The French Revolution, however, didn’t come like a bolt out of the blue. Charles I had been executed 140 years before In Whitehall by religio-political fanatics, and as Jean Lacroix has convincingly argued, the Republic rests on “the death of the Father.” Fraternity and Equality can apparently only be realized through parricide. The impetus for change in France came not only from Switzerland, rather It came from French Anglophiles and a completely false understanding of what had just happened in America. It was, in a way, the first great Euro-American misunderstanding. On the other hand, Governor Morris, the American envoy to Paris, told the conceited Lafayette at the beginning of the revolution: “I am against your democracy, Monsieur de Lafayette, because I am for freedom.” In 1815 he began a speech with the words, “The Bourbons are back on the throne; Europe is once again free” -something which today hardly an American would understand after so many years of school-inculcated fatuity.
Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. Operation Parricide: Sade, Robespierre & the French Revolution. (From the October, 1989 issue of Fidelity magazine)
For the average person, all problems date to World War II; for the more informed, to World War I; for the genuine historian, to the French Revolution.
The cry “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Death!” was much in vogue during the Revolution. Liberty ended by covering France with prisons, equality by multiplying titles and decorations, and fraternity by dividing us. Death alone prevailed.
But the French Revolution and the whole movement, still not quite spent, which proceeded from it, was not liberal except verbally and by accident. The world was to be freed from Christianity and feudalism; it was not to be free to become Christian and feudal again. These were not regarded as normal episodes in human history, as forms of civilization as legitimate as any others; they were regarded as fiendish inventions foisted by tyrants on human helplessness and ignorance. That incubus removed, all mankind was expected to found a heroic, fearless, unchallengeable republic, composed by Catos, Brutuses, and Cincinnatuses. This rigid form of liberty being established, no other form of liberty would be permitted.
What the Revolution was really making for, though hardly expressed with frankness before Nietzsche, was liberty absolute and forever empty; liberty without foundations in nature or history, but resident in a sort of prophetic commotion. Custom, law, privilege, and religion were not to command allegiance, but to be themes only for criticism and invective. Hence the mortal hatred of any view that recognized realities, or built upon them. A truth, a fact, a past, a future, if definite and knowable, would abolish pure liberty, and it was essential, if this liberty were to be preserved, that nobody should build anything on it. If you settled something or made something, you would have become the slave of your action or of your work. A free soul inhabits the paradise of anarchy.
A great motive invoked by the modern mind has been the love of liberty; but this love, when we examine it, appears to be three fourths hatred. There is the passionate, secret, accumulated hatred towards religion, wealth, and government; and there is the hatred of all the ills that flesh is heir to, easily attributed to the wickedness and folly of other men. Mankind has always been unhappy, more unhappy perhaps when submissive and pious than when rebellious. The rebel is proud of himself and hopeful; these are inspiriting sentiments, and in protesting against his misery he has half vanquished it. Sometimes the love of liberty becomes open hatred of every independent thing limiting one’s own fancy: hatred of tradition, of greatness, of inequality, of truth, and even of matter…. There nature has deeply engraved the eternal law of liberty: THINK AS YOU LIKE, SAY WHAT YOU THINK, DO WHAT YOU CHOOSE. There is a possible difficulty here, which I will mention in passing: that if in the free mind there were nothing but this law of freedom, the law would remain inapplicable, because that empty mind would never know what to like or what to think. Theoretically, this difficulty is fatal to libertarianism; there must be given motives, given organs, given objects, before liberty can exist or can begin to move. Liberty is not a source but a confluence and a harmony.
George Santayana. Dominations and Powers: Reflections on Liberty, Society and Government. (1951)
Yet the counterrevolutionaries were not simply authoritarians. Unlike Hobbes, to whom it was a matter of indifference who ruled so long as someone did so, Burke and his disciples were deeply concerned with the character of the wielders of power. This was not simply a matter of natural endowments, although the conservatives did observe reasonably enough that men are not born equal in strength, intelligence, or other capacities. Instead, the classical conservatives insisted that only certain persons are in a position to develop the skills and habits that fit them for rule, not for their personal enjoyment, but rather to secure the common good that is available only when men acknowledge the distinctions that God and nature have established.http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/right-minds/
No one should be mocked or oppressed because of the way he earns his living, Burke insists. Yet he echoes Aristotle’s argument against political participation by tradesmen when he insists that “the state suffers oppression if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature.”
