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Bastille Day: “Long ago the mold was cast…”

I hesitate to say “Happy Bastille Day.” It’s not exactly a happy occasion. Actually, contrary to the PR for them, holidays seldom are. And as holidays go, a holiday that commemorates the French Revolution is bound to be more problematic than most.

Why should Objectivists care about the French Revolution? Well, here’s a reason: Contrary to much common opinion, the Objectivist politics is not–on my view–either a right- or a left-wing conception. It’s a sui generis conception of its own, not reducible to the politics of left or right. Meanwhile, politics continues along a trajectory determined by the left/right dichotomy. A huge number of our bad political habits have their origin in the French Revolution, most or perhaps all of them deriving from that ur political distinction of “left” and “right.” So perhaps it’s useful on this day to look at both left and right from their historical point of departure in the French Revolution, reflect on our Revolutionary inheritance, and find a conceptual means of escape from both of them.

From the Rousseauan left that led the Revolution, we get the divinization of collectivism and indiscriminate, state-wielded force in the name of a hazily-conceived common good:

Reorganizing the ministries, extending the principles of 14 Frimaire, setting up a new agency of police, were all merely means to an end. The question remains of what the Committee wished to do, what precisely the democratic Republic was to mean.

An indication was given on April 14 [1794], when the Convention, on its own initiative, ordered the remains of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to be borne to the Pantheon. The new state, so far as it came from books, was to draw its inspiration from the Social Contract. it was not to be the liberal state that emerged in the nineteenth century. Jacobins were far from wishing to leave the individual to his own devices. Their democratic Republic was to be unitary, solid, total, with the individual fused into society and the citizen into the nation. National sovereignty was to check individual rights, the general will prevail over general wishes. In the interest of the people the state was to be interventionist, offering social services; it was to plan and guide the institutions of the country, using legislation to lift up the common man. It was to resemble more closely the states of the twentieth century than those of the nineteenth.

Democracy, in short, as early as 1794, dissociated itself from the theory of pure liberalism and laissez-faire. It identified with a very wide exercise of sovereignty, or to put it more concretely, of the power of government. “The function of government,” Robespierre had said on 5 Nivoise, “is to direct the moral and physical forces of the nation.” To what end? (R.R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Years of the Terror in the French Revolution [Princeton, 1989], pp. 310-311).

Never ask the end, to paraphrase Isabel Paterson. The left still hasn’t come up with an answer to that preceding question, and feels no great urgency about doing so, either.

One basic assumption buried in the preceding passage, has to do with free will–or rather, with its denial. After all, if moral agents are reducible to “forces,” it becomes plausible to think that they’re to be moved by force. Since the state is the monopolizer of force, the state becomes the agent of motivation, and by implication of progress. What stands in its way ipso facto stands in the way of progress, and must be smashed, in turn, by force. Listen carefully to even the most decorous left-liberal, especially on economic matters, and you’ll eventually hear some version of this line of thought, ultimately ratified by the French revolutionary imperatives of “equality” and “progress.”



From the Burkean right, we inherit more pathologies than I can list in a single post, but the prominent ones include the simultaneous invocation of reason and glorification of irrationality, along with the simultaneous invocation of morality and of nihilism. Consider some representative passages from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, surely one of the worst-written and most ill-argued works of political philosophy in the English language. Burke has just finished telling us how irrational the French Revolutionaries are–their “vague speculations,” their “wild litigious spirit.” Then he offers his own conception of reason:

You will observe, that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves an unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and an house of commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors.

This policy appears to me to be the result of profound reflection; or rather the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it. A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. (Reflections on the Revolution in France [Penguin, 1969], p.119).

In other words: epistemic conservatism leading to dogmatism; dogmatism leading to relativism; relativism safeguarding feudalism.  I don’t generally like Mary Wollstonecraft’s polemic against Burke, but her response to this aspect of Burke is unbeatable:

I perceive, from the whole tenor of our Reflections, that you have a mortal antipathy to reason; but if there is anything like argument, or first principles, in your wild declamation, behold the result: that we have to reverence the rust of antiquity, and term the unnatural customs, which ignorance and mistaken self-interest have consolidated, the sage fruit of experience; nay, that if we do discover some errors, our feelings should lead us to excuse, with blind love, or unprincipled filial affection, the venerable vestiges of ancient days. These are gothic notions of beauty–the ivy is beautiful, but when it insidiously destroys the trunk from which it receives support, who would not grub it up? (Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Men [Cosimo, 2008], pp. 17-18)

Despite Burke’s supposed dislike of “the odious maxims” of Machiavelli, it’s surprising how Machiavellian Burke himself can sound when he goes after “Man’s Rights”:

The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false. The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in governments are their advantages; and those are often in balances between differences of good; in compromises between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil. Political reason is a computing principle, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally and not metaphysically, true moral denominations. (Reflections, p. 153, cf. Machiavelli’s Prince, ch. 18).

