The Cult of the Revolutionary


Written by: Mark Del

Just like the saints and martyrs before them, revolutionary figures are afforded a baffling degree of veneration. It’s at once amusing and alarming, as many are products of decidedly secular movements. For example, the photos of Che Guevara’s corpse were dubbed “The Passion of the Che”; an oddly religious perception for a militant Marxist.

Though not every revolutionary has a quasi-religious image, many are viewed in a similar near-infallible light. Why is this so, and what damage can it cause?

Perhaps it’s humanity’s natural inclination to root for the underdog. Or perhaps politically-savvy, working class people wish to be on the “right” side of history. Either way, when we see a smaller power fighting a just cause against a larger oppressor, we usually relate and sympathise with the lesser party.

That’s all fair and good. But these situations almost always cause us to abandon critical thinking entirely. Because if we did, we’d realise a simple truth: being a revolutionary does not automatically make somebody a good person.

Before and during the disastrous, aborted presidency of Jacob Zuma, it became abundantly clear that this revolutionary figure was not enlightened, not a “man of the people”, and certainly not a person guided by any sense of justice or moral fibre. Instead, his nature as a slippery conman with the innate ability to avoid accountability was exposed for all to see.

During Mr. Zuma’s frequent battles, his defenders rallied behind his work in fighting the oppressive apartheid regime, as well as his unjust, decade-long imprisonment on Robben Island. These injustices were implicitly offered as an excuse for him to abuse his office for personal gain.

Why do we feel that a revolutionary is entitled to these things? Sure, they fought against tyrannical systems, but does that mean they’re above the rule of law now, free to steal and loot from an already-impoverished population? For that matter, why do we think that automatically makes them fit to rule? Being a revolutionary and being a statesman are two very, very different occupations.

What makes this all even more alarming is how “revolution” has become hip, trendy, chic, and intertwined with celebrity culture. Despite being a democracy for over two decades, we hear revolutionary rhetoric frequently used in our mainstream political discourse, and there’s a growing trend of the younger generation embracing not only the rhetoric but the look and attitude. Interesting to note is how the modern revolutionary lifestyle is one of stylish clothing, luxury cars, expensive watches, trips abroad, and fancy housing; a stark contrast to the guerrilla, nomadic way of life that was the norm in decades past.

Apartheid should never have existed. It had to be torn down, and we acknowledge that many people paid a very high price in fighting it, losing their lives and their liberty in the process. But we also need to recognize that some people fight such regimes not out of a sense of justice, but out of a need to have their own time in the Sun. Once we understand this, and once we stop treating the idea of revolution as akin to sainthood, we’ll break the cycle of exchanging one set of demagogues for another.

Author: Mark Del, born in 1981 as Delano Cuzzucoli in the US city of Richmond, Virginia, currently lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He works in IT and has written articles for tech and gaming magazines, both local and abroad. Mark has a passion for history, politics, philosophy, sociology, writing, and the arts.