Monday, July 13, 2009

the French and the American revolutions: a comment

I was reading Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution last night, and was struck again by what a cold war intellectual she was. For instance: one of the great Cold War themes was that the French revolution was a sort of dress rehearsal for the Russian Revolution, and, in nuce, displayed all the aspects of modern totalitarianism. In contrast, the American revolution was the good revolution. It displayed the proper mix of a regard for property and liberty. In 1962, of all years – the year of the civil rights revolt in Mississippi – it would be hard to subscribe to this theme. But Arendt does:

“The direction of the American Revolution remained committed to the foundations of freedom and the establishment of lasting institutions, and to those who acted in this direction nothing was permitted that would have been outside the range of civil law. The direction of the French Revolution was deflected almost from its beginning from this course of foundation through the immediacy of suffering; it was determined by the exigencies of liberation not from tyranny but from necessity.”

This reads surprisingly like something from Thomas Mann’s Observations of a Non-Political Man – that same conservative German distaste for the French revolution, the same attachment to order no matter what the price. Of course, the order had moved – the German order proved vastly poisonous – but it had found its place in America for certain German thinkers – Strauss being one, Arendt being another. In order to create this myth of the good post-revolutionary order, they had to ignore post-revolutionary history. They had, in fact, to ignore American history, of the details of which they had a certain European contempt. It was a history of grand gestures they wanted – not the grinding, ordinary history of compromises around the great crime of slavery.

For in fact, of course, among the lasting institutions that was cast in stone in the Constitution and that was left out of the scope of the Declaration of Independence was slavery. To silently omit slavery from one’s reading of the American Revolutionn is to omit almost the entire history of what one could call America’s first Republic. And far from being a trade-off that guaranteed freedom, slavery, instead, became a constant encroachment on all measures the American government took, from the purchase of Louisiana to the Missouri compromise of 1820 to the further compromise of 1850 until, of course, the first American republic exploded in terrific bloodshed that dwarfed the terror. The French Revolution had its September massacres, the American civil war had its Andersonville. Whatever one says about the French Revolution, there was nothing comparable to the American civil war – one can’t really inflate the Vendee to that extent. And of course the Revolution abolished slavery in Saint Domingue, and then tried to reinstate it, and then was overthrown by the only successful slave revolt of modern times.

Arendt isn’t wholly blind to this fact. She devotes a short section of her lecture to the difference between the poverty against which the French Revolutionaries revolted and the slavery that was the “primordial crime upon which the fabric of American society rested.” Yet the lesson she takes from this, the historical lesson, is extremely obscure, and she claims that “Slavery was no more a part of the social question for Europeans than for Americans.” Thus is marginalized the complex colonial relationship between France and its richest colony; and thus is marginalized, too, the question of serfdom, with which the Revolution was, in its wider European sense, very engaged.

It amazes me that this reading of the trans-Atlantic revolutions has stood for so long, even as there has been a shift in the reading and teaching of American history so that there is a more ongoing, although still defective, reckoning with slavery and apartheid.

The deeper text, here, is that the government should keep away from the “suffering” of the people – and that a politician, like Robespierre, who advances that suffering as a justification for political action is a tyrant in the making. This internal limit on the government, in 1962, was very much the conservative position regarding civil rights and the demand for an expanded welfare system.

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