Friday, September 20, 2019

Nationalism and the French Revolution

Nationalism and the French Revolution The French Revolution is synonymous with nationalism. In fact, there can be little doubt that the concept of a nationalist revolution was born from the discord that built up in and around the periphery of France during the 1780’s. There was, however, little cohesion or malice aforethought with regards to events that took place after the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Rather than being a planned experiment in nationalism, the French Revolution should instead be interpreted as the result of pent up forces and frustrated political ambitions that had been fermenting in France and throughout Europe for the previous one hundred years. The nationalism of the revolution era was thus rare; a total kind of nationalist ideology that in theory was concerned with furthering the ambitions of ‘la patrie’ (the nation) but which in reality was too dynamic for its own good. The various modes of political office that dominated France over the forthcoming decades were wholly unpre cedented and unable to be contained within the national borders of France alone. As Bouloiseau declares, â€Å"the regime’s intentions were pure, but it lacked the means to put them into practice.†[1] For the purpose of perspective, the following examination of the role that nationalism played in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars must adopt a chronological approach, attempting first to trace the genesis and subsequent evolution of the nationalist uprising before attempting to draw a definitive conclusion as to why the nature of the revolution was far too complex to be explained in simple ideological terms. First, however, a definition of nationalism within the specific historical context in which it was formed must be ascertained in order to establish a conceptual framework for the remainder of the discussion. Nationalism could not have emerged as a populist form of political ideology without there first having been the introduction of the paradigm of the ‘nation‑state’, which was first institutionalised after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. France, Spain, Prussia, Switzerland, Holland and Sweden all signed treaties during the course of 1648 bringing to an end a variety of international conflicts that had beset the European continent for the previous eighty years. The treaty acknowledged the political legitimacy of states on the European mainland, giving rise in the process to the idea of international relations – the foundation of modern foreign policy. This was an important break with the past where relations between countries had been conducted via the historical continental monarchies and the ‘ancien regime’ that had governed feudal, pre‑industrial Europe for centuries. After 1648 the watershed notion had been implanted which suggested th at the rule of the old continental monarchies was coming to an end and that it would be the nation‑state that would become the determining factor in political affairs in Europe in the future. It is a significant point and one that should be borne in mind throughout the remainder of the discussion: without the Peace of Westphalia there could not have been a nationalist revolution, neither in France or anywhere else. Before it, it is difficult to conceive of nationalism in the modern form that is talked of today. The revolution itself was the result of a century of frustration that had built up around the inability to turn this new concept of the nation‑state into a political reality. For instance, despite the increasing urbanisation and industrialisation of the country the monarchy, nobility, aristocracy and the landowners continued to economically and politically dominate France throughout the opening decades of the eighteenth century. Moreover, as was the case with the last days of the Roman Empire, the behaviour of the traditional elite in France appeared to get more lavish and decadent with each passing year so that, by July 1789, France was absolutely ripe to experience what Marxists would understand as a ‘revolution from below’. The intellectuals and the bourgeoisie were able to use a variety of oratorical and politically inflammatory means of inciting the disaffected French masses into open rebellion at this time. One of these means was nationalism. By constantly c laiming that the monarchy and the nobility were destroying the cultural fabric of France, the leaders of the revolution (bourgeois men such as Maximilian Robespierre) were able to quickly turn a large‑scale riot into a wholesale nationalist revolution. In this sense, the dictatorship of Robespierre and The Terror that took effect from July 1793 to July 1794 should be seen as marking the birth of political modernity. â€Å"Robespierre is not so much the heir of Enlightenment as the product of the new system called Jacobinism, the beginning of modern politics.†[2] Modern politics in this instance is a pseudonym for nationalism, which after the French Revolution became the defining concept in European politics until the end of World War Two and the destruction of the Nazi State in 1945. Indeed, the link between the revolution, nationalism and what the twentieth century would come to understand as fascism must at this point be underscored. Fascism, much like the political dictators of the French Revolution, was only able to come to power via a protracted period of liberal decadence having taken place beforehand. Thus in much the same way as the leaders of the French Revolution right wing fascist leaders used nationalism as a means of highlighting the need to undergo a revolutionary national re‑birth; to attempt to form a phoenix from what they perceived as the ashes of political ineptitude and cultural decadence. â€Å"Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism.†[3] The association with fascism is also useful for the way in which it spreads light on how the revolution was unable to be contained with the sovereign national borders of France alone. Like Nazism, nationalism in the context of the French Revolution was a highly unstable ideological solution to a long-term socio‑political problem. The revolution likewise required an external enemy in order to maintain popular support and political legitimacy. Thus, war became the lifeblood of the revolution as, during the course of the 1790’s the leaders of the French Revolution decided that it was no longer enough to have successfully removed from power the former political elite from France; rather, an expansion of the ideology and the means of putting that ideology into practice abroad became the raison d’à ªtre of the regime. â€Å"During the 1790’s the policies pursued by France undoubtedly contributed to mass political mobilisation elsewhere in Europe.†[4] The Napoleonic Wars which followed should be seen as the wars of nationalism which raged across the European continent over the following two decades. Yet there was a tangible sense of a faà §ade appearing whereby the French claimed to be conquering foreign territory in order to transfer the libertarian, enlightened principles of the revolution to lands that had hitherto not been afforded such a valuable political and social insight when in fact the struggles that Napoleon embarked upon across the continent were simply a means of affirming the French nationalists’ belief that they alone were the superior European race. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the invasion of Russia – again a move that strikes immediate comparisons with Hitler and Nazi Germany. By crossing the Urals and moving into the realms of Russian authority, Napoleon finally discarded the mask of the revolution that he had so far been sporting. In no way could the take over of Russia be seen as anything other than the expression of nationalism over political theory. Russia at the time was still an almost entirely feudal country with no industrialisation to speak of even in the major towns and cities such as St. Petersburg. In addition, there was no sophisticated social class system to speak of which could have proved to be a launch pad for a nationalist revolution taking place in Russia on anything like the same scale that had happened in France. Therefore, the invasion was, in the final analysis, simply due to the will of Napoleon and the nationalistic French to increase the revolutionary empire by overcoming the historical pariah of European politics. Furthermore, just like all the other nationalist leaders who went before and came after him, Napoleon was ultimately proved to be incorrect: nationalism (as manifested by the Tsar and the Russian civilian population) was a force that was just as capable of defending a sovereign border territory as it was of invading and con quering it. Nationalism was clearly a double‑edged sword so far as France and Napoleon were concerned. Essentially, the more land the French army seized, the more the Prussians and the English revelled in their own forms of nationalism which were ignited in the first place by French aggression and sustained by the military ambitions of its dictatorial leader. It remains within the realms of conjecture as to whether or not the British Empire would have been established as rapidly and successfully as it was without the experience of the Napoleonic Wars to both inspire as well as crystallise it. There can be little doubt that the rivalry of the two (which had been meted out in the colonial wars that took place at the same time in North America and Canada) had been the result of a growing sense of tension due to the nascent nationalism of both countries. The French Revolution proved to be the catalyst behind the ultimate expression of this nationalistic warfare between the United Kingdom and France – a potent political concoction whose reside is still very much in evidence in the modern era. Mention at this point must be made of the ideological and philosophical impetus behind the French Revolution in order to manufacture an argument against the idea that the uprising was solely the revolt of nationalistic fervour, which it clearly was not. No seizure of power by a people over a ruling government can be anything other than the combination of a number of highly complex social, cultural, economic and political processes. The build up to the storming of the Bastille has been described as the golden age of Enlightenment – an epoch that oversaw the signing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man in America (July 1776), which signalled the notion of all men being born equal and of human beings having been born with certain rights that must be upheld by national and international law. This vision of liberalism that was sweeping across the early modern western world was not initially a vision that was inspired solely by nationalism. Certainly in the United States it is not possible to speak of a nationalist revolution simply because the thirteen colonies at that time consisted of such a mixture of European immigrants as to make the concept of a nation‑state wholly inadequate for the newly conceived ‘Americans.’ The ideal was, rather, a child of ideological and philosophical writings that emanated predominantly from France via contemporary cultural commentators such as Rousseau an d Voltaire. Again, these ideals did not accentuate the nationalism inherent within Enlightenment. Instead they promulgated an essentially socialist view of a new European order that was designed upon a kind of meritocracy rather than values pertaining to inheritance; where ability was seen as more important than historical connection. â€Å"Anyone who excels in something is always sure to be sought after, opportunities will present themselves and merit will do the rest.