IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Radical Enlightenment and French Revolution

These five portraits and one bust (of Voltaire) are from the cover of Jonathan I. Israel, The Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750-1790, the third and culminating volume of Israel's encyclopedic study of Enlightenment thought. An earlier cast of characters graced his second volume, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752, which I liked so much I put on the banner of this blog. The figures above, from left to right, are Baruch Spinoza, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat Condorcet, Immanuel Kant, François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Spinoza is the presiding spirit of Israel's recovery of Enlightenment values, and the author shows in extraordinary detail the influence that Spinoza and controversies over Spinozism had for more than a hundred years after his death in 1674. In the eighteenth century, Israel's main squeeze is Denis Diderot, the humane and kindly gent below. (Article length: 2300 words)

The best introduction to Israel's thought on the Enlightenment is his A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton, 2010), a short and accessible survey. Radical Enlightenment, holds Israel,

is a set of basic principles that can be summed up concisely as: democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promoting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing control of the legislative process. Its chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights, and status irrespective of what they believe or what religious, economic, or ethnic group they belong to, and that consequently all ought to be treated alike, on the basis of equity, whether black or white, male or female, religious or nonreligious, and that all deserve to have their personal interests and aspirations equally respected by law and government. Its universalism lies in its claim that all men have the same right to pursue happiness in their own way, and think and say whatever they see fit, and no one, including those who convince others they are divinely chosen to be their masters, rulers, or spiritual guides, is justified in denying or hindering others in the enjoyment of rights that pertain to all men and women equally. (vii-viii)
Israel proposes two contemporary implications of the acceptance of Radical Enlightenment thought; one is a sweeping rejection of the “modish multiculturalism infused with postmodernism that swept Western universities and local government in the 1980s and 1990s.” We give up a lot in deeming “all traditions and sets of values more or less equally valid” and in surrendering the claim to superiority over other value systems. Israel laments the belief that “to attribute universal validity and superiority over other cultural traditions to core values forged in the Western Enlightenment smacks, whatever its pretensions to rational cogency, of Eurocentrism, elitism, and lack of basic respect for the ‘other.’” (xiii-xiv) On the contrary, he argues: the system of ideas embodied in the Radical Enlightenment, in today's Russia, Asia, and Africa, has “become the chief hope and inspiration of numerous besieged and harassed humanists, egalitarians, and defenders of human rights, who, often against great odds, heroically champion basic human freedom and dignity, including that of women, minorities, homosexuals, and religious apostates, in the face of the resurgent forms of bigotry, oppression, and prejudice that in much of the world today appear inexorably to be extending their grip.” (xi)
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Israel’s evocation of a set of values at once triumphant and under siege might plausibly be seen as extending also to foreign policy, to which he devotes one of seven chapters in A Revolution of the Mind. He describes the objectives of the Radical Enlightenment in terms closely resembling Daniel Deudney's republican security theory, with an emphasis on republicanizing states internally and then binding them in union.
To find the path to universal peace, Diderot, d'Holbach, and their disciples extended the Spinozist idea of the moral ties binding each individual to the next in a just society on the basis of reciprocity to international relations. Every nation has moral obligations to its neighbors, including those weaker than itself, a lesson mankind finds very difficult to adopt. It was essential that international relations no less than government, manners, and religion should be fundamentally reformed in accordance with natural laws. The "general will" of a particular society, in Diderot and d'Holbach, obliges every citizen to allow the others security and tranquility and to fulfill his obligations toward them, punishing violators and tying the hands of those who behave in an antisocial manner. This concept of "general will," that of Diderot and d'Holbach extending (contrary to that of Rousseau) to the law of the "grand society" of the nations of the world, presupposed the universality of the new secular morality of citizenship and equality.
Rousseau's "general will," by contrast—infused by his proto-nationalist commitment, preference for small, self-sufficient republics, and positive dislike of cosmopolitanism and internationalism—was of little help in this regard. It was only the "general will" of the Radical Enlightenment that urged all states to uphold justice, tranquility, and good faith in the interest of everyone. Of course, there existed as yet no authority capable of dissuading or preventing princes and peoples from carrying out aggression and behaving unjustly toward one another. Princes and nations formed a kind of super society but yet one, unfortunately, without any head, without any fixed principles, and without laws. Hence, it was unsurprising that men continue to suffer the atrocious consequences of war and anarchy. With the spread of democratic republics, though, the position would rapidly improve. By creating an international tribunal of the powers, these writers proposed, a court of the nations, true moral principles, genuine order, and law could replace the unrestricted rivalry and unchecked greed of overweening imperial monarchies and ambitious princes. Kant agreed with this but not that it is necessary to eliminate monarchy and aristocracy and adopt representative democracy universally to achieve it.
Hence, to bring about world peace, held the radical philosophes, a double process is required—a shift toward democratic republicanism within nations, on the one hand, and, on the other, a convergence of the interest of peoples in the form of an international general assembly with agreed rules for resolving disputes. Just as aggression and warlike traditions inevitably feed the trend toward tyranny and hereditary monarchy, so conversely the shift toward representation, consultation, and formal democracy will feed the appetite for peace and stability, the things genuinely in the true interest of everyone. Warlike peoples exalt the need for swift, secret decision making, disciplined action, and absence of dissent from undertakings decided on. Thus, bellicose and aggressive propensities predispose society to autocracy, tyranny, suppression of dissent, and loss of individual freedom. (149-51)

