15 July 2012

Weekend Viewing: Terror, Robespierre, and the French Revolution

One of the more interesting things in history which I have considered for some time is that contrast between the American and the French Revolutions.

Here is a video that is worth watching, with the caveat that like most short documentaries it does have its point of view, and that is reflected in the compression and emphasis of facts and details. 

It is perhaps understandable that Americans are accustomed to looking at European history through the eyes of the English, which creates its own set of perspectives, political assumptions and justifications for secular actions and expediences.

My own thinking is this.

First, a caution. One must not be triumphalist in comparing short term outcomes, and think that the American Revolution was a 'success' and the French Revolution a 'failure.'

Certainly they were different, and  in their time and circumstance are operating within very different historical contexts and political and social contingencies. And yet they were philosophically intertwined. The American founding fathers were inspired by much of the writing of the French thinkers in particular, and the French people were inspired by the achievement of the Americans in freeing themselves from the English monarchy.

Although one has to say that by resulting in the Terror and then Napoleon, the French Revolution can be said to have fallen into a great diversion from its original intent. But most importantly, neither the American nor the French experience is yet complete.

Despite its great early success, the American Revolution culminated in the bloody Civil War, and the American Empire of the 20th century.  And even today, this story continues to unfold.

The major difference between them, as concisely stated as possible, is that in the American Revolution the Declaration of Independence was followed by the creation of a Constitution, that by its nature and the existing political organization of the country guaranteed individual rights and the dispersion of centralized power amongst thirteen colonies with importantly distinct agendas. There was no Committee of Public Safety, there was no Robespierre.

And there was not an Oliver Cromwell for that matter, and the excesses of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England that in its own way helped to shape the American experience that followed. Or a Stalin, as the sad culmination of the Russian popular revolution.

Every country has its  high and low moments, except perhaps in their official legends and self-written history books of the moment.

The broadening perspective is perhaps why history seems to improve with distance and time, with the limitation of decreasing access to source material and factual references considered.

The American Revolution, as embodied in the Constitution, was first and foremost a practical matter of governance, although deeply embedded in philosophical first principles, and not particularly as given to broadly idealistic and Utopian change as was the French.  In other words, it was carefully and thoughtfully limited.

The French Revolution was much more expansive, as if the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the great Civil War, and the rise of the Imperial Presidency were combined into one short period of history, without the definition of a stable and well-defined government of the people with God given rights and an overarching natural law first being established as a cultural icon.

Idealistic theories, such as the natural perfection of capital markets, and a growing centralized power jealous of its prerogatives, if not greedy for more of them, are a dangerous combination when confronted by limitations and threats to that power.

This reminds me very much of the modern Anglo-American financial system, which seeks to promote and hold on to theories and methods that have been proven false, but which support the enormously influential but unsustainble status quo.  And so society falls into a sort of cognitive dissonance, and official psychosis.

But again, the caution. This is a complex chapter in history, and it is still being written.