Writing Armageddon

Writing Armageddon
Furious writing or writing furiously?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Reactions to Peter McPhee “Liberty or Death: The French Revolution”

As always, I must note that hear I am writing not ex-cathedra. That means not on my topic of study and specialty. Thus all of the following is opinion.

My friend Emir gifted me this new book that came out on the French Revolution. McPhee is a well-known scholar of revolutionary France, mostly known for his work on Robespierre . In this monumental book he essentially provides a new grand narrative of the French Revolution in the 1789-1799 period.

Now there are hundreds if not thousands of books and articles on the French Revolution. A majority of which have an ideological axe to grind, and which tend to look at the events of the French  Revolution though subsequent ideological prisms. McPhee goes against the grain. He essentially uses that copious literature but uses it in order to have the Revolution tell it’s story, independently of subsequent ideological weight.
The book thus is a history of the French Revolution told by the Revolution itself, the men and women who acted, engaged in politics, and where the perpetrators and victims of violence in pursuit of a new economic, social and political world.
By eschewing  the ideological labels of the post-revolutionary period, McPhee is able to produce a nuanced history of the Revolution. One that gives justice to all of the participants. What a arises form this narrative is a story of multiple revolutions. There was no one French Revolution. From the start different groups bourgeois, nobility, the King, the rural poor, the urban poor, women, slaves sought different goals from the political upheaval. The complexity of the revolutionary politics is the result of the shifting alliances between these groups, and divisions within them. McPhee does and admirable job if keeping things clear without sacrificing nuance.
Thus there are a number of French revolutions, rather than one event. These revolutions also contested with each other for the character of the new state. McPhee does a great job in showing just how seriously divided the country was , and indeed how divided all the groups active in the revolution were. Gone are the monolithic blocks so favorite of those who use the French Revolution as an ideological hammer. What comes out of this is the grand diversity of positions.

Robespierre. The known villain?

McPhee also provides nuance for the violence. Gone are the beloved by ideologists stories of innocence or purity for either of the many sides of violence. Gone are the neat little lines republican vs. anti-republican, working class vs. other classes etc. Instead we are thrust into an orgy of violence and counter-violence. Of terror, fear and war. McPhee does present the violence of the Girodin and Jacobin central states (the last which is incorrectly for him dubbed the Terror). But there is also the violence of the Girodin Federals, of the local anti-centralizers in Brittany, of the various groups of the Vendee (that cannot be easily placed in a royalist shoe-horn), the violence of local Jacobins, and anti-Jacobins, the violence of the rural poor, the violence of the urban poor, the violence of Coalition troops, the violence of Republican armies, and the violence of women on women. McPhee does not hide from it. But he places it in a context, that greatly diminishes it supposed exceptional character.
 As he points out, a somber look at the human cost of the political upheaval, domestic and external wars of 1789-1799 produced potentially 700000 dead for France. A high number, but about 2% of the population of the country. If we compare that to the losses of the American Revolution (close to 1% of the population) the percentage numbers between the supposedly “good” American Revolution and “extreme” French Revolution are not that off. When you compared it ot the 4-5% of the population of France and occupied Europe that died in the Wars of Napoleon, the French Revolution and Revolutionary Wars pale in sanguinary tragedy. And yet far more people celebrate Napoleon’s legacy than that of the French Revolution.

Here are some more things that I took from the book (my interpretations of the events as put down by McPhee rather than necessarily what he writes).

      1)      The narrative for me clearly shows that the turning point for violence was the decision to force Catholic priests to take the Oath for the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. By and large the devout rural poor welcomed the re-distribution of the Church lands. They were not always as welcoming to the liberation of their non-Catholic neighbors from the legal restrictions of the ancient regime. But when the Girodins and Jaocbins pushed for the prosecution of non-juring clergy, devour regions like the Vendee and Brittany, or the Massif Central rose in violent rebellion. This violence would feed into the fears and suspicion of the Girodins and later Jacobins that would lead to state violence. Equally important was the decision of the King, the Girodins, and the more extreme of the Jacobins to declare war on Austria in 1792.