After describing “political reason” as a “computing principle,” don’t be too surprised a few pages later when Burke attacks the “monied interests” for their overly calculative spirit, fastening in particular on the Jews as the exemplars of calculated money-grubbing. Incidentally, Burke is at least as  anti-Semitic as the Marx of “On the Jewish Question.” He also manages to anticipate Marx’s critique of capitalism, but construes the theft of surplus value by the capitalists as a point in capitalism’s favor. I won’t bore you with quotations.

Given all this, you can count on Burke consistently to conflate the defense of private property rights with the defense of whatever property structure happens to surround him, regardless of how it came about, and regardless of the benefits it brings anyone. “The magistrate must have his reverence, the laws their authority. The body of the people must not find the principles of natural subordination by art rooted out of their minds. They must respect that property of which they cannot partake. They must labour to obtain what by labour can be obtained; and when they find, as they commonly do, the success disproportioned to the endeavour, they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice” (Reflections, p. 372). The enemy of mankind, for Burke, is not the person who keeps them in this state of disadvantage and subjection (what happened to rights being “advantages,” by the way?), but the person who alerts them to the fact that it obtains. If this sounds crazy to you, go back and listen to the average Republican austerity-monger and you may well hear echoes of it. Why else would they insist on cutting food stamps and the budgets of police departments on Indian reservations while fighting to “preserve” Medicare and maintain agriculture subsidies?

Actually, once again Wollstonecraft has a subtle, in fact astonishingly radical rejoinder: “I know, indeed, that there is often something disgusting in the distresses of poverty, at which the imagination revolts, and starts back to exercise itself in the more attractive Arcadia of fiction.” Fiction, after all, is what “eternal justice” is.


Mary Wollstonecraft

Anyway, let’s not kid ourselves. The French Revolution isn’t entirely over.

In a letter to Leonard Read dated November 12, 1944, Ayn Rand took issue with an essay Read had put together for The Freeman, objecting in particular to the pamphlet’s invocation of Thomas Paine. “It is a little discouraging to see those who attempt to find valuable thoughts on freedom pass up a treasure mine like this [i.e., Isabel Paterson’s God of the Machine]–and devote a whole page to Thomas Paine, who was not one of us, as the very quotations you chose demonstrate” (Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 171). I find this dismissal of Paine an unfortunate and overly hasty judgment on Rand’s part. It’s true that much in Paine is wrongheaded. (Of course, much in Rand is wrongheaded, too.) But to fixate on what’s wrong in Paine (or Rand) is to miss the forest for the trees. In historical perspective, what’s valuable about Paine is that he is one of the post-French-Revolutionary political theorists (not the only, of course) to break firmly out of the left/right dichotomy, and offer an authentically and distinctively classical liberal politics that is neither Rousseauan nor Burkean, but an attempt (however flawed or clumsy) to find the mean between them. The basic elements are there–the defense of reason against the likes of Burke, and the defense of individualism and a limited state against the likes of Rousseau and Robespierre. There’s also in Paine, by contrast with contemporary Objectivist discourse, a better sense of the ways in which our current property structure is skewed by the injustices of the past, and of the need to engage in political reform with this fact more self-consciously in mind. Paine would, I think correctly, have seen a Burkean complacency in the way Objectivists, libertarians, and Republicans set political priorities. But that’s a large topic for another time.

For now, I can’t resist ending with this passage from The Rights of Man, which applies to inquiry as much as it does to the arts Paine mentions:

If there is anything to wonder at in this miserable scene of governments, more than might be expected, it is the progress which the peaceful arts of agriculture, manufacture, and commerce have made, beneath such a long accumulating load of discouragement and oppression. It serves to show that instinct in animals does not act with stronger impulse than the principles of society and civilization operate in man. Under all discouragements, he pursues his object, and yields to nothing but impossibilities. (Rights of Man, II.2).

As should we.

Sing, o choirs of cacophony….


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