Thursday, 17 October 2013



Mr. Siebenhaar said it was not his object to repeat the oft-told narrative of the events of the Revolution of 1789, but rather to show that the Spirit of the Revolution in France, which first appeared in all its power and greatness at that epoch, was a more complete inspiration of progressive ideas and ideals, than accompanied any other political upheaval in the world's history. There had been revolutions of various kinds. He singled out three: (1) Those that merely brought about a change of rulers, and had little or no concern with the popular will; (2) popular but unprogressive revolutions, and (3) popular and progressive ones. Of the first kind, they found instances in the frequent struggles for supremacy between generals in some of the South American Republics; the second kind might be typified by the act of the ancient Hebrews in replacing a probably tyrannical judge by a still more tyrannical king, a step which apparently was not even approved by the Hebrew Deity. Another instance of it was found in the murder of the De Witts by the Dutch populace in order to put the ambitious Prince of Orange in power. He intended to deal only with the third kind, and to confine himself to modern history.

The Earliest Popular Revolt against medieval tyranny was that of the Dutch and Flemish burghers. The poet monk Maerlant, in the 13th century, wrote:

"Now one is noble, a second free,
 A third through life a serf must be:
 I deem this most unseemly."

This democratic utterance expressed the rebellious spirit of the sturdy townsfolk of the Lowlands, in their protracted struggle against the feudal tyranny of princes and nobles. They were so successful that in 1217 the first municipal charter in Europe was granted to the town of Middelburg. The burghers did not aim at anything more than sufficient independence to develop their trades and commerce without unreasonable interference and this in the main they obtained. The Dutch rebellion against Spain, in the 16th and 17th centuries was principally a religious one, although the question of taxation was partly mixed up with it. These successive and successful struggles caused Holland from the earliest days to be a more democratic country than most; but truly democratic ideals, as they now understood them, were even there conceived only after the example of the French Revolution had been set. In France, the downtrodden peasants did not raise the standard of revolt until the Jacqueries in 1355. Although the simultaneous rise of Etienne Marcel and the Paris Commune took a more definite form the whole shapeless rebellion failed woefully, cruelly and sanguinarily suppressed by the king and his nobles. The Reformation in France also was repeatedly drenched in blood, until Henry IV. and Richelieu introduced a reign of tolerance. In the 17th century the Parliamentary Wars were fought. They were not sustained with any of the spirit shown at the same time in England, nor had the actual people much of a share in them. They ended with a complete victory for the King, who from that time was absolute monarch, until the dawn of 1789. England also had her successive rebellions. The King's powers were early limited by Magna Charta, but a true rising of the people against feudal oppression did not take place. until 1381, when Jack Straw, Wat Tyler, and John Ball led the peasants and townsfolk in revolt against oppressive Taxation and serfdom.

Religious reform here also entered into the question. Although, Ball, a priest and a scholar, had noble visions of a reconstructed life of the people, the rebellion had no definite plan of campaign, and failed through ignorance of military and state craft, as well as through the cynical treachery of the King and his supporters, a lesson which later monarchs and their nobles repeated until Cromwell and the subsequent French revolutionaries had thoroughly learnt it, and knew how to deal with it. A further revolt, in 1450 led by Jack Cade, was directed against the Ministry of the time. Again the blood of the people flowed in vain. The next century saw the rebellion led by Ket the Tanner, once more partly of a religious nature, and partly an assertion of comparatively modest economic popular claims. It also ended disastrously for the rebels. Royalty and the nobility in England did not receive a severe check of a democratic character until the 17th century, when the great English Revolution asserted the rights of Parliament. This was undoubtedly a momentous gain to the English people; but it must not be imagined that it established in England a reign of freedom in the sense in which they now under stood it, or that the people themselves were truly represented in the Government. So late as the end of the 18th and the thinkers and reformers were cruelly persecuted for merely expressing political opinions of a more liberal kind than those approved by the Government, and seats in Parliament were sold by auction the representative nature of that body being far removed from the most modest democratic ideal. The people had in reality no share in the Government of Britain until the influence of the French Revolution had caused the Reform Bill to be passed.

