Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
The Age of No Revolutions
Duration
0:00 / 49:08
Published
June 16, 2022

A broad spectrum of the American left agrees that the existing political system is not working—that it is dysfunctional, corrupt, anti-majoritarian, and utterly unable to address the serious economic, social, and ecological crises confronting the public. But despite pervasive exhaustion with the status quo, and despite omnipresent warnings about a looming constitutional threat from the radical right, there have been few signs of mobilization for a full-scale left-wing revolution since the 2020 uprisings against racism and police violence after the murder of George Floyd. Today, America’s most liberal cities have largely doubled down on carceralism, and the right has far more insurgent energy than the left. To discuss the dog that isn’t barking, David Klion spoke with Mike Duncan—the creator of the popular podcast Revolutions, which examines the history of ten historical upheavals in great detail—about what makes America in 2022 different from France in 1789 or Russia in 1917, and what it would take to see a real revolution.

Books, Articles, TV Shows, and Podcasts Mentioned:

Mike Duncan’s Revolutions and History of Rome podcasts

The Storm Before the Storm by Mike Duncan

Hero of Two Worlds by Mike Duncan

The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James

The Institutionalist: Dianne Feinstein’s Long Fight for Abortion and Gun Control” by Rebecca Traister

Mike Duncan Takes on the Turmoil of History” by David Klion

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”


Transcript

David Klion: Hello, and welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents staff podcast. I’m your host for this episode, David Klion, the newsletter editor for Jewish Currents. And for this episode, I have a very special guest, Mike Duncan. Mike is the host of two widely-acclaimed history podcasts, The History of Rome and Revolutions. We’re going to talk mostly about the revolutions podcast today, which I’ll briefly gloss. It’s basically a sequential, very detailed yet accessible recounting of 10 historical revolutions, in chronological order, spanning many countries and continents, going from the English Civil War of the 17th century, up to the Russian Revolution, really the two Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

But really, Mike’s corpus of podcasting work alone could consume years of your life, if you’re into history, and it certainly has consumed years of my life. He’s also the author of two books, A Storm Before the Storm, which is derived from the History of Rome podcast, and Hero of Two Worlds, which is a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, heavily informed by the Revolutions podcast. And today we’re going to be talking about Revolutions, not just as a podcast but as a historical phenomenon, and one that is perhaps relevant to the present-day United States and its current political situation. So with that out of the way, Mike, why don’t you introduce yourself, to the extent I haven’t already, and let’s get to it.

Mike Duncan: Well, hi, thanks for having me. I’m Mike Duncan. And The History of Rome and Revolutions have also consumed years of my life. I’m coming up on my 15th anniversary of the first episode of The History of Rome.

DK: Could you just tell us a little about where you’re coming from, how you got into history, and what the genesis of these two podcasts was?

MD: Yeah, sure. You know, I came out of university–and I graduated back in 2002–and I studied political science and philosophy. And then the political science stuff was a lot about political theory, that was just kind of like what I was into and what I was studying at the time. But to do all of that, you know, to study political philosophy and political theory requires a lot of historical background reading, right? You can’t understand what Machiavelli is talking about unless you understand the politics of his times in Italy. You can’t understand, you know, Polybius, unless you understand the history of the Roman Empire. You can’t really understand Plato unless you understand Greek history.

MD:

And so I was doing a ton of background reading to understand the philosophy that was being produced by these guys. And then when I got out of school, the thing that I kept going with and kept reading was the history more than the philosophy. I got a little burned out on these abstractions, and these sort of abstruse theories, and was much more interested in the concrete events that were producing all of this stuff.

MD: So I was reading all of this Roman history, got really into Livy, I got really into Polybius, I got really into Plutarch, and then went looking for a podcast that I thought would help augment my own investigations and my own research into these guys and discovered that one didn’t really exist at that moment. And so I was staring at the Early History of Rome by Livy, looking at how easy it was to start a podcast, and just one day put out an episode with the intention of chronologically narrating the entire history of the Roman Empire. Because that is just kind of the big bite that my creative brain likes to take from time to time, and just be like, “Let’s just do the whole thing!” And then that’s just how the ball got rolling.

DK: And how many episodes did that end up producing, just the Rome?

MD: So I thought it was going to be about 70, and that it would take me about 18 months. And it wound up being five years and 189 episodes, and covered everything from, the legendary, sort of mythical arrival of Aeneas in Italy, all the way through the expulsion of Romulus Augustulus in 476 and the fall the western empire.

DK: Way to spoil the finale for me, I’m not quite there yet.

MD: The Empire never ended, right? It just kind of keeps going and going and going. But you do have to eventually bail on these things.

DK: And then, so how did Revolutions happen?

MD: I was actually just writing about this. Originally there were a couple of conceptions. I knew I wanted to do another podcast, but I knew I wanted to move into the modern era. And then also, very ironically, I did not want to take on a project that was as massive as The History of Rome. And so the original conception of Revolutions was each one of these revolutions will be 12 to 15 episodes. And then I’ll take some time off and then I’ll do the next one, cap that at about 15, 16 episodes, and you know, we’ll be out of here in a couple years.

