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Tue, 31 Mar 2009

Aux Armes, Citoyens?

A conversation over a beer one evening not too long ago provoked me to think about the sociology, economics, and psychology of revolutions. (Hey, what do you talk about while you're sitting at the bar?)

The premise that kicked off our discussion evolved out of a discussion of the state of the current economy and the influences of political trends on socio-economic evolution. Specifically, my friend and I wondered about the likelihood of a social revolution taking place in the United States, if the economy didn't improve reasonably soon. The recent 90% tax rates proposed to be inflicted on those who received large bonuses at companies which have been recipients of TARP funds were cited as evidence of a popular backlash against the rich elites; the conclusion drawn was that this could well be just the opening salvo in a large-scale popular revolt. Once starting down such a path, we speculated, would we as a nation reach a tipping point where political revolution became inevitable?

More discussion along these lines led to further suggestions of historical evidence for such revolutions. For example, wasn't the American Revolution founded on a combination of overwhelming anti-tax and anti-monarchical sentiments? Weren't the French and Russian Revolutions further evidence showing mass uprisings of the common people against wealthy and powerful elites, which included the monarchy?

Good questions all. At the time, I gave my usual off-the-top-of-my-head answer (in brief, I said, "Yes, but only to a limited extent"), but the questions stuck in my mind, and I wanted to reflect on them and take advantage of this forum to amplify my answers here.

First, let's consider the motivations for the American Revolution. Many of us, having been exposed to several years of American history over the course of our elementary and high school educations, have at least a recollection of what we were taught about it, usually as a series of phrases and flashing images -- the Boston Tea Party, Lexington and Concord, the Declaration of Independence, Washington crossing the Delaware, Valley Forge, Saratoga, and the surrender at Yorktown. Then everybody went home and the new United States continued on its merry way.

The reality, especially of the events and influences leading up to the Revolution, is more detailed and nuanced than that, of course. I would argue that the proximate cause of the Revolution was, as the slogan of the time put it, "No taxation without representation!" Colonial America was a pastiche of social and economic classes -- working poor, farmers, merchants, and landed gentry (a surprisingly large percentage of the members of the Continental Congress belonged to the latter group). Nearly all considered themselves subjects of the King, and assumed they held the same rights and obligations as other Englishmen, including being subject to the laws passed by Parliament in London. But when Parliament started to look on the American colonies as a convenient cash cow which could be easily milked to pay for the debts incurred during the French and Indian War and the ongoing costs of defending the colonies -- passing laws like the Stamp Act, the Sugar Act, the Tea Act, and the Townshend Acts -- many of the colonists began to feel that the imposition of taxes without formal representation in Parliament violated the rights of Englishmen enshrined in documents like the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights of 1689.

Even with all that, the colonial assemblies felt that the best course of action was to try to reach an accommodation with England. Benjamin Franklin himself made two voyages to London during the 1760s and 1770s to present the colonists' point of view to the British government. His first trip was partially successful, bringing about the repeal of the Stamp Act, but his second was a complete failure, his arguments falling on deaf ears. Like many, Franklin hoped for a peaceful reconciliation of colonial differences with England; he was also keenly aware that no colony had ever broken from its parent country in the history of the world, and that taking on the powerful British army was a course fraught with peril.

Franklin was not alone in this. While we don't have modern-style opinion polls from that era to give us accurate statistics, the political inclinations of the colonists can be inferred from things like newspaper articles, pamphlets and broadsheets, and the composition of the colonial legislatures. Historians generally agree that some 40-50% of the colonists supported the revolutionary cause, 20-30% considered themselves Tories or Loyalists, and the rest were generally neutral or indifferent. (Neutrality was not all that hard to understand when one considers the rural nature and long distances in the colonies -- it was by no means difficult to simply farm one's land and mostly be left alone. Isolation spawned and encouraged the "rugged individualism" which became symbolic of the American character.) The ardent revolutionaries among the colonists most definitely did not make up an overwhelming majority of the population.

Thus, I would argue that the American Revolution came about primarily over economic and political issues -- taxation and representation -- and not because of some overwhelming anti-monarchical sentiment on the part of the colonists. Nor did many of the issues being fought over involve broad-scale class conflicts, nor anger over grinding and widespread poverty. While many colonists would be considered poor by contemporary standards, poverty was not widespread; neither was there ever large-scale famine -- the colonies and the colonists were remarkably self-sufficient in many ways.

Second, let's now examine the root causes of the French Revolution. These were many and varied, played out over a similarly long period of time, but without the great distances involved in the American Revolution -- the French colonies (primarily Canada, Louisiana, and the West Indies) were largely uninvolved.

