Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sutherland on the French Revolution

Studying other revolutions can help to put the Russian Revolution into perspective.  To what extent was the Russian Revolution unique?  To what extent did Russian revolutionaries correctly understand the model they were emulating?  I've just finished listening to the first lecture in Donald G. M. Sutherland's Modern Scholar lecture series, The Precise of Liberty:  Understanding the French Revolution.  The first lecture is a wonderful review of the historiography of the French Revolution.  In the lecture, Sutherland reminds his listeners how often historians have changed their minds about the causes and significance of the French Revolution.  Prior to the French Revolution, people had a very different definition of revolution than they did afterward:  they believed that any significant political change at the top of the political hierarchy was worthy of the word.  Sutherland uses the Catherine the Great's coup e'tat against her husband, Paul, as a case in point:  although the regime did pursue new domestic and foreign policies, the monarchical form of government was not substantially altered.

The French Revolution was of course a much more sweeping form of realignment.  However, Sutherland claims that the scope of realignment was perhaps overstated by Marxist historians.  Marxists, of course, claimed that the Revolution represents the triumph of the bourgeoisie over the aristocracy, or the capitalism's victory over feudalism, but this isn't quite what happened.  As we now know, the fundamental character of the ruling classes in France were not radically rearranged by the Revolution.  The social elite of 1820, for instance, bore a striking resemblance to the social elite of 1789.  Moreover, historians have not been able to detect much of a difference in the investment activity of the two classes.    Bourgeoise elites invested their capital in land just as often as aristocratic elites invested their capital in trade or mining.

If the French Revolution wasn't really only about class, what was it about?  Augustin Cochin believed it was a product of conspiracy.  Francois Furet believed in was a question of ideology:  French thinkers demanded utopian social transformation and these demands inevitably led to radicalism and unprecedented forms of violence.  Furet's theory of revolution has some explanatory power when applied to the Russian Revolution.  While Sutherland thinks Furet ignores some of the basic historical data of the French Revolution, it seems impossible to miss the fact that Bolshevik ways of thinking, and  broader pre-1917 Russian utopianism, had something to do with the gulags and purges.  Certainly, the experiences of the First World War of the Russian Civil War, legitimated violence in a way that ideology alone could never do.  But Marxism itself, especially when adapted by Russian thinkers such as Lenin, was likely to lead to extreme forms of violence.

In this first lecture, Sutherland also asks his listeners to give credence to the importance of the regicide itself.  Killing the king was an act of unparalleled importance in terms of its symbolic importance, at once an act of political rupture and a theatre of extreme violence.   One thinks instinctively of the Russian Revolution's even more savage treatment of its former monarch and the rest of his family, murdered wholesale in the basement of a Siberian home.

Sutherland concludes arguing that the French Revolution was different than the Russian Revolution in terms of its central tradeoff:  for while the French sacrificed civility and moderation at the alter of revolutionary violence, they also gained a commitment to liberty and The Rights of Man.  There may be something to this, but the Russian Revolution offered humanity a similar tradeoff, which is what makes Bolshevism different than another ghastly twentieth century political doctrine, Nazism.  The Bolsheviks advocated extreme forms of violence but gave the world a theory--and often it was only a theoretical proposition in the motherland of communist insurrection--of empowerment for proletarians, occupied peoples, and peasants.

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