The Year of Revolutions against Revolution. What does it All Mean?
Can any Catholic doubt that the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe is largely due to the prayers, sufferings, and sacrifices of millions of Christians all over the world for 70 long years, particularly prayers to Our Lady? Well yes. Given the way things are, perhaps some may if they think about it at all. All the same, nearly every publication I have read has made the connection.
But Providence, as I see it, has intervened in another way and this has been less commented on. If less immediately striking it is no less wonderful. I will try to explain.
1989, the year of revolutions against Revolution, has certainly had its funny side as well as its tragedies and acts of heroism. How can one not laugh at hearing aged disciples of Karl Marx in Moscow and elsewhere pontificating like latter-day Metternichs about the importance of public order, or being described by the western media as ‘conservatives’ and ‘men of the ancient regime’ (vide the London Times). But only when I suddenly realised that all this was taking place in the bicentennial year of the French Revolution did I begin to appreciate the real significance of what has been happening.
Events in Russia and eastern Europe are the final word in a long, a too long-lasting argument or debate about whether the common good, or the good of the majority of the citizens of any state is to be realized by maximising, even absolutizing, liberty or equality. The egalitarians have lost leaving the libertarians in charge of the field even if the libertarians have in the meanwhile taken on board quite a bit of the egalitarians’ baggage.
All this was strikingly dramatised on English television just before Christmas when a reporter thrust a microphone in front of a young Romanian who said exultantly: “We’ve got our freedom,” then after a moment’s reflection,”but what are we going to do with it?”
The answer is simple surely. In place of communism, democracy. In place of one-party government and total state control, the form of republicanism or representative government we now loosely call democracy throughout the West. Yes. But if the once communist east is to avoid some of the mistakes we have made in the west it must know something about the history of the development of western democratic ideas. On ‘the continent’, as we English annoy the European mainland by calling it, democracy has never meant in every respect what it has meant and means in the United States and the United Kingdom.
However I am running ahead. We must start with the origins of the debate I mentioned just now about whether liberty or equality is to have first place.
It is more or less a commonplace that the French Revolution was two revolutions in one.
An attempt by the French monarchy or ancien regime to reform itself turned into a revolution in which, in the name of the rights of man and democracy, the educated middle-classes supported by a dissident section of the nobility with liberty as their ideal, wrested power from the king and the bulk of the aristocracy. At the same time they unintentionally gave birth to a social revolution in which an urban proletariat and its tribunes dedicated to establishing equality temporarily seized power until overthrown by an able general who reinstated and gave lasting shape to the achievements of the middle-class revolution. This, in its turn, after a series of coups and counter-coups by royalists and Bonapartists finally established itself as a permanent fixture in 1870 as the French Third Republic.
The triumph of the attempted social revolution was postponed for just over a hundred years, and when it finally took place in Russia in 1918 under the name of communism it turned out not to be the triumph of the proletariat but of an intelligentsia ruling for the supposed benefit of the proletariat with a rigor far surpassing that of any of the country’s previous masters.
The quarrel between the representatives of these two halves of the one original revolution, liberal or libertarian, and socio-communist or egalitarian, set going the debate I mentioned just now about whether liberty or equality was to have first place in the organisation and running of governments and societies.
Was the state to be run by and primarily for the benefit of the new middle classes who had done well out of the Revolution, particularly out of the confiscation of church property, or for the benefit of the mass of industrial and agricultural workers? Or in other words, does the common good result from the clash of liberties as each man pursues his personal self-interest? Or does it demand the equal distribution of goods by the state, in so far as it is possible to completely ignore the role that differences of reward, function and talent play as necessary stimuli to human initiative. The 19th century can be seen as the century of the liberal or libertarian experiment, the 20th of the egalitarian experiment.
There was, however, one thing the majority of the antagonists agreed about. God must as far as possible be kept out of the picture. So the decade 1789-1799 contained a third revolution; what has been called the metaphysical revolution. The metaphysical revolution began in June 1789 when the Estates-General, following Rousseau rather than the Gospel, voted that the source of political authority is not God but the people. The people, not God, confer on governments the authority to command obedience. ‘The people’ decide what laws are right and good.
The metaphysical revolution explains why so much of the history of 19th and 20th century Europe has been the history of the wars of the rival heirs of the French revolutionary heritage against Christianity as well as of their wars against each other.
It also helps explain the main differences between the Franco-European and the Anglo-Saxon democratic traditions and concept of what the word ‘democracy’ means or implies. The Franco-European tradition has almost no roots in the past. It is an 18th century construct whose foundations are mainly ideological and philosophical. We will call it ‘theoretical’ democracy.
