revolution …. Complete change, turning upside down, great reversal of conditions, fundamental reconstruction, esp. forcible substitution by subjects of new ruler or polity for the old ….The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1962.
(Image: Simon Bolivar, 1825. Credit – Wikipedia)
What good are revolutions? Do they ever really change anything? Do they actually just shift the exercise of power from one faction or group to another? At the fundamental level, do they just leave the mass of the people under the heal of a new elite?
Apologists for one revolution or other in a nation’s historical self-definition rarely, if ever, consider questions such as those above. There is no doubting that the United States that emerged from the American Revolution is a very different place from what it was before under British rule, and what it would have evolved into had it remained within the British fold. So too, the France that now exists is radically different from the France that once was subject to the Bourbon dynasty, or even the Bonaparte (Napoleonic) dynasty had it succeeded in retaining power. So too, the Russian Republic in 2023 is different from what it was under the Romanovs.
Our dictionary definition cites a “forcible substitution by subjects of new ruler or polity for the old”, and “great reversal of conditions, fundamental reconstruction”.
With regard to the American revolution, one change was certainly fundamental – the exercise of ultimate power passed from the British Parliament and the King to American citizens within a home-grown system of Congress (the Legislative Branch of government) and the Presidency (the Executive Branch of government). Behind both of these stood the Judiciary, embodied in the Supreme Court. Since then, this well-defined and tested model of Enlightenment-style governance has become widely imitated in the liberal-democratic nations.
As justly proud as the Americans may be of the work of their Founding Fathers (setting revisionism regarding the systemic inequities in US history and polity aside for the moment), we do not hear much about the very British roots of this arrangement. With all due respect to the similarities to some indigenous governance traditions which we are told inspired parts of the US Constitution, the great preponderance of the traditions and practices which weighted the work of the Founding Fathers stemmed from the British roots they grew up with and were immersed in. What they did not want was a hereditary monarchy or any hint of dynasticism settling into their Executive Branch. They were thus very careful to deliberately design a system clearly delineating the limits of the prerogatives, rights, powers, and responsibilities of each of the three branches of government. But the three branches of government so clearly delineated in the masterful written document that became the American Constitution were already in clear evidence in Great Britain and had been functioning within increasingly well-defined limitations for a hundred years by 1787.
The French revolutionaries of the early to mid 1790s struggled mightily to come up with a republican system that would firmly establish their new national motto of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Bitterly opposed by the other European great powers of the era, all except Britain ruled by autocratic monarchies, the quest to define France’s new identity was truncated and mutilated, forced to adopt the most efficient means of defending the Fatherland (la Patrie – as in the national anthem La Marseillaise – “citoyens – enfants de la patrie” – citizens, children of the Fatherland) against the invading hosts of enemies bent on destroying all the gains of the Revolution and reinstating oppressive dynastic, aristocratic tyranny.
The American “Founding Fathers”, before the Revolution, had lived under a relatively tolerant and somewhat benign and distant overseeing monarch and his Parliament and, to a large extent, been allowed autonomous local governance. In contrast, the French revolutionary leaders who emerged from the first fever and fervor of 1789-92 were ideologically driven idealists who were not prepared to temporize or compromise. Nevertheless, the American example and success in throwing off British aristocratic overlordship stood before Revolutionary France as a beacon, a statement that the ancien regime could be overthrown and replaced without creating a new, home-grown monarchy or even a new form of oppression based on hereditary class.
Unfortunately for France, the nation was at war continually from 1792 to 1802 with Britain and more often than not other continental powers being subsidized by and allied to Britain. Thus there was no leisure to pursue peaceful development or time to explore possibilities of different systems of government.
Always on the defensive, always under imminent threat of invasion, and weary of being badgered and bullied (as they saw it), the French finally handed power, perhaps rather reluctantly at first, to their most successful general with a mandate to deal with their inveterate enemies. Napoleon Bonaparte not only repelled their attacks, but took the offensive and battered them into submission, exporting many of the reforms and modernizing and culture-changing ideals that had lately been institutionalized in France as he led the victorious French armies right across Europe from Portugal to Poland. By 1810, only Britain still defied him, and on the continent Britain had for allies only inconsequential Portugal and recalcitrant Spanish guerillas.
As we have seen, Napoleon’s eventual defeat in 1815 did not undo 26 years of revolutionary change in France. While the old Bourbon dynasty returned to power from 1815-30, the revolution’s legacy could not be erased. It burst into new flames in 1830, 1848, and 1870. Since then, France has remained a republic, and the old fire of revolution and the right to march and take to the streets and barricades when government is perceived to be overstepping the bounds of rightful and necessary control is never far below the surface. Recent events are demonstrating this at this moment. Throughout the 20th Century there have been passionate and poignant demonstrations of the legacy and heritage of the revolution’s deep stamp in the very soul of France, and now we see it risen once more to challenge President Macron and his administration.
Incidentally, the current edition of La République de la France is #5. Number One was from 1792-1801. Number Two was from 1848-1852. Number Three was 1870-1940, and fell with the Nazi conquest of France in June 1940. Number Four was 1945-1958, and fell with a massive upheaval that led to the coming of Charles de Gaulle as President of the newly minted Cinquième République, which is now in place.
The lesson that both the United States and France have provided to the world in their very different ways is that a modern state can be organized and governed successfully and effectively without a monarch to give it legitimacy and stability. However, in the place of a monarchy, it seems that the alternative must include some other symbol or institution embodying the nation’s essence and identity. It seems that that embodiment is best found in an actual individual chosen by the people or their representatives. If the nation is democratic, or aspires to be, the individual may well be best chosen by election; at the very least, the representatives choosing the symbolic individual should be elected.
Both the United States and France have had many emulators over the last two centuries, which have seen the number of nation states increase exponentially as the old empires died out or collapsed. When the Spanish American Empire revolted en masse between 1810 and 1825, led by Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti and others, most of the new Latin American countries which emerged, with some brief aberrations from the pattern, chose to imitate the United States and adopt a republican system with separate elected Presidential and Legislative Branches. When the French Empire dissolved in the 1950s and ‘60s, most of the new countries chose to adopt a French-style republican system. That many of these imitators have proved unstable and vulnerable to control by unscrupulous strong-men, with an odd strong-woman in the mix now and again, is beside the point we are illustrating.
That point is that the two Great Powers in our case study have provided a pattern which most nations in the world have chosen to follow and imitate over the last two hundred years or so when they threw off or were released from their imperial and colonial subjugation. There is not much taste for monarchy left in the world in the 21st Century.
We have set Russia aside up to this point in this macro-analysis of the effects of the three great revolutions we have been considering over the last six months or so in The Uses of History Series. That is because the outcome of revolution in Russia has not followed the models established by the other two. In our next episode we will consider why, and what “lessons” or conclusions we may draw from Russia’s special case.
One thought on “The Uses of History, 26 – What Good Are Revolutions?, 1”
Looking forward to seeing how Russia differs from the other two.
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