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A HUNDRED and fifty years have elapsed since the principles of the French Revolution were enunciated in the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen." Today those principles still hold, are still dynamic. Conditions have changed, of course. When the Bastille fell the principles of 1789 were being urged against an absolutist past. Today the defenders of freedom are protesting in the name of those principles against the menace of a collectivist future. In the circumstances, the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of 1789 assumes quite unusual significance. What might have been a tiresome and commonplace official celebration turns out to symbolize a whole civilization whose fate is in the balance. Nothing emphasizes the changes that the modern world has undergone more clearly than this shift of positions on the ideological checkerboard.
The original appeal of the French Revolution was so elementary and so simple that the most untutored mind could grasp it. It sought to defend against the arbitrary caprice of absolute power the unalterable freedom of the individual -- the "natural rights" of man. Those rights the reformers of that era conceived of as being liberty, property, personal inviolability, freedom from oppression. If tyranny arose in the form of personal power, it was met with the doctrine of popular sovereignty. "The principle of sovereignty," says the Declaration, "resides essentially in the Nation. No institution and no individual can exercise an authority which does not emanate expressly from the Nation." If the tyranny came from the Church, it was met with the concept of the independence of secular society. Thus the Revolution declared that sovereignty derives from the people -- from below, not from above. All citizens are equal -- metaphysically equal, one might say. "Men are born and remain," says the Declaration, "equal in right. Social distinctions can be based only on social services." From these premises freedom of thought and conscience follow logically: "The free communication of thoughts is one of the most precious rights of man. Any citizen, therefore, may freely speak, write and print, subject to his responsibility for the abuse of such freedom in cases specified by law . . . . No one shall be molested for his religious beliefs provided expression of them occasion no disturbance to the public peace as established by law."
The French mind possesses a peculiar endowment which, however, is not always a blessing. It has a faculty for discerning the principle involved in a problem and for stating it in clear terms. Then it goes on to formulate the consequences, perhaps infinite in number, that follow logically from the principle.
The principle which the Revolution succeeded in stating was a magnificent and perhaps also a dangerous one. It was the principle that respect is due to every individual human being -- considered as a thinking being, capable of reflection, judgment, decision. Long before the Declaration, Pascal had said: "The dignity of man lies in his thinking." It was a dictum very similar to that in the Declaration, though on a somewhat different -- one might call it Christian -- plane of living. The French have an instinctive feeling, a deep persuasion, that there is a truth common to all men, which the intelligence can uncover, which can be stated in words and which everybody can accept. Hence the universality claimed by the French message. Universality is its characteristic trait, and this trait distinguishes it radically from not a few of the great movements of thought that have appeared in history.
Liberal England and democratic America, long before France, found practical solutions to the problem of freedom that have successfully withstood the tests of time. But good as the British solution was, it was good only for the English. There was no pretense that it was valid for everybody and applicable everywhere. The American message was somewhat broader than the English, but it was addressed exclusively to peoples of the white race. The peculiar thing about the Declaration of '89 was that it overstepped all frontiers and appealed to "mankind" at large. It proclaimed -- and has often been ridiculed on this account -- the "rights of man," and it defined the term "man" so broadly that every human being without exception can take advantage of it. The spokesmen of the Revolution were thinking of all men, whatever their race, caste, color or origin.
The Gospel of Jesus was addressed to all human beings, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, poor or rich, and it breathed upon the peoples of the Mediterranean basin with so fresh and passionate an inspiration that in the end the Roman Empire itself was shaken to its foundations. The message that France in her turn broadcast to the world was hardly less fraught with glowing -- though dangerous -- promise. She appealed to a sentiment -- the sentiment which the human being has of his dignity as a human being. Strictly speaking, it is a revolutionary sentiment. It encourages freedom in the individual's thinking. It even invites to revolt. From that time forward, whenever and wherever the human being is threatened in his self-respect, his freedom, his title to existence, the first impulse is to look toward France -- the France where Voltaire spoke out for Calas and Zola for Dreyfus.