MD: And I got five or six episodes into the very first season on the English Revolution–or the War of the Three Kingdoms, or the British Revolution, whatever you want to call it–and I was just dying. I like to sweat the details. I like to focus on not just the very, very top line stuff. I like to dig into it. And the English Revolution is a 25-year event that consumes the entire British Isles and could have easily been, on its own, 50 or 60 episodes worth of material. And so when I got into that, I was just like, “You know what? I’m pulling this cap off. I’m not doing this 12 to 15 episode thing anymore.” And then the French Revolution went for 55 episodes, and I’ve just been doing it ever since. Coming up on nine years of the Revolutions podcast,

DK: Yeah, and the Russia season–I mean, in telling the story of the Russian Revolution, not only are there two revolutions to cover and everything that led up to each of them, but really, you end up with an incredibly thorough-yet-comprehensible history of Marxism till that point. I mean, you really take us back into the intellectual roots of Marxism, as well as several generations of revolutionary thought and activism in the Russian Empire.

DK: On the podcasts themselves, you don’t get very explicitly political, in a modern sense. You play it pretty straight, it’s for a wide audience. Your sympathies can be detected at times, but it’s not ranty, and it’s very focused on the context of the time. But the discourse around the show is that if you listen to Revolutions, you can kind of, very subtly, over a very long time, hear the left-pilling of MD:in real time.

MD: Yeah. Correct. Because I do, absolutely come out of the liberal tradition. When I was studying political philosophy at school, mostly it was like John Stuart Mill, David Hume, Adam Smith, the Utilitarians, that sort of British liberalism of the late 18th century and early 19th century. Coming out of the Cold War, I think something in the back of my mind was just like, “Oh, these are the guys who were right, and whose philosophy was ultimately successful in this 20th-century showdown between Marxist socialism and liberal capitalism and democracy.”

DK: But you know, when you’re doing Rome, there’s a kind of–I say this with love, and I see it as something I relate to–but an almost adolescent fanboy kind of thing, where you’re constantly like ranking, “How good were the emperors?” almost as if they’re baseball players.

MD: Well, I literally compared Aurelian to a baseball player, so.

DK: Yeah. What you’re ranking them on is effectively like, how good were they at ruling a massive empire?

MD: Yeah.

DK: Not that you cover up their various crimes and persecutions. But I feel like the framing is like: the Roman Empire–that was pretty cool, right?

MD: Yeah. The Rome stuff, the conception of that show–which, I was in my mid 20s when I started that–was, I want to take all of these ancient historians and combine and synthesize everything that they were writing about, that most people don’t read because it’s such a dry history. And so yeah, when you then see the perspective that that produces over 189 episodes, it’s very much from the Romans’ perspective. And I think one of the clearest markers of just the fact that yes, over the years, I have read more books, I have lived more of my life. I’ve experienced and seen more things and thought more deeply about different things, but, very specifically, my treatment of the Gracchi brothers–

MD: And to gloss, very briefly, the Gracchi brothers basically were populist redistributionists in the context of the Roman Republic.

MD: Correct. Yes.

DK: You could understand them as proto-leftists, although that’s a gross simplification.

MD: Yeah, and I mean, the Gracchi were like, inner circle Roman nobility. They were not actually, you know, populist leaders rising up from the streets. They were like the Roosevelts, practically, in terms of what they were trying to do. They were traitors to their class more than they were populist demagogues.

DK: Right. But that kind of seems like something that you would see in more positive terms now than you than you did when you were first recording.

MD: Yeah. If you listen to the episodes that I made about the Gracchi brothers 12 years ago now, versus–then I wrote a book. After I was long into Revolutions, and after many years had passed, I then went back and wrote a book about that period. And lots of people have noted how different my take is on the Gracchi brothers, and where my sympathies lie, and what I think the problems were. And you can see, too, some language stuff; the way I talk about the crowds as “the mob,” and having this sort of standoffish relationship to this entity called “the mob” that is threatening to the considered, enlightened, rational leaders of the government. That’s very much changed over the years. And I don’t think I’ve used the word “mob” in any context for about five or six years now.

MD: Going through the French Revolution, and going through 1848 in particular, really disabused me of a lot of whatever you would call the instinctive, liberal aversion to people out in the streets marching–

DK: Yeah.

MD: –and why they’re doing it, and what they’re doing, and whether or not what they’re doing is right and just, or whether or not it’s just disruptive and annoying.

DK: You know, in the American Revolution season, I would say that slavery is acknowledged and condemned.

MD: Yep.

