Fire in the Minds of Men

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Fire in the Minds of Men by James H. Billington is an extremely dense book with large ambitions. It is full of much remarkable anecdotal material, the sum of which, however, does not add up to a coherent whole. Instead, it is a rather amazing compilation of esoteric knowledge about European revolutionaries, derived from extensive research, but lacking a unifying thread which could have turned it from an encyclopedia into a story.

Billington’s guiding theme is a worthy one, with the potential for structuring a fine book. Rather than regarding European revolutionaries from the time of the French Revolution to the Finland Station in the context of their own time and society, he chooses to examine the internal development of the movement, convinced that there is important knowledge to be discovered in their relation to one another over time. The idea is one which has merit, as Billington proves in occasional flashes of inspiration. The book is flawed, though, by the introduction of too many characters, with too many different goals, from too many countries, over too long a period of time to work well. Billington has succumbed to the temptation of introducing an eccentric minor personage because he is unknown and has ignored the necessity of structuring a comprehensive argument. As a result, the reader is inundated with new information, but left groping for any reason besides novelty for this flood of knowledge. The book can be interesting, but it can also be tedious. Most importantly, it does not cohere.

All of the major revolutionary movements during these 130 years are discussed. Yet, they are discussed in a very peculiar way. The French Revolution, Billington’s starting point, is seriously treated without in-depth analysis of Robespierre and the other major figures. This omission alone makes it hard to treat Billington’s work as a serious presentation of the internal structure of the revolutionary mind in Europe. Instead, he chooses to analyze a number of peripheral figures, their symbols, their geographical location, and their relations to one another. This discussion is novel and interesting, but Billington has chosen to exploit the peculiar nature of some information rather than create a genuine picture of the period.

After the French Revolution, Billington proceeds to document the interstices of revolutionary events. Again, he is not concerned with the major events—1830 and 1848 for example—but the shadowy world of revolutionary activity under Napoleon I or clandestine groups in Bavaria and the Jura. Such information can be fascinating, but it demands a more comprehensive structure tying it to the major events.

Nevertheless, it is in these interstices that Billington’s book is most remarkable. He has done an excellent job tracing the careers of those involved in Gracchus Babeuf’s ill-fated conspiracy, which was, of course, a peripheral event in itself. Still, it is in this section that one can satisfy one’s curiosity about the life of Filippo Buonarrotti as he traversed Europe for thirty years forming small groups and dreaming about the great days. Such information is useful, even interesting, but it is a thin reed on which to support the larger ambition of a history of European revolutionaries.

As Billington moves into the nineteenth century, the story becomes more complicated. Here he is honest enough to present systematically the wide variety of revolutionary trends—Northern versus Southern Europe, Western versus Eastern, national versus economic, French versus German, socialist versus Communist, and so on. Such comprehensiveness speaks well for the author, but again, he fails to unite these competing ideas and men into a cogent unity. Revolutionaries did influence one another through time, of this he is...

(The entire section is 1552 words.)