As regards Germany, to earliest popular rebellion was the peasant revolt, which took place in Luther's time. Luther's own attitude towards it had left a blot on his name which time could not efface, for he incited the German nobles in truly fanatic manner to exterminate the rebels with every means of brutality at their disposal. Thomas Munzer, the people's leader, was a man with progressive ideals, but he stood almost alone. Some other sporadic rising took place in Germany, as for instance, that of Jan van Leyden. But the people had no liberties of any kind until, in 1848, they rose at the instance of France, and obtained a form of constitutional government. It had, however, been truly said that to this day Germany had not learnt the first letter of the word "liberty." A greater success than any revolution except that of 1789 attended America's effort to gain her independence, for it was accompanied by an expression of democratic principles such as the world had not yet seen. In it took part one of the bravest and ablest Engishmen of all times, Tom Paine, the man who was concerned in three revolutions, the attempted one in England, the successful one in America, and the great French Revolution of 1789. Of Tom Paine Roosevelt had ignorantly spoken as a "dirty little atheist." Ingersoll had tersely pointed out that the three words were three lies, for Paine was neither dirty, nor little, nor an atheist. Paine wrote some of the most striking truths about the rights of man that had ever been printed, and his works were still well in advance of the democratic attainments of our time. The American Rebellion was able to make an entirely fresh start in social legislation, whereas the French Revolution had to perform the infinitely greater task of uprooting the growth of centuries of political and social abuse, and substitute saner and juster laws and conditions. and it did this not only for France, but for the whole civilised world. For the first time in history it gave full expression to all that constitutes not only the modern spirit of French democracy, but of the Democracy of Western Civilisation.

A sound and complete history of that momentous event had yet to be written. Yet already they were now able to turn with a feeling of relief from the wild phantasmagoria, the lurid limelight pictures of Carlyle, to the sane, sober, and scholarly analysis of Buckle. But it would be difficult to find one author on the French Revolution who had been able to write on it wholly without misleading prejudice. It seemed to the speaker that even Buckle was not wholly free from three forms of bias, national, religious, and class prejudice. It seemed incongruous to couple the name of Buckle with religious bias. Yet Buckle appeared to have imagined that the atheism of the French scholars and thinkers of the 18th century had in some way accentuated the violence of the revolution. If they were not too well acquainted with all the cruelties that from time immemorial had been practised in the name of religion. they might for a moment feel inclined to follow him. But even in the revolution itself they found that the atheist Condorcet tried to save the lives of the king and other prisoners, whilst the deist Robespierre had no such soft feelings. Class prejudice, again, made Buckle, Mignet, and a host of others attribute much of the violence complained of to mob-rule, whilst also the former, in some mysterious manner, fancied that England, by a different procedure, had attained the same result as France by a kindlier method. That this latter contention must have been due to national bias, seemed evident from the remarks already made about the comparatively small progress, from a democratic point of view, achieved by England until the beginning of the 19th century, whilst only a thorough inquiry into the numbers killed in the English Rebellion and the French Revolution could afford any certainty as to the comparative violence of the two events. The execution of a King, a queen and numerous nobles, had the effect of looming much larger in the public eye than the wholesale shooting of mere citizens, especially proletarians. But it was questionable whether, in connection with the respective revolutions themselves anything done between 1789 and 1795 could be compared with the holocaust of Parisians in 1871, when by the orders of Thiers, the idol of the middle class, some 40,000 people were exterminated in one week, most of them shot defenceless in the streets of Paris. Yet of this violence they had never heard much except from those who defended the cause of the labourers.

The King, the Queen, and a large number of the nobles in France lost their lives in the Revolution not as a result of atheism, or mob-rule, or specific French violence, but as a consequence of the necessity, brought about by themselves, of proclaiming martial law, when through their intrigues the enemies of France were marching on Paris. The betrayal of their own country to foreign enemies should be particularly estimated at its true value in the times in which we live. And it was difficult to see why a royal or noble traitor should deserve a lesser punishment than was usually meted out to commoner transgressors of this kind. The worst event in the French Revolution was the massacre of 1,100 prisoners by an armed gang of lynchers. Lynching, however, it must not be forgotten, was not a French specific, but still flourished in America in time of peace. Deliberate attempts had been made to connect the names of well known leaders, such as Danton and Morat, with this crime, but the lecturer doubted whether these attempts would ever be supported by real proof, as all deeper inquiry into the actual occurrences of the time, and into the lives of these leaders, tended to create an ever more favourable opinion about these personalities. Both were scholars, ardent patriots, and men with a deep sense of justice. Marat had certainly incited the people to kill their oppressors and the traitors to France, but it was extremely doubtful whether he would have lynched a defenceless enemy, for his whole life had been one long course of kindly and unselfish acts.    As to Marat's incitements to violence, the lecturer thought that any one of them, if he were in Berlin at the present moment would feel inclined to act similarly.

