“The revolutionaries of today are the conservatives of tomorrow.” © Gerald Dunkl (* 1959), Austrian psychologist and aphorist
“With all his fibres, person M. participated in the revolution. Only when he felt the new shackles, he breathed with relief. “© Martin Gerhard Reisenberg (born 1949), librarian and author
Politics is a field of carefully groomed yet nastily imprecise definitions – none the least because it is the habit of its practitioners to steer clear of commitments, pronouncements or determinations which may face the need of reinterpretation tomorrow or the very next minute. On the cheap term “freedom” alone, long books have been written. Here we want to address a different terminology.
“Conservative” or “Conservatism” is one of the most popular catch phrases in the political vernacular – yet we might have a closer look at its etymology, inherent relativism and, indeed, rotative meaning as opposed to the more superficial use in common parlance.
It derives, naturally, from Latin “conservare”. “Servare” is the root word for “servus”, the servant, and basically means “to use” in the transitive way – something to be used, as in the English word “serviceable”. The prefix “con” has the basic meaning of “together” (“together with”, more precisely) and we could essentially translate it as “something that serves (well) with”, an idea which quickly developed into the notion of something that serves well hence it should be retained.
This is the more superficial way it is used generally as to denote – in the political domain – an existing structure which should be retained because of its merits.
This is the classic argument of the possessor – not the aspirer – and here we see that there is indeed a basically rotative connotation.
For the revolutionary of every kind – as soon as he, she or they have accomplished the goal, must turn to the preservation of the new achievement and immediately become a “conservative” him-, her- or theirselves.
Thus revolutionaries in due time always become conservatives – we may remember that the industrial conservatism of our time once was a revolution against the feudal system – liege-lords and manors.
Therein lies the reason for the old adage that all revolutions devour their own children – see Trotsky, Danton, Robespierre and all the others.
Thereafter, a new – post revolutionary – status quo is established, against which opposition arises. This is why each and every revolutionary movement necessarily creates its own counter-revolutionary movement – as inescapable as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
On the resulting – logically consequent – reverse instrumentalization of terror by the new “conservatives”, F. Fürstenberg wrote in 2007 in the New York Times [“Bush’s Dangerous Liaisons” (PDF here)], in connection with the French Revolution – upon the etymology of the word “terrorist”as well:
“… The word was an invention of the French Revolution, and it referred not to those who hate freedom, nor to non-state actors, nor, of course, to ‘Islamofascism’. A ‘terroriste’ was, in its original meaning, a Jacobin leader who ruled France during La Terreur.”
The French Revolution remains the classic example of a revolution that discarded their own founders and agents. Its reign of terror began, after a transitional phase, with the execution of the nobility and the king. Then the circle expanded upon thousands of suspects suspected of hostility to the revolution. The years of the monarchy finally ended with the execution of the king and the proclamation of the secular French Republic.
Executive power was transferred to a Public Security Committee, of whom Maximilian Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, was appointed headman. Within a period of not more than seven weeks, the commendable body managed to send some 1300 people to the guillotine. It must be admitted, however, that , in poetic justice, Robespierre and his enemy Danton lost their heads there as well.
Execution, of course, was the effective means of denying the physical existence of the adversary, but the nemesis of his or her remembrance remains. The ancient Romans already knew “Abolitio nominis” – the “abolition of the name” – today usually called “Damnatio memoriae” – the demonstrative eradication of a person’s memory.
Interestingly enough, we know the names of practically all persons who succumbed to “damnatio memoriae” – indicating the unfitness of the procedure. The same thing happened to the USSR and its imitators … but the basic problem remains – the radical change of interests of the revolutionary to maintain the new status quo … by terror …
“Revolution: in politics, this is a sudden change in the form of misrule.” Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842 – 1914), called Bitter Pierce, American journalist and satirist; Source: Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (The Cynic’s Word Book), 1906 (1909 as Devil’s Dictionary in Collected Works, Vol. 7)
(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)