10 Life Lessons from 10 Revolutions

Mike Duncan’s voice has a peculiar power over my wife. 

“Hello,” he’ll say, as a few perilous bars of classical music swell in the background, “and welcome to Revolutions.” 

“Hi Mike,” she’ll reply, already drowsy. Within minutes, she’ll be asleep. 

This isn’t to say that Duncan’s subject material is boring. His podcast offers blow-by-blow reports of political intrigues, battlefield maneuvers and insurrectionist schemes from some of the most chaotic and consequential events of history: the revolutions that shaped modern Europe and the Americas between the 17th and 20th centuries. At the same time, he layers in the twisting threads of thought and philosophy that undergirded the worldview of his characters, as well as the backgrounds and personalities that shaped them. With Duncan as our guide, we watch them incite, strain against and get carried away on the currents of history. It’s absolutely riveting stuff. 

Over the years, I have recommended Revolutions to just about everybody in my life. During that time, I don’t think a single one of them has actually become a listener. It is possible that I lack a certain amount of credibility among my family and friends, but I think the density of the subject matter is also a problem for some people. It takes a while to adjust to Duncan’s storytelling style, constantly jumping back in time to consider events from a slightly different perspective, wrangling multiple simultaneous and intertwined story lines at once — not to mention keeping all the Earls and Kings and Counts and Charleses and Phillips and French names (my god, the French names) straight in your head. 

Hence the anesthetic effect of his voice on H. 

I do think it’s important that we understand the history of our society — the great tides and strange little eddies of thought and economics that carry us through today and on into the future. Before Revolutions, I had a tenuous high-schooler’s grasp of World War One, the Russian Revolution, Nazi Germany, the Vietnam War and a particularly sanitized version of colonial Australia. I knew nothing about the great French Revolution, had no idea that enslaved Haitians had actually kicked out their so-called masters and forged a nation of their own. And this stuff is important. It offers a sense of perspective that may help us, as a society, navigate the increasingly treacherous waters of our own time. Perhaps it may help us avoid some of the more obvious mistakes.

But it’s extremely hard to package these stories and learn their lessons in an accessible way while retaining a necessary amount of nuance. Duncan does an amazing job — something about his delivery clicked for me (and thousands of others) and turned me into a history enthusiast. Maybe I can do the same for the handful of family, friends and readers who frequent this blog?

So allow me, a random non-historian, to attempt the impossible. I’m going to break Duncan’s podcast down into an easily digestible listicle, with an item for each revolution: the ten life lessons you’ll learn from the Revolutions podcast. (It should go without saying that the podcast is my main source for this post and any factual errors are my own, not Duncan’s.)

King Charles loses his head, with only himself to blame.

1: Don’t be an asshole

King Charles Stewart of England possessed a fatal combination of self-doubt and unwavering belief in the divine rights of kings. So when he started levying new taxes and walking all over the perplexed English parliament, a civil war broke out that ultimately pitched the various religious sects and ethnic groups of the British Isles against each other for about a decade between 1642 and 1651. King Charles would do anything but concede an iota of power to his enemies in parliament, and minutes after every forced concession he was already scheming how to renege on his promises and get back on top. Incompetence prevented these schemes from getting very far, but it took years before the English could overcome their reverence for the monarchy and actually chop off his head. Regicide did not turn England into a republic for long, however, and King Charles’ son eventually took the throne in a restored monarchy. 

The lesson: To put it simply, King Charles believed his own hype. He really thought his divine rights as king placed him above his subjects. His subjects were willing to continue believing it (as they had for literally centuries) but Charles’ staggering treachery and incompetence was enough to overcome traditional deference to the throne. In Duncan’s words, Charles practically “forced his people to kill him.” He kept stabbing backs until he ran out of friends. 

Don’t be King Charles. Don’t be an asshole.

C’mon Washington, figure it out.