      2)      Robespierre was opposed to the declaration of war in 1792. A pity that he was not as powerful in 1792 as in 1793-1794. The Revolutionary Wars might never had happened and the history of France, Europe, and his own might had taken a different path.

      3)      With the exception of the Vendee the most bloody of the domestic wars during the French Revolution were not between royalists and republicans (royalism being an extremely minority position after the flight of Louis XVI). It was between the Girodin Federals and the Jacobin centralizers, in another name between republicans. Second in intensity after that was the violence between the Jacobin and the Paris urban poor.

      4)      It was surprising to see market liberals being so sanguinary.  The Whigish interpretation of history that holds among anglo-american conservative outlets, and even many US liberals, leas to a view of market liberalism as a pacific ideology. That was not the case in 1789. The Girodins partook happily of violence as much as the Jacobins, especially during the Federal rebellions they launched.

      5)      The role of women in the events of the revolution.  It was instructive to see the crucial role of women in driving the events of the revolution, including the Vendee revolt for example. You can also see the start of the wars between feminists in the conflict between Jacobin and Girodinist women.

      6)      It is ridiculous that in many quarters the French Revolution is simply summed up by the Terror. Of the period between 1789 to 1799 the Terror made up only one year at most. Robespierre ruled only between 1793-1794. Outside of that period the revolution was pretty much dominated by the Girodins and then the more moderate Jacobins that brought about Thermidor.

      7)      Which means that for 8 of the 10 years of the French Revolution the revolution was guided by essentially variations of what can only be called market liberals. Even in 1793-1794 Robespierre and the more radical Jacobins were private property liberals. They did intervene in the market, but their policies equally targeted the bourgeois, the rural poor, and above all the urban poor. The Revolution re-distributed land, but that land was usually taken from corporate property rights (either common land, or the Church) and given to private ownership (many rural poor, bourgeois, and nobles).  Not exactly the socialist revolution told to us by Anglo-American conservatives.

      8)      Speaking of which, for me this narrative completely invalidates anglo-american conservatism as a political movement and ideology useful for post-industrial revolution societies. Stop reading here if you do not like politics as the rest is a political rant.

This part requires a bit more exposition.  A central element of the anglo-american conservatism is the rejection of the French Revolution (this is point Russell Kirk made), based on Burke’s “Reflections on the events of France”.  

Russel Kirk, building a castle on sand?

Equally central, since what the Left calls the neo-liberal turn, is market-liberalism. And yet for 8 of the 10 years of the French Revolution it was largely market liberals that were dominating the decision process.  Indeed the Thermidorian reaction is an almost perfect example of Hayek’s preferred political order (as seen in the Constitution of Liberty). Restricted franchise based on income brackets, a prohibition of state intervention in the economy, strong protections of private property, and abolition of the welfare policies of the Jacobins. The only deviation from anglo-american conservatisms ideal is the strong separation of state and church (sidenote- McPhee’s nuance leads to the surprising for someone seeped in the anglo-american conservative narratives of the revolution)  finding that the “Terror” Jacobins never legalized separation of church and state. Indeed Robespierre was personally opposed to atheism).
The anglo-american conservatives attack the revolutionary governments on their supposedly economic interventionism and welfare statism, and its anti-church policy. But as McPhee’s narrative shows it was market liberals that dominated for most of the time. The closest the urban poor ever came to getting some kind of welfare protections was during the “Terror” and even then Robespierre and the Jacobins in power quickly restricted the ability of the urban poor to influence policy. Indeed one can understand the hate of the subsequent socialist Left for the French Revolution from McPhee’s narrative. So the attack on welfare statism is based on empirical fallacies. Someone like Hayek that extols Pinochet, cannot but extol the Girodins, expect if there is no intellectual honesty in anglo-american conservatism.

Edmund Burke. Perhaps the only intellectually consistent conservative?

