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Monday, March 27, 2006

Democracy, Power, and Despotism

There are a great many things worth reading in Alexis de Tocqueville’s extraordinary book DemocracyIn America (1840). But the part that springs to mind is found in Vol. II, and is entitled “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear.” It relates directly to my last blog about the Swan Police and all the rest, and so I am going to publish a stirring chunk of that tomorrow. This is crossposted at www.williamgairdner.com

But today, a word about de Tocqueville’s brilliant study of the French Revolution and the Ancien Regime (old regime) published in 1856, which sets the stage. His thesis about the French Revolution and the modern democratic ethos was so original – perhaps “shocking” is a better word – that it was pretty much ignored for more than a century. No one could believe it. By the early twentieth century French historians were clones presenting an orthodox Marxist-socialist interpretation of the Revolution as an historical shift from feudalism to capitalism marked by class struggles involving various liaisons and conflicts between workers, bourgeois elites, land-owning nobility, and so on. And without exception, all these historians saw the revolution as a glorious anti-monarchical undertaking in the name of human liberty that – Oops! - got derailed by “the Terror” of 1792-94, during which there was an organized violence of the new democratic state against full French citizens at a level of cruelty and bloodiness not equaled again until the time of Hitler and Stalin. While they glorified the Revolution as an impassioned struggle for liberty, all Marxist historians conveniently disowned the Terror and the guillotine as “a break” in the historical course of the Revolution. 

By the 1980s, however, all such interpretations had simply collapsed because a new kind of conservative history-writing was emerging (about the time of the Bi-centennial celebration of the Revolution in 1989 – when the Berlin Wall also collapsed). The new historians were far less ideological and much more scrupulous about studying actual historical documents rather than imposing a personal, or party, or materialistic ideology on past events. It turns out they were rediscovering de Tocqueville’s thesis.

His main point had been that the “democratic” French Revolution was not a breaking away from an oppressive aristocratic or monarchical past as so many had concluded. It was, rather, a continuation of the Ancien Regime, and the dictatorship of Napoleon was its natural conclusion. In effect, Napoleon was a new monarch of the people who emerged, newly-crowned by the democratic ethos, so to speak. The kernel of this reasoning was that in making the centralized democratic state so powerful and by investing individual citizens with a concept of their own egalitarian nobility gleaned from the radical theories of Rousseau – in terms of which each citizen saw himself as embodying the unchecked Will of the entire nation – the revolutionaries had actually continued the prior despotism under a new name. The sovereign was gone, but now every citizen was a sovereign in miniature, and in the name of the new collective sovereign (which Rousseau had called la volonte generale) the French people imposed an oppressive tutelary power over themselves greater than any monarch in history had ever exercised. (It is remarkable that Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau had a life-long affection for Rousseau’s phrase about the General Will, which he used in public and in his writings on many occasions and his Charter of Rights and Freedoms he saw as Rousseauist in spirit.)

The man who led the new “revisionist” school of history writing was Francois Furet and his major work Interpreting the French Revolution (French Version, 1978, English by Cambridge U. in 1981) pretty much incorporated de Tocqueville’s thesis. By the time of the Bicentennial Furet had become the new Dean of French historians and highly respected world-wide. This was somewhat of an embarrassment for the French at the time, who by reflex were firing off millions of dollars worth of firecrackers, even though Furet and his now very powerful revisionist school had demonstrated from clear historical evidence that the French Revolution was not the story about glorious human freedom and national liberation that had been forcibly rammed down every student’s throat for two hundred years. In short, the Revolution did not “break,” as claimed by so many historians eager to glorify egalitarian democracy while repudiating the blood to which it led. Furet and others were able to show that the Revolution was not spurred by economics or any concrete materialistic class-warfare. It was in fact highly ideological and abstract in nature: it was the advanced democratic ideas of radicals like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (especially in his tract The Social Contract) “that had become the heart and soul of the French Revolution.” In other words, the trajectory of the Revolution from its first day pointed toward the state using democratic ideology to rule in a despotic manner. It was a continuous event, the underlying democratic and egalitarian ideology of which led inevitably like a train on iron rails to the guillotine and the pointless slaughter of many thousands of French citizens.

