A Revolutionary Fable

GENE SHARP graduated in sociology at Ohio State University, and subsequently worked at the Institute of Social Research, Oslo, and later at Oxford where he has just completed a new volume on the theory, practice and political potentialities of non-violent action.

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 16, 2018

AMONG THE FACTORS which produce revolutionary—i.e. fundamental—social change are ideas. Social conditions may differ. The amount of suffering and oppression men will tolerate before revolting varies. Outstanding leaders mayor may not be present. But ideas are present in all revolutionary situations.

People may cower before the most blatant tyranny, may die of hunger because of their exploitation—and still not revolt. But once they grasp the idea that something can be done to improve their lot, the situation becomes potentially revolutionary. The greater the gulf between actual conditions and men’s idea of how life can be, the more likely is a social upheaval.

Much of the earlier work of discrediting the existing social order, of popularising the idea of change, and of creating a favourable response to a new ideology can only be done by “men of words”—writers and talkers. They may be novelists, priests, prophets, teachers, students or artists. When such people are unable or unwilling to fit into the existing social structure, they are likely to herald a new day. Regarded often as not dangerous because they only talk, they may be tolerated by the powers-that-be. But they are dangerous to the status quo, and contribute to the emergence of an articulate minority where none existed before. That is a potentially revolutionary step.

The “men of words” discredit the popular creeds and institutions. They lead men to give them allegiance no longer. They bring to people’s consciousness their need of a faith by which to live, and they prepare a way for preaching of a new faith or ideology so that when it appears, it meets a more ready response. The “men of words” also furnish the doctrine and the slogans of the new ideology. They undermine the beliefs of people so that when the new ideology and movement appear, many of them are either unable or unwilling to resist it, and some may even lend support.

In a world in which increasing numbers of people are literate and have leisure for reading, study and thought, and at the same time are more in need of convictions, ideas have become increasingly important. Organised efforts by powerful groups and small bands of dissenters to spread various ideas therefore play a progressively larger role in such a society.

One way in which ideas about the society are spread and propounded is through the novel. The novelist may intentionally propound them, accept the ideas personally but he may also simply present them in a primarily artistic work as relevant to human problems portrayed in his novel. A writer may also use the medium of a novel as a means by which he personally seeks solutions to fundamental human problems and attempts to clarify his own thinking and find a way to social and personal “salvation”. If his novel contains important social thought, he may thus intentionally or unintentionally become a “man of words”—a precursor of fundamental social change.


An example of such a novel containing important social thought is A Fable* by William Faulkner. This work of one of America’s major novelists received the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for Literature and the 1955 National Book Award. It aroused considerable interest in the United States, apparently more than here in England. At his death, relatively few references were made to this great novel—very significantly.

A Fable is a story of human fears and hopes, of violence, self-denial, cowardice and courage, of tragedy and triumph. It is the story of men facing a world they did not create, men who dare to fight back. It is the story of man’s anguish, his universal wrestling and searching. It is the story of what a modern prototype of the historical Jesus might do, and how he might be treated.

On a Monday in May 1918—according to the novel—six months before the end of World War I, the generals on both sides unexpectedly saw “the vast cumbrous machinery of war grinding to its clumsy halt” quite independent of them. At dawn when a French regiment was ordered to attack, every man declined to follow that order and remained in the trench. The Germans, having seen the mutiny, made no expected counter-attack. By noon the entire French front and the German facing it were silent. Three hours later, the American and English fronts and the facing German ones had stopped fighting also; the generals gave no more opportunities for mutiny. That night found the front “as dead as Pompeii or Carthage” illumined by rockets and the silence punctuated by the thud of back-area guns.

The rebel French regiment, including the corporal and his squad, whose efforts for over two years had resulted in the entire war in Western Europe taking a recess and thereby stopping the German advance (which the Allied generals had been unable to do since the March break-through), was arrested and placed in a stockade. There they remained while the Allied generals conferred with the German generals about how to get the war started again. On Thursday morning an unarmed British battalion arose from its trenches, and proceeded across no-man’s land to meet similar unarmed German soldiers. Then
both were destroyed as British and German artillery jointly fired on them. On Friday morning the corporal was tied to a post, between two men charged with robbery and murder, and shot dead.

