The Theory of Social Revolutions
By Brooks Adams
Public Domain Books
Chapter IV - The Social Equilibrium
I assume it as self-evident that those who, at any given moment, are the strongest in any civilization, will be those who are at once the ruling class, those who own most property, and those who have most influence on legislation. The weaker will fare hardly in proportion to their weakness. Such is the order of nature. But, since those are the strongest through whom nature finds it, for the time being, easiest to vent her energy, and as the whole universe is in ceaseless change, it follows that the composition of ruling classes is never constant, but shifts to correspond with the shifting environment. When this movement is so rapid that men cannot adapt themselves to it, we call the phenomenon a revolution, and it is with revolutions that I now have to do.
Nothing is more certain than that the intellectual adaptability of the individual man is very limited. A ruling class is seldom conscious of its own decay, and most of the worst catastrophes of history have been caused by an obstinate resistance to change when resistance was no longer possible. Thus while an incessant alteration in social equilibrium is inevitable, a revolution is a problem in dynamics, on the correct solution of which the fortunes of a declining class depend.
For example, the modern English landlords replaced the military feudal aristocracy during the sixteenth century, because the landlords had more economic capacity and less credulity. The men who supplanted the mediaeval soldiers in Great Britain had no scruple about robbing the clergy of their land, and because of this quality they prospered greatly. Ultimately the landlords reached high fortune by controlling the boroughs which had, in the Middle Ages, acquired the right to return members to the House of Commons. Their domination lasted long; nevertheless, about 1760, the rising tide of the Industrial Revolution brought forward another type of mind. Flushed by success in the Napoleonic wars the Tories failed to appreciate that the social equilibrium, by the year 1830, had shifted, and that they no longer commanded enough physical force to maintain their parliamentary ascendancy. They thought they had only to be arrogant to prevail, and so they put forward the Duke of Wellington as their champion. They could hardly have made a poorer choice. As Disraeli has very truly said, “His Grace precipitated a revolution which might have been delayed for half a century, and need never have occurred in so aggravated a form.” The Duke, though a great general, lacked knowledge of England. He began by dismissing William Huskisson from his Cabinet, who was not only its ablest member, but perhaps the single man among the Tories who thoroughly comprehended the industrial age. Huskisson’s issue was that the franchise of the intolerably corrupt East Retford should be given to Leeds or Manchester. Having got rid of Huskisson, the Duke declared imperiously that he would concede nothing to the disfranchised industrial magnates, nor to the vast cities in which they lived. A dissolution of Parliament followed and in the election the Tories were defeated. Although Wellington may not have been a sagacious statesman, he was a capable soldier and he knew when he could and when he could not physically fight. On this occasion, to again quote Disraeli, “He rather fled than retired.” He induced his friends to absent themselves from the House of Lords and permit the Reform Bill to become law. Thus the English Tories, by their experiment with the Duke of Wellington, lost their boroughs and with them their political preeminence, but at least they saved themselves, their families, and the rest of their property. As a class they have survived to this day, although shorn of much of the influence which they might very probably have retained had they solved more correctly the problem of 1830. In sum, they were not altogether impervious to the exigencies of their environment. The French Revolution is the classic example of the annihilation of a rigid organism, and it is an example the more worthy of our attention as it throws into terrible relief the process by which an intellectually inflexible race may convert the courts of law which should protect their decline into the most awful engine for their destruction.
The essence of feudalism was a gradation of rank, in the nature of caste, based upon fear. The clergy were privileged because the laity believed that they could work miracles, and could dispense something more vital even than life and death. The nobility were privileged because they were resistless in war. Therefore, the nobility could impose all sorts of burdens upon those who were unarmed. During the interval in which society centralized and acquired more and more a modern economic form, the discrepancies in status remained, while commensurately the physical or imaginative force which had once sustained inequality declined, until the social equilibrium grew to be extremely unstable. Add to this that France, under the monarchy, was ill consolidated. The provinces and towns retained the administrative complexity of an archaic age, even to local tariffs. Thus under the monarchy privilege and inequality pervaded every phase of life, and, as the judiciary must be, more or less, the mouthpiece of society, the judiciary came to be the incarnation of caste.
