Bastille Day, Individualism and the Concept of Progress—in 1939

Bastille Day, Individualism and the Concept of Progress—in 1939

Bastille Day, Individualism and the Concept of Progress—in 1939

Reflections on the meaning of the French Revolution in the shadow of Adolf Hitler.


Are we to ignore the 225th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille?

Sure, there is Kurdistan to think of, the fate of Central American child refugees to consider, a highway funding bill to craft.

But seventy-five years ago, on the 150th anniversary, there were also a few distractions. Adolf Hitler, for instance, was threatening to take over Europe, first, and then the world. The very flame of enlightenment itself flickered and seemed about to go out.

Crane Brinton was a Harvard professor of history and perhaps the world’s foremost scholar of the French Revolution; his 1938 book The Anatomy of Revolution, which divined similar patterns in various revolutions, remains highly influential. In an essay titled “The Bastille Tradition,” published in the July 15, 1939, issue of The Nation, Brinton contemplated the meaning of the event on the eve of what he predicted would be “changes which, in pure logic, are quite antithetical to what the men of 1789 were striving for.” His remarkable essay is reprinted in full below:

The fall of the Bastille was a marked day from the start. Even in Tsarist Moscow enlightened gentlemen put candles in their windows when the news came. The very first anniversary, July 14, 1790, was celebrated at Paris with impressive ceremonies at the Champ de Mars. It rained, perhaps in retrospect a not unhappy symbol; for the democratic faith in which July 14 is one of the holy days has had to prove itself no fair-weather faith. Now, on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the taking of the old feudal castle by the people of Paris, it still looks very much like rain. But, here and there all over the world, men will still celebrate the fall of the Bastille.

What are they celebrating? In France and the French dominions, they are in part celebrating a French national holiday. As an element in the culte de la patrie, July 14 is now so firmly established that it might well survive changes which, in pure logic, are quite antithetical to what the men of 1789 were striving for. Even a fascist France would probably have to make room for July 14, as the anti-clerical Third Republic has had to make room for Saint Joan of Arc. But Bastille Day, even more than the Fourth of July, is not just a national holiday. To the rest of the world, and to most Frenchmen, it is a memorial to the “principles of 1776 and 1789,” to ideas common to Western democracy.

These ideas are to be found in eighteenth-century political writers of almost every nationality, in the American Declaration of Independence and Bills of Rights, and in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which followed hard on Bastille Day. About their meaning and application historians and political theorists have debated endlessly. Was the French Declaration, for instance, intended to protect the individual citizen against the tyranny of the government, or, on the contrary, was it meant to clear away the complicated web of surviving medieval restraints and associations in order to make the Leviathan state supreme over the helpless individual citizen? Is Rousseau’s “Social Contract” at bottom an individualistic or a collectivistic document? So complicated are political processes that the answers men give to these and similar questions are confusingly at variance. Four years after 1789 Robespierre, who certainly thought of himself as a good child of the Revolution, could justify the Reign of Terror as “the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” Nevertheless, if we go behind words to the sentiments, habits, and ways of life which words crudely bring together and focus, we find that after one hundred and fifty years Bastille Day still has concrete meaning for us.

In the first place, the storming of the Bastille was an act of defiance against vested authority, a dramatic and concrete assertion that men can and will overthrow a government with which they are dissatisfied. It is true historically that the governments brought in by such revolutionary acts have not been slow to claim for themselves all sorts of imprescriptible authority. Jefferson’s generous willingness to contemplate the necessity for a revolution every twenty years or so has not usually been characteristic of successful revolutionists. It is also true that this revolutionary heritage has helped to breed a blind and foolish hatred of all governmental action, a hatted which skillful conservatives have often put to the paradoxical use of preventing political and economic change. Yet both for good and for bad, this vague feeling that there is nothing particularly sacred or final in anything a government does is one of the realities often disguised as “individualism.” It is not, even in France and in the United States, a feeling so strong and universal as to come anywhere near what the political theorist calls anarchism. The crisis over President Roosevelt’s Supreme Court plan taught us that even in the land where good citizens leave their cars under “No Parking” signs and picnic where “No Trespassing” is allowed, some governmental arrangements are almost sacred and final.

In the second place—and this is most important—the revolutionary tradition is tied up with an attitude which, for purposes of analysis, we shall have to call metaphysical. Like most such attitudes, it is not with most men consciously and elaborately worked out in words, as the professional philosopher likes to work it out. But to deny that ordinary men cherish metaphysical sentiments, and possess at least a set of stereotyped ideas to express such sentiments, is to be guilty of a very grave intellectualist fallacy. Briefly, the reason why no governmental arrangement is final in the democratic faith is that in this faith nothing is final, nothing absolute. Governments are made by human beings who cannot possibly be right all of the time.

It is clear that this operational conception of truth is at variance with some very fundamental human dispositions. No orthodox Christian theologian, for instance, can entirely accept it: it is, however, the basic assumption of what we call natural science, and, if only through the triumphs of applied science, it has played a great and obvious part in the modern world. In its naked form of scientific skepticism, it seems clearly too much for ordinary men to bear, since in our daily lives habit and conditioning must put on something of the absolute. But in such modified forms as the nineteenth-century doctrines of evolution and progress, it has penetrated down into cultural levels for which the intellectual is likely to have a good deal of contempt. Try and tell most Americans that the idea of progress is meaningless! Not even the perfected totalitarian state has dared jettison the concept of progress.

