French Radicalism

French radicalism therefore confronted a more wily, skilled adversary once American independence had been won, but was itself less skillful and existed in more backward conditions than its American forbear. Jefferson had doubts whether a political order which still granted lawful status to ‘lettres de cachet’ five centuries after Magna Carta could cope with any but the most modest reforms to establish government by consent. French commoners had no comparable experience in democratic decision making practices such as the parliaments and juries that had functioned in England for over a thousand years. This inexperience affected even the proceedings of the national assembly itself which remained largely chaotic despite Mirabeau’s somewhat frantic attempt to improve matters by translating the entire body of English parliamentary rules and conventions. Like their peasant forbears the new citizens of the French republic still had no rights comparable to those established by the 17th century English revolutions. French commoners had been forbidden from keeping, bearing and making arms for centuries. These limitations found reflection in a comparatively more backward level of manufacture. Whereas technology in England was used directly to improve the production of goods, including arms, for general use, in France its primary purpose lay in the manufacture of toys for the aristocracy.

These aspects of the European social order imbued common sense with a different meaning and status by comparison to its British connotation, most especially among the intelligentsia. French radicals were more skeptical of the intellectual capacities of the peasantry, and tended to associate common sense less with science, independence of thought and the separation of faith from reason and more with deference to the establishment and unthinking obedience to religious prejudice and superstition. Robespierre regarded Machiavelli as his main source of strategic insight: deception and force were amply deployed during the Jacobin terror, while the role of an armed citizenry was effectively subordinated to command and control from above. Accordingly the bottom up rights to bear arms, jury trial, freedom of speech and freedom of worship of the American Bill were not included in the French Declaration of Rights, all of which by stark contrast were dependent on how those in power would determine the ‘general will.’ In this way by sleight of hand the French Declaration presents as a ‘right to free speech’ what in effect is merely a right to ask the government if it approves of what you wish to say.

These inclinations towards autocracy and control from the top also reflected the mode of understanding which was prevalent in Europe in regard to scientific method. British scientific method incorporated the approach of the mechanic and artisan, whose point of departure is that which is known, that is to say, self evident, according to sensuous, practical experience. Certainty is judged by the criteria of ordinary understanding and has many, diverse and earthly points of departure, such as the point of contact between the tradesman’s hammer and his misplaced thumb. It was upon the foundation of such self evident truths that the structure and skills of craft industry were developed and incorporated into the experimental methods of scientific enquiry. Trust in the judgement of common sense in scientific method was reflected in the realm of moral and political philosophy. American leaders were alert to the imperatives of practice and retained a clear, cogent and systematic approach to the business of politics.

Scientific method in Europe remained by comparison scholastic and abstract, such that the contrast between the self evidently practical and mere speculative possibility, between what is certain and what is not certain, was constrained to the judgement of an intellectually less coherent radical elite less alert to the strictures of common sense. At bottom the scientific revolution in Europe did not fully embrace the inductive, empirical and experimental course advocated with such force by Francis Bacon, instead retaining a weakness for the medieval practices of scholasticism and the rationalist, deductive method. Accordingly the distinction between certain, self evident truth and the merely speculative remained theoretical and divorced from practical application in European theory. Aristotelian science rested upon the conviction that the first truth of knowledge was an abstract, logical postulate entitled the principle of non-contradiction or ‘law of identity.’ This states that something cannot simultaneously be itself and something else: ‘A cannot be A and not A at the same time.’

