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Intellectuals and ideology in the anti-totalitarian explanation of French Revolution from Edmund Burke to Francoise Furet


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Intellectuals and ideology in the anti-totalitarian explanation of French Revolution

from Edmund Burke to Francoise Furet

The study below aims at briefly analyzing some of the most interesting views concerning the French Revolution of 1789 focusing mainly on the examination provided by I.G.A. Pocock in the introduction of Edmond Burkes Reflections on the Revolution in France and also on Michel Scott Christoffersons article An Anti-totalitarian History of the French Revolution: Francois Furets <Penser la Revolution francaise> in the intellectual politics of the late 1970s.  In this sense, the paper will be centered on the reveal of two of the most interesting and influential approaches towards the French revolution that of Burke and that of Furet highly emphasizing the resemblances and differences between them. The inquiry will be structured in two main parts out of which the first one will be a general presentation of the main issues that the two texts refer to especially to political conservatism as advocated by Burke, whereas the latter will deal with comparing and contrasting Burkes and Furets views as seen from Pocock and Christoffersons perspectives. Nevertheless, in search of a high degree of clearance, each text will be analyzed separately starting with that of Pocock, the parallel between them being made afterwards.

It is impossible to reject the fact that the French Revolution was one of the great defining events of modern times managing to reshape the map of Europe, to leave an ineradicable mark on the history of France and many other countries. It favored a general context wherein some of the most essential fundamentals of modern politics were invented or redefined: universal manhood suffrage, human rights, civil equality, direct democracy, ideological dictatorship, nationalism, women's liberation, and revolution itself. For hundreds or even thousands of years the dominant political system in Europe was monarchy. But by the end of the 18th century, Martin Luther, John Locke and Adam Smith had set out the vital outline for modern liberal capitalist democracy and moreover, the Revolution in America had instantiated a grand experiment based on those ideas. This is, thus, the general ideological and intellectual framework wherein the French revolution occurred generating a pro revolutionary trend all throughout Europe, the principles of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity being very fashionable at that time. When, all of a sudden, rising to meet the wave of history, there came Edmund Burke to condemn the Jacobins and denounce the Revolution.    In so doing, he not only did mankind a great service, by sounding the alarms against unchecked liberty, he also basically gave birth to modern Conservatism.

Political conservatism is an orientation which holds that Man being fallible, tradition is an important transmitter of wisdom, and that maintenance of the established order with moderate reform is preferable to utopian idealism and revolutionary change. [1]Conservatism is sometimes mischaracterized as mere resistance to change or modernity. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica definition states 'Conservatism: Political philosophy that emphasizes conserving as much as possible of the present economic, social, and political order.' It must be said that this advance is stated in contrast to radical ones, in which the very principles or institutions conservatives assume to underlie a society are attacked. In practical political terms, conservatives may actually advocate substantial changes in policy or outlook to preserve such institutions or principles, although the specific positions held by the conservative party will vary from time to time and place to place. Therefore, conservatism refers to a view of politics and society which finds much value in the traditions of a society and is especially aware of the risks of reforms which could bring unforeseen adverse consequences despite the reformers best intentions. In this sense, the conservative supposition is in support of tradition and the established order. Conservatives value the wisdom of the past and are generally opposed to widespread reform.

Conservatism, by definition, is rather skeptical of plans to new-model human society after an ideological model. It can be said that is more a habit of mind than a doctrine. As such, it is much easier to define conservatives in reference to what they oppose than what they support. Conservatives are not opposed to progress per se, although they are often more suspicious about it than followers of many other creeds. Conservatives do not reject reason completely, but they place much more emphasis on tradition or faith than is common in other schools of political thought. At this point it can be added that the most important belief of conservatives is 'its emphasis on tradition as a source of wisdom that goes beyond what can be demonstrated or even explicitly stated' .

Another very important aspect in the realm of political conservatism is morality. Conservatives attempt to remain vigilant against the possibility of moral hazards. They strongly believe in the virtues of institutions, virtues that cannot possible be seized neither by single individuals nor by any interest group. An attempt to modify the complex web of human interactions that form human society for the sake of some doctrine or theory runs the risk of running afoul of the iron law of unintended consequences.[4] Furthermore, the conservatives are against any attempt of sudden remaking of the existing society in the service of any ideology or doctrine. They perceive history as being full of disastrous efforts that did only seemed like good ideas at that time. Human society is something rooted and organic; to try to prune and shape it according to the plans of an ideologue is to invite unforeseen disaster. Also they emphasize traditional views of institutions such as the family and the church. The feeling of piety for the social order, the mistrust of harebrained reformers with a one-shot plan, the organic conception of social growth, these were the foundations of the conservative faith.

