The French Revolution is one of the most important events in the last 1000 years and even now it stirs controversy because even though it was over two centuries ago people use it to argue present day concerns.1 A chief characteristics to these discussions about the Russian Revolution –opps I mean the French Revolution is that they are not really about the French Revolution but about modern concerns. In the back and often in the front of the writers mind is the Russian Revolution, which is the prism through which the French Revolution is seen. Since in this case the Russian Revolution is seen as a terrible evil tragedy then of course the French Revolution is seen as similar and of course equally futile, useless and wicked.2
This goes with a condemnation of revolution in general as wicked and catastrophic and simply not worth it. Revolutions are conceived as the result of wicked bad ideas that like viruses have infected the population with the disease of wanting change now. Of course they are like Edmund Burke, who hysterically condemned the French Revolution and engaged in the most contemptible twisting of history to ignore and down play the violence and revolutionary nature of the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688 that over threw James II and brought radical change to England and was accompanied by much violence. Burke further ignored that the “Glorious” Revolution was the end result of the effects of the English Civil War and Republican period, which had been characterized by much violence and social upheaval. Instead Burke created the illusion that the British constitution of his day was timeless and the result of slow incremental change and reflected the true nature of man and society. This vision is of course a self serving lie.3
Today a similar self-serving ideological attitude persists among many so-called American Conservatives. In this view virtually all Revolutions are bad except the American Revolution which was good and right. Of course like Burke’s view of the Glorious Revolution this requires the most studied and cultivated ignorance of the actual happenings of the Revolution and a disciplined ignorance of the radical nature of what happened. The violence and terror of what actually happened must be elided out. The fact that so many of the Revolutionary leaders were hypocrites and demagogues is omitted and/or denied, further such things as the mass expulsion through terror of a sizable portion of the American population, the Loyalists is ignored. Episodes of Ethnic cleansing are simply not discussed. Also not discussed is the fact that the rebels were never more than a minority in the American colonies.4
Thus after excluding from consideration in any even handed way the Revolutions which they benefited from these authors come to view the French Revolution. The result is a portrayal of the Revolution as unnecessary and inexplicable. The violence is viewed as “caused” by ideology and intellectual fanaticism and the roots of this ideological fanaticism said to be rooted in the hair-brained schemes of the intelligentsia.5
In Citizens, indeed the French Revolution of 1789-94 becomes almost meaningless in the larger sense, and is reduced to a kind of theatre of the absurd; the social and economic misery of the masses, an essential driving force behind their involvement in the revolutionary events, is barely mentioned; and the lasting significance of the Revolution’s many political theories and doctrines for modern European and world history more or less disappears.6That the Revolution had deep roots and was not the result of intellectual posturing and air-headed schemes is ignored or denied directly or by implication.
Of course in this what is really going on is that these authorties in this fashion are the intellectual heirs of Edmund Burke. Like him they tend to view the revolution as an inexplicable calamity that fell from on high.
Much is made about Burke’s predictions that the Revolution would degenerate into violence and later military despotism, what is generally ignored is Burke’s studied, deliberate obtuseness concerning the causes of the Revolution. In effect Burke takes refuge in explaining the Revolution as caused by a conspiracy of wicked, evil intellectuals out to destroy human society out sheer love of absurd air-headed notions of human betterment.7
In Burke’s view the Revolutionaries were aiming to annihilate civilized human society and replace it with barbarism and savagery. Burke had a Manichean view of the Revolution and could not explain it except as the result of conspiracy and wickedness. It takes only a little bit of research to indicate that Burke’s views about the origins of the French Revolution are quite simply stupefyingly simple minded. To quote:
Of course Burke could never bring himself to believe that the Revolution’s democratizing impulse was rooted in genuine popular discontent with the Old Regime in France. Rather he consistently interpreted the French Revolution as a dark, insidious plot foisted on the masses by a small cabal of philosophes and their political allies.
