These ferments were at work, wholly unconnected with outside influences.

When Commodore Perry arrived, he completed the destruction of the equilibrium of the regime, for his treaty, signed by the Shogun, ended the three-centuries policy of isolation. This gave the hereditary hostile clans an issue to be used against the Shogunate. They contended that the treaty was invalid because a decision of such importance would require the ratification of the Emperor. The doctrine of the historical school provided ammunition for these Imperial legitimists. Their samurai, rallying to the slogan “honor the Emperor, expel the barbarian,” attacked foreigners in the streets.

European states in the nineteenth century did not tolerate such treatment of their nationals; the British government sent a fleet to punish the clan of Satsuma whose samurai had attacked an Englishman, Richardson, on the highway. Thus internal dissension threatened to cause foreign conquest.

The Emperor saved the situation by ratifying the treaties that the Shogun had signed, and then a new Shogun, coming into office in 1866, resigned his powers into the Emperor’s hands. That was a year of marvels; for when the Shogun resigned his powers he was followed by all the great Daimyo, who surrendered their powers as well. In a great burst of generosity and patriotism the whole people rallied around the Imperial throne.

The young Emperor, ably advised by a brain trust of samurai, reorganized Japan as a modern state with a centralized administration. Many of those who had surrendered feudal powers received back new authority as officials of the Imperial bureaucracy. Those of the samurai who had been administrators in feudal Japan became the prefects and sub-prefects of the new regime; the others were “liquidated” as a class.

It seemed in the spring of 1933 that the Shogunate of American business was almost ready to end dual government, and the Daimyo of finance and industry were prepared to surrender their powers into the hands of an Emperor—especially if they were pretty sure to receive them back and become prefects of their economic provinces. But that period of generous gestures seems to be ending, so that another possibility opens. It may come about that business and government may come into chronic opposition to each other, like Empire and Papacy, State and Church, in mediaeval Europe.


The conflict of Empire and Papacy grew out of that eleventh-century revolution known as the struggle over investiture. The situation of that time was one that might have been described as “too much Church in feudalism” by one party, and by the other as “too much feudalism in the Church.” In fact, Church and feudal society were interlocked like business and government today.

The bishops in some places, especially in the German kingdom, had worked with the kings, and the kings had helped to build up the bishops as a counterweight to the great dukes and margraves. The oath of fealty and the ceremony of investiture were the cement of the whole system—like credit and contract in our modern society.

Church office under these circumstances, so closely tied up with feudal government, tended to become a kind of property, just as the management and directorship of a modern corporation tends to become a kind of property. The Church had its recognized functions in the society of the time, as business has its recognized functions today. It appeared that this feudalizing of the Church interfered with the function of the Church as the religious organ of society. The Archbishop of Narbonne, for instance, simply bought his office and then exploited it for all he could make, selling bishoprics right and left and even seizing the Church plate. He cleaned out his Archdiocese as a crooked management cleans out a corporation. Then he was ready to buy another church office and start again.

Such scandals as this constituted the grievance that led to a reform movement. The reform program was drawn from the traditions of the Church, nourished in the monasteries, and propagated with evangelical zeal throughout Christendom at the time of the crisis. The propagandists of reform, knowing the psychological value of simplicity in a program, had three main points and stuck to them: there must be no more buying and selling of Church office, no more marriage of the clergy (so that office would not be inherited), and no more investiture in Church office by other than Churchmen. These articles of the reform program led to elaborations of the doctrine of papal supremacy over Christendom. This was the doctrinal ferment in the midst of which Pope Gregory VII railroaded the reform program through a Church Council.

The reform decrees were a challenge to vested interests everywhere. They meant that the Church would pull itself out from its feudal connections, taking its property with it, It was as if the American Congress should pass a law providing that the managers of business corporations should no longer be designated by the stockholders through a board of directors, but should be appointed by the government, or as if the magnates of business should be given the right to appoint all public office holders.

Henry IV, German King and Emperor-elect, whose predecessors had made such heavy grants of property in building up the German bishoprics, resisted the step that seemed to be depriving him of his control over his own possessions. To break his resistance the Pope made use of a weapon more powerful in the eleventh century than the control of credit or currency is in the twentieth—he absolved all German subjects from their oath of fealty, thus dissolving the cement of German political society.

The conflict that followed was never brought to a clearcut decision. It lasted until both these great all-embracing authorities in Europe, Papacy and Empire, had dragged each other down, depriving Europe of that unitary political structure which the League of Nations has not been able to restore, and leaving Christendom a prey to the tragic consequence of unrestrained nationalism.

If business and government should come to be set against each other in chronic conflict, each using its ultimate weapons, such as sabotage and expropriation, which of the two institutions would prevail, or would they destroy each other?


