“Mob rule” is an expression one doesn’t hear much in this democratic
age. Mob rule is when the mass of the people overthrow the government –
but with the implication that the masses are misguided, that the end
result is undesirable. The Boston Tea Party was not an example of mob
rule but an early event of the American Revolution, which, when all is
said and done, wasn’t such a bad idea.
In Serbia last week, an immense throng of people gathered in front of
the main buildings of the central government in Belgrade to demand the
departure of a man they called “Slobo,” Slobodan Milosevic, their de
facto dictator. He had lost a popular election but (I abbreviate here)
simply wouldn’t leave. It was a common-enough phenomenon in Africa and
Latin America, but this was Europe — at least was Eastern, or
ex-Communist, Europe. But could Eastern Europe be brought into the
Western fold of democratic countries, in which, when a political leader
is defeated in an election, he actually leaves office?
It was, of course, not forever thus. Even in Western Europe –
Germany, Spain, Italy, for example — free elections were once a
comparative novelty. Even Norway and Sweden, a unified country at the
beginning of this century, split under threat of armed secession as late
as 1905, when Norway chose to become a separate monarchy and the Stortig
elected a new, purely Norwegian king. The former king of the combined
Norway and Sweden, upon defeat in an election, left Oslo voluntarily.
But even in Scandinavia regimes have not always been stable.
Of all the great democracies of Western Europe, France, now a
democracy by any definition and whose political thinkers had developed
the very idea of the modern democratic state, was the most unstable of
all. Most college histories of modern Europe begin with Napoleon, but
his appearance on the European scene led to a time of almost unlimited
political confusion. He arrived in Paris when France had not yet sorted
out the fall of the monarchy (in 1789). Although the