For those interested, there are some books to get. First is Gary Kates, The French Revolution: Recent debates and new controversies (New York: Routledge, 1998) which has a super intro to the essential change in recent history-writing surrounding the Revolution, and contains a collection of short essays, by such as Furet himself to illustrate the trend. One essay in particular, by the American Keith Baker, “Constitution,” which runs only 15 pages describes the whole sorry business in careful detail. Also very valuable is Baker’s book Inventing the French Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1990), which dissects the course of the whole sad story of the Revolution as would a spy-glass peeking into the actual French debates about freedom and equality, and shows step by step how they can turn otherwise  sensible people to justify murder in their name of liberty. For those who want a more gripping and less scholarly but intensely interesting approach, try to find Stanley Loomis, Paris In The Terror (New York: Lippincott, 1964). It has three main sections, on Marat, Danton, and Robespierre, and starts with Charlotte Corday’s murder of Marat in his bathtub. It grabs you like a good novel! Try www.abebooks.com for such out-of print material.


Posted by williamgairdner on March 27, 2006 | Permalink


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If I understand you correctly, you are rejecting the easily-rejected Marxist analysis of history, and opting for...I'm not sure.

The Marxist analysis is based around a linear progressive determinism, a self-organized and self-propelled and self-fueled (by internal tensions of heterogeneity of class)..movement of a population through a set of about five 'modes of socioeconomic lifestyles'..towards the New Eden.

The New Eden, where everyone is homogeneous and the same; where there are no differences, is viewed, in Marx's terms as complete freedom, and in thermodynamic terms, as the heat death of the universe.

You are defining Furet's theory of historical change as due to?...I'm not sure. But, you seem to be saying that the French nation did not fundamentally change at all; it simply moved the centralized authority from a hereditary class (tribalism) to an elected government. I'd agree, but I'd still like to know - why the change?

The problem with the French mode is that it lacks classes; and therefore, it lacks a middle class. The middle class is a unique development in the history of mankind; it is a mode of life that lacks a history. An upper class individual rests on the history of his ancestors; the same with a peasant. They live within the 'tales of the past' and the 'obligations to family'.

But a middle class individual is 'un nouveau', even, 'un etranger'. He has no past and no future; he lives within the novel development of the 'nuclear family'..a dev't only of the middle classes. He arrives as a member of this class, by virtue of his work - and can readily move up and down - by virtue of his work. The middle class is the site and source of work, of inventions, of dissent, exploration - it's the vital economic and intellectual catalyst of change. You can see what happens in those countries without such a class (eg, the ME).

France has, more or less, rejected this class. They remain made up of the upper class..and the rest.

You can see this in the French colonies, which, after the French left (usually retaining 25% control)..these nations collapsed..Indochina, Ivory Coast, Haiti.. That's because the French colonization had themselves as the government..and the population as..'the rest'. The British colonization left stable self-governing countries, because they enabled the dev't of a middle class.

Posted by: ET | 2006-03-27 11:50:47 AM

there is a very big difference in legal history between England and France and the daughter countries.

England has the presumption of innocence, and the foundation of British Common Law, going back to the Magna Charta, and expanding on the rights of the individual.

I'm a little foggier on France but from what I gather (and I may well be very wrong here) France has the Napoleonic Code and the presumption of guilt, and their law protects the rights of society.

One rules bottom up, viewing the protection of individual rights as paramount, thinking that if you protect the rights of the person, you automatically protect the society as a whole.

The other rules top down, viewing society's rights as paramount, thinking that if you protect society, you don't need to worry about a few individual casualties along the way.

That is also a snapshot not just of the French point of view but also of communist and totalitarian societies in general.

Posted by: Canadian freedoms fan | 2006-03-27 2:52:31 PM

Well, I think he's got an excellent point about democracy not protecting people from injustice. However, I have this sneaking suspicion he plans to use that point to yet again point out that since democracy is done badly in Canada now, it makes no sense to fix it with democracy done better. You know, that being his hobby horse and all.

Posted by: Tozetre | 2006-03-28 1:40:20 AM

Watch this story of power and corruption.


Posted by: ed | 2006-03-28 11:18:54 PM

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