And here we are at the core of the moral force that upholds our so-called Western civilization. For my part, I am convinced that so long as there are men worthy of the name, the Christian Gospel in the domain of the spirit and the Principles of '89 in the domain of human relations will preserve their basic virtues as a ferment capable of leavening any and every sort of human dough. They are not mere documentary exhibits to be classified in a historical museum. They represent forces forever alive and ceaselessly active.
For a hundred and fifty years the Revolution has served as a basic line of demarcation in the domestic politics of France. In France it has never been a mere question of choosing between republic or monarchy. Something much deeper has always been at issue. Léon Bourgeois, one of the founders of the League of Nations, was well aware of this when, around 1890, he remarked to a number of Royalists who were thinking of coming over to the Republic: "You accept the Republic? But that is nothing, gentlemen! Do you accept the Revolution?" Acceptance or rejection of the spirit of '89 is the basic rift between Left and Right. I myself have participated in a dozen or more national elections since the opening of the century. In every one of them I have found a line of demarcation between two tendencies, one an inclination towards Democracy, the other an inclination towards what is known in France as Reaction.
In considering public opinion in France one should be on guard against misleading appearances. Many more people stand to the Right of that frontier line than one would suspect at first glance. The Revolution has never enjoyed unanimous acceptance among us. The number of those who pay lip-service to it is very great. To pretend acceptance is wise for any candidate at election time. But how many men are there really in France who are imbued with the pure spirit of the Revolution? Any Frenchman has only to look into his own heart to discover that, in a country as logical as France, acceptance of the Principles of '89 has much more serious implications than one might suppose.
The Revolution, as we saw, declared that sovereignty derives from the people, from below, not from above. If that is the case, it follows that the people (in other words, universal suffrage) must be enabled actually to influence national policy. A trite commonplace! Granted, but the commonplace implies two emphatic denials. It denies government by the "socially prominent," what the English call the "ruling classes." And it denies the Church any right to interfere in matters of state.
So by the mere fact of negating the platforms of its adversaries the Revolution defines its own proper domain. "There is no known case," exclaims Alain, the French philosopher, "of a society drawing-room where popular sovereignty is unqualifiedly accepted." That is true, I believe, at least as regards France, provided acceptance implies something more than mere words. How many there are who, without daring to say so, agree with Alexander Hamilton that "the people is a great beast!"
In France since the Revolution there has been an emotional, almost mystical, conception of " the People" -- spelling the word with a capital "P." The notion holds sway over all popular gatherings. Members of the poorer classes in France think of themselves as constituting a single mass as opposed to the rich, the privileged, the employing class; they feel powerful in virtue of their numbers and are conscious of their collective being. I am not sure that such people really think there can ever be absolute equality among men -- after all, the land of La Fontaine's Fables is a land of realists. But they insist at least that the principle of equality shall be recognized. The equality they have in mind is not just the "equality of opportunity" that Anglo-Saxons talk about. It is something more than that. It is a jealous, uncompromising assertion of the theoretical dignity of each individual. The vehement faith of Jean Jacques Rousseau figures in this attitude. So does the Declaration of the Rights of Man: "Men are born and remain equal before the law." In France respect for the law is a rule; but equality is a passion. All those who believe in race, in family, in rights of birth, all those who find it natural that there should be ruling classes, people actually better qualified than others to govern, do not go back to the Principle of '89. And they should not be classified with the Left.
As for Socialism, Marx appeals to class sentiments. He does not address the people at large. He is thinking of something narrower, something more special. This lack of universality sets Marxism off sharply from French Revolutionary doctrine. For the French " the People" constitutes a far broader entity than the proletariat of Socialism, and the deeper aspirations of the People come down from '89 and not from the Communist Manifesto. All the same, the movement of 1789 should in no sense be regarded as a conservative factor in French political life. The driving force of the French Revolution is fundamentally and deeply the People. That is why a considerable element in the French middle class has slowly but surely drawn apart from the Revolution.
As regards the Church -- and in France the term means only the Roman Catholic Church -- the conflict is more complex, since there is the added element of dogma -- a very serious matter in a country where militants are all dogmatists. The Revolution was not anti-religious. Despite the fact that the Third Republic has been continuously at war with the Roman Curia, it has at the very worst been merely anti-clerical. But anti-clerical it was obliged to be. Having the principles it has, the Catholic Church can certainly not recognize the complete independence of secular society. It may recognize an independent temporal power -- indeed any sort of temporal power -- as a matter of empirical fact; but it insists, and has to insist, that that power is delegated from above, that it derives from God and must recognize God as its origin.
