Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith

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Routledge, Oct 24, 2017 - History - 677 pages

This book traces the origins of a faith--perhaps the faith of the century. Modern revolutionaries are believers, no less committed and intense than were Christians or Muslims of an earlier era. What is new is the belief that a perfect secular order will emerge from forcible overthrow of traditional authority. This inherently implausible idea energized Europe in the nineteenth century, and became the most pronounced ideological export of the West to the rest of the world in the twentieth century. Billington is interested in revolutionaries--the innovative creators of a new tradition. His historical frame extends from the waning of the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century to the beginnings of the Russian Revolution in the early twentieth century.

The theater was Europe of the industrial era; the main stage was the journalistic offices within great cities such as Paris, Berlin, London, and St. Petersburg. Billington claims with considerable evidence that revolutionary ideologies were shaped as much by the occultism and proto-romanticism of Germany as the critical rationalism of the French Enlightenment. The conversion of social theory to political practice was essentially the work of three Russian revolutions: in 1905, March 1917, and November 1917.

Events in the outer rim of the European world brought discussions about revolution out of the school rooms and press rooms of Paris and Berlin into the halls of power.

Despite his hard realism about the adverse practical consequences of revolutionary dogma, Billington appreciates the identity of its best sponsors, people who preached social justice transcending traditional national, ethnic, and gender boundaries. When this book originally appeared The New Republic hailed it as "remarkable, learned and lively," while The New Yorker noted that Billington "pays great attention to the lives and emotions of individuals and this makes his book absorbing." It is an invaluable work of history and contribution to our understanding of political life.


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About the author (2017)

James Hadley Billington was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania on June 1, 1929. He received a bachelor's degree from Princeton University in 1950 and a doctorate from Oxford University in 1953. He joined the Army and became a first lieutenant. He taught Russian history at Harvard University from 1957 to 1962 and at Princeton University from 1962 to 1974. As director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars from 1973 to 1987, he founded the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies and The Wilson Quarterly. He was the librarian of Congress from 1987 until 2015. He wrote six books on Russia and revolutionary traditions. His books included Mikhailovsky and Russian Populism; The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture; Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith; Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope, August 1991; The Face of Russia; and Russia in Search of Itself. He died from complications of pneumonia on November 20, 2018 at the age of 89.

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