Be Wary the Revolution
Here at the tail end of anno horribilis, we’re all spilling a lot of ink and bandwidth on think pieces about “reimagining society” or race, or equality, or human physiology, or basic situational awareness. The election of a largely centrist president of either stripe isn’t likely to slow the roll of the panicked radicals. Step lightly, though, revolutionary shifts from the fringe often end badly. To wit: the well-armed yahoos that came out in response to the revolutionaries to waddle around in their plus sized camo.
So, before taking society back to its tabula rasa so that a bunch of loud professional students – or well-armed preachers - can “reimagine” my entire life for me, let’s take a quick look and the track record of these lofty utopias. Even Niccolo Machiavelli warned against coming into established societies and rewriting norms: For a new prince “…it is sufficient only not to transgress the customs of [their] ancestors, and to deal prudently with circumstances as they arise…”
In 1918, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was the president of a nation with no formal alliances, a domestic market protected by some of the highest tariffs in the world and a deep suspicion of international institutions. He’d been elected promising to keep American out of the war, and yet there he was, sitting at the victor’s table being asked what he thought about the shape of post-war Europe. Winston Churchill, then Great Britain’s Secretary of State for War, argued for putting Kaiser Wilhelm’s nephew on the German throne in a clipped constitutional monarchy modeled on the UK’s. His reasoning was that shifting instantly from an overbearing king to a democratic republic might invite a citizenry unfamiliar with popular politics to do something rash.
Wanting to make a bold impression, Wilson would hear none of it. He’d made a 14-point list for how he’d decided the world should work and was married to the wonderfully worded slogan “make the world safe for democracy.” Wilson was convinced, and most Americans still are, that the shift from monarchy to free republic is a smooth one so long as you’re properly philosophical about it.
It’s not that Wilson was an idiot. He was tedious to be sure, and being president of Princeton is also pretty damning, but he wasn’t some slobbering mouth-breather either. It’s just that Americans have a pleasantly warped impression of revolutionary upheaval based on our own survivor’s bias. True the American Revolution was revolutionary politically in the broad sense. On a more practical level, however, our break with the British Empire had about the same impact on daily life as a corporate spin-off does for the branch office: You change the logo on the stationary and quit filing paperwork with HQ, but that’s about it. Because the colonies had long been effectively self-running as long as the taxes were paid, the same well-connected, wig-wearing fancy boys in the local assemblies all got themselves elected to congress after the war. George Washington was a revolutionary in that he led an army in a successful colonial revolt, but he was no radical. The man was about as establishment as you could get.
Even in this best-case anomaly, we did have a civil war. Our revolution had been soestablishment that we managed to avoid the issue of economic infrastructure and basic human rights for a generation.
The French Revolution was more typical of the breed: They went full student radical and reimagined a government that would transgress the customs of the ancestors left and right. First, they guillotined everyone with an education or spare investment capital, then re-wrote property rights, government bodies, harassed the peasants for not being woke, deep-sixed the church (admittedly, it was literally corrupt as hell at the time), did not free the colonial slaves for five years (and re-enslaved them eight years later), declared a sassy prostitute “the Goddess of Reason”, adopted different weights and measures (this was the metric system and it really does make more sense that measurements based on a dead king’s feet), and a new calendar entirely divorced from nature.
The people, however, didn’t want their existence reimagined by Parisian intellectuals, they just wanted the price of bread to stay level. So, the new government of the people had to kill a lot of said people to make these new radical ideas stick. By the end of the decade, the entire country was hankering for the mellowing effects of a guy like Napoleon.
For about 150 years things were pretty lively for French society until the Germans took over the place. France has had to reestablish its Republic five times since its revolution. In contrast, the American revolution in many ways operated more akin to the coup d’état in that it struck the state at the top and left the people who actually worked for a living to get on with it. By any objective measure the United States, flaws not with-standing, has created the richest, most open, mobile and equal society in modern history – even in 2020.
Which brings us back to the discussion of that sudden shift from autocracy to democratic republic that Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill had about Germany in 1918. Wilson won the debate. Germany’s Weimar republic was established and set it about winning votes with a fiscal policy that would have made Bernie Sanders proud. It also created so much chaos that a decade later, the idealistic young were welcoming the Nazis who provided, as one young man put it, “Freedom from freedom.”
We can never know what a post-World War I constitutional German monarchy would have done with itself. To be clear, counter-factuals are always the rubber-chickens of the historian’s gumbo. The fact remains that in a restored and clipped German monarchy, the path to power for house-painting, pseudo-intellectual Austrian psychopaths narrows considerably.
Adapted from Pothole of the Gods, by Richard Murff. Available 2021
Image: Eugène Delacroix - La liberté guidant le people (1830) │ WikiCommons