2: Deal with your issues now, not later

The American Revolution and its ideals of individual liberty and self determination was a blueprint for many of the liberal revolutions and revolts that were to follow throughout the early modern period. However, it was also the most hypocritical of the revolutions we’ll discuss here, with the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson taking up arms and writing constitutions in the name of freedom and liberty — only to turn around and deny that freedom and liberty to their slaves once they’d won it for themselves. The Founding Fathers were fully aware of the hypocrisy involved in espousing liberty while maintaining slavery but, in the words of Duncan, everyone was “more than happy to kick that can down the road” rather than confront the slave states or attempt abolition. Within a century that can had become a boulder lashed to the new nation’s ankle, and it dragged the country into an incredibly destructive civil war. We still live with the effects of legalized racism today. 

The lesson: Imagine you inherited a piece of land with half a house on it, but you find out that the previous owner started building that house in a muddy, marshy section of the property. It might be easier to keep building on top of the old foundations, even if you know they’re not solid — but resist the urge! Ignoring your foundational problems now will only make it much more complicated and costly to fix them later on.

The early United States is that land — the Founding Fathers decided to continue building on largely shoddy foundations. So the lesson from the American Revolution is that it’s never a good idea to ignore the big problems in your life.

C’mon Founding Fathers, get it together. Learn from their mistake: deal with your issues now, not later!

Talleyrand sitting pretty

3: Move with the times

In the late 1700’s, a financial crisis brought the teetering medieval French government down under a combination of liberal reforms driven by the bourgeois elites and armed insurrection by the working classes of Paris. Events quickly spiraled out of anyone’s control, resulting in the Reign of Terror, wars against the rest of Europe, “dechristianization” and, ultimately, the ascent of Napoleon — who helped plunge Europe into more than 20 years of almost non-stop warfare. The French Revolution is characterized by snowballing extremism: yesterday’s fire-breathing radical would become today’s centrist moderate and then tomorrow’s hopelessly backward conservative destined for the guillotine or a life in exile. Many reformers and revolutionaries fell prey to this dynamic — it was said that the revolution “ate her children.”

The lesson: The standout from this process was Charles Mauriece de Talleyrand-Perigord, known to history as Talleyrand. Talleyrand was technically a bishop, but he was a free-wheeling libertine kind of bishop who loved gambling and partying. He was cynical and smart. He always worked toward what he saw as “the good of France” but, crucially, this was a flexible vision. He worked with the times. So while the revolution gobbled ever more idealistic children as their ideas became outdated, crafty old Talleyrand was adaptive enough to serve in the National Assembly, multiple post-revolutionary governments, the authoritarian empire of Napoleon and then again after the restoration of the monarchy. Talleyrand always had an eye on the future, and was an astute judge when deciding whose patronage or friendship might yield results (or, in one case, save his skin) in the future. Through strategic favors, political machinations and an outrageous amount of corruption, Talleyrand was able to thrive at the treacherous height of politics throughout the French Revolution and beyond.

Be like Talleyrand — be flexible and move with the times.

Toussaint was stuck thinking about sugar.

4. Think outside the box

The Haitian Revolution was the second revolution to occur in the Americas. Unlike Washington and Co. up north, the Haitian Revolution involved actual slaves throwing off actual chains to take actual power from actual masters. It was (and remains) stirring stuff. Toussaint L’ouverture was born into slavery, but ultimately led his country into independence. He rebuffed an attempt by Napoleon to reassert control of the colony (and force Haitians back into slavery), and pursued a multicultural vision for his country’s future.

The French colony had existed to produce and export sugar, which was finding its way into everything from rum to chocolate back in Europe, and fueling a mass addiction that continues to this day. The work of harvesting and producing sugar was difficult, exhausting and dangerous work, and the freed slaves were eager to do pretty much anything except go back to work on the plantations.

But once he took power, L’ouverture could not see any other economic path for his country. He ultimately sent workers back to the plantations in conditions that were legally distinct from slavery but, in terms of lived experience, felt pretty much the same. 

