Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Prisoners of 1789

I have recently finished reading La Belle France, a very readable history of that remarkable country by the British Francophile historian Alistair Horne. Having finished it I am astonished by how much that medium-sized nation has influenced the modern world. Not in food or arts, for which France's astonishing rate of per capita contributions are well-known stories, but in politics and history. Of the two great revolutions of the late eighteenth century, Americans are naturally prone to emphasize the importance of their own. Not entirely without reason, as it did set the U.S. on the road to being the dominant power that it is today. But in fact it was the revolution of 1789 in France whose legacy has been more profound. Indeed, we are still captive to its outcome at the outset of the 21st century, the era of the microchip, the rise of China, and other things utterly unforeseeable to those who went to the meeting of the Estates General first called by Louis XVI.

The conventional wisdom about the Great Revolution was that it was an uprising of the miserably oppressed poor against an elite class impervious to their suffering. (Mel Brooks memorably summarized this view with six words, “It's good to be the king.”) And there is some truth to this; the huge expense of funding the American Revolution combined with much workaday economic dysfunction had thrown the French economy into chaos, with food shortages everywhere. The peasantry was also crippled by a burden of immense taxation.

But the first shots were fired not against the king or his agents but against a businessman, the very representative of the soon-to-be-despised bourgeois class. A factory belonging to a wallpaper manufacturer named Réveillon¸ ironically known for his generous wages, was stormed in late April, 1789 after a rumor that he planned to lower wages in concert with the government’s lowering of the price of bread. He and his children barely escaped with their lives, and according to this eyewitness account, after soldiers opened fire and killed hundreds of rioters, they turned their rage on any carriages containing members of the Third Estate, which in essence meant other members of the bourgeoisie. And so even though monarchists would in much of the nineteenth century object to the middle classes as the agents of change and hence the bearers of the might that toppled the world before 1789, it was anti-industrialist sentiment that played a big role in setting the stage for the storming of the Bastille.

The rest is quite literally history. On July 14 the Bastille was attacked. (Two elderly priests were very nearly lynched, saved only by the arrival of the police.) On August 26 the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was issued. In what must have seemed an astonishing development to a Western Europe unused to seeing its sovereigns fall to the rabble since the Roman Empire, the king and queen were captured on Oct. 5. Following a brief sort of Prague Spring interval that lasted through much of 1790, Edmund Burke famously warned with astonishing prescience in November of that year that what was in the offing was “nothing but the gallows,” a provocation that the American radical Thomas Paine rejected with his question, “Whom has the National Assembly brought to the scaffold? None.” During this time the Revolution also took a marked anti-clerical turn, with the corruption of much of the church hierarchy motivating what we would now call a nationalization and auctioning off of church property, and an insistence (remarkably similar to those that China now demands of bishops in its “patriotic” Catholic Church that Rome does not recognize) that clerics vow obedience to the nation.

One faction, each more radical than the one before it, followed another, and terror by mobs in the streets and the first vengeful and later cannibalistic parade to the guillotine followed. The King was dispatched in January of 1792, the Queen in October. The device was even sent on “patriotic tours” to snuff out any nobles in hiding. As the temporary leaders of the state grew more and more paranoid the Terror increased, and ultimately only a megalomaniacal Bonaparte could restore order.

Even then the conflict was not over, as France went from Napoleon to the Restoration to the abortive uprising that led to a restored monarchy to a brief uprising leading to a constrained monarch, Louis-Philippe to universal suffrage (ere both Britain and the U.S.) and the Second Republic to Napoleon III to a disastrous war with Prussia to the Paris Commune (where the Archbishop of Paris was taken hostage and executed) to a forced, exhasuted stability by the 1870s. The French in their history, as in most things, have little tolerance for dull smallness.

Now that we have had two centuries plus to shake it all out, it is astonishing how much is left as a historical legacy. First, the Jacobins have won completely in purging religion from the public square, in favor of outcomes dictated by reason. During the Revolution proper this sometimes reached absurd proportions, as when the revolutionary government abandoned the months of the Gregorian calendar and invented a “rational” calendar based on the decimal system, the companion of the metric system that of course now dominates world measures. There were 12 months of 30 days each, named after expected weather and botanical conditions rather than ancient gods. Each month had three ten-day weeks (with five holidays at the end, six in a leap year), each day 10 hours, each hour 100 minutes, and each minute 100 seconds. Years were indexed by Roman numerals, starting from what would have otherwise been called 1792. (The Khmer Rouge, chillingly, also called the start of their new society Year Zero.) Robespierre, to take an example, was executed on 8 Thermidor Year II. More seriously, church property was often sacked, with Notre Dame Cathedral itself barely escaping. This legacy is clearly reflected throughout Europe (with the conspicuous exception of Poland), where church attendance has dwindled down to almost nothing and where French militancy about church/state separation is now the norm, even in faraway Turkey.

Closely related is the triumph of reason (as opposed to adherence to tradition) as the arbiter of human affairs. If there is a problem to be solved, public officials should reason out the solution and then apply it. Lost, obviously, in this model is the limits of the human mind to understand something as complex as human society (and certainly to predict its future). Equally lost is the notion of the Scottish/English Enlightenment that people pursue their self-interests, including by forming pressure groups, in all political systems. There is no obvious reason that government decisions should end up enacting some phantom “public will,” itself a concept that Rousseau relied heavily on during his political theorizing before the Revolution. Some of the Enlightenment’s most gifted children, e.g. Condorcet, ended up being swallowed by its revolutionary excesses. The ultimate triumph of this rationalist view of human affairs was Marxist historical inevitability, which went on to give Lenin license he needed to invent totalitarianism to make sure that enough eggs could be broken to make the omelet he desired. The skepticism for the middle class, which we saw earlier was on display right from the start, also found its way into Marx and ultimately the mass campaigns of Stalin and Mao. Much less profoundly, the gradual accretion of power by the elite in the EU despite a lack of a compelling mandate from the public is another manifestation of this legacy.

The power of the mob, even if channeled through elections, which as we saw above was to haunt France repeatedly in the coming years, has also long outlasted the Revolution itself. If there is a public will, then the public must surely discern it, and there is thus nothing to be said for standing in defiance of it in the name of constitutional procedure, ordered liberty, the costs of upsetting the social order, or anything else. One still sees this even now, with the legacy (including in the U.S., as most recently demonstrated in the large protests against the House immigration bill criminalizing violations of the immigration laws) of large public demonstrations and even disorder as a way to pressure the government to adopt a particular measure. “The people, united, will never be defeated” is perhaps 1789's tritest legacy. Totalitarians of both “left” and “right” (and these distinctions themselves are legacies of parliamentary seating arrangements in the Revolutionary era) have always relied on the “masses” to validate their actions. This is why they are often such compelling orators capable of mobilizing giant crowds (Mussolini, Hitler), or otherwise insistent on whipping up mass movements, parades, etc. (Mao, Stalin).

One of the great controversies in history is the question of determinism – is history guided by large, impersonal macro principles or by micro accidents and individual human choices? Mr. Horne himself wonders whether, if Louis XVI had not been so instinctively indecisive, whether it all would have turned out much less bloody. We will never know, but even after stipulating its benefits (the overthrow of a purely hereditary ruling class, the declaration of rights inherent in all people), the legacy of the Great Revolution gives one pause. It has been a macro driver of history like few other events. It is 1789's world in more ways than we know.


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