Lessons in History: French Radical Revolutionaries and the Bush Administrarion
So currently, in my History class, we're looking at Revolutionary France and then up through the Napoleonic era. For this, we're reading Alan Forrest's Soldiers of the French Revolution
, and I found this excerpt (pgs 7-8) of particular interest:
By 1792, this view [that war was necessary to maintain the Revolution] was most clearly identified in the Girondins, the group in the Assembly that most consistently advocated war against Austria if the Revolution were to be saved. While Robespierre and his supporters among the Paris Jacobins warned that war would only distract the French people from their real enemies within, Roland, Brissot, and other leading Girondin politicians insisted that there was no necessary contradiction between internal surveillance and external conflict. Brissot even went so far as to claim that he did not see a war policy as being in any sense dangerous because French troops would be welcomed in countries they invaded as liberators and missionaries of liberty. [emphasis mine]
Here's the thing, people try to draw flawed historical parallels to the current situation we're facing in America. The more popular, or at least most prominent, is comparing today to Germany of the 1930's, which has to ignore various geopolitical and social context and often devolves into the Bush=Hitler meme which is way too simplistic and divisive to be given any critical thought. (and to conservatives who want to pick up cheap points on this meme, remember it's no more absurd and far less prevalent than the whole "Osama=Saddam" assertion that is being repeated by the right-wing fringe of the press)
The other historical comparison that seems to be gathering more interest is the comparison to Rome, particularly where the Republic was overthrown by Caesar and became a pure Empire. But this happened thousands of years ago. I have trouble with comparisons that have to ignore thousands of years of progress.
That said, though, I'm introducing a new historical comparison: that of Revolutionary France. I'm not saying that this is a very good comparison, or even significantly better than the comparisons above, but it's no worse than those above, since any period of history will have interesting parallels to virtually any other period of history. Plus this has the added benefit of pissing off the uber-conservatives who now hate all things French since France dared to not agree with everything America does even though we Americans single-handedly rescued France from Hitler and built up their entire country from scratch.
Anyhow, the most interesting thing I learned about France is that the political climate following the Revolution is nothing if not chaotic. Within the hundred years following 1789, there were 3 revolutions (1789, 1830 and 1848) and two Imperial coup-d'etats (1799 and 1860). Without going into detail of the entire period I just mentioned (since I don't really know much about it) I'll focus on what immediately followed the first Revolution.
By 1792, with the Revolution pretty much a success, radical Revolutionaries dominated French politics. This is most prominently by the trial and execution of Louis XVI for treason, but that was merely one of many, many beheadings to take place between 1793 and 1794, most of which were for economic violations of the Levy en masse
, which called for a complete and total mobilization of the French people. For example, here is an excerpt from the (translation of the) first article of the Levy en masse
The young men shall go to battle; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes, and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old linen into lint; the old men shall repair to the public places, to stimulate the courage of the warriors and preach the unity of the Republic and hatred of kings.
So the question is what happens to a Democracy that is guided by radicals and maintains a total mobilization against an ideological and permanent enemy? (I mean, kings were everywhere in 18th and 19th century Europe) Well, at the risk of oversimplification, for the French, it meant the dissolution of their democracy. When the Levy en masse
was first introduced, there was not so much a problem for military recruitment, as the peasant class, in order to escape difficult living conditions, would readily enlist into military service. But when they attempted recruitment in order to enforce the Levy en masse
in 1795, they found the peasants' living conditions improved, making them less willing to enlist. Things spiraled out of control for the Revolutionaries in the General Assembly, to the point that Napoleon was able to take control in 1799. Nice analogy to the ancient Roman and contemporary American tradition of Republic dissolving into Empire, except for the French it was Democracy dissolving into Empire, then into Monarchy, then into Democracy again, then again into Empire, and back to Democracy. (brain hurty)
Now what lessons can we learn from Revolutionary France that pertain directly to the Bush Administration?
First and foremost, Democracy cannot be imposed through violence. And war makes things difficult for a Democracy to maintain itself. I don't doubt that the Austrian king didn't like having a Democratic France bordering his country, and may have been taking steps to weaken it, but in response the French declared a total war that really didn't really seem to have, in modern terms, an exit strategy. Their goal was not just to take part of Austria, or depose the Austrian king, but to depose of all Kings. This left the Republic's government unstable, and left wide open for a coup.
Secondly, policies based on pure ideology without enough attention to pragmatism and diplomacy (or Realpolitik
) is doomed to failure. This, I believe, pertains more directly to the current Administration, who if you give a generous interpretation to their actions (they're not just greedy, evil, power-hungry oppurtunists) they are governed by pure ideology with no regard when they seem to contradict with reality.
I dunno, maybe we'll learn from the errors of the past. But then this is Bush, we don't learn lessons of history as recently as 6 or so months ago (look at the tax cut legislation). The odds of learning lessons that are over 200 years old seem quite unlikely. I'm only half kidding.
(I'll be periodically updating this to fix grammar and spelling errors.)
Just came back from the library, where I did reading on the Napoleonic era, and I did oversimplify his rise to power. He was named Consul of France in 1799, when he essentially became dictator by having complete control over military and politic matters in France. In 1803 he was named Consul for life, and was crowned Emperor of the French in 1804. So this isn't a coup like that performed by Julius Caesar, where he marched his loyal legionaires into the Capital in order to take control of Rome, it was a rather peaceful one. But it's a coup nonetheless, since his rise to power for all purposes marked the end of the First Republic in France. And what's pertinent to this discussion is he made his rise to power because he was an ingenious and popular general as the radicalization of French politics put a great emphasis into the importance of French military.
Secondly, it may be brought up that this doesn't really pertain to Bush since Bush's ideology is different than that of Revolutionary France. But this is beside the point. The point is not what the ideology in question happens to be, but rather the fact that ideology, rather than diplomacy, becomes the most important aspect of foreign policy. This is a recipe for disaster in any period of history, and I don't see why we should think our period to be any different.