THE LAST REVOLUTION: FREEDOM and POWER

   

Velvet Revolution
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The Jasmine Revolution, the Egyptian Revolution, Euromaidan: it is hard to imagine now, exactly one hundred years after the fact, that
the Russian Revolution promised to be the last revolution. Despite
the Bolshevik’s optimism and dreams of equality, the Russian Revolution, like other revolts, brought about a terrifying destruction
of liberty, values and truth.
 
 

Revolutions continued to occur, and questions about the destiny of humankind and society remain unanswered. Why do revolutions happen? What are the powers that liberate, and what are the powers that oppress? What can we learn from the fact that the French Revolution ended in terror and the Russian Revolution degenerated into totalitarianism, while the American Revolution was successful?
Will the last revolution be for
freedom and human dignity?

 

On Saturday 18 November, the Nexus Institute brought together writers, thinkers, diplomats, politicians and activists from around the world who addressed these questions and looked for answers, ideas and arguments. Which movements will bring freedom in the twenty-first century? Who will oppose power and rise against it? Where will they find strength and inspiration? And what will be the true last revolution?

Nexus Conference 2017 The Last Revolution

Paris, 1850
In his hotel room, a Russian exile is writing down his thoughts on the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1949, to which he was a witness. He left his homeland in 1847, never to return, revolted by the despotism of the Tsar and the tyranny of intellectual and moral backwardness. He is even more disappointed by the fact that the European revolutions failed to deliver the freedom they promised. But he realizes that they could not have delivered on their promise, because the revolutionaries were possessed by an ideological utopia rather than having their minds set on actual freedom, and because the masses did not really desire freedom at all. To his disappointment, his friends like Garibaldi, Mazzini and Jules Michelet failed to understand this. Despite all this, he publishes an issue of his journal The Bell every week, like a Russian Voltaire, driven by his personal passion for the freedom of each human individual and his conviction that without this freedom and the moral values it requires, no civilized society can exist. His intellectual independence, his qualities as a writer and his struggle against all forms of tyranny won him the posthumous admiration of such diverse figures as Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Isaiah Berlin. These three intellectuals, facing the same question — how to defend freedom from the powers of illiberalism — were inspired by the words Alexander Herzen, a socialist, liberal and European humanist avant la lettre, wrote in his Paris hotel room in 1850 while working on his book From the Other Shore.

Yasnaya Polyana, 1869
At home, 200 kilometres south-west of Moscow, Leo Tolstoy is writing a second epilogue to conclude his epic work War and Peace. He has been working on the book for seven years — years in which he, as a novelist, used the power of his imagination to address the fundamental questions historians had failed to answer. What is the power that moves peoples? Why do people do what they do? In antiquity, it was thought there was a divine power to which people were subjected. The modern science of history knows better. But, Tolstoy noted, it only seeks to describe the expressions of power, rather than studying and explaining its causes. It does not answer the important questions: What is power? Where does power reside, and why? Why do people obey great men? And what makes them great? When and why do people rise up to resist power? Why is slaughtering a whole nation at the command of an emperor justified, while killing a single human being is murder? How free are people? Does man have a free will? What is freedom? What is the relationship between freedom and inevitability? What makes people free? What causes historical events? Is it God, or Reason? Is history guided by laws, or are human beings responsible for their own fates?

Prinkipo, 1930
On this island off the coast of Istanbul, another Russian exile has been residing for the past year. Unlike Alexander Herzen, he did not leave Russia willingly. Like the princes in ancient Byzantium, banned to this ‘Princes’ Island’ by the ruler who feared their power, Leon Trotsky was imprisoned here by Stalin. Trotsky is writing his History of the Russian Revolution, a history that is also, in large part, the story of his life. Together with Lenin, he led the October Revolution of 1917 which ended the centuries-old rule of the tsars. He was the chief strategist and commander of the Red Army which, against all odds and expectations, with few resources and in the middle of the chaos of the First World War, managed to emerge victorious. Together with Lenin, he was also the main ideologue of Bolshevism. The questions Tolstoy pondered are not Trotsky’s questions, because the latter already knows the answers. There is no God, but history is subject to laws, and, as he writes in his preface, ‘the discovery of these laws is the author’s task.’

i. the world of power
If Thomas Hobbes, one of the most brilliant thinkers on the phenomenon of power, writes: ‘In the first place I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual restless desire of Power, after Power, that ceaseth only in Death’; and if a no less brilliant thinker like Friedrich Nietzsche concludes that human existence is determined by the ‘will to power’; and if even Simone Weil, who hated the hunger for power more than anyone, is forced to infer that ‘there is no other force on this earth except force’; then all these voices are but an echo of the account of the origin of mankind in the Book of Genesis, which declares that man is created to rule over nature. The desire for power, the possession of power, the exercise of power is an indelible part of human nature. Yet because there are humans, and not a single human being, peoples, and not a single person, and because every human individual is shaped by instincts, by contradictory emotions, but also by a sense of values; we are also creatures that need order: social order, a world order, a way of life — the ideal of civilization described by Simone Weil.


ii. the world of freedom
The brilliant Italian humanist
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola is only 24 when, in 1487, he publishes his ode to freedom, De hominis dignitate (‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’), in which he puts these immortal words into the mouth of the Deity: We have given you, Oh Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor any endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very centre of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine. No matter how elegantly freedom as the essence of mankind has been worded here, the Deity forgets one crucial fact, a fact recorded in His own story of the Creation: the freedom of man begins with rebellion! Only by refusing to obey and by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil does humanity attain the freedom with which its history begins. Our freedom is always the result of a choice to be free; to orient your thinking against the established order and to be aware that you are responsible for the choice between good and evil. And so the predicament of human existence began.

To his great disappointment, Alexander Herzen realized that the revolutions of 1848 and 1849 failed because the masses did not really want to be free. But what is needed to transform the masses into individuals of a united humanity, which cherishes freedom and human dignity? Would that not truly be the last revolution?

Rob Riemen Founder and president of the Nexus Institute


what is needed to transform the masses into individuals of a united humanity, which cherishes freedom and human dignity? Would that not truly be the last revolution?

Speakers:

Bernard-Henry Lévy | Antony Blinken | Aleksandr Dugin | William Fallon | Sjeik Rached Ghannouchi | Aileen Kelly | Ivan Krastev | Moisés Naím | Nelofer Pazira | Leon Wieseltier | Michael Žantovský | Zhang Weiwei