The French Revolution: The world needs reforms and not revolutions today

Monday, 18 July 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The attack on the Bastille

Two hundred and twenty two years ago on 14 July, 1789, the first shot of what later came to be known as the French Revolution was fired in the streets of Paris, the capital of France. That historic moment took place when the people in the streets led by France’s leftist middle class stormed the Bastille, the notorious fortress-prison run by the government. The reason for singling out the Bastille for attack was that it was the place where the opponents and dissidents had been kept in dungeons without trial, tortured and eventually murdered. So, the Bastille was the symbol of despotism in the eyes of the people and an attack on it was considered an attack on France’s ruling powers jointly enjoyed at that time by the monarchy, aristocracy and the Church.

The French Revolution caused a transfer of powers from the monarchy and other two privileged classes to ‘the citizens’; it also led to the establishment of the French Republic in 1791which had indeed  been preceded by the Declaration of the Right of Man and the Citizen two years ago. Thus, the new republic already had a set of guiding principles to go by. Hence, the French Revolution symbolised the return to justice, fairness and people’s, here meaning the common man’s, power. At a time when family and connection to high places were needed by a person to rise in the society’s ladder, the French Revolution created the ground for people to rise in society based on ability, skills and merits.

The reign of terror

Yet, like any revolution, the French Revolution too was bloody, violent and destructive. It spawned a reign of terror that claimed more than 40,000 lives during and immediately after the revolution. It also gave birth, as an invention of necessity, to such a mass death machine as the guillotine that could execute prisoners swiftly in what looked like public mass execution ceremonies.

 The leaders of the revolution who sat in a Committee of Public Safety passed death sentences on the enemies of the revolution and the victims were promptly walked to the guillotine for swift execution. King Louis XVI, the ruling monarch of France at the time of the revolution was accused of ‘conspiring against the public liberty and safety’ and was found guilty by 361 votes of the Committee for immediate execution versus 288 against. Accordingly, on 21 January, 1793, he was guillotined as Citizen Louis Capet, an ordinary Frenchman, for the Committee had already reduced him to that status. But, before his head was pushed through the slot of the machine for the blade to do its job, he had the courage to shout at the public who was witnessing the execution, ‘I am innocent’.

His wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, again reduced to the status of an ordinary Frenchwoman, followed him to the guillotine 10 months later.

Commenting on the reign of terror unleashed by the liberators, economic historian William Woodruff in his 2005 publication, ‘A Concise History of the Modern World’, says ‘...they coerced a nation of twenty seven million, arrested hundreds of thousands and put thousands to death. Not liberty, but the guillotine became the symbol of France’.

The running budget deficits and economic hardships

It was economics mixed up with politics that led to the French Revolution. The blame does not squarely go to King Louis XVI, but to his predecessors who had separated France into two, a privileged class consisting of the monarch, aristocracy and the clergy on one side and the rest of the citizens, on the other. Louis XVI in fact inherited a bad legacy and his crime was failing to introduce the necessary economic reforms well in advance in the face of the boiling and steaming social upheaval. At that time, the French government was bankrupt, its expenditures exceeding incomes for many years. In today’s parlance, this is equivalent to running a deficit in the current account of the government’s budget. Since at that time, the currency issue had been strictly controlled by the gold stocks owned by the government under the gold standard system, the French government could not, like many governments of the day, keep itself afloat temporarily by borrowing abroad or printing money and inflating the economy.

Hence, the ordinary citizens had to pay for the lavishness of the rulers. The tax burdens on them were too heavy and according to caricatures drawn at that time they were carrying on their backs both the aristocrats and the churchmen. But this latter group that enjoyed special privileges at the expense of the common tax payers prevented the government from introducing the needed reforms under which they too should have been made to shoulder the burden of the government.

So, King Louis XVI failed to introduce reforms in time and had to reap the whirlwind that had been created by his predecessors and the prevailing unjust system.

The universal chain of events

What followed thereafter was exactly in accordance with ‘the economics of despotism’ which economists have noted throughout the history. The chain of events that takes place in a similar situation is as follows.

