Politics & Policy

The Roots of Jacobinism

The Reign of Terror during the French Revolution in the 18th century (Photos.com/Getty Images)
How the French Revolution explains the modern tyranny of the state imposed on the atomized individual.

In this week’s edition of “The Tuesday,” Kevin Williamson laments the outsized role that the 1930s plays in our historical imagination. For some time, conservatives have tended to look at every geopolitical foe as a potential Fourth or Fifth Reich, and progressives have similarly seen every economic downturn as an opportunity to foist a new New Deal on the country. Our analogical referents for current events seem to be drawn almost exclusively from that — admittedly fateful — decade.

But by fixating on the ’30s, Kevin argues that we risk missing more apt historical analogies for our present discontents. He encourages conservatives to take another look back at the French Revolution, noting that “comparison with 1789 remains terribly apt.”

The passage that Kevin quotes from François Furet’s Interpreting the French Revolution accurately summarizes the spirit of 1789 as one demanding the absolute politicization of everything. Furet notes that, under the sway of Jacobinism, “all personal problems and all moral or intellectual matters have become political” and that a conviction takes roots that “there is no human misfortune not amenable to political solution.” Consequently, “since everything can be known and changed, there is a perfect fit between action, knowledge, and morality. That is why the revolutionary militants identified their private lives with their public ones and with the defense of their ideas.”

This belief — that every private, personal problem is ultimately a political one that could conceivably be solved if the right rulers were put in place — has run amok in modern America, as Kevin rightly notes. It has led many Americans to see themselves almost exclusively through the prism of political action, to the point that they’ve reduced themselves to little more than walking avatars of the Left or the Right. They’ve “identified their private lives with their public ones and with the defense of their ideas.”

This politicization of existence has triggered the rise of statist, big-government politics on both wings of the political spectrum. “Across a great spectrum of issues,” Kevin writes, “from trade to military policy to entitlements, the policy preferences of the populist Right broadly overlap with those of the populist Left.” People seem to want more politics in their lives. As a result, American voters find themselves increasingly faced with a choice between two different flavors of Jacobinism. But if politics becomes our chosen instrument of existential self-definition, we’re going to need an awful lot of it, because the appetite of homo sapiens for a stable and satisfied self-image is voracious.

To make sense of our present discontents, then, it is worth inquiring into the origins of Jacobinism. For the French Revolution really did mark the beginning of modern politics. Even the use of the terms “Left” and “Right” in political discourse dates to 1789, when members of the French National Assembly divided into supporters of the monarchy on the president’s right and supporters of the revolution on the president’s left. Furthermore, that watchword of the modern political world, “ideology,” was coined by the Frenchman Destutt de Tracy in 1796, only seven years after the revolution. The Greek theologian Christos Yannaras describes “the transformation of life into ideology (the substitution of theory and organized aspiration for immediacy)” as “the basic mark of modernity,” so we’d do well to understand the radicals who first accomplished this transformation and brought the modern world to a bloody birth.

Happily, the list of those who’ve attempted an autopsy of the French Revolution is long, and there’s a wealth of historical insight to draw upon. The most profound reflections on the revolution in France (even greater than those of Edmund Burke) come from a group of Frenchmen who came together in the 1820s after the Bourbon Restoration. Known as the Restoration liberals or the Doctrinaires, these men tried to come to grips with the catastrophe that had befallen their country just a few decades prior. Led by the great statesman Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard, their group included the historian François Guizot, the philosopher Maine de Biran, and the greatest of them all, Alexis de Tocqueville, who would roll the roles of statesman, historian, and philosopher into one through his own life and works.

The Doctrinaires sat in the center of French politics. They were liberals of a sort, believing in popular democracy, universal human equality, and the merits of the American Revolution. This put them at odds with the reactionary ultra-royalists in France, who wanted to reestablish the old aristocratic order. But they were also fairly devout Christians (though Tocqueville’s faith is notoriously complex, not unlike Abraham Lincoln’s). They abhorred the utopianism and rabid anti-clericalism of the Jacobins, for whom the state, as the living embodiment of the general will, had replaced God.

