Christopher Hitchens, Edmund Burke, Egyption Revolution, Essay, Fred Hembree, French Revolution, Irish Writers, Literature, Mary Wollstonecraft, Owen Connelly, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Rights of Man, Thomas Paine, Vindication of the Rights of Man, What I Don’t See at the Revolution
The words French Revolution usually inspires one image, that of a bloodied guillotine. Few may be able to actually produce the correct number attached to the Louis, or head for that matter, there were so many that befell the same providence as their dethroned monarch, but they might be able to attach the name of Marie Antoinette to the phrase, “let them eat cake.” For the record Miss Antoinette never spoke this phrase, it was merely attached to her public persona because the French possessed a xenophobia that lingers on to this day (the snooty nosed French waiter is unfortunately not always just a stereotype). Along with the guillotine that severed heads from shoulders left and right, some may be fortunate enough in their knowledge of history to associate the fall of the Bastille (the royal prison located in Paris that was actually scheduled to be torn down and, in its place, erected a public garden and park for the public). The story has been told time and time again that the peasants of Paris rallied together and destroyed the Bastille, tearing the building down to its last brick. To this day the structure exists in no form apart from a few lingering stones steadily being pushed deeper and deeper into the soil of Paris. Hooray for the French! They have succeeded in abolishing the physical symbol of their domination and thus freedom and liberty may sweep the nation.
Such is the idea. Such is not the reality. Or to put it more plainly, bullshit.
The concept of the French Revolution has captured so many imaginations that, much like apple pies, sports cars, and Die Hard sequels, the actual reality of the history is becoming far too rooted in myth. Now while I have no intention of tackling the history of such a momentous and culturally significant movement in Western civilization, for that would be making too much of a claim for myself as a historian, I can observe the movement through the various works dedicated and inspired by it.
If I may return to the Bastille for just a moment Owen Connelly and Fred Hembree have an excellent passage, several excellent passages in fact, describing the events of that day in their short book The French Revolution. One in particular spring to mind:
“The Bastille held only seven prisoners, and all were freed. Of the seven four were forgers, one a libertine friend of the Marquis de Sade put away by his family on charges of incest, and two insane persons. One of the lunatics exactly fitted the crowd’s vision of a prisoner of the Bastille—bony frame, waist lengthy gray hair, and a persecuted expression. The rescuers presented him triumphantly to the cheering multitude. He no doubt believed Paris had finally recognized his true identity: Julius Caesar.”
It should be noted that this gentleman was perhaps the last real “winner” of the French Revolution up to the rise of Napoleon and the elimination of the republic for the empire. As an American it is sometimes difficult to truly appreciate the significance of the French Revolution. We are bred in this country on a formula of fact and folklore that our ancestors and fore-fathers were ideal saints instead of slave owning adulterers and drunks. We’re told that our revolution was for a glorious cause when in fact it was largely due to disagreement with tax laws. Raising the American Revolution as some great and noble enterprise or grand effort of humanity seems rather suspect when you consider that the empire of Great Britain was not terribly disrupted by it. Though the country may have manifested some culture based queasiness following the affair, they were still making tremendous profits from the sale of opium and tea. The French Revolution means little to Americans and yet we ourselves played a significant part in it. The French and Indian War (otherwise known as the Seven Years War) was a quagmire for the French, and so when the rebel yanks sent their declaration across the Atlantic Louis the XVI saw an opportunity to snub the English, in fact he saw it as a chance to humiliate them. Let me be clear as I write this, without the financial and military aid of the French our revolution would certainly not have succeeded, a fact that makes many Americans turn purple or else avoid your gaze while you address them.
It is not my effort to give a history lesson but to begin a defense of a man that seems in the long run to have no defense at all. Edmund Burke approved of the Revolution in America; in fact he was an open supporter of the events taking place. However, once the French had begun their own revolution, Burke’s attitude became shocking and, in many ways, offensive to his contemporaries in England. Reading selections from his Reflections on the Revolution in France sheds some light on the matter. One of the most famous lines from his texts reads, “In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not to equal things.” Some would immediately pounce upon those words and call Burke an elitist, and given our current economic debates this sentiment seems eerie in its prophecy. Nevertheless Burke was, to use a modern day verb, “reemed” by many of his compatriots. Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication of the Rights of Man said of him,
“Quitting now the flowers of rhetoric, let us, Sir, reason together; and, believe me, I should not have meddled with these troubled waters, in order to point out your inconsistencies, if your wit had not burnished up some rusty, baneful opinions, and swelled the shallow current of ridicule till it resembled the flow of reason, and presumed to be the test of truth.”
She continues to say,
“This contemptible hard hearted sophistry, in the specious form of humility, and submission to the will of heaven.—It is, Sir, possible to render the poor happier in this world, without depriving them of the consolation which you gratuitously grant them in the next. They have a right to more comfort than they at present enjoy, […]”
Mary Wollstonecraft’s stings would barely heal before Thomas Paine chimed in as well in his Rights of Man. He says:
“Mr. Burke says, No. Where then does the right exist? I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controuled[sic] and contracted for, by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead; and Mr. Burke is contending for the authority of the Dead over the rights and freedom of the living.”
Perhaps my use of the word “reemed” was not that far from the truth. Burke has to this day become the face of English conservatism during the Romantic Period, which strikes me as hilarious considering the man was Irish and made a career being the historian of the, troubled is putting it mildly, tumultuous relationship between Ireland and England. Burke it has been shown was criticized severely for his critique of the revolution in France which many saw as a grand enterprise for humanity.
So what? What does it matter that Burke didn’t agree with the revolution? He was proven right in the end anyway. The French Revolution was nothing but Class warfare that ended in a lot of people dead. What is the significance of any of this? Or, to be honest, why should I give a fart in hell?
Well to begin with my colorful contestant, Burke was not predicting anything. Burke was simply one of the few writers and intellectuals at the time to recognize that the Revolution in France was taking a different direction than the American had. The American Revolution was not upsetting the established government of England. The Americans were not crossing the Atlantic to kill King George, though some most certainly wanted that dearly, they merely wanted to rule their own country. In this Burke could see a legitimate claim. In the French Revolution however, there were too many instances of violence acting as the real force of change, and the mobs of Paris calling for blood while philosophes, the thinkers of the Enlightenment era, were enjoying the shift in power.
I believe Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is essential because he understood that upsetting the system simply out of ravenous hunger would result only in chaos and bedlam. He has a line in his pamphlet:
“Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in the conduct of the state, in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete.”
The word preserve I believe is key to understanding the crux of Burke’s argument. There are numerous instances in which his writing either makes me twitch or shake my head. But this notion of preservation is key for it reveals his true interpretation of the events. The Revolution in France was not a consolidated effort to change the country. For the most part it was acted out of hunger. Numerous famines had tormented the lower classes who need grain for bread, Louis XVI’s effort to aid the American Revolution left the country bankrupt, and the citizens of Paris were looting bakeries for loaves rather than gold. This hunger created a blood lust which became a guided opportunity by a few fortune seekers in the form of men like Robespierre and Marat. Burke then was able to see that the Revolution would be flawed.
I believe Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is essential because he understood that upsetting the system simply out of ravenous hunger would result only in chaos and bedlam. He has a line in the pamphlet:
Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in the conduct of the state, in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete.
The word preserve I believe is key to understanding the crux of Burke’s argument. There are numerous instances in which his writing either makes me twitch or shake my head. But this notion of preservation is key for it reveals his true interpretation of the events. The Revolution in France was not a consolidated effort to change the country. For the most part it was acted out of hunger. Numerous famines had taunted the country, Louis XVI’s effort to aid the American Revolution left the country bankrupt, The citizens of Paris were looting bakeries for loaves rather than gold. This hunger created a bloodlust and guided by a few fortune seekers in the form of men like Robespierre and Marat. Burke then was able to see that the Revolution would be flawed.
Considering this I turn then to Christopher Hitchens and the Revolution that occurred in Egypt back in 2011. It seemed at that time that there was great hope for the Middle East at last. As John Stewart said, the face of that area seemed to no longer be bearded old despots murdering innocent civilians, but young men and women taking up arms against injustice. And god we all wanted that didn’t we? The revolution was covered by every news station. Images of protestors being beaten by the government incensed us…most of us. There were some that were not convinced. An essay published in Vanity Fair titled What I Don’t See at the Revolution,was for me a cold bucket at a hot party. Because it told a truth I perhaps didn’t want to hear. Hitchens says:
“Not a single one of these pregnant conditions, or preconditions, exists in Egypt. Neither in exile nor in the country itself is there anybody who even faintly resembles a genuine opposition leader. With the partial exception of the obsessively cited Muslim Brotherhood, the vestigial political parties are emaciated hulks. The strongest single force in the state and the society—the army—is a bloated institution heavily invested in the status quo. As was once said of Prussia, Egypt is not a country that has an army, but an army that has a country. More depressing still, even if there existed a competent alternative government, it is near impossible to imagine what its program might be. The population of Egypt contains millions of poorly educated graduates who cannot find useful employment, and tens of millions of laborers and peasants whose life is a subsistence one. I shall never forget, on my first visit to Cairo, seeing “the City of the Dead”: that large population of the homeless and indigent which lives among the graves in one of the city’s sprawling cemeteries. For centuries, Egypt’s rulers have been able to depend on the sheer crushing weight of torpor and inertia to maintain “stability.” I am writing this in the first week of February, and I won’t be surprised if the machine—with or without Mubarak—is able to rely again on this dead hand while the exemplary courage and initiative of the citizens of Tahrir Square slowly ebb away.”
Hitchens was able through his usual brand of sharp wit and, at times brutal honesty, to show a component of the vision that was missing. The Egyptian Revolution succeeded in overthrowing their dictator, a man whose name I cannot for the life of me remember, he made so little impression I won’t even Google his name. Mubarak. It was in the quote. They succeeded in removing Mubarak, however the man’s feet were hardly on the airplane out of his country before the reporters began to announce that the Military was assuming temporary control until elections had taken place.
And so we all watched as what usually happens happened.
All that work, all that hope and idealism gone. And in this way we return to the image of Burke. Despised by many of the “liberals” in England who openly supported the Revolution and saw his clinging to the past as somehow a dangerous and corrupting notion. While I am not a social conservative by any means, I do appreciate the idea behind Burke’s argument. There is nothing wrong with Revolution, as long as there is an underlying structure or collective goal. For many the French Revolution is empty class warfare, and in many ways it is. But more importantly, the French Revolution was the first instance in which the ideas of power, which had been brewing for the last decades of the Enlightenment era, were given a chance to be put into place. The conflict is that the hunger of the masses overpowered the intellects of the philosophes.
It has been my effort to defend Burke to the modern reader, and to clarify his underlying argument. He was simply for the preservation of “the system.” The French Revolution in his eyes was too much an effort to overthrow all institutions, and Burke recognized that that this is folly. Governments and power shall always exist, but if change is to take place then it must take this into consideration. For Burke there was no consideration. He says,
“Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.”
As I close with this I can only imagine the figure of Julius Caesar, and wonder what became of him after his glorious and triumphant return to power. Was he taken into someone’s home and given dinner and rest for the night, or, and this is far more likely, was he lauded about and then abandoned in the streets of Paris searching desperately for his forgotten legions.
Such a reward for the Emperor of Rome.