Coincidentally, I've been reading Karl Gaspar's "The Masses are Messiah: Contemplating the Filipino Soul."  The book written by a Filipino theologian, whose background is obviously Marxist, explores the spirituality of the Filipinos.  He expounds on the concept of "masa" (common people) and "misa" (religious rite) as he explains Filipino spirituality and poverty in the Philippines.  I'm still halfway in my reading, but I found Midgley's views from class struggle to selfish gene very relevant in the Filipino's mythologizing of the "mass" as a people and a rite.  In Filipino consciousness, all modern myths mentioned by Midgley are lumped together in the concept of "the masses."  "Masses" understood as common people is a myth like "masses" as catholic rites displaying the passion of the Christ and the "pasyon" of the Filipinos.


After finishing the first chapter, I could not help but google well-known historical figures.  I had no problem with the catholic rite called mass or misa, but I could not say the same about the masses being constituted by the common people as a modern myth.  I checked the history of the Philippines.  All recognized Filipino revolutionaries and heroes were not really of working class.  Most of them were educated in Europe in the 1800's.  Their families were landowners.   Jim Richardson, a British historian, examined the backgrounds of the Filipino revolutionary leaders and found them not as poor laborers but enlightened individuals belonging to intelligentsia.  Even the Philippines' fiercest revolutionary known as "the hero of the masses" belonged to the elite.  He was not a poor bolo-wielding laborer, the contemporary image of him.  He wrote poetry and spoke Spanish, the language of the elite during the Spanish colonial period.  He also worked as a warehouse manager (bodeguero), a white-collar job, for a German-owned company in the Philippines.



I also check other revolutionaries in world history.  Even Pol Pot, who wanted the Cambodian masses to rise, belonged to a rich family that could afford to send him to Paris to study.  Mao Zedong, Chou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping were of landlord class.  Fidel Castro was born in a sugar plantation to a moneyed father who invested in the sugar industry.  Jose Marti, Simon Bolivar, and Che Guevara were also from well-off families.  Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were not of working class.  Nelson Mandela's lineage can be traced back to an African King.  The woman who toppled the Marcoses in the Philippines was from a rich family of "hacienderos" (sugar plantation owners).  There's a clear pattern in world history: revolutions were not planned and led by the masses, the class for laborers and proletarians.   


French and Russian revolutions were also the workings of the intellectuals.  It was not really the masses that revolted.  It seems to me the so-called masses joined in the struggle as mobs with selfish goals.  Street thieves stole the jewels of the French monarchs.  Hope Diamond was proven to be a re-cut French Blue of Louis XVI.  In the Philippines during the Spanish colonial period, mobs were called "tulisanes" or bandits.  Looting and thievery were part of their uprising.  When the Marcoses abruptly left for exile in the mid-80's, the poor who joined the revolt ransacked and looted the palace left by the dictator and his family.  "Selfish or selfishness gene," I think, can explain the mobs' behavior.  Self-preservation is, indeed, a survival instinct. The idea of the masses benefiting from the ideological plan and political struggle of the elite is not bad either. 


In the US, the masses are expressed as those in the Main Street (as opposed to Wall Street).  Are they really the masses?  I don't think so.  The real masses in America today are contented with their food stamps and welfare checks.  They have nothing to revolt for.  Some of them live on the streets and have no addresses.  Others are too high or drunk to even think of political reform and ideological uprising.  There are those who are too busy surviving in their communities infested with roaches, gang-bangers, and diseases that entertaining issues beyond their locales is too much a bother.  As I see it, "the masses" is also a myth in America.  The people in the Main Street are those in the middle class who have properties and wealth threatened by the economic crisis.


If there's a revolution led by the middle class or intellectuals, the poor will join in by accident or because of their selfish goals or through self-preservation.  Circumstances will also force them to act so they can benefit from the event they do not plan.  The LA riot happened because the Rodney King issue gave the mobs a chance to loot and cause trouble in the name of racism.  They did not really care for King and his bruises and the issue his case represented.  Only the likes of Jesse Jackson, black intellectuals, and ghetto elites did care.  Even the famous marches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. do not appear to me as political exercises of the masses.  His supporters were mostly educated Blacks and some Whites.  Rosa Parks, a laborer, was an accidental civil rights activist/leader.  Her refusal to occupy a backseat was also a matter of self-preservation not of a political ideology.


If "the masses" is a myth, their rise also is.         


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Comment by John McCreery on January 1, 2011 at 5:03am

One of the questions in relation to mass movements my post wants to ask is whether the ideologies in previous revolutions and revolts of the masses were really ideologies coming from below. 

This is a very good question, indeed. I suspect that we agree that the answer is rarely, if ever. Ideology in the sense of false consciousness or the ingrained habits to which Foucault points are never the source but rather major obstacles to rebellion or revolution. Ideology in the narrower sense of a consciously articulated justification for rebellion or a revolutionary program is the work of people educated enough to develop a system of ideas that transform local or personal grievances into principles that the masses can embrace. 