The content of the relevant distinctions, however, is a point of difference between the conservative tradition as it developed in the English-speaking world and on the Continent. Although it was fundamentally anti-egalitarian, the former took its bearing from the ideal of the gentleman, who did not necessarily bear a title of nobility and was most at home on his rural estate. For Burke, the possession and care of landed property had a central role in cultivating the virtues necessary to rule others well. As the reference to an “entailed inheritance” suggests, Burke saw the management of an estate and its tenants as the basic model of harmonious social relations. On the other hand, those who earn their living from rapid exchange can hardly resist habits of short-term thinking, deference to the whims of customers, and the less than frank speech necessary to succeed in business.
Even a successful merchant, then, could not make himself into a gentleman. He might, however, hope to be successful enough that his grandsons would be. The assumption that social mobility is possible, although never frequent or easy, inclined English-style conservatism to the idea of a powerful but permeable aristocracy. Burke’s own rise from obscure man of letters to the ideologue of the establishment testifies to the plausibility of this assumption.
But “the spirit of the gentleman,” as Burke called it, did not exist in the same way on the Continent, partly because European titles passed to all of a nobleman’s sons rather than only to the eldest. In its place, Bonald, Maistre, and German counterparts like Friedrich Gentz deferred to the nobility of the sword. The natural rulers, as they saw them, were not a class of squires periodically refreshed by talented outsiders. They were the titled commanders of armies.
Continental conservatives generally acknowledged the necessity of a class of civil servants to administer the state. But they rejected the Aristotelian principle that participation in politics is an important component of virtue, in favor of a military monasticism that alienated the elite from the society that it was supposed to lead. Among the reasons that Burke’s conservatism supported his commitment to parliamentary government, by contrast, was that he saw politics as a fit occupation for a gentleman. Indeed, one of Burke’s central criticisms of the French Revolution is that its subversion of all civil authority made military dictatorship inevitable—an outcome for which he had no sympathy whatsoever.
Despite their disagreement about who the natural rulers were, Burke and his European counterparts agreed about how this rule was to be exercised. In both cases, power was to be constrained by the complex structure of relationships that make up a whole society. A father might be the authority in his own home, but he owed obedience to the local lord of the manor. The lord might rule his estate, but not in defiance of the king. And the king had to be prepared to account for himself before God for his stewardship of these relationships, which are not of his making or subject to his will.
Burke’s insistence that good government is always limited government is well known. But Maistre, who has the reputation of a crazed absolutist, insisted on the same principle. Elaborating his theory of sovereignty, Maistre explains that while sovereignty must, in certain senses, be absolute, it should never be arbitrary or exercised outside its proper sphere. Although the king’s will must not be challenged, “Religion, laws, customs, opinion, and class and corporate privileges restrain the sovereign and prevent him from abusing his power…”
The insistence that power be embedded in restraining traditions and institutions is the crucial distinction between classical conservatism and the fascism that would eventually replace it on the European right. Conservatism defends the authority of lords, of generals, of kings—but not of a “leader” who emerges from and rules over the disorganized mob.
In The Reactionary Mind, Robin tries to efface this distinction by quoting Maistre’s arguments that the restoration of the king would require the participation of the people. But he ignores Maistre’s insistence that the restored order be monarchical—and indeed that the crown continue in the line of succession that had been interrupted when Louis XVI was executed. The template for the populist dictatorship that Robin associates with conservatism was not the Bourbon Restoration. As Burke foresaw, it was the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom even Maistre opposed.
The French Revolution was not the first revolution in human or even European history. Mobs had ruled the streets before; princes had often enough been deposed. Yet Burke insisted that that the Revolution was “the most astonishing thing that has hitherto happened in the world.” What was so astonishing about it?
Burke’s answer was that the French Revolution was the consequence of an extraordinary new theory of society. According to this theory, which Burke attributed to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, human beings are naturally free and self-sufficient. Because each man is potentially a Crusoe, any relations between individuals are essentially voluntary.
The question, then, is whether the “chains” that bind one person to another reflect the will of every individual involved. If so, they are legitimate—a term that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to transform from a principle of dynastic succession into the moral justification of rule as such. If not, they lack moral authority and may be rejected, potentially with violence. So, in Burke’s view, went the philosophical argument behind the revolution.
This reasoning was mistaken, Burke argued, not so much in its logical structure as in its first principle. In fact, human beings are born into networks of sympathy, obligation, and authority. These networks make us what we are, transforming unformed potential and dispositions into concrete identities. On this view, there is no Archimedean point from which the legitimacy of existing social relations can be assessed. As Maistre put it in a brilliant formulation, “In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians… . But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.”