WRITTEN BY R. NANJAPPA                        

Post No. 8350

Date uploaded in London – – – 16 July 2020   

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R. Nanjappa

The word revolution has become like a loose hat- sits on any head. We have heard of so many revolutions- revolutions in political-economic thought, like the Marxian; in philosophy like the Nietzschean; in science like the Darwinian, in psychology like Freudian, and so on. But the major revolutions which really shook the world were three- the American (1776), the French (1789-99) and the so called Bolshevik in Russia (1917). But what did they achieve really in the end?

The American Revolution

The American Revolution is by far the most beneficial to the local people and exemplary to the world. It was not bloody or violent beyond the limits of strict necessity. And it resulted not just in the establishment of a political Republic in one country, but in the enthronement of a new vision for mankind –

 ‘that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

This was really revolutionary. Against the divine rights of kings known in the West, the American revolution established a divine foundation for the rights of man! The recognition of the pursuit of happiness as an ideal divinely sanctioned (an unalienable right endowed by the Creator!) cuts at the very root of conventional  organized Christianity- which points to heaven for happiness! These ideals became the foundation of the American Constitution and have since inspired every democratic society in the world. 

The Boston Tea Party (1773)- perhaps the single most popular incident in the public mind about the American Revolution.
This is a 1846 engraving by Nathaniel Currier. But it was not called Boston Tea Party then.  

Enthusiasts pulled down the statue of King George III, in 1776, after the reading of The Declaration of Independence, as a symbol of the end of monarchy. This is a much later depiction, largely imagined.

The French Revolution: Hope and Disaster

The French revolution began with great hopes and created tremendous enthusiasm in Europe and America in the beginning, with its slogan of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. But it turned violent, developed into a Reign of Terror resulting in mass executions, and culminated in the rise of authoritarianism, dictatorship of Napoleon, and armed conflict with other European nations. Every sensitive and thoughtful initial supporter became disillusioned and became a critic- such as the English romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, and statesmen like Edmund Burke who was able to gauge where the revolution was in fact heading. It had the effect of dividing the intellectual class in every country, and led to a permanent polarisation of public opinion on politics in America! While President George Washington definitely declared himself against the violent revolution, and was supported by the Federalists like Benjamin Franklin and second president John Adams, others like Jefferson supported it, egged on by Thomas Paine, who became a bitter critic of Burke. In France itself, people got divided into left (pro-revolution) and right (their opponents). This had its repercussion in America where the Federalists became known as Republicans, opponents of the violent revolution. The violence was so intense that ultimately all those who turned the revolution violent like Robespierre themselves met violent ends.

Robespierre. His role in the Reign of Terror involving the killing of thousands is still debated by historians.

Engraving of a caricature showing Robespierre executing the executioner, after killing everybody else in France. And Robespierre himself was executed in July, 1794.

Those who nurse a romantic idea of the French Revolution should study its details, and realise that it established none of its declared aims in France itself, while the slogan it generated continues to excite people even today. It is one thing to celebrate an ideal, quite another to realise it in practice.

French Revolution and English Poets

The remarkable quartet of English Romantic poets- Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley- were ardent supporters of the Revolution in the beginning.. It had perhaps the most profound effect upon Wordsworth and Coleridge. In The Prelude, his most important poem, Wordsworth wrote:

‘T was in truth an hour

Of universal ferment; mildest men

Were agitated; and commotion,strife

Of passion and opinion, filled the walls

Of peaceful houses with unique sounds.

The soil of common life,was, at that time

Too hot to tread upon.

                               The Prelude,ix, 161-7

Here we have an excellent description of a revolution- how it moves and shakes the ‘mildest men’ and ‘peaceful houses’ even. Wordsworth felt that  a spiritual power was flowing from it.

O pleasant exercise of hope and joy!

For great were the auxiliaries which then stood

Upon our side, we who were strong in love!

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!…

Now was it that both found, the Meek and Lofty,
Did both find helpers to their heart’s desire;
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish!
Were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterraneous Fields,
Or some secreted Island, heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,—the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!  

                                  From: French Revolution in Poems volume II 1815

But the play of uncontrolled passion and violence turned the enthusiasm and admiration into revulsion.The disillusionment caused Coleridge to question the very possibility of humans ever achieving any such ideals in practice. He wrote:

Those feelings and that grand ideal of Freedom…do not belong to men, as a society, nor can possibly be either gratified or realised under any form of human government: but belong to the individual man, so far as he is pure and inflamed with the love and adoration of God in Nature.


Coleridge at 42. Portrait by Washington Allston, 1843.

Wordsworth was not far behind. He writes:

…..if in these times of fear,
This melancholy waste of hopes o’erthrown,
If ‘mid indifference and apathy
And wicked exultation, when good men
On every side fall off we know not how
To selfishness, disguised in gentle names
Of peace and quiet and domestic love-
Yet mingled, not unwillingly, with sneers
On visionary minds- if, in this time
Of dereliction and dismay, I yet
Despair not of our nature, but retain
A more than Roman confidence, a faith
That fails not, in all sorrow my support,
The blessing of my life, the gift is yours
Ye mountains, thine O Nature. Thou has fed
My lofty speculations, and in thee
For this uneasy heart of ours I find
A never-failing principle of joy
And purest passion.

The Prelude (1799, Second Part, 478-495)

William Wordsworth. From Wordsworth.org.uk. Copyright position not stated. Used here for purely educational purpose.

We have tremendous insights here. Human revolution has failed. Liberty was not to be realised in society; yet liberty was attainable- but individually! And it was to be sought in solitary communion with Nature. So, Wordsworth and Coleridge turned to Nature, to overcome the limitations and imperfections of human nature!

Incidentally, the insight that Coleridge got- that Freedom belonged to individual man- comes very close to the age old Indian Wisdom that Liberty-Moksha- is the ultimate ideal of man and that is an individual enterprise and achievement! It is not a collective groping. 

On the purely socio-economic side, one important reason given for the revolution was the oppression felt by the common man at the hands of the clergy and nobility (aristocracy) who controlled the monarch. The clergy numbered about 1,30,000, (1789) owned about 10% of the land, did not pay tax, but themselves collected a levy from the people. They did make some voluntary payment, but it didn’t amount to much. The nobility numbered about 400000, owned about 25% of the land and did not pay any tax; but they too collected tax from the people. There was thus the famous saying: The nobility did not pay, the clergy did not pray, the common  man was asked to both pay and pray. The burden on the common man was depicted in a famous caricature thus:

The third estate (common man) carrying the burden of the first estate(clergy) and the second (nobility).

Lessons from England

It is one of the enduring lessons of history how England achieved all the ideals of the French revolution without a formal revolution and the violence! It quietly diluted the power and privileges of aristocracy and the Church. Well, Britain is not considered ‘great’ for nothing! Great Britain is the modern state which officially accepted the idea of the Welfare State first- an idea which combines the virtues of freedom in democracy, equality of opportunity, and fraternity expressed as caring for the poor, by transfer of resources, through taxation, from those able to pay. This is of course the ideal, and achievement will always fall short of the vision- as in all human endeavour. On the earth, the broken arcs- said Browning! But the very ideal of Welfare State is revolutionary!

tags- revolutions-1


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