The ordinary citizens are forced to bear greater and greater burdens. The privileged classes enjoying their ‘rents’ (because they do not do any productive work to earn such privileges) become fatter and fatter. Lured by these rents, more and more people try to join the privileged class, but since all cannot be accommodated, there are entry restrictions after sometime. Such rejected parties also turn against the government and make the biggest voice. Society becomes infested with bribery and corruption.

The public rise against the government when economic hardships become unbearable and such hardships are not borne by all equally. The government becomes repressive and uses more and more repressive measures to control the agitating public. Justice, freedoms and rights, the cornerstones of an orderly society, get thrown away. The system starts imploding from within and it is also subject to explosive attacks from outside. A simple event, maybe a false rumour, is sufficient at this stage to spark a massive public uprising. Within days, the government which was perceived as very strong up to that time is forced to come to its knees and eventually overthrown.

This is exactly what happened to the government of the all powerful King Louis XVI on that fateful day 222 years ago.

 Revolutionary leaders no better

But the leaders of the French Revolution were not better than the accursed government of King Louis XVI. They too ran a reign of terror because of the feeling of insecurity on the one hand and what social psychologists today call ‘bias blind spots’ of despotic leaders on the other. Accordingly, the ideals of human rights, justice and fairness for which they had fought in the revolution were very quickly forgotten. While all of them were accused of being ‘blood thirsty’, some leaders like Georges Danton were accused of corruption too. The result was that, within one year of the execution of King Louis XVI, three prominent leaders of the revolution were arrested and guillotined.

The first one to be executed was Georges Danton who was accused of financial misdeeds and becoming a millionaire after the revolution. After the trial, he was promptly guillotined, but like King Louis XVI, he walked to the execution site valiantly. Then it was the turn of the man who had accused Danton at the Committee, Maximillien Robespierre.

 Robespierre had ascended to the leadership of the Committee by winning enemies through favours and putting those who could not be won to the guillotine. But this strategy did not serve him well for long. He too fell a victim to the same terror tactic which he had been employing on others. It was an irony that Robespierre who accused King Louis XVI of conspiring against the public liberty and safety and demanded of the King’s prompt execution was subsequently being charged with the same crime by his accusers with the same demand for prompt execution.

The third man was Robespierre’s close ally Louis Saint – just who too was executed with his master for the same crime.

Affliction by bias blind spot

Why do people throw away the ideals for which they have fought valiantly and become completely strange people after they come to power? Is it due to normal human frailty that people in power are more prone to become corrupt and morally decadent? It may be, but there is a more compelling reason for them to become strangers to their once cherished ideals later. That reason is the tendency for people to get afflicted by what is known as ‘bias blind spot’ after they start enjoying the fruits of newly acquired powers.

This term was coined by the Princeton University’s social psychologist Emily Pronin and her colleagues to refer to a condition in which a person fails to notice his weaknesses because of a bias in his understanding. Pronin did not apply it to despotic leaders, but one could safely see the parallels. It happens in the following way: After a despotic leader starts enjoying his newly acquired powers and all others around him start praising him and his abilities simply to win his favours, the despotic leader develops a bias towards himself. He gets a mental feeling known as ‘illusory superiority’ supported by the ‘halo effect’ created by those who constantly praise him. The corollary of this illusory superiority is his thinking that he is better than all others in the world. Driven by this superiority complex, he becomes a monster who throws all accepted norms, rules, ethics and good practices down the drain. But as has been shown by the inevitable fate of all despotic leaders in the history, pretty soon he becomes a victim of his own exaggerated feeling of superiority.

Revolutions are launched in the name of democracy, justice and fairness. But these are the very terms which the leaders of revolutions tend to forget soon after they capture power. This same tendency has been observed in the case of leaders who come to power by popular ballot too. Is it due to a misunderstanding of the three terms or due to their riding on the sentiments of the public who demand of same? The answer depends on what we really perceive as democracy, justice and fairness.

