The French Revolution and the Socialist Tradition:
|Although early French communist
thinkers like Morelly, Mably and Babeuf (see Lecture
important to the history of the socialist tradition, we must also consider another
intellectual and political trend which was developing at about the same time. In this
case, however, we must move away from France and across the English Channel to England
where the Democratic-Radical Tradition was in full swing. Democratic radicalism or
republicanism, was a variety of liberalism and thus not in any way directly socialist.
However, there are elements of democratic radicalism that were interpreted as being full
of socialist potential. There were even democratic radicals who toyed with the idea of
socialism and even saw it as the future, but they were more content with agitating for
democratic reforms which would eventually pave the way for something like a socialist
future. And with the appearance of the democratic radicals side by side with the
socialists we encounter one of the strange dichotomies of the entire socialist tradition
-- on the one hand, reform, and on the other, revolution (for a general account of the
French Revolution in English History, see Lecture 14).
The most famous and certainly most significant of all democratic radicals was Thomas Paine (1737-1809). In social origin and mentality, Paine was a man of the people, hence his common name at the time was Citizen Tom Paine. He worked as a staymaker in his fathers trade. He also served as a petty government official, a shopkeeper, a tutor and finally as a journalist in the American colonies where he seemed to have found his true calling. His popularity, in fact, stems from his rather average, if not lowly, origins. Again, he was a man of the people. He had no formal education and he was clearly not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, if we can trust the comments of his contemporaries, he was quite crude in his public conduct. But, he knew the language of the new reading public. These were the self-made, independent, ambitious men of the time for whom individual enterprise really meant something. This meant something to Paine for he was what we could easily call a self-made man, something for which he was most proud. He was able to translate the interests and ideals of this class of men into vivid prose and for this reason, his writings enjoyed great popularity right into the 19th century.
Paine defended both the American and French Revolutions and conservatives, many of whom were quick to label him a republican, came to see him as the most dangerous revolutionary in England. Paine was a child of the Enlightenment -- he shared that boundless sense of optimism so characteristic of the 18th century. He once wrote that,
However, when we compare Paine to a contemporary like Babeuf, Paine appears moderate. Paine certainly attacked the landed class and its privileges but he never questioned the sanctity of private property, private enterprise or the free market. And why should he? After all, he was a self-made man who had played according to the rules. He had little affinity for the downtrodden because he made a distinction between the people and the mob. In other words, Paine was willing to concede that there was a fundamental difference between the industrious, hardworking part of the population, and the propertyless poor. This latter group, the mob in 18th century terminology, had no regular employment and thus no real stake in society. They were also prone to fits of violence.
Although Paine is a member of the democratic-radical tradition, much of his thought also borders on the socialist perspective. Despite the fact that Paine was hostile to the notion of a strong state, he believed that it was possible and desirable to remedy poverty and inequality through the action of the state. For instance, he proposed a vast program of state-provided public education. But Paine was not advocating state-imposed equality: Paine was no fan of Rousseau. Instead, Paine advocated the equality of opportunity, which implied that some would make it, and others would not. This sense of equality of opportunity, "careers open to talent," if you will, is central to the ideas of the democratic-radical tradition right through the 19th century. In fact, they are part and parcel of the liberal tradition as well. If the state would only provide a foundation for all men to pursue their interests -- and men would pursue their interests because they are rational -- then people would be happy and the state would flourish. In other words, Paine is not interested in social leveling, he is not interested in an equality of wealth, but in an equality of opportunity. I hope you can detect the difference between the two.
A program of public education was not the only form of welfarism that Paine proposed. He denounced the massive expenditure of the British monarchy on the military and privileged orders. He wished to see equal amounts of funds directed toward the disadvantaged in the form of family allowances and old-age pensions. He did not wish to redistribute wealth with his tax proposals. Instead, he wanted the burden of taxation to fall on the middle classes and the wealthy, rather than the lower orders. All this would be accomplished by a progressive income tax. But, and this is a big but, he did not consider such measures to have socialist implications. Family allowances were designed to make the poor self-reliant and independent not lazy and indolent.