In the process of writing a major novel dealing with one of the primary questions of our age—that of war and peace—Faulkner treated several important areas of social philosophy and theory. This fact and the ideas themselves, were to a very large degree, ignored by American critics, when the book appeared. Although the title would indicate that Faulkner intends the novel to convey a lesson, few critics asked themselves what the lesson might be. One reviewer complained that Faulkner left his readers and critics confused. Another expressed surprise that Faulkner asked “the question of pacifism” which he thought had been discarded long ago. The reviewer in Time commented glibly, “above all, Faulkner has failed to differentiate between a pointless war and a needful one”.

Preferring not to face the ideas in A Fable, such reviewers turned their attention to theological parallels between the corporal and Jesus. Only a rare critic grasped the social significance of A Fable. Irving Howe, in The Reporter, declared that this novel has “startling political significance”. He referred to the radical view of World War I which Faulkner presents: that troops of all the armies should have fraternised and ended the war themselves, in defiance of the generals and governments, and this revolutionary act would be precisely what a modern-day Jesus would not only sanction, but lead. This is an idea which few people find comforting.

With insight, Trent Hutter commented in the Fourth International, a U.S. Trotskyist quarterly: “The bewilderment of the critics is due to the book’s revolutionary impact … But radicals will be able to understand much better than the bourgeois critics did.” “The central problem in A Fable,” he declared, “is the destiny of man, the conflict between inertia and revolutionary will.” He called it “one of these great novels that speak of man’s paramount problems.”

Through the words of his characters and plot, Faulkner treats several significant areas of social philosophy and theory: the source of power in society, means and ends, the nature of modern war, the dehumanisation of modern man, social class, the role of the individual and small group in producing social change.

* New York: Random House, 1954; London: Chatto and Windus, 1955.


When ordinary men decide that they by their own efforts are going to stop a war, the question arises as to the source of power in society. The theory presented in A Fable is that all rulers require the consent of the governed, and are thus not ultimately maintained by oppression but by the commonly held belief that those in power have a right to their positions and by a willingness to obey them. Once such veneration, and consequently co-operation, is withdrawn, the regime collapses. This theory does not suppose that the existing rulers will quietly consent to such a basic challenge to their power, but rather it recognises that rulers may then use any available means of coercion to maintain that status. The outcome of the struggle then depends upon the ability of those formerly subordinate to maintain and extend their non-co-operation when faced with penalties and sacrifice. This view of the source of power is presented in A Fable.

The old porter explaining to the runner how the men could stop the war, says:
“… all we ever needed to do was just to say, enough of this—us, not even the sergeants and corporal, but just us, all of us, Germans and Frenchmen and all the other foreigners in the mud here, saying together: Enough. Let them that’s already dead and maimed and missing be enough of this—a thing so easy and simple that even human man, as full of evil and sin and folly as he is, can understand and believe it this time.”

An English air force mechanic thinks through the question of how an occupying power could long rule a people determined to be free: “And then he knew that it didn’t really matter who won or lost wars, not to England: Ludendorff could come on over … and take London too and it wouldn’t matter … because he would still have to envelop and reduce every tree in every wood and every stone in every wall in all England, not to mention three men in every pub that he would have to tear down brick by brick to get them. And it would not matter when he did, because there would be another pub at the next cross-roads with three more men in it and there were simply not that many Germans nor anybody else in Europe or anywhere else …”

The runner, pondering on the persistent efforts of the thirteen men preparing the mutiny under the very noses of those whose authority they were undermining, concludes that this “did not need to be hidden from authority,” for such determined mass action would eventually make that very authority impotent:
“… even ruthless and all-powerful and unchallengeable Authority would be impotent before that mass unresisting undemanding passivity. He thought: They could execute only so many of us before they will have worn out the last rifle and pistol and expended the last live shell …”

The theoretical position on the source of power in society which is presented in A Fable is the same as is basic to the thinking of Thoreau, Tolstoy, de la Boétie and Gandhi. It is the concept tyrants fear. It was not so much the fact that the fighting had, at least temporarily, stopped that bothered the generals, as the way in which it had stopped. When the men in the trenches began to think that they themselves could stop the war and then acted upon the idea, the generals know that their position, their authority, and even war itself was threatened.

