May 7, 2006

FRIEND OF THE DEVIL (via Tom Corcoran):

Liberty, Equality, Fratricide: a review of French Revolution Books by David Andress and Ruth Scurr (DAVID GILMOUR, NY Times Book Review)

BETWEEN 1789 and 1958 France had more revolutions and changes of regime than any other nation in recent history. Its people were forced to endure two empires, three monarchies and five republics, in addition to a consulate, two directories and the ignoble government of Vichy. Even Spain was unable to compete with such a catalog of political instability.

Unlike the French Revolution, England's Glorious Revolution of 1688 established a state that both succeeded and survived. Yet the English do not have a tenth of the affection for 1688 — or even consciousness of the event — that the French retain for 1789. Regardless of its failures, incoherence and reliance on state terrorism, the first French revolution remains a source of patriotic pride. Maximilien Robespierre, chief architect of the Terror, has been venerated by generations of French historians. The revolutionary slogan — "liberty, equality, fraternity" — can still ignite the nation's spirit.

Yet it was a slogan that encapsulated neither a truth nor an achievement. Liberty was not accorded to anyone who criticized the revolution; fraternity was less prevalent than fratricide; and equality before the law had little meaning when no one, aristocrat, bourgeois or peasant, could hope for a fair trial. As Simon Schama wrote in "Citizens," his vast and brilliant chronicle of the period, violence, not ideology, was the real motor of the Revolution. [...]

In her lively and well-written book, "Fatal Purity," Ruth Scurr, a historian and literary critic, confesses her sympathy for Robespierre, admitting that she has given him "the benefit of any rational doubt" and has "tried to be his friend and to see things from his point of view."


Rational being the operative word. Mr. Gilmour's own conclusion is much more sensible:
Most of the positive aspects of 1789-95 had either been secured already by the English and American revolutions or evolved from them later on. France too could in due course have enjoyed the benefits of democracy without resorting to the guillotine, the Napoleonic Wars and the uprisings of 1830, 1848 and 1871. (Far more Parisians were killed in the repression of the Commune in 1871 than during the Terror.) In fact the Revolution was the fount and origin not of our world but of the totalitarian era, an inspiration to future dictators who could adopt Rousseau's theory of the General Will as an excuse to avoid democracy and who could label their opponents counterrevolutionaries as an excuse to murder them without trial.

Understanding that the French model is a disastrous break from the Anglo-American rather than a continuation is the key to understanding modernity.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 7, 2006 8:53 AM
Comments

-- equality before the law had little meaning when no one, aristocrat, bourgeois or peasant, could hope for a fair trial.--

Sounds like equality to me.........

I love beating froggies over the head when they attack US. I use the line someone posted somewhere - mebbe it was here - "France had its revolution and all they got was the Reign of Terror."

And then I point out that we're still on our first, they're on their 5th and ask why can't they get it right?

Posted by: Sandy P at May 7, 2006 11:16 AM

Unlike the French, Brits and Americans have the luxury of being separated by seas from Germans. This fact goes a long way into explaining political instability in France.

Posted by: Mrk at May 7, 2006 11:26 AM

The Germans were fine until they were contaminated by French ideology.

Posted by: oj at May 7, 2006 11:48 AM

French ideas explain France.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at May 7, 2006 12:34 PM

The Germans messed up the French Revolution?

Whew! I'm glad that's all cleared up.

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 7, 2006 9:26 PM

The Germans messed up by adopting its ideal--equality.

Posted by: oj at May 7, 2006 11:27 PM

"Understanding that the French model is a disastrous break from the Anglo-American rather than a continuation is the key to understanding modernity."

I nominate this for one of the top-ten sentences ever written on this blog.

Posted by: Palmcroft at May 8, 2006 7:19 AM
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