The Idea of Justice

The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has tried to resolve this issue in a book published in 2009 under the title ‘The Idea of Justice’. In fact, before Sen, it was the Harvard Philosopher the late John Rawls who explained justice as ‘fairness’. Sen, while admitting that he immensely benefited from Rawls’ philosophical underpinnings, has tried to take it beyond Rawls by incorporating reasoning to justice in a society characterised by diverse views and opinions. In view of this, Sen says that justice cannot be precisely and consensually defined. But, everybody perceives injustice and justice should be tackled from the point of view of eliminating or reducing injustice. According to Sen, this was exactly what Parisians did when they stormed the Bastille 222 years ago, Gandhi when he fought with the British Empire and Martin Luther King Jr., when he fought against white supremacy. That is to fight injustice rather than to restore justice in the society.

Democracy: Government by discussion

The usual way to define democracy has been to draw on the US President Abraham Lincoln who said that ‘democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people’. Of late, this definition has been criticised on the ground that the people referred to therein are not the same and therefore it leads to a dictatorship of one type of people on other types. Hence, Sen goes for a new definition of democracy. He says that democracy should be understood as ‘government by discussion’. It is not the well known systems like the elections, parliaments, majority rule, or opposition parties that should constitute a democratic system. They may be necessary, but not sufficient to create a perfect democracy. He says for democracy to become perfect, people should be able to join the decision making processes through interactive discussions and active engagements. Hence, according to him, ‘democracy has to be judged not just by the institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard’.

 Honour your opponents

In a previous book titled ‘The Argumentative Indian’ and published in 2005, Sen has elaborated how effective interactive discussions should be conducted in societies so that the perception of injustice would not prevail. Drawing on Emperor Ashoka’s edicts, Sen says that ‘it was indeed a Buddhist Emperor of India, Ashoka, who in the third century BCE, not only outlined the need for toleration and the richness of heterodoxy, but also laid down what are perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates and disputations’. Ashoka’s edict has simply said that ‘one should duly honour his opponents in every way on all occasions’.

This applies equally to opponents in the intellectual world, opponents in the civil society, opponents in the government and opponents in the war. As recorded by Greek historian Plutarch, Taxila University’s sage Dandamis has said it in a different way when Alexander the Great asked him “how best may a man make himself beloved?” Dandamis’ reply has been that “one is beloved if he has enormous powers but if he does not instil fear in others”. It is said that this reply taught Alexander the Great of the importance of being fair, just and magnanimous in victory towards the defeated.

China needs reforms and not revolutions

On the 222nd Anniversary of the French Revolution, the Central China Television or CCTV had a panel dialogue on the lessons to be learnt by China from the French Revolution. The dialogue was hosted by the veteran broadcaster Yang Rui and participated by Richard Bamle, Professor at China’s Tsinghua University and Francisco Sisci, a free lance journalist.

The consensus at the dialogue was that revolutions are bloody and violent and they should be avoided at all costs. To avoid them, people should be given real powers. It is not sufficient only to give more income to their hands. Instead, they should have access to justice strengthened by rule of law and the maintenance of law and order. It is not welfare which people seek; it is the access to possibilities and opportunities. If these are not ensured, people perceive the system as unjust and unfair. The panel noted that even King Louis XVI tried to introduce the necessary reforms in France, but he did so toward the tail end when it was too late. Hence, it is of utmost importance to introduce the required reforms well in advance. The recent street demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt followed by bloody riots in Syria, Libya and Yemen, despite their high economic prosperity, are cases in point.

The final conclusion by the dialogue panel, as applicable to China, was that it does not need another bloody and destructive revolution, but reforms in advance before the socio-economic systems start boiling and become explosive. This frank soul searching self inquiry by a Chinese State media is a lesson to many other countries.

Reform or face revolutions

This is equally valid for other countries which allow people to perceive the system as unjust and unfair by ignoring the rule of law, law and order, freedoms of thought and expression and right to be consulted and engaged. They may be lethargic in introducing these reforms. But then they should be prepared to reap the whirlwind of bloody and destructive revolutions. So, the motto is ‘introduce reforms in time or perish’.

This is the lesson to be learned from the celebrated French Revolution.

(W.A. Wijewardena could be reached at [email protected] )

Recent columns