†[5] This inexorably socialist, libertarian seed that was first planted in what would become the French Revolution is a vital tool for understanding how nationalism alone cannot be seen as responsible for the events of 1789 and the ensuing wars which followed. The ideological impetus behind the revolution was one that genuinely envisaged a utopian new world order that would not be dictated by corrupt and inadequate people the likes of which had conspired to ruin France since the Middle Ages. The reasons as to why this ideal of a revolution from below turned into a large scale international war is entirely due to the make up of mankind, which is especially inclined to be corrupted by power and to look towards routes of making profit out of the conquer and subjugation of alien races. The point has been made before and it must be made again: this kind of overt nationalism that took control of France during the late eighteen and early nineteenth century was the driving force behind all interc ontinental relations over the following one hundred and fifty years. The French Revolution thus oversaw the beginnings of the reign of realpolitik when military might became the only means of maintaining dominance in a Europe increasingly influenced by cultural intolerance and overt political nationalism. Conclusion â€Å"1789 meant a revolution in ideas, in institutions and individual opportunities, which a quarter of a century of upheaval and war made irreversible.†[6] As the above quotation suggests, the revolution that took France by storm during the final years of the eighteenth century was an extremely potent political process that seemed to gather intensity as the success first of the bourgeois dictatorship of The Terror and second of the military dictatorship of Napoleon cemented the ideals of the Enlightenment upon the European mainland. However, although this process might have began as an expression of egalitarian views pertaining to the freedom of all men, the reality of the revolution was one that spoke volumes about the essentially violent nature of the human condition and the extent of the socio‑political frustrations that had been steadily rising since the middle of the previous century. The greatest beneficiary of this volatile mixture was without doubt nationalism – the only ideological force that was able to hold together the disparate aims and ideals that conspired to make up the French Revolution. Nationalism and th e defence of la patrie were used as rallying cries by the petty bourgeoisie, the revolutionary instigators of the Terror and the imperial machinations of the Napoleonic war machine. To what extent these people were successful in their aims of inciting a nationalist revolution remains an issue that still resides predominantly within the realms of conjecture. There certainly appears to be a major schism between the nationalism that gripped the streets of Paris and the other chief urban centres of France and the relative tranquillity of the rural areas of the country that largely retained their bonds both to the nobility and to the ancien regime in the years that immediately followed the revolution[7]. In the final analysis, the concept of la patrie meant very little to the uneducated proletariat working on the rural estates in the agrarian parts of the country where economic necessity took precedence over revolutionary rhetoric and nationalistic uprisings. This then suggests that nationalism is inexorably tied to industrialisation, urbanisation and the ability to wage mobile industrial warfare across a large land mass. This is exactly what happened one hundred and fifty years after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo when the distorted vision of nationalism that inspired the French Revolution came back to haunt Europe and the world on an unimaginable scale. BIBLIOGRAPHY Andress, D. (2005) The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution London: Little, Brown Co. Bouloiseau, M. (1983) (translated by J. Mandelbaum), The Jacobin Republic, 1792‑1794 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Dann, O. and Dinwiddy, J.R. (1988) Nationalism in the Age of the French Revolution London: Continuum Furet, F. (1981) (translated by E. Forster), Interpreting the French Revolution Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Griffin, R. (1991) The Nature of Fascism London: Pinter Merriman, J. (2004) A History of Modern Europe Volume 2: From the French Revolution to the Present London: W.W. Norton Co. Pilbeam, P.M. (1995) Republicanism in Nineteenth Century France, 1814-1871 Basingstoke: Macmillan Rousseau, J-J (1971) (introduction and translated by J.M. Cohen) The Confessions London: Penguin Voltaire (1964) (introduction and translated by J. Butt) Zandig London: Penguin Zeldin, T. (1980) France 1848-1945: Intellect and Pride Oxford: Oxford University Press Selected Articles Biddis, M. (October 1994) Nationalism and the Moulding of Europe, in, Journal of the Historical Association, Volume 79, No. 257 London: Blackwell Footnotes [1] Bouloiseau, M. (1983) (translated by J. Mandelbaum), The Jacobin Republic, 1792‑1794 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.227‑8 [2] Furet, F. (1981) (translated by E. Forster), Interpreting the French Revolution Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.204 [3] Griffin, R. (1991) The Nature of Fascism London: Pinter, p.26 [4] Biddis, M. (October 1994) Nationalism and the Moulding of Europe, in, Journal of the Historical Association, Volume 79, No. 257 London: Blackwell, p.416 [5] Rousseau, J-J (1971) (introduction and translated by J.M. Cohen), The Confessions London: Penguin, p.271 [6] Pilbeam, P.M. (1995) Republicanism in Nineteenth Century France, 1814-1871 Basingstoke: Macmillan, p.267 [7] Zeldin, T. (1980) France 1848-1945: Intellect and Pride Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.2-5

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