The French Revolution (Belloc)/Chapter 1

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The political theory upon which the Revolution proceeded has, especially in this country, suffered ridicule as local, as ephemeral, and as fallacious. It is universal, it is eternal, and it is true.

It may be briefly stated thus: that a political community pretending to sovereignty, that is, pretending to a moral right of defending its existence against all other communities, derives the civil and temporal authority of its laws not from its actual rulers, nor even from its magistracy, but from itself.

But the community cannot express authority unless it possesses corporate initiative; that is, unless the mass of its component units are able to combine for the purpose of a common expression, are conscious of a common will, and have something in common which makes the whole sovereign indeed.

It may be that this power of corporate initiative and of corresponding corporate expression is forbidden to men. In that case no such thing as a sovereign community can be said to exist. In that case “patriotism,” “public opinion,” “the genius of a people,” are terms without meaning. But the human race in all times and in all places has agreed that such terms have meaning, and the conception that a community can so live, order and be itself, is a human conception as consonant to the nature of man as is his sense of right and wrong; it is much more intimately a part of that nature than are the common accidents determining human life, such as nourishment, generation or repose: nay, more intimate a part of it than anything which attaches to the body.

This theory of political morals, though subject to a limitless degradation in practice, underlies the argument of every man who pretends to regard the conduct of the State as a business affecting the conscience of citizens. Upon it relies every protest against tyranny and every denunciation of foreign aggression.

He that is most enamoured of some set machinery for the government of men, and who regards the sacramental function of an hereditary monarch (as in Russia), the organic character of a native oligarchy (as in England), the mechanical arrangement of election by majorities, or even in a crisis the intense conviction and therefore the intense activity and conclusive power of great crowds as salutary to the State, will invariably, if any one of these engines fail him in the achievement of what he desires for his country, fall back upon the doctrine of an ultimately sovereign community. He will complain that though an election has defeated his ideal, yet true national tradition and true national sentiment were upon his side. If he defends the action of a native oligarchy against the leaders of the populace, he does so by an explanation (more or less explicit) that the oligarchy is more truly national, that is more truly communal, than the engineered expression of opinion of which the demagogues (as he will call them) have been the mouthpieces. Even in blaming men for criticising or restraining an hereditary monarch the adherent of that monarch will blame them upon the ground that their action is anti-national, that is anti-communal; and, in a word, no man pretending to sanity can challenge in matters temporal and civil the ultimate authority of whatever is felt to be (though with what difficulty is it not defined!) the general civic sense which builds up a State.

Those words “civil” and “temporal” must lead the reader to the next consideration; which is, that the last authority of all does not reside even in the community.

It must be admitted by all those who have considered their own nature and that of their fellow beings that the ultimate authority in any act is God. Or if the name of God sound unusual in an English publication to-day, then what now takes the place of it for many (an imperfect phrase), “the moral sense.”

Thus if there be cast together in some abandoned place a community of a few families so depraved or so necessitous that, against the teachings of their own consciences, and well knowing that what they are doing is what we call wrong, yet they will unanimously agree to do it, then that agreement of theirs, though certainly no temporal or civil authority can be quoted against it, is yet unjustifiable. Another authority lies behind. Still more evidently would this be true if, of say, twelve, seven decided (knowing the thing to be wrong) that the wrong thing should be done, five stood out for the right—and yet the majority possessed by the seven should be determined a sufficient authority for the wrongful command.

But it is to be noted that this axiom only applies where the authority of the moral law (God, as the author of this book, with due deference to his readers, would prefer to say) is recognised and yet flouted. If those twelve families do sincerely believe such and such a general action to be right, then not only is their authority when they carry it into practice a civil and a temporal authority; it is an authority absolute in all respects; and further, if, upon a division of opinion among them not perhaps a bare majority, nay, perhaps not a majority at all, but at any rate a determinant current of opinion—determinant in intensity and in weight, that is, as well as in numbers—declares an action to be right, then that determinant weight of opinion gives to its resolve a political authority not only civil and temporal but absolute. Beyond it and above it there is no appeal.

In other words, men may justly condemn, and justly have in a thousand circumstances condemned, the theory that a mere decision on the major part of the community was necessarily right in morals. It is, for that matter, self-evident that if one community decides in one fashion, another, also sovereign, in the opposite fashion, both cannot be right. Reasoning men have also protested, and justly, against the conception that what a majority in numbers, or even (what is more compelling still) a unanimity of decision in a community may order, may not only be wrong but may be something which that community has no authority to order since, though it possesses a civil and temporal authority, it acts against that ultimate authority which is its own consciousness of right. Men may and do justly protest against the doctrine that a community is incapable of doing deliberate evil; it is as capable of such an action as is an individual. But men nowhere do or can deny that the community acting as it thinks right is ultimately sovereign: there is no alternative to so plain a truth.

