Revolutionaries and "Death for the Cause!"

Willingness to die for a religious or political cause has long been recognized as a key measure of an activist's commitment. To supporters of the activist's cause, such sacrifice amounts to martyrdom, whereas critics are more likely to view it as a triumph of irrational extremism.

Literature on the subject of dying for a cause divides between analyses of two frequently overlapping categories: religious and political causes. While there are striking parallels between self-sacrifice for religious and political purposes, particularly in their intended impact on observers, there are also significant differences pertaining to belief in an afterlife.

Religious Self-Sacrifice

Dying for a religious cause is predictably linked with religious persecution, with self-sacrifice justified as a means to the salvation of others. Persecution may take several forms, including an established religious system attempting to suppress a new, emerging faith that poses a threat; the consequence of political activities that threaten those practicing a particular faith; or an intragroup battle to prevent an established faith from changing its beliefs too radically. The functions of self-sacrifice under such situations include generating negative publicity which may prevent further threats to the faith, establishing the viability of the faith as one for which people are prepared to lose their lives, or exonerating prophecies that foretold the demise of a true believer.

Heresy trials. In medieval Europe, particularly the period of 1200–1500 C.E., the Roman Catholic Church often undertook investigations of heresy accusations. Individuals charged with subscribing to and disseminating heretical beliefs could escape severe punishment by confessing ignorance of proper views, assisting the inquisition that had condemned them by identifying other heretics, and accepting nonlethal sanctions. Refusing to confess or to assist the inquisition led to the heretic's death, either during interrogation or at a public execution. Self-sacrifice in this setting was the act of an individual who refused to implicate others or to accept the established faith's legitimacy.

It is difficult to measure the effect such deaths had on rallying supporters. Inquisitorial hearings were protracted and thorough, and appear to have been effective at ending specific heresies, such as the Cathars (persecuted and wiped out during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), but their frequency suggests that heresy (or belief that heresy was a problem) was widespread. Awareness of the severe sanctions meted out to heretics may have made many people reluctant to listen to them, but such sanctions may also have made those risking heresy charges appear more appealing for their willingness to undertake the risk of persecution and certain death.

Religious expectation of self-sacrifice. Several religious traditions include an expectation that devoted followers will willingly risk their lives in defense of the faith. Proclamations of this sort often accompany a call to battle in which true believers are expected to take the lives of nonbelievers at great risk to themselves. Given widespread reluctance to undertake such risks, other assurances are often added, such as absolution of sins, certainty of salvation, and eternal life in paradise.

The religious beliefs of the early Normans, which did not emphasize an afterlife, carried similar expectations. A glorious life was to be ended with an equally glorious death, preferably in a battle where chances of survival were nonexistent.

Death of charismatic leaders. As sociologists have long believed, one test of a new belief system constructed around the life and works of a charismatic leader involves his or her death. Can the belief system make the transition to a new period in its existence when it is denied its most attractive spokesperson? Chances of success are enhanced if the charismatic leader foretold his or her death or consciously pursued it, presenting followers with the explicit challenge of responding appropriately. The death of such a figure also creates a role model for others to follow. Lacking the leader's bearing and vision, followers nonetheless can revere their leader's life and extol the virtues of self-sacrifice to new generations of believers. That new generation, then, is socialized to appreciate, accept, and adopt the value of self-sacrifice in defense of the faith.

This does not mean that all followers of a faith with a long tradition of self-sacrifice are themselves destined to commit such acts, but rather that any religious tradition that recognizes and celebrates self-destruction spawns future generations of martyrs.

Political Self-Sacrifice and Marxism

Revolutionary Marxists view revolution as a necessary and natural component of history. Violent upheaval is thought to be essential to moving society from one stage of development to the next, ending with the arrival of communism. It is the clash between antagonistic classes that propels history onward, with ascending classes violently displacing obsolete ruling classes whose political and economic structures obstruct the rise of more progressive systems. The key to this analysis is the creation of class consciousness, whereby members of exploited classes realize not only their existence as a class with a common condition but also their historic mission of bringing about inevitable change. Because ruling classes cannot imagine themselves as being obsolete and justify their continued control with the belief that those that they dominate are incapable of self-rule, they do not relinquish power voluntarily. This means that violent revolution is the only way to remove them and advance the course of history.

