Tuesday, 14 July 2009

It’s Bastille Day! [updated]

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” They were the words with which Charles Dickens began his novel of the French Revolution – the Revolution celebrated today on the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille.

It was the best of times – the Revolution overthrew feudalism.  It was the worst of times – it instituted dictatorship.  It was the best of times – it proclaimed liberty.  It was the worst of times – it enforced equality.   It was both thrilling and blood-chilling – like the anthem of blood lust to which it gave birth, and which it still so well reflects. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and to be young was very heaven,” said Wordsworth – but he said it with the protection of La Manche between him and The Terror.  He embraced the Bliss; he dismissed the Destruction.

“To destroy is the task,” said Victor Hugo, “to build is the work.  Progress demolishes with the left hand; it is with the right hand that it builds.  The left hand of Progress is called Force; the right hand is called Mind.”  Both hands raised the French Revolution into the light, but it was the left hand that eventually took the spoils.

The French Revolution essentially lasted twenty-five years. It started in hope, and plunged immediately into bloodshed and murder.  It overturned feudal aristocracy and ended in fifteen years of military dictatorship and war all over Europe. It started in the Tennis Court at Versailles and ended on the field at Waterloo.  It started with liberty, equality and fraternity, and ended in class warfare and the guillotine.

The French Revolution felt the impact of the American revolution, but misunderstood its message.

In the face of a colonial oppressor the American founding fathers raised a flag reading “Don’t Tread on Me”; in the face of a thousand years of feudalism the French Revolution raised the guillotine.  The Americans threw off their colonial ruler and proclaimed a constitutional republic; the French threw off the miasma of feudalism, and replaced it with the the dead weight of dictatorship.  The American inspiration was John Locke; the French was Rousseau. The American Revolution threw up Washington and Jefferson; the French threw up Robespierre and St Just.    The American Revolution proclaimed the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and then set out to protect them; the French Revolution proclaimed the “the General Good”  and set up a Committee of Public Safety to protect them. As Michael Berliner explains, "Jefferson and Washington fought a war for the principle of independence, meaning the moral right of an individual to live his own life as he sees fit"; Robespierre and Marat fought for the principle of the rights of the majority, meaning the the principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation’s rulers. The American Revolutionaries fought to set up a government that protected individual rights; the French to set up a dictatorship that protected “collective rights” – and killed class enemies.  The Americans knew about Cromwell’s Protectorate and sought to avoid it; the French had forgotten it and were fated to emulate it.

The lesson of the French Revolution, as Ayn Rand says below, “is that political freedom requires much more than the people's wish. It requires an enormously complex knowledge of political theory and of how to implement it in practice.”  America’s founding fathers knew that; France’s Committee of Public Safety did not.  It is the American Revolution that has lessons to follow today; the French Revolution is one of many that has lessons to avoid.

    It took centuries of intellectual, philosophical development to achieve political freedom. It was a long struggle, stretching from Aristotle to John Locke to the Founding Fathers. The system they established was not based on unlimited majority but on its opposite: on individual rights, which were not to be alienated by majority vote or minority plotting. The individual was not left at the mercy of his neighbors or his  leaders: the Constitutional system of checks and balances was scientifically devised to protect him from both.
    This was the great American achievement—and if concern for the actual welfare of other nations were our present leaders' motive, this is what we should have been teaching the world.
    Instead, we are deluding the ignorant and the semi-savage by telling them that no political knowledge is necessary—that our system is only a matter of subjective preference—that any prehistorical form of tribal tyranny, gang rule, and slaughter will do just as well, with our sanction and support.
   It is thus that we encourage the spectacle of Algerian workers marching through the streets [in the 1962 Civil War] and shouting the demand: "Work, not blood!"—without knowing what great knowledge and virtue are required to achieve it.
    In the same way, in 1917, the Russian peasants were demanding: "Land and Freedom!"  But Lenin and Stalin is what they got.
    In 1933, the Germans were demanding: "Room to live!" But what they got was Hitler.
    In 1793, the French were shouting: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!" What they got was Napoleon.
    In 1776, the Americans were proclaiming "The Rights of Man"—and, led by political philosophers, they achieved it.
    No revolution, no matter how justified, and no movement, no matter how popular, has ever succeeded without a political philosophy to guide it, to set its direction and goal.

Let’s remember the lessons of the French Revolution today, just as we remember the lessons of the American on July 4th – bet let us not forget which of them has lessons and the political philosophy we might want to emulate.

UPDATE:  I love Sandrine’s wonderful, and true, point:

The French Revolution and the Marseillaise should not be symbols of Liberty.
The Art about the French Revolution should definitely be . . .

Which says a whole lot about both art and revolution, when you think about it.


