Raoul was a revolutionary. He’d been fighting for almost ten years. That’s how old we all were. Almost ten.
He arrived in my primary school class like a Molotov cocktail through the window of a bank. He made it clear that the rules of polite, bourgeois company were not for him. He swore. He smoked. He gelled his hair to look like Michael Jackson. He kissed girls. With tongue.
On the playground he was magnetic; a small, handsome boy animated by a current of discontent. These days he would probably be diagnosed and drugged by the medical-industrial complex, but back then he just seemed compellingly raw.
In the classroom, he practised both active and passive resistance. School was an oppressive regime and he fought it with everything he had. Arriving late was a moral duty; a calculated act of sabotage targeting one of the pillars of the school system. Homework was a yoke to be thrown off. Sassing the teacher wasn’t rudeness: it was revolution.
Like the great demagogues, he combined stormy oratory with brooding silence. But he also shared their instinct for playing a room, and self-righteousness never tipped over into petulance: the moment he felt his audience start to get anxious, he would crack wise and unleash his smile on us, releasing the pressure so that he could start building it all over again.
The other kids lapped it up. Superficially, it was fun: they enjoyed seeing the teachers reach the end of their tethers, the class enemy rendered helpless. But Raoul’s resistance also spoke to them of more complex victories. It injected an almost illicit realness into the classroom, a reminder that there was a wider world beyond the school gate. Most of all, it spoke of a future in which we would no longer be oppressed. A time of freedom. Of equality. Adulthood.
I didn’t buy a word of it.
Partly that had to do with my personality. I liked school and probably had an unhealthy love of order and quiet. I was, you might say, a brainwashed counter-revolutionary. But mainly I wasn’t buying what Raoul was selling because he was a complete shit.
He lied, constantly. He blamed everyone else for his mistakes. When he felt cornered, he threatened violence. He created a myth of strength around him, and used appalling language against anyone who doubted it, but when his mother scolded him after school, he crumpled and wept. He was a lying, cheating hypocrite.
people who believe in magic need to believe in magic
I didn’t understand, back then, why nobody else was seeing through Raoul. I was too young to know that people who get hypnotised want to be hypnotised. People who believe in magic need to believe in magic.
They all have good reasons for doing so, but it does create some blind spots. Consider some of our own revolutionaries, and how determined we are to overlook the non sequiturs in their rhetoric; how people preach sacrifice, struggle, blood, sweat and tears while their average day is less about AK-47s and Karl Marx than IRP5s and Johnnie Walker.
Contradictions, though, don’t matter, because no one is keeping score. Revolutionaries speak of being willing to take a bullet, but most of them are bulletproof. Theirs is a world of scathing criticism and damning judgment, but it only goes one way. That’s because the revolution (whatever its end goal) structures itself as religious movement, leading the faithful to the promised land, which means that any criticism of it is a crime against morality. Its opponents are not just deluded: they are evil.
The greatest benefit of being a revolutionary, however, is that the revolution never ends. If it fails, or is crushed, you can blame sell-outs, counter-revolutionaries, vast geopolitical odds stacked against you, and you start again. But winning? God forbid.
Why on earth would you want the messy, unsexy reality of becoming the new regime, with all those dull compromises (not to mention all the promises you’d have to break because when you made them you never thought you’d have to honour them), when you could simply go on being adored as a messianic figure, a liberator whose failure to liberate is someone else’s fault? Why would you risk losing the glamour that disguises your shortcoming? Right now, your comrades tolerate your alcoholism as a necessary outlet for the huge pressures you face, and your violent temper is interpreted as passion. But if the revolution ended you’d just be a drunk with anger issues. No, much better to find a new enemy massing on a new front, a new fight that can never be won, and keep the whole business ticking along indefinitely.
Revolutionaries are vital because they howl truth to power and they shake us out of our torpor, reminding us that alternative realities are possible. But do I want Raoul running my life? Do you?
First published in The Times