Marxists also recognize the variability of conditions under which a revolution can be expected to succeed. Many unsuccessful, premature uprisings misread the strength of ruling classes or the loyalty of armies and police. Quite often, the cost of a failed revolution is execution for its principal supporters, such as occurred after the many European revolutions of 1848. In Paris, for example, 3,000 insurgents were killed and another 4,000 deported while the 1871 Paris Commune was suppressed at the cost of 20,000. Given these contingencies and the likelihood of violent opposition, revolutionaries must be prepared to die for their political activities and may very well be killed during a failed uprising.

One key motivation for this willingness to die for the cause is a deep-rooted belief in the cause's inevitability. Sooner or later, substantial change will be needed. An activist who chooses to hasten that day may succeed and become a hero of the revolution or else fail and eventually become recognized as a martyr. While ruling classes portray those whom they dominate as unintelligent, leftist revolutionaries believe they have extensively studied and fully understand human history. While ruling classes often employ religious ideology to justify their domination, revolutionaries believe that their scientific analysis of economic development reveals a more substantial truth: that their success is ultimately both progressive and inevitable. Because they usually reject organized religions for their role in supporting oppressive political systems, revolutionaries typically dismiss the idea of an afterlife. Any form of immortality they can hope for, then, can be achieved only by a posthumous reverence among the living.

Some revolutionaries undertake great risks and court self-destruction because the political system that they attack is seen as responsible for having killed members of their family or community. For such individuals, there is no reason to continue living, beyond exacting revenge. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), for example, became a dedicated political activist and revolutionary after his brother

Police attempt to control a crowd of University of Wisconsin students protesting Dow Chemical
Police attempt to control a crowd of University of Wisconsin students protesting Dow Chemical's Napalm in 1967. The first requirement for a social movement is the potential for strain, characterized by genuine conflict or contradiction within a society.
was executed for having participated in a failed attempt to assassinate the czar.

Stages in Social Movements

According to the sociologist Neil Smelser, successful political movements proceed in several stages. Smelser's ideas, while most commonly applied to social movements such as the American civil rights movement, can also aid in an understanding of revolutionary uprisings, especially in identifying potential junctures of self-destruction.

The first requirement is the potential for strain, some genuine conflict or contradiction within a society, for the possibility of angry demands for change to develop. Sociologists believe that most simple societies and all complex societies possess significant potential for strain. This strain must be sufficiently strong or durable to generate a reaction. For example, a society engaged in war initially may find its people united behind it. If the conflict is short and victory complete, that unity will remain strong. However, if combat persists and there are significant losses, demands for radical change are certain to appear.

A third stage is characterized by the formation of a generalized belief. Individuals seeking to thwart change may characterize the strain as inevitable, normal, not severe, or soon to end. Others may claim a variety of causes for the strain, none requiring dramatic change. Still others may recognize a need for significant change but claim that reform rather than radical overhaul of the current society or political or economic system would be sufficient. Finally, some may diagnose the problem as fundamental to the system and requiring radical, even violent, change to eliminate it. It is at this point that some supporters of extreme solutions may use the occasion of their own destruction to draw attention to their analysis of the situation.