French democracy, logical by inner compulsion, cannot accept this claim of the Church, for it is at odds with the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Here we find one of the cases where the French mind has laid hold on a principle and refuses to let go. Prolonged struggles between the Church and the Republic have poisoned the political atmosphere for a good half century. The secular State in France is secular and the priests have nothing to do with it. The French schools are lay schools and the name of God is never uttered in their precincts. No crucifix is seen in public buildings and institutions. The Church has been separated from the State since 1905. God is not mentioned in speeches by public officials. It will be urged that other peoples have secular school systems, separation of Church and State, real independence of secular society, and that will be true enough. But in France the principle of independence has to be proclaimed and then inexorably applied down to its remotest implications. France, unfortunately, was not blessed with England's capacity for accepting inconsistencies and flagrant breaches of logic as matters of course.
Between people who are "for '89" and people who are "against '89" the lines are as sharply drawn as geographical boundaries. On one side stand the "little" people, on the other the "socially prominent." When an individual "makes money," too much money, he moves over to the Right. Those who are climbing, but have not quite "made" society proper, linger, as a matter of jealous spite, on the Left. So in every French town and village two parties spontaneously form, a party that wants to give more and more power to the people, and a party that wants to take the incompetent masses under its wing and manage their affairs wisely. "You will have a better government!" says the latter. But the others reply that they do not want to be governed by the rich, however well or badly it may be.
It would be a mistake to imagine that material interests account altogether for this antagonism. Pride, jealousy, the inferiority complex, have much more to do with it. So we get two basically different temperaments, two points of view so radically opposed that no dispassionate judgment of either is possible -- everything depends on the side you take. It is a conflict of two mysticisms, two faiths, two conceptions of life. An almost physical instinct tells the "socially prominent" that public order and competent administration are necessities, and they yearn for "strong" government. The People and its militant leaders have an explosive sense of "rights," the right of each individual to think freely, criticize sharply and rule sovereignly.
Not always, alas, does the assertion of this claim on the part of the People harmonize with the best conceivable management of public affairs. The very spirit of the Revolution, under the deforming pressure of an implacable logic, grievously complicates the process of governing. It must never be forgotten that France by sheer force tore her freedom out of the fabric of absolutism and that she has never felt entirely safe from a return to the old régime. In her resolve to destroy absolutism she has always been ready to smite her government, somewhat as though in hitting the apple William Tell had also killed his son. In England the Right is just a matter of Tories. In France, in contrast, the Right means Reaction. Fear of the return of Reaction to power throws the whole mechanism of government askew. The Left finds it practically impossible to assume the responsibility of governing. It associates the very idea of power with the Reaction which it hates, and bends its every effort to cripple the ministry that happens to be in power. It can of course understand a Jacobin "strong hand" in a panicky crisis of "public danger." But in a routine situation no ministry can rely on the vote of the Left. The Left will refuse to vote necessary taxes. It will condemn the police for putting down a riot in line of duty. Balancing a budget and keeping order in the streets are things, as a rule, that the Left does not know how to do. It has been in the opposition too long, and the day-to-day needs of the country often stand second, in its eyes, to the defense of a doctrine. "We can give up a colony but not a principle!" The famous apothegm may or may not have been shouted in the Chamber. Certainly it expresses the mental state of many Leftist militants.
This attitude, this tendency to think of routine governing as inevitably suspect, comes down in a straight line from the Revolution. It is made up of an almost pathological fear of a Restoration, of a feeling that it is always better to be one step farther to the Left than one's next-door neighbor, of a strange mistrust of moderate policies as hypocritical masks for reactionary designs. Every day of her existence France suffers from this conceiving of equality, democracy and the People's rights in a manner which lays primary stress on the defense of principles and secondary, if any, stress on plain, everyday needs.
