The Rage of the Heathen.
Looking backward on the Revolution and thinking of how comparatively little it accomplished of definite improvement in the lot of the masses - of how little of a definite idea anybody then had of what required to be done - we of another race and of a colder and more calculating age are apt to wonder that men’s passions of love and hate were so stirred.
A liberty that carried no opportunity with it, an equality and fraternity that had no economic foundations - how could men slay and be slain for such empty shibboleths? And yet our wonder is unreasonable. The very absence of any feasible plan for the ordering of social relationships on a permanently workable basis, the palpable inefficacy of each successive proposal made, may well have been at the bottom of the popular wrath against the exploiters. One can imagine the workers of those days saying: ‘No, this Law of Maximum, this abolition of titles, this guillotining of king and aristocrats, will not secure the earnings to the earner, will not compel the idle rich to work, will not make an end of the robbery of the poor, will not give us the general life-conditions we need. But at least it is clear that the idle rich are the cause of all our troubles, and we hate them and can kill them.’ The heathen raged because they imagined a vain thing, and either felt in advance that it was vain or shortly saw its proved futility.
Our Happier Position.
The Socialist, who has a plan in which he has clear and well-grounded confidence, can afford to be patient because he is hopefully assured of the triumph of his principles. He is encouraged to work and to wait because he sees his ideals being realised by instalments, small enough it may be, and adopted slowly and with many of the current social imperfections incorporated into them, but yet representing definite and permanent progress in the right direction. The modern Socialist can afford to be merciful and tolerant to the rich because he recognises that the rich man is living only according to conditions for which he is no more responsible than the poorest citizen who misuses his vote at election time. The Socialist of to-day is full of hate as of zeal; but it is hatred not of individuals, but of an evil system which has risen by a natural growth from antecedent conditions for which the masses are even more to blame than the classes. The masses have had political power for fifty years, and they had ‘the sacred right of insurrection’ always. But with no interest in the maintenance of the present system, they have used the franchise to perpetuate their own exploitation. The classes, with less political power and nothing to gain by legislation now, cannot be blamed if they are not zealous for the destruction of their own privileges.
The Sympathy Accorded and the Sympathy Denied.
But while the un-ideaed Frenchman of the Revolution could only hate and slay aristocrats, he was, all things considered, wonderfully merciful even in that. Played upon by such makers of harrowing pictures as Carlyle - to whom men and events were everything and principles and tendencies so little, because of the excess of his sympathy with the veritable men and women who came under his notice as historian - we are still mostly in the position, not of people who can take a long philosophic view of the Revolution, but rather of sympathetic contemporaries and sorrowing friends of its victims. We think of the beauty, the sorrows, and the sufferings of Marie Antoinette and the Princess Lamballe, not of the sorrows and sufferings of the millions of poor women who constituted, perhaps, one-third of the adult population of France. Arthur Young’s woman who was only twenty-eight, but looked sixty, is nameless in history, but there were millions like her. Marie Antoinette was but one fine, useless woman among the millions, and she personified the heedless prodigal selfishness of autocracy. We of the Socialist movement, who are full of the idea of social service, of making a full return to society for the bread we eat, the clothes we wear out, and the houseroom we occupy, how can we be expected to think so much of the sufferings of one idle, extravagant woman, and so little of the age-long privation and torture of the hard-working useful mothers and sisters of France?
The Soft-Hearted Democracy.
The crimes of ignorant, passionate democracy, of which Burke and Carlyle have made so much, are as a drop in the sea by comparison with the deliberate enormities perpetrated by enlightened, cold-blooded autocracy, from Herod to Nicholas. The victims of the French democracy in the Hundred Days may be numbered by the score. The victims of democracy the world over, think of them, they are a comparative handful. When even Charles the First, the tyrant, the breaker of faith, the torturer, when his false handsome head was cut off, and the executioner, holding it aloft, cried, ‘This is the head of a tyrant,’ the soft-hearted people groaned. The democracy has always been pitiful, reminding us of Casca’s remark on the women who said ‘Alas, good soul! and forgave them with all their hearts . . . if Caesar had stabbed their mothers they would have done no less.’
