Permanent Revolution


Change is the only constant, as the old adage goes, but over the last century in Western culture, change has been elevated to a moral imperative, a sociopolitical ideology. The roots of this dramatic change in change are found in Modernism. This is not a loose synonym for contemporary times but, rather, an actual artistic school (c. 1880–1920) that fanned out to influence every nook and cranny of our world. Its battle cry was Ezra Pound’s “Make it new!” “The one thing that all modernists have indisputably in common,” writes Peter Gay in his masterful Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, “was the conviction that the untried is markedly superior to the familiar, the rare to the ordinary, the experimental to the routine” (p. 2). Modernism began in the arts, specifically painting, with Impressionism, which was a turn away from the time-honored technique of realistic painting. Traditional painters knew that there were objective realities in the world, and the best painters were those who painted them most beautifully and accurately. Even the painters who depicted heavenly and hellish realities, angels and demons, understood them to be objectively real. Impressionism, by contrast, launched the artistic “inward turn”: the important thing was not objective reality, but one’s subjective experience of reality, which was soon redefined. This was the consequence in the arts of the German Enlightenment figure Immanuel Kant, whose Copernican revolution in philosophy meant that after him, people no longer saw the things of the world as they are, but rather the things of the world as we are. Impressionism was Kant for canvas. In time, Modernism mutated, reshaping literature, architecture, music, education, dance, theater, politics, and religion, including Christianity (we call it “liberalism”). Objective realities do not change, or change very slowly, but man’s experience of the world changes constantly. Modernism, therefore, in a dramatic reversal, meant that the new is the real. It was quickly discovered that the new itself wore out but quickly, so what was considered new was in constant flux.[1] This meant, quite simply, that life must be a permanent revolution.

The Modernists were not the world’s first advocates of permanent revolution (think only of the Anabaptists in the 16th and 17th centuries), but they were the first who envisioned the capacity of their views to reshape all of culture. They have been a spectacular success. In fact, their views have become an ideology, a comprehensive secular program for improving the world, and in this way permanent revolution became the 20th century’s status quo.

Mao’s Modernism

The Marxists, consummate political Modernists,[2] bulldozed history in the mad quest for permanent revolution. By the early 1960’s, Mao’s revolutionary China (like all other non-Western revolutionaries, Mao learned his ideology from Western sources, not Asian) had murdered millions, but to the aging Mao, this revolution was getting stale. Mao’s teachings unleashed the Cultural Revolution, a bloody upheaval sparked by youth who considered their teachers and other superiors insufficiently revolutionary (“counter-revolutionaries”), so with Mao’s blessing, they tormented, hounded, humiliated, jailed, and killed the older revolutionaries who had launched and solidified the Chinese Communist Revolution in the late 1940’s. There must always be a new revolution in every generation, more drastic, more bizarre, more spectacular than the last.

How Playboy Became Conservative

In the same decade, here on the other side of the globe, the Cultural Revolution took a different form, but it was animated by the same ever-changing Modernist impulse. In the sexual revolution, bourgeois morality had to go. Premarital sex, recreational contraception, elective abortion, no-fault divorce, ubiquitous pornography, open marriage, homosexuality, bigamy, and pedophilia were new and exciting and just the ticket to replace the tradition of sexual fidelity, that is to say, Christian morality.

But the revolution must never stop. In the 1960’s, the revolution had demanded liberation from traditional marriage. Hugh Heffner and Playboy glamorized recreational heterosexual sex, “no strings attached.” By the 1970s, homosexuals were demanding acceptance as a legitimate self-expression, and why not? Playboy’s Brave New World of heterosexual liberation was growing effete. In the 2000’s, “civil unions” for homosexuals were a serious agenda item. Why should only heterosexual couples be afforded privileged legal status? By 2014, however, the revolution had bulldozed civil unions. Same-sex “marriage” had become a reality. To take the position that Barack Obama took in 2008 in favor of civil unions was to be a counterrevolutionary. To support civil unions was, like the I-phone 3G, so 2008. But by by 2015, even legal same-sex “marriage” was not enough. Reluctance to affirm same-sex “marriage” in one’s business was criminalized. The revolution, you see, eventually doesn’t demand merely legal rights; it demands social approval.