On the other hand, this traditional habit of sublimating problems to the plane of dogma -- dogma, moreover, that interests and impassions all human beings -- endows French democracy with incomparable splendor. Nothing in history down to the Russian Revolution ever made quite such a world-wide appeal to the hearts of men as the Declaration of 1789. One must never lose sight of this universal aspect of the French Revolution, for it is the trait that in the sphere of political thought distinguishes France from other countries that have contributed as much as she, perhaps even more than she, to the spread of democracy and freedom through the world.
The case of England is particularly interesting in this regard. Certainly in everything that pertains to governmental practice the lessons that England has given to other countries are much more valuable than anything that could be learned from revolutionary France. In an actual as contrasted with a merely theoretical respect for individual rights, in a routine practice of liberty, in orderly and disciplined government by consent of the governed -- in all these respects England, beyond any doubt, is the outstanding model and example. France has always been captive to French logic. She has often failed to delimit the application of one principle or another. In France liberty has too often meant disorder, efficient government has too often spelled tyranny. May this perhaps be remotely due to a surviving Roman conception of the imperium, under which power was a weapon which one seized and then used for dominion? May it also be partly due to the French Catholic tradition, which teaches humility, devotion, self-sacrifice and other Christian virtues but does not educate for freedom? With her Protestant background, England found a way to conceive of power as the expression of the common weal. The concepts of liberty and authority have never been contradictory in England. There the free man understands just what sacrifices are required of him for maintaining the public peace, and he knows how to make them, while the ruler finds a limit to his power in the legal and organized resistance of the ruled. For two centuries the civilized world has recognized the English system as an admirable model and has done its best to imitate it.
With no great success, one must admit! We have suggested above that the English system is a system for the English and (as conceived by that insular people) never pretended to be anything else. England has all along worked for herself, not for the other peoples in the world. By a marvellous adaptation of her institutions to the peculiar circumstances in which her people live -- to her climate, one might almost say -- she has solved the problem of combining a maximum of freedom with a maximum of order under law.
But all this she has done in a manner that defies imitation. Democracy, shall one say? Can one be sure that there is democracy in England ? The nation's unity is very largely the matter of a loyalty that is felt to the sovereign's person and to the royal family. This astonishing devotion to the crown is an essentially feudal thing. There can be no doubt of it: the English attitude owes nothing to the ideals that issued from the French Revolution. If one were to force an Englishman into a corner one would find that in his opinion, at least to a certain extent, the British monarchy rules by divine right. The English system is certainly democratic in that it functions by universal suffrage and defers most sincerely to public opinion in outlining any policy of importance. But, as no one can fail to see, aristocracy prevails in England, aristocracy by right of birth. In national elections the people's ballot ratifies the privilege of aristocracy with an enthusiasm incomprehensible in equalitarian countries. The son of a duke can without the least difficulty be elected to the House of Commons the moment he becomes of age. So one used to become a colonel in the French army under the Ancien Régime! I do not believe that the English recognize the principle of equality. Many details in the Declaration of the Rights of Man would certainly not win general approval in England.
One might wonder, therefore, whether the English people, which has supplied the most perfect example of liberty, of parliamentary government, of rule by public opinion, has not succeeded in doing so by virtue of its very success in preserving a tradition of social superiorities and inferiorities -- in a word, of aristocracy. Many representatives of Labor in the House of Commons and the House of Lords are scions of the old nobility. I remember hearing a polished orator of the Labor Party deliver a speech in which mention of "the ruling classes" was made in every other sentence. From his tone it was certainly plain that he thought of himself as designated by birth to govern. If we point out to our British friends that this line of thought is illogical, they complacently reply: "We are illogical." For a Frenchman it would be physically impossible to be illogical to that degree. This, probably, is why the British constitution, though it figures as a beacon light in French schools of law and political science, fails to cast its beams upon French political practice.
As a Frenchman shaped by the Revolution of '89 I feel closer to the American democracy, which sprang as ours sprang from the philosophy of the eighteenth century. In the United States as in France I find a deep sense of equality, not the " equality of opportunity," which is a characteristic Anglo-Saxon concept, but just plain equality, the principle whereby one man is as good as another, whatever his birth. The English are forever talking of gentlemen and gentlewomen. The American talks of this man and that man, much as the French do, with the difference, perhaps, that we ask what a man thinks, whereas the American wants to know what he has done or is doing. In any event the American thinks of people as human beings, and in view of that the American ideal could be a world ideal, something that the English ideal could never be.