Speaking broadly, the judicial office, under the monarchy, was vendible. In legal language, it was an incorporeal hereditament. It could be bought and sold and inherited like an advowson, or right to dispose of a cure of souls in the English Church, or of a commission in the English army. The system was well recognized and widespread in the eighteenth century, and worked fairly well with the French judiciary for about three hundred years, but it was not adapted to an industrial environment. The judicial career came to be pretty strongly hereditary in a few families, and though the members of these families were, on the whole, self-respecting, honest, and learned, they held office in their own right and not as a public trust. So in England members of the House of Commons, who sat for nomination boroughs, did not, either in fact or theory, represent the inhabitants of those boroughs, but patrons; and in like manner French judges could never learn to regard themselves as the trustees of the civil rights of a nation, but as a component part of a class who held a status by private title. Looked at as a problem in dynamics the inherent vice in all this kind of property and in all this administrative system, was the decay, after 1760, of the physical force which had engendered it and defended it. As in England the ascendancy of the landlords passed away when England turned from an agricultural into an industrial society, so in France priests and nobles fell into contempt, when most peasants knew that the Church could neither harm by its curse nor aid by its blessing, and when commissions in the army were given to children or favorites, as a sort of pension, while the pith of the nation was excluded from military command because it could not prove four quarterings of nobility. Hardly an aristocrat in France had shown military talent for a generation, while, when the revolution began, men like Jourdan and Kleber, Ney and Augereau, and a host of other future marshals and generals had been dismissed from the army, or were eating out their hearts as petty officers with no hope of advancement. Local privileges and inequalities were as intolerable as personal. There were privileged provinces and those administered arbitrarily by the Crown, there were a multiplicity of internal tariffs, and endless municipal franchises and monopolies, so much so that economists estimated that, through artificial restraints, one-quarter of the soil of France lay waste. Turgot, in his edict on the grain trade, explained that kings in the past by ordinance, or the police without royal authority, had compiled a body “of legislation equivalent to a prohibition of bringing grain into Paris,” and this condition was universal. One province might be starving and another oppressed with abundance.
Meanwhile, under the stimulant of applied science, centralization went on resistlessly, and the cost of administration is proportionate to centralization. To bear the burden of a centralized government taxes must be equal and movement free, but here was a rapidly centralizing nation, the essence of whose organism was that taxes should be unequal and that movement should be restricted.
As the third quarter of the eighteenth century closed with the death of Louis XV, all intelligent French administrators recognized the dilemma; either relief must be given, or France must become insolvent, and revolution supervene upon insolvency. But for the aristocracy revolution had no terrors, for they believed that they could crush revolution as their class had done for a thousand years.
Robert Turgot was born in 1727, of a respectable family. His father educated him for the Church, but lack of faith caused him to prefer the magistracy, and on the death of his father he obtained a small place in the Court of Parliament. Afterward he became a Master of Requests, and served for seven years in that judicial position, before he was made Intendant of the Province of Limousin. Even thus early in life Turgot showed political sagacity. In an address at the Sorbonne he supported the thesis that “well-timed reform alone averts revolution." Distinguishing himself as Intendant, on the death of Louis XV the King called Turgot to the Council of State, and in August, 1774, Turgot became Minister of Finance. He came in pledged to reform, and by January, 1776, he had formulated his plan. In that month he presented to the King his memorable Six Edicts, the first of which was the most celebrated state paper he ever wrote. It was the Edict for the Suppression of the Corvée. The corvée threw the burden of maintaining the highways on the peasantry by exacting forced labor. It was admittedly the most hateful, the most burdensome, and the most wasteful of all the bad taxes of the time, and Turgot, following the precedent of the Roman Empire, advised instead a general highway impost. The proposed impost in itself was not considerable, and would not have been extraordinarily obnoxious to the privileged classes, but for the principle of equality by which Turgot justified it: “The expenses of government having for their object the interests of all, all should contribute to them; and the more advantages a man has, the more that man should contribute.”
Nor was this the most levelling of Turgot’s arguments. He pointed out that though originally the exemption from taxation, which the nobility enjoyed, might have been defended on the ground that the nobles were bound to yield military service without pay, such service had long ceased to be performed, while on the contrary titles could be bought for money. Hence every wealthy man became a noble when he pleased, and thus exemption from taxation had come to present the line of cleavage between the rich and poor. By this thrust the privileged classes felt themselves wounded in their vitals, and the Parliament of Paris, the essence of privilege, assumed their defence. To be binding, the edicts had to be registered by the Parliament among the laws of France, and Parliament declined to make registration on the ground that the edicts were unconstitutional, as subversive of the monarchy and of the principle of order. The opinion of the court was long, but a single paragraph gives its purport: “The first rule of justice is to preserve to every one what belongs to him: this rule consists, not only in preserving the rights of property, but still more in preserving those belonging to the person, which arise from the prerogative of birth and of position.... From this rule of law and equity it follows that every system which, under an appearance of humanity and beneficence, would tend to establish between men an equality of duties, and to destroy necessary distinctions, would soon lead to disorder (the inevitable result of equality), and would bring about the overturn of civil society.”
This judicial opinion was an enunciation of the archaic law of caste as opposed to the modern law of equality, and the cataclysm of the French Revolution hinged upon the incapacity of the French aristocracy to understand that the environment, which had once made caste a necessity, had yielded to another which made caste an impossibility. In vain Turgot and his contemporaries of the industrial type, represented in England by Adam Smith or even by the younger Pitt, explained that unless taxes were equalized and movement accelerated, insolvency must supervene, and that a violent readjustment must follow upon insolvency. With their eyes open to the consequences, the Nobility and Clergy elected to risk revolt, because they did not believe that revolt could prevail against them. Nothing is so impressive in the mighty convulsion which ensued as the mental opacity of the privileged orders, which caused them to increase their pressure in proportion as resistance increased, until finally those who were destined to replace them reorganized the courts, that they might have an instrument wherewith to slaughter a whole race down to the women and children. No less drastic method would serve to temper the rigidity of the aristocratic mind. The phenomenon well repays an hour of study.
Insolvency came within a decade after Turgot’s fall, as Turgot had demonstrated that it must come, and an insolvency immediately precipitated by the rapacity of the court which had most need of caution. The future Louis XVIII, for example, who was then known as the Comte de Provence, on one occasion, when the government had made a loan, appropriated a quarter of it, laughingly observing, “When I see others hold out their hands, I hold out my hat.” In 1787 the need for money became imperative, and, not daring to appeal to the nation, the King convoked an assembly of “notables,” that is to say of the privileged. Calonne, the minister, proposed pretty much the measures of Turgot, and some of these measures the “notables” accepted, but the Parliament of Paris again intervened and declined to register the laws. The Provincial Parliaments followed the Parliament of Paris. After this the King had no alternative but to try the experiment of calling the States-General. They met on May 4, 1789, and instantly an administrative system, which no longer rested upon a social centre of gravity, crumbled, carrying the judiciary with it. At first the three estates sat separately. If this usage had continued, the Clergy and the Nobles combined would have annulled every measure voted by the Commons. For six weeks the Commons waited. Then on June 10, the Abbé Sieyès said, “Let us cut the cable. It is time.” So the Clergy and the Nobility were summoned, and some of the Clergy obeyed. This sufficed. On motion of Sieyès, the Commons proclaimed themselves the National Assembly, and the orders fused. Immediately caste admitted defeat and through its mouthpiece, the King, commanded the Assembly to dissolve. The Commons refused to dissolve, and the Nobles prepared for a coup d’etat. The foreign regiments, in the pay of the government, were stationed about Paris, while the Bastille, which was supposed to be impregnable, was garrisoned with Swiss. In reply, on July 14, 1789, the citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille. An unstable social equilibrium had been already converted by pressure into a revolution. Nevertheless, excentric as the centre of gravity had now become, it might have been measurably readjusted had the privileged classes been able to reason correctly from premise to conclusion. Men like Lafayette and Mirabeau still controlled the Assembly, and if the King and the Nobility had made terms, probably the monarchy might have been saved, certainly the massacres would have been averted. As a decaying class is apt to do, the Nobility did that which was worst for themselves. Becoming at length partly conscious of a lack of physical force in France to crush the revolution, a portion of the nobility, led by the Comte d’Artois, the future Charles X, fled to Germany to seek for help abroad, while the bolder remained to plan an attack on the rebellion. On October 1, 1789, a great military banquet was given at Versailles. The King and Queen with the Dauphin were present. A royalist demonstration began. The bugles sounded a charge, the officers drew their swords, and the ladies of the court tore the tricolor from the soldiers’ coats and replaced it with the white cockade. On October 5, a vast multitude poured out of Paris, and marched to Versailles. The next day they broke into the palace, killed the guards, and carried the King and Queen captive to the Tuileries. But Louis was so intellectually limited that he could not keep faith with those who wished him well. On July 14, 1790, the King swore, before half a million spectators, to maintain the new constitution. In that summer he was plotting to escape to Metz and join the army which had been collected there under the Marquis de Bouillé, while Bouillé himself, after the rising at Nancy, was busy in improving discipline by breaking on the wheel a selection of the soldiers of the Swiss regiment of Châteauvieux which had refused to march against Paris on the 14th of July, 1789. In October, 1790, Louis wrote to the King of Spain and other sovereigns to pay no heed to his concessions for he only yielded to duress, and all this even as Mirabeau made his supreme effort to save those who were fixed upon destroying themselves. Mirabeau sought the King and offered his services. The court sneered at him as a dupe. The Queen wrote, “We make use of Mirabeau, but we do not take him seriously.” When Mirabeau awoke to his predicament, he broke out in mixed wrath and scorn: “Of what are these people thinking? Do they not see the abyss yawning at their feet? Both the King and Queen will perish, and you will live to see the rabble spurn their corpses.”
The King and Queen, the Nobility and Clergy, could not see the abyss which Mirabeau saw, any more than the lawyers could see it, because of the temper of their minds. In the eye of caste Europe was not primarily divided into nations to whom allegiance was due, but into superimposed orders. He who betrayed his order committed the unpardonable crime. Death were better than that. But to the true aristocrat it was inconceivable that serfs could ever vanquish nobles in battle. Battle must be the final test, and the whole aristocracy of Europe was certain, Frenchmen knew, to succor the French aristocracy in distress.
So in the winter of 1790 the French fugitives congregated at Coblentz on the German frontier, persuaded that they were performing a patriotic duty in organizing an invasion of their country even should their onset be fatal to their relatives and to their King. And Louis doubted not that he also did his duty as a trustee of a divine commission when he in one month swore, before the Assembly, to maintain the constitution tendered him, and in the next authorized his brother, the Comte d’Artois, to make the best combination he could among his brother sovereigns for the gathering of an army to assert his divine prerogative. On June 21, 1791, Louis fled, with his whole family, to join the army of Bouillé, with intent to destroy the entire race of traitors from Mirabeau and Lafayette down to the peasants. He managed so ill that he was arrested at Varennes, and brought back whence he came, but he lied and plotted still.
Two years had elapsed between the meeting of the States-General and the flight to Varennes, and in that interval nature had been busy in selecting her new favored class. Economists have estimated that the Church owned one-third of the land of Europe during the Middle Ages. However this may have been she certainly held a very large part of France. On April 16, 1790, the Assembly declared this territory to be national property, and proceeded to sell it to the peasantry by means of the paper assignats which were issued for the purpose, and were supposed to be secured upon the land. The sales were generally made in little lots, as the sales were made of the public domain in Rome under the Licinian Laws, and with an identical effect. The Emperor of Germany and the King of Prussia met at Pilnitz in August, 1791, to consider the conquest of France, and, on the eve of that meeting, the Assembly received a report which stated that these lands to the value of a thousand million francs had already been distributed, and that sales were going on. It was from this breed of liberated husbandmen that France drew the soldiers who fought her battles and won her victories for the next five and twenty years.
Assuming that the type of the small French landholder, both rural and urban, had been pretty well developed by the autumn of 1791, the crisis came rapidly, for the confiscations which created this new energy roused to frenzy, perhaps the most formidable energy which opposed it. The Church had not only been robbed of her property but had been wounded in her tenderest part. By a decree of June 12, 1790, the Assembly transferred the allegiance of the French clergy from the Pope to the state, and the priesthood everywhere vowed revenge. In May, 1791, the Marquis de la Rouërie, it is true, journeyed from his home in Brittany to Germany to obtain the recognition of the royal princes for the insurrection which he contemplated in La Vendée, but the insurrection when it occurred was not due so much to him or his kind as to the influence of the nonjuring priests upon the peasant women of the West.