  1. The painting you have used here is called Liberty Leading the People, by Eugene Delacroix.

    I saw it first hand in the Louvre in Paris three weeks ago. Its absolutely stunning. Brought a tear to the eye.

  2. I loved this post Peter.

    No revolution, no matter how justified, and no movement, no matter how popular, has ever succeeded without a political philosophy to guide it, to set its direction and goal.

    Yes. And that is why it is so sad to watch the recent bloodied attempts at freedom in Burma (can't spell the new name) and Iran. They're so close, yet, so far away from attaining freedom, not only because of the power of their oppressors, the first Communism, the second a Theocracy, but also because, under it all, you feel they have a yearning for 'freedom', but I suspect no idea what that actually is, and thus were doomed from inception.

    There's certainly something to build on, though, and God, the Iranian uprising is a sign of real hope I did not think would exist, but how to get the philosophy into the minds of enough people in those countries, when we move further and further away from a society built on the freedom of the individual in our own country.

    Rambling now ...

  3. Joyeux Jour de La Bastrille a touts les amis fancaises en Nouvelle Zelande!!

  4. Elijah Lineberry14 Jul 2009, 11:59:00

    The halfwits in Frog-land were rather foolish with the ushering in of a Dictatorship and mass murder.

    As you say, Peter, the froggie fools missed the point of the American revolution entirely! ha ha!; the chaps in the US certainly knew what they were doing.

  5. Because of my old patriotic leftovers I felt like disagreeing with some points of the French Revolution. But Even if you summarized it very succintly your point is deadly true.

    Because I think I am a kind of bicultural person, I guess I can feel the essence of the anglosaxon way of thinking in parallel of the french one. What I have to say about it, is that the inheritant mechanisms from both revolutions are defintely not the same. The anglosaxon one is mobile and the french one is extremely static.

    The French Revolution and the Marseillaise should not be symbols of Liberty.

    The Art about the French Revolution should definitely be one.

    Thank you Peter for this beautiful and so true post.


  6. And yet The Marseillaise moves me enormously, Sandrine. It's a gorgeous piece of music.

    As is The Star Spangled Banner which also moves me.

    After my own, which I love to bits -- a sentiment not necessarily shared around these parts! ;) -- they are my two favourite anthems by far.

  7. To be fair the American revolutionaries had a bit of an advantage over the French. First, their heritage was essentially British and they had learned a thing or two from Cromwell who is a recognised hero of liberty. They also had vast lands populated only by easily suppressed savages and full of natural resources to exploit. They weren’t surrounded by competent mortal enemies. They also had great plantations and slaves to work them and more where they came from. They had free resources, free land, free labour, hell it was hard to go wrong. You’d have to be Spanish to mess this up. This gave them a lot of free time in order to perfect their lofty ideas around liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Ideas we can admire today.

  8. SAND: "Because of my old patriotic leftovers I felt like disagreeing with some points of the French Revolution."

    I felt sure you would. :)

    "The French Revolution and the Marseillaise should not be symbols of Liberty.
    The Art about the French Revolution should definitely be . . .

    I think that's almost exactly right. The yearning was there (as so wonderfully expressed in the art, and the spirit of the anthem), but not the application (as reflected so chillingly in the guillotine, and in the anthem's words).

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  10. Blogger Marm said...

    Great post as usual Peter, though you are maybe a bit trigger-happy on them (ehh...us) French, and a bit over-caricatural in opposing Locke to Rousseau.
    History is full of paradoxes, and particularly this period of Enlightnment and violences.
    Rousseau was one, and as sang Gavroche Voltaire was another. From Locke to Voltaire then through to A.Smith and B.Franklin, it sounds to me much more like a swiss-army knife of good-will thinkers, most of them writing to/reading each other if not being simply friends, than a simple blade with the English and Locke on one side and Rousseau and the French (and the Swiss of course, as is Rousseau) on the other.
    More than a matter of " without a political philosophy to guide it", it can be a matter of "too many competing ones", when the situation becomes too challenging.
    As AngloAmerikan comments above, the situations in both places were quite different; what you get when you try to put in practice these (by then) new theories depends IHMO as much, and probably more, on the context (AngloA summarises it well), the strengths of the reactionary forces (remote UK vs. neighbor/cousin monarchies and the Church), the help you get from the outside (a lot of French help for the US vs. nothing), the size of the audience you have to convince (few thousands or tens of vs. few millions) etc etc.

    Another funny paradox: by then the American took into consideration the lessons of the Protectorate, shortly thereafter the French ignored it.
    180ish year later, the French learned that you can't impose the government you want over a communism-sympathizing country, shortly thereafter the US tried anyway ;-(



  11. Fine post PC. You get to the essence in so few words. Yes, it's important to let egalite & fraternite look after themselves.

    - Sam P


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