Dread of Revolutions

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Kissinger lived through the Nazi rise to power, and he studied Napoleon in great depth, which led to his lasting dread of revolutions, Robert Kaplan explains:

Rapid social and political transformation leads to violence, whether throughout the Europe of the early 1800s, owing to Napoleon’s aggression — itself a direct result of the French Revolution — or in the Germany of the 1930s. Although the word “revolution” is applied to the America of the 1770s and sometimes to the Zionist movement, the cultural and philosophical awakenings among English settlers in America and Jewish settlers in Palestine took place over decades and were, in truth, evolutions. Iran did experience a revolution in the late 1970s, as did Cambodia in 1975, China in the late 1940s, and Russia in 1917.

From this dread, Kissinger extracted the following principles:

  • Disorder is worse than injustice. Injustice merely means the world is imperfect, but disorder implies that there is no justice for anyone, since it makes even the mundane details of daily existence (walking to school, for instance) risky.
  • The most fundamental problem of politics is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness. The Nazis, the Jacobins, the ayatollahs, and the others who have made revolutions have all been self-righteous. Kissinger suggested that nothing is more dangerous than people convinced of their moral superiority, since they deny their political opponents that very attribute. Tyranny, a form of disorder posing as order, is the result.
  • Because the real task of statesmen is to forestall revolutions, the real heroes of history are enlightened conservatives, such as Metternich and the eighteenth-century Briton Edmund Burke, who fought discrimination against Catholics and opposed the French Revolution for its immoderation. Burke hated revolutions, Kissinger explained, because they violate the average person’s sense of morality and well-being; Metternich saw them as contrary to reason. “The true conservative,” Kissinger wrote, “is not at home in social struggle. He will attempt to avoid unbridgeable schism, because he knows that a stable social structure thrives not on triumphs but on reconciliations.” (The Republican majority in Congress and the “religious right” are thus not true conservatives.)

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