Having pointed out some of the main characteristics essential to political conservatism, it is necessary to underline the fact that it was Edmund Burke the first to develop conservatism as a new school of political thought in his work Reflections on the Revolution in France. By all accounts, however, he is the 'modern founder of political conservatism,'2 and generations of conservative thinkers have found his life and work a rich source of philosophical and practical wisdom. Burke, of course, was a statesman and not a political philosopher, and he never produced anything that may be regarded as a systematic political treatise. Nevertheless, he embraced a consistent political creed that governed his actions throughout his life. Reflections on the Revolution in France was written during the early months of the French Revolution, and it predicted with uncanny accuracy many of its worst excesses, including the Reign of Terror. The underlying principle of the work is one of respect for inherited rights and for established customs for in Burkes view there is a general, though not infallible, presumption in favor of tradition in social and political matters. If an established social fabric is torn apart, the future prospects for the society are unpromising. Burke was an opponent of the French Revolution, because he saw it as a sharp break with history, and believed that history should be composed of flows without sharp breaks.

Pococks approach towards Reflections on the Revolution in France is relevant in analyzing Burkes intellectual attitudes of Burke towards the French Revolution. The article begins with exposing what conservatism actually means in Burkes terms. In this sense, he explains that conservatism does not refer to the meaning provided by Americans: a blend of American patriotism, evangelical religion and free enterprise values[5] for Burke , as mentioned above, conservatism is part of philosophical conservatism. In this sense, Pocock suggests that the whole text of the Reflections on the Revolution in France is grounded on the belief that human beings acting in politics always start from within a historically determined context, and that it is morally as well as practically important to remember that they are not absolutely free to wipe away this context and reconstruct human society as they wish.[6]. Indeed, the author of the article strongly emphasizes on the initial reason for which Burke wrote the Reflections that of creating a powerful antirevolutionary treatise. It is not to be forgotten the fact that he original 1790 title page of the work, was 'Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to That Event: In a Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Paris.' The gentleman in question was Charles-Jean-Franois Depont, a young man of Burke's acquaintance who had become a member of the French National Assembly and had written to him in the fall of 1789. Burke owed him a reply, which turned into a very long letter indeed after its author had been further inspired to put pen to paper. The further inspiration was supplied by two meetings in London, of the Constitutional Society and of the Revolution Society, at which were passed warm resolutions welcoming the fall of the Bastille. It was, more than anything else, the alarm he felt at these latter developments that impelled Burke to his response.

It is very important to notice that, then, Burke chose to stress not the French Revolution but 'The Revolution in France.' He seems to have intended, here, to speak of the phenomenon of revolution as it applied to French affairs, and as it might be made to apply to English ones. Hence the emphatic mention of 'certain societies in London.' Pocock highlights the fact that Burkes conservatism was of a particularly English kind[7] and that one of the motifs of Burkes writing the essay was the attempt to defend an English political system - the rule

of Britain and Ireland by the monarchy and aristocracy of the eighteenth century Whigs[8]. Pocock acknowledges the fact that Burkes text became a classic, and that it attained a kind of status and authority, nevertheless he has doubts whether Burke actually desired for it to become as such. However, the authority and status that the text gained are due mainly to the fact that its author anticipated the fail and atrocities of the revolution.

As the article of Pocock is actually the introduction of Burkes paper, it is natural for it to contain many pieces of information on Burkes biography. Pocock considers that Burkes career is to be taken as very important for the general understanding of his beliefs and he emphasizes on the difference between Burke and thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Addison and Swift. What Pocock considers to be relevant in characterizing Burkes theory is a certain ambivalence towards the Whig aristocrats of his day. This has come to be understood as ambivalence between aristocracy and bourgeoisie underlying both the fragility of his own personality and the fragility of the aristocracys political and historical position[9]. It is to be emphasized the fact that Burke did not necessarily feared the independent power of men of wealth, but the uncontrolled energy of men of talent he was alarmed by the possible rise of a revolutionary intelligentsia. In this fear, it probably stands the rejection of ideology as a basis for reshaping a society which was much later took over by philosophers such as Habermas and Popper.

Furthermore, when analyzing Burkes view, it is relevant to take into consideration the historical background of the political regime he served and defended in Britain by the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689. This event was a real puzzlement to Englishmen, and a remarkable effect of it was that English and Scottish political thought was deeply antirevolutionary; Britain may be described as a political culture in which theories of revolution are invented but never put into practice.[10] It is interesting to discover that Burkes theory, unlike that of Locke, had an obvious propensity towards the mainstream of the English political thought of his time, nevertheless it managed to resist over time.

Another important aspect related to the intellectual and professional background of Edmund Burke is the American Revolution. In this sense, it is necessary to underline the fact that Burke had been parliamentary agent for the colony of New York and, in his during the American crisis he maintained that it was the actions of the ministry of Lord North that drove the colonists to rebellion. Britain's imposition on America of measures including the Stamp Act in 1765 provoked violent colonial opposition. Burke argued that British policy had been inflexible and called for more pragmatism. He believed that government should be a co-operative relationship between rulers and subjects and that, while the past was important, a willingness to adapt to the inevitability of change could - hopefully - reaffirm traditional values under new circumstances. Nevertheless, it is to be remembered that the American Revolution referred to the liberation of one people from another, thus it happened in name of established rights in a civil society, and not aimed at the revolutionary remodeling of a whole social order.[11]

In order to better understand the standpoint of Burkes affirmations, Pocock offers a brief summary of the main ideas of Tucker which are very close to that of Burke. Consequently, he points out some of the fundamental characteristics of the Whig aristocracy of which both Tucker and also Burke can be said to be members of.. Tucker thoroughly criticizes Price, s theories for his insistence on the primacy of natural rights which could very well destroy both the moral as well as the commercial bonds that keep society together. Unlike Burke, who never mentions Locke in his works, Tucker also criticizes Locke. He considered that the American colonists and their English sympathizers were acting like Lockes disciples. As a clergyman, Tucker also insisted on the importance of the Anglican Church rejecting the idea that the Church could be a mere voluntary association among individuals that share the same views for the Church is an important traditional element within the society.

Just like Tucker, Burke was also a defender of the Whig aristocratic order admiring it as a political system, political economy with some very well defined characteristics. It is true, nevertheless, that Burke accepted in the same way that Hume, Smith, and Tucker did, that there existed the need for a modern commercial economy, but he thought that it could have been rendered more dynamic through control by a landed aristocracy who knew their business but when he analyzed the French Revolution he could only see a monstrous paper-money despotism being installed on the ruins of the Church.

Actually, more than that he perceived the revolution in France as a preview of what could at any time have happened throughout the entire Europe, not only in England. It is of extreme importance to emphasize on the fact that while Burke was writing the original Reflections the French Revolution was still in an early phase. The general events of the French Revolution were: the fall of the Bastille, the abolition of feudalism, the Reign of Terror, the execution of the king and queen, and finally the wars in which the armies of the Republic overthrew the ancient regime in Europe. When writing the essay, Burke only viewed the first two events but bearing in mind the Glorious Revolution it was not difficult for him to predict the future of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution meant to Burke the vanishing of a great period in history: the age of chivalry. When describing the way in which queen Marie Antoinette was treated, Burke actually exposed his greatest regret that: the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness. Burke felt that the greatest danger in the French Revolution was the separation of a secular intelligence and intelligentsia from the social order which he saw as sacred.

Francois Furets Penser la Revolution Francaise is another very prominent text in the realm of the totalitarian critique. Michael Scott Christofferson wrote an interesting article analyzing both Furets views and also the context in which these views were born. In general terms Furets text is actually an analysis of Jacobinism in light of totalitarianism; accordingly Christofferson tries to connect Furets opinions with his intellectual background. At first sight the article seems to concentrate solely on Furets analysis, nevertheless it manages to offer a general view of the beliefs and intellectual evolution of an entire generation of French political thinkers. Christofferson claims that his interpretation of Furets work can be connected with those of Khilnani and Steven L. Kaplan especially- as far as the latter is concerned- when referring to its conclusions, its critical perspective on Furet and his work, and its attentiveness to the relationship between Furets history writing, his political consciousness, and trends in intellectual politics .

Christofferson starts with an account of the history of the critique of totalitarianism dating its origins in a reaction of leftist intellectuals. Furthermore he offers a detailed description of the evolution of the noncommunist left in France. The leftist intellectuals that originated a reaction against totalitarianism were mainly those associated with the weekly Le nouvel Observateur, the journal Esprit, the Rocardian wing of the Socialist Party, the Confederation francaise dmocratique du travail, and the 1968-1974 adventure of the Maoist Gauche proletarienne, to the Union of the left6 of the 1970s. This essay will focus mainly on Furets evolution rather than on the detailed transformation suffered by the whole of leftist supporters of anti totalitarian beliefs. Nevertheless the most important events in the intellectual movement of the time will not be neglected.]

The year 1968 was an extremely important one for the emergence of the intellectuals of the noncommunist Left in favor of the adoption of direct-democratic anti-institutional, and anti-authoritarian political alternatives. This stream in thinking was probably influenced by the events that occurred in the Communist Europe the Spring of Prague and the violent intervention of USSR armies in the capital of Czechoslovakia. Many French intellectuals (among which Jean Paul Sartre, Foucault, Domenach), refusing to become an enlightened and representative avant-garde, found themselves on a collision course with the parties of the Left. The most important journals that militated against the Union of the Left were Esprit and later on Le Nouvel Observateur. After 1968 another important moment was the appearance of Solzhenitsyns Gulag Archipelago that reconfirmed the left-wing intellectuals fears regarding the danger of the Union of the Left.

The French intellectuals that argued against totalitarianism started to analyze the entire French history in search for an a prior tendency of the French people towards totalitarianism. In this sense, the French Revolution was the moment that could have easily been interpreted in terms of totalitarianism. The main tendency was to celebrate the political symbols that could be appropriated by the Russian revolution in the XX century. Furet made no exception in this regard. Christofferson argues that his Penser la Revolution Francaise contributed to the critique of totalitarianism on three levels: rhetoric, interpretation, and transformation of the political consciousness of French intellectuals. As a rhetorician, Furet was able to combine political and historical perspectives using the opprobrium cast on Marxism, communism, and the revolutionary project to discredit his opponents and advance his thesis[15]. Thus, he made a parallel between the evolution of the French revolution with the evolution of the xx century Russian Revolution. Chrisofferson finds a fault in Furets interpretation considering that the author of Penser la revolution francaise offers a contemporary understanding of revolutionary politics. the reasons for which Furet saw in the French Revolution a source of totalitarianism stand, as far as Christofferson argues, not only in the intellectual mainstream of his generation but also in Furets own biography.

For a long period of time Furet was a member of the French Communist Party. Christofferson claims that Furets membership in PCF was due to a series of failures in his career and also a rejection of his bourgeoisie origins. The author of the article offers a detailed exposition of Furets biography emphasizing on some events he believes are psychologically relevant in the evolution of Furets thought. In the late 50s a clash between Furet and PCF occurred. It was then when Furet adopted a Hegelian view of history and started discrediting PCF and the Union of the Left. After Furet left the party and started criticizing it developing his anti totalitarian these, there appeared a series of inconsistencies in his statements regarding the moment he entered or the moment he left PCF. These inconsistencies could have affected the credibility of his theories afterwards. Nevertheless, the fact that he had been a member of PCF became a source of political legitimacy, for, generally, those who had been in the party and had come out of it vaccinated against totalitarianism could maintain that they were more objective observers of communism and contemporary politics[16].

Furet began his inquiry into the French Revolution in the early 50s when according to Le Roy Ladurie, Furet and Jean Poperen were engaged in a polemic with Albert Soboul. Nevertheless, what is considered to be Furets first important intervention in the interpretation of the French Revolution is in 1965 when he and Richet published La Revolution francaise. According to Christofferson, the book was a key to the development of Furets views on the Revolution[17]. The work was innovatory for it suggested that the three revolutions of 1789(those of the bourgeois Third estate representatives, the urban populace, and of the peasants) were actually distinct, they contradicted Lefebvres thesis that there was only one revolution. Also Furet and Richet argued that the Enlightenment was far from being solely bourgeois and that the popular movement of 1793 1794 was not of great importance. Claude Mazauric intensely criticized Furets and Richets paper mainly because they refused to see the three revolutions as a bloc. Nevertheless, Mazaurics interpretations of the French Revolution and La Revolution francaise have important common points such as the insistence on the Revolutions inevitable radicalism.

It is important to underline the fact that between the publication of La Revolution francaise and that of Penser la Revolution francaise, French political and intellectual life suffered important transformations. Intellectual were mainly led towards structuralism (Michel Foucault) rather than liberal and empirical critique of Marxism (Raymond Aron). Furet used at in the 60s to support Aron, but in the 70s when Aron, Alain Besancon, and others founded the journal Contrepoint Furet refused to join them. Furet in Penser la Revolution francaise, gave much credit to Solzhenitsyn considering that today the gulag is leading to a rethinking of the Terror by virtue of an identity in their projects[18] . Furets new interpretation of the French Revolution gave it a significance that extended beyond revolutionary historiography. In other words his interpretation of the French Revolution is extremely subjective, it is also very speculative. Nevertheless the book is important for it is representative to the French intellectual trend of the moment and its emphasis on revolutionary ideology as the key to understanding the Revolutions development from 1789 to 1794 . In this critique of ideology the theory resembles somehow that of Popper but also, to some extent, that of Habermas.

