Saturday, March 6, 2010


Fascism, the French Revolution, and Governmental Suspension of Democracy

The American Revolution was not the only revolution of the late eighteenth century. The French Revolution (1789-99) saw that nation move from a monarchy to a republic to an anarchic state to a constitutional democracy to an empire in the space of ten years. Several years of famine and severe food shortages, coupled with crippling debt, created a severe economic crisis. The later Bourbon kings made foolish decisions relative to the French economy that devastated it. Louis XV spent massive amounts of money fighting the British in the American colonies in what was known in Europe as the Seven Years War and in America as the French and Indian War. Then his grandson Louis XVI (also known as Louis the Last) poured more resources into the American Revolutionary War, resources he did not have, and so had to borrow heavily from European banking houses. Poor harvests resulted in massive starvation on the part of the poor, all the while the nobility were conspicuous in their lavish consumption. Add to this the problem of how to care for large numbers of veterans of the wars against the British, massive unemployment, high bread prices due to the crop failures, and new Enlightenment ideals about the equality of all men, and you have a severe crisis.

In 1789 the Estates-General was called into session, something that had not happened since 1614. The Estates-General was made up of the First Estate, the clergy; the Second Estate, the nobility; and the Third Estate, the rest of France. The monarchy had governed absolutely in the meantime, but the crisis of 1789 made it clear to many intellectuals, nobles, church leaders, and activists, that the monarchy could not deliver them in the present hour. Together they formed a National Assembly that arrogated to itself the task of governing the nation in the stead of the King. Louis XVI responded by closing the building in which the Assembly was meeting and restructured the finance ministry. Many Parisians interpreted this to be an attempted coup on the part of the King against the National Assembly. With much of the French Guard now supporting them, insurgents stormed the Bastille, where there was a large cache of weapons and ammunition, and which many considered to be a symbol of the now-tyrannical Ancien Regime. The National Assembly thus became the de facto governing body in the stead of the monarchy. The Royal family attempted to leave Paris secretly, but was found out, and brought back. In January, 1793, Louis XVI was found guilty of various crimes and beheaded. Albert Camus commented that this constituted "an act that secularized the French world and banished God from the subsequent history of the French people.”

In the Fall of 1793 the Committee of Public Safety, led by Maximilien Robespierre, took control through a coup and unleashed the Reign of Terror in which over 16,500 people were executed, mostly by the guillotine, though some historians put the number as high as 40,000. Robespierre set price controls on all foodstuffs and many other goods, sent troops into the countryside to seize crops and arrest farmers, prosecuting anyone who resisted or attempted to preserve their own property from being seized by the Committee’s agents. What led him to take such Draconian measures?

Robespierre was a fervent disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who contended that individuals who live in such a way that they place the general will of the public first are truly “free” and “just,” while those who do not live in such a way are criminals or heretics. Those who refuse to live for the common good above all else must be forced to bend to the general will by the state. The state, as it were, “forces” them to be “free.” In so doing, it may have to suspend all of the usual devices of democracy, such as free elections, representative bodies that reflect the views of the majority of the public, and free speech, since those are “hardly ever necessary where the government is well-intentioned. For the rulers know that the general will is always on the side which is most favorable to the public interest, that is to say the most equitable; so that it is needful only to act justly to be certain of following the general will.” Robespierre was simply applying Rousseau to the situation in Paris in 1793. “The people is always worth more than individuals,” as he himself put it. Worth so much more, that the slaughter of tens of thousands of resisters is justifiable—in the name of “justice.”

The French Revolution was the first in a line of revolutions that would lead to totalitarian states. It was a fascist revolution in that, though it cast out the “demonic” religion represented by Roman Catholicism and the First Estate, it then capitulated to a new religion, the religion of the State. It was also the first revolution in modern times that purported to be more democratic for having removed the standard devices that had historically attended true efforts at democratic governing, again, such as free speech, representative government, and freedom from governmental invasion of private property without proper warrant. In France, the real problem was not the economy, not before the Revolution and not after the Revolution. The problem was governmental manipulation of the economy.

That kind of manipulation was something the American Founding Fathers wanted to avoid, at least most of them. The question is, when the government believes it knows best for the people and ignores their express wishes in enforcing legislation, how is this, philosophically, any better than the Committee of Public Safety? How is it any different in our country when our government wants to force legislation down our throats that the vast majority of Americans have clearly stated they do not want? I doubt that heads will roll, but then again, who knows? Maybe this Fall it will be just the heads of Congressional committees.

Chad Owen Brand

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