Initially, it is true, the French revolution, was influenced by the way the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ tradition had been developing during the American war of independence and foundation of the United States. But the influence of Rousseau and his followers quickly gave it its theoretical bent.
The Anglo-Saxon tradition on the other hand has been working itself out through its political history over centuries.
Originating in England, while having as its most successful product so far the United States constitution, we can see in it, I suggest, an attempt to go back behind renaissance political and social theories with their notions borrowed from imperial Rome (the cult of fame, glory and aristocratic excellence as the highest and most sought after natural goals and ‘the will of the prince’ as the source of law) to ideas current in the middle ages with their vision of the state as a ‘commonweal’ containing monarchic, aristocratic, and popular elements.
At the heart of this Anglo-Saxon initiative has been the search for a form of laws and institutions (‘social and political structures’) which , under God, will assure all sections of society their due, providing protection for the weak or less gifted without stifling the energies of the strong or more gifted. On the level of practice it has been mainly a search for the right balance between central government authority and individual and group liberties. Certainly not all the participants always saw what they were doing in this light. But this, I believe, Christian in inspiration, is what the best in the western world, has been feeling its way towards, often confusedly, for three and a half centuries and is often in people’s minds when they use the word democracy. We could call it common sense democracy.
When rightly understood, all the ideas we associate with modern democratic political thinking --- liberty, equality, fraternity, human rights and so on --- have or can have a place in the Christian scheme of things or owe their prominence in western thinking to Christianity.
Blessed Paul VI described them as roses which had grown on the bush of Christianity, warning us at the same time that if cut from the bush on which they grew they would eventually wither.
Before that Chesterton and Bernanos had spoken of the modern world being full of Christian ideas gone mad. They had ‘gone mad’ because the fathers of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution had ripped them from their context in natural and revealed religion, raising them to the status of absolutes or final ends. When that happens they become like crates in a ship’s hold that have broken loose during a storm. They go smashing against each other until they are in smithereens.
Meanwhile, with the end of World War II the two western democratic traditions began to draw closer together adopting ideas and aspirations from each other so that there is now little to distinguish them.
Another feature of them which it is important to understand is not only how much their success so far has depended on contact with their Christian roots and elements of the natural moral law, but on having a reasonably successful economy, a large middle-class, and a fairly high level of general education. Lack of one or more of these supports was responsible for the collapse of the European democracies in the 1920s and 30s and is the reason why so many well-meant attempts to turn traditional Asian and African societies into western-style democracies so often fail.
All this explains why it is not enough to tell our young Romanian and his friends that the answer to his question --- how they are to use their new-found liberty wisely --- is democracy. Democracy in western parlance, as we have seen, can mean such a variety of different things, not all of the same value or always compatible.
In view of all this my answer to his question would be: “If you want to build a just and economically viable society under some workable form of representative government, first study the Catholic Church’s social teachings and then build on that. Make them the foundations.”
This is where God’s other providential intervention comes in.
While Europe was turning away from Christianity to build utopias without God, God, anticipating their eventual bankruptcy was, through the Church’s social teaching laying down the guidelines, not for utopias, but for societies of every kind, from agro-primitive to high-tech, inhabited by real flesh and blood men and women, redeemed but still fallen.
The Church’s social teachings don’t dictate the particular political forms that states or nations should take. They are concerned more with the ethics and general principles of social and political life which can be applied in a variety of particular forms. The ‘principle of subsidiarity’ is an example. In any state a higher body should not take over work that can be done as well or better by a lower body. Another example is the principle of “the universal destination of earthly goods.” They are destined by God for the benefit of all, even if not of necessity equally, not just for a privileged minority or minorities.
By taking the ‘Christian ideas gone mad’ of Chesterton and Bernanos --- liberty, equality, fraternity and so on --- and restoring them to their proper place in their right setting, the social teaching makes them beneficial instead of harmful.
In view of all this, can anyone believe it is by accident that just as the argument set going by the French Revolution has reached an impasse ---- should maximum liberty or maximum equality be seen as the path to universal happiness ? ---- and the people’s of Eastern Europe are asking themselves what to do now, a Pope himself from the East should be there to tell them about the social teaching.
Will they listen? Or will they follow the increasingly hedonistic and religiously rudderless West, for whom the message of the social teaching is also intended?
Who can tell? “History”, as John Paul II said not long ago, “is an event of freedom.”
Copyright © Philip Trower 1989, 2015
Version: 14th April 2015