This is not, however, to say that the ideas in question must be sophisticated ones, where sophistication implies the level of debate and analysis that scholars demand of each other. It is noteworthy, for example, that the leaders of the great, sometimes dynasty-changing rebellions, that have shaped Chinese history are frequently individuals who failed to pass the exams that would have gotten them into the imperial bureaucracy or were, at best, semi-literate. 

Arguably, one of the great gaps in anthropological research is the thinking and activities of those who might be labeled "middle-brow" intellectuals who, in the Chinese case, do things like participating in spirit-writing cults, serving on local temple committees, running martial arts schools or offering classes where students can learn to chant classical poetry using pronunciations in the local vernacular. When I think of the churches to which my parents belonged and my brother belongs in the U.S.A., I note the presence, along with the ministers, of the lay members of the congregation who teach in the Sunday schools or run Bible-study groups in their homes. 


If I am right, our customary focus on generic custom and habit neglects the special roles played by people like these in developing and promoting ideas that leaders of rebellions and revolutions can, then, draw on.

Comment by M Izabel on December 31, 2010 at 10:29am
One of the questions in relation to mass movements my post wants to ask is whether the ideologies in previous revolutions and revolts of the masses were really ideologies coming from below.  In my reading of world history, I don't think it was the case.  Indian Independence movement is such an example.  Most participants were poor because poverty was rampant, and the movement was led by Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and other members of the Indian political, economic, and intellectual elite.  After the British left, it was not the masses that ruled but the powerful elite.  In the Philippines, it has always been said that the masses drove the Marcoses out of power.  I don't think it's true.  If they did, Filipino oligarchs and elites would not have strengthened their forces in the Philippine society after the Marcos dictatorship.  The same pattern can be observed in American civil rights movements.  If the movements were political exercises of the masses,  why is it that there are still ghettos and generations of families on welfare today?  I wonder if the ideologies of the Black political and religious activists in the 60's were of the elites not of the masses.
Comment by John McCreery on December 31, 2010 at 8:10am

Allow me to join Keith in raising an issue, the role of the intelligentsia as leaders of mass movements, of critical importance both to effective political action and to better understanding of cultural change. It may simply reflect my ignorance of more recent developments; when, however, I try to remember anthropological writing on this topic, the one notable work that comes to mind is Anthony F.C. Wallace's The Birth and Death of the Seneca, which is built around the biography of the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake. 

The observation that the leaders of mass movements tend to emerge from the intersection of the intelligentsia and the petit bourgeoisie has more than a grain of truth to it. On reflection, this is not surprising, since the creation of mass movements requires leaders with both the freedom to act and the ability to articulate local grievances in terms of an ideology with wider appeal.


On further reflection, however, this explanation is also too simple. While the leaders of mass movements frequently turn out to be petit bourgeois intellectuals, it is far from being the case that all petit bourgeois intellectuals are leaders of mass movements. The particular combination of motive, means and opportunity that turn what is, after all, only a handful of petit bourgeois intellectuals into leaders of mass movements remains obscure.


It is also important to remember that mass movements commonly emerge from historical moments in which numerous prophets and reformers offer competing visions of what a better society should be. It is only in retrospect, in the relatively rare case that a movement succeeds, that history is rewritten it ways that make the success inevitable. 

Consider, for example, Christianity, as described by Lawrence Stone in "Chapter 4. The Reformation" in The Past and the Present Revisited (1987:99).


One of the more striking features of Christianity has been its perennial tendency to fission. With difficulty held together during the Middle Ages, it suddenly split asunder in the early sixteenth century. Not only did a series of new and independently organized churches emerge after the earthquake — Calvinist, Lutheran, and Anglican — which together form what has been usefully described as the 'Magisterial Reformation'; in addition there oozed through the cracks in medieval Christendom a host of strange new sects with alarmingly revolutionary beliefs and aspirations — collectively known as the 'Radical Reformation.' (The latter are the source of many ideas later naturalized and proclaimed as God-given or simply axiomatic in Enlightenment and Progressive thinking.)



Stone continues,


There are two ways of looking at this crisis of European civilization. The one lays principal stress on popular undercurrents of religious emotion and faith, and sees the Reformation as a series of responses by men in authority and by institutions to pressures and demands from below. Its strength lies in sympathy for and understanding of the ideological tensions an conflicts which were at work in late medieval Europe, and its appreciation of the deep undercurrents of history that were sweeping along even the most powerful princes, like Charles V, and the most charismatic prophets, like Luther.


The other interpretation places the main emphasis on the outstanding personalities and their use of power, particularly the power of the sword. There is a good deal of sense in this approach, for again and again we see a determined minority imposing its doctrinal views on an indifferent or reluctant majority by the use of force. The first half--century of Calvinist rule in the Netherlands and of Anglican rule in England, are striking examples. On the other hand, it exaggerates the degree to which state power was effective in the sixteenth century, and underestimates the role of popular feeling.