Let us take it, then, as indubitable that where civil government is concerned, the community is supreme, if only from the argument that no organ within the community can prove its right to withstand the corporate will when once that corporate will shall find expression.

All arguments which are advanced against this prime axiom of political ethics are, when they are analysed, found to repose upon a confusion of thought. Thus a man will say, “This doctrine would lead my country to abandon her suzerainty over that other nation, but were I to consent to this, I should be weakening my country, to which I owe allegiance.” The doctrine compels him to no such muddlement. The community of which he is a member is free to make its dispositions for safety, and is bound to preserve its own life. It is for the oppressed to protest and to rebel.

Similarly, men think that this doctrine in some way jars with the actual lethargy and actual imbecility of men in their corporate action. It does nothing of the kind. This lethargy, that imbecility, and all the other things that limit the application of the doctrine, in no way touch its right reason, any more than the fact that the speech of all men is imperfect contradicts the principle that man has a moral right to self-expression. That a dumb man cannot speak at all, but must write, is, so far from a contradiction, a proof of the truth that speech is the prime expression of man; and in the same way a community utterly without the power of expressing its corporate will is no contradiction, but a proof, of the general rule that such expression and the imposing of such decisions are normal to mankind. The very oddity of the contrast between the abnormal and the normal aids us in our decision, and when we see a people conquered and not persuaded, yet making no attempt at rebellion, or a people free from foreign oppression yet bewildered at the prospect of self-government, the oddity of the phenomenon proves our rule.

But though all this be true, there stands against the statement of our political axiom not a contradiction added, but a criticism; and all men with some knowledge of their fellows and of themselves at once perceive, first, that the psychology of corporate action differs essentially from the psychology of individual action, and secondly, that in proportion to the number, the discussions, the lack of intimacy, and in general the friction of the many, corporate action by a community, corporate self-realisation and the imposition of a corporate will, varies from the difficult to the impossible.

On this no words need be wasted. All men who reason and who observe are agreed that, in proportion to distance, numbers, and complexity, the difficulty of self-expression within a community increases. We may get in a lively people explosions of popular will violent, acute, and certainly real; but rare. We may attempt with a people more lethargic to obtain some reflection of popular will through the medium of a permanent machinery of deputation which, less than any other, perhaps, permits a great community to express itself truly. We may rely upon the national sympathies of an aristocracy or of a king. But in any case we know that large communities can only indirectly and imperfectly express themselves where the permanent government of their whole interest is concerned. Our attachment, which may be passionate, to the rights of the Common Will we must satisfy either by demanding a loose federation of small, self-governing states, or submitting the central government of large ones to occasional insurrection and to violent corporate expressions of opinion which shall readjust the relations between the governor and the governed.

All this is true: but such a criticism of the theory in political morals which lay behind the Revolution, the theory that the community is sovereign, is no contradiction. It only tells us that pure right cannot act untrammelled in human affairs and that it acts in some conditions more laboriously than in others: it gives not a jot of authority to any alternative thesis.[1]

Such is the general theory of the Revolution to which the command of Jean Jacques Rousseau over the French tongue gave imperishable expression in that book whose style and logical connection may be compared to some exact and strong piece of engineering. He entitled it the Contrat Social, and it became the formula of the Revolutionary Creed. But though no man, perhaps, has put the prime truth of political morals so well, that truth was as old as the world; it appears in the passionate rhetoric of a hundred leaders and has stood at the head or has been woven into the laws of free States without number. In the English language the Declaration of Independence is perhaps its noblest expression. And though this document was posterior to the great work of Rousseau and (through the genius of Jefferson) was in some part descended from it, its language, and still more the actions of those who drafted and supported it, are sufficient to explain what I mean to English readers.

Now with this general theory there stand connected on the one hand certain great principles without which it would have no meaning, and also on the other hand a number of minor points concerning no more than the machinery of politics. The first are vital to democracy. The second, in spite of their great popularity at the time of the Revolution and of the sanction which the Revolution gave them, nay, of their universality since the Revolution, have in reality nothing to do with the revolutionary theory itself.

