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Revolutionary Ideology*

Revolution is by definition an extraordinary phenomenon1 in history; mainly because it runs counter to the doctrine of political realism, which has been designated by Thucydides as almost an established law of normal human behaviour over the ages. “For of the Gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a law of nature wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first who have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and shall bequeath to all time; and we know that you and all mankind, if you are as strong as we are, would do as we do.”2 Revolution is an extraordinary historical event mainly because its goal of altering a system of stratification in favour of the poor and the downtrodden is the antithesis of the said law of political realism. And, as recent events in Russia have confirmed, it is not possible to maintain the momentum of even established revolutions, much less to usher one in under adverse conditions, without substituting the common run of human motives based on self-interest and self-aggrandisement, by humanitarian motivation.

1. The Role of Ideology
Revolutionary ideology is, thus, the very soul of revolution. “Realism as a general theory of politics has greater relevance for those non-revolutionary periods and contexts wherein an unwritten, though imperfect, ideological consensus allows men to play the game of unabashed power politics.”3 “Revolutions manifest all the features of ideological politics in their purest and most extreme form.”4 In fact, they stem from deep-seated social and ideological differences.5 A revolution has all the marks of being highly doctrinaire; and is an extraordinarily energetic ideological period.6 All the four major revolutions in the post-medieval Western world (the English, American, French, and Russian) were “popular” revolutions “carried out in the name of ‘freedom’ for a majority against a privileged minority.”7 The English Revolution came so much to be identified with the Puritan ideology that it came to be popularly known as the Puritan Revolution. Although the American War of Independence was fought mainly for liberation from colonial rule, but “Sam Adams, Tom Paine, Jefferson himself were trying to do more than just cut us off from the British Crown; they were trying to make us a more perfect society according to the ideals of the Enlightenment.”8 And, we need only mention that the ideals of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” symbolized the French Revolution, and that the Bolshevik Revolution was born in the womb of Marxist ideology.

Revolutionary ideology fixes the humanitarian goals of a revolutionary movement, and infuses a sense of purpose to achieve these goals. In this way, it gives a direction as well as a momentum to the movement. “It provides an indictment of the old regime by spelling out what is wrong with it and why; (and) it conveys the idea that a future, or possible society is enormously superior to the existing one.”9 “Ideology serves to elaborate and apply value judgements to a political phenomenon.”10 “Revolution is the bearer of liberty and justice to the oppressed peoples …”11 “Freedom, ‘that terrible word inscribed on the chariot of the storm’, is the motivating principle of all revolutions. Without it, justice seems inconceivable to the rebel's mind.”12 “Revolutions cannot do without the word ‘justice’ and the sentiments it arouses.”13 Pure ideology establishes values or general “moral and ethical conceptions about right and wrong.”14

These are not merely theoretical postulates, because without pure ideology the ideas of practical ideology have no legitimation. It is the ideological goal that provides legitimation to the revolution. At the heart of a revolution must be a cause, the justness of which is recognized by everybody.15 And how important legitimation is for the success of a cause is indicated by the fact that its need is felt even by established groups exercising political power; because the use of power without caring for legitimation is possible only in the very short run.16

The role of ideology in revolutions becomes clearer when we consider the distinction it leads to between revolutionary movement on the one hand, and non-revolutionary armed upheavals like revolts, rebellions, etc., on the other. We quote Camus and Ellul at some length as they have made valuable contributions to emphasize this distinction.

“In every act of rebellion, the man concerned experiences not only a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights, but also a complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself. Thus, he implicitly brings into play a standard of values so far from being wrong that he is willing to preserve them at all costs.”17

If both revolution and revolt are value oriented, then what leads to the distinction between the two in this respect? “The rebel is incensed by the way society, or his corner of it, is operating. But this indictment of it is highly personalistic; he is a devotee of the ‘devil’ theory of politics, which holds that certain ‘bad men’ are responsible for the evils plaguing them. The implication is that destruction, or at least removal, of them will end the time of trouble.”18

“The Revolt cannot be appeased either by sociological analysis or by abstract objects held accountable for deprivation (by the state)… In the final analysis, the important point here is the following; the state is an abstraction. And if (the state) is the true core of revolt, the crux of the problem, the rebel, owing to his need for a scapegoat, cannot react to it in this form. He then attacks the agents of the state…”19 In other words, “Revolt lives in the immediate; it is in the immediate that it needs someone accountable…”20 “It is the very concreteness and specificity of revolt that prevent it from calling the whole social order in question. It is concerned with men and measures, not with fundamental institutions. That is what separates it from revolution.”21 “Revolt, therefore, has a clearly conservative or even retrograde character. As it does not make the linkage between felt misery or alienation and the institutional set-up of society, its horizons are limited to bringing it back to an equilibrium which is thought to have existed before things went wrong.”22 The limited stakes and backward glance of revolt are associated with its low level of ideology.23
Ellul clinches the issue in these words. “What are then, the distinctions between revolt and revolution ? It seems to me that there are two completely new elements — the theory and the institution. Revolt at its source is void of thought; it is visceral, physical. Revolution implies a doctrine, a plan, a programme, a theory of some kind, though the term ‘theory’ need not have a very precise meaning. At any rate, it is my impression that the existence of this preliminary thought is what identifies revolution. An idea may be expressed occasionally in the course of a revolt, but it is always incidental and emerges from the developing revolt itself.”24 “Revolution begins with an idea. It is, specifically, the infusion of an idea into a historical experience, whereas revolt is simply a movement leading from individual experience to an idea.”25