All the same, the American Revolution and the French Revolution cannot be put on exactly the same plane. America, beyond a doubt, is more deeply and more sincerely equalitarian than France. But if there are no classes in the United States, there are castes, in the sense that Americans are not indifferent to the chemical composition of the blood that flows in the veins of their fellow-citizens nor to the color of their skins. America's message of freedom, of emancipation, is addressed to all men who are white; but only to whites. The yellow races, the black races, are not invited to take advantage of it. I do not say that this is not a more reasonable message than the French one, from the standpoint of sound social and political organization. But it cannot have the universal appeal that the ideal of the French Revolution has had. In the first burst of their enthusiasm, the French had not given a thought to limitations of race. But before long the Revolution came upon the colonial problem in the West Indies. The reformers sided with the blacks against the whites. In their eyes it was a matter not of foreign or colonial policy but of principles which, once let loose in the world, could never again be recalled or rescinded. The American Civil War was inspired by very lofty moral ideals; but it cannot be conceived as part of the movement of ideas deriving from the French Revolution. The results of the war and the system that prevails today in the American South stand in the way of that.
As a Frenchman I also feel a homelike atmosphere in the United States in everything touching juridical expressions of the principles of democracy. The English do not like written laws, and that is the source of ever-recurring misunderstanding on the two sides of the Channel. The American, like the Frenchman, is sentimentally attached to great political documents which in his eyes constitute the very foundations of democratic right. From this point of view, the French and American revolutions are blood sisters. England favors crowns, so far as she is able, though the English are sincerely devoted to liberal forms of government. But when the basic principles of democracy are flouted in the world today, public opinion in America reacts more noticeably than anywhere else, and the fact gives an impression abroad that this democratic feeling is a real bond of cohesion in American national sentiment. This democratic idealism of the United States is kindred to the enthusiasms expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
I would like to venture the confession that France somewhat abused the "Great Principles of '89" during the course of the nineteenth century. Praises of these Principles resounded with tiresome regularity in after-dinner speeches and political platforms. They soon became a sort of rhetorical bombast. Doctrines that in their day had upset the world seemed to have exhausted their original potency. This is not very surprising. Democratic and libertarian theories did not seem to be meeting serious opposition anywhere.
Today, as we have come but recently to perceive, the anxious crisis through which the world is passing has very properly restored the old principles, supposedly outmoded, to their youthful vigor, their splendor, their timeliness. But today they must be defended from a new enemy along a new battle front. This fact entirely changes the present significance of the Principles of '89 and explains their paradoxical but no less striking rejuvenation. The old enemy, down to a recent yesterday, was monarchical absolutism backed by the intolerance of a Church that claimed to be sole repository of the truth. The Third Republic has been called upon to defend itself on a number of occasions against counterattacks by Royalists or Bonapartists, and more often and more vigorously still, against the hostility of the Catholic Church.
That phase seems now to have ended. Strangely enough, today the threat comes, in a measure at least, from what by common consent is called progress. Toward the middle of the eighteenth century the Industrial Revolution bestowed on humanity a new instrument of production: the machine. In view of the contributions of that gift to the welfare of humanity, the Industrial Revolution has come to seem of more far-reaching significance than its contemporary, the political Revolution of '89. But one has the right to ask a very urgent, even if painful, question: Are the ideals of the two Revolutions really compatible? In our effort to attain a maximum of production according to modern methods, can we preserve the ideals of individualism and liberty intact in the forms in which the eighteenth century handed them down to us?
The French Revolution occurred at a time when production was still in the hands of artisans, and it refused to take cognizance of anything except the individual. With the misdeeds of the old guilds fresh in mind, it forbade any form of economic combination. Powerful organizations of individuals seemed very plausibly to represent a danger to the sovereignty of the People. Revolutionary law was thus an eminently individualist law.
But before many years of the nineteenth century had passed, it became apparent that the machine, as distinguished from the tool, had made a necessity of grouping, of coöperation, of collective organization. Machine production is in fact incompatible with strictly individual labor, and society -- automatically and instinctively -- adapted itself in order better to provide the conditions necessary to make production ever more efficient.