The lesson: By entrenching Haiti’s place as the world’s cheap sugar mine, L’ouverture and his successors lashed his compatriots to a life on the plantation. So while he was a wily political operator, L’ouverture lacked the ability to think outside the box and imagine a new economic future for Haiti.  

The lesson is this: when you find yourself in uncharted waters and looking for a way forward, you’ve almost certainly got to think outside the box.

Simon Bolivar, unconvinced by your skepticism about Gran Colombia.

5. Sometimes, you’ve got to accept that you’re wrong

Simón Bolívar’s revolutionary wars in modern Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia started out as a South American version of the American War of Independence: locally born white elites rising up against the colonial motherland in the pursuit of more rights for themselves. Over time, however, Bolívar learned that in order to win, he needed to bring the vast ranks of slaves and indigenous South Americans to his side. During a visit to independent Haiti, he was convinced of the moral necessity for abolition, and added it to his checklist of revolutionary goals. A talented general, Bolívar’s armies defeated the Spanish empire across half a continent and, in the aftermath, pursued a great vision of a vast, unified, centralized country called Gran Colombia, which would encompass all the territory and peoples he’d liberated. 

But the people of Gran Colombia — a huge, diverse, mountainous and geographically isolated swath of territory — were not down to be ruled by some centralized government run out of Caracas or Bogotá. They preferred a more decentralized form of government roughly similar to the system in the U.S. But Bolívar believed he was right and pursued centralization ultimately to a grim and unhappy death. In this season of the Revolutions podcast, you can hear Duncan willing Bolívar to give it up, to go back to his family ranch outside Caracas with his lover and fellow revolutionary Manuela Sáenz, and live out his days in quiet, dignified peace. Instead, he was chased out of his country and died a broken exile, leaving the way open for the next crop of South American leaders to muddle along however they saw fit. 

It’s okay to call it a day and go home, Simón.

The lesson: When you’re as talented as Bolívar and you’ve been proven right for much of your life, it can be easy to believe that you alone know the best path forward in any given situation. Bolívar believed he could weld a nation together by the sheer force of his will — but it wasn’t enough.

Retain your humility and an open-minded attitude, even at the height of your success.

Don’t feel bad for King Charles the 10th.

6. Deal with reality as it is, not how you wish it was

Season six of Revolutions returned us to France, 30 years after the Bastille was stormed and King Louis the 16th lost his head. Napoleon’s wars finally ended in colossal defeat for France at the Battle of Waterloo but, thanks in part to the wily machinations of our old friend Talleyrand, the country was spared the total subjugation meted out to the losers of world wars a century later. With Napoleon rotting away on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, headless King Louis’ Bourbon dynasty was restored to power as France returned to monarchy.  

It was said of the Bourbon royal family that they “remembered everything and learned nothing” from their overthrow and years in exile. King Charles the 10th (the younger brother of headless Louis) wanted to be a king of old, with the divine authority that came from being absolute ruler of his people and his lands. But the world had changed. New ideas of liberty and nationalism had emerged during the revolutionary and Napoleonic era, and they were not going away. Having alienated practically everyone in his country, Charles was deposed in a coup and replaced with another king from a rival dynasty.

The lesson: Charles the 10th’s error is simple: deal with the world as it is, not how you wish it was.

7. Your boss doesn’t always have your back

After the incredibly violent and destructive decades of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the crowned heads of Europe swaddled their peoples under the iron blanket of absolute monarchy and authoritarianism for the next couple of decades. But this was only a delaying tactic — the French Revolution had sent sparks of nationalism and liberalism across Europe and, after a potato famine exacerbated conditions across the continent through the 1840s, they exploded in an extraordinary series of revolts that convulsed France, the Low Countries, the German states, the Italian peninsula and the Austrian Empire throughout 1848. German radicals chased the dream of a united, republican Germany. French liberals chafed under the corrupt government of their new monarchy. And in the multi-ethnic Austrian Empire, Hungarians, Italians, Croats, Serbs and Romanians discovered political solidarity with their linguistic and ethnic countrymen, and dreamed of building independent nations together. Nationalism had truly awoken — it was the “Springtime of the Peoples.”

