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On the French Revolution

The French Revolution

It’s interesting that the French Revolution’s liberalism in some ways helped make possible its illiberalism, its nationalism and authoritarianism. For, by enforcing the vision of a society of atomized individuals and “destroying corporate society” (outlawing “orders” and corporate bodies), the Revolution made it easier for people to identify with the single overarching community of the nation, and harder for them to resist dictatorship and Terror.

It’s also interesting that some kinds of atomization are, therefore, evidently compatible with nationalism, while others are not. Contemporary business-imposed atomism in a sense undermines nationalism (a national culture), while the French Revolution’s atomism intensified it. One of the reasons may be that the contemporary American version is far more extreme than the “atomism” of 1789, since lately people have become strangers to each other, private worlds of solipsism, which wasn’t true in 1789. People could still wholeheartedly identify with things back then; that has become harder in the age of neoliberalism. Also, an essential difference is that modern atomism is not inimical to “corporate bodies,” being indeed founded on the existence of such bodies in the business world. Corporate bodies in business have grown at the expense of substantive identification with the nation or the national community (as opposed to the rhetoric of nationalism, which is still prominent—precisely due to its usefulness to power-structures and business interests!). But of course there are “corporate bodies” all over American society, many of them existing at the expense of national identification. So maybe you could say that revolutionary France’s atomism was, in a sense, the reverse of modern America’s: while corporate bodies were supposed not to exist, the structure of society was not such that people were semi-aliens to each other. Now we have “interpersonal” atomism but a relative proliferation of so-called corporate bodies (intermediaries between the individual and the state).


To say it again, one of the fascinating things about the Great Revolution is the essentially simultaneous ascendancy of two very different ideologies, liberalism and nationalism (between which, you might say, lies the concept of democracy). Individualism, atomism, “liberty,” as opposed to the unitary general will, national community, popular sovereignty, the “direct” democracy of “the people.” To speak simplistically, it’s the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man versus the 1793 Terror, the “democratic,” nationalistic Terror. Or, again, it’s the Legislative Assembly versus the insurrectionist Paris Commune of 1792.[1] —As I just suggested, though, between these two extremes, connecting them, is the notion of democracy. For, while the ideology of popular sovereignty or the general will can be perverted into totalitarianism, it is also not wholly opposed to liberalism, since the safeguarding of individuals’ rights is surely one manifestation of “Power to the people!”

The best concept of all these is socialism, since, in its classical form, it is an unambiguous fusion of liberalism with popular democracy. Economic democracy, workers’ power over their work and lives, leaves no room for anything reeking of totalitarianism; nor is it merely a half-empty equality under the law, as liberalism can be thought of.

By the way, the explanation for the rise of both liberalism and populist nationalism isn’t hard to think of: the former, which triumphed in the long run, was primarily bourgeois, while the latter belonged mainly to “the people.” In all classical revolutions, from the English civil war of the 1640s to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, this duality has manifested itself. The bourgeoisie and “the masses” have risen up together against the ancien régime, but the alliance has always been temporary because different classes have different interests. Economic and political liberalism were what the bourgeoisie wanted (and ultimately got), but the masses wanted more: true democracy, social equality, food, jobs, popular power. They’re still waiting for these things.

[1] Of course, the big Terror and the little terror of the 1792 Paris Commune weren’t “popular” in the sense of being supported by a majority of the country, but they were egalitarian, nationalistic, and democratic inasmuch as they were “formed under pressure from the sansculotte movement,” to quote François Furet (in Revolutionary France 1770–1880 (1995)).


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