Even the September massacres, carried out by the lowest of the low in an enraged and degraded and terror-stricken populace, even they are brightened by golden patches of clemency and love such as the annals of class punishment nowhere reveal. Old Marquis Cazotte emerges to the long line of pikemen and sabreurs apparently to his death; but, his young daughter clutching him and pleading for his life, he is spared. Old M. de Sombreuil has also a daughter, and she, with the abandon of love and the quick eloquence and faith of hot France, appeals to the butchers; - ‘My father is not an aristocrat, O good gentlemen, I will swear it and testify it, and in all ways prove it; we are not; we hate aristocrats.’ ‘Wilt thou drink aristocrats’ blood?’ And, as the story goes, the glass of blood is presented and drunk by the devoted daughter. ‘This Sombreuil is innocent, then,’ says the tribunal of soft-hearted, merely democratic butchers. ‘The bloody pikes rattle to the ground. The tiger yells become tearful bursts of jubilation’ over two lives saved from a fancied just and necessary death. The father and daughter are ‘clasped to bloody bosoms with hot tears, and borne home in triumph of Vive la Nation, the killers even refusing money.’
The Cruel Classes.
When did the aristocracy of France or any other country liberate ‘persons suspect’ in this fashion? There is no cruelty in the world like that of the class man, who feels that his only salvation lies in the hardness of his heart and face. Says William Morris by the mouth of John Ball; ‘Forsooth, in the belly of every rich man dwelleth a devil of hell, and when the man would give his goods to the poor, the devil within him gainsayeth it and saith ‘Wilt thou then be of the poor, and suffer cold and hunger and mocking as they suffer, then give thou thy goods to them, and keep them not.’ And when he would be compassionate, again saith the devil to him, ‘If thou heed these losels and turn on them a face like to their faces, and deem of them as men, then shall they scorn thee, and evil shall come of it, and even one day they shall fall on thee to slay thee when they have learned that thou art but as they be.’’
The utter contempt and hatred of the French seigneur for the French serf was manifested even after the revolution was in full swing. One landlord invited the people on his estate to a banquet in the family chateau. When the guests were all assembled he blew up the castle with all in it, and himself cleared out. Appearing on the scene long afterwards, he represented the explosion as the result of an accident.
Inspirers of the Revolution.
The Revolution was in its conception, its inception, and its results a Middle-Class Revolution. It was inspired by such thinkers as Voltaire and Diderot; and Diderot wrote:- ‘It is property that makes the citizen; every man who has possessions in the State is interested in the State, and whatever be the rank that particular conventions may assign to him, it is always as a proprietor; it is by reason of his possessions that he ought to speak and that he acquires the right of having himself represented.’
Not much democratic sentiment there. It took other three revolutions to establish the right of universal manhood suffrage in France.
It is refreshing to turn from Diderot’s view of popular rights to Mr. John Morley’s statement of the basis of representation as given in his Life of Diderot. Says Morley:- ‘. . . the poorest classes are those who have most need of direct representation; they are the most numerous, their needs are sharpest, they are the classes to which war, consumption of national income, equal laws, judicial administration, and the other concerns of a legislative assembly, come most close.’
The revolution was inaugurated, as we have seen, by the Parliament of Paris - a pettifogging legal assembly.
In their social and economic results, what have all the revolutions of France done for the proletarian? What but to leave him a proletarian - that is to say, a wage-slave and a breeder of wage-slaves, enjoying only such a share of the wealth he produces as suffices to keep life in him and to enable him to raise somehow a family to carry on the world’s work after he has done with the world and its work.
Diderot on the Multitude.
That the Encyclopedists who so largely inspired the revolution were not men of popular sympathies is shown by the following passage from the article on ‘Multitude’ in the Encyclopedia. It is understood to have been written by Diderot:- ‘Distrust the judgment of the multitude in all matters of reasoning and philosophy; there its voice is the voice of malice, folly, inhumanity, irrationality, and prejudice. Distrust it again in things that suppose much knowledge and a fine taste. The multitude is ignorant and dulled. Distrust it in morality; it is not capable of strong and generous actions; it rather wonders at such actions than approves them; heroism is almost madness in its eyes. Distrust it in the things of sentiment; is delicacy of sentiment so common a thing that you can accord it to the multitude? In what, then, is the multitude right? In everything, but only at the end of a very long time, because then it has become an echo, repeating the judgment of a small number of sensible men who shape the judgment of posterity for it beforehand. If you have on your side the testimony of your conscience, and against you that of the multitude, take comfort and be assured that time does justice.’
This is not what a man of popular sympathies would have said. The multitude means thoughtless people of all classes; and it is worth while pointing out that while there are wise men in all classes, the worker, reading and thinking disinterestedly and at his leisure, may well be, and at his best is, a wiser man than the pleasure-hunting aristocrat or the profit-hunting bourgeois. That the workman has not struck out for himself politically on any general scale is a proof, not of his incapacity, but of the difficulty and danger of an attitude of active independence. [This is less true now. He is striking out. - J. L.]
