The Uses of History, 8 – From France, 1812 to Russia, 1917, 5 – 1848

Man is born free but is everywhere in chains. –

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, 1754.

An epic heroism has shone forth in the personal struggles of Socrates, of Paul and Augustine, of Luther and Galileo, and in that larger cultural struggle, borne by these and by many less visible protagonists, which has moved the West on its extraordinary course. There is high tragedy here. And there is something beyond tragedy.

Richard Tarnas, Preface to The Passion of the Western Mind, 1991

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free; stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be bound again by a yoke of slavery.

– Paul the Apostle, Letter to the Galatians, 5:1 (New International Translation), ca 50 CE

(Photo credit – Wikipedia – a Paris street barricade on June 25, 1848 before the Army assault)

The situation of the world in the closing weeks of 2021 would require none of the thinkers quoted above to change a word of what they wrote.

The earliest of them, the Apostle Paul, St. Paul to many Christians, was writing to a group of recent converts to Christianity (a term with which they would not yet be familiar) in the Roman province of Galatia, which was in what is now central Turkey. The freedom he was urging them to preserve was not political in any immediate sense, but spiritual and social. The slavery he referred to was slavery to old habits of sin and dependence on moral-religious legalism defined by many constraining practices that had little to do with living in relationship with their Risen Lord.

1700 years later, Rousseau lamented that so little had changed, despite the passage of many centuries since Christianity had become the dominant cultural and religious paradigm of the West. The bright hope and promise of what Paul had so earnestly striven to both demonstrate and inculcate among the first generation of Jesus-followers had long given way to the stultification of another regime of laws and rules and penalties to control people’s religious, political, social, economic, and cultural behaviour.

Rousseau had himself grown up in ultra-Calvinist Geneva, been mentored by a priest in Italy, then corrupted by an older rich Italian patroness. He had fled to France to find his way among the smart set of the rising philosophe­s who were challenging all the old dogmas and social restrictions justified by the “Divine Order” of Church and State whose nabobs jointly ruled the most powerful nation in Europe.

This is perhaps part of what Tarnas’ 1991 diagnosis of the whole saga of the West’s intellectual and cultural heritage as “beyond tragedy” may refer to. A deep spiritual, social, and cultural PTSD underpins the West’s long and winding road to its present soul-crisis, which we now also see manifesting as acute socio-economic-political turmoil. As Tarnas says, it is indeed “high tragedy” and even “beyond tragedy”. As an ancient proverb says, “Hope deferred sickens the heart.”

Many would say that the root of it all is the bitterness of the continual failure of the West’s quest for the Holy Grail of “freedom”. As we survey the long tale of the emergence, ascent to hegemony, and now precipitate decline of the “high civilization” of the West, once called “Christendom”, there is certainly no lack of tragedy – high hopes, bright promise, tragic loss and bitter disappointment. The brief moment of what appeared to be the sublime triumph of Western-style liberal democracy in the 1990s did not last for more than a decade before ominous dark clouds appeared again. Today, those clouds are bringing forth truly alarming major thunder.

An apocalyptic ending is not necessarily inevitable, at least not yet. But, as Yeshua-Jesus once said, we need to be alert and awake and reading the signs. “When the Son of Man” (a title he often used in reference to himself) “returns, will he find faith in the earth?” In his riddle, faith refers to trust, trust in a living relationship with the central figure that stands at the heart of the West’s long story. Many now resent the fact that the central figure of the West’s story remains, to this day, Yeshua/Jesus of Nazareth. They would rather say that it is anyone or anything other than the “Son of Man” who still haunts our dreams through a tremendous legacy of now dashed high hopes.

For Jesus said “If the Son [of Man] sets you free, you shall be free indeed.” The deepest desire of every living human, bred in the bone, is to “be free indeed” and no longer held “by a yoke of slavery.” Just because we have left the ultimate source of these sublime hopes and ideals behind doesn’t mean we have abandoned the ideal. But left to ourselves it seems we cannot get there.

That is what Rousseau passionately understood. He had left behind allegiance to the religion that professed Jesus as Saviour, but was wise and passionate enough to mourn for his own and the whole of humanity’s loss. His own ultimate failure to find another center to fill the void made him a bitter and lonely man for the rest of his life. His brilliant mind and passionate heart could not create another core by its own strength of will. Rousseau is indeed the archetype of so much of the modern and post-modern West’s tortured psyche and tumultuous story.