To account for the thoroughness and comprehensiveness of the democratic ideals found in the French Revolution, it was necessary, guided by Buckle, to trace the more important features of French history during the preceding two centuries. The tolerant age of Richelieu saw a dawning of unprecedented French genius. The names of Charron, Montaigne, and Pascal were at once remembered. But greater even than these was Descartes, who investigated the foundations of our thought and knowledge, and struck the most decisive blow in modern history against the false and presumed knowledge that barred the way to true scientific inquiry. The intellectual achievement of the 17th century in France included the names of several great poets and artists, and also that of the first true historian in France, Mezeray. But Buckle had shown how mistaken a notion it was, to give any credit for the greatness of that time to Louis XIV., during whose boyhood practically all the most memorable works of these thinkers and artists were produced, whilst his majority was marked by bigotry, vanity, and the tyrannical suppression and persecution of all original thought. The lecturer saw a great resemblance between Louis XIV. and the present Kaiser Wilhelm.

The decay of France began with that monarch and progressed with accelerated speed during the 18th century. The Church had become so corrupt, that many of its leading prelates were atheists. Scepticism grew apace, and the Church was held more and more in contempt. In 1749 the Government took advantage of this popular attitude to plunder that once all-powerful institution, and the fall of the Jesuits followed. The pamphleteers and other sceptical writers then wasted no more ammunition on a fallen enemy, but began to attack the Government itself, which in its turn exercised the most unrelenting tyranny in persecuting all who might be suspected of having wished to criticise it. Voltaire, Rousseau, Marmontel, d'Alembert, Diderot, Helvetius, and a host of other eminent thinkers suffered cruel oppression at the hands of the authorities. The time produced a galaxy of men of genius. History, politics, and finance were written about in an analytical manner unknown until then, by Voltaire. Montesquieu; Turgot, and Malby. Rousseau produced his clear and prophetic essay on the Social Contract. The writers and thinkers of the time did not disdain learning from England, and studied Locke and Newton, and in this they broke with the some what insular traditions of the French nation. The scientific achievement of France in half a century was stupendous. Buffon and Cuvier in zoology and geology, Jussieu in botany, Lavoisier in chemistry, Bichat in physiology, Fourier and Fresnel in physics, Laplace and Lalande, in astronomy, Helvetius and Condillac in the philosophy of the mind, Condorcet in political institutions and jurisprudence, all showed a spirit of inquiry so keen and so illuminated, that it might be truly said that they laid the foundations of modern science and thought. The "Encyclopedie," started by Diderot in 1751, and the "System of Nature," in 1770, openly proclaimed the atheism of the time. But it was a negation which broke down the old structure of bigotry and superstition, and therefore a probably necessary step in the evolution of knowledge.

It was due to this spirit of inquiry that in the Revolution all the knowledge and philosophy of the time were represented and every progressive ideal of our time found expression, although only the main part of the reform programme was realised. Equality before the law and in the matter of political rights was its principal achievement. But women suffrage was brought under notice by Condorcet. Socialism and that ultimate form of autonomy known as anarchism were advanced. Internationalism and universal brotherhood were preached. The principle of general education was affirmed and introduced. Old age pensions were considered. Maximum prices were fixed, as in our own time; but so soon as the party of middle class reaction returned to power this measure and others beneficial to the dispossessed were at once abolished. And yet, with all this discussion, time was found for the most astonishing work of organisation that had ever been performed in so short a time. The part the people and the women took was that of supplying the leverage of the Revolution. Without that pressure the reaction would never have budged, and to Camillo Desmoulins belonged the honour of having taught Paris her strength by his courageous act of calling the people to arms on the 12th July, 1789. But the people and the women did not themselves reap the immediate reward of their great share in the act of rebellion, for sex justice and economic justice were left for later generations to create. The true tribunes of the people, Marat, Danton, St. Just, Robespierre, Desmoulins, all died heroically, victims of the mutual suspicion, which naturally arose out of the stress of the times, as it had already been seen to manifest itself in our own strenuous days. For no state of mind lent itself more readily to exploitation by criminal slanderers and plotters. But with it all, the storm of ideas that raged over France in those few years of the Revolution reformed all Western civilisation, and left the seeds for future forms of progress, already clearly realised in the minds of the vanguard of humanity. Why the French were so eminently fitted to perform this great task for modern humanity, was be cause they were clear and logical thinkers, not afraid of the ultimate conclusions of their thought, idealists and enthusiasts, yet withal eminently practical. Perhaps their excitability rendered them at times liable to panic; perhaps, like the English, they were inclined to be too insular. But it was doubtful whether any other race had ever, in its times of exaltation, reached in thought and act summits of enterprise and achievement equal to those attained by France in her great revolutions.

 3 August 1916, The West Australian,

No comments: