One peculiar feature that always shows up in various revolutions is that, while, in the beginning, the peasantry becomes part of the revolutionary alliance, they almost invariably become part of the “reaction.” When the French Revolution began, one critical development that aided the Revolutionaries’ hand was the insurrection in the countryside, although, a few years later, these same peasants were marching against the Revolutionary government in support of the nobility whose chateaus they were burning not too long ago. Much the same thing can be said about various “peasants'” militias during the Russian Revolution. One might even say the same about the role of the so-called “missing white voters” (yes, I’d been writing a bit about them) in American politics of late.
One problem in making sense of them is that the history is written from the perspective of the nobles and the revolutionaries–the political sophisticates of the era. The peasants just didn’t do an elaborate analysis of their role in society and politics, nor did they have demands that fit neatly into the “revolutionary” vs. “counterrevolutionary” narratives that the writers of history like to sort events into. In a sense, their story echoes that of the politics of the “missing white voters” today: they operate in a realm of blue-and-orange mentality, so to speak, incomprehensible to the minds of the self-appointed political intellectuals, and thus, “must be irrational.”
The problem of the peasantry in Revolutions was that their problems, in a sense, were far more immediate: they were interested in improving their lot materially, first and foremost, not in grand ideologies and supranational planning. In this sense, they were implacably opposed to the landed nobility whom they had to constantly deal with, at least given the prerevolutionary status quo. The rules were stacked against them and the nobility enforced the inferior status of the peasantry through both the law and the bayonet. Not surprisingly, it was always the old record books, that contained records of who owed what to whom (i.e. how much each peasant had to surrender to which nobles) that were burned when the peasants rose up in revolts. However, once their limited and local needs are met, they have little interest in changing the world any further. Once the old record books are burned and their old unfair obligations eliminated or, at least, made less burdensome, they have no interest in shedding blood or suffer disruptions beyond their immediate livelihood. If anything, they want to enshrine their improved status into new record books and ensure that they enjoy the rights they have won in perpetuity thereafter.
This is not necessarily unique to “revolutions.” Any political change that seeks to consolidate the changes it achieved must offer the suitable “fruits of revolution” broadly, accompanied by the credible-enough guarantees that these fruits now constitute a set of rights that cannot be revoked easily–as it were, a set of “entitlements” that are more or less guaranteed to “everyone,” certainly beyond the grubby hands of politicians and their machinations. This makes most of political players, including those who have the “numbers” on their side–i.e. the “ignorant” masses, sufficiently invested in the status quo–now, the new status quo–that they become willing to defend it against encroachments.
The problem that the French revolutionaries had was that they could not offer the credible guarantees. First, they were themselves in grave political peril: if they were defeated militarily, all their promises would be moot anyways. Second, they had such absolute (legal) power (that they gave themselves) that they were bound by no greater force that would ensure their honesty–least of all, their own words. Third, they were given to such utopian world-changing dreams that there was no telling what the ends of their demands were going to be. There was nothing in these revolutionary projects for the peasants. So why should peasants want to lay down their lives (and whatever gains they achieved by burning nobles’ old privileges)?
This places the seemingly contradictory slogans of the Trump Tea Partiers (before they were co-opted by Cruz Tea-Partiers) in perspective. Liberals joked about their seemingly self-contradictory slogan, “get government out of my Medicare.” Of course, that is placing their discontent out of context. Medicare is part of the “fruits of revolution,” the “rights” extended by the revolution in an earlier era. The implicit guarantee was that it would not be infringed upon, certainly not in service of short- to medium-term “politics.” All entitlement reforms, in this sense, whether of Medicare, Social Security, or other forms of explicit and implicit “promises” by the government to its citizens, therefore, is ultimately destablizing. The health care reform that sparked off the slogan, by being tied to, or at least being perceived to be, an infringement upon the existing rights under the Medicare, sparked much suspicion among the masses.
This is not part of the past tense today, not by any means. Trump’s movement, and to a lesser degree, Sanders’, was driven by those who feel that what “rights and entitlements” they enjoyed are under threat. The seeming xenophobia exhibited by many Trump supporters, I suspect, was fueled by their suspicion that their existing rights would be diluted in support of the social programs favored by the “liberal elite.” In some sense, this is not necessarily an unfair worldview: the “elites” do dominate the political landscape as much as they do the economic. In an era of increasing inequality, they increasingly control access not only to disproportionate share of wealth, but also who pays for benefits to whom in form of government services. To the degree that they control the politics of distribution, they would not easily consent to tax themselves to pay for their social agenda, at least not under terms that do not fit their taste of how the world should be run. So the peasants will inevitably be encroached upon–either they have to suffer loss of their existing “feudal rights” or have to convert to their lords’ religion. These are exactly what sparked off peasants’ uprisings throughout Middle Ages, as well as earlier and beyond. Apparently, we are not out of the Dark Ages yet, with the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders reprising the roles of Thomas Muntzer and the like. (Yes, Trump and Sanders are proposing very different programs, and as such, have very different allies. At the same time, however, they are also relying on the same modus operandus, of inciting the modern equivalent of the “peasantry.” The divisions among the peasants, for good or ill, are limiting the scope of their respective uprisings–during the wars of Reformation, supposedly, Catholic peasants did not cooperate with Protestant peasants, or so I’d been told.)