COMMENT

On revolutions and white privilege

Glenn Babb says it is a paradox that all successful revolutions were led by the bourgeoisie

It’s a nice paradox that all successful revolutions were led by the bourgeoisie, whereas the poor underclass led all the utterly tragic and failed revolutions. The middle class dictated the French Revolution from the storming of the Bastille to the founding of the Committee of Public Safety – Robespierre and Danton were lawyers, Marat a physician; Lenin (Ulyanov) studied physics and spent holidays at a rural manor, Trotsky (Bronstein) was a rich farmer’s son, only Stalin (Jugashvili) son of a cobbler fitted the description “worker” although he went to a seminary; Fidel Castro was the son of a lawyer and Che Guevara the son of a rich Spanish farmer.

Perhaps the Pareto principle applies to the workers and the poor so that the 10% of achievers have escaped to a higher plain (also WEB du Bois’ emerging 10% black leaders). The most famous of the failed revolutions was the Spartacus revolution of 70 BC. Spartacus was a Thracian slave gladiator who escaped from the training school and with two Celtic slaves, Crixus and Oenimaus led a rebellion which attracted as many as 40 000 slaves and families but ended with 10 000 crucifixions lining the Via Appia from Capua to Rome.

The German Peasants Revolt 1524-5 in which 100 000 died, gathered together pitchforked peasants, much to the chagrin of very middle class intellectuals like Martin Luther who wrote a book condemning the revolt Against the Murderous Hordes of Peasants. The peasants sought to be liberated from serfdom and had 12 modest demands but had no bourgeois leadership, except Müntzer who was burnt at the stake.

In South Africa, poor benighted 10-year-old Nongqawuse convinced the Xhosa to kill their cattle, burn their houses and crops whereafter the spirits would sweep the white man into the sea. As a result about 80 000 were displaced or died and 300.000 head of cattle killed from April 1856 to June 1857. The 1922 miner’s strike or the Rand Rebellion also had no bourgeois leadership or planning (unless you count the labour Party MP Jimmy Green) and Jan Smuts ferociously put it down with 20.000 troops, cannon, tanks and the nascent SAAF bombers.

Has the bourgeoisie always been at war with itself? On the one hand, the stalwart burgher who pays his taxes, keeps his environment clean and neat, protects himself, supports the arts, sends his children to school, builds his home and is the pillar of society remains the mainstay of an ordered community. On the other hand, this same group produces the restless souls who take on the role of representing and promoting the poor. The disastrous and baneful results of these bourgeois-led revolutions which caused tens of millions of guillotinings, starvations, executions and shootings gave the world greater poverty, the very opposite of what the revolutions apparently set out to achieve.

Do these bourgeois leaders actually have the interests and welfare of the poor at heart? The opposite seems to be the case. George Orwell pondered over the bourgeois character of the British Labour Party. He had a spark of inspiration – it was not the interests of the poor that motivated them. In The Road to Wigan Pier he puts his finger on the nub of the problem. The so-called representatives of the poor find their motivation in resentment – they are resentful of the better-off and it is this resentfulness and malice and spite that drives them.

Good proof of this was the Soviets’ viciousness towards the kulaks. The kulaks were the former serfs who had done something with their lives, bought a cow or two, planted crops, built a cottage – the very stoere boere that a community should be happy to promote. But no, all the force of the Communist Party was launched on them accompanied by executions, exile to Siberia and confiscation of their goods.

This is repeated by Mao Tse-tung in his Cultural Revolution where professors, doctors, clerks were driven by the Youth and Red Brigades into the rice paddies. The Cambodian Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot (son of a prosperous farmer, and like so many Asian revolutionaries trained in Paris) killed or sent to the countryside anyone that wore glasses, seen as a symbol of privilege - two million died. The land of all the planters in Cuba was confiscated and Che Guevara personally oversaw the shooting squads in Havana’s prisons. No tall poppies were left to grow in any of the revolutionary paradises.

From the French Revolution came the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen 1789 (Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen). This, along with the English (1689) and US (1789) Bills of Rights, was the foundation of UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And in Articles II and XVII of the French Declaration, “property being an inviolable and sacred right”, ownership is protected, which is understandable, since Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette were its composers – a thoroughly bourgeois document, thus. Practice denied this – the bright and shiny USSR constitution protected no-one from the purges and spite of the Party, so well illuminated in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

Revolutions did the opposite of protecting rights. A pity, then, that Man compiled Bills of Rights and not Bills of Responsibility. There is a grain of it in Article IV of the French Declaration which reads: “Liberty consists of doing anything that does not harm others” – a duty not to harm. Here is an embryo of an obligation – what if a Declaration of Duties and Responsibilities was composed imposing obligations to support the constitution, stay informed of community affairs, participate in the democratic process, respect the law, pay income tax and defend the country if the need arise, as the US informs its immigrants?

Every right has its opposite obligation and the question arises who has that duty? Unfortunately, the second generation of rights, like that of employment, education, health care, housing and the like do not fall to individual duty, but to the state. If there were a Bill of Duties and Obligations, then what would be the need of these second generation “rights” which are more honoured in the breach by the state than in the obedience? The good burghers of the land would take on individual obligations to educate, employ those they can, help in social upliftment – they are neither spiteful nor resentful and their patience and forebearance are a wonder to behold.

Do not the “privileged whites” take on these duties already? Among the resentful, envious and spiteful there is no appreciation of the tasks that the middle class, the white privileged, take on with liitle complaint and with pride in doing a solid job. If this brings rewards (“Your virtue is its own reward”, said the father of the Prodigal Son to his elder boy), they are not immediately visible.

The resentment against white privilege is a resentment against doing better and keeping order and community. There are 6 million income tax payers in South Africa and the majority are the “privileged whites”, who according to Minister Mbalula are responsible for 80% of tax income, though more sober heads have said that, with a growing black middle class, the split for income tax is now 50-50. Take away that pillar and the house comes crashing down and no civil righs will rebuild it because those who take the responsibility will no longer be able to fulfill those tasks they expect of themselves.

Some of the resentful bourgeois ANC Freedom Charter revolutionaries like Ben Turok, who wanted even the pine plantations to be state-owned, Ronnie Kasrils and Denis Goldberg end up as white privileged pillars of the community living in villas by the sea no longer resentful but taking on citizen responsibility.

It is a source of wonder that when there is flooding, fire and famine on the Cape Flats, privileged whites in their thousands provide blankets, water and provisions without a fuss and with no fanfare. The ANC ideological revolutionaries would set up a warehouse, store the goods and centrally distribute them after the catastrophe has passed, if they have not already been stolen.

It is a privilege to do a duty and it gives satisfaction which no claim to a right can. It is action, not a demand passively made, that does bring reward: you die happy. If you didn’t do your duty, which is also part of the privilege, then you might end up like the Swabians:

Raffe, raffe, schaffe, schaffe
Hund abschaffe, selbe belle,
Haüsli baue, sterbe

(Scrape and save,
Get rid of the dog, bark yourself
Build a house, Die.)

Rather be a privileged, dutiful and tax-paying citizen – white or black.