Of these two categories the type of the first is the doctrine of the equality of man; the type of the second is the mere machinery called “representative.”

The doctrine of the equality of the man is a transcendent doctrine: a “dogma,” as we call such doctrines in the field of transcendental religion. It corresponds to no physical reality which we can grasp, it is hardly to be adumbrated even by metaphors drawn from physical objects. We may attempt to rationalise it by saying that what is common to all men is not more important but infinitely more important than the accidents by which men differ. We may compare human attributes to tri-dimensional, and personal attributes to bi-dimensional measurements; we may say that whatever man has of his nature is the standard of man, and we may show that in all such things men are potentially equal. None of these metaphors explains the matter; still less do any of them satisfy the demand of those to whom the dogma may be incomprehensible.

Its truth is to be arrived at (for these) in a negative manner. If men are not equal then no scheme of jurisprudence, no act of justice, no movement of human indignation, no exaltation of fellowship, has any meaning. The doctrine of the equality of man is one which, like many of the great transcendental doctrines, may be proved by the results consequent upon its absence. It is in man to believe it—and all lively societies believe it.

It is certainly not in man to prove the equality of men save, as I have said, by negation; but it demands no considerable intellectual faculty to perceive that, void of the doctrine of equality, the conception of political freedom and of a community’s moral right to self-government disappear. Now to believe that doctrine positively, and to believe it ardently, to go on crusade for that religious point, was indeed characteristic of the French. It required the peculiar and inherited religious temper of the French which had for so many hundred years seized and defined point after point in the character of man, to grow enamoured of this definition and to feel it not in the intellect, but as it were in their bones. They became soldiers for it, and that enormous march of theirs, overrunning Europe, which may not inaptly be compared to their adventures in the twelfth century, when they engaged upon the Crusades, was inspired by no one part of the doctrine of political freedom more strongly than by this doctrine of equality.

The scorn which was in those days universally felt for that pride which associates itself with things not inherent to a man (notably and most absurdly with capricious differences of wealth) never ran higher; and the passionate sense of justice which springs from this profound and fundamental social dogma of equality, as it moved France during the Revolution to frenzy, so also moved it to creation.

Those who ask how it was that a group of men sustaining all the weight of civil conflict within and of universal war without, yet made time enough in twenty years to frame the codes which govern modern Europe, to lay down the foundations of universal education, of a strictly impersonal scheme of administration, and even in detail to remodel the material face of society—in a word, to make modern Europe—must be content for their reply to learn that the Republican Energy had for its flame and excitant this vision: a sense almost physical of the equality of man.

The minor points which wove themselves into the political practice of democracy during the Revolution, which are not of its principles, and which would not, were they abstracted, affect its essence, are of quite another and less noble kind. I have taken as the chief of these the machinery of deputation or of “representation.”

The representative system had been designed for a particular purpose under the influence of the Church and especially of the monastic orders (who invented it) in the Middle Ages. It had been practised as a useful check upon the national monarchy in France, and as a useful form of national expression in times of crisis or when national initiative was peculiarly demanded.

In Spain it became, as the Middle Ages proceeded, a very vital national and local thing, varying from place to place. It is not surprising that Spain (seeing that in her territory the first experiments in representation were made) should have thus preserved it, popular and alive.

In England Representation, vigorous as everywhere else in the true Middle Ages, narrowed and decayed at their close, until in the seventeenth century it had become a mere scheme for aristocratic government.

In France for nearly two hundred years before the Revolution it had fallen into disuse, but an active memory of it still remained; especially a memory of its value in critical moments when a consultation of the whole people was required, and when the corporate initiative of the whole people must be set at work in order to save the State.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the French, on the eve of the Revolution, clamoured for a revival of representation, or, as the system was called in the French tongue, “the States-General.” But as a permanent machine of government no one in Europe had the least idea how the system might serve the ends of democracy. In England democracy was not practised nor was representation connected with the conception of it. The nation had forgotten democracy as completely as it had forgotten the religion and the old ideals of the Middle Ages.

In those parts of Christendom in which this ancient Christian institution of a parliament had not narrowed to be the mask of an oligarchy or dwindled to be a mere provincial custom, its use had disappeared. The ancient function of Representation, when it had been most lively and vigorous, that is, in the Middle Ages, was occasionally to initiate a national policy in critical moments, but more generally to grant taxes. What a democratic parliament might do, no one in 1789 could conceive.