The question of means and ends is implicit in the novel though there is little discussion of it on the theoretical level. Continual warfare had brought no peace, stopping the fighting had. The runner concludes:
“So the purpose of a war is to end the war. We’ve known that for six thousand years. The trouble was, it took us six thousand years to learn how to do it. For six thousand years we laboured under the delusion that the only way to stop a war was to get together more regiments and battalions than the enemy could, or vice versa, and hurl them upon each other until one lot was destroyed and, the one having nothing left to fight with, the other could stop fighting. We were wrong because yesterday morning, by simply declining to make an attack, one single French regiment stopped us all.” The means used, this would seem to say, must be compatible with the ends desired.


A Fable has much to say about the nature of modern war, its effects and causes. The old general refers to it as “the most expensive and fatal vice which man has invented yet …” The division commander affirms that “… it’s not we who conquer each other, because we are not even fighting each other. It’s simple nameless war which decimates our ranks.”

The role of the military as an entity above and beyond the rest of the nation is voiced by the French corps commander: “The boche doesn’t want to destroy us any more than we would want, could afford to destroy him. Can’t you understand: either of us, without the other couldn’t exist?” and by the German General who declares he is first a soldier, then a German and thirdly hopes to be a victorious German but that the uniform “is more important than any German or even any victory.” War and the authoritarian social organisation which conducts it are viewed as a social institution with interest and purposes to be maintained and obtained even at the expense of the interests of the people and nations for whose defence and welfare it purports to exist.

It is the nature of modern war that the generals either had to join the rebellion or use every means at their disposal to crush it: the mutinying regiment had to be shot. (Yet it was clear to them that such an execution would not remove the basic problem raised by their action, for “… there is already more to this than the execution of twice three thousand men could remedy or even change.”) The Allied commanders conferred with the German commander; all faced the same problem: the troops were acting en masse against their officers and governments. The generals consulted on how to resume the war so abruptly ended.

By Thursday the Allied general staff had sealed up the rear of the whole Allied front with troops from the colonies. The blank shells in their guns were being replaced with live ones. The men in an English battalion found foreign troops and no-man’s land now also behind them. With little time remaining in which to convert the halt in the fighting into the end of the war, and at the risk of being shot by either the Germans or the English, those men arose from the trench, stood erect and open-handed walked toward the German lines as similar unarmed German troops came forward. As the two groups ran to meet each other the German and English officers jointly frantically loosed an artillery barrage upon the men. This supreme threat to officers’ authority and war had to be destroyed.

It is also in the nature of war that without a complete reversal of his position, the old general had no alternative than to have the corporal—his own illegitimate son—executed, even as the death sentence on the regiment was commuted.

War is not here viewed outside the context of the civilisation from which it springs. (There are statements about economic causes and about “nationalism” as prime causes of war.) The process by which Europe and finally half the Western hemisphere went to war is pictured as though having taken place in a largely civilian council composed of the government officials, economic leaders, politicians, clergy and all the other leaders of:
“… the vast solvent organisations and fraternities and movements which control by coercion or cajolery man’s morals and actions and all his mass-value for affirmation or negation—and that vast powerful terror inspiring representation which, running all democracy’s affairs in peace, comes indeed into its own in war, finding its true apotheosis then …”

Those who have made war their occupation are presented as also being its victims. It seemed to a sergeant that, when he had twenty years earlier joined the army, “he had sold his birthright in the race of man.” The division commander is seen as one “who to gain the high privilege of being a brave and faithful Frenchman and soldier, had had to forfeit and abdicate his right in the estate of man …” The strongest statement on the subject comes from the Quartermaster-general who, shaken by the consultation with the German general and the slaughtering of the unarmed British and German troops, says to the old general:
“We did it … We. Not British and American and French we against German them nor German they against American and British and French us, but we against all because we no longer belong to us … We, you and our whole unregenerate and regenerable kind … our whole small repudiated and homeless species about the earth who not only no longer belong to man, but even to earth itself, since we have had to make this last base desperate case in order to hold our last desperate and precarious place on it.”