But 1848 is the great “what-if?” of European revolutionary history. All over the continent, revolutionary movements were brutally suppressed by early 1849. Why? Well, by this point in the podcast we have learned that a successful revolution needs to combine the power of mobs in the street — working men and women, who usually pursued economic objectives like “bread” and “better wages” — with elites in the halls of power. In this case, those elites were liberal politicians chasing the standard set of liberal reforms that Washington and Co. would recognize: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, liberalized trade and other rights we take for granted today. 

In the initial outburst these two forces were aligned, but by the middle of the year the liberal elites had become frightened by the radical demands of their working class allies. Bourgeois bankers, landlords and businessmen wanted to enact practical reform, not turn the world upside down, and so they betrayed the working class communities they had helped to awaken. Aside from a few rights won for minority nationalities like the Hungarians within the Austrian Empire, the story of 1848 is one of failure and successful counterrevolution across Europe.

The lesson: The moral of the 1848 story is therefore a dark one. When push comes to shove, the higher-ups usually don’t have your back.

8. Your boss really doesn’t have your back

In series eight we returned to Paris yet again, this time to watch the brilliant Otto von Bismarck march Prussian soldiers on the French capital during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and 1871. Bismarck shared the goal of the 1848 liberals — a united Germany — but instead of elections, constitutions and republican government, the chancellor used the brute force of the Prussian king, who became the Kaiser or “emperor.” Bismarck successfully duped Louis Napoleon, the new French emperor (France was a republic again by this point) into a war that France could not win, and before long the Prussian army was knocking on the gates of Paris. During and immediately after the siege, the people of Paris rose up in revolutionary fervor and formed the Paris Commune, a brief experiment in radical direct democracy that would be recreated as “soviets” during the Russian Revolution almost 50 years later.

The lesson: The lesson from the Paris Commune compounds the hard lesson of 1848. In this case, the elites of France didn’t just jump ship — they actively turned on the people of Paris, siding with the Prussian military to brutally suppress their own people. When push comes to shove, the elites of the world often find more solidarity with each other than they do with the working classes of their own societies. If forced to choose, they will combine in an attempt to squash the have-nots rather than unify against other “haves.”

“WTF, Madero?”

9. Remember who your friends are

Throughout the late 19th century, Mexico languished under the decrepit dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Eventually, however, a political reform movement gathered under the leadership of Francisco Madero and took power. Madero was the scion of an old-money family from the north, but he came into power on a platform of genuine political and economic reform supported by the working-class masses. Once he took charge, however, Madero spent far too much political capital trying to win the approval and support of his former enemies. He reappointed former Porfirian officials to their posts and incorporated them into his government, even though they had just been fighting one another out in the desert.

Meanwhile, the outlaw armies that had propelled him to power — including the División del Norte of Pancho Villa — found themselves left out in the cold. For example, Madero moved far too slowly on land reform, a key objective of Emiliano Zapata and his army of peasant guerillas. The old Porfirians had no stake in Madero’s project and when they inevitably turned on him, Madero had successfully alienated his former friends enough that they did not step up to help him. The result was a new dictatorship under Victoriano Huerta, and a destructive ten-year civil war as revolutionaries like Villa and Zapata took up their guns once more.

The lesson: Remember who your friends are. Who stood by you when the chips were down? Who helped you achieve success, and how can you now help them to reach their own goals? Madero forgot his buddies and paid the price. 

10. Do the job you were hired to do

Duncan is currently in the middle of his mammoth 10th and final season. It ostensibly covers the Russian Revolution, but in addition to the usual contextual historical background of the country in question, Duncan also incorporated multi-episode explorations into the evolution of anarchism and communism in Europe, much of which was forged by the likes of Marx in reaction to what had occurred during 1848. 