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One of Israel's boldest claims is that the French Revolution cannot be explained without detailed attention to the ideas of Radical Enlightenment developed in the twenty to thirty years before 1789. He castigates a generation of historians for their neglect of this crucial intellectual ferment, led by French thinkers and carried on by Dutch publishing houses, but bubbling up everywhere. "The prevailing view about the French Revolution not being caused by books and ideas in the first place may be very widely influential but it is also, on the basis of the detailed evidence, totally indefensible. Indeed, without referring to Radical Enlightenment nothing about the French Revolution makes the slightest sense or can even begin to be provisionally explained." (224)

Taking the story up to the Revolution leads inexorably to the key question of the responsibility of the French revolutionaries for the conflagration that subsequently enveloped Europe from 1792 to 1815. Israel castigates the spokesmen of the moderate Enlightenment for lacking "any political strategy that could conceivably produce the kind of structural changes capable of transforming the existing order so as to diminish the likelihood of war." (129) On questions of domestic order, the moderate Enlightenment mainstream--including such figures as David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Frederick the Great, Benjamin Franklin, Montesquieu, Turgot, and Voltaire--is seen by Israel as "inherently antidemocratic, anti-egalitarian, and reluctant to concede a full toleration." (236) On the conduct of international relations, he believes, the moderate Enlightenment posed no direct challenge to the dubious ways of the ancien regime, with its fixation on reason of state. 

I think that view is mistaken, or at least overdrawn. Thomas Paine is one of Israel's chief representatives of the new diplomacy, and Paine's influence was felt strongly in setting forth the ideological presuppositions and objectives of American foreign policy. Much closer to the levers of power, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin also embodied many of the aspirations that Israel identifies with the Radical Enlightenment. Even John Adams, a keen skeptic of the philosophes who filled volumes detailing their mistaken ways, could share the aspiration of Jefferson and his friends for a coming age of peace and prosperity. "America will grow with astonishing Rapidity,” wrote Adams early in the war for independence, “and England France and every other Nation in Europe will be the better for her prosperity. Peace which is her dear Delight will be her Wealth and Glory."[1]

Madison developed an analysis of war in Europe that differed little from that of the radical philosophes, insisting on the need to establish representative republics as a precondition of reforming its war system. (See his "Universal Peace" of 1792). His fear of a raging war system in the Americas was a key reason for his dedicated work to establish a workable federal constitution at home. On all these questions of war and peace--focused on the great question of how to establish a federative system among the American republics that would represent an alternative to and improvement on the European system--the American founders ran circles around European visionaries like Kant and Diderot. They actually had some promising material with which to work.[2]

