April 17, 2004


The Rights of Man: In the victory of the American Revolution European liberals saw the justification of their ideals and the realization of their hopes. It turned the current of the Enlightenment in a political direction and infused a revolutionary purpose into the democratic idealism of Rousseau. (CHRISTOPHER DAWSON, 1955, The South Atlantic Quarterly)

[I]f it was a time of freedom and hope, it was also a time of illusion. The Constituent Assembly went to work in a mood of boundless optimism without any regard for the facts of history or the limitations of time and place, in the spirit of their arch theorist Sieyès, who said that the so-called truths of history were as unreal as the so-called truths of religion. When their work was finished, Cerutti declared that they had destroyed fourteen centuries of abuses in three years, that the Constitution they had made would endure for centuries, and that their names would be blessed by future generations. Yet before many months had elapsed their work was undone and their leaders were executed, imprisoned or in exile. They had destroyed what they could not replace and called up forces that they could neither understand nor control. For the liberal aristocracy and bourgeoisie were not the people, and in some respects they were further from the people than the nobles and clergy who remained faithful to the old order. On the one hand there were the vast inarticulate masses of the peasantry who were ready to burn the castles of the nobles but who were often equally ready to fight with desperate resolution for their religion. On the other hand there was the people of the communes, above all the Commune of Paris.

For Paris was still at heart the old city of the League and it needed no teaching from America or England to learn the lesson of Revolution. It remembered the night of St. Bartholomew and the killing of Henry III, and its crowds rallied as readily to the preaching of the new Cordeliers and the new Jacobins as to that of their Catholic predecessors who led the mob against theHuguenots and held the city for five years against Henry of Navarre. Already in the days of July the people of Paris had asserted their power in unequivocal fashion and had regained their liberty by force of arms. Henceforward the people of Paris were an independent power, and a power which possessed far more political self-consciousness and revolutionary will than the people whose representatives sat in the National Assembly. It is true that in the first years of the Revolution the municipality was still in the hands of the bourgeoisie, but this was not the case with the assemblies of the districts and sections which were the real centers of political action. Here was democracy in action. Not the representative democracy of liberal constitutionalism, but the direct democracy of the medieval communes and the Greek city states — the democracy of which Rousseau and Mably had dreamed. It was this new and terrible power which was to undo the work of the aristocratic liberals and remake the Revolution; and already in the days of the Constituent Assembly it had found its leader in Danton, and its philosopher and teacher in Marat.

For the venomous and diseased little Swiss doctor, who was regarded as either a criminal or a lunatic by the respectable politicians of the Assembly, saw more clearly than they the fundamental issues of the Revolution and the bloody road that it was to travel. From the first he denounced the new constitution as the work of a privileged class and he marvelled at the way in which the workers had risked their lives to destroy the Bastille which was not their prison but that of their oppressors. He even warned the Assembly that if the bourgeoisie rejected the political rights of the workers on the ground of their poverty, they would find a remedy in the assertion of their economic rights to share in the possessions of the rich. "How many orators boast thoughtlessly of the charms of liberty. It only has a value for the thinker who has no wish to crawl and for the man who is called to play an important part by his wealth and position, but it means nothing to the people. What are Bastilles to them? They were nothing but a name. Where is the country of the poor?' he writes in November 1789, in reference to the question of conscription. "Everywhere condemned to serve, if they are not under the yoke of a master, they are under that of their fellow-citizens, and whatever revolution may come, their eternal lot is servitude, poverty and oppression. What can they owe to a state which has done nothing, nothing but secure their misery and tighten their chains. They owe it nothing but hatred and malediction."

In that disastrous demand for economic leveling lies the whole difference between the doomed revolutions of the Left and the successful American Revolution.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 17, 2004 1:32 PM

Marat's last comment - that the service to others we must render in a state of liberty is as much slavery as the yoke of a tyrannical master - shows that the French Revolution was not a revolt against a state, but against God himself and God's creation. It was imagining a world in which no one would have to serve others - in which wealth would be created magically, and people could receive without giving - and fighting in the name of that utopia. It was a revolt against love under the flag of selfishness. Hopeless, but that's the flag the left has been flying ever since.

Posted by: pj at April 18, 2004 7:37 AM