A Deep Dive into Jacques Ellul's "Autopsy of Revolution" pt. 2: The Rational Bourgeoisie State.
The rise of the bourgeoisie demanded a rational society. In their hands, revolution is transformed into a force for a positive future as instantiated in the modern rational state.
Ellul argues that the French Revolution marked not so much a transformation in France, although it was that; rather it brought a change to the entire West. It was decisively influential on Karl Marx, who made it a paradigm through which he wanted us to understand all of human history. 1789 marked the division between the old kind of revolution and the new kind of revolution which took shape in the mind of Marx. But his thinking is not something which occurred in a vacuum. Marx was giving expression to currents within the culture brought about by the rise of the bourgeoisie. Let’s look at these changes.
To begin this discussion, Ellul draws on the thinking of Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just, a key player in the French Revolution, an organizer and thinker. Saint-Just says this:
“Passion is the soul of liberty; in time it withers and fades forever, for we are only virtuous once…when a liberated people has established sound laws, its revolution is achieved.” L’Esprit de la Revolution 1791
Saint-Just argued that if liberty prevails it must become corrupted. The passion for liberty would remove all restraint and in so doing it would destroy liberty. This is vital to understand, argues Ellul. This move from an outburst of liberty to its institutionalization must necessarily result in the undermining of liberty itself. This, he asserts, is why Hanna Arendt’s understanding of revolution is flawed, because she confuses liberty with with the institutions which are supposedly set up to safeguard liberty, at the heart of which are organizing documents like the Constitution. Ellul argues that once instituted, these structures and frameworks essentially kill off the liberty won through the revolt, but in so doing prevents the revolt from consuming and destroying society. As we noted in part one, this betrayal of the revolution is essential for the success of the revolution. It is one of the fundamental contradictions in the concept of “the revolution.”
Up to the time of French Revolution it must be seen that revolutions were primarily conservative, reactionary, a revolt against history. In the process of the French Revolution the myth began to emerge that a new world could be obtained without new men. All that would be required was new institutions. All that would be needed to change the life of the nation would be a new plan to be instantiated in a new state. It would be enough simply to declare that there was a new republic with a new constitution. This fact alone would usher in a new era of liberty and well-being for the whole of society.
We have to see that this was part of the “conservatism” of the French Revolution (And the American Revolution as well. We must remember that Ellul is a French author and his focus is often first of all close to home). The revolution was a desire to return to nature, to first principles, to go back to the beginning and re-found society on a basis that was uncorrupted by all the intervening history. Everything needed a fresh start. It would be a return to a new beginning, a more authentic foundation for society. At the time, the aim was to take people back to the pure beginning of which we had lost sight.
In this regard, traditionalists actually get in the way. In order to get back to the primal beginning, the true, pure first order, those that cling to what is here today must be swept away. If they will not yield, it must be that these traditionalists lack true virtue. They must have ill intents. Therefore, in order to uphold the principle that the pure law reigns supreme—equitably and impartially giving justice to all—any who dared to cling to tradition would have to be eliminated. Those who prevented the return to the dawn of the pure society, who embodied tradition, had to be swept aside. Of the American Revolution, in this regard, Ellul says this:
“Chief among them was the American Revolution. The single goal of which was to correct the abuses of the colonial government. Paine…only wanted to return to an era before men had been dispossessed of their rights and freedoms.”
So while the revolutions of this time were essentially conservative in their desire to return to a fresh first beginning, they reached to the tool of reason in order give their vision shape. This attachment to reason was an expression of the reality that all the revolutions of this era were accomplished by the bourgeoisie.
A case could be made that the bourgeoisie were the first revolutionary class in history. As a broad group one of their strengths was their vast managerial talent. They had the capacity to design, create and develop a vision of a future society based upon “first principles.” It must be acknowledged that without the bourgeoisie there would have been no movement beyond revolt in either America or France. These revolutions marked a change in the concept of revolution. Though they followed the normal pattern of a revolt against history, their aspirations were to advance society towards its absolute betterment. In the desire to reach back to first principles, they did so with the intent of creating history. Ellul argues this emerges out of the inherent nature of the bourgeoisie themselves. As a group they are both conservative and revolutionary.
Liberty as an ideal was merely an alibi to advance bourgeoisie interests. As a class, a group with aligned interests within society, they were overwhelmingly rational, progressive and pragmatic. There was a practical materialism, in that they focused on dealing primarily with the material world without adornment or metaphysical entanglements. They set aside the old teleological understanding of the world for one of cause and effect. The main actors in the revolutionary spirit were men focused on the practical realities of the material world, not given to speculation or metaphysics. They sought power in order to reconcile political realities with economic realities.
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