Throughout all of recorded human history, the poor, working class and lower-middle classes have almost entirely supported movements dedicated to their economic well-being and improvement, but there have been exceptions. In a nutshell, these exceptions occurred due to liberal/left-wing insensitivity to local cultural traditions, whether for good or ill. This exception is best exemplified by the conservative/right-wing reactionary counter-revolutionary movement of France that took place shortly after, and in opposition to, the French Revolution of 1789.
The French Revolution was one of the most radical left-wing events in world history. While the American Revolution of 1776 was primarily a political revolution, concerned only with a change of government and maintaining much of the pre-existing British-style economic, legal and social order, the French Revolution was concerned with the radical restructuring of society as a whole, the elimination of the Catholic Church, the liquidation of the feudal nobility and aristocracy, the abolition of hereditary title, the annihilation of hereditary nobility requirements as a prerequisite for entry into various professions, universal male suffrage and the widespread redistribution of land and wealth.
Yet, despite its lofty progressive aims, the great society envisioned by the Revolution did not enjoy widespread support and much of France was divided as to its merits and legitimacy. Great violence occurred, both within and without. The urban Parisian poor, urban middle classes and the professional classes or Bourgeoisie of the cities and villages, tended to support the Revolution. The urban poor lived in squalor and were experiencing massive unemployment due to the French Free Trade Treaty with England of 1786 (J.H. Clapham, The Economic Development of France and Germany, 1815-1914, Cambridge University Press, 1966 at p. 71). (see also, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eden_Agreement.) They were also starving, due to diminished charity/social welfare from the government, due to its bankruptcy (caused by low taxes on the rich, high taxes on the poor and middle classes and the crippling costs of two successive wars with Great Britain). Living in close proximity to the conspicuous consumption of the upper-orders, the anger and jealousy of the urban poor erupted into violent upheaval.
Allied with the urban poor were the urban and village professional classes. These were people of modest education and income, such as small shop-owners, lawyers, doctors, accountants and clerks. They had the intelligence, wealth and learning to advance in a truly meritocratic society, but were barred from the right of meritocratic advancement, due to the stringent hereditary requirements of French Society. As such, these professionals could only rise so-far, before they found themselves subject to de-jure discriminatory taxes, professional glass ceilings and limited opportunities, due to their lack of hereditary noble title. As a result, they hated the status quo and seeked to overturn it, at first, because of their own economic interests, but later, because of solidarity with the urban proletariat.
Unlike the urban poor and professional classes, many members of the rural, agricultural poor and middle classes tended to oppose the Revolution. This opposition was greater in some places than others, but as a whole, it was of a cultural basis. The rural peasantry and middle classes were strongly conservative. They lived their lives in the same manner as their ancestors had, with little change. They faced neither the nightmarish, extreme deprivation of the urban poor, nor the lofty, ambitious dreams for social and economic advancement enjoyed by the urban middle and professional classes. Their lives were static, constant and unchanging. The Church and clergy gave them a sense of order, predictability and stability, a sense of comfort in an unforgiving world. They enjoyed religious and royal rituals. They respected the nobility and “the natural order of things,” as can only expected by a people whose lives were so dependant upon the natural order of flora and fauna and the predictable cycles of seasons and weather.
When the Revolution began and threatened the traditional way of life enjoyed by countless millions of French farmers, when their sacred institutions—the Church, the Royalty, the proper place of women—were challenged, the rural peasantry took to the barricades and formed the vanguard of Counter-Revolution. Nowhere was this current strongest, more potent and more violent, than in the revolts experienced in the Vendée, a region in the western/coastal part of France, halfway between Normandy and Bordeaux. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolt_in_the_Vend%C3%A9e.
After the King and Queen were executed, the French Republic was invaded on all sides. The British, Spanish, Austrians, Prussians, Bavarians and countless other tiny German states and principalities declared war on France and invaded her, lest their own peasant populations be encouraged by the French Revolutionary example, and organize revolts of their own. As the newly formed Republic was invaded, it enacted the first military draft in modern history, which caused further unrest in traditional, conservative rural, agricultural regions throughout France, as they felt that they were being forced to defend, through force of arms, a government that was hostile to the Church and not, as hereditary monarchs were, “representative of God on earth.” From 1793-1796 the conservative counter-revolutionaries fought against the Leftist Jacobin regime in Paris and were eventually defeated. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the Vendee and similar such rural, counter-revolutionary peasant revolts throughout France, and the French Republic aptly learned its lesson: they passed laws protecting freedom of worship, and prohibited their armies from interfering in the local religious and cultural practices of people throughout the nation. In doing so, they could focus on their policy of economic and political reform, as well as national defense, without having to simultaneously fight a “culture war” at home.