Paine believed that every institution, every law and every political measure should be subjected to a simple standard: does it make all people happier? This same measure was taken up to a much greater extent by a philosophical movement of the period known as utilitarianism. The utilitarians, who were also known as Philosophical Radicals, believed in a rather simple social formula: reduce pain and increase pleasure. All laws and institutions should prove their usefulness or utility to the general happiness of the greatest number. This felicific calculus, was the cornerstone of Jeremy Benthams (1748-1832) manifesto of utilitarianism, the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure," Bentham wrote, "it is to them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as determine what we shall do." Since all the existing systems in the world had failed to provide for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, Bentham and the utilitarians concluded that all existing systems of morality and formal law should be abolished and replaced with systems more useful to the increase and perpetuation of happiness. This was to be accomplished, Bentham argued, by gradual reform and not violent revolution.
Another Philosophical Radical contemporary with Bentham who argued a similar case with quite different results, was the philosophical anarchist, William Godwin (1756-1836). Godwin agreed with the utilitarians on the notion that the world is composed of rational men who seek pleasure and avoid pain. But Godwin concluded that the greatest happiness of the greatest number would only become a reality if there were no law, no state, no marriage, no official morality and no church. In other words, Godwin was against everything because everything held back man from becoming what he ought to become, i.e., truly human. He affirmed that whatever conflicts arose between individuals could best be resolved through what he called, "disinterested benevolence," and by this Godwin meant, intellectual discourse, honesty and sincerity. Under the modem system, men take what they do not have, they kill what they do not like or understand, and they exploit their weaker neighbors for private gain. If only men would discuss things rationally. The results of this rational discourse, in the mind of a man like Godwin, had very wide ramifications.
Sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error: Sound reasoning and truth are capable of being so communicated: Truth is omnipotent: The vices and moral weakness of man are not invincible: Man is perfectible, or in other words capable of perpetual improvement.
Godwin so elevated the power of human Reason that he simply bypassed the entire effort to find a more reasonable system. For Godwin, human Reason was sufficient enough to conquer greed and selfishness. When false differences between people, based as they are on social class, wealth, or family, no longer exist, human happiness would result. And for Godwin, the first thing that had to go was government:
As obstacles to human improvement private property, law, the family, marriage, and the church should all be abolished. Was Godwin a socialist? Was he a communist? The answer is an emphatic no. However, Godwin's ideas were influential in the precise period in which more genuine socialist and communist ideas were being developed and discussed. I suppose what I am trying to say is that in order to understand the socialist tradition, it is not enough to just look to individuals who wrote about socialism, or perhaps even called themselves socialists. Instead, we need to conduct an inquiry into the intellectual and social environment at certain points in historical time. Godwin is a prime example of a thinker who indirectly influenced an entire generation of revolutionary and radical thinkers. In many ways, his ideas, the best and worst taken together, were more influential than even those of Thomas Paine.
The fact that the early French communists and the English democratic radicals exist at the same point in time illustrates some of the foundations of the 19th century European socialist tradition. We have seen the influence of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the power of human Reason to solve social problems. We have also seen that although the philosophes of the 18th century agreed that some form of social change was not only possible but essential, they nonetheless did not choose the course of violent revolution. The reason should be clear by now: violence is antithetical to human Reason. "Man is capable of perpetual improvement," as Godwin put it. And then there was the French Revolution. No event of the 18th century so profoundly influenced a generation of social writers as did this revolution. The ancien regime was swept away, a king was killed, and a republic declared. And although Napoleon both preserved and perverted the principles of 1789, there's no denying the simple fact that if you want to understand the socialist tradition, then you must begin with the French Revolution itself
The French Revolution made the modern revolutionary. It gave the revolutionary a focal point through which energies could be concentrated in the interests of social reform. In France, these energies tended more toward a communist-inspired collectivist state where the individual was considered as part of the collective body. In England, these energies tended to become infused with a democratic radicalism which eschewed collectivism in favor of individual self-interest. The fact that these two countries went separate ways says something about the socialist tradition itself 19th century European socialists had a full plate from which to choose their main course. Should they go the way of the collectivist-totalitarian state and hence revolutionary violence? Or should they abhor violence and move in the more peaceful direction of gradual reform via the program of the democratic radicals? Was there some middle course between the two?
| The History Guide | |
copyright © 2017 Steven Kreis