Regardless of which of these arguments one finds more compelling, it is abundantly clear from all Burke’s writings on the topic that he regarded the French Revolution as a kind of democratic revolution from above. As for the people themselves, he consistently deprived them of any intellectual or political agency in the revolutionary drama. They were mere dupes of the philosophes, whose absurd theories were backed by the sublimity of power terror and fear.8
But then Burke was an inveterate snob of the highest order for he said in Reflections on the Revolution in France:
The Chancellor of France, at the opening of the states, said, in a tone of oratorical flourish, that all occupations were honorable. If he meant only that no honest employment was disgraceful, he would not have gone beyond the truth. But in asserting that anything is honorable, we imply some distinction in its favor. The occupation of a hairdresser or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honor to any person — to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature.9
In other words Burke turned against the Revolution not because of its excesses but because it was “democratic”. In Burke’s view democratization would inevitably lead to savagery and barbarism and the end of civilization.
What is fascinating is reading Burke’s further writings concerning the French Revolutions that he wrote after his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Read for example his A Letter From Mr. Burke to a Member of the National Assembly, and see a great mind go unhinged.10 For example:
They [the philosphes and their allies] call on the rising generation in France to take a sympathy in the adventures and fortunes, and they endeavour to engage their sensibility on the side of pedagogues who betray the most awful family trusts, and vitiate their female pupils. They teach the people that the debauchers of virgins, almost in the arms of their parents, may be safe inmates in their houses, and even fit guardians of the honour of those husbands who succeed legally to the office which the young literators had pre-occupied, without asking leave of law or conscience.
Through him [Rousseau] they teach men to love after the fashion of philosophers; that is, they teach to men, to Frenchmen, a love without gallantry; a love without anything of that fine flower of youthfulness and gentility, which places it, if not among the virtues, among the ornaments of life. Instead of this passion, naturally allied to grace and manners, they infuse into their youth an unfashioned, indelicate, sour, gloomy, ferocious medley of pedantry and lewdness; of metaphysical speculations blended with the coarsest sensuality. Such is the general morality of the passions to be found in their famous philosopher, in his famous work of philosophic gallantry the 'Nouvelle Éloise'.
When the fence from the gallantry of preceptors is broken down, and your families are no longer protected by decent pride, and salutary domestic prejudice, there is but one step to a frightful corruption. The rulers in the National Assembly are in good hopes that the females of the first families in France may become an easy prey to dancing-masters, fiddlers, pattern-drawers, friseurs, and valets de chambre, and other active citizens of that description, who having the entry into your houses, and being half domesticated by their situation, may be blended with you by regular and irregular relations. By a law they have made these people their equals. By adopting the sentiments of Rousseau they have made them your rivals. In this manner these great legislators complete their plan of levelling, and establish their rights of men on a sure foundation.11
Thus does Burke writhe in disgust over the philosphes and their allies “penetrating” the nobility and debasing them through their wives and daughters. The sexual fantasies of Burke are amusing but as per usual it the same nonsense about “enemies” planning to destroy all virtue and wanting to sleep with “our” women. But then the Revolutionaries are out to destroy family:
However, I less consider the author than the system of the assembly in perverting morality through this means. This I confess makes me nearly despair of any attempt upon the minds of their followers, through reason, honour, or conscience. The great object of your tyrants is to destroy the gentlemen of France; and for that purpose they destroy, to the best of their power, all the effect of those relations which may render considerable men powerful or even safe. To destroy that order, they vitiate the whole community. That no means may exist of confederating against their tyranny, by the false sympathies of the 'Nouvelle Éloise' they endeavour to subvert those principles of domestic trust and fidelity, which form the discipline of social life. They propagate principles by which every servant may think it, if not his duty, at least his privilege to betray his master. By these principles every considerable father of a family loses the sanctuary of his house. 'Debet sua cuique domus esse perfugium tutissimum', says the law, which your legislators have taken so much pains first to decry, then to repeal. They destroy all the tranquillity and security of domestic life; turning the asylum of the house into a gloomy prison, where the father of the family must drag out a miserable existence, endangered in proportion to the apparent means of his safety; where he is worse than solitary in a crowd of domestics, and more apprehensive from his servants and inmates, than from the hired, bloodthirsty mob without doors, who are ready to pull him to the lanterne.12
Thus in Burke’s mind democratization is an attack on the family and as such must be resisted. Although no doubt it gave Burke much pleasure to contemplate the wives and daughters of the Nobility having all their needs "filled in" by lower class trash.
