Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Terror

The French Revolution is one of the seminal events of history, ushering in two decades of war followed by the most peaceful period in European history. In The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution, David Andress examines the pattern of civil strife in the French Revolution.

Andress emphasises (correctly) that American Revolution generated as much civil conflict, and more emigres (in total numbers and, strikingly more, as a proportion of the population), than the French Revolution (p.2). Yet the American Revolution generated an enduring constitutional order: something that the French Revolution (and all the Revolutions descending from it) conspicuously failed to do.

Andress sees conservatism, liberalism and socialism as all children of the French Revolution (p.3). But it is misleading to see the French Revolution as the crucible of all modern politics. It is precisely a key characteristics of the Anglosphere that its politics do not proceed from the French Revolution. Not its conservatism, its liberalism or its socialism. Edmund Burke may have reacted against the French Revolution, but in terms which were very Anglo. In the Anglosphere, politics derived from the French Revolution (most obviously revolutionary nationalism and revolutionary socialism but also the more doctrinaire forms of liberalism and fearfully restrictive forms of conservatism) has never been more than that of alienated, small minorities.

Andress’s prose is less than sparkling, with the complex tapestry of events being at times rather hard to follow. He concludes with a somewhat laboured extrapolation between Saint Just’s revolutionary purism (pp374ff) to good intention politics of the War on Terror. Particularly laboured, as the enemies in said war are not mentioned, even though one of the genuine achievements of Andress’s narrative is to make it quite clear that the Parisian populace did have enemies.

What Andress reveals quite clearly is that ancien regime France suffered a structure of politics that blocked information flows in both directions, with an increasingly expensive, and decreasingly useful, elite.
In her rather fun Those Dreadful Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths, Regine Pernoud points out that ancien regime landowners sought to revive and enforce “feudal” rights without providing the compensating services of actual medieval seignours. The latter were instead provided (or not) by the absolutist state, exemption from the taxes to pay for which the same “feudatories” deemed their rightful privilege. This was an elite that not only wasn’t providing its side of any putative social contract, it had no sense of there being some implicit social contract.

The contrast with the Anglosphere is dramatic. In Britain, only the actual holder of the title was noble, not the entire family. So the British nobility did not expand faster than the surrounding population and had a deep interest in how the law treated commoners. Moreover, it was embedded in a system of local and Parliamentary government that although hardly democratic, certainly understood the politics of consent, of give and take. In the case of American Revolution, all the major participants were well versed in the politics of consent via participation in colonial legislatures. No taxation without representation is the politics of consent summarised in an evocative slogan.

Ancien regime French “politics” was the politics of privilege, patronage and hierarchy. Just as the first British Empire fell apart because there was no Transatlantic political mechanism up to the strain that George III’s government put on it, so ancien regime France had no political mechanisms capable of managing the fiscal crisis of the Bourbon state. (A fiscal crisis that, ironically, came from Louis XVI managing to be the only Bourbon King to defeat Britain by supporting the Americans in their War of Independence.)

Which meant that the “politics of discussion” had to be invented largely un nouvo by folk with precious little relevant experience. The French Revolutionaries did not know when to stop. The contrast between their ideas and those of the American Revolutionaries is quite clear in their speeches. After all, opposition politics in ancien regime France was the politics of discussion without responsibility, of ideas selected on the grounds of their apparent grandeur, not subject to any test of practicality.

But, as Andress makes clear, their opponents didn’t know when to stop either. They insisted on no change and so ended up with nothing. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were also fairly impossible to deal with, as they clearly had no intention of sticking by any new constitutional order, despite sworn oaths to uphold the new constitution.

Ever since Edward I decided that Simon de Montfort’s Parliamentary innovations had something going for it—that is, it made it cheaper and easier to collect taxes—it was quite clear that the English Crown could raise proportionately more money out of (smaller) England than the French Crown could out of (much larger) France, a difference that persisted. (And, arguably went back to Anglo-Saxon times, the Wessex kings were notoriously wealthy by the standards of the time.) Revenue raising in England was a process of negotiation. Folk paid more but they also got more (in terms of more and better from public goods). This was a general tendency in commercial polities. Before the invention of the welfare state, commercial polities (Venice, the Netherlands, Britain) tended to be higher taxing than autocracies.

In such polities in general, and in Great Britain in particular, revenue raising involved the “political nation” who thereby learnt the practicalities of government. As, of course, did the American colonists: hence the American Revolution, given that there were no linking institutions for negotiation between Colonies and King-in-Parliament. (Pitt the Elder endorsed the American colonists’ claim that taxing them was unconstitutional.)

In France, revenue raising had involved excluding, or “paying off” via special privileges, the “political nation”. The arts of politics were greatly attenuated. (In another of these continuing historical ironies, much of the development of French centralism was a late medieval response to the depredations of the English.)

So they ended up with very different Revolutions. The American revolutionaries wanted folk to be free to pursue their own happiness. The French revolutionaries intended to build happiness and make virtue compulsory. Revolutionary purpose trumped the politics of consent: which led to the French Revolutionaries guillotining each other for insufficient, or wrongly directed, Revolutionary virtue – a dwindling into a murderous, internecine politics conspicuously absent from the American Revolution. Just as, despite all the civil strife, there was no equivalent in the American Revolution of the savage butchery of the Vendee.

French Revolutionary Republican virtue was also very much anticlerical, very much in opposition to the Catholicism. (Pernoud makes the point that the Concordat with Francis I gave the King power over appointment of bishops and abbots—which directly incorporated the Church into the same structure of centralised privilege and patronage as the French state.) Conversely, the American Revolution had no problem with religion as such. (So being Muslim, for example, is not an inherently anti-American identity, while it can very much be an explicitly anti-French identity.)

All of which, along with the exit of the American Tories to Canada and other conveniently nearby British jurisdictions, made it possible for the American Revolution to speedily become the central icon of American nationhood in the way that the French Revolution has never managed in France.

By setting out in striking and informative fashion the patterns of antipathy and violence in the French Revolution, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution makes much about the French Revolution clearer.

No comments:

Post a Comment