The mental condition of the French emigrants at Coblentz during this summer of 1791 is nothing short of a psychological marvel. They regarded the Revolution as a jest, and the flight to the Rhine as a picnic. These beggared aristocrats, male and female, would throw their money away by day among the wondering natives, and gamble among themselves at night. If they ever thought of the future it was only as the patricians in Pompey’s camp thought; who had no time to prepare for a campaign against Caesar, because they were absorbed in distributing offices among themselves, or in inventing torments to inflict on the rebels. Their chief anxiety was lest the resistance should be too feeble to permit them to glut themselves with blood. The creatures of caste, the emigrants could not conceive of man as a variable animal, or of the birth of a race of warriors under their eyes. To them human nature remained constant. Such, they believed, was the immutable will of God.
So it came to pass that, as the Revolution took its shape, a vast combination among the antique species came semi-automatically into existence, pledged to envelop and strangle the rising type of man, a combination, however, which only attained to maturity in 1793, after the execution of the King. Leopold II, Emperor of Germany, had hitherto been the chief restraining influence, both at Pilnitz and at Paris, through his correspondence with his sister, Marie Antoinette; but Leopold died on March 1, 1792, and was succeeded by Francis II, a fervid reactionist and an obedient son of the Church. Then caste fused throughout Germany, and Prussia and Austria prepared for war. Rouërie had returned to Brittany and only awaited the first decisive foreign success to stab the Revolution in the back. England also was ripening, and the instinct of caste, incarnated in George III, found its expression through Edmund Burke. In 1790 Burke published his “Reflections,” and on May 6, 1791, in a passionate outbreak in the House of Commons, he renounced his friendship with Fox as a traitor to his order and his God. Men of Burke’s temperament appreciated intuitively that there could be no peace between the rising civilization and the old, one of the two must destroy the other, and very few of them conceived it to be possible that the enfranchised French peasantry and the small bourgeoisie could endure the shock of all that, in their eyes, was intelligent, sacred, and martial in the world.
Indeed, aristocracy had, perhaps, some justification for arrogance, since the revolt in France fell to its lowest depth of impotence between the meeting at Pilnitz in August, 1791, and the reorganization of the Committee of Public Safety in July, 1793. Until August, 1792, the executive authority remained with the King, but the court of Louis was the focus of resistance to the Revolution, and even though a quasi-prisoner the King was still strong. Monarchy had a firm hold on liberal nobles like Mirabeau and Lafayette, on adventurers like Dumouriez, and even on lawyers like Danton who shrank from excessive cruelty. Had the pure Royalists been capable of enough intellectual flexibility to keep faith upon any reasonable basis of compromise, even as late as 1792, the Revolution might have been benign. In June, 1792, Lafayette, who commanded the army of the North, came to Paris and not only ventured to lecture the Assembly on its duty, but offered to take Louis to his army, who would protect him against the Jacobins. The court laughed at Lafayette as a Don Quixote, and betrayed his plans to the enemy. “I had rather perish,” said the Queen, “than be saved by M. de Lafayette and his constitutional friends.” And in this she only expressed the conviction which the caste to which she belonged held of their duty. Cazalés protested to the Assembly, “Though the King perish, let us save the kingdom.” The Archduchess Christina wrote to her sister, Marie Antoinette, “What though he be slain, if we shall triumph,” and Condé, in December, 1790, swore that he would march on Lyons, “come what might to the King.”
France was permeated with archaic thought which disorganized the emerging society until it seemingly had no cohesion. To the French emigrant on the Rhine that society appeared like a vile phantom which had but to be exorcised to vanish. And the exorcism to which he had recourse was threats of vengeance, threats which before had terrified, because they had behind them a force which made them good. Torture had been an integral part of the old law. The peasant expected it were he insubordinate. Death alone was held to be too little to inspire respect for caste. Some frightful spectacle was usually provided to magnify authority. Thus Bouillé broke on the wheel, while the men were yet alive, every bone in the bodies of his soldiers when they disobeyed him; and for scratching Louis XV, with a knife, Damiens, after indescribable agonies, was torn asunder by horses in Paris, before an immense multitude. The French emigrants believed that they had only to threaten with a similar fate men like Kellermann and Hoche to make them flee without a blow. What chiefly concerned the nobles, therefore, was not to evolve a masterly campaign, but to propound the fundamental principles of monarchy, and to denounce an awful retribution on insurgents.