The conflict between radical and moderate Enlightenment to which Israel points, to be sure, was real enough. Adam Ferguson, a good representative of the conservative or moderate Enlightenment, supported Britain's war against the American colonies in 1775 (giving one of the great justifications for Parliament's decision to repress the rebellion). Voltaire was a chum with Frederick the Great, and both of them looked askance at projects to reform the conduct of international relations. Israel eloquently describes how Herder was disgusted with Frederick the Great and his court, deeply resenting "a monarch who boasted of Enlightenment and vaunted reason and rejection of superstition, but who actually did more than any other of his contemporaries to plunge Europe almost constantly into war and bloodshed. Indeed, he thought the wrong kind of Enlightenment can be even more pernicious than obscurantism and plain barbarism. 'The universal dress of philosophy and love of mankind,' he wrote, 'can be made to disguise persecutions--violations of the true, personal freedom of men and countries, citizens and peoples--such as Cesare Borgia himself could only dream of." (125-26)

Israel does not seem troubled by one great fact: the radical diagnosis of Europe's ills did not present a straightforward road to peace. Quite the contrary, it would seem to have led inexorably to the call to liberate Europe from its war-producing monarchies and aristocracies--a call which France, in the throes of revolution, dutifully produced in 1792. On November 19, 1792, the French Convention promulgated a decree that offered fraternity and assistance to all peoples wishing to regain their liberty, and followed on December 15 with a further measure that "was a masterly combination of universalist ideology and nationalist raison d'etat." [3] It provided for the destruction of the old regime in conquered lands but did not overlook the need to commander local resources to feed France's armies.

Israel is intent on blaming Robespierre and the "Rousseauist tendency" he represented for the plunge of the Revolution into terror and darkness from early 1793 to mid-1794, when Robespierre's vicious rule was terminated by the guillotine. The Jacobins denounced the spokesmen of the Radical Enlightenment and went after their heads--Condorcet and Paine among the victims, the latter barely escaping with his life--but Robespierre had opposed the call to universal war and revolution in Europe launched by the Girondists, with Brissot de Warville as their spokesman. Whereas Brissot had claimed that "We cannot be calm until Europe, all Europe, is in flames," Robespierre sensibly observed that "Liberty cannot be founded  by the use of foreign force." [4] The importance of those decrees can scarcely be overstated; James Madison would later recall, in 1823, that "the British Government thought a war of more than 20 years called for against France by an edict, subsequently disavowed, which assumed the policy of propagating changes of Government in other Countries." [5] Israel does not pay these consequences the heed that they deserve. Having, as it were, set Europe aflame (by his endorsement of the radical diagnosis), he just closes up the historical shop. 

Update, 3/5/14: I spoke too soon. Israel has not closed up shop but continues his series with a new volume covering the period from 1789-94: Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre. I am very curious to read of how he treats the war question. Here is the main argument from the publisher:

Revolutionary Ideas demonstrates that the Revolution was really three different revolutions vying for supremacy—a conflict between constitutional monarchists such as Lafayette who advocated moderate Enlightenment ideas; democratic republicans allied to Tom Paine who fought for Radical Enlightenment ideas; and authoritarian populists, such as Robespierre, who violently rejected key Enlightenment ideas and should ultimately be seen as Counter-Enlightenment figures. The book tells how the fierce rivalry between these groups shaped the course of the Revolution, from the Declaration of Rights, through liberal monarchism and democratic republicanism, to the Terror and the Post-Thermidor reaction. . . The French Revolution stands once again as a culmination of the emancipatory and democratic ideals of the Enlightenment. That it ended in the Terror represented a betrayal of those ideas—not their fulfillment.

The cover illustration is The Tennis Court Oath, June 20, 1789 (1791) by Jacques Louis David (1748-1825).

[1] John Adams to James Warren, Adams Papers, 6: 348.
[2] See my Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding (2003).
[3] T.C.W. Blanning, The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars (Longman, 1986), 137-38
[4] Quoted in Blanning, p. 138.
[5] James Madison to Richard Rush, July 22, 1823, Letters of Madison, III, 330-31.