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« Some links on politics and history | Main | Selective memory »

July 27, 2008


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Thank you for an interesting pov. I don't know enough to debate your points, but they are certainly food for thought. The Scottish Enlightenment deserves more exposure.

The direct cause of the French Revolution was the lack of bread. There is good evidence that this was caused by crop failures, in turn caused by the dimming of Europe due to the Laki (Iceland) volcanic eruption in 1783.

David Duff

"Fraser {...] might explain also why the revolution of 1789 was so admired throughout Europe, including Britain (and I do mean Britain) and particularly in Germany."

Might I suggest that it has something to do with the truth of the statement that you will never go broke under-estimating the intelligence of the great European public!

The French and Russian revolutions were always likely to become the unmitigated disasters they were, and I suspect that only the intervening Atlantic ocean kept the American one from following suit.

"the cause of reform, secularism and (I use the term without irony) progress." The mantra for every half-mad ideologue with a penchant for smoking cigars inside arsenals! Or, perhaps, the path from the 'Decents' to the Richard Seymours of this world.


Voltaire admired English liberty yet his political philosophy was founded on quite different ideas to those which had created English liberty throughout the centuries. No English Whig would have said, as Voltaire did, "If you want good laws, burn those you have and make new ones". That is not how England came to possess a constitutional monarchy and civil and political liberty. I do indeed think that the French rationalist stand and the British strand (with its emphasis on tradition) are separate with quite different principles, however much the language used is the same.


I do indeed think that the French rationalist stand and the British strand (with its emphasis on tradition) are separate with quite different principles, however much the language used is the same.

I recall Friedrich von Hayek making this very point. As regards the American revolution, Hayek considered that the ideas of James Madison rather than Jefferson inspired the republic that emerged.

Snorri Godhi

The distinction between moderate and radical Enlightenments, made by Jonathan Israel, might be more useful than a distinction based on national traditions. However, since Israel made this distinction in a thick, fat, square book, I did not read it. For my purposes, it is enough to make a distinction between the tradition of Locke, leading to liberalism and all what is good in the modern World; and the tradition of Rousseau, leading to socialism, nationalism, "liberalism", and all what is wrong in Western civilization.

It's not that I think Locke remains unsurpassed, though.


I don't think making a distinction between French and English enlightenments is that shocking. The first person I think of in relation to the former is Rousseau. It's no stretch to claim that the Jacobins used the philosophy of the General Will to perpetrate their terror. And Rousseau stands at the head of the line leading via Fichte or Marx to the collectivist atrocities of the twentieth century.

War is no excuse for terror. The US revolution saw an equally long war and that led to no comparable totalitarianism.

I'm also surprised by your non sequitur concerning support for the initial revolution. The clue is temporal. The first revolution in 1917 was a positive event. The coup d'etat that autumn not.


I too am surprised that you discern no connection between the Terror and the writings of Rousseau.

No criticism falls on Kerensky for the subsequent wickness of the Bolsheviks because he neither instigated them nor formed an ideology that provided a cover for them. However that does stop us criticising the ideology that inpired the Bolsheviks.

In the same way, we must criticise the ideology that inspired the Terror.

Clearly there were many thinkers who influenced the French revolution besides Rousseau. Thomas Paine was an earlier supporter (and inspiration for) the Revolution. He was elected to the national convention but then of course he was imprisoned by Robespierre. I doubt you can find anything in Common Sense, The Rights of Man, etc that provides justification for the actions of the Committee of Public Safety in the way that the notion of the General Will overiding the Individual Will does.

I don't claim Rousseau is the sole inspiration but he developed the idea of collective rights which override the rights of the individual. That's a pretty fundamental idea at the heart of all the terrors of the modern era. Other philosophes are a curates egg: Voltaire praised Louis XIV and thought enlightened despotism was a good idea to counter religion. Montequieu was another fan of despotism particularly for hotter countries with lazy people. In fact all these come across as elitists.

Now you want might to quibble with Nelson over whether the Revolution was a good thing that went bad or it was always a bad thing but that's a minor point.


The only thing worse than effete snobs who shoot their sleeves merely to show that they possess gold Rolexes, is Oliver Kamm, who, pacé "The Magic Christian" quotes lengthily in a foreign language and naturally assumes all his eight readers will appreciate and understand it!
We don't Ollie! and we've stopped reading you!
"Tere Ma ka Choot" Raghu Sindhi

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