Wednesday 1 February 2012

Winter of Discontent

I’m a polemicist by nature and inclination; I simply can’t help myself. Questioning and debating are habits I learned early. I’ve been refining them all of my life. I love taking people by surprise, appearing as if by ambush. Give me a nice meaty subject I can get my teeth into and, boy, that’s when I really bite!

The French Revolution was a ‘good thing’, a view that was put to me not so long ago. Yes, the Terror was bad but think of all the virtues, the Rights of Man and the Citizen and so on, a positive step forward for France; a positive step forward in history. What rot, what complete rot. It was a view that was originally expressed by that pain Paine, who professed himself competent in The Rights of Man to speak on behalf of the English nation.

I can only ever speak for myself but when I look at events like the French Revolution, when I see references to abstractions like the ‘rights of man,’ I see ideological purity translated into political action; and when purity acquires arms it kills and kills with abandon, removing all of the perceived impurities of life. From Rousseau and the Social Contract to Robespierre and Madame Guillotine, it’s a path followed through Virtue.

And for France, what did the Revolution bring? Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood were the watchwords, proved in practice to be no more than lying hypocrisy. What it brought was fanaticism, dictatorship and war and more war. How prescient Edmund Burke was in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. If anything his single fault was in underestimating the scale of the disaster to come. If the French could only have looked far into their own future, one of sudden and frantic energy followed by long and slow decline, they would have hurried back to the Ancien Régime, the old gentle monarchy of Louis XVI.

Think of France in the two hundred years after 1789, a whirlwind of political turmoil and instability, an ever downward spiral, a nation in search of a stable political identity, achieved at one point only to be lost at another. What a progression it is from monarchy, to republic, to empire, to monarchy, to empire, to monarchy, to another form of monarchy, to republic, to empire, to republic, to authoritarian state, to republic and then to another republic! Exhausted? I am.

The Fifth Republic, the latest metamorphosis, is still with us. Fifty-four years old this year it may exceed the seventy years of the Third Republic. I say may because when it comes to French politics and history it makes sense to err on the side of caution. With the euro crisis set to deepen, with the country facing uncertain economic and political times, with a crisis affecting the very identity of the French nation, a nation being consumed by the European Monster, a nation being eroded by culturally alien elements from within, who can say what the future will bring. Wise countries avoid revolutions. They do not usher in the springtime of the people but the winter of their discontent.


  1. Ana, I love your writing style, even I do not agree with everything in the content.

    After our "debating" on BC on this topic I do know more about this part of history than before. And I do agree with you on this: French Revolution indeed did extreme damage on French society, especially political wise. The difference between you and me, now I believe, is "perspective": my "positive understanding" on this bloody event was on ideology wise, while you are more concerned about political and social issues.
    I do think the idea of "right of man" is one of the most important milestone on the history of human knowledge. And FR did help it prevail (though the real credit belong to those great thinkers, esp. English man John Lock). As Charles Van Doren put: "...does advanced knowledge always come at a high price? I think it does, and there is no way to avoid paying that price."
    You said "Wise countries avoid revolutions." But I do not think FR was inevitable. As I explained before, I consider FR more a consequence than an intentional action (driven by "right of men").

  2. Oh,just bring back the Guillotine! A nation being eroded by culturally alien elements? A series of nations! Western Europe!

  3. I think you're a little hard on Thetford Tom, Ana. After all, things worked out very well in the 13 Colonies - except for the slaves. But the French are a different clay, and I agree about the odious Rousseau - a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

    What a pity Britain has been betrayed into linking its fate with those disagreeable continentals. Most unsound.

  4. G.K. Chesterton: 'Once abolish the God and the government becomes the God.'

  5. Ah, the French Revolution. Robespierre, the 'National Razor' ... in it's modern incarnation, the Khmer Rouge, it gave us the killing fields of Cambodia, where social engineering reached its apogee--over 3 million skulls bleaching in the tropic sun. Liberty, equality, brotherhood ... but only in the grave.

  6. Yun Yi, thank you so much.

    Actually it was a more recent interlocutor I had in mind, though I do remember our exchanges on the same issue. The thing is, you see, notions like ‘the rights of man’ sound wonderful as abstract principles, a little like a declaration that when we die we should all go to heaven. The reality is that abstract declarations create hell on earth. Who would have thought that movements and parties dedicated to achieving human perfection would be responsible for monstrous crimes, all the way from the Reign of Terror to the Great Leap Forward? It really is worth reading Burke if you have not already done so.

    Oh, and speaking as a historian, let me assure you that nothing in history is inevitable. :-)

  7. Anthony, yes indeed...not about the guillotine, of course!

  8. Calvin, as I say, a polemicist! Burke and Paine were in agreement over America, and for very good reasons. Paine went off over France.

    Yes, I wish we had kept clear of them, that the fog was still in the Channel. :-)

  9. Bob, absolutely. You will never guess where I saw the 'national razor.' It was in Vietnam, the war museum in Saigon (the locals still use that name) to be exact. It was a left over from French colonial days.

    1. That's interesting, all right, especially since "kill" in Vietnamese is "ca ca dau" -- literally meaning "cut head"

  10. A sign of weakness ( rolls eyes )