2. Ideology in Relation to Other Factors
There is a multiplicity of factors involved in revolution, which co-exist and interact at all stages of the movement. When we discuss the inter-relationship between ideology and environmental factors in such movements, all that we mean is that ideology dominates over environmental factors and determinates the course of the movement in the revolutionary period. Otherwise, the environmental factors are so powerful that their pulls have always succeeded, in the long run, in dragging down all revolutions to their pre-revolutionary levels, or very near that. There is not one exception. Revolutionary movements may be compared to the rise of tide in the ocean. The tide lasts only as long as the gravitational pull of the moon overrides that of the earth. The revolutionary character of a movement is retained to the extent its ideology predominates over its environmental factors. All the same, revolutionary movements, though rare and short-lived, deserve a separate attention, because they are a qualitatively distinct phenomenon from other armed mass upheavals as well as because these are the torch-bearers of human progress.

There are other interacting environmental factors too, but we will take notice here only of two, namely, (a) social and economic tensions, and (b) the class interests of the constituents of a movement, because these have been emphasized in the recent interpretation of the Sikh movement.

(a) Social and Economic Tensions
“This illustrates a general principle which can be ignored only at great risk in the study of revolution, indeed in the study of politics in general; speaking of a political or social movement in the singular should not blind us to the fact that every movement is the resultant of political, social, economic, and psychological factors which are often discrete, disharmonious, and sometimes contradictory.”26 In other words, neither ideology nor social and economic tensions can, exclusively by themselves, cause revolution. Trotsky writes : “In reality, the mere existence of privations is not enough to cause an insurrection; if it were, the masses would always be in revolt.”27 Brinton, after studying in depth the typical English, American, French, and Russian Revolutions, comes to the conclusion that these, “clearly were not born in societies economically retrograde; on the contrary, they took place in societies economically progressive, in spite of short term cyclic variations.”28 France in 1789 was a striking example of a rich society with an impoverished government.29 Even in Russia of 1917, the productive capacity of society as a whole was certainly greater than at any other time in Russian history.30 Of course, there were always in these, sub-marginally poor people, however, the important thing to note is that French history and Russian history are filled with famines, plagues, bad harvests, many of which were accompanied by sporadic rioting, but in each case only by one revolution.31 In other words, extreme discontent based on economic or social tensions, is not enough to produce revolution. What is missing is some extra push of a revolutionary ideology : “A dynamic of a genuinely spiritual and religious kind.”32

“Revolution is bound to embody a journey to the absolute in the hearts of those who take part in it. They are bound to see it as the absolute solution to history, so that before they make it, they believe in it. It is a cult object, whereas revolt provides none. Revolt ‘rumbles’: it is wrath, a sudden gust, an explosion immediate. Revolution is an idol; it is the Holy Revolution, venerated and cherished before being set in motion. It absorbs all the religious emotion that disappears from surrounding society. It is the solemn bearer of man’s hope. From the outset, it is not a random adventure. It is the exposure and expression of mental images cherished by a social group, the ripening consciousness of the collective unconscious, the recovery of a historical memory projected into the future. And that is why, in order to ascertain whether a society is likely to enter revolutionary action, it is not enough to examine merely the power structure, economic institutions, class conflicts, etc,… there can be no pure spontaneity in revolution, in which there is always forethought and hence an inspiration.”33

There is also some element in human nature which runs counter to political realism, as revolutionary inspiration sometimes evokes a universal response, cutting across class interests and regional loyalties. Wordsworth was moved to sing :

“France standing on the top of golden hours,
And human nature seeming born again.”

Far away in unenlightened Russia, noblemen illuminated their homes in honour of the fall of the Bastille.34 In fact, it is this inspiration which stamps revolutionary movements, despite their failures, as the lighthouses on the path towards human freedom and equality. The French Revolution is a shining example; it has continued to inspire generation after generation to this day.

(b) Economic Interests
The role of economics in history is no doubt very important, but “the Marxist concept of revolution as an economic cataclysm suffers from an excessive preoccupation with class struggle as an economic phenomenon. Economic stratification is emphasized to the point of neglecting or confusing the role of other forms of stratification”.35

“Revolutions are too complex and too unique to be reducible to a facile formula such as bourgeois or proletarian revolution.”36 Then, we have the clear case of the Indian caste system in which political and economic status was subordinated to the socio-religious status of the Brahmin priestly caste. A Chaturpati king was lower in ‘caste-status’ than his own priest (purohita), who was economically dependent on the king, 37 and “the Visas (Vaisyas) bow spontaneously to the chief (rajan), who is preceded by a Brahmin”.38 It is even more important to note that this caste system continued to prevail in India as a stable system for more than a couple of millennia.