In fact the entire revolution, from shoes, hats to gestures, and language was thought by Burke to be a monstrous perversion.13
Burke further accuses the Revolutionaries of destroying marriage, by for example allowing Civil marriage outside of a Religious service. Further Burke regarded as wicked that the Revolutionaries got rid of the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children. Burke condemns this as well denouncing unwed mothers as prostitutes, who along with their immoral offspring must be treated as pariahs. Of course the upper class gentlemen, Nobility who coerce, trick etc., lower class women into affairs must continue to be able to conduct and walk away from such recreations with no consequences and no social disapproval worth mentioning only the women and their offspring need be treated as scum. Further with great wickedness, the revolutionaries, according to Burke, not only allowed divorce, which was horrible enough, but gave women equal access to it! The result according to Burke was that marriage had decayed in France to a debased form of concubinage and the family had been horribly undermined; and the plans of the Philosophes and their allies to destroy marriage and the family were thus proceeding according to plan.14
Burke’s hysteria, which is merely what it is, tells us much more about his sexual hang-ups and obsessions than it does about the French revolutionaries. It is also part of Burke’s Manichean and stultified view of the revolution. It is of interest that he simply did not condemn its excesses he condemned the whole thing tout-court, without qualification and without reason. His subsequent accuracy about where the Revolution would lead seems to result more from a comparison, largely unacknowledged, with the course of the English Revolution than from any real understanding.
Finally Burke’s defence of tradition had a very irrational element. To quote:
In The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Terry Eagleton assesses one of Burke’s important legacies, placing him beside another eighteenth-century thinker so loved by the right—Adam Smith. Ideology of the Aesthetic is premised on the view that “Aesthetics is born as a discourse of the body”; that the aesthetic gives form to the “primitive materialism” of human passions and organises “the whole of our sensate life together… a society’s somatic, sensational life” (13). Reading Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Eagleton discerns that society appears as “an immense machine, whose regular and harmonious movements produce a thousand agreeable effects”, like “any production of human art”. In Smith’s work, the “whole of social life is aestheticized” and people inhabit “a social order so spontaneously cohesive that its members no longer need to think about it.” In Burke, Eagleton discovers that the aesthetics of “manners” can be understood in terms of Gramscian hegemony: “in the aesthetics of social conduct, or ‘culture’ as it would later be called, the law is always with us, as the very unconscious structure of our life”, and as a result conformity to a dominant ideological order is deeply felt as pleasurable and beautiful (37, 42). When this conservative aesthetic enters the realm of politics, Eagleton contends, the “right turn, from Burke” onwards follows a dark trajectory: “forget about theoretical analysis… view society as a self-grounding organism, all of whose parts miraculously interpenetrate without conflict and require no rational justification. Think with the blood and the body. Remember that tradition is always wiser and richer than one’s own poor, pitiable ego. It is this line of descent, in one of its tributaries, which will lead to the Third Reich” (368–9).15
So in many respects modern day condemners of the French Revolution are simply modern day Burkeians who are often not discussing the French Revolution as discussing the Russian Revolution, further they often by omission / commission do not discuss the origins of the Revolution but talk about ideas being the source of Revolutionary excess and apparently of the Revolution itself.
Of course the literature concerning the causes of the Revolution is vast and indicates contrary to Burke both it’s deep roots and the fact that it had widespread support in France which was at times overwhelming.16 Burke because of his Manichean conception of the Revolution and his utter refusal to see in it anything positive was predisposed to cultivate a no-nothing attitude about the causes of the Revolution and to believe conspiratorial nonsense about its purposes and aims.
Also of course modern condemnation of the French Revolution requires that like Burke they elide, downplay and / or distort the previous revolutions which the condemners benefited from. In the case of Burke it is the English Revolution and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The first was ignored as much as possible the second was viewed with rose coloured glasses by Burke.