The French and Russian revolutions of 1789 and 1917 exhibit the standard revolutionary characteristics of class displacement, rapid tempo, and comprehensive institutional change. They illustrate also the physiology of the revolutionary process. As a starting point in the process there were certain concrete grievances of French and Russian peasant and middle class, comparable to the grievances of unemployment and low farm income in America.

The grievances were discussed in an atmosphere full of conflicting doctrines. The teaching of the historical and pragmatic schools in Japan, the writings on papal and imperial power at the time of the investiture dispute, the philosophy of popular sovereignty and laissez faire on the eve of the French Revolution, the various hybrids of socialism and democracy prior to the Russian revolution, and the babel of technocrats and economic planners in early 1933, stand as comparable symptoms of impending change.

Then comes the crisis. It may be a danger from outside the society or a growing strain within it. French public credit collapsed in 1788; the food shortage hit Petrograd in February, 1917; and the bank crisis ushered in the New Deal.

Along with the crisis, it is to be expected that the most generous gestures will be made on all sides, in an atmosphere of highest optimism. The good will that marked the first few months of Roosevelt’s administration was more than the normal honeymoon period of an incoming president; it was more like the spirit in which the representatives of the French nobility renounced the feudal rights of their class on the night of August 4th, 1789; it was more nearly comparable to the fervor with which the Japanese feudality surrendered their powers to the Emperor, or the joyous cooperation of classes in Petrograd in the hopeful spring of 1917. This spirit seems to be a psychological opiate that anaesthetizes a social parturition. When the effects have passed away, it will be seen that some new doctrines or catchwords from among those that were in the air before the crisis have assumed the character of obvious truths, while some of the older truths appear hopelessly discredited and out of date. A grievance, a ferment of doctrines, a crisis, and a moment of generous co-operation—and after that—what next?

In observing the course of a revolution the next thing to watch for is the vesting of new interests. In France the peasants get their land, the speculators and other middle-class owners buy into the sequestered estates of nobility and church. It will not be easy to displace them. In Russia the peasant seizes the adjacent lands of the proprietor; the proprietor can never come back. The subordinate group leaders of the modern Fascist type of party install themselves in their bailiwicks as little dictators, maintaining their dictatorships by fostering the cult of the Dictator. It will not be easy to squeeze them from their places. What new interests are becoming vested under the New Deal?

Throughout the country union labor is demanding seniority rights, which have the effect of transforming a job into a kind of personal property, like the French peasant’s farm. On one railroad an employee even now is granted the right to trade jobs with an employee of the same class in another city, provided each takes the other’s seniority rating. Since there is nothing to prevent money payments in connection with such an exchange, seniority becomes a kind of property, convertible like other property into money.

Business under the N. R. A. is acquiring a valuable right to exclude or limit competition. Let there be no doubt of the property value of this right. It was sought by many kinds of business before the N. R. A. at the risk of costly violations of law—either of anti-trust laws, in the case of big business, or of the common criminal law, in the case of racketeered small business. Another illustration of the property character of these rights to limit competition comes from the history of the decline of the guilds. In some countries, such as Prussia, the possessors of guild rights were compensated with a money payment when their businesses were opened to free competition. Such is the quality of the vested interest that the business man may secure under the New Deal.

The third and most conspicuous type of vested interest is that of the unemployed relief client in a system of relief or made work. When the Civil Works Administration was rapidly demobilized in the Spring it was evident that a property conception of the right of an unemployed man to a C. W. A. job was rapidly forming. If the right to a job, as a vested interest of the working class, is guaranteed by the government, much of the ensuing course of development of the New Deal is thereby determined.

The extent of these new vested interests, of employees, employers, and unemployed, is the measure of the revolutionary quality of the New Deal. If the class that has the most valuable of these new rights turns out to be the same class that had the best position under the old deal, it will mean that the Roosevelt revolution, like the Carolingian revolution of the eighth century, is not displacing one class with another, but only changing the forms by which power is exercised.

If no new vested interests appear, then it is certain that there is no comprehensive and permanent institutional change. The great upheaval of the spirit that accompanied America’s entry into the World War could collapse like a bubble and leave nothing behind it, because there were no vested interests tied up with it. No one was committed by a situation into which he had been placed by Wilsonian idealism to fight tooth and nail for the Wilsonian program. The prohibition system was transitory for the same reason. It created no vested interest of any social importance or decisive political power. The forces maintaining prohibition at the end were of the same kind as those which had brought in the system in the beginning, namely a group of people who entertained prohibitionist sentiments. The bootleggers and snoopers were the only groups whose living depended on the continuance of prohibition, and it proved easy to push them aside.

The New Deal cannot live permanently on favorable sentiments and opinions. Unless it creates powerful vested interests committed to its maintenance, or legitimates the powers of some existing interests, it will be in 1937 what the Wilsonian crusade was in 1920; it will prove that it was not a revolution at all.


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