France underwent a series of economic crises starting around the time of the Seven Years War. The later French and Indian Wars against England's American colonies added to the large debts Louis XV incurred in the course of the fighting, becoming indebted to Spain both economically and politically to hold off any thoughts of European expansion that England might have entertained during that time. The American Revolution not long thereafter was both a blessing and a curse for France -- it kept England's eyes turned westward, not eastwards towards Europe. Louis XVI, acting on the principle that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" lavished great sums of money and matériel on the American colonists, eventually running up debts totaling nearly two billion livres (which even in today's terms would be a considerable sum of money). The sorry state of the treasury led to a series of on-again, off-again taxes on the wealthy nobility and the churches -- most being repealed not long after being initiated.

At the same time, other economic forces were converging to make life difficult for the citizens of France. Poverty, especially in the cities, was widespread. Famines, which many believe were brought on by the aftereffects of the so-called "Little Ice Age" and a refusal of French farmers to adopt the hardier potato as a staple crop, affected large segments of the population, bringing in their wake large-scale death and disease.

Apart from the monarchy, the civil government of France was somewhat loosely organized into three estates: the nobility, the clergy, and everyone else. The nobility was primarily interested in preserving their own condition and position; it was their influence with the King which caused many of the taxes imposed on them to be later revoked (along with more than one Finance Minister to be fired along the way). Similarly, the clergy (primarily the Roman Catholic Church, but also including a number of Protestant sects that had taken root in France) were mainly looking to ensure that church property remained untaxed, that church collections remained under church control, and that the king and government did not (very obviously) interfere with internal church affairs (although the same could not be said of the reverse -- the church was actively involved in so-called "secular affairs", the rise to political power of the well-known Cardinal Richelieu being just one example).

The rest of the population was marginally represented in the estates general, but these bodies met only sporadically and had very little influence over the course of political developments in France. Resentment of the privileges of the nobility was widespread, especially among the professional and business classes, who compared their lot with that of their colleagues in England and Holland, and found their own situations inferior. Finally, there was a great deal of anger towards the king himself for firing the Finance Ministers who had initiated the taxes on the nobility and clergy -- by attempting to relieve the tax burden on the masses, these ministers were considered popular heroes. The autocratic claim of Louis XVI, "L'etat, c'est moi," was not a slogan meant to endear him to the masses.

The most effective actions the vast majority of the citizens could (and did) take were protest marches and strikes, to try to impede the normal day-to-day functions of government. A series of such actions led to calls for abolition of the estates general and the creation of an elected National Assembly in its place, where all three estates would meet as a single, elected body. Louis XVI was able to tolerate ineffective meetings of the estates, but this Assembly would almost certainly become a rival center of political power. His initial reaction, surprisingly, was very weak, consisting of simply closing the building where the nascent National Assembly was meeting. The group simply found new quarters, and vowed not to disband until France had a formal constitution.

The progress and eventual success of the American Revolution had an inspiring effect on the French Revolutionaries. In August 1789, the Assembly produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which, like the American Declaration of Independence upon which it was modeled, became the seminal statement of the principles behind the revolution, and a key step down the path of abolishing the absolute monarchy.

After many difficulties, Louis XVI tried to accommodate himself to the rising political tide and allow himself to become a constitutional monarch. But the increasing factionalism and radicalism of the political system resulted in the enfeeblement of the Assembly and the rise of insurgent groups like Paris Commune and the Jacobins, resulting in the execution of the king, the Reign of Terror (which lasted until 1794), and, ultimately, in the coup d'etat of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Were anti-monarchical forces at the root of the French Revolution? Clearly more so than in the American Revolution. While poverty, hunger, and other economic pressures also contributed, the anti-elitist movements played critical roles. In addition, the success of the American Revolution was a powerful inspiration for the revolutionaries in France to press their cause -- could not the French people also do what the American colonists had done? (Of course, had the American Revolution failed, one can only guess how that might have discouraged the revolutionaries or encouraged the king.)

Yet had the men behind the National Assembly and the Constitution been able to finish what they started, who knows how the amusing game of historical "what if" might have played out differently. Would France have followed England's path with a constitutional monarchy? Would there be a king or queen in France today?

Third, let's now look at the Russian Revolution and see if it holds any relevance for us as an anti-monarchist uprising.

Similarly to France, the decades leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 were not good ones for the vast majority of the Russian people. Poverty was endemic, with many people eking out a subsistence living. A large number were serfs, who worked the land for the landowners and kept what little was left over to live on for themselves. The northerly geography of the country meant that agriculture was a hit-or-miss proposition in most years, and large-scale famines were common. Like pre-revolutionary France, life in Russia was fairly good for the nobles, the landowners, and the moneyed -- and for the Tsar, of course.