Contemporaneously with Rousseau, “Freedom” is what the American Revolutionaries of 1775-83 knew they wanted. At least they thought so within the limits of a carefully crafted and limited rational version of it. Many of them based this core-passion of their lives on Rationalism, Reason, and Science, the new substitutes for the old Holy Trinity. They held that these great gifts could be enjoyed without relationship to the Giver, having satisfactorily and “reasonably” shunted the Creator to a minor role in this world.

Freedom (Liberté) is what the Girondins, Jacobins, Hébertistes and other ideologues of the French Revolution declared as their great goal. They set out to build it into their new Republic in 1792, even as they overthrew the French Monarchy and executed its King in January 1793. To ensure Liberty, they then launched the Terror to expunge the relics of the Royal regime. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité quickly became another rationalization of vengeance and purification by blood-letting à outrance. To highlight their new truth they even created a quasi-religious pageant dedicated to the Goddess Reason, dressing a Paris prostitute in classic robes and derisively crowning her in Notre Dame Cathedral.

The problem with successful revolutions (as with battles and wars) is what the victors decide to do with their victory. All the high passion and strident rhetoric about freedom all too often disappear in an orgy of violent retribution upon the former oppressors. Between 1793-4, the Terror in France is said to have beheaded 30 000 “traitors” before it was ended by its chief perpetrator, Robespierre, taking his turn at the guillotine. The “Terror Phase” of revolution is usually followed by new sets of restrictions and limitations to control embittered losers and other dissidents, and firmly entrench the new definers of freedom in control with their hands on the machinery of State and jurisprudence. The Church is either cowed into official acquiescence or driven underground by persecution.[i]

Thus, as we turn our attention to France once more following the successful July Revolution of 1830, the beneficiaries of the new regime were not principally the workers and artisans or even the regular Middle Class, but the rich and powerful untitled class who controlled the national finances and business establishment. While concessions such as freedom of the press, religion, and some forms of association were permitted, most of the hopes for moderate reform were disappointed. The vote remained limited to a miniscule one-percent minority of the wealthiest.

In 1847, after seventeen years of this oligarchy headed by King Louis-Philippe, it began to unravel. The thirst for freedom could not be squelched forever. Political assemblies had been banned as the economy went sour and the always brooding and frustrated reformers had become more and more vocal in calling for an end to a blatantly anti-democratic regime. When meetings were banned, they began holding banquets where all the speakers advocated for political and social liberalization such as had been advancing in England since the Reform Act of 1830. England’s relative gradual success in shedding the worst aspects of reactionary repression following the Napoleonic era spared it from what exploded on the Continent in the late winter of 1848.

Once more, France led the way. On February 24, 1848, after three days of street fighting, marching, and violent protests, coupled with the refusal of the Middle-Class National Guard to obey orders to suppress the rebels and the steady desertion of the regular troops who were ordered to suppress the mobs, Louis Philippe’s government fell and he abdicated in favour of his son. But the provisional government which seized control was dominated by Republican reformers. Before long, the Provisional government declared its new regime to be the Second French Republic.

The tocsin sounded all across Europe as liberal reformers and a rising socialist wave took to the streets in all the major capitals and many minor ones from Berlin to Rome and Vienna.

By summer much of the fever-mist of the “Spring of Hope”, as 1848 was dubbed, was giving way to less sanguine outcomes from the revolutionary perspective. (Similar to what happened in the recent “Arab Spring” of 2011-12.) The liberal middle-class in most of the venues where uprisings occurred against reactionary absolutism did not have “the killer instinct” to push their advantage home. In Austria, a new Emperor named Franz-Josef took power. He proved to have much more steel in his spine than his predecessor. The military was ordered to end the rebellion, and, apart from a year-long desultory civil war with the Hungarians who sought equality with or independence from Austria, the rebellion swiftly faded out from Lombardy to Croatia to Vienna to Prague.

By contrast, King Frederick-William of Prussia did not want to spill blood. Instead, he simply waited for the liberals to demonstrate their inability to organize the new unified Germany they were calling for, then dismissed their convention. He did however grant significant concessions and reforms within his own territory. He was warned by resurgent Austria not to accept the offer of the Crown of a united Germany or face war with them.