By our time the capacities of the human race have expanded to formidable proportions. But in the very triumph of his ingenuity the human being now finds himself threatened in his own personality. A half-century of breath-taking investigation and discovery has practically obliterated distances. The utilization of energy has been revolutionized. Societies once remotely separate have been brought into intimate contact. And we find ourselves obliged, in consequence, to revise almost all the notions that we once held, as though a new humanity had suddenly appeared on earth. One has the impression, sometimes, that all these changes have overreached the domain of history proper, that what we are witnessing is no less than the birth of a new age of humanity -- something like the change from the paleolithic to the neolithic ages of the earth.
What is to be the individual's place in this era of mass production that we see developing before our eyes? To what extent will our former conceptions as to freedom and the rights of the individual prove valid as against a system that will have, we must confess, little interest in the individual?
These are some of the questions which minds that are the product of the French Revolution put to themselves today with growing alarm.
The Liberal School was the real inspirer of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. That school thought of the production of wealth as an instrument of peace among men -- the idea of Richard Cobden, for one. But the astounding achievements of the human being, along with the new weapons that have come within his reach, seem to have gone to his head. Beyond the production of wealth, so pacific in itself, one sees looming higher and higher and nearer and nearer the will to power which Nietzsche glorified. The new fact of our time -- a sensational novelty well calculated to intoxicate the imagination -- is the urge of the human will to dominate Nature with an invincible technique, overriding her if necessary by violence. Here man's sin of pride emerges sharply as the mainspring of that moral barbarism which, combined with the most advanced technology, forms the essence of totalitarian ambitions. Only yesterday each advance of science was registered as an asset in the ledger of civilization. Today such advances can almost be classed as liabilities. Aspiring to the dominion of Europe, the aggressor governments are actually putting material progress at the service of passions that emanate from sheer brutality.
It is in this fact that the French Revolution finds its revived significance. Until only recently the Revolution had but one enemy before it -- the past. Now, however, the future, no less than the past, holds its threats for that civilization -- humane and free -- which the Revolution fought for and achieved. The old individualism must be upheld against the menace of Soviet tyranny. Nevertheless, by a strange disorientation, French Radicals of the line of '89 are found joining hands with the Marxists against the bugaboo of Reaction. Such Radicals imagine that they are upholding progressive democracy, which they believe is always one step farther to the Left, not perceiving that in this alliance with extremism they are undermining the very foundation of the free civilization to which they are truly and sincerely devoted. The explanation for their attitude is a deep, and for that matter very sound, feeling that the French Revolution, even conceived as a bulwark of freedom, cannot be reduced to mere conservatism. In its deeper essence it is individualistic, it is liberal; but always and at all times it is democratic.
The battle that must be offered to National Socialist or Fascist tyranny is not very different, though the case is clearer. There is nothing whatever in the principles of '89 to justify any democrat in accepting totalitarian doctrine.
What is again at issue in the world today is the dignity of the human being, his unalterable right to think and to speak freely. Wherever a belief is persecuted, wherever an individual is molested or tormented for claiming the right to remain free, the call of '89 resounds as clearly and as persuasively as it sounded of old. The general offensive against the individual, and therefore against the foundations of Western civilization, has had the surprising effect of bringing two former adversaries together -- the Church and the Revolution. Both of them have become aware that -- on different grounds to be sure, the Church in the spiritual domain, the Revolution in the field of politics -- they are battling for the same ideal, for the ideal of the individual considered as an end in himself. Viewed in this light the Revolution takes on a new aspect. Far from being an essentially anti-Christian movement, as was long believed, it appears as a mere transference to the sphere of political life of a fundamental doctrine of the Gospel -- respect for human individuality. This perception may well underlie the reconciliation of the Catholic Church with the Republic, a reconciliation that lay close to the hearts of two great men -- Pope Leo XIII and Aristide Briand.
At the present moment, everybody, or at least everybody in the countries that have liberal traditions, has a feeling that something essential to our civilization is in danger of dying. With that feeling has come a realization that this civilization is immeasurably precious to us. A few years ago an anniversary of '89 would have been just another anniversary. Today we hail it as a portentous event.