Diderot wrote under the shadow of the Bastille, and many of the articles in the Encyclopedia were mere pieces of common form, written by the author with his tongue in his cheek, just because articles were expected on certain subjects. He could not bluff authority and risk penalties over every article he wrote. Sacrifice had to be made to the conventions, or there would have been no Encyclopedia. In justice to this versatile, indefatigable man, and in answer to numerous attacks upon the Encyclopedia as a whole, I reproduce the lengthy and interesting description of this great work given by Diderot’s biographer, John Morley, who says:-
Virgil’s Georgics have been described as a glorification of labour. The Encyclopaedia seems inspired by the same motive, the same earnest enthusiasm for all the purposes, interests, and details of a productive industry. Diderot, as has justly been said, himself the son of a cutler, might well bring handiwork into honour; assuredly he had inherited from his good father’s workshop sympathy and regard for skill and labour. The illustrative plates, to which Diderot gave the most laborious attention for a period of thirty years, are not only remarkable for their copiousness, their clearness, their finish; and in all these respects they are truly admirable; but they strike us even more by the semi-poetic feeling that transforms the mere representation of a process into an animated scene of human life, stirring the sympathy and touching the imagination of the onlooker as by something dramatic. The bustle, the dexterity, the alert force of the iron foundry, the glass furnace, the gunpowder mill, the silk calendry are as skilfully reproduced as the more tranquil toil of the dairywoman, the embroiderer, the confectioner, the setter of types, the compounder of drugs, the chaser of metals. The drawings recall that eager and personal interest in his work, that nimble complacency which is so charming a trait in the best French craftsman. The animation of these great folios of plates is prodigious. They affect one like looking down on the world of Paris from the heights of Montmartre. To turn over volume after volume is like watching a splendid panorama of all the busy life of the time. Minute care is as striking in them as their comprehensiveness. The smallest tool, the knot in a thread, the ply in a cord, the curve of wrist or finger, each has special and proper delineation. The reader smiles at a complete and elaborate set of tailor’s patterns. He shudders as he comes upon the knives, the probes, the bandages, the posture of the wretch about to undergo the most dangerous operation in surgery. In all the chief departments of industry there are plates good enough to serve for practical specifications and working drawings. It has often been told how Diderot himself used to visit the workshops, to watch the men at work, to put a thousand questions, to sit down at the loom, to have the machine pulled to pieces and set together again before his eyes, to slave like any apprentice, to do bad work, in order, as he says, to be able to instruct others how to do good work. That was no movement of empty rhetoric which made him cry out for the Encyclopaedia to become a sanctuary in which human knowledge might find shelter against time and revolutions. He actually took the pains to make it a complete storehouse of the arts, so perfect in detail that they could be at once constructed after a deluge in which everything had perished save a single copy of the Encyclopaedia.
Such details, said D’Alembert, will perhaps seem extremely out of place to certain scholars, for whom a long dissertation on the cookery or the hair-dressing of the ancients, or on the site of a ruined hamlet, or on the baptismal name of some obscure writer of the tenth century, would be vastly interesting and precious. He suggests that details of economy and of arts and trades have as good a right to a place as the scholastic philosophy or some form of rhetoric still in use, or the mysteries of heraldry. Yet none even of these had been passed over.
The importance given to physical science and the practical arts in the Encyclopaedia is the sign and exemplification of two elements of the great modern transition. It marks both a social and an intellectual revolution. We see in it, first, the distinct association with pacific labour of honcur and a kind of glory, such as had hitherto been reserved for knights and friars, for war and asceticism, for fighting and foraging. If the nobles and the churchmen could only have understood, as clearly as Diderot and D’Alembert understood, the irresistible forces that were making against the maintenance of the worn-out system, all the worst evils attending the great political changes of the last decade of the century would have been avoided. That the nobles and churchmen would not see this, was the fatality of the Revolution.
We have a glimpse of the profound transformation of social ideas which was at work in five or six lines of the article Journalier. ‘Journeyman - a workman who labours with his hands, and is paid day-wages. This description of men forms the great part of a nation; it is their lot which a good government ought to keep principally in sight. If the journeyman is miserable the nation is miserable.’ And again – ‘The net profit of a society, if equally distributed, may be preferable to a larger profit, if it be distributed unequally, and have the effect of dividing the people into two classes, one gorged with riches, the other perishing in misery.’
If all this was not as much as was needed, was it not as much as could have been expected in that day and from that generation?
The men of the eighteenth century could but help by pulling down. The modern reformer can build up, revolutions having now everywhere largely cleared the ground. In France, as elsewhere, the only remedy for the poverty and overwork of the industrious, for the occasional enforced idleness of the poor and the permanent voluntary idleness of the rich, for the million wastages of chaotic competition and the meanness and ugliness of Twentieth Century civilization, lies in the conquest by the people, in their corporate capacity, of the means of life.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.