Saturday, July 14, 2018

Simon Schama's book Citizens: A Marxist view

Martin Thomas on Schama's book Citizens.

From a larger article here.

....In Simon Schama's book, all the violence done by the revolutionaries is described in horrified and colourful detail; the violence of the counter-revolutionaries in the Vendee in 1793 or in the White Terror of 1794-5 is noted briefly and dispassionately. The king, the queen and the other leaders of the old order are described with great sympathy, the revolutionaries with loathing.

But there are more serious conservative arguments - as follows. [4]

The old regime was hierarchical and riddled with privilege, but fluid. It did not exclude or repress those whose wealth came from trade and industry; on the contrary. Since the 16th century, the king had raised money by selling official state positions to the highest bidder.

This practice enabled successful bourgeois to enter the nobility by buying an official position that brought nobility with it, and many did so. Many nobles were active in trade and industry; many bourgeois bought land or bought the right to receive the feudal dues from land. The bourgeoisie and the nobility were not two hostile classes, but two parts of a single ruling class. Historians used to say that there was an "aristocratic reaction" in the 18th century in which the nobility made its control of power and wealth more exclusive; but many now deny this. [5]

Liberal, modernising, free-trade ideas were widespread in this class, in the nobility as much as in the bourgeoisie.

That is why the nobility put up so little resistance to the reforms of the National Assembly in 1789; indeed, many of the initiators of the reforms were nobles.

What was significant about the revolution, then, was not so much the reforms it legislated as the dangerous principle it established of change through violence [6]. That principle then took its toll, with the even greater slaughter of the Terror.

That masses of the poor people of the cities came to play a central role in the Revolution was a setback to progress rather than an advance. For those masses were hostile to the new liberal, modernising, free-trade ideas, and preferred a traditional, regulated economy. "The Revolution drew much of its power from the (ultimately hopeless) attempt to arrest, rather than hasten, the process of modernisation". [7]

After all the destruction, what was there to show? The new ruling class, under Napoleon, was very similar to the old one: landowners and state officials.

French trade and industry suffered during the Revolution and grew very slowly after it. "The 'bourgeoisie' of Marxist history long believed to be the essential beneficiary of the Revolution was, in fact, its principal victim." [8] And the poor were no better off than before.

....Is Simon Schama right to maintain that the French Revolution meant little progress and much mayhem? No.

The legal and institutional results of the Revolution did help the development of the productive forces, both in France and in the countries transformed under Napoleonic conquest. They would probably not have happened anyway. In Austria, Emperor Joseph II attempted between 1780 and 1790 to introduce from above liberal, free-trade reforms similar to France's of 1789-91. Very little of his work survived his death, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire remained heavily feudalistic up to World War I.

The social policy of the Jacobin Republic of 1793-4 was unsustainable; but the only reason why Schama thinks it was backward-looking is that he identifies "modernisation" entirely with Thatcherism! The old regime had controls on the economy to preserve a traditional social hierarchy, with privileges and monopolies for the wealthy classes. The sans-culottes wanted controls on the economy to create an equal society of small property-owners. Although they were unworkable as a whole, in many ways sans-culotte ideas blazed a trail for socialism.

The Jacobin Republic of 1793-4 set benchmarks for radical and democratic politics for a whole era. So much the worse for it, as far as Schama is concerned. Indeed, he endorses Louis XVI's apology for himself: "How was it possible to have a coherently governed state of the size and populousness of France with administrations hostage to the fickleness and hysteria of press and club opinion?" He comments that "the designated successor to royal authority - the Sovereign People - was no more capable than Louis XVI of reconciling freedom with power." Schama's language is vague, but makes sense only if he is saying that parliamentary democracy is no better than, or maybe worse than, absolute monarchy.

He philosophises a great deal about "the moral squalor of the revolutionary predicament," meaning that any use of popular violence to bring about political change leads inescapably to terror and atrocities. Instead of examining the particular class conflicts behind the Terror, he generalises vastly; once you have decided that violence against aristocrats can improve society, then you are bound to go on seeking more aristocrats and crypto-aristocrats until you are knee-deep in blood. [45] The logic does not hold, unless you assume that only kings and bureaucrats are capable of rational thought, not working people.

Yet the French Revolution was in fact the first great example in world history of working people organising in a sustained way, debating ideas in print and by word of mouth, and then acting collectively to implement them. It was not and could not be socialist. But it did incubate the beginnings of the modern socialist movement.

In 1795, Gracchus Babeuf, a Jacobin who had worked in the Paris food administration, came to the conclusion that the only way to bring about equality was common ownership of wealth. He organised a group called the Conspiracy of Equals, which was broken up by the police in 1796. Babeuf was guillotined but his ideas, through such people as Auguste Blanqui, inspired a whole current of socialist militancy in the 19th century. The group which Marx and Engels joined when they became socialists, and for which they wrote the Communist Manifesto, was part of that current. The French Revolution is the starting point for our politics.

From a larger article here:

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