What about the prosecution of the Church? On this the anglo-american conservatives are a bit more correct. But they tend to present the policies of the Revolutionary governments as atheistic or anti-religious. That is a blatant lie. The question for the Girodins and the Jacobins was of who controlled the church. Not of breaking the church. Only once the schism of the French Church had become in-surmountable and tied to civil war did the more radical Jacobins move to the idea of  changing the dogma. Even then these policies are more analogous to the Economachia of the Eastern Roman Emperors ,rather than the policies of Thermidor (with its hard core separation of church and state), or the Soviet State (with its official atheism). One can say a lot of things about the Economachic emperors. But to call them atheists or anti-religious is stupid. The same holds for the Girodins and Jacobins.  Byeond that, in big parts of France this were not top down dynamics, but bottom up dynamics. For every Vendee there was an Il-de-France, or a Loire Valley that remained fanatically loyal to the Republic and opposed to non-juring priests irrespective of Paris, and many times, especially during the Terror, against attempts by the Convention to keep passions under control.
The anglo-american conservatives would counter this by pointing out that both the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution avoided the excesses of the French Revolution because they did not attack the Church. Those are arguments based on stretching words until they lose or meaning. Neither the Glorious Revolution, nor the American Revolution were without violence. Indeed the American Revolution was a very sanquiry affair, and while the Glorious Revolution was less violent in England and Scotland, it required a bloody war to expanded to Ireland.  More crucially, neither the Whigs of 1688, or the Patriots of 1774 faced an institution similar to power and economic influence to the French Catholic Church.  It was the single largest land-owner, owning 6-10% of the land in France, and had the legal right to extract economic tithes from the rest of it. We cannot know if the American Revolution or the Glorious Revolution would have had such an indulgent attitude to organized religion, if they were facing an institution like the French Catholic Church.  They were lucky.
 Church power in England had been broken by the Tudors, with large parts of its corporate property becoming private property in the 17th and early 18th century. These dynamics were largely replicated  in the American colonies. Wherever else the Church was a land-owner as long as a political-social institution, revolutions had no choice but to take an anti-clerical stance. So this second condemnation of the French Revolution by anglo-american conservatives is based on an unfounded claim of purity, based on a supposition that if the American and Whig revolutionaries had faced something like the Catholic Church in France, they would had avoided the excesses of the Girodins and Jacobins. Well that is big set of ifs.

Brissot. The true villain?

Finally the anglo-american conservatives claim the French revolution was conducted by inferior men to the ones who did the American Revolution. The American revolution was done by entrepreneurs and business-owners while the French by lawyers and bureaucrats. They ascribe to that the failure of the French to temper their revolution by pragmatism. That is all hogwash as the more nuanced picture McPhee presents shows. The Girodins are pretty much exactly the same social and economic strata as the American Founding fathers. Indeed many of them are Protestants. They are merchants, land-owners, businessmen, made men so to say. Sure the Jacobins have more lawyers (like John Adams), but again it was the Girodins and the more extreme version of the Girodins that ruled France for 8 of the 10 years of the Revolution.
One cannot come from reading McPhee’s book without a very dim view of anglo-american conservatism, or at the very least its intellectual foundations in the rejection of the French Revolution.
But what about it’s invalidity as a political movement in post-industrial revolution societies?
The narrative got me thinking about the sources of political instability in capitalist societies. The initial source is almost always a move by existing elites to increase their share of the economy, and raise capital for agricultural and economic investments that will produce surplus capital that can be re-invested, at some point on industry. In the UK the enclosures were not started by the bourgeois, but by aristocrats seeking more land that can be used to get bourgeois capital for re-investment. The story is no different in France. What changes is the target. In the UK the target was the commons, since after the destruction of the Catholic Church in the UK by the Tudors that was the only available land not under private property rules. In France the target was both the common land, and the Church land. Furthermore in the UK the process was extremely restrictive and top-down. But in France the popular energies unleashed by the calling of the Estates made the land redistribution both more democratic and broader.  While in the UK one had a nasty top down process of expulsion of the rural poor from the commons, in France the Girodins largely let communes decide how to use the common land, with the majority going for private property. The Church land was also sold, and while like in the Uk the main beneficiaries were nobles and urban-bourgeois , a lot of peasants (perhaps 25% of the rural population) were able to gain private property or increase it.
The land reform that took place in France largely pacified the rural population. Absent the stupid , but perhaps unavoidable, religious policy of the Girodins, and the equally moronic decision to go to war,it is highly likely that very little peasant rebellion would have happened. The great winners of the French Revolution were the rural poor that got land, and the bourgeois.  The great losers were the urban poor.
In both the UK and France one of the results of the elimination of communal property was the transformation for the rural poor that lost out, to urban poor. And if McPhee’s narrative makes something very clear is the deep insecurity about their livelihood that the urban poor felt. It was they that saw massive losses to their quality of life during periods of economic upheaval. Consequently one of the main demands of the urban poor in capitalism is the provision of state welfare. It is the equivalent of the plot of private property for the rural poor. But it is much more expensive to provide. This thus leads to revolutionary pressure. However unlike France the UK, and later the US had a natural outlet. That was the ability to turn the urban poor back to rural poor via emigration, and then their satisfaction via land redistribution, in this case redistribution terra nullis or native American land to the settlers. Because of this anglo-american conservatism did not have to face a society where the urban poor were a majority until very late in the 19th century.  
Essentially the US and UK were able to transform the increased urban poor populations that resulted from enclosures back into easily satisfied rural poor. For the UK this outlet came to an end with the American Revolution, and it is no coincidence that within 50 years of the American Revolution’s end, the UK parties have to deal with the increasing radicalism of an increasingly large and restive urban poor population. The US faces this in the post-1890s period, when the West closes.