What the Doctrinaires understood, and what we need to understand if we’re to grasp the root causes of populism in our day, is that it’s exceedingly difficult to arrest the growth of the state once there exists a widespread belief among the population in the universal equality of the citizenry. This is not to say that equality should be abandoned as a political value — as Christians, the Doctrinaires couldn’t contemplate such a notion. But they grasped, in a way that few have since, that the establishment of civic and legal equality for every citizen tends naturally to engender a limitless and exponential expansion of the state. Constructing a political order founded on equality that could nevertheless resist the centralization of power was for these men, the most important and yet the most difficult task for the post-1789 world. Royer-Collard summed up the problem during a speech he gave on the liberty of the press in 1822:

We have seen the old society perish, and with it that crowd of domestic institutions and independent magistracies which it carried within it . . . , true republics within the monarchy. These institutions did not, it is true, share sovereignty; but they opposed to it everywhere limits which were defended obstinately. Not one of them has survived. The revolution has left only individuals standing. It has dissolved even the (so to speak) physical association of the commune. This is a spectacle without precedent! Before now one had seen only in philosophers’ books a nation so decomposed and reduced to its ultimate constituents.

From an atomized society has emerged centralization. There is no need to look elsewhere for its origin. Centralization has not arrived with its head erect, with the authority of a principle; rather; it has developed modestly, as a consequence, a necessity. Indeed, where there are only individuals, all business which is not theirs is necessarily public business, the business of the state. Where there are no independent magistrates, there are only agents of central power. That is how we have become an administered people, under the hand of irresponsible civil servants, themselves centralized in the power of which they are agents.

The pertinence of this passage to the politics of today is striking. It’s as if Royer-Collard is reaching forward through the centuries to grab us by our lapels and shake us out of our slumber. Of particular note is the line: “Where there are only individuals, all business which is not theirs is necessarily public business, the business of the state.”

When the stated purpose of the government is to secure individual freedom, it will, to serve this purpose, set about emancipating individuals from the various involuntary attachments that had bound them before. These attachments, after all, are obstacles to each individual’s ability to choose his own destiny in every sphere of life. The involuntary attachments in question could be those of class, race, locality, economic bracket, family life, or religion. Until the advent of political equality on the world stage, all of these things were more or less involuntary, and those who found themselves bound together by these involuntary attachments tended to stay together. Aristocrats stayed in solidarity with their fellow aristocrats and pursued their class interests as a unit. The same was true of the peasantry and the bourgeoisie. Similarly, the bonds of local community were rarely broken in the premodern world. People tended to stay in the places where they’d been born and raised. Local allegiances were strong and difficult to break. The same could be said of religion, race, or any number of other involuntary ties that bind.

As Royer-Collard notes, the deep, dense, adhesive solidarity of these little platoons functioned as a practical check against centralization. “These institutions did not, it is true,” he said, “share sovereignty; but they opposed to it everywhere limits which were defended obstinately.” The various classes, guilds, townships, and communities didn’t share enough in common with one another to acquiesce to one single authority presiding over all of them.

But when the idea of the individual was made the supreme political value and the ultimate social unit, these involuntary ties were unfastened and the invincible little units of social solidarity scattered throughout the land were dissolved into atomized individuals. “The revolution,” as Royer-Collard put it, “has left only individuals standing.” Everyone was equal in theory, but also equally weak before the state.

When “that crowd of domestic institutions and independent magistracies” was dissolved in the name of the individual, there was only one institution left in society to which everyone was subject: the government. By annihilating involuntary associations in the name of freedom and equality, the state began to destroy every institution other than itself that could help people through the daily struggles of their lives. Consequently, and paradoxically, these liberated individuals were left increasingly with fewer and fewer options to satisfy their wants other than to run into the arms of the state, and to demand that it fulfill the role of each institution it had newly destroyed.

This then becomes a mutually reinforcing process. The individual, feeling entitled to the unmolested exercise of his or her will, demands that the state remove all involuntary sources of unpleasantness in life with which he or she has to deal. The state accomplishes this by asserting its power over said sources of unpleasantness and expanding its reach over society in the process. Individualism and statism have mutually reinforcing tendencies, making it very difficult for classical liberalism to resist transforming into progressivism. The rhetorical ease with which FDR was able to tack positive rights such as “freedom of want” persuasively onto the traditional list of classically liberal American rights is evidence of these difficulties.

Alexis de Tocqueville found a remedy for this vicious circle of individualism and statism in the American enthusiasm for voluntary association. But as Yuval Levin has written about extensively, the muscles of institution-building in America have atrophied in recent decades. And the areas of life where we’re still dependent upon our involuntary associations with others are retreating before technological advances that similarly seek to free us from any involuntary encounter at all, even one with reality itself.

One hopes that a reaction to the twin autonomizing pincers of technology and the liberal state will be forthcoming. Otherwise, the growth of populist politics will continue to swell as the state increasingly becomes the only aid and comfort to the atomized individual it has created.


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