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Blok To the Rescue: A Page from the History of World Revolution
By Prof. Vladimir Golstein
As we watch and experience protests, riots and looting, I can’t help
but think of various revolutionary riots, some of which crushed, some
resulting in a drastic change, some petering out.
There is a
fascinating, brilliant, and paradoxical essay on the subject, written in
1918 by Alexander Blok: Catiline. With the subtitle: A Page from the
History of World Revolution. The essay muses on the Roman rebel,
Catiline, who led a failed coup in 63 BC. This essay is worth
So this Catiline was an aristocrat, notorious for his
crimes and scandals. Propagandists of his day, tried to present him as a
mixture of Weinstein and Epstein. The biggest of these propagandists
Cicero, Christian Amanpour or Rachel Maddow of his day, who spent
endless amount of time exposing “Catiline’s conspiracy.” And of course,
pseudo pundits pitched in, like this hypocritical historian, Sallust.
Who probably worked in some Roman Think Tank, called Mediterranean
Forced to study Cicero in schools, the later
generations, continued to malign Catiline, all the way to Voltaire.
Virtue signaling and cheap showing off is the vice that even the
greatest can’t escape. Until Cateline’s story reached Ibsen and then
What’s happened? Both Ibsen and Blok understood that Rome
of Catiline’s day, was the epitome of the stifling, materialistic,
delusional empire bound to collapse. Referring to Rome as
“triumphantly decomposing,” Blok claims that the heart of Rome stopped
when Christ was born. The Rome continued like a zombie, until it fully
collapsed not only under the external pressure, but more importantly,
under its own weight and moral bankruptcy.
So for Blok, the only
interesting way to interpret Catiline was to see him as a symptom.
Catiline was obviously pursuing his own goals and vendettas, yet his
rebellion served a lighting rod, attracting many people marginalized and
crushed by the decaying Roman Empire. The revolt was a reminder that
something was rotten and was bound to be shaken up. As Blok puts it:
“Roman culture was indicted forever in a different non-hypocritical
court, the court of Jesus Christ.”
So yes, the old order, the
Washington consensus of the last seventy years, is being shaken up.
Scandals, military adventurism, the abuse of its Praetorian guards,
lies, spinning, failure to take care of the weakest and helpless members
of the society.
Many decaying regimes exhibit similar
features. But Rome was clearly the father of them all. Blok, therefore
writes in his diary: “Catiline. What a close, FAMILIAR, sad world!” He
keeps on returning to the theme: referring to Rome’s “old, provincial,
vulgar, positivist morality.”
Besides indictment of Rome, what
is fascinating about Blok’s analysis is his creative reading of
Catiline. He sees him as “created by social inequality, suckled in its
suffocating atmosphere.” Yet, despite Catiline’s personal failings, he
–and his movement- got transformed, caught in the revolutionary
upheaval. That’s how Blok describes Catiline gang’s march through Rome:
“This is the same Catiline, the recent pet of the lionesses of Roman
society and the demi-monde, the criminal ringleader of a debauched band.
He walks with the same “now lazy, now hurried” gait, but his fury and
rage have communicated a musical rhythm to his walk, as if this were no
longer the same mercenary and debauched Catiline; in the tread of this
man are revolt, uprising, and the furies of the people’s anger.” What a
great line: “In the tread of this man are revolt, uprising, and the
furies of the people’s anger.”
Blok was clearly fascinated by
this revolutionary march through Rome. He knew that the uprising was to
be crushed. That it would take another few centuries for Pax Romana to
find its way into the dustbin of history. Yet, he could not help but
hear the sound of liberation in this hurried march through Roman
squares: “Do you hear that uneven, hurried step of the condemned man,
the step of the revolutionary, the step in which the storm of fury
sounds, resolving itself in staccato musical sounds?”
amount of Cicero eloquence can cover the fact, that there is a
“non-hypocritical court” of history, or God, or whatever one wants to
call it, that has already pronounced its verdict. In fact, Ciceros of
today can go on, expressing their anger at racism, or Trump, or looting,
or any other subject one is allowed to criticize by the Praetorian
guards of the mass media. The system based on making rich richer and
poor –poorer is wrong. The system based on the endless fear-mongering is
wrong. The system that can’t see beyond bread and circus is sick to the
core. The system that serves shareholders of military corporations and
not the sick and the needy has only one way to go. If the system still
divides the world into Rome and Barbarians, into aristocrats and
sans-quilots, into exceptional Atlantists and its resources, it cannot
last. I trust Blok on that.
Bourbons, when they were restored in
France, also tried to present French revolution as nothing but murderous
fury, and tried to turn the clock back, but obviously, history has its
own logic. Ancient Regime was done for; it simply took it another fifty
years to realize it.
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