From Civil Rights to “Microaggression”

Similarly, the civil rights movement, which (correctly) demanded that all races be treated equally under the law, was found over time to be culturally drab. By the 1980’s, racial quotas were installed in the workplace and colleges and universities, demanding that underrepresented races receive preferential treatment. Over the last two years, however, racial quotas entered their dotage, so microaggression, the use of language, gestures and attitudes seemingly benign, came to be interpreted as racist, so much so that United States Army felt obliged recently to delete a tweet that used the time-honored military language of “chinks in the armor” since “chinks” offended some Chinese. The revolution refuses to stop.

Government-Mandated Revolution

Medicare and Medicaid, implemented in the 1960’s, installed the federal government in the healthcare business, seizing tax funds for the elderly and indigent. At the time, it was advertised as a modest proposal, nothing akin to “government-mandated healthcare.” By 2003, Republican President George W. Bush spearheaded expanded coverage, and the first administration of Barack Obama worked with a democratically controlled Congress to commandeer one sixth of the economy in what everyone now on all sides would acknowledge is government-mandated healthcare. It is not simply the case, as some libertarians suggest, that government is simply “always getting bigger.” Rather, Obamacare is one example within a larger worldview: novelty in national economics is good in itself. The revolution of the increased size and scope of government must be permanent.

The Conservative Collaboration

The socially and politically conservative reaction to permanent revolution is embodied in William F. Buckley’s famed act to stand athwart history and yell, “Stop!” But history will not stop, and conservatives have done little more than complain about the permanent revolution, while lagging about 10 years behind. Even today, prominent Republicans are quietly abandoning insistence on “family values,” where marriage between one man and one woman is defined as valuable. Conservatives are in permanent opposition to permanent revolution drag right along with it. This is not a recipe for cultural victory.

When Permanent Becomes Temporary

Modernism in its inescapably permanent revolution is a comprehensive worldview. And only comprehensive worldviews can vanquish other comprehensive worldviews. You won’t defeat permanent revolution with a straggler’s de-escalation program. Bad worldviews can only be replaced. Full-orbed Christianity is a worldview. It is more. It is a lived experience. It is a way (to borrow from Heidegger) of being in the world. It believes and lives and breathes the permanent objective reality of the well-ordered cosmos created by the gracious Triune God whose revelation in the Bible is designed to govern all things by the power of the Holy Spirit. It holds that humanity sinned against this loving God, but that the same God sent his own Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty for these sins on the cross, and that all those who cast faith on Him are redeemed and restored to communion with Him. It holds that we live in a God-rigged cosmos, that God gradually restore its virtuous harmony and beauty by the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Word of God. Modernism’s permanent revolution, like all revolutions, will finally burn itself out, gobble itself up from tail to head.

And Christianity in the divinely ordered cosmos will still be standing.

It is for this reason that the only cure for permanent revolution is permanent Christianity. The task of Christians in today’s world is to pray and labor for that exclusively permanent permanence.


[1] Postmodernism is not so much a reaction against modernism as it is the latest iteration of modernism: hypermodernity. See David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1990), 3–65. Harvey, like most other Marxists, argues that postmodernism grew from the fertile soil of the permanent revolution of commodities and services in “late modernity,” but the fault rests in people’s actions in the free market, not the free market itself, which for two centuries survived quite well without permanent revolution. See Joshua J. Yates, “Late Modernity,” Culture, Spring, 2008, 17.

[2] It is ironic that every Marxist regime deplored and suppressed artistic modernism but practiced its basic tenets in its sociopolitical ideology.


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