How America's Spirit for Revolution Was Crushed
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The twentieth-century philosopher and political scientist Hannah Arendt says that the American Revolution was intended as a restoration of what its progenitors believed to be a natural order of things “disturbed and violated” by the despotism of an overbearing monarchy and the abuses of its colonial government. During the hundred years prior to the Declaration of Independence, the Americans had developed tools of political management (church congregations, village assemblies, town meetings) with which to govern themselves in accordance with what they took to be the ancient liberties possessed by their fellow Englishmen on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. They didn’t bear the grievances of a subjugated populace, and the seeds of revolt were nowhere blowing in the wind until the British crown demanded new, and therefore unlawful, tax money.
Arendt’s retrieval of the historical context leads her to say of the war for independence that it was “not revolutionary except by inadvertence.” To sustain the point she calls on Benjamin Franklin’s memory of the years preceding the shots fired at Lexington in April 1775: “I never had heard in any conversation from any person, drunk or sober, the least expression of a wish for a separation, or hint that such a thing would be advantageous to America.” The men who came to power after the Revolution were the same men who held power before the Revolution, their new government grounded in a system of thought that was, in our modern parlance, conservative.
Born 13 years later under the fixed star of a romantic certainty, the French Revolution was advertent, a violent overthrow of what its proponents, among them Maximilien de Robespierre, perceived as an unnatural order of things. Away with the old, in with the new; kill the king, remove the statues, reset the clocks, welcome to a world that never was but soon is yet to come.
The freedom-loving songs and slogans were well suited to the work of ecstatic demolition, but a guillotine is not a living tree, and although manured with the blood of aristocrats and priests, it failed to blossom with the leaves of political liberty. An armed mob of newly baptized citoyens stormed the Bastille in 1789; Napoleon in 1804 crowned himself emperor in the cathedral of Notre Dame.
Jefferson’s thinking had been informed by his study of nature and history, Robespierre’s by his reading of Rousseau’s poetics. Neither set of political ideas brought forth the dream-come-true products of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution -- new worlds being born every day of the week, the incoming tide of modern manufacture and invention (the cotton gin, gas lighting, railroads) washing away the sand castles of medieval religion and Renaissance humanism, dismantling Robespierre’s reign of virtue, uprooting Jefferson’s tree of liberty.
So it is left to Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, to acknowledge the arrival of the new world that never was with the publication in German of theCommunist Manifesto in 1848: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”
Men shape their tools, their tools shape their relations with other men, and the rain it raineth every day in a perfect storm of creative destruction that is amoral and relentless. The ill wind, according to Marx, blows from any and all points of the political compass with the “single, unconscionable freedom -- free trade,” which resolves “personal worth into exchange value,” substitutes “callous ‘cash payment’” for every other form of human meaning and endeavor, devotes its all-devouring enthusiasms to “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”