POLITICAL IDEAS: by Bill MuehlenbergNews Weekly
On revolutions and competing worldviews
, August 31, 2013
We have reached the point in so much of the West where it actually seems important to start talking about the possibility, or even the necessity, of revolution. So much of our freedom and democracy is being lost, and so many police-state tactics are being put into place that such discussions are no longer just theoretical.
Of course, for Christians and law-abiding citizens at least, revolution is not something to be rushed into thoughtlessly. That is why I have already penned a piece looking carefully at the various options available to the Christian in this regard (“Is revolution ever justified?”, parts 1 and 2, CultureWatch blog, July 11, 2013).
Here I want to look a bit further at this issue. Specifically, I want to demonstrate that there are revolutions and there are revolutions. Not all are the same, in other words. Some may be more beneficial, while some are clearly not too helpful.
A very clear distinction can be found when we look at the American and French revolutions of 1776 and 1789, respectively. These two historical events make for an interesting study of contrasts.
Many scholars have written on the notable differences. Hannah Arendt’s important 1963 volume, On Revolution, is a case in point. She contrasts one type of revolution as restoration (e.g., the American), with another type of revolution as radical transformation (e.g., the French).
US political commentator Thomas Sowell has written much on all this. In his incisive 1987 volume, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, he contrasts the constrained vision with the unconstrained. The former sees mankind as limited morally, intellectually and socially, and eschews the push for radical change, either in man or in society. The latter sees man and society as unbounded in their potential, and seeks for radical change to establish utopia now.
The former follows the Judeo-Christian view of the fallenness of man, and the impossibility of changing human nature and society without outside help. The latter sees human nature and society as capable of being moulded into a new man and a perfect society.
Writes Sowell: “The great evils of the world — war, poverty and crime, for example — are seen in completely different terms by those with the constrained and the unconstrained visions.
“If human options are not inherently constrained, then the presence of such repugnant and disastrous phenomena virtually cries out for explanations — and for solutions. But if the limitations and passions of man himself are at the heart of these painful phenomena, then what requires explanation are the ways in which they have been avoided or minimised.
“While believers in the unconstrained vision seek the special causes of war, poverty and crime, believers in the constrained vision seek the special causes of peace, wealth or a law-abiding society.”
It becomes easy to see how the contrasting revolutions of 1776 and 1789 fit into these larger ideological visions. As Sowell notes, “The two great revolutions in the eighteenth century — in France and in America — can be viewed as applications of these differing visions…. The underlying premises of the French Revolution more clearly reflected the unconstrained vision of man which prevailed among its leaders….
“The Constitution of the United States, with its elaborate checks and balances, clearly reflected the view that no one was ever to be completely trusted with power. This was in sharp contrast to the French Revolution, which gave sweeping powers, including the power of life and death, to all those who spoke in the name of ‘the people’, expressing the Rousseauean ‘general will’.”
Simply looking at how each revolution was carried out, and the political and social consequences of each, shows how very different indeed they were. One revolution sought to raze to the ground the very structures of society and start anew, while the other was very cautious and guarded, keenly aware of flawed human nature and the corruption of power.
The French Revolution was reckless and utopian, while the American was guarded and this-worldly. As historian Paul Johnson says about the former: “The French Revolution was not reformist, it was millenarian. It was, in fact, the first modern millenarian revolt. It looked backwards to the Münster of the 1520s, and the Middle Ages, and forward to Karl Marx and Mao Tse-tung.”
It sought to create not only a new society, but a new religion. As theologian Alister McGrath remarks, “During the French Revolution, for the first time in modern history, the possibility of an atheist state was explored.” But it soon fell short of its own ideals: “Inspiring and ennobling, the project of the French Revolution was at the same time brutal and repressive.”
He continues, “The new religion of humanity mimicked both the virtues and vices of the Catholicism it hoped to depose. It might well have a new god, a new saviour and new saints. But it also had its own inquisition and began its own particular war of religion.”
Or, as historian Mark Noll writes, “A general effort was made to extirpate France’s age-old connection with the Roman Catholic Church. As Alexis de Tocqueville later wrote, the animus against Christianity knew almost no bound: ‘In France … Christianity was attacked with almost frenzied violence, there was no question of replacing it with another religion. Passionate and persistent efforts were made to wean men away from the faith of their fathers, but once they had lost it, nothing was supplied to fill the void within’.”
All this of course stands in marked contrast with what occurred in America, where the revolutionaries were not at all interested in destroying society or eradicating religion. They fought against what they perceived as foreign tyranny and oppression, but worked very carefully to maintain order, foster religion and stay true to the biblical understanding of human nature.
There was certainly no hatred of Christianity or an attempt to establish a secular religion devoted to “reason”. In fact, Christianity was everywhere apparent in the American revolt. Not only were most of those who led or fought in the revolution steeped in Christianity, but they also saw their cause as one undertaken with divine blessing.
The outcome in America after 1776 was a stable, free and prosperous land. The French upheaval of 1789 resulted in the guillotine, the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s coup. Philosopher Roger Scruton says that the American Revolution was “relatively pacific, and culminated in the calm and reasonable adoption of a constitution that has sometimes been thought to be the most imaginative piece of applied political science in human history”.
While current leaders, such as President Obama, seem to be doing their best to undo all of this, to destroy the Constitution and to politicise everything, that was certainly not what the American Founders had in mind. But that was what the French revolutionaries had in mind.
As Paul Johnson writes elsewhere: “The French Revolution had opened an era of intense politicisation. Perhaps the most significant characteristic of the dawning of the modern world, and in this respect it was a true child of Rousseau, was the tendency to relate everything to politics.”
Or, as he put it in his important 1983 volume, Modern Times: A History of the Modern World: From 1917 to the 1980s, “The destructive capacity of the individual, however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless. Expand the state and that destructive capacity necessarily expands, too, pari passu.”
That is just one sample of the bitter fruit left to us, not by the American Revolution, but by the French. The politicisation of society, the idea that mankind is fully malleable and perfectible, and the idea that the state should continue to increase as it pretends it can solve all our problems — this is the legacy of the French Revolution.
This big picture contrast between two revolutions, and between two worldviews, or ideological visions, must always be kept in mind — especially as Australia now approaches another federal election.
One party basically champions a vision of constrained power; the other, of unconstrained power. I know which one I much rather prefer.
Bill Muehlenberg is a commentator on contemporary issues, and lectures on ethics and philosophy. His website CultureWatch is at: www.billmuehlenberg.com