Peaceful Revolution?

Several recent commentators on world affairs, including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, have suggested that what is required to solve current problems is nothing short of a revolution. Despite my sympathy with the need for drastic change, as an historian of the English and French Revolutions I always feel cautious about calls for revolution. Both of the revolutions I have researched provide ample evidence of the horrors that it can bring: the havoc and destruction it wreaks on the country and the devastation it causes to individual lives.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley

The Civil War, which was a key component of the English Revolution, is thought to have resulted, as noted in a previous blogpost, in the deaths of a larger proportion of the adult male population of this country than the First World War. The regicide - effectively a state-sponsored execution - that lay at the Revolution's heart, introduced a period of ten years of unstable government which had serious political and economic consequences. Moreover, the whole period brought division and animosity. Families were divided, with brothers or fathers and sons fighting on different sides. Royalists were excluded from the franchise in both of the constitutions of the 1650s: the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice, as well as having their land and assets seized. After 1660 the tables were turned and it was former revolutionaries, especially the regicides, who were punished. Even his early death in 1658 did not protect Oliver Cromwell: his body was dug up in order to be posthumously decapitated. Moreover, the social divisions survived well beyond 1660, with the labels 'Roundhead' and 'Cavalier' mutating into those of 'Whig' and 'Tory', which dominated British politics throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. 

'A Versaille, a Versaille, du 5 Octobre 1789'. Image from author's own collection.

'A Versaille, a Versaille, du 5 Octobre 1789'. Image from author's own collection.

The French Revolution has an even greater reputation for violence. This was frequently perpetrated by the crowds. For example, around the time of the storming of the Bastille, the decapitated heads of authority figures were hung from lampposts, and in October 1789 a crowd of women armed with pikes marched to Versailles and forced the royal family back to Paris. Later, in the September Massacres of 1792, over a thousand prisoners were slaughtered to prevent them from joining with foreign troops who were imminently expected to invade Paris (but actually never came). Violence was also perpetrated by the government itself, via the use of the guillotine and by the declaration, in September 1793, that Terror was the 'order of the day'.

Of course, not all English or French revolutionaries insisted that violence and division were essential to achieving their aims. In each case there were prominent individuals who argued strongly against both. James Harrington was one of these. Though he supported the parliamentary cause financially during the 1640s, and argued that England was ripe for popular government in his major work The Commonwealth of Oceana of 1656, he acted as gentleman of the bedchamber to Charles I in 1647-8, having previously worked on behalf of Charles's nephew, the Prince Elector Palatine. In keeping with these connections, Harrington was intent, in the aftermath of the Civil War, on healing and settling a divided nation. To this end he even argued that royalists should be allowed to vote:

Extract from James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana,  in  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington Esq.,  ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. 74.

Extract from James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana, in The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington Esq., ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. 74.

During the French Revolution calls for clemency were made by members of the Cordeliers Club who, as was demonstrated in my previous blogpost, showed an interest both in Harrington's works and in his understanding of democracy. In particular, Camille Desmoulins in his newspaper Le Vieux Cordelier, condemned Maximilian Robespierre's appeal to revolutionary necessity, which was used to justify the Terror. Against Robespierre's position, Desmoulins asserted the traditional Cordeliers call for the protection and defence of the rights of individuals, insisting that the Cordeliers' fight had been to defend: 'the declaration of rights, the gentleness of republican maxims, fraternity, holy equality, the inviolability of principles'. (Camille Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, Paris: Belin, 1987, p.80). Freedom of speech and the liberty of the press were particularly important to him as means of protecting the people against tyranny, and as the fundamental foundation of republican government: 'What is the last retrenchment against despotism? It is the liberty of the press ... What is it that distinguishes a republic from a Monarchy? It is a single thing, the liberty of speaking and of writing.' (Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, p. 147). Moreover, Desmoulins turned this idea directly against Robespierre's notion - borrowed from Montesquieu - of a republic of virtue:

But to return to the question of the liberty of the press, without doubt it must be unlimited; without doubt republics must have as their base and foundation the liberty of the press, not this other base that Montesquieu has given them. (Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, p. 179).