Christofferson believes the book Penser la Revolution francaise to be a provocation from beginning to end for it is neither a history of the French Revolution nor its historiography, nevertheless it contains elements of both. Through his work, Furet also tried to rehabilitate Cochins memory considering that the latters views had been easily ignored by historians. Christofferson finds this argument of Furet faulty for Cochins ideas were not given much attention simply because they werent supported by strong evidence. Nonetheless, Furets use of Cochin was especially important for the politics that it entailed as Cochins work had been a staple of the xx century right-wing historiography of the French Revolution being well adapted to the Rights needs in an era of mass democracy[20].Overall it is to be said that, even though Furet offers an absolutely interesting explanation of the French revolution and its effects, his work contains many errors given by the fact that he often confused historiography with history and the discrediting of his enemies with an accreditation of his interpretation.

Trying to draw a parallel between Burkes views concerning the French revolution and those of Furets one would discover that even though they are both against totalitarianism there are more differences than resemblances between them. First of all there is the different context in which the two authors wrote their essays. Burke developed his anti-totalitarian view when the French revolution was at the beginning managing to predict the following events, while Furet created his theory 150 years later. Nonetheless it can be said that both of them wrote in the intellectual mainstream of their time. Burke is the classical example of English conservatism whereas Furet fitted in the French intellectual trend against totalitarianism of the middle of xx century. Even so, the value of Burkes thesis is of greater importance constituting the beginning of political conservatism and being highly grounded on empirical facts. Furets analysis of the French Revolution is very important but only for understanding the proportions reached in France against anti-totalitarianism

I.G.A. Pocock, Introduction in E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed by I.G.A. Pocock (Indianapolis, Huckelf, 1987), p. vii

I.G.A. Pocock, Introduction in E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed by I.G.A. Pocock (Indianapolis, Huckelf, 1987), p. vii

I.G.A. Pocock, Introduction in E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed by I.G.A. Pocock (Indianapolis, Huckelf, 1987), p. viii

I.G.A. Pocock, Introduction in E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed by I.G.A. Pocock (Indianapolis, Huckelf, 1987), p. vii

I.G.A. Pocock, Introduction in E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed by I.G.A. Pocock (Indianapolis, Huckelf, 1987), p x

I.G.A. Pocock, Introduction in E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed by I.G.A. Pocock (Indianapolis, Huckelf, 1987), p xi

I.G.A. Pocock, Introduction in E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed by I.G.A. Pocock (Indianapolis, Huckelf, 1987), p xiv

I.G.A. Pocock, Introduction in E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed by I.G.A. Pocock (Indianapolis, Huckelf, 1987), p xxii

I.G.A. Pocock, Introduction in E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed by I.G.A. Pocock (Indianapolis, Huckelf, 1987), p xxii

Michael Scott Christofferson, An Antitotalitarian History of the French Revolution: Francois Furets <Penser la Revolution francaise> in the Intellectual Politics of the Late 1970s, p 558

Michael Scott Christofferson, An Antitotalitarian History of the French Revolution: Francois Furets <Penser la Revolution francaise> in the Intellectual Politics of the Late 1970s, p 572

Michael Scott Christofferson, An Antitotalitarian History of the French Revolution: Francois Furets <Penser la Revolution francaise> in the Intellectual Politics of the Late 1970s, p 580

Michael Scott Christofferson, An Antitotalitarian History of the French Revolution: Francois Furets <Penser la Revolution francaise> in the Intellectual Politics of the Late 1970s, p 584

Michael Scott Christofferson, An Antitotalitarian History of the French Revolution: Francois Furets <Penser la Revolution francaise> in the Intellectual Politics of the Late 1970s, p 594

Michael Scott Christofferson, An Antitotalitarian History of the French Revolution: Francois Furets <Penser la Revolution francaise> in the Intellectual Politics of the Late 1970s, p 595

Michael Scott Christofferson, An Antitotalitarian History of the French Revolution: Francois Furets <Penser la Revolution francaise> in the Intellectual Politics of the Late 1970s, p 601

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