[identity profile] fromrequired.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] revolution_fr
Recently, I was revisiting a couple of political works that are relevant to libertarianism (for those of you unfamiliar with the term, it's basically a political ideology that emphasizes maximum personal freedom and minimal government), and I came across this political criticism of the French Revolution revolutionaries from Frederic Bastiat, one of the most influential figures in modern libertarianism and Austrian economics. I personally thought it was quite refreshing compared to the usual kind of criticism of the French Revolution we often hear from Marie Antoinette fangirls.


On Saint-Just:
"You see, men are nothing but raw materials. It is not for them to will the good; they are incapable of it; it is for the lawgiver, according to Saint-Just. Men are only what he (the lawgiver) wills them to be."
 
(Bastiat was referring to this quote apparently made by Saint-Just: "The legislator commands the future. It is for him to will the good of mankind. It is for him to make men what he wills them to be.")

On Robespierre:
"According to Robespierre, who copies Rousseau literally, the lawgiver begins by determining the national goal. Then, the government has only to direct all physical and moral forces towards this end. The nation itself always remains passive in all this, and Billaud-Varenne teaches us that it should have only those prejudices, customs, inclinations, and wants that the lawgiver authorizes it to have. He goes so far as to say that the inflexible austerity of one man is the foundation of the republic. 
 
As we have seen, where evil is so great that ordinary magistrates cannot remedy it, Mably advises dictatorship to promote virtue. "Have recourse,"says he, "to an extraordinary magistracy, whose term will be short and whose power will be considerable. The imagination of the citizens needs to be stirred."
 

 

The principle of republican government is virtue, and the means needed to establish it is terror. We wish to substitute in our country morality for selfishness, honesty for honor, principles for customs, duties for proprieties, the rule of reason for the tyranny of fashion, contempt of vice for contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, greatness of soul for vanity, love of glory for love of money, good people for good society, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for ostentation, the charm of happiness for the tedium of sensuality, the greatness of man for the pettiness of the great, a magnanimous, powerful, happy people for an amiable, frivolous, wretched people; that is, all the virtues and all the miracles of a republic for all the vices and all the follies of a monarchy.

 


 At what a height above the rest of mankind Robespierre here places himself! And note the arrogance with which he speaks. He does not confine himself to expressing the wish for a great renovation of the human heart; he does not even expect such a result from a regular government. No, he wants to bring it to pass himself, and by means of terror. The purpose of the speech from which this childish mass of labored antitheses is taken was to set forth the moral principles that should guide a revolutionary government. Note that when Robespierre demands a dictatorship, it is not only to repel a foreign invader or to crush internal factions; it is, rather, to make his own moral principles prevail by means of terror and prior to action under the Constitution. His demand comes to nothing less than the authority to extirpate from the country, by means of terror, selfishness, honor, customs, propriety, fashion, vanity, the love of money, good society, intrigue, wit, sensuality, and poverty. It is only after he, Robespierre, will have accomplished these miracles—as he rightly calls them—that he will permit the laws to regain their sway. Oh, you wretches! You who believe yourselves so great! You who regard mankind as so inconsiderable! You want to reform everything! Reform yourselves first! This will be enough of a task for you." 
-

He pretty much bashes everyone from Montesquieu to Adolphe Thiers. If you need to read the entire book in English: http://mises.org/books/thelaw.pdf
 
In case you're wondering, I am a libertarian, but as a proponent of freedom of speech, I wouldn't mind a bit if you bashed him or libertarianism. So flame away :)

Date: 2011-05-18 10:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lucilla-1789.livejournal.com
Very interesting. I'm not libertarian, but that is pretty good critique. Liberty in the Rousseau-Robespierre vein is not really what most of us would call liberty at all*. I think that the revolution just spiralled out of control as it started having too utopian goals. How did they get from declaring freedom in politics, religion, press etc to the point where they were they thought it was government's job to reform human character, by force?

I'm not a Marie Antoinette fangirl, I criticise any utopianism that causes high body count.

*But if I remember right, one version of "liberty" the philosophers have come up with has been freedom from both tyranny of kings and your own selfish needs (of prosperity, status)- therefore absolute liberty would be willing submission to the service of your nation. Great stuff, in theory, that is...

Date: 2011-05-18 11:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] estellacat.livejournal.com
I realize this is different from what one sees from Antoinette fangirls, but it's not original. Benjamin Constant already said the exact same thing in 1806-1819. I could demonstrate why I think it's nonsense, but I'm busy, so I'll refer anyone who's interested to the recent work on natural rights theory and republicanism by Yannick Bosc, Florence Gauthier, Marc Belissa, et al.

Also, it's highly contestable that Robespierre's main political influence was Rousseau, in particular the Rousseau of Du contrat social, for all that he admired him. His political philosophy owes much more to Locke, really.

Date: 2011-05-20 10:08 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] estellacat.livejournal.com
No problem. Raymonde Monnier and Jacques Guilhaumou are also good sources, though the latter can be a bit dense if you're not into linguistics.