The "peaceful" Glorious Revolution

France lacked that outlet. The great land reform of the years 1789-1791 satisfies large amounts of the rural poor, who know become land owners.  This is such a massive economic change, that once the crisis of 1792-1815 is over, the rural population never again rebel. Before 1789 France is a history of rural agitation. After 1815 and the locking in of the new property regime, the rural French become a pillar of conservatism.  But the result is that those rural poor that lost out in this process were added to the substantial urban poor population of France. These people naturally demanded economic security. In their case that entailed at the very least some elements of what would come to be called the welfare state. This was heavily resisted by the Girodins (in true market-liberal fashion) and partly explains their overthrow. Robespierre gave in to some of the demands, and the 1793 Constitution brought into law important demands of the urban poor. But those were put in abeyance until the end of the war, and more often than that the Jacobins fought the urban poor demands as give into them. The destruction of the political institutions of the urban poor by the Jacobins facilitated the complete roll-back of the protections/entitlements they had won in 1793 by the market-liberals of Thermidor.
The urban poor were thus the great losers of the French Revolution.  And they were unhappy with their economic insecurity.  Unfortunately for French politicians they did not have the ability  to transform the urban poor to rural poor and then satisfy them via land reform/redistribution. France was never able to successfully create settler colonies that could absorb the growing urban poor population. That urban poor population would rebel in 1848, and 1871, and in both cases an alliance of the rural population and bourgeois would crush those rebellions in blood. But once the urban poor population became a majority of the French population, parties had no choice but to satisfy their demands for economic security or face a civil war they would lose. This process begun in the 1890s and cumulated in the reforms of the Popular Front in the 1930s.
If you look at the development of capitalism across the world you will notice those dynamics. Countries with large rural populations that enact land-reform are less likely to face populist challenges to  the economic system. Countries which were able to ship out the rural poor that would had become urban poor otherwise to settler colonies with abundant land, were able to resist demands for the welfare state for long periods. Countries with large urban poor populations ended up either enacting the welfare state, or falling to populist revolution that did this. 
The sin of the anglo-american conservatism is that he/she ignores the exceptional material circumstances that permitted them to ignore and resist the demands of the urban poor. Protected by the abundant land of new continents, hiding the deeply redistributionist character of settler territorial expansion against pre-settler populations, they boldly claim the welfare state an aberration in post-industrial revolution capitalism. But just as land reform is the demand of the rural poor, and while either be given by elites in government, or they will be overthrown, so is some level of social protection for the urban poor. The anglo-american conservative program could ignore the urban poor only as long as it had abundant land available to use with land reform in order to satiate a part of that urban poor via turning them to rural poor and given them private property. In the absence of that abundant land, this policy is doomed long term.
Again it is not that the Anglo-American conservative ideal does not work under those exceptional conditions. It does and can be stable for a long period. As long as i) there is abundant land and ii) the urban poor population never becomes a majority, the social system created by land reform is stable. The minority urban poor are repressed or slaughtered in case of rebellion (ala France 1871). However once that abundant land is gone, or the growth of the urban poor out-stretches the ability of land to absorb their numbers, the moment the urban poor become a large enough part of the population the demand for welfare will be deafening.  Blind to these dynamics, arrogant in their belief in exceptionalism, such conservatives are very unlikely to modify their ideology to accommodate some level of state welfare. Radicalism and even revolution become the end result. 
What this means that in modern global conditions anglo-american conservative is a political and social dead-end. Barring the creation of an equivalent to the abundant land of 18th nd 19th century settlers colonies (hopefully without the inhumanity visited on the previous occupants), or a decrease in the urban poor population that makes them a minority, the establishment of anglo-american conservative economic and social policies will lead to failure. It would be no different than the Thermidorian rollback of the welfare provisions of the 1793 Constitution.  The same reaction that those provisions brought to the French urban poor, would come to the other urban poor, radical populism and rebellion.
The price the urban poor pay when they rebel in society still dominated by rural populations that have been given land via land reform. Communards 1871

