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French Revolution

( Originally Published 1913 )

IN order to appreciate what was accomplished by the French Revolution, we must consider it under two aspects,—the one simply preparatory, the other entirely characteristic, under the respective conduct of the two great National Assemblies.

In the preparatory period, the need of regeneration, as yet only vaguely felt, appears reconcileable with a certain indefinite conservation of the old régime, disengaged as much as possible from all its parasitical abuses. The Constitutional metaphysicians meditated at that time an indissoluble union of the monarchical principle with popular ascendancy, as well as that of the Catholic Institution with mental emancipation. Such was in fact the political Utopia of the principal leaders of the Constituent Assembly.

In the second revolutionary period we see the true instinct of the social crisis realizing itself in a definite shape. Justly opposed to the political fictions upon which the incoherent edifice of the Constituent Assembly rested, the Assembly, immortalized under the name of The National Convention, was led by its very origin to regard the entire abolition of the monarchy as an indispensable prelude to that social regeneration towards which the Revolution directly tended. This abolition, without which the French Revolution would not have been fully characterized, was soon to be followed by partial demolitions destined to complete the indication of an irresistible tendency to an entire renovation of the social system, as far as the only philosophy which could at that time direct this activity permitted.

After the fall of the Convention, a retrograde action made itself immediately felt by the vain return to constitutional metaphysics peculiar to the first period of the crisis, the barren obstinacy of which tended always to reproduce, as far as the general state of the public mind permitted, a blind imitation of the English Constitution, characterized by a chimerical balance of the different fractions of the temporal power.

Such a political fluctuation perpetually threatening the existence of Order, and yet barren of progressive results, ended, in spite of energetic popular protests, in the passing triumph of the retrograde system. It was certainly impossible that such a situation should lead to anything but a genuine military dictatorship. From the radical contradiction necessarily existing between the elevation of Bonaparte and the monarchical spirit which he endeavoured to restore, the political habits contracted under his influence were certain to facilitate spontaneously, after his fall, the temporary return of the natural heirs of the ancient French monarchy.

It will naturally suggest itself to the reader that France has again acted that drama of Revolution, on a smaller stage and with far inferior actors ; the corrupt Monarchy of July being replaced by the vague Republic of February, which, after having practically demonstrated its metaphysical incompetence, resulted in the Dictator-ship of December.

In this strange provisionary situation, consider the result of the implicit renunciation by those in office of any serious notion of a mental reorganization, their unfitness for which was recognized by themselves. Now this incompetence, tacitly confessed, necessarily surrenders the intellectual and moral power to whomsoever can and will seize it : hence the peculiar ascendancy of Journalism as a lay pulpit.

The extreme imperfection of this power ought not to prevent our acknowledging the great importance of its advent. Regarded historically, this new preponderance, which must certainly increase, is a decisive symptom of the power which the instinct of spiritual reorganization has acquired now-a-days in the Revolutionary School.

Considering the actual progress of political recomposition relatively to the temporal organization, it is easy to recognize that in spite of the exceptional development of a prodigious martial activity, the gradual course of the revolutionary crisis concured not less than that of the theological system itself, in completing a general decline of the military system. The very nature of the revolutionary war put an end to the last series of systematic wars, tending to perpetuate military activity by making use of it in the interests of industrial activity. It is thus that the last general source of modern wars disappeared throughout the European republic.

The modern institution of recruiting by force is evidence of the anti-military disposition shown by the people of modern times ; we still find genuine volunteers among the officers, but few, or none, among the privates. At the same time it tends to destroy military habits and ardour, by putting an end to the primitive speciality of the profession, and by composing armies of a mass radically antipathetic to a military life, which to them is merely a temporary burden.

The recourse to such an expedient marks the final decadence of the military system, henceforward reduced to a subaltern though indispensable office in the mechanism of modern society. The vast military apparatus preserved amongst all the European nations, would, at first sight, appear to announce the imminence of a contrary disposition, did not a more searching investigation of the situation explain this apparent anomaly by referring it directly to the common requirements of the revolutionary crisis, more or less spread over the whole western republic.

In a state of profound intellectual and moral disorder, which must always render a material anarchy imminent, the means of repression must acquire an intensity cor-responding to that of the insurrectional tendencies, so that an indispensable degree of Order should protect true social Progress against the continuous efforts of ill-directed ambition united with vicious conceptions.

Thus we see the same epoch which is destined to witness the final disappearance of war, in the proper acceptation of the word, has also developed a new social mission in Armies, of extreme importance, by converting them into a vast political constabulary. Standing Armies are now no longer instituted in defence of the country against other nations, so much as in preservation of Order at home.

It is easy to see how much the social preponderance of the industrial element would be augmented and consolidated by a revolutionary crisis which completed the secular destruction of the ancient hierarchy, and which placed foremost the temporal rank founded upon riches, the influence of which has become evidently inordinate from the existing intellectual and moral anarchy.

The most unquestionable and the most dangerous of the recent aggravations of the vices inherent in the industrial movement, consists in the increased opposition established between the respective interests of capitalist and workman. This deplorable antagonism shows how far Industry is essentially from any genuine organization, since no progress can be accomplished without its tending to become oppressive to the greater part of those whose co-operation is most indispensable to it.

The remarks already made upon the general character of the aesthetic evolution during the third modern phase, exempt us from the necessity of any observation& on the last half century, which displays important modifications. The same holds good with regard to the scientific and philosophical, evolution.

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