In the years following the French Revolution and the establishment of the First Empire under Napoleon, French armies invaded countless countries around them, abolishing anti-semitic statutes and hereditary prerequisites for occupational advancement (whether noble prerequisites for advancement in medicine, law or the military, or more common hereditary prerequisites, such as being born to a carpenter in a carpenter guild, in order to pursue a career as a carpenter), while at the same time enacting universal education, and universal male voting rights. Although opposed from the outset by the rich, the privileged and the noble aristocracy, these economic rights won countless supporters among the common people, artists, intellectuals and the like. Romantic poets, artists and intellectuals throughout Europe, from Beethoven to Lord Byron, praised the Revolution and Napoleon, believing that they would pave the way to a brighter and more promising tomorrow. Even when Napoleon made himself a monarch and destroyed French democracy, many Europeans did not care, as his monarchy was the most progressive, economically, socially and politically, than any Europe had ever seen, Great Britain included.
Yet the French failed to learn the proper lessons from the Vendee and the peasant revolts they experienced during the early days of the Republic. They failed to remember that people forget about economic rights and social equality, if they feel that their cultural, religious beliefs and traditions are being violated and tread upon. The French failed to remember that economic justice, more often than not, takes a back seat to cultural considerations.
The French, inheritors of the great French Enlightenment intellectual tradition, had become not only militarily arrogant, proud from twenty years of continuous military victory, but culturally arrogant as well, willing to grant religious and cultural freedoms to rural peasants in the Vendee, but not to the Spanish, Germans, Italians, Dutch and countless other national groups they “liberated” from feudalism. This was a suicidal mistake, as the aristocrats and nobility of these nations, unable to persuasively refute the logic of French economic, social and political reform, exploited the “cultural insensitivity” issue as a means of not only rallying popular support against the French and using said popular unity as a means to drive the French from their homelands, but also as a means of suppressing, forever, any local, popular call for similar such economic, social and political reform.
By associating French cultural and religious insensitivities with the progressive economic, political and social philosophy of the French Enlightenment, the aristocracies of occupied Europe hoped to delegitimize the Enlightenment, and prevent their populations from ever revolting, rebelling or challenging the authority of the monarchy and nobility. From 1809 to 1814, peasant populations throughout Europe joined their monarchs and nobility in massive “Wars of Liberation,” dedicated to defeating not only France and Napoleon, but all of the political, economic and social principles that Napoleon and the Revolution represented. By stoking the fires of religious and cultural fundamentalism, the Spanish, Germans, Prussians and Austrians were able to create massive armies that formed the vanguard of the forces that ultimately defeated Napoleon.
After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, the conservative, monarchist regimes of Europe thought that they would be able to use the populist, religious and cultural fundamentalism they had created as a tool to further their own economic and political dominance in Europe, as tools to perpetuate the conservative social order. They created the “Holy Alliance,” as a means of promoting monarchy and Christianity throughout Europe, and opposing democracy, secularism and populist economic/social/political revolt wherever it reared its head. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Alliance. Yet, in so doing, these monarchs and noblemen had stoked dangerous embers, the flaming of ethnic and religious-based hatred and intolerance which would sow the seeds of violent, racist, fundamentalist, anti-democratic and authoritarian regimes to come. Ironically, the conservative classes that had largely created the faux-populism of authoritarian nationalism and racism would be consumed by their creation, as the Frankenstein monster of fascism and Nazism would turn on the aristocratic classes that helped give birth to them and anyone else that would oppose them…
The history of the French Revolution and Napoleon is important, because it shows us the competing forces at work in any massive undertaking for social, economic and political progress. Progressives justly oppose the “Old Order” or “Ancient Regime” on economic, social and political grounds, yet in so doing, they either inadvertently or intentionally attack the cultural and religious beliefs of large numbers of socially/religiously conservative people, people who would otherwise have supported the economic/political/social reforms of the Progressives, had they not had their cultural/religious beliefs infringed upon. Aristocrats and Oligarchs, unable to refute or rebut the economic/social/political arguments of the Progressives, notice the cultural/religious hubris, arrogance and insensitivity of the Progressives. Using the vast capital resources at their disposal, the Aristocrats and Oligarchs spin the macro-level debate. No longer is the debate about a “Progressive Economic/Social/Political Order” versus an “Oppressive, Feudalistic Economic/Social/Political Order.” Instead, the debate is changed, and it becomes one of “Traditional Culture and Religious Values” versus “Arrogant Atheistic Cultural Elites Trying to Impose Their Alien Way of Life Upon Us.”
This cyclical cultural narrative repeats itself, over and over again, throughout Western history, much to the benefit of the economic/political/social Elites, and to the detriment of Progressives, who are usually unaware of its occurrence until it is too late.
This phenomenon has occured in the United States at numerous times during our history, phenomena which I will discuss, at length, in subsequent posts, in the hope of developing a more nuanced and culturally sensitive progressive/leftist/populist approach to economic/social/political reform within the United States.