In Les Mis, the revolutionaries are (also) the bad guys

We Americans love a good revolution.

We can’t help it. We are taught from an early age that revolutionaries founded the country and the system in which we all live. In any fight between incumbents and underdogs, our first instinct is to sympathize with the uprising.

So naturally, when we look at the musical and cinematographic adaptations of Victor Hugo Wretchedthen, were to put down roots for young “freedom fighters” like the young leader Enjolras, Courfeyrac, and our hero Marius Pontmercy. In the film, these young men form a small conspiracy to start a revolution in Paris in 1832, a revolution that ultimately fails, but which the adaptations paint in a glorious and sympathetic light.

I recently rewatched the great 2011 film adaptation of this film, and I frequently return to the film’s excellent soundtrack. But after a few observations, I have a controversial opinion about revolutionaries: as they revolt against an unjust system, they don’t deserve much of our sympathy.

There are several reasons why the revolutionaries are also the villains (of sorts) in this story. These are also some of the reasons why, in most wars, revolutionaries are just as guilty as the state against which they revolt:

Revolutionaries are anti-individual

Who cares about your lonely soul?
We strive for a larger goal
Our little lives don’t matter at all!

– “ABC Café / Red And Black”

It’s hard to call a “humanitarian” movement that tells its members that “their little lives don’t matter at all.” It’s classic collectivism of a kind that leads to a stupid death toll.

Any group that claims to fight for freedom without also respecting individual dignity is lying. Only individuals can exercise their freedom because only individuals can act, and if individuals are to be treated only as cannon fodder for a “broader goal” of social reengineering, then revolution is certainly not a question of freedom.

Revolutionaries are manipulators

Do you want to give all you can give
For our banner to advance?

In the film adaptation, we see that the core of this revolution is planned by middle-class and even noble young men. They all probably received a good education and prepared themselves for positions of power.

In order to promote their revolution, the young and rich (or at least affluent) revolutionaries of Wretched must deceive entire swaths of the poor into having their lives and property destroyed in the name of the doomed cause.

Like many revolutionaries, these rascals promise glory to the martyrs and a “freedom” that they fail to clearly define.

Revolutionaries are power hungry

We need a sign
To rally the people
To call them to arms
To put them online!

– “ABC Café / Red And Black”

Like most political revolutionaries, the revolutionaries of Wretched seem to have radical ideas about how society should be structured.

Note that their plans for what comes after the revolution are not mentioned – only lofty ideals like “every man shall be king”. Whatever the practical meaning of these lofty ideals (also unclear), it is clear that figures like Enjolras see themselves as the leaders of the revolution. And that should tell us everything we need to know.

If their revolution succeeded, these young men who planned the revolution would become, like all revolutionaries, the executors of the revolutionary path. Whether for cynical reasons (like having less power in the current regime) or for forgivable reasons (wanting to make a better world), Enjolras, Marius and the others are after power.

They should know better. They are only 40 years away from the French Revolution, during which anti-tyrants quickly became tyrants themselves.

Beware of revolutionaries

Revolution seems like such a romantic thing. We have stories like Wretched thank for that. But if we can look more critically at *both* those in power and those who want to overthrow power, we can find a third way beyond revolution. Let us make human flourishing, peace and freedom our goals, not a new set of masters introduced by a new wave of violence.

James Walpole is a writer, start-up marketer, intellectual explorer, and lifelong learner. This article was originally published on his blog at jameswalpole.com and was republished here from FEE.org licensed under Creative Commons.

Thelma J. Longworth