Intellectuals are important for providing generalized beliefs that transcend the often splintered and localized beliefs of oppressed groups. If those beliefs include a justification for violence to bring significant change, then death may appear very early in a movement's development. Quite common, for example, is a distinction between violence used to bring needed change and violence used to prevent such change from occurring. The writings of political theorist Herbert Marcuse, for example, were popular with elements of America's New Left in the 1960s. Marcuse's distinction between what he called "red terror" and "white terror" was intended to evoke comparisons with the Bolshevik-Menshevik clash during the revolution and the ensuing counter-revolution in Russia during World WarI. For Marcuse, violence was justifiable if its objective was to bring an end to all violence, to end a system that routinely relied upon violence to keep itself in place. This liberating (red) violence was regrettable but largely reactive, brought on by oppressive (white) violence that was used to keep privileged groups in place. If this perspective had dominated the American antiwar movement, protests against the country's involvement in Vietnam would have been far more violent.

Social movements enter a new phase with the appearance of precipitating incidents. A string of events can persuade large numbers of individuals that the strain is not going away and that many of the attempts to explain the strain are incorrect. People can quickly cluster around a given belief system. In the context of an evolving revolution, precipitating incidents are often violent and reveal how much force an oppressive system is prepared to employ to keep itself in power. For that reason, self-destruction is sometimes seen as a necessary step to show potential followers of the revolution both the bravery of revolutionaries and the callous attitude toward life of those they are challenging. One motive behind terrorist attacks is to provoke a brutal reprisal that might be viewed as disproportionate to the initial assault. Intended as a deterrent that will show the high price to be paid for the use of violence by revolutionaries, under some circumstances such reprisals can have the opposite effect of generating widespread sympathy for rebels. The persistent conflicts between Palestinians and the Israeli government, for example, have created this sort of assault-and-retaliation sequence.

Mobilization of opposition is essential for movements to progress to their next level of development. Unless opponents are able to mobilize, there may not be any significant social change. Just as important, control of key resources is necessary, such as mass media, systems of transportation, and power grids. Mobilization of opposition also means the generation of crowds and new opportunities for violence, as explained by two popular theories of crowd behavior: convergence and emergent norm.

Because people with similar backgrounds and beliefs are likely to gather together, any decision to employ violence may spread to others in the group. This would occur not because of Gustave LeBon's once-popular belief that a crowd's excitement can produce a kind of "group mind," but rather because of the similarity of the crowd's constituents, many of whom may be persuaded that violence is necessary or even essential.

While everyday life has predictable continuity, individuals joining large, unregulated, expressive crowds are unsure of what sort of behavior is expected of them. They search for information about their situation and thus are responsive to rumor. If a rumor becomes widespread, it may be seen by several crowd members to justify aggressive action, such as a violent confrontation with police. Others witnessing the aggression come to believe that anger and hostility are expected, conform to the newly emergent norms of behavior, and so place themselves at more risk than they might otherwise have. Emergent norm theory does not claim that any specific norms are certain to develop in crowds but rather that most people are unsure of just what constitutes appropriate behavior because of their lack of familiarity with the setting.

If agents of social control, such as the police, army, and judicial system, are unable to restrain mobilized groups, then dramatic social change is inevitable. In the example of revolutionary movements, this stage can entail full-scale physical assault on the agents of social control and thus the clear risk of self-destruction. Less dramatically, it can involve political prisoners either working to create uprisings, escapes, or widely publicized starvation campaigns, such as that effectively employed by Irish Republican Army member Bobbie Sands.


Despite the aforementioned differences, religious and political martyrs share certitude in their causes' ultimate truths. For this reason, they must be distinguished from self-destructive, isolated bands of individuals lacking a larger agenda, such as those involved in the Columbine High School attack in April 1999.

See also: Assassination ; Cult Deaths ; Death System ; Martyrs ; Social Functions of Death


Brown, Harold O. J. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.

Gerth, Hans, and C. Wright Mills, eds. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Lambert, Malcolm. The Cathars. London: Blackwell, 1998.

LeBon, Gustave. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind London: T. F. Unwin, 1925.

Leff, Gordon. Heresy in the Middle Ages. New York: Manchester University Press, 1967.

Marcuse, Herbert. Five Lectures: Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Utopia. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.

Smelser, Neil. Theory of Collective Behavior. New York: Free Press, 1963.


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