DK: But it’s not centered. It’s not the core fact of who people like Washington and Jefferson and Madison were. It’s more like a shameful thing that must be acknowledged. But two seasons later, when you’re doing Haiti–which is centrally concerned with slavery, in the same time period, and not that far away–I think a concept of class and power starts to really take over the show and never leaves. You can feel a more leftist Marxist critique coming in in the way you formulate things, as you realize that slavery and class relations, and serfdom and things like that, are inseparable from the political structures of a given country as they’re shifting.

MD: Yeah, I think that’s very fair. And you know, if the person I am today was to make a series about the American Revolution, of all the things that I’ve written, it would be the thing that would be most different. I think that my take on the American Revolution now, as opposed to when I first wrote it, eight or nine years ago would be significantly different in focus, and in tenor, and in what I’m talking about and why I’m talking about it.

MD:

And Haiti is a lot of what did that to me. I think that spending that much time with the Haitian Revolution and truly grappling with the realities of the Atlantic world, and Atlantic colonialism, and Atlantic slavery in a way that clearly–to my own embarrassment, chagrin, and shame, when I was reading all that stuff and light bulbs werr going off, I’m like, “Oh, my God.” There are those moments when you realize things that you should have already known.

DK: And in reviewing how this develops, I also want to make clear that I’m not in any way suggesting that the whole series is not worth listening to. It very much is.

MD: No, but you should start–as I recommend to people, too, you can start with Episode 3.1 on the French Revolution. And if you’re very interested in going back, you can listen to the British Revolution and the American Revolution without being any worse for the wear.

DK: I think it’s fair to say at this point, as you get to the final episodes of the Russia season, by this point you’ve become something of an expert on revolutions as a historical phenomenon. And the thing I really wanted to talk to you about today is: are we living in a revolutionary moment right now, in your considered expert opinion? We being, Americans in the early 2020s?

MD: Well, I mean, that is a very difficult question to answer. The thing that makes it difficult is that I talk about the moments in history where revolutions do break out. Where there is something that explodes in 1789, or 1830, or 1871, or Mexico, 1910, 1911. But just because those moments had revolutionary sparks that then burned into a full blown revolution, there were other times where it seemed like all the conditions were there and ripe for a revolution but, for whatever reason, something doesn’t happen. Or occasionally I run into times where there’s an insurrection that’s brewing and it torrentially rains for three days straight. And so everybody goes back. There was about to be a revolution in 1836 but it was almost, literally, washed away by rain.

MD: So when I look at the United States today and the world today–having done The Storm Before The Storm, which is about the breakdown of the Roman Republic, and having done all of these Revolutions episodes–do I see the contours, the causes of a potential revolutionary event? Yeah, they’re everywhere, right? The warning signs are flashing red across the board. And if some kind of revolutionary event does occur right now, telling the story of how we got to that moment–whether it occurs later this year, or in 2023, or 2024, or something–it’s gonna be very easy for historians to go back and write the story of how the United States came to this acute crisis. Whether it’s a second American Civil War, or a second American Revolution, or whatever you want to call it, the contours–economically, socially, politically–it’s just all right there. It’s just gonna take one little thing to make it go off.

MD: Everybody will be so surprised, right? Just the way they were so surprised by January 6, but it’s not surprising at all. And it won’t be surprising, if and when it happens.

DK: I almost feel stupid posing the question, but how would you summarize, briefly, what exactly it is you’re referring to? What are these leading, warning signs that we could be heading towards cataclysm?

MD: Well, coming out of the Cold War, I think that the dynamics of American politics fundamentally changed and created a far more hyper-partisan warfare between the Democrats and the Republicans. Which is caused by many, many things, not the least of which being that the Democratic Party used to have this stable base of like incredibly racist Southern Democrats, that kept the two parties, in the 20th century, in this sort of weird, hybrid dynamic.

MD: As the last generation of guys like Zell Miller go away and people like Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich are starting to rise, they’re now in the Republican Party. You have this complete divorcing of interest between the two parties and an attitude, I think, coming out of especially the Republican Party, of complete intransigence to anything that any Democrat is going to try to do. This is going back to like, the dead-on-arrival of Clinton’s health care bill, way back in the early 90s.

MD: I think you can trace a lot of our political conflicts to that. You have, you know, the biggest economic event that people still, I don’t think are grappling with how important it was, the 2008 financial crisis, that completely changed the economic dynamics for anybody under the age of 40. There is a real generational divide between the economic realities of people under the age of 40, 45 and those over the age of 40, or 45, created by that economic crisis. That as much as we’ve, quote, unquote, recovered from it, the job market, and the economic security and Social Security–not just checks for retirees, but true social security–has been eviscerated over the last 10, 15 years, with the massive austerity programs that were unleashed as a result of all that.

MD: So I mean, that’s just two things. And you’ve got, you know, MAGA is obviously out there as a brewing force. You have Democratic leadership, unable to seem to want to fight any of the battles that they would need to fight to hold these forces back. I could go on, and on, and on.

DK: All of that sounds right to me. And I guess I would add, the hyper-partisan dynamic that you described is almost exacerbated by a formal constitutional framework that, basically, doesn’t allow the country to be governed in any kind of forward-looking way.