What clinches the issue is Brinton’s factual analysis of the social and economic status of the revolutionists who participated in the four important modern revolutions studied by him. From the membership of Jacobin clubs, which served as centres of revolutionary action, and resemble the English Independents, the Russian Soviets, and the American corresponding committees, he comes to the conclusion that the Jacobin was neither a nobleman nor a beggar, but almost anything in between. The Jacobins represent a complete cross-section of their communites.39 In England, “the merchants of London, Bristol, and other towns, great lords, small land owning gentry, all rose in sedition against the King”.40 On the other hand, “the poorer peasants, especially in the North and West, actually sided with the King and against the revolutionists”.41 The strength of the revolutionary movement in America in the long run lay with the plain people, but it was truly aristocratic in its commencement.42 And, the February Revolution in Russia seems to have been welcomed by all classes, save the most conservative of conservatives — a few army officers, some members of the court and the old nobility.43 So, it is not sound to reduce the genesis, or growth of revolutionary movements exclusively in terms of their economics.

It is true that people are normally preoccupied with their mundane requirements and desires, and any disturbances in their fulfilment cause discontentment. “Now one might quite justifiably argue a priori that a wholly contented man could not possibly be a revolutionist. But the trouble is that there are so many ways of being discontented as well as contented on this earth. Indeed, the cruder Marxists, and the cruder classical economists, make an almost identical error; they both assume that economics deals exclusively with whatever makes men happy or miserable. Men have many incentives to action which the economist, limited to the study of men’s rational actions, simply cannot include in his work. They observably do a great deal that simply makes no sense at all, if we assume them to be guided wholly by any conceivable economic motive : nearly starving in the British Museum to write Das Kapital, for instance, …”44

3. Implications and Comments
The discussion we have had so far has, as will be elaborated later, very important bearing on the understanding of the Sikh movement. Unless it is contended that the discipline of political science does not measure up to the scientific standards of history, or that the scholars we have cited are not authoritative enough, it should be clear that any interpretation of the Sikh revolutionary movement by excluding the role of its ideology, i.e., the inspiration of Sikh religion, is unwarranted and arbitrary. And so is the attempt to trace the genesis and development of the movement exclusively to social and economic tensions, if any, between the different constituents of the Panth.

Thus, the main issues, to which answers have to be found on a priority basis, are :
As there can be no revolutionary movements without substituting, may be for a short-lived period, motivation based on self-interest and self-aggrandisement by humanitarian motivation, what was the source of the idealistic motive force that inspired the Sikh movement ? And, as revolutions do not just happen but have to be made by men surcharged by such an ideology, who played the leading role in this respect ?

The answers to these questions should be found within the historical perspective that the Sikh movement not only won a political state, but that it was won by the downtrodden; and it was just one aspect of the movement which strove to further human equality on all planes — spiritual, social, and political.



1. Hagopian, pp. 40, 126.
2. Quoted by Hagopian, pp. 253-54.
3. Hagopian, p. 255.
4. Ibid., p. 281.
5. Ibid., p. 34.
6. Friedrich, p. 20.
7. Crane Brinton : The Anatomy of Revolution, p. 21.
8. Ibid. p. 23.
9. Hagopian, p. 2.
10. Ibid., p. 259.
11. Jacques Ellul : Autopsy of Revolution, p. 88.
12. Albert Camus : The Rebel, p. 76.
13. Brinton, p. 36.
14. Schurmann : Ideology and Organization; quoted by Hagopian, p. 267.
15. James and Grace Leu Boggs : Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, p. 10.
16. Max Weber’s view as expressed by Talcott Parsons in his introduction to Weber’s The Sociology of Religion, p. XL.
17. Camus, p. 19.
18. Hagopian, p. 11.
19. Ellul, op. cit. p. 17.
20. Hagopian, p. 11.
21. Ibid.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid., p. 12.
24. Ellul, op. cit. pp. 43-44.
25. Camus, cit. by Ellul, p. 44.
26. Hagopian, p. 40.
27. Quoted by Brinton, p. 34.
28. Brinton, p. 33.
29. Ibid., p. 31.
30. Ibid., p. 33.
31. Ibid., p. 34.
32. Edwards, L.P. : The Natural History of Revolution in the Twentieth Century, p. 90.
33. Ellul, pp. 47-48.
34. Brinton, pp. 99-100.
35. Hagopian, pp. 51-52.
36. Hagopian, p. 52.
37. Ghurya, G.S. : Caste and Race in India, pp. 57-8, 90-91.
38. Senart, Emile : Caste in India, pp. 124-25.
39. Brinton, pp. 105-106.
40. Ibid., p. 107.
41. Ibid., p. 108.
42. Ibid., p. 109.
43. Ibid.
44. Ibid., p. 116.



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