Politically, these notions of government as a set of arrangements necessarily subject to change lead to the third general underlying characteristic of the democratic tradition: that government will change most readily which is conducted on the principle of the freest possible discussion. Since decisions must somehow be made, discussion will be followed by voting, and the wishes of the majority will prevail. But not forever. Renewed discussion will bring new problems and new majorities. From this there follows the apparatus of democratic government with which we are all familiar—universal suffrage, universal education, freedom of speech and of association, guaranties to minorities and to the individual, and, in practice, a party system of “ins” and “outs.”

Such we take to be, in very, simple form, the basic tradition of 1776 and 1789: a government by discussion in which all may take part, a belief in the necessity of change, a willingness in the final pinch to appeal to armed revolution to obtain change. There is a good deal else in the tradition, but on this much .at least almost all the faithful would agree. It is a tradition still alive today, one hundred and fifty years after it received its most dramatic modern assertion, but a tradition never unchallenged, and today challenged with especial vigor. Large parts of Europe which played no small part in forming the tradition appear to have repudiated it entirely.

Moreover, within the democratic states themselves, fascist-minded groups are articulate and aggressive, while the democrats are confused and discouraged. The attempt to apply to the study of social problems methods successful in the natural sciences—an attempt thoroughly in accord with the democratic tradition—has added to the discomfiture of the democrats by casting doubt on some of their fundamental assumptions. The social science of the eighteenth-century founders of our tradition seems now to have been based on an untenable intellectualism. We simply cannot now think of man as a rational animal in the way a Holbach, a Godwin, or even a Bentham once thought of him. Experience has taken some of the rationalistic bloom off “government by discussion.” To say this, however, is perhaps no more than to say that the eighteenth century cannot prescribe for the twentieth—which is in itself a statement in full accord with the democratic tradition. Holbach and Tom Paine may not have the whole answer to our contemporary dictators, but does this mean that there is no democratic answer? Surely not. A renewed democratic tradition may lack the freshness and innocence of the golden days that followed the fall of the Bastille (they were, by the way, very brief days), but it will still prove a going tradition.

Democracy has been a relatively rare political phenomenon, and would seem to depend for its existence on favoring conditions that in the past have been very difficult to maintain. Montesquieu was being more realistic than his vocabulary might now indicate when he said that the mainspring of a republic is “virtue.” He seems to have meant that government by free discussion depends on those who discuss being pretty decent fellows, patient, good-tempered,’ informed, sensible, industrious, conditioned not to expect the impossible from themselves or from others. Thinkers as different as Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, and Machiavelli are in surprising agreement with Montesquieu. But we need not fall into Utopian exactions: the thing is a matter of balance, of something like a statistical generalization. A going democracy can absorb, or keep down, a lot of unfit material. Dozens of potential Hitlers are probably displaying their indecencies in the half-worlds of our big cities, as Hitler once displayed his in a Viennese poorhouse. A going democracy can put up with a considerable number of grafters, racketeers, pimps, show-offs, and Napoleons of finance, industry, amusement, education, and what not. But not with an unlimited number. Your average citizen of a democracy has got to be a fairly good human being, even to the extent of being a little priggish about it.

Moreover, this average citizen must not be too sorely tried by circumstances. Even with such consolations as a revealed religion can afford him, he does not bear up well under prolonged adversity. The decencies necessary to the democratic life cannot long be maintained in a population subject to serious economic want, to prolonged warfare, or to great and unchanging inequalities of wealth and social esteem. A great many men, even majorities, may be lifted briefly into heroism—a battle, a camp-meeting, a crusade, the siege of a Bastille—but few inductions from history are more certain than that this inhuman pitch of effort and excitement can not and does not last long. Populations long exposed to conditions that would try the endurance of a hero do not behave heroically—or democratically. They howl for a savior, and usually get him, and his name is often Hitler.

What is less obvious, and less studied—North Whitehead has made a beginning—is the upsetting effect of industrial and economic changes on the apparently necessary routines to which even democratic workers are conditioned. We have said that democracy depends on change. So it does, but clearly some changes can be made too fast and too recklessly. Democracy also depends on various subtle and none too well recognized balances. It may be that our efficiency engineers are too far ahead of democracy, and that not in a strictly Veblenian sense.

What we have managed to make of the heritage of 1776 and 1789 in the last century and a half has been influenced in large measure by the expansion of our civilization on two frontiers: the external frontier of empty lands in the Americas, Australia, Africa, and Siberia, and the internal frontier of applied science—the industrial revolution. The first, we are told often enough, is almost shut; the second also seems to be closing a bit, but for reasons less unavoidable. There is always the hope that applied science may yet include applied social science. If it does we shall have an almost boundless frontier for democratic expansion.

Democracy is in for harder sledding than it had throughout most of the nineteenth century. Yet it still seems to promote certain ways of life, even disciplines, which lead to adaptability, initiative, and cooperation, and these are assets in the most ruthlessly Darwinian of worlds. It has survived a lot in the last 150 years—dicta-tors like the two Napoleons, contrary faiths, at least two world wars, and some economic depressions which, judging from the newspapers of the time, must have seemed almost as bad as this one. It is now, if in no heroic measure, some part of the personal emotions of millions of Frenchmen, Englishmen, Americans, and Scandinavians, and, though for the moment suppressed, of Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and Russians as well. It is a part of the way we see the world. This sesquicentennial anniversary may be celebrated under a cloud, but the chance that our children will celebrate a bicentennial anniversary in 1989 is at least as good as the chance that in 1973 Italy will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Rome, or that Germany in 1983 will hail the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Third Reich. For the external frontier is as closed to the totalitarians as it is to us; and we may believe that with all our failings the internal frontier, which is the frontier of human intelligence, foresight, and decency, is more accessible to us than to them.

Brinton died in 1968.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at [email protected]. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Ad Policy