By the middle of July, 1792, the Prussians were ready to march, and emperors, kings, and generals were meditating manifestoes. Louis sent the journalist Mallet du Pan to the Duke of Brunswick, the commander-in-chief, to assist him in his task. On July 24, and on August 4, 1792, the King of Prussia laid down the law of caste as emphatically as had the Parliament of Paris some twenty years before. On July 25, the Duke of Brunswick pronounced the doom of the conquered. I come, said the King of Prussia, to prevent the incurable evils which will result to France, to Europe and to all mankind from the spread of the spirit of insubordination, and to this end I shall establish the monarchical power upon a stable basis. For, he continued in the later proclamation, “the supreme authority in France being never ceasing and indivisible, the King could neither be deprived nor voluntarily divest himself of any of the prerogatives of royalty, because he is obliged to transmit them entire with his own crown to his successors.”
The Duke of Brunswick’s proclamation contained some clauses written expressly for him by Mallet du Pan, and by Limon the Royalist.
If the Palace of the Tuileries be forced, if the least violence be offered to their Majesties, if they are not immediately set at liberty, then will the King of Prussia and the Emperor of Germany inflict “on those who shall deserve it the most exemplary and ever-memorable avenging punishments.”
These proclamations reached Paris on July 28, and simultaneously the notorious Fersen wrote the Queen of France, “You have the manifesto, and you should be content.” The court actually believed that, having insulted and betrayed Lafayette and all that body of conservative opinion which might have steadied the social equilibrium, they could rely on the fidelity of regiments filled with men against whom the emigrants and their allies, the Prussians, had just denounced an agonizing death, such as Bouillé’s soldiers had undergone, together with the destruction of their homes.
All the world knows what followed. The Royalists had been gathering a garrison for the Tuileries ever since Lafayette’s visit, in anticipation of a trial of strength with the Revolutionists. They had brought thither the Swiss guard, fifteen hundred strong; the palace was full of Royalist gentlemen; Mandat, who commanded the National Guard, had been gained over. The approaches were swept by artillery. The court was very confident. On the night of August 9, Mandat was murdered, an insurrectional committee seized the City Hall, and when Louis XVI came forth to review the troops on the morning of the 10th of August, they shouted, “Vive la Nation” and deserted. Then the assault came, the Swiss guard was massacred, the Assembly thrust aside, and the royal family were seized and conveyed to the Temple. There the monarchy ended. Thus far had the irrational opposition of a moribund type thrown into excentricity the social equilibrium of a naturally conservative people. They were destined to drive it still farther.
In this supreme moment, while the Prussians were advancing, France had no stable government and very imperfect means of keeping order. All the fighting men she could muster had marched to the frontier, and, even so, only a demoralized mass of levies, under Dumouriez and Kellermann, lay between the most redoutable regiments of the world and Paris. The emigrants and the Germans thought the invasion but a military promenade. At home treason to the government hardly cared to hide itself. During much of August the streets of Paris swarmed with Royalists who cursed the Revolution, and with priests more bitter than the Royalists. Under the windows of Louis, as he lay in the Temple, there were cries of “Long live the King,” and in the prisons themselves the nobles drank to the allies and corresponded with the Prussians. Finally, Roland, who was minister, so far lost courage that he proposed to withdraw beyond the Loire, but Danton would hear of no retreat. “De l’audace,” he cried, “encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace.”
The Assembly had not been responsible for the assault on the Tuileries on August 10, 1792. Filled with conservatives, it lacked the energy. That movement had been the work of a knot of radicals which had its centre in Danton’s Club of the Cordeliers. Under their impulsion the sections of Paris chose commissioners who should take possession of the City Hall and eject the loyalist Council. They did so, and thus Danton became for a season the Minister of Justice and the foremost man in France. Danton was a semi-conservative. His tenure of power was the last possibility of averting the Terror. The Royalists, whom he trusted, themselves betrayed him, and Danton fell, to be succeeded by Robespierre and his political criminal courts. Meanwhile, on September 20, 1792, the Prussian column recoiled before the fire of Kellermann’s mob of “vagabonds, cobblers and tailors,” on the slope of Valmy, and with the victory of Valmy, the great eighteenth-century readjustment of the social equilibrium of Europe passed into its secondary stage.