“The English are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of Kings by resisting them, and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established … that wise government where the prince is all powerful to do good, and at the same time is restrained from committing evil … and where the people share in the government without confusion.”Voltaire in Letters Concerning the English Nation.
(Rousseau – Image credit – Wikipedia)
The use of the term “revolution” to describe a great turn-about in some area of culture and society has been devalued and banalized by hyperbole in commercial and technological advertising. Even normal political “evolution” has been denigrated in this way of describing almost any notable change of policy as “revolutionary”.
However, the true “Age of Revolutions” began with the English Civil Wars of 1642-49. Without rehearsing the long lead-up to that seminal event, we cannot neglect its significance as a deep root of all the political revolutions that have followed in European and World History since then. Yet this event is now almost invisible in our overview of the most important events of Western and World History.
The events in England in those years settled a very basic question in one of the world’s major monarchies. The foremost reason the British Monarchy has endured to this day is because it was settled then, once and for all, that Parliament, the elected representatives of the English people (although it was then selected by a small minority of English adult male voters), could and did prescribe specific limits to the authority and reach of the Monarch and his agents. Once the principle was established and enshrined constitutionally, the rights of the people must increase and gain ascendancy over time, and increasingly so over generations.
This was confirmed by “the Glorious Revolution of 1688” when the last of the Stuart Kings attempted to restore absolutism and was driven out of Britain for good for his arrogant presumption. His successors, King William and Queen Mary, swore to respect and uphold the authority and rights of Parliament henceforth and forever.
Thus it was that several of France’s key philosophes (the intellectual ancestors of the French Revolution, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu) extolled the example of England as a balanced approach to limiting (de-absolutizing) absolute monarchy and deconstructing feudalism while elevating the educated populace to a position of near, if not then complete, equality under law and in social, political, and economic status.
However, it is a fallacy to think of the Enlightenment Progressives as “democrats” in the way we use that term today. The preferred Enlightenment model of government, at least on the European continent, was “Enlightened Despotism”. Even Voltaire, who had lived in England and come to admire it, and was himself a multi-millionaire if his income were calculated in current equivalents, strove to promote Enlightened Despotism by corresponding and even visiting monarchs such as Frederick II of Prussia, whom he saw as a hopeful exemplar. Apparently, to his thinking, the English example was a peculiar aberration that could not be emulated elsewhere. Inevitably he was disillusioned by Frederick, for a “Despot” is an absolute monarch by definition. For a pragmatist such as Frederick II, restraint is a matter of the exigencies of present political, social, and economic need. When Voltaire’s “great hope” launched calculated aggressive war on his neighbours to gain territories and other advantages, his disillusionment was great indeed.
Montesquieu admired Great Britain’s balance of power in the political, social, and economic spheres. We may justly call him the “Father of Political Science”, and his laser-like insights were collected in The Spirit of Laws” in which he outlined the fine division of powers among the three “branches of government” in England – Parliament, the Legislative, or law-making, Branch, the Monarchy, or Executive Branch, and the Courts, or Judiciary Branch. Montesquieu posited that such a division was essential to avoid the abuses of Absolutism and the onset of Despotism, no matter how “enlightened” a specific sovereign might prove to be. Divine Right, if it existed at all, was with the people, not an individual claiming a sort of demi-god status anointed by the Deity.
Neither Voltaire nor Montesquieu named France’s monarchy and bloated aristocratic elite as the chief object of their eloquent criticism of Absolutism in all its forms, but their writings were perilously close to seditious in the climate of the times before the revolution broke out.
In the long run, the most influential of all the “Big Three” thinkers of the French Enlightenment was Rousseau. Rousseau stands apart. As a brilliant thinker and writer in his own right, he shocked even the trendy, progressive “salon set” with his radicalism between 1754 and his death in 1778. He further scandalized the elite social set by deliberately affronting the ethical and moral standards of the day. He was an iconoclast par excellence. Having made the fashionable rounds and enjoyed extensive patronage to gain fame and even notoriety, he refused to conform to expectations to settle down as a well-mannered participant in the theoretical discussions about how things ought to change in the proper proportion and desired direction. He wrote extensively and his books were best-sellers. His caustic style spared no one, but whatever he wrote gained a wide audience. He even dared critique the Enlightenment`s new ultimate idol, Reason, as the only source of wisdom and knowledge and the only way to understand any great issue.
Rousseau has been labeled many things – the Great-Grandfather of Communism, the Great-Grandfather of Fascism, the Grandfather of Romanticism. Such contradictory epithets almost beggar comprehension – unless you read him closely and extensively!
He was a divergent thinker and actor, not easy to categorize; he was a proto-revolutionary!
The primary radical movers of the French Revolution (especially the Jacobins) saw Rousseau, not Voltaire or any of the others, as their real inspiration. Rousseau despised the aristocrats. He saw the King as their dupe. He considered most of the mainstream philosophes as compromised – ready to do business with the old noblesse, to enjoy the privileges of special status in the intellectual salon-clubs while telling everyone else how to fix the nation. He roundly criticized the smart-set as enemies of true equality, mainly concerned with widening the circle of privilege and expanding the sharing of social and economic advantage with the most worthy, up-and-coming nouveaux-riches and practitioners of Reason (themselves) who could guide the future of the State and society. Even though he had lived in exile, Voltaire fell into this pit in Rousseau’s mind, although a little less. The famous Voltaire quip, “I may not agree with what your say but I will defend your right to say it to the death,” may well have been aimed at Rousseau.
When we seek to understand why, above all the other nations and peoples of Europe, France became the pilot-house, the cock-pit of Revolution, we must see it as the birthplace of most of the radical strains of ideology that later emerged as modern Socialism, Communism, and the laboratory where such things were tested in proto-type. As we have pointed out previously, the incredible tidal wave of fervent political and social activism that swept out of France from 1789 forward and surged into every nook and cranny of Europe would penetrate deep into Russia.
But the most toxic fruit of those seed would not emerge until 1917. The growth of that tree and its shoots is still with us in 2022.
TO BE CONTINUED
2 thoughts on “The Uses of History, 6 – From France 1812 to Russia, 1917, 3”
As usual, you leave the reader looking forward to the next instalment.😊
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Well stated article. Wonder if I may quote some sections in my forthcoming publication Decisive Democracy The Way Of Life For All? What is your background in producing this blog? Harmen Boersma, Havelock ON K0L 1ZO 613.713.3311