Nor does Faulkner lose sight of the effects of war on plain human beings: a farmer, crouched in a crater during a barrage, thinking of his war-ruined fields, crying, “The land, The land.” A young man whose only trade is to fly armed aircraft in order to shoot down other armed aircraft. The sister of the doomed corporal, crying to the old general, “War, war, war. Don’t you ever get tired of it?” Men so used to the explosions of war they can’t stand the silence of peace. An old woman, kneeling beside an unidentified rotting corpse, resting one hand on what had been the face, the other caressing the remaining hair, saying, “Yes, Yes. This is Theodule. This is my son.”


Faulkner speaks also of other aspects of the dehumanisation of man. The runner’s thoughts turn to liberty: “… that liberty which he no longer had any use for because there was no more place for it on the earth …” and thinks of “his pilgrimage back to when and where the lost free spirit of man once existed …”
Martha speaks to the old general of human feelings:
“… people are really kind, they really are capable of pity and compassion for the weak and orphaned and helpless because it is pity and compassion and they are weak and helpless and orphaned and people though of course you cannot, dare not believe that, who dare believe only that people are to be bought and used empty and then thrown away.”
Modern man’s obsession with the mechanical is not ignored. The old general speaks of man’s “enslavement to the demonic progeny of his own mechanical curiosity …”

“He has already begun to put wheels under his patio, his terrace and his front veranda; even at my age I may see the day when what was once his house has become a storage-place for his bed and stove and razor and spare clothing; you … could … see the day when he will have invented his own private climate and moved it stove bathroom bed clothing kitchen and all into his automobile and what he once called home will have vanished from human lexicon: so that he won’t dismount from his automobile at all because he won’t need to: to the entire earth one unbroken machined de-mountained dis-rivered expanse of concrete paving … and man in his terrapin myriads enclosed clotheless from birth in his individual wheeled and glove-like envelope … to die at last at the click of an automatic circuit-breaker on a speedometer dial …”

Although there is an absence of ideological statements on the subject of social class in A Fable, there are references to the fact that the corporal and his quad spent their efforts exclusively among the privates in the several armies. The privates in the other regiments and adjoining divisions knew in advance of the mutiny while there had been “no prewarning, no intimation even to the minor lance-corporal among the officers designated to lead it …” When the officers sent a sergeant to sit in on one of the many groups that came to see the corporal, everyone fell silent until the sergeant left. The role played by this distinction between military caste groups must be noted, though it is not possible to generalise from it concerning Faulkner’s conception of social class.


Most men do not want to be disturbed, aroused from their self-satisfaction by a man, ideas and deeds which they cannot ignore. Many will consciously reject the challenge of that man, that way, some sincerely, some fearing what they may lose if they do not. Many by the side lines will favour the new way for a time doing little to fulfil it, and finally abandon it. Smaller numbers will see in a crisis the choice they must make and rise in the moment to heroism, but seeing then the continuing cost of that choice slide back, and accept the easier way. And even among those still fewer who have been the closest to that man, that way, there will be hesitancy, inaction and even betrayal.

But the man who breaks through the crust of complacency, though tempted and tried inwardly and outwardly, and faced with costs he may
not have calculated, if indeed he did calculate, will still remain. He may stand alone. But stand he must.
So it is in A Fable. The crowd turned upon the corporal as the cause of its anguish, then following his execution, left the city “in something not quite of relief but shame,” even though the regiment would now be spared as the war was about to begin again. Within two days the once insurgent regiment had turned with howls and roars against the corporal. Of the twelve, one betrayed the corporal, and one denied him (but later returned), and of the eleven at the execution scene, though they knelt before the posts, none did anything to shield their corporal from the bullets, or even resist their being led away from the place where they knelt. He is left alone abandoned by those who had followed him—alone except for the two other doomed men whom he comforts.
The priest, inwardly tortured by the happenings of that week, never saw this scene, for he, unable to resolve or bear the conflict between God and Caesar, had borrowed a bayonet and fled the life he was supposed to have helped men to face.


