Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Godechot: The Counter-Revolution

Godechot, Jacques. The Counter-Revolution: Doctrine and Action, 1789-1804. Trans. Salvator Attanasio. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971.

The Counter Revolution studies counter-revolutionary thought and movements in France and Western Europe from the Revolution up to the beginning of the Napoleonic Empire. The first part of the book, covering "Doctrine", discusses the different thinkers and schools of thought opposing the Revolution. Put together, the brief reviews provide for interesting comparisons between the different critiques of the Revolution, revealing commonalities and differences on, for instance, the role of religion, the meaning and role of reason and prejudice, the place of history and tradition and the origin and exercise of authority.

Oddly, some of these ideas (Montequieu in particular) have ended up inspiring revolutionaries as much as counter-revolutionaries. For one thing, few, if any of them, are simple advocates of the status quo. Some locate an ideal in the past--in an ancient constitution of France, before rise of absolutism in the monarchy--just as the revolutionaries would locate it in the future. For another thing, by engaging in the process of analyzing the regime, discerning its true or ideal form, justifying it against alternatives and making counter-proposals for improvement, many would-be defenders of the regime, implicitly abandoning its justification in tradition, are already playing in the revolutionaries' home court. With the question already framed in his terms, there is nothing to keep the revolutionary from borrowing from a "conservative" system that is as abstract and instrumentalist as his own.

The second part, covering "Action", details the mostly hapless and uncoordinated efforts of the Counter-Revolution to undermine the revolutionary government and restore the monarchy during this period. In some ways, it is somewhat spectacular that the ruling class could pass so quickly to such pathetic inability, and, similarly, that the revolutionary government, despite its own problems, became in such a short time as effective as it was against internal and external threats. One wonders if this was just due to the particular ineptitude of the Bourbons, the brilliance of the revolutionaries and the coincidence of the interests of the peasantry and the bourgeoisie against the nobility, or if something larger was at work--in particular, the debut of new forms of government that were more efficient at attracting and exploiting talent and new, galvanizing ideas of popular rule and nationalism.

The answer is probably both, with the counter-examples found in nations where revolution did not take hold due to the failure to attract the peasantry to the cause and the Revolution's own deterioration into empire and then restoration (followed by repeated iterations of each) providing evidence for the former, and the eventual triumph of the Revolution and its ideas in France and throughout Western Europe providing evidence for the latter.

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