Roger Barny wrote about the influence of Rousseau on the Revolution and it can be rather instructive to read him, since he went in assuming (because that's what all the literature says) that he would find the most influence on the left, but it turns out, not only was everyone from Robespierre to Marie-Antoinette reading Rousseau, Rousseau was actually more influential on the right than on the left.

I noticed this too in my research on educational systems proposed under the various assemblies and what role they accorded to girls/women. Though they universally encouraged breast-feeding and made it clear that it was the responsibility of parents to care for very young children - which shows a clear rousseauiste influence - the most rousseauiste on the question of the education of girls were Mirabeau and Talleyrand, who both invoked Émile to justify not instituting public education for girls, but rather leaving them at home with their mothers (Talleyrand did, to be fair, come up with a kind of trade school for girls for whom this wouldn't be possible, but he made it very clear that this was not ideal). The least rousseauiste on this point were Condorcet (not surprising since he was one of Rousseau's encyclopédiste adversaries) and Lepeletier (which is to say Lepeletier's plan, presented by Robespierre after the latter's assination).

And so, I don't think it's any more ironic that Bastiat would be influenced by Locke than that Mirabeau - not to mention outright counterrevolutionaries (who obviously were not included in my research, because they wouldn't be presenting plans for public education in revolutionary assemblies). It all hinges on your understanding of the ambiguity in Locke's definition of property. Constant, who is, as I said, pretty much the inventor of the brand of liberalism Bastiat appears to subscribe to, was influenced by Locke as well. Of course, there's nothing inevitable about the dichotomy between civil and political rights (again, invented by Constant). The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, an outgrowth of natural rights philosophy, ignores both categories in favor of a kind of liberty that is neither that of the Ancients nor of the Moderns, but of reciprocity/non-domination. Again, I'm afraid I'm still rather busy, so I'll refer you to Fl. Gauthier's Triomphe et mort du droit naturel en Révolution for a more complete explanation. Suffice it to say that Constant's dichotomy was so non-inevitable that it didn't occur to Volney, in 1795, who shared Constant's belief in a society based not on rights inherent to humanity but on the ownership of material goods, to do anything but reject the very concept of rights as incompatible with the society he envisioned.

I should add that understanding natural rights philosophy pretty much invalidates not only Constant's analysis of the Revolution, but also anyone basing their analysis on Constant's - which includes not only people who agree with Constant, but also Marx, who adopted Constant's categories (though, as you can imagine, drew rather different - though equally erroneous - conclusions).

Date: 2011-05-23 09:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] estellacat.livejournal.com
The philosophy of natural rights is a particular one to which they don't subscribe because they don't believe in liberty as non-domination. Those who call themselves libertarians and who tended to simply be called liberals in the 19th century, do indeed have a broad definition of property that includes civils rights. Political rights, however, are based on the property of material goods (at least for the founders of liberalism, like Constant), because, according to the theory, only the propertied have the leisure to think about the public interest (of course, it's easy to demonstrate that if many of them spend a good deal of their leisure time thinking about politics, it's not the public interest they're trying to get out of it - for the vast majority - it's their own. Constant is, of course, not a "pure" liberal in the sense of Mandeville, since he believes there is a public interest to be reflected upon and not merely miraculously created through the conjunction of individual interests).

Now, of course, economic liberalism, contrary to the prevailing propaganda, can go along with any political system except one that respects natural rights theory (for which "property" as a natural right refers to what is "proper" to humanity, which is to say that which cannot be alienated - existence, liberty and its corollary equality, which is merely the reciprocity of liberty and is in no way in opposition to it, and the rights that derive from those: the droit des gens, etc. The property of material goods is a right in society, which is to say an institution that can be modified according to society's needs and which can't be allowed to interfere with natural rights). Not all economic liberals subscribe to Constant's system. Turgot had no problem with the iron fist of the monarchy ordering peasants and artisans who dared protest the lifting of regulation of bread prices that was making it impossible to feed themselves and their families to be shot in cold blood. The more recent incarnations are all for universal suffrage, as long as money can be used to influence elections.

To make my point more simply, however, a liberal/libertarian's definition of rights can be as broad or narrow as you like, but it always includes the ownership of material goods, where as the philosophy of natural rights can also include more or fewer rights, depending on how much you believe may reasonably be extrapolated from it, but those rights don't include a "natural" right to the ownership of material goods. My point in bringing up Constant or Turgot is simply to point out that despite what the current orthodoxy would have us believe, there is no inevitable connection between economic liberalism and democracy and instituting the former does not bring about the latter (to cut a very long story short, that's been our strategy in the "developping" world and it's failed abysmally).