The old general, “who no longer believed in anything but his disillusion and his intelligence and his limitless power,” had faced his son and tried to dissuade him from his chosen path. He realised that there was no solution for the conflict between them through compromise: “… we are two articulations … which through no fault of ours … must contend and—one of them—perish.” Yet both knew that as long as the corporal refused to compromise or betray, his articulation would gain, for were his squad released, “in ten minutes there would not be ten but a hundred. In ten hours there would not be ten hundred but ten thousand. And in ten days—” Yet by the old general’s executing the corporal, the ideal for which he died would be burned into men’s hearts with a flame that only blood can kindle. “By destroying this life tomorrow morning,” said the old general, “I will establish for ever that he didn’t even live in vain, let alone die so …”

The runner who had yearned to believe in something but lost all hope (“we can’t be saved now; even he doesn’t want us anymore now.”) came to gain his faith and act upon it realising: “… it’s not that we didn’t believe: It’s that we couldn’t, didn’t know how any more. That’s the most terrible thing they have done to us.” He then felt armed with something greater than bullets, “capable of containing all of time, all of man.” He prodded the English sentry to join the revolt; he responded by kicking out some of the runner’s teeth; but later the same sentry went on to lead the unarmed English troops to meet the unarmed German troops. As the rockets showered upon them, half his body was enveloped in flames.

After the war, at the old general’s funeral, in the midst of oratory repeating the clichés of war and chauvinism, the sentry, now a “mobile, upright scar on crutches” lurched forward out of the crowd onto the caisson carrying the body. He cried: “Listen to me too, Marshal!

This is yours: take it” and held in his hand the French Medaille Militaire (which he had obtained from the executed corporal’s sisters), and laughing indomitable, the crowd aghast, his voice rang out: “You too helped carry the torch of man into that twilight where he shall be no more; these are his epitaphs: They shall not pass. My country right or wrong. Here is a spot which is forever England—and then the crowd had him.”
The social change initiated by a single man or small group of men is often carried forward by men and in ways that those paying the original price would never know, and could not have calculated, who acted on the faith that right action leads to right ends. Once the dream sprouts into determination and courage, it is difficult to kill it. Simple in its logic, clear in purpose, relevant to men, it takes root.

Courage and fear play back and forth across the pages of this book, the inner processes and the personal and social consequences of each. The men afraid: the men who wanted courage, yet feared to pay for that courage a price they deemed too great. The men unafraid: the sentry marred forever and still defiant, saying the truth where it needed to be said, risking life again. He must have recalled the words of the corporal: “Don’t be afraid. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Nothing worth it.”

The ideas in this novel—that men acting together are the final source of power, that means must be judged by the same standard as the goals, that war does not serve the welfare even of the people on behalf of whom it is waged, that liberty and kindness and humanness are important, that individuals and small groups can influence their fellow men—seem strange, to most people. They produce a strange philosophy in a world of spreading conformity and totalitarianism, a world ruled increasingly by military thinking and whose supreme creation and god is the hydrogen bomb. Perhaps these thoughts are relevant precisely because in our present condition they seem so strange. Perhaps the strangest thought of all is that man should believe and have hope and be unafraid. We are losing these qualities. Our future may depend on our ability to regain them.

It is fortunate that the social thought in A Fable has been propounded by so brilliant a novelist as Faulkner. Intentionally or unintentionally, he made a striking contribution to the spreading of ideas which may serve as part of the basis for the solution of the problems of modern man. He thus became a “man of words” to help carry man forward to the day when all tyranny, exploitation and war shall be no longer.