THE TITLE of this spirited study of intellectual incendiarism comes from a scene in Dostoevsky's novel, The Possessed, , possibly the most powerful indictment of revolutinary idealists ever written. A mysterious fire has broken out in a provincial town, and then the shout goes up, "The fire is in the minds of men -- not in the roofs of buildings." It is an ancient image, surely as old as the myth of Prometheus, who revolts against Zeus to steal fire for mankind's benefit. Why should this be? How is it that man seizes upon such a symbol, and so many other images of natural catastrophe (storms, earthquakes, floods, eruptions), to represent some beneficent ideal of human betterment? If a revolution is, as Marx and Engles blandly noted, like a Vesuvian volcano with irresistable lava, then run, all you Pompeiians out there, run for your lives! But no, man in his ideological enchantment has held it to be a happy prospect to head into the storm, spread the fire, welcome the hurricane, love the lava. Yet in most of the sober and practical moments of life, mankind did sense this to be a kind of perverse madness.

Properly to explain this phenomenon one would necessarily have to go deeper than the mere historical record of revolutionary words and deeds from Robespierre to Lenin. Anthropologists have tried to tell us something about the basic rituals which bond human temperaments, their gestures of aggression and defiance, their dreams of rebirth and renewal. Psychologists have illuminated the patterns of illusion and self-deception, of love-hate to which all minds and hearts are prey. Even philosphers help by shedding light on the tragic efforts of extravagant commitment to perfect ideals. But James Billington is an historian, primarily interested in the way things actually happened and less concerned with ultimate questions and answers. If he doesn't tell us why, he fills us in expertly on who and when and how. Fire in the Minds of Men is a rich chronicle of how "passionate intellectuals" from 1789 onwards conspired to destroy a status quo in a dozen European lands, rationalizing their defeats, rethinking their strategy and tactics, reforging their fiery faith in that Great Happening by which things would be, in Yeats' phrase, "changed utterly." Victory was always imminent, always inevitable (and sometimes actually happened).

"The revolutionary label," Billington wryly notes at one point, "that now controls the destiny of more than one billion people in the contemporary world sprang from erotic imagination of an eccentric writer." He is alluding to the coinage of the word communiste by Restif de la Bretonne, turning from porn to politics in the Paris of the 1780s. I am not sure how much further it takes us to know that; but it is interesting and amusing, and our author never lets us down when it comes to such odd recondite associations. In fact he has a delightful mania for recording, in his devotion to "innovations," who it was that first said something fiery. Who first used the word socialism? (Robert Owen) or the word nihilist, or intelligentsia, or permanent revolution? Which radical group first published an ideological bulletin, thought of themselves as terrorists, ran down socialism to praise communism, advocated women's lib and/or black power? When indeed did we first hear of ideology, people's wars and people's democracies, and see the raising of a red-blood flag? All hail to those heroic Prometheans who created "a socialist cosmology" (not Marcuse, but Fourier), advocated a "Communist Party" (Dezamy), speculated about the decisive "Year 2000" (not Daniel Bell, but Restif, again).

Billington's 500 pages (plus footnotes) are studded with so many starring credits that the work almost becomes a Guinness Book of Ideological Records. Every talismanic word or sacramental phrase is solemnly registered, as if with some historical stopwatch. Yet it is good and necessary to know all this. It "relativizes" notions which so many, especially the academic young, take to be natural, eternal concepts; by dating them it may help make them dated, even outdated. It also suggests that, although so much of the story is old repetitive stuff (fathers and sons, idealism and disillusionment, heroism and murder), there is always something new under the sun, for man is an inventive little fellow who knows how to alleviate the boring historic sameness with some bright trick, phrase, or maneuver.

In such detail lies the virtue of the book. Billington knows about cafe life in a dozen European capitals, and who hung around which tables before the historic riot or the spontaneous demonstration. He knows about theater and opera, and which slogans and melodies inspired radical spirits to rally. He has extended his research even to art and color combinations, in order to explain red flags, black banners, stars, stripes and other occult details (especially fascinating is the influence of the Free Masons and the Illuminati, with their secret circles, numbers, triangles and other Pythagorean mumbo jumbo). Nor does he confine himself to the Left, for he is convinced of a "symbiosis of the extremes" and pinpoints precisely where and when Communist ideas helped Fascist movements, and vice versa. Some 140 pages of tiny footnotes attest to his remarkable dilligence and sensitivity.

On the broad outlines there is little original here, for he has, alas, persuaded himself to try to cover everything from Brook Farm to Bolshevism, every pamphlet in Marx's London and Blanqui's Paris, every echo in Warsaw and St. Petersburg, every cry of pseudo-religious longing from all those landless unpromising messiahs of the last two centuries. We have had most of the story, in vivid strokes and scholarly detail, from Edmund Wilson, Jacob Talmon and Isaiah Berlin; and only recently, with masterful intellectual severity, from Leszek Kolakowski in his great three-volume history of Marxism. We know the Russian story from Bertram Wolfe, Louis Fischer, Franco Venturi and Adam Ulam; the French, from Robert Palmer, Richard Cobb, Raymond Aron; the German, from George Lichtheim, Lewis Feuer and Sidney Hook. Billington uses them all, and adds usefully by highlighting "comparative" materials (even glancing sideways at American militants). His emphasis, following Tocqueville, is constantly on the radical habit of oversimplifying life and politics, reducing complex matters to easy formulas, embracing "totalistic" solutions. For all the set pieces of potted portraiture (Hegel and Marx, Proudhon and Bakunin, Babeuf and Buonarroti, Kautsky and Lenin), we are grateful throughout for the absence of cant, the freedom from ideology and prejudice. He is always cool, critical, dispassionate, and generally sound.

Indeed I am tempted to say that it is probably the best handbook of revolution ever written by a counter-revolutionary. No conservative outrage here, no reactionary polemics, no gloating over so many embittered generations. It has the objective thoroughness of a textbook, and the fascination of a guide-book. Do-it-yourself: Now to be a revolutionary thinker, i.e., what verbal twigs have to be rubbed together in order to produce a merry little fire in the mind. As a History Book Club selection it may even -- should this be welcomed? -- reawaken an interest among students, now so happily bored with the subject, in the great tradition of turning the world upside down.

Still, he should have given us less about Western political culture, and more about those ideological subcultures which shine out darkly from his best pages. In this large worthy work there is a thin brilliant little book struggling to get out.