The last word once more went to France. By late April, the dissatisfied Socialist radicals saw the new republic being suborned by the business and middle classes once more, although with a much wider franchise and more freedoms. What was on offer by June under the proposed new constitution proved a bitter disappointment to the labouring classes and those with socialist ideals. By this point Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto was circulating with great effect, and the old Jacobin ideas had been renewed with greater clarity. They wanted a “Social Republic”. In June, the National Workshops which provided a bare minimum to unemployed workers were closed by the Constituent Assembly. The failure to produce meaningful recognition of workers’ rights and needs resulted in a mass revolt in Paris where a Commune was proclaimed and barricades went up all over the city.

This time, the newly-minted “legitimate” administration did not hesitate and the National Guard obeyed orders to contain the spread of anarchy while the regular troops under the ruthless General Cavaignac moved into the city en masse with artillery batteries. The “June Days” (June 23-26) saw Paris turned into a battlefield and the streets of whole arrondissements literally flowing with blood. An estimated 3000 insurgents and 1500 soldiers died before the revolt was ruthlessly crushed. Refugees and fugitives that could fled to Germany, and many made their way to England. 4000 were deported to Algeria, which was becoming France’s penal colony, as Australia was for the United Kingdom. Queen Victoria’s stable realm was by this point seen as the richest, safest, freest, and sanest nation in Europe.

Unlike what happened in Austria, the slaughter in France was not the work of an oligarchy or a Royal tyranny. This was full-on class war in what was then considered the greatest city in Europe and perhaps the world. A republican regime had done this to fellow citizens in the name of liberté, égalité, fraternité! Karl Marx looked like a true prophet, but, no longer welcome in France, he eventually made his way to England to write articles and, eventually, his masterpiece, Das Kapital.

Nevertheless, 1848 had deep, far-reaching consequences, despite what looked largely like another victory for the reactionaries. Some real steps toward that elusive ideal of freedom seemed to have been made.


[i] The same pattern can be observed over and over in the corporate world – without the bloodshed of course, unless it be in a “Family” firm such as the Mafia. The pattern is a universal phenomenon of human behaviour. Even religious zealots indulge in it in the name of “love” or “truth”.

Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher, Educational Consultant, and author in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for almost 50 years and has 4 grown children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He has recently published his first novel, Book One in a Historical Fantasy series called "Dragoonen". The first book is "Awakening" and is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. He is currently working on further books in this series and a number of other writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

2 thoughts on “The Uses of History, 8 – From France, 1812 to Russia, 1917, 5 – 1848

  1. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
    I’m reading an excellent book by an Eastern European Christian who went through the slow decline of his country into a totalitarian regime. The agenda pushed by freedom, and social justice. He draws comparison between Western civilization now, and his country when the decline started. We are in similar stages here, though we are heading towards a different type of totalitarianism.

    This is the book:

    Here is an excerpt from the book’s first chapter, which I find very insightful:

    “The Gentleness of Soft Totalitarianism

    It’s possible to miss the onslaught of totalitarianism, precisely because we have a misunderstanding of how its power works. In 1951, poet and literary critic Czesaw Miosz, exiled to the West from his native Poland as an anti-communist dissident, wrote that Western people misunderstand the nature of communism because they think of it only in terms of “might and coercion.”

    “That is wrong,” he wrote. “There is an internal longing for harmony and happiness that lies deeper than ordinary fear or the desire to escape misery or physical destruction.”

    In The Captive Mind, Miosz said that communist ideology filled a void that had opened in the lives of early-twentieth-century intellectuals, most of whom had ceased to believe in religion.

    Today’s left-wing totalitarianism once again appeals to an internal hunger, specifically the hunger for a just society, one that vindicates and liberates the historical victims of oppression. It masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavored demographic groups to protect the feelings of “victims” in order to bring about “social justice.”

    The contemporary cult of social justice identifies members of certain social groups as victimizers, as scapegoats, and calls for their suppression as a matter of righteousness. In this way, the so-called social justice warriors (aka SJWs), who started out as liberals animated by an urgent compassion, end by abandoning authentic liberalism and embracing an aggressive and punitive politics that resembles Bolshevism, as the Soviet style of communism was first called.

    At the turn of the twenty-first century, the cultural critic RenŽ Girard prophetically warned: “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition.”

    This is what the survivors of communism are saying to us: liberalism’s admirable care for the weak and marginalized is fast turning into a monstrous ideology that, if it is not stopped, will transform liberal democracy into a softer, therapeutic form of totalitarianism.”

    Liked by 1 person

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