Date: 2011-05-23 11:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] estellacat.livejournal.com
The trouble is, complete lack of regulation inevitably leads to "supersized business conglomerates," as you put it. If you think it doesn't you're ignoring a great deal of historical evidence, and if you agree that this is the case and think that "supersized business conglomerates" are a bad thing - as you seem to - you leave me rather bewildered as to what, if not regulation, would stop the process of conglomeration. Unless trust-busting doesn't qualify as regulation in your book, in which case you'd have to be the strangest libertarian I've ever met. But we'll probably just have to agree to disagree, since this is, while not wholly unconnected to the Revolution, clearly a contemporary political disagreement and therefore off-topic for this comm.

As I understand it, the fundamentals of Turgot's philosophy were that there exist natural laws of economics which should not be in any way interfered with by the government and if left to their own devices will make for the prosperity of everyone. Whatever else he might have believed, the reform he imposed was one of complete deregulation of the grain trade, which inevitably led not to a leveling off of prices at the rate that Turgot had predicted (which would already have been too high), but rather to their skyrocketing as marchands de gros took all the grain off the market, waiting until they could command the highest price possible. When the people protested this, Turgot claimed they just didn't understand that in the grand scheme of things starving was somehow making them more prosperous. But it was Turgot who didn't understand that the grain market is not elastic. In any case, whatever else Turgot might have theorized - and I confess I'm not familiar with everything he ever wrote - in this instance he was attempting to put into practice complete deregulation, which is, if I'm not mistaken, the major point, on the economic end, of liberalism/libertarianism in principle as well as in practice. Friedrich II, but freeing up the press somewhat, was following Kant neither in principle nor in practice, so I fail to see how the analogy holds up.

Our definitions of natural right are incomptible, if what you call "natural right" is what I think you mean by it. A fairly simple test: Would you agree with Robespierre that a person has no right to stockpile grain when his neighbor is dying of hunger?

Date: 2011-05-24 09:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] estellacat.livejournal.com
I have to concede that the kind of anarchist society you describe has - like socialism, I should point out - never been tried and therefore any discussion of whether it would work and/or be the ideal society is purely theoretical. Ironically, I think if such a society were to work the way, as I understand it, it would ideally - though I have my doubts about how well it actually would work - it would remind me more than anything of William Morris's anarcho-socialist utopia in News from Nowhere (if you're not familiar with it, "socialism" doesn't imply the kind of communal ownership that one might assume to Morris).

To answer your question as straightforwardly as I can, Robespierre didn't believe in the independance of the economic from the political and the social. For him society exists to protect the people's rights, rights which are simultaneously individual and collective. If existence is to be considered the first of those rights, then it follows that the means of subsistence are also a right and that if I have grain - the major subsistence crop - I can't dispose of it however I see fit until such point as it has been established that everyone has enough to eat. That doesn't necessarily mean the government confiscates and redistributes it (although it can mean that in certain cases when the circumstances warrant it), but it does mean that I don't have the right to hoard it or burn it or sell it at an exorbitant price. It also doesn't mean that I can't hoard/burn/sell for the best price I can get, any lovely embroidered silks I happen to own (though assuming I didn't make them myself it does imply that I pay my workers a living wage, again because of the right to existence). (However, if I'm wealthy, Robespierre, along with the rest of my fellow citizens, will - rightfully, I think - reserve the right to keep an eye on me to make sure I don't use that money to corrupt the political process, since it goes without saying that my money doesn't give me the right to usurp more than my fair share of political power.)

The model I just outlined is probably the most classic example of redistribution, among those favored by Robespierre and the montagnards in general, as exemplified by the greniers d'abondance, but if you're against any kind of redistribution whatsoever you would equally be against such montagnard policies as progressive taxation to assure things such as public education, poor relief, veterans pensions, public works projects, the war effort, public museums, public festivals - anything paid in whole or in part by taxation really - since any kind of taxation and especially progressive taxation implies redistribution on some level. You'd also have to be against the confiscation of Church and émigré properties, especially when sold in small lots and the restitution of commons that had been usurped in the past I forget how many years by the nobility to the village communities, which often divided them among their members. You'd probably also have to be against the emprunt forcé, even though, as the name implies, that's was only considered a temporary wartime measure.

But here's the really short answer: Did Robespierre advocate dividing France into 26 million parcels of land and distributing them equally among the population? Obviously not. Did he consider property to be an absolute right trumping all other considerations? Certainly not. Like most people, then as now, he's somewhere in between.

Again, I can't recommend Florence Gauthier more if you want elaborations. Quentin Skinner will also do you nicely for a republican definition of "natural rights," though he unfortunately doesn't know the French Revolution well enough to use it as an example, though it's probably one of the most interesting of them.

I realize I've gone on quite a bit now, and I beg your pardon in advance for any rambling or incoherencies in the above. Normally I would go back and straighten it out somewhat, but I have to get up early tomorrow, so I don't really have time.

Date: 2011-05-26 09:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] estellacat.livejournal.com
I would ask you to elaborate, but that would be off-topic, so I'll refrain. I do think we can agree on one thing though: governments certainly shouldn't be subsidizing corporations.

Actually as far as the recommendations go, you can read Q. Skinner whenever you like, since he writes in English.

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