Monday, May 30, 2005

The Revolution Controvery Continues

University of Michigan Law Professor Don Herzog, at Left2Right, has been recreating the pamphlet wars of the 1790s on the internet. It's fascinating to watch. Having gained the trust of some very smart conservatives, he posts excerpts of some of anti-Jacobin polemics, frames it non-confrontationally, and lets loose the power of the comment-thread to see what pops up. It's a thorny problem, and I continue thinking about it below the fold.

The taught history of this period, of course, is that the French Revolution was the most important and influential popular expression of equality that had ever existed, that it set the terms for equal suffrage for later democracies, and that it gave a permanent warning to all governments that some abuses a populace, even a debased one, would not stand. I do think that all this is true.

Yet, as some very fine revisionist historians have shown, "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" purposively left out some people, like all those who might feel drawn to either "soroite" or the more inclusive humanite." Even leftist historians feel sympathy for those English fellow-travellers who reacted with horror when the French revolutionary government moved on Switzerland, one of the few states whose regimes had a decently popular support.

The effect of these ambiguities on the more open society of England--open in the sense of having a well-established free press and having had a revolution, of sorts, of its own in the 17thc--was an extraordinarily eloquent public argument in oratory, verse, drama, pamphlets, novels, and treatises--to the point that some historians have claimed (and I'm thinking Perry Anderson here) that English writers and activists had such access to communicating their political views that they were more easily encompassed into the political process, thereby circumventing the possibility of violently overthrowing the reigning class structure. Cause, effect, outcome, almost moot: for a student of this sort of conflict, the English pamphlet wars are among the richest public debates between a nascent liberalism and a nascent conservatism.

The best resource for reading on this subject, by the way, is an anthology edited by the hardheaded, erudite Marilyn Butler: Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy (Cambridge UP, 1984). The introductory essay is short and--man--it's something.

So Herzog has been scratching at what might indeed be primal scars. In his first such post, he goes straight for the jugular: Burke's suspicion that atheism might lead one into abstract schemes that would entail violence. In the second post, he disguises his hand somewhat more, posting a link to William Paley's suggestion that the working classes of England should make themselves content within their means--and he strips this argument of its political context, asking commentors whether they identify with its logic. In the third post, he reproduces segments of Hannah More's pamphlet that stages a debate between a Paineite and a pious status-quoist, and he argues that while the Paineite's atheism might not be relevant today, the political view of popular franchise has certainly prevailed over Moore's paternalizing separation of duties.

And this is where we get into trouble. All of the texts Herzog cites were written within a charged political context, no matter how important the individuals who wrote them. They are perhaps two steps removed from blog posts for immediacy and directedness. Yes, the argument that was created at this time set many boundaries and tropes for both conservative and liberal thought--but the literary historian in me rebels to see the language of the argument so entirely uncontextualized, made so entirely into ideology that can be transposed into the present.

I understand the impulse: the site is, after all, managing to foster a civil dialogue between liberal academics and conservative commenters, which is surely be an online achievement. And yet it does so by a curious flattening of all the historical figures involved.

Next up: the liberal reading of conservative icon, Edmund Burke. And then, later, a conservative reading of Tom Paine. They do shift around so....


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