This does not mean that socialism is the answer. Indeed the history of the People’s Republic of China and of the USSR shows what happens when governments representing the urban poor take power in societies that are still majority rural poor.  The contrasting demands of the two groups will sooner or later lead to attempts to divest the rural poor of their independence and lead to a variation of serfdom, to the urban poor this time. No wonder, the rural populations in France were quite happy to massacre the urban poor in 1848 and 1871. But the examples of Czechslovakian socialism do show that the basic dynamics of welfare states in urban poor majority countries are stable whether socialist, welfare-liberal, welfare-conservative, social democratic.
All of the above are broad strokes, and there are variables that will slightly or more change the results or the time it takes to reach them, but the average trends I would argue hold.
So to sum up, reading McPhee leads me to essentially see four political trajectories in post-industrial revolution capitalist societies (words minority, majority are very abstract here. Also Land Reform will always lead to an increase of the Urban Poor as the losers of that process among the Rural poor seek subsistence in the urban economy.

       1)      Land Reform+ Majority Rural Poor Populations + Minority Urban Poor Populations-> Stable equilibrium (Greece 1880-1912) or Urban authoritarianism (USSR, PRC)

       2)      No Land Reform + Majority Rural Poor Populations + Minority Urban Poor Populations -> Rural populism leading to either Land Reform (France 1789) or  stagnation (Pakistan)

      3)  Land Reform + Minority Rural Poor Populations+ Majority Urban Poor Populations+ Abundant land -> Anglo-American Conservative Equilibrium (UK 1700-1783, US 1784-1890s, Chile in the Portalian era 1840s-1900s)

      4)   Land Reform + Minority Rural Poor Populations + Majority Urban Poor  Populations-Abundant land-> Urban populism leading to variations of the  Welfare State (UK 1910s-1950s, Germany 1900s-1970s, France 1900s-1970s)

Anglo-American conservatives can only apply to (3). Considering the closing of the West, and absent the opening of space to easy expansion (A fervent wish among many libertarian and conservative authors in the Anglo-American world) that world does not exist. Considering the fact that the urban poor are a majority in the US, and that we have had land reforms, we are thus in (4) in which the end result will be a welfare states. An ideology based on the rejection of the welfare state , which is unable to offer either sources for new land or its equivalents is thus irrelevant.


  1. What's an "Anglo-American conservative"? I'm a member and former official of the Conservative Party and I don't recognise your description of this group. I suppose the left see everything as economics, my motto is God, Queen and Country...

  2. Read the work of Russel Kirk. Margaret Thatcher fits the description quite fine in my opinion. It does not fit well with High Tories, but High Tories have not been the majority position in Anglo-American Conservatism since the 18th century.