Descartes emulated Bacon’s break with such method but inconsistently, with a mind to the watchful eye of theological censors. His rationalist approach although more ‘mechanical’ in orientation still bears the hallmark of scholastic theorising in the claim that certainty in knowledge is a function of solipsistic intellectual deduction (I think therefore I am), an ‘innate idea’ made possible by the grace of a beneficent deity. Leibniz refused even to take this limited and in any case still deeply flawed step towards modern scientific method. Locke in stark contrast launched a determined assault on the scholastic method, rejecting in the process both the concept of innate ideas and also the notion that there is only one primary self evident truth. Kant, emboldened by Hume’s skeptical muddying of the waters affected to revive scholasticism and subvert empiricism at one and the same time by expounding a rationalist approach to certainty which undermined the very possibility of truth. Truth for French and German academic thought even after Locke’s empiricist victory remained an obscurantist realm for experts and scholars, in which faith and reason still remained ultimately interdependent. The European intellectual establishment tended to associate science primarily or even exclusively with scholarly endeavour, often conducted in conformity with religious doctrine, not the base activities of tradesmen and artisans unconstrained by theological considerations. Whereas Germany had rapidly expanded its universities to over forty in number by the close of the eighteenth century, England pioneered the scientific and industrial revolutions still with only two. While in Britain, as Locke advised, philosophy performed the role of ‘humble underlabourer to science,’ this relation was never fully accepted on the continent right through the 19th century even to the present era.

European social theory failed in this context to keep abreast of British debate and discussion on the relation between science, philosophy and common sense. Jefferson and his colleagues were fully acquainted with the highest expression of these polemics: that of Reid’s demolition of Hume’s skeptical critique of Locke’s synthesis of sensationalism, natural law and common sense understanding. This is the most important debate, arguably, in the entire history of philosophy in regard to the relation between common sense and intellectual speculation, but European theorists were, and largely remain even to this day, virtually ignorant of its full import and implications. Reid’s work does not fully supercede but serves rather as a corrective complement to Locke’s accomplishment in having largely resolved the tension in his combination of a consequentialist empiricism with the deontological postulates of natural law by taking more adequate account of the prehensile attributes of cognition in their necessary relation to the self evident truths of common sense. This solution offers a less speculative, more adequately realist alternative to the dualism of Descartes and Kant less vulnerable to the scholastic inclinations of the rationalist tradition be they dogmatic or skeptical.

These distinctions found expression in different approaches to political reform. American radicalism was ordered, systematic and scientific in its aspirations, respecting distinctions between what is basic, necessary, self evident and relatively certain in outcome from proposals which are optional and dubious in effect, and careful to refrain from the use of unnecessary and excessive force to achieve its aims. French radicalism by comparison was less coherent in its ultimate aspirations, more vulnerable to extremist sentiment, less mindful of common sense in its aims, and more likely to revert to autocratic methods to achieve them. Whereas Jefferson trusted to common sense as the chief source of popular support for the revolutionary cause, Robespierre saw the pre-scientific ideas of Machiavelli as the guide to statecraft in the French Republic, and with this deliberate reliance upon lies, force and terror to ensure support among the people.

Against this background Robespierre followed Machiavelli and Rousseau in advocating the destruction of Christianity through enforcement of a new state religion to ensure obedience to the French republic. This contrasted starkly with both English toleration and the American establishment of freedom of worship. Both Robespierre’s attempt to impose deism and his leftist rivals attempt to impose atheism are broadly symptomatic of the top down, aristocratic orientation of French radicalism and its easy vulnerability to caesarism and bonapartism. They are also symptomatic of the scholastic, abstractly deductive approach of European theory and philosophy, pursued without serious regard for common sense. Yet ironically it is the agnostic orientation of English common sense which is the more scientific, not least because it conforms to Socrates definition of wisdom - to know what you do not know – but also because in doing so it is less likely to confuse self evident certainty with mere speculation.

It can be argued that there is merit to the autocratic traits of French radicalism, since they enabled the early abolition of slavery, while the USA did not achieve this for another 70 years. That view however is both inaccurate and short sighted: it was the State of Vermont which was the first independent state in world history to end slavery, not the French Republic. Following Napoleon’s restoration of slavery, abolition of it throughout the French empire took another half century - and it may be conjectured that had the Second French Republic been forced to fight the most bloody civil war in history to free its slaves it would not have freed them, leave alone held a successful election while doing so. An accurate assessment of the legacy of the American and French revolutions is that the former comprised a so far irreversible, real step forward in political development which continues to serve as the most advanced constitutional foundation for social progress on a world historical scale, while the latter proved fleeting in existence based on a shallow, merely autocratic and therefore fraudulent claim to democratic legitimacy, leaving an intractable and volatile legacy of theoretical confusion and extremism from which totalitarian ideologies later emerged.

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