The Relationship between Liberal Thought and the French RevolutionJune 29, 2021
If the French Revolution is a fundamental event that has upended modern political thought, it is because it both clarified expectations that had been obscured by previous political changes, and created a new—indiscriminately “bourgeois” and “democratic”—world. This necessitates liberalism to define itself not only in terms of the critique of the “feudal” or absolutist legacy, but in terms of currents that present themselves as more radical.
Some of the major problems arose with the onset of the Revolution, with the friction between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, who embodied two interpretations of the Revolution from a “liberal” point of view. Burke is sensitive to the willful and rationalistic illusions that moved the people of 1789, and their liberal leaning in the “abstraction” of human rights is from what constituted their strength and allowed them to succeed in England: a happy past, “English liberties” won by “commandments,” and more generally ” It reveals a tendency to disengage from the progress of “morals” (manners) and participation in the history of civilization in Europe.
An enemy of the revolution, Burke remains liberal with a commitment to “English liberties” and the balance of authority, a trust in the market and free economy, and a conscious participation in the “values” of modern civilization.
Although he sees the French Revolution as the legal heir to the Revolutions of 1688 and 1776, his rival Paine (who was also allied during the conflict between England and his American colonies) is no less liberal; but especially within the liberal tradition, it has retained the contractual interpretation of the political bond; this means that for him “human rights” are the real basis of free institutions, the market and modern society. In fact, the subject of their discussion is the nature of the political order necessary for the lives of liberal societies. Their examination of the links between the French Revolution and the “glorious Revolution” of 1688 is exemplary.
Both a principle of 1789, previously Il. They agree that he has brought to light the principle of popular sovereignty implicit in the deposition of Jacques by the British Parliament; but for Paine this voluntary, associative, and vaguely revisitable explanation of the basis of political order is a promise of later salvation, for Burke it is a perilous threat to destroy the fragile balance of free society.
Ultimately, the French Revolution showed that the liberal tradition could foster two opposing political currents. The first of these movements, “conservative”, trusts history and thinks that individualist principles cannot establish social bonds. The second, “fundamentalist”, on the contrary, grounds on these principles the necessity of a continuous reform of society. Moreover, this intellectual boundary corresponds from the very beginning to significant deviations on what was not yet called the “social problem” at the time; Burke saw the means to discipline people who rebelled against the social order within the market order and opposed contemporary projects because they helped the poor; however, emphasizing the egalitarian aspects of the market, Paine undertook the theorizing of “social insurance” and basic forms of income distribution (via inheritance tax).
For both, nothing could be more striking than that the market is an example that allows to think about the socialization of individuals (without socialization individuals would be left alone); according to both, the free economy allows us to understand how to extract the knowledge necessary for the life of society; but where Burke puts emphasis on the role of tradition, Paine emphasizes the formation of public opinion within the representative system.
If the Revolution of 1789 led to a retrospective inquiry into the meaning of previous revolutions, the Terror of 1793, and then the military “despotism” of the Consular and Imperial administrations, raised a more dramatic problem underlying all further discussion of the French Revolution: the principles of liberation articulated in 1789. It also brought up the problem of tyranny periods following the Constituent Assembly. For French liberals, this philosophical and historical problem was combined with another, more directly related to politics: French liberals had to both defend the results of the Revolution (representation system, civil equality) and criticize the revolutionary process, at least starting in 1792. The depth in his treatment of these problems made Benjamin Constant the greatest liberal thinker of the period following the Revolution. Constant’s thought took shape between the Terror and the Consular era, during the Thermidorian Convention and the Directory. The problem at that time, for him as well as for his friend Germaine de Staél, was the classic question of the possibility of a republican regime in a large country by purging it of the excesses of the Terror era, to demonstrate the legality and viability of the regime stemming from the Revolution.