Camille Desmoulins,  Le Vieux Cordelier , no. 4. Taken from Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/

Camille Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, no. 4. Taken from Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/

Neither Harrington nor Desmoulins proved very successful in their attempts to bring about a more harmonious settlement. Despite his best efforts, Harrington's proposals were not taken up by the government. After the Restoration he was arrested and imprisoned by the authorities, and he did not publish any further works during his lifetime. Desmoulins suffered even more drastically for his views. He was sent to the guillotine in April 1794 by the man whose ideas he had criticised in Le Vieux Cordelier, his former schoolfriend, Robespierre.

Yet, just because they failed, does not mean that the ideas of Harrington and Desmoulins were not feasible, or that they do not have something useful to teach us. Most historians no longer subscribe to a narrow Whig interpretation of the past, but rather acknowledge that the ideas that did not win out, and even the paths not taken, are worthy of some consideration. Finding political solutions that can unite those of very different political persuasions (as Harrington sought to do) is an appealing idea at a time when politics is more divisive and combative than ever. And the notion that freedom of speech and a free press should form the foundation of the political system is widely respected, if not always enacted, today. Moreover, these two ideas are combined in an interesting initiative that has been gaining some traction. Advocates and practitioners of local participatory democracy have shown that allowing groups of interested parties openly to discuss and debate issues often leads to greater consensus. Applying this kind of local participatory democracy more widely could perhaps offer a solution to the current democratic crisis.

No doubt part of the appeal of Harrington's ideas to Desmoulins and his fellow Cordeliers was his attempt to combine a commitment to innovative and revolutionary ideas - not least democratic government - with a concern to heal divisions and to build a society that was open to a range of viewpoints as well as being harmonious. And I am aware that my own interest in both Harrington and Desmoulins stems partly from the same desire. For me, these thinkers offer the possibility that we may be able to bring about positive and lasting change to our society, including its political institutions, without recourse to revolutionary violence or even to the silencing of 'inconvenient' views.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Advantages and Pitfalls of Referenda

Referenda have recently been in the news, with questions raised about their role in democracy. There is a tendency for their results to be treated as representing the will of the people, even when the outcome has been very close, as with the UK referendum on Brexit. There are also questions about who has the authority to call a referendum, as illustrated by events in Catalonia. In addition, there may be issues about the administration of referenda, for instance about the wording of the question to which an electorate is to respond, as was the case with the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum: the wording proposed by the Scottish National Party was judged by the Electoral Commission as likely to lead people to vote 'Yes'.

The use of referenda to decide political issues is not new, of course. As I argued in my previous blogpost, Harrington had insisted that the people had a right to the final say over whether legislative proposals were to be implemented. Indeed for him this was the crucial role of the people within the political system. Yet he did not accompany his call for popular initiative by advocating referenda. Instead he insisted that the popular acceptance or rejection of legislation should be delegated to a popular assembly.

A French translation of Harrington's aphoristic works from the revolutionary period. Brotherton Library, Leeds, Anglo-French 2 1795 HAR. Reproduced with permission.

A French translation of Harrington's aphoristic works from the revolutionary period. Brotherton Library, Leeds, Anglo-French 2 1795 HAR. Reproduced with permission.

The cover of my book on the Cordeliers Club, which discusses their thought in detail. On the cover is the title page of the club's journal, with its open eye, designed to indicate constant popular surveillance of the government.

The cover of my book on the Cordeliers Club, which discusses their thought in detail. On the cover is the title page of the club's journal, with its open eye, designed to indicate constant popular surveillance of the government.

The provision of regular referenda was, however, appended to Harrington's constitutional model during the French Revolution by members of the Cordeliers Club. Jean-Jacques Rutledge first expressed his interest in Harrington in the 1780s. He urged the French to read Harrington's works since they provided a model by which legislators might 'raise the Edifice of the most equal and the most durable democratic constitution'. (Calypso ou les Babillards, Paris, 1785, p. 221.) Following the outbreak of revolution, Rutledge joined the Cordeliers where he found like-minded friends who shared his interest in democracy. 