The socio-economic situation in Russia remained largely unchanged and unchallenged until the first decade of the twentieth century. The disastrous Russo-Japanese War ended with the military defeat of the Russian army, and territorial and economic concessions to Japan as part of the Treaty of Portsmouth (which, it should be noted in passing, refers to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and for which President Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906). Yet despite everything, the vast majority of the people remained loyal to the Tsar, or were only indifferent to him. (When some injustice or their own poverty was pointed out to the average Russian, the response was often, "If only we could tell the Tsar about this! He would make it better!", ascribing to Nicholas an almost divine power to improve their lives.)

Probably the single most important cause of the Russian Revolution was Russia's entry into World War I. The Russian army fought bravely but was largely ineffective, and the average soldier was often nothing more than cannon fodder. The unprecedented losses led to the first large-scale conscription in Russia. The composition of the army troops slowly but inexorably changed, from a large corps of relatively well educated men from the cities and the western parts of the country who were largely loyal to the Tsar, to mainly serfs and peasants from the eastern regions, who felt no particular loyalty to the Tsar. Later, this demographic shift in the army would prove to be critical in the course of the revolution.

Tsar Nicholas was too involved in wanting to observe and direct the military campaigns during the war to bother much with domestic issues, and he allowed his Prime Minister to permit the creation of an elected assembly, the Duma, as a way of quieting political unrest. Observing how his relatives had fared (and not unlike Louis XVI in France), Nicholas was probably not opposed to eventually becoming a constitutional monarch like his cousins, the King of England and the German Kaiser.

What finally did Nicholas in was what was effectively a coup d'etat led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, highly organized and disciplined, against the so-called White Army of the liberals and monarchists. The fact that the great majority of the armed forces no longer felt any particular allegiance to the Tsar and would not take up their arms to fight the Bolsheviks assured the victory of Lenin's forces, and the overthrow of the Duma and the Tsar in November 1917. The Bolsheviks (whose name cleverly means "Majority Party", even though they were actually a tiny minority at the time) did not succeed by riding a groundswell of popular unrest into political power (although the Bolsheviks did encourage strikes, riots, and protests as a way of destabilizing the government). They were opportunistic and well organized, and were not afraid to strike when the opportunity presented itself.

In a broader view than even these specific events, it should be noted that many monarchies and empires existed up to the time of World War II, so I see little evidence that there had ever been a worldwide wave of anti-imperialist sentiment up to that time. Even the United States itself manged to acquire a number of overseas colonies (euphemistically referred to as "territories") -- the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii (where we happily assisted the local businessmen in overthrowing the reigning monarch), and Puerto Rico come quickly to mind. Of course, after the war, empires of any sort were no longer politically acceptable, and many former colonies have gained their independence from their former rulers. (By the way, did anybody besides me notice that New York State took the phrase "The Empire State" off of its license plates in the mid-1960s, when I guess it was no longer cool to be an empire?)

So what conclusions can we draw from all of this?

Despite a great deal of general anxiety about the situation, the current economic crisis we are experiencing today has little in common with the conditions that presaged many of the earlier revolutions examined here. We do not have widespread poverty or hunger. (Not that these do not exist -- it is a bit shameful that in such a rich country that either of these exist at all.) Unemployment is high, but still far below levels seen during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A number of social assistance programs -- many of which were created at that time -- at least soften somewhat the economic blows that many now suffer. The government itself no longer takes a hands off approach to the economy, instead working actively to reduce unemployment and increase capital flows.

Looking back on the Great Depression, it's good to keep in mind what happened back then. The problems were probably harder in America than in many other countries, mostly because our economy so depended on our manufacturing industries supplying goods for the rest of the world to buy -- and when they stopped, we were hit doubly hard. Around the world, people were casting about for political leaders who could help them. We in the United States wound up electing Franklin Roosevelt on the basis of his promises to take action to fix the nation's economic problems. In Italy and Germany, they also chose leaders who made similar promises, except they would up with Mussolini and Hitler, who built the autobahns and made the trains run on time, but ultimately at a horrifying cost beyond dollars and cents.

Opinions certainly differ on the wisdom and effectiveness of President Obama's unprecedented multi-trillion dollar interventions in the economy. But agree or disagree, we've elected him, that's his plan, and we can only hope it works. I can't understand the Rush Limbaughs of the world who openly hope that the President's plans fail. If they do fail, we may well find ourselves in for many more years of economic hard times, and if the problems grind on and on without resolution, who can say for sure that the next American revolution may not come?

Posted Mar 31, 2009 at 18:11 UTC, 3046 words,  [/richPermalink