Modern condemnation of the French Revolution by so-called Conservatives requires a celebration of the American Revolution, among American Conservatives at least although this celebration also exists among non American Conservatives, which of course was a good thing because they benefited or think they benefited from it. It also leads to a disturbingly, facile view of the causes and course of the French Revolution as the result of “bad” ideas and intellectuals run amuck.
In this implied Manichaeism the wicked French Revolution resulted from people behaving badly and thinking “wrong” thoughts; that the Revolution had deep causes is of course unthinkable. Thus like Burke they must turn their way from the deep causes and talk about ideas and of course pontificate that the violence of the Revolution was inevitable because that is the way of all Revolutions, except those we benefited from personally, and the wicked principles of the Revolutionaries who imposed them from on high.17
This is of course so air-headed that a single puff of wind should blow it away. Unfortunately the heirs to Burke seem to think it is profound when it is simply false.
In future postings I will discuss some of the deep causes of the French Revolution that are often ignored and yes some of the repellent atrocities that accompanied it.
As for Burke I will have more to say about him in the future, especially concerning his views of democracy.
1. See Furet, Francais, Interpreting the French Revolution, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981, Schema, Simon, Citizens, Vintage Books, Toronto, 1989.
2. IBID. There are many other examples of this genre of writing.
3. Burke, Edmund, Reflections of the Revolution in France, published in Reflections on the Revolution in France & The Rights of Man, Paine, Thomas, Dolphin Books, Garden City NY, 1961, pp. 15-266. The literature about both the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution and its effects is huge although it tends to downplay the violence of the Glorious Revolution especially. See Wedgewood, C.V., The King’s Peace, Fontana Books, London, 1955, & The King’s War, Fontana Books, London, 1958, Brewer, John, The Sinews of Power, Unwin Hyman, London, 1989, pp. 134-161, Lockyer, Roger, Tudor and Stuart England, 2nd Edition, Longman, 1985, pp. 350-397, Stoye, John, Europe Unfolding, Fontana Books, 1969, pp. 383-396, Royle, Trevor, Civil War, Abacus, London, 2004. It is commonly forgotten that the Glorious Revolution had its Vendee in Ireland where the war was fought with truly grotesque barbarism.
4. For a clearheaded but jaundice view of the American Revolution see Bicheno, Hugh Rebels and Redcoats, HarperCollins Pub., London, 2003. One of the Ethnic cleansings carried out was the destruction of the towns of members of the Iroquois Confederacy in 1779. The author argues that what helped to lose the war for the British was the restraint in war fighting by the British when faced by the unscrupulousness of the rebels.
5. Footnote 1.
6. Evans, Richard J., In Defence of History, 2nd Edition, Granta Books, London, 2000, p. 245.
7. See O’Neill, Daniel, The Burke – Wollstonecraft Debate, The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park PENN, 2007, pp. 152-156.
8. IBID, p. 154, 156.
9. Burke, Reflections…, p. 61-62.
10. See Burke, Edmund, A Letter From Mr. Burke to a Member of the National Assembly, From Atkinson, Philip, Library of Mainly Eighteen Century Authors, Here.
13. O’Neill, p. 211.
14. IBID. 211-212.
15. Musgrove, Brian Michael, Recovering Public Memory: Politics, Aesthetics and Contempt, M/C Journal, Vol. 121, No. 6, 2008, Here.
16. For discussions of the roots and course of the Revolution see Hobsbawn, E. J., The Age of Revolution, 189-1848, New York, Mentor Books, 1962, Durant, Will & Ariel, The Age of Napoleon, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1975, Rude, George, Revolutionary Europe, Fontana Books, London, 1974, Bernier, Olivier, Words of Fire, Deeds of Blood, Anchor Books, New York, 1989, Cobban, Alfred, Aspects of the French Revolution, Paladin, London, 1968, Blanning, T. C. W., The French Revolutionary Wars 1787-1802, Arnold, London, 1996.
17. The two items in Footnote 1 have this point of view especially Furet.