I should note, too, that this topic appears serendipitously, since I am rereading Stone in part because, in an unusually good airport bookshop, I recently stumbled on Luther Blisset (2000) Q.This book is a wonderful demonstration of what Keith is talking about when he urges us to explore fiction as an aid to deeper understanding of the issues that engage anthropologist.

The setting is central Europe, in the years 1517 to 1551. 1517 is the year in which Luther posts his 95 theses on the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, the event conventionally taken as the start of the Reformation. Q, the protagonist from whom the novel takes its name, is an agent provocateur in the service  of Giovanni Pierro Carafa, a fiercely conservative and politically ambitious cardinal who would like to be elected Pope and becomes, as the novel unfolds, the head of the Holy Office and the founder and controller of the Inquisition. We learn about Q, who remains anonymous to the end, through the letters in which he explains his actions and makes his recommendations to Carafa. Q's antagonist starts out as a young intellectual caught up in the ferment of the Reformation. Inspired by Luther, he is drawn into following of Thomas Müntzer, a radical reformer, whose attitudes are encapsulated in a letter to a German count: "So tell me, wretched and disgusting vermin, who it was who appointed you prince of the people?" He barely escapes with his life when Müntzer's followers launch a premature rebellion and are crushed and massacred by the forces sent against them. Thus begins a picaresque journey which leads to involvement with a series of radical groups, some militant, some pacifist, and hairbreadth escapes when these groups are suppressed.  Q, it turns out, was also involved in all these cases, working under cover to incite the actions that would lead to the groups' suppression, with those involved tortured, burned at the stake, or otherwise disposed of.

We are reminded throughout of the divisions and political ambitions that divided the political rulers of the era, as Francis, the King of France, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, the North German Princes and the Pope maneuvered for supremacy or independence (supremacy within their own domains), all with their own supporters and agents, inside both the Catholic church and the various Protestant movements. 


Lots to think about.  


Best wishes for a happy new year.



Comment by M Izabel on December 31, 2010 at 12:55am

Season Greetings!


Thanks for reading, Keith.  It's interesting that you mentioned peasant revolts, which I also checked.  My quick reading of the peasant revolts in late Choson period of Korea gave me an impression that those revolts were also led by scholars and intellectuals. They were no different to current peasant wars waged by Communist revolutionaries who are mostly scholars and intellectuals. 

Communist arm struggle in the Philippines that purportedly fights for peasants' rights and land reforms has been led by an exiled intellectual, a former Literature professor in my old university.  He, too, is from a landed clan and
supported by educated leftists.  Those poor peasants and laborers who join the revolutionary causes of the Marxist intellectual elite do not really have a good grounding and understanding of the ideology they were fighting for.  It seems to me their participation is due to their marginalization and victimization by rich landowners. Simply, they want change and revenge.  I don't wonder why Filipino Communist guerrillas resort to looting, kidnapping, and banditry.  


I am not confident with my knowledge of peasant wars in Japan.  I wonder if those peasant wars were not ideological revolts but uprisings of the marginalized who were victims of over-taxation and exploitation
by the ruling class.  Ideology, I think, is important in defining the concept of "the masses", which has been related to class and radicalized.     

Comment by Keith Hart on December 30, 2010 at 11:18pm

Thanks for this typically grounded, wide-ranging and contentious post. A case can be made that the only modern revolutionary class is the middle class, but that is a wide category. The peasants have never been slow to take up arms against the status quo. There were 90 peasant wars in Japan during three centuries before the Meiji restoration.


Marx believed that capitalism polarized society into two great classes, the big owners of money (bourgeoisie) and those who had to work for money (proletariat). Between them were small owners of money (petty bourgeoisie), people who had some property but not enough to guarantee their security. As a result they swung between adhesion to one of the major classes. This is why the leaders of workers and peasants revolutions are always the petty bourgeois intellectuals, even though the majority of petty bourgeois are right-wing. There are problems with this vision. In particular I think it draws too firm a line between wage workers and small property owners.


What you have dug up is the fact that revolutionary leaders are often from the landowning or monied classes. Of this one can say that a person's origins don't always read off as his current class position and even less as his class ideology. Just because a revolution is led by such people doesn't mean that it has no basis in the lower classes. See George Rudé's The Crowd in the French Revolution.


It is also the case that all the main modern revolutions drew heavily on the money of fractions of the bourgeoisie who hated the landowners: agricultural capitalists in the English civil war, slave trade capitalists of Bordeaux and Nantes in the French revolution, the industrial capitalists of Milan and Turin in Italy's Risorgimento.


But this one runs and runs. Thanks for adding some historical specificity to Mary Midgely's philosophical speculations.




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