There was indeed one great example of democratic representation in existence: the example of the United States; but the conditions were wholly different from those of Europe. No true central power yet existed there; no ancient central institution, no Crown nor any Custom of the City. The numbers over which American representative democracy then held power were not to be compared to the twenty-five millions who inhabited the French realm. And even so, most of what counted in their lives was regulated by a system of highly local autonomy: for they were as scattered as they were few, and the wisest and strongest and best were dependent upon slaves. In Europe, I repeat, the experiment was untried; and it is one of the chief faults of the French revolutionaries that, having been compelled in the critical moment of the opening of the Revolution to the use of election and representation, they envisaged the permanent use of a similar machinery as a something sacred to and normal in the democratic State.

True, they could not foresee modern parliamentarism. Nothing could be more alien to their conception of the State than the deplorable method of government which parliamentarism everywhere tends to introduce to-day.

True, the French people during the revolutionary wars made short work of parliamentary theory, and found it a more national thing to follow a soldier (being by that time all soldiers themselves), and to incarnate in a dictator the will of the nation.

But though the French revolutionaries could not have foreseen what we call “Parliamentarism” to-day, and though the society from which they sprang made short work of the oligarchic pretensions of a parliament when the realities of the national struggle had to be considered, yet they did as a fact pay an almost absurd reverence to the machinery of representation and election.

They went so far as to introduce it into their attempted reform of the Church; they introduced it everywhere into civil government, from the smallest units to the highest. They even for a moment played with the illusion in that most real of games which men can ever play at—the business of arms: they allowed the election of officers. They were led to do this by that common fallacy, more excusable in them than in us, which confounds the individual will with the corporate. A representative (they thought) could in some way be the permanent receptacle of his electorate. They imagined that corporate initiative was always sufficiently active, in no matter what divisions or subdivisions, to react at once upon the delegate, to guide him as may be guided a driven animal, or to command him as may be commanded a servant.

It was in vain that Rousseau, the great exponent of the democratic theory upon which France attempted to proceed, had warned posterity against the possible results of the representative system: they fell into the error, and it possesses many of their descendants to this day.

Rousseau’s searching mind perceived indeed no more than the general truth that men who consent to a representative system are free only while the representatives are not sitting. But (as is so often the case with intuitions of genius) though he saw not the whole of the evil, he had put his finger upon its central spot, and from that main and just principle which he laid down—that under a merely representative system men cannot be really free—flow all those evils which we now know to attach to this method of government. What a rather clumsy epigram has called “the audacity of elected persons” is part of this truth. The evident spectacle of modern parliamentary nations driven against their will into economic conditions which appal them, proceeds again from the same truth; the conspicuous and hearty contempt into which parliamentary institutions have everywhere fallen again proceeds from it, and there proceeds from it that further derivative plague that the representatives themselves have now everywhere become more servile than the electorate and that in all parliamentary countries a few intriguers are the unworthy depositories of power, and by their service of finance permit the money-dealers to govern us all to-day. Rousseau, I say, the chief prophet of the Revolution, had warned the French of this danger. It is a capital example of his talent, for the experiment of democratic representation had not yet, in his time, been tried. But much more is that power of his by which he not only stamped and issued the gold of democracy as it had never till then been minted. No one man makes a people or their creed, but Rousseau more than any other man made vocal the creed of a people, and it is advisable or necessary for the reader of the Revolution to consider at the outset of his reading of what nature was Rousseau’s abundant influence upon the men who remodelled the society of Europe between 1789 and 1794.

Why did he dominate those five years, and how was it that he dominated them increasingly?

An explanation of Rousseau’s power merits a particular digression, for few who express themselves in the English tongue have cared to understand it, and in the academies provincial men have been content to deal with this great writer as though he were in some way inferior to themselves.

  1. We need not waste any time upon those who talk about such and such a form of government being good because “it works.” The use of such language connotes that the user of it is fatigued by the effort of thought. For what is “working,” i.e. successful action, in any sphere? The attainment of certain ends in that sphere. What are those ends in a State? If material well-being, then there is an end to talk of patriotism, the nation, public opinion and the rest of it which, as we all very well know, men always have regarded and always will regard as the supreme matters of public interest. If the end is not material well-being, but a sense of political freedom and of the power of the citizen to react upon the State, then to say that an institution “works” though apparently not democratic, is simply to say that under such and such conditions that institution achieves the ends of democracy most nearly. In other words, to contrast the good “working” of an institution superficially undemocratic with democratic theory is meaningless. The institution “works” in proportion as it satisfies that political sense which perfect democracy would, were it attainable, completely satisfy.