Did a plot link French and Russian revolutions? Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith, by James H. Billington. New York: Basic Books. $25.
James H. Billington, a former Princeton professor and chairman of the Fulbright program, is the current director of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies.
This volume is the product of a "subjectivist method" in historiography, for, as Billington writes, his method "was to concentrate on old books in the light of insights derived from new students."
He focuses here on revolution, which, like a subsoil forest fire, licked upward repeatedly in Europe from 1789 (France) to 1917 (Russia).
Occultism, he finds, was the tinderbox in which the spark of revolution ignited. Freemasonry and other secret hierarchical organizations provided the model for a series of interlocking political conspiracies.
The Illuminist Order, founded in Bavaria by Adam Weishaupt in 1776, went further than most in molding a conspiracy to overturn the monarchical order in favor of "natural" equality and justice.
The order influenced political figures close to the House of Orleans on the eve of the French Revolution. It swayed subsequent generations through the writing of Filippo Buonarotti, a participant in the 1796 conspiracy of Gracchus Babeuf to extend the French political revolution with a further social revolt to establish community property.
Throughout the 19th century similar organizational projects attracted intellectuals who influenced the newly literate masses through the first mass medium, journalism.
Born of Europe's struggle against Napoleon, romantic nationalism held sway until the Revolution of 1830 in France. Under Louis- Philippe, concepts of social revolution began to move to the fore. The Revolution 1848 coincided with Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto."
After Marx, social revolutionaries were divided into two camps: those who felt the chief enemy was capital, as he did, or those who pitted themselves against government itself, as did Proudhon and Bakunin.
In the industrial age the most successful model of a revolutionary machine was offered by the Marxist Social Democratic Party of Germany after 1870.
If Germans were fascinated by machines, Billington argues, Russians were enthralled by dynamite, and redirected it to political ends through assassinations and terror. The ultimate combination of Russian violence and German organization was achieved by Lenin (himself half German and half Russian) , who overthrew an unelected government in 1917 with his Bolshevik half of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party and rechristened his instrument the Communist Party.
By exercising his right "to ignore professional debates" and a "willingness to follow seminal figures on leaps of history," Billington argues the descent of Bolshevism from the beginnings of the Illuminist Order a century and a half earlier.
Appealingly simplistic and heavily freighted by citations, Billington's argument isn't really persuasive in demonstrating uninterrupted linkage among conspirators between 1776 and 1917. In the absence of direct evidence, hypotheses about possible influence can only be considered speculative. Complex historical processes cannot be reduced to organizational fetishism or seductively simplified as representing fragments of a Great Conspiracy.
The mass of footnotes at the end of this magisterial 650-page volume may appear to lend plausibility to Billington's position, but in the end his case seems subjective if not specious.