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the Russian Revolution. For example, hereditary monarchy is bound to turn up a few duds like Tsar Nicholas the Second from time to time, and every now and then you’ll get a dud like Nicholas at a moment when you really need a superstar like Catherine the Great. 

But instead, we’re going to talk about the immediate aftermath of the Romanovs’ overthrow in February 1917. A group of socialist, communist and liberal leaders allied to fill the political vacuum with a provisional government, which had one goal: convene a constitutional assembly that would hammer out a new constitution — a whole new democratic form of government — for the Russian empire. 

But the provisional government under Alexander Kerensky dithered. The country was mired in World War One and it was largely felt that it was best to win the war first, then call the constitutional assembly. The country was much too fragile to start rebuilding the state from the ground up in the middle of a war. Best to win a great victory on the front, then convene the assembly. And so the provisional government waited. And waited. 

As they waited, they bled legitimacy. They absorbed the blame for each successive failure in the Great War. Peasants and workers asked why they were being sent away to die in a war started by a Tsar who was no longer in power. Under these conditions, it was natural that they turn to Lenin’s Bolshevik party, which was calling for an immediate end to Russia’s involvement in the war and for the provisional government’s power to be transferred to the ultra-democratic assemblies of soldiers and urban workers known as soviets. After repeated attempts to overthrow the provisional government throughout 1917, the power-hungry Bolsheviks finally seized it in October. 

You had one job, Kerensky.

The lesson: Russia’s post-revolutionary provisional government had one job — convene a constitutional assembly to chart a democratic future for Russia — but they wanted to wait until conditions were just right. There’s only one problem: there’s never a perfect time. We can learn from the provisional government’s mistakes and simply do what needs to be done now, before the whole thing collapses in a heap. 

Conclusions

Looking back over our ten revolutions, I’m struck by the cynical, transactional nature of these lessons. A shrewd cynic like Macchiavelli would probably approve. You’ll also notice that as we move closer to our own time through each revolutionary period, the ideals they represent become less universal, because many of them are dealing with questions that still have not been settled. The Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution in particular represent political and economic systems that remain largely unimplemented in powerful nations today. 

In terms of the podcast, there’s a running joke on Twitter about how Revolutions is really the story of Mike Duncan’s self-radicalization. This probably isn’t particularly surprising — history is full of overwhelming injustice, and even an enthusiast’s knowledge is enough to understand how historical struggles for justice and dignity continue into our own time. Some fundamental questions about the relationships between people and power remain unsettled. Others that were once thought to have been settled are now being debated anew.

Another thing I’ve learned from the Revolutions podcast: if at all possible, I do not want to find myself in a time and place of revolutionary upheaval. Revolutions are chaotic, confusing and often deadly. The stable rule of law gives way — if only temporarily — to rule by brute force. To avoid revolution, a governing system and the leaders who run it need to be attuned to the needs of the people and flexible enough to carry out their wishes. The more brittle and inflexible the system and its rulers are, the more vulnerable it is to violent overthrow. A desire to avoid violent conflagration and steer our societies toward a stability rooted in justice, dignity and broad-based economic prosperity shouldn’t just inform our choices of leadership, but also the system of laws and norms that we allow them to operate within. 

But I can only tell you this stuff, and it’s a lot more fun to learn it for yourself. For that, I defer you to the masterful Revolutions podcast. If you can give it time to settle and push past the somewhat obscure first season on the English Civil War, the rewards are there. If you’d prefer to skip ahead to the “good bits,” I’d start with season three on the French Revolution. It’s packed with dramatic set pieces and implications for subsequent world history, and it’s where Duncan really finds his voice as a storyteller.

Also, if ancient history’s your thing, Duncan traced a thousand-year arc of Roman history in an earlier podcast fittingly titled The History of Rome. He has also written two great books: The Storm Before The Storm: The Beginning Of The End of the Roman Republic and Hero Of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, which just came out a couple of months ago.


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