In the early 1790s several Cordeliers called for the popular sanctioning of laws by means of regular referenda. As François Robert, who was club president during 1791, explained:

there is nothing easier than to make French citizens take part in the making of the         law, as they take part in the nomination of their representatives, and if they once         take part in making the laws, they are free, and France is happily transformed into a     republic. (François Robert, Républicanisme adapté à la France, Paris, 1790, p. 88.)

Another Cordelier, Louis De La Vicomterie, deemed as the first 'power' of the people: 'Ratification by them of projects of law given to them'. (Louis De La Vicomterie, Des Droits du peuple sur l'assemblée nationale, Paris 1791, p. 177.) The most detailed call for the popular ratification of laws was set out in a speech to the club by René Girardin, the executor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's will. That speech was endorsed by the club and published as a pamphlet. Girardin not only insisted on the benefits of the popular ratification of laws, but also offered a detailed proposal for how it could be implemented, by way of popular referenda organised at a local level. If this were enacted, Girardin insisted: 'each citizen without altering their condition, can take part personally in the law' and each law 'will be ratified by the people in person' consequently 'the law will be known by all' and 'truly sacred, respectable and respected by all, because it will be the work of all'. (René Girardin, Discours sur la nécessité de la ratification de la loi, par la volonté générale, Paris, 1791, p. 23.) 

A French translation of  The Oceana of James Harrington, and his other works . Brotherton Library, Leeds, Anglo-French 4 1795 HAR. Reproduced with permission.

A French translation of The Oceana of James Harrington, and his other works. Brotherton Library, Leeds, Anglo-French 4 1795 HAR. Reproduced with permission.

A year later, following the establishment of the French Republic, a draft constitution was submitted to the National Convention on behalf of its author Rutledge. It bore a striking resemblance to Harrington's Oceana. Yet, it departed from that model on certain key points, one of which was the process for ratifying laws. Whereas in Oceana the whole legislative process was carried out at the national level, with the senate debating and putting forward legislative proposals and the popular assembly voting to accept or reject each one, Rutledge's constitution followed Girardin's model. The National Legislative Council had the task of debating the issues and putting forward proposals, but those proposals would then be accepted or rejected by the people gathered in their primary assemblies:

Final Ratification or sanction of the law, first proposed, then discussed and finally presented by the great national legislative council, belongs exclusively to the nation [represented legally in their local assemblies] where this sanction must be expressed on the presentation of the laws discussed, by yes for the affirmative, and by no, for the negative. (Idées sur l'espèce de gouvernement populaire, Paris, 1792, p. 23.)

Portrait of Camille Desmoulins. Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Portrait of Camille Desmoulins. Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Not all revolutionaries embraced this idea. Jacques-Pierre Brissot, attacked both Camille Desmoulins and La Vicomterie for calling for the popular ratification of laws. Brissot described Desmoulins as carrying the sovereignty of the people to an extreme by wishing 'to make them ratify all the acts of the legislative power' and he accused La Vicomterie of advocating a confused and dangerous system: 'This ardent apostle of the people does not know that according to his system he is its most cruel enemy. Because if there is a means of having neither law, nor liberty, it is by wishing to have all the laws ratified by the six thousand primary assemblies'. (Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville, Le Patriote français, nos, 586 and 670.) 

Brissot was not, however, an opponent of referenda per se. Indeed, he insisted that popular ratification of the constitution was crucial. But he drew a clear distinction between constitutive and legislative power, suggesting that only the former needed to be subject to a popular referendum. One of his objections was to do with the practical inconveniences of holding frequent referenda. 

Recent advances in technology have the potential to make regular referenda a less cumbersome activity (though issues around access to technology and rendering the system resistant to corruption remain). While I would hesitate to propose the popular ratification of laws by the entire citizen body, there does seem to be some value in discussing such ideas. They are, after all, one means of engaging citizens more directly with the political process and thereby overcoming the problems associated with the perception that politics in the UK is currently the preserve of an entrenched political elite.