September 6, 2009

Liberté ou Égalité

Justin Katz

It is, unfortunately, behind a subscriber wall, but John O'Sullivan's recent article about types of revolutions (taking recent unrest in Iran as a starting point) is excellent fodder for Sunday afternoon pondering, while mowing the lawn or whatever you have to do today.

In essence, O'Sullivan follows a speech by Italian President Fancesco Cossiga in the '90s reviewing five revolutions that grouped into liberal (what modern politics would characterize as "conservative") and anti-liberal (leftist, progressive). O'Sullivan writes that "the aesthetics of revolution have been captured by the Left, including the fascist Left, so that we often fail to recognize a revolution carried out on other principles." On the liberal (conservative) side fall England's Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776, expanding liberty and transforming government into a body of representatives.

That is emphatically not true of either the French Revolution of 1789 or the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. As Cossiga pointed out, these revolutions were anti-liberal revolutions hostile to the liberties, both real and procedural, central to 1776 and 1688. That is less clear in the case of 1789, because the early French revolutionaries thought they were introducing into France the same reforms they had admired in England and America. But as several scholars have observed, most recently Portuguese professor Joao Espada in his essay "Edmund Burke and the Anglo-American Tradition of Liberty," very different conceptions of liberty underlay their reforms. Whereas the Anglo-Americans saw liberty as a system of government that allowed people to pursue different ways of life, their Continental imitators saw it as a particular way of life that, if necessary, might have to be imposed on those mistakenly enslaved to tradition, religion, inequality, or whatever. Eradicating tradition, religion, inequality, or anything else to which people are strongly attached, however, requires abolishing their freedom, usually bloodily. Hence the revolution of 1789 became more plainly anti-liberal and more violent as it ground relentlessly on.