MD: Right.

DK: Or in any way is at all reflective of where majority opinion appears to be. Or in a way that actually seems like, as the country is demographically changing, the constitutional system we have is basically not designed to reflect that and is producing increasingly undemocratic–small “d” democratic–governance.

DK: And speaking from the point of view of someone who is left wing and under 40–though not by much–I think, across many different issues across issues–of race, and gender, and sexual orientation, but also in terms of economics, and social stability, and the social safety net, and obviously, climate–our whole generation feels like we’re in the middle of a bunch of acute crises that the political system is totally unwilling to address–or in many cases, even acknowledge–and feels pretty powerless. All of which, I think, leads a lot of people in our position–and maybe the kind of person who reads Jewish Current–to think, “Well, why aren’t we in the streets?”

DK: And periodically we are. There were there were massive street protests in response to Donald Trump’s election. There were massive street protests, obviously, in 2020, around the murder of George Floyd. And yet, the results never seem to materialize. I mean, we’re recording this the day after San Francisco–voters who, on paper, are some of the most liberal voters in the country–have just voted, overwhelmingly, to recall Chesa Boudin, their reformist DA who was supposed to end the racist War on Crime. I mean, New York has a literal cop mayor who’s putting many more cops on the streets.

DK: And it feels like the upshot is, any kind of insurgent, revolutionary energy that some of us felt was brewing two years ago, feels like it’s amounting to more reaction, more policing, more carceralism. So what–I mean, you said, literally, rain can cut off a revolution before it starts–but what is missing, do you think, that prevents this angry, young generation from just giving up on the constitutional order as they know it and physically forcing something different? Why isn’t that happening?

MD: There are several reasons why I think that that isn’t happening. One is that, in my experience studying all these revolutions, there needs to be some kind of what I would call a revolutionary column, from the top down, that is moving against whatever the existing system is. And that you can have popular protests, and popular protests are a necessary component of any social revolution. But unless you have people inside the inner circles of power–what in our case would be like, the politicians in the Senate, maybe we’re talking about leading tech billionaires who are going to be able to fund things surreptitiously, the way that, say, the Duke d’Orléans was surreptitiously funding most of the revolutionary journalists that were driving events in 1789, like Camille Desmoulins–absent that kind of force inside the political structure, it’s gonna be difficult for that popular movement to translate into actual grabbing of political power. You do need somebody who’s there, ready to take it over.

MD: And you take the Russian Revolution as a perfect example. The February Revolution did not happen just because the workers in Petrograd rose up and were marching through the streets. It also happened because members of Tzar Nicholas’s own family–those politicians who were absolutely in the cabinet, who were serving as the senior councils that were powerless at the time–were all of a mind that Nicolas probably needs to be removed at this point. And so pushing Nicholas out of the way–if the ruling class elite in Russia or in France had, in fact, been united, I don’t think that those revolutions actually come off. It’s never, I don’t think ever, going to be enough to simply have people marching through the streets. You need that upper rung to be willing to move in and pop the people that are in power, and push them out of the way.

MD: And also, you need the funding for all of these things. Like Lenin was taking money. Famously, Lenin was taking money from the Germans, we know that in 1917. But even before that, he’s going and having meetings, when he’s in exile, with British capitalists who are sympathetic to the liberal, constitutionalist wing of the Russian revolutionary sector–like the cadets, people like Pavel Milyukov or then, Kerensky is a little bit to his left–that are sympathetic to that constitutionalist movement in Russia, and see somebody like Lenin and the Bolsheviks as a group who could advance that interest, which is popping the Tsar and removing him from power.

So the Bolsheviks are taking money from like, capitalist entities in the West, as a matter of course. So if you don’t have those sorts of things going on inside of your hypothetical revolutionary coalition, you have a bunch of people massing in the streets, but nothing, really, in terms of realpolitik, is going to happen. And right now you can tell how much the liberal elites in the Democratic Party, or in just sort of the liberal business sectors, are just terrified of any kind of mass, grassroots political movement. They just want everybody to go home. That’s what they want to have happen. So they can just get back to the business of going through the motions of being leaders of a country without actually having to be leaders of that country.

DK: I mean, I think that’s right. I think you sometimes hear this rhetoric, from across the spectrum, how the two parties are the same, and they’re equally bad, and they really all have the same agenda. Which I often find–it’s not only incorrect, because there is a meaningful difference between a country that has abortion rights and a country that doesn’t, I mean, there are some actual, meaningful policy differences between the parties that affect millions of lives and are not superficial.

But it’s also, I think, misleading because it almost gets it, something that is relevant. I think it is true that the two parties basically serve the interests of aging, propertied people. But it’s a big, diverse country, with many different regions, and many different industries, and aging, propertied people are not monolithic. And they may have very different visions about what kind of country they want to live in. And I think that Democrats accurately represent how a certain swath of the country over the age of 50, or whatever, sees its interests. These tend to be, I think, Boomer homeowners who have something to lose from a disruption of the social order, but who also don’t like the direction, for various good reasons, that Republicans would want to take the country in.

But I think that that younger generation we’ve talked about, it has a few obvious champions, in The Squad or whatever, and I think Bernie Sanders was a beacon for a lot of us. And his legacy is not–I mean, he’s still in the Senate and there are younger members of Congress who are, very consciously, following his path. Still, the amount of power that, for lack of a better word, the Millennial generation has, relative to its numbers and relative to its sense of crisis, is striking. And eventually, there is generational turnover.

MD: My parents are Boomers. I love them, I hope they live forever, but I do need them to pass the baton.

DK: I mean, the cover story of New York Magazine this week is about Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who is probably too old to be called a Boomer. The piece makes very clear, as several recent pieces have, she is losing cognitive function. I think we can say that. And that her inner circle of aides are well aware of this, and have decided that that’s okay because it means they can still influence events. And I don’t think she’s the only very prominent leading member of either party who’s in that position right now. And I think that that serves as a unsettling metaphor for the health of the entire system, for a lot of us.

MD: Yeah, I actually just had a thread about this on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, a couple of months ago. The fact is that one of the unspoken things going on in our political system is that medicine has gotten so good that these kinds of people, who are just old and, usually, with the deterioration of age, naturally have to retire, are able to just stay healthy, vigorous. Pelosi–and Bernie Sanders is not some up and coming, young buck on the make, you know–Joe Biden clearly isn’t, on the other side, Donald Trump clearly isn’t. And with the fact that the American political system prizes literal seniority, in terms of years served, the reason why you keep Dianne Feinstein in that seat for as long as possible is because her seniority on those committees means that the Democratic Party of California is able to influence things in a major way, through that seat. If she goes away and they elect a new Democratic Senator, that’s the now the most junior Senator in the institution. And that is a bad place to be inside the Senate. You got to work for that.

DK: And of course, that points to another fundamental flaw with the system, which is California is about 1/8 of the US population, and probably a comparable or greater share of the US economy, and yet the Senate has it fixed at 2% representation in our senior legislative body.

MD: I’m very on board with abolishing the Senate, and have been for 20, 25 years.

DK: But suffice to say, it means we need to keep Feinstein in this position so that California can even get its fair share–it still doesn’t get its fair share, but something closer to its fair share–of federal monies, as opposed to being truly marginalized.

MD: Well, this generation that is continuing to control the Democratic party–control the Senate, control the House of Representatives, and even inside the presidency in the form of Joe Biden–their view of the world–their view of the American political system, the Constitution, the Republican Party–was all formed in the 40s, the 50s, the 60s and 70s. This is all stuff that was now 50, 60, 70 years ago.

And younger generations–like I’m 42 right now, and so I came of age in the late 80s, and then under Clinton, and the George W. Bush era. I have a very different understanding of how politics is played, of what the stakes are, of what people are willing to do and not willing to do. And the idea that there is any sort of collegiality between the two parties, to me, is just like a nonsense. And this sort of eternal search, from senior leaders in the Democratic Party, for the reasonable Republican and the responsible Republican who’s going to join together with them in government–and all these things that you get from the center-right, which is always saying to the Democrats, “Well, you need to, you just reach out a hand to the Republican Party. We could join together in a bipartisan way to X, Y, and Z the country”– this is harkening back to a sort of mythological age of American unity, as the defenders of freedom and democracy in the world.

And this is still where they see the country. They still see the Constitution and the two party system, and American politics generally, as representative of liberty, freedom and democracy. And that anything that would tend to challenge the constitutional order–which, I will say, they have an abhorrance to what Donald Trump and the MAGA coalition is trying to do, in terms of their threats to the constitutional order. But if you stake yourself to the idea that the Constitution is good, and we need to follow the Constitution in all its forms and procedures, if that becomes the position that you defend above all others, then you are automatically negating anything outside of the constitutional bounds as a way to fight for your political ideals, your political principles, the policies that you would like to see enacted, and you wind up defending the procedure in the system rather than the ideals and the policies.

MD: And you are vulnerable to threats like court packing, where if you have the Supreme Court saying, “Oh, well, yeah, Roe v. Wade, that’s not a thing anymore.” Then somebody who is an absolutist defender of constitutional procedure is just going to say, “Well, the Supreme Court said it. So I guess we just have to win a bunch more elections over the next 25 years, get some new justices on there, and try to undo this,” instead of doing what people would like to do, which is direct action and legislation to push back against all of that, right now, today. Not wait 25 years.

DK: Right, because as it stands, we have a Democratic elected leadership. And I don’t want to put it all on them, because I think they’re actually reflective of how a lot of Democratic voters actually feel–especially of the older generation–that basically, their first instinct is always to pour cold water on any kind of radical solution, even procedurally radical solutions, to any of these crises. Even as they protest what the Republicans are doing.

DK: And I realized a lot of that is very true in the United States, too. Not just in how the Founding Fathers are revered, but also Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, who implemented radical reforms in their day but are now just more faces that we revere. Martin Luther King, who led a radical life but is now kind of cited by everyone as a “let’s all get along” kind of guy.

DK: Correct me if I’m misremembering this, but I think there’s a point you make, at the end of the Mexican Revolution season, the ninth season of Revolutions. As you’re talking about how it all winds down, and how after these years of tumult and upheaval and basically Civil War, the country settles into being run, for the better part of a century, by what’s called the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Which still exists, although it’s not a one-party state anymore. And that term, institutional revolution, I think you say something like, what they do is they take the figures who are sort of symbolic of this revolution, like Zapata and Pancho Villa, and they institutionalize them as symbols of the party and of the state. And they glorify them, and name streets after them, and put up statues, and so on, while at the same time kind of neutering any actual revolutionary impulse going forward. Because what they want now is stability and continuity.

MD: Yeah. Or like when Muhammad Ali died, you know, there was a guy that was out there like, “You know, the thing that was great about Muhammad Ali, is he just wanted everybody to come together. It didn’t matter if he was–” It’s like, are you kidding me? Have you ever listened to even five seconds of Muhammad Ali?

DK: Right? The actual revolutionary impulse of a lot of these figures caused people in many cases to literally murder them. I’m always fascinated that Lincoln has become a symbol in the mainstream American canon of, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, bringing the country together again from its great divide,” where the divide is the problem. To my mind, the lesson of the Civil War is that the way slavery was solved was not through existing constitutional mechanisms. It was solved through war. A traitorous, treasonous war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, that caused the planter class to be, by its own choice, really, expelled from the political system for a few crucial years, during which the Constitution was then heavily modified to abolish slavery and enshrine birthright citizenship. And then through military force, the South was overwhelmed and literally forced at gunpoint to, at least in principle, accept this modified Constitution. Obviously, they spent the next 100 years backtracking on that, but that, to me is the big takeaway. The Northern victory in the Civil War is–Lincoln at all times, I think, strove to make it in line with his reading of the Constitution. But fundamentally, this is a story of extra-constitutional violence.

MD: And to your point, if you’re going to have, an inner-circle canon of Lincoln quotes, the other one is like “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Which is now framed as, “We need to come together, because if we’re divided against ourselves we’re going to fall apart.” And if you read the very next sentence, right, it’s “one of these things is going to have to destroy the other.” That’s the way forward, the house that has divided itself is not put back together by mending the fences and going on. With what he had seen at the time–which is like the Missouri Compromise and the stuff in Kansas, which is trying to keep that fence mended–one of these forces is going to have to destroy the other. And that’s exactly what happened. And the house was no longer divided because the forces of slavery were literally destroyed in fire, brimstone, you know, artillery and bullets.

DK: Well, I think we would be remiss, before we wrap this up, if we didn’t talk about what may possibly be the more dominant and potent, I guess you could say, revolutionary or extra-constitutional force right now, which is the force coming from the right.

MD: Yeah.

DK: I think we’ve talked a lot about how left revolutionary energies have been squandered or suppressed by the liberal establishment, which still believes in the constitutional order. But at the same time, on the Right, we’ve seen, essentially, an insurgent mode of governance, most dramatically captured a year and a half ago, on January 6 2021, when the sitting US president essentially mobilized a group of his supporters to violently invade Congress to attempt a constitutional coup. And while they failed in the immediate event, and he did leave office and his duly-elected Democratic successor is now the president, we’ve never really escaped that moment. I mean, many sitting Republicans were championing that at the time, and I would say more are now as they’ve realized it’s what their base wants.

MD: And that there are no consequences for having supported it.

DK: There are no consequences for having supported it. There are open, systemic efforts to ensure that, should another election be challenged in that way–possibly by Donald Trump himself–this time, it’ll work out for him. That wing of the party controls the Supreme Court and could resolve any constitutional crisis that results in favor of someone who, manifestly, did not win a fair election. First of all, is it right to refer to what is essentially a reactionary movement as revolutionary? Or is that a misnomer? And second of all, how concerned should we be about the existing constitutional order, with its many flaws?

MD: Well, to answer the second question, briefly: very concerned. To answer the first question, your definition of revolutionary–if you mean by revolutionary, de facto, somebody who is in favor of progressive, leftist, social and political revolution–then it’s not, quote unquote, revolutionary, because if your understanding of a revolutionary means somebody who is advancing beyond whatever the current structure is toward something new, then that’s going to automatically exclude radical reactionary groups who are looking to retrench, or go backwards, from wherever the historical moment is.

My understanding of revolution is not so precise as that, and I would take a revolution to be any coalition of people who are ready, willing, and able to circumvent the existing constitutional order, and use popular protest and force of arms to enact their own system of governments, over and above whatever was previously existing. And in that sense, to the extent that there is revolutionary energy in the United States in 2022, it is entirely a right-wing phenomenon. You can see it everywhere. You can see it in their protests. I mean, they staged a coup, right? They attempted a coup. And people want to push back on that analysis, or that framing of saying that it was a coup, by being like, “Well, you did you see them? It was just a bunch of people wandering around the halls of Congress.”

And it’s like, yes, it was a poorly planned and poorly executed coup. And therefore it is a coup attempt. But if you have any passing familiarity with political history, most coups are poorly planned and poorly executed and don’t work out. Only a few of them are actually done right, and done well, and succeed. Most of them fail miserably, the way that January 6 kind of did. The problem with that being if there are then no consequences, punishments. If members of Congress who aided and abetted this, which we know they did, are not expelled from Congress; if there are not further consequences for for the senior leaders who are doing it; if you don’t impeach Donald Trump again and forbid him from ever running for President, then the precedent has been set.

And it’s very clear, to me, that if this sort of thing were to happen again, that they will just go right back and do exactly the same thing again. That they will strongarm local Secretaries of State–they’re already, any Republican state has been stripping the independent powers of their various Secretaries of State and the people who oversee the elections, to ensure that the Republican Party, as such, controls who wins and loses various elections. They will use that power. They’re happy to use that power.

And the way that these things work, with revolutions, is that it’s not just, “We reject the Constitution, and are going to do everything outside of the constitutional order.” They’re going to use both simultaneously. So when it serves their interest to say, “Hey, we won this election fair and square, and now we control that governorship or that Supreme Court, because that’s what the laws of the land are,” then they will say that. But if that goes against their interests, if they’re like, “Hey, we don’t like this person who’s in power, who has the authority to do that. If we don’t like what that guy says then we’re just going to ignore him and do our own thing.”

Those two things happen simultaneously. And I think it’s just a willingness to advance your interests–your policies, and your objectives, at all costs, irrespective of any sort of legality, or norms, or forms of former behavior–I think that’s where revolutions come from. And also, of course, they have all the guns. They are the ones who are heavily armed. One of the two political–not just parties, but political movements–has made being heavily armed one of the shibboleths of their movement.

And so if it comes right down to it–and I was just thinking about this the other day, too, which is not a particularly great sign. You already talked about how the consequence of the George Floyd revolt was not defunding the police and completely reorganizing how we do criminal justice in this country, but actually ramping up money for the cops and allowing them to behave with perhaps even greater impunity than they did before.

And we can talk about the nut jobs with their arsenals in their basements, but do I see the framework for a reactionary militia army, that is a coalition of local police, county sheriff’s departments, state patrols? If something were to happen and a state of National Emergency were declared, would the coalition of law enforcement immediately be a force for reaction? Absolutely. I think law enforcement in the United States right now is heavily politicized in favor of a reactionary stamping out of anything to the left of like, Mitt Romney.

DK: Yeah, I absolutely agree. What you said earlier, about how there needs to be some kind of elite buy-in–or what I often see it as is you need a semi-elite. People who are close enough to the reins of power to see how it works and to have personal resentment of the people who have it, who are educated, who have some kind of power that the system isn’t officially recognizing as such. For instance, the bourgeoisie in France, or in various other countries, who have a lot of wealth and have means of communication, but they’re shut out from from the aristocratic, and clerical, and monarchical order. They’re in a position to align themselves with mass discontent in the streets, or in the countryside, or whatever. And that’s how you get it.

But the other thing, that is almost banal, is that you need weapons. You need something resembling an army. And I mean, the Bolsheviks were successful, in large part, because they were able to recruit directly from the military in a time of crisis. And it’s just not clear who that is in America right now, when both the legitimate use of force in the form of the police or the military, and people who collect guns in their spare time or for militias, all seem to lean, at best, toward the establishment, and often toward a more extreme right. It’s very hard to imagine, looking over the country–and in spite of many left-wing popular protests, and left-wing writers, and left-aligned politicians–it’s very hard to imagine who would be leading a revolutionary movement, and who the armed forces behind them would be, that would oppose the kind of police-state nightmare that you’re hinting at right now.

MD: Yeah. And I mean, I just don’t see it in existence anywhere. And if you were to have a few people with arms, they’re just gonna get crushed. The preponderance of force in the United States in the 21st century, is so clearly aligned with right-wing politics. The only people–and you know, this has been this weird bulwark–is that Donald Trump so successfully alienated the upper rungs of the American military establishment, right? The people who run the Pentagon like the Joint Chiefs, the officer corps of the United States of America’s military–we often think of the military as the rank-and-file grunts who are out there committing war crimes, because they joined up because they got to go kill Arabs or something. Those people exist, but if you get into the upper rungs of the establishment, it’s a much more mixed bag, politically.

And I think that those people are more committed to the Constitution and regular order, that would be in opposition to both a right-wing armed uprising, and a left-wing uprising. Which, if there’s going to be a left-wing uprising, it would have to take the form of one of the people’s movements at the end of the Cold War in Eastern Europe. It would have to be unarmed, it would have to be peaceful, it would have to take that form. Because if you tried to get in a shooting war with MAGA, you’re gonna get blown out of the water. You just are. That’s something everybody needs to keep in the back of their minds.

But the American military, if Donald Trump had tried to call in them right to support his bid, they don’t pick up that phone, right? And they weren’t picking up that phone. And they were working behind the scenes, in fact, to prevent him from being able to make that call in the first place. In their own kind of extra-judicial, extra-constitutional way, in defense of the Constitution, which is not great because, oftentimes, the way these things go, is that if a democratic system is beginning to break down into this kind of violent factionalism, then oftentimes military leaders step in and say we are going to be the stabilizing force. And the next thing you know, we’re run from the Pentagon, which is also its own gigantic problem that nobody wants to live with.

DK: Right. I mean, it’s extremely depressing when you realize that maybe that’s the countervailing force in the country right now. What Trump referred to as the deep state.

MD: Yeah, it was the same way that like–and this was all a lot of fantasy–but during the Mueller investigation period, where you had liberals, and even some leftists were maybe getting a little bit sucked into this, where you’re pointing to the FBI as this wonderful, noble institution that only has the goodness of Americans at heart. And you’re just like, that’s not really the FBI that I’ve studied in my life. They didn’t become staunch defenders of order and justice a week ago, last Tuesday. The FBI is the FBI.

I feel like we’re leaving the Jewish Currents listenership in kind of a bleak place. It’s a lot to put on you to ask for any kind of optimistic note to end on. But I guess you said earlier that it’s naive to think the way we’re gonna overcome conservative control of the courts or whatever is we’ll just elect a bunch of Democrats over the next 25 years. I mean, that seems both hard to do and inadequate to the challenge. But it does seem like there are deeper forms of solidarity, and almost-left, counter institutions that are going to have to be built, to resist any of these various scary scenarios we’re talking about, right? I mean, there’s going to have to be something deeper and more durable than the current Democratic Party establishment if we’re going to be able to stand up to any of it.

Yeah. So my hope here is that, number one, as you said, eventually, the Old Guard leadership will die off. And people who came of age at a different time period, who understand politics differently, who understand the stakes of politics and the terms of the political game have changed significantly since the end of the Cold War–which is not something that seems to have sunk in with the people who are currently running the show–if you can get some kind of change over in leadership, then I think you will see a more robust Democratic Party and left-liberal alliance making a comeback.

You know, the nature of the federal system of the United States–which has many, many problems, up to and including the fact that half the country is about to outlaw abortion, if they haven’t already, because of the federal structure–that federal structure also works in favor of leftists and liberals in terms of like, California, Washington State, Oregon State, New York. There are places where those kinds of fights can actually be won. And coalitions of more progressive-minded people can actually take actual political power, and then that’s where your next generation of leadership is going to be coming from.

The other thing is that there have been times of–we know this–there have been times of reaction, there have been times of progress in the past. The coalition that we are looking at that is rising up right now– this right-wing, revolutionary coalition that coalesced around Donald Trump–very possibly, if you remove Donald Trump from that equation, with his unfathomable personal charisma, in terms of his narcissistic ability to sort of bend everybody in his direction, the amount of fame that he has as an individual, if you remove Donald Trump as a unifying figure from that movement, how much does it continue to move forward? And how much, then, does it actually dissipate?

And there is a high watermark coming for this crew. And those democratic forces that we know exist out there–the larger majorities that support different policies–are they then going to be able to have their moment and come back? And then finally, I think the hope is just that the way that things are today don’t have to be the way that things are forever. And that if things get worse–which I think that they will–they can then later get better.

And you get better by organizing yourselves. I think that one of the unspoken causes of what’s going on right now is de-unionization, something that really set in in the latter half of the 20th century, like the latter third-quarter of the 20th century. That if unionization starts coming back, and that kind of workplace organizing–those structures are important. The left lost one of its major organizational, institutional bases of power when the unions started to get taken over, and blown aside, and dismantled. If you can bring something like that back, that exists as a political force as well as a workplace-advocacy group, then I think there’s something to that. And I think that rising unionization–especially among, again, people who are under 40–could be the basis of what new political coalition’s look like in the next 10 years, or 15 years, or 20 years.

DK: Well, I think that’s a really good place to end this. And I couldn’t agree more with what you just said. So Mike, thanks again, for taking the time. It’s always great to talk to you. I obviously encourage all of our listeners to check out Revolutions, check out History of Rome, check out Mike’s books. You can check out an article I wrote for The New Republic, I guess, about a year ago–apropos of Mike’s book on the Marquis de Lafayette–that’s really just a celebration of why Revolutions works as a form. The podcast, I mean. And follow MD:on Twitter. He’s a deeply informed, sane, and humanistic voice at a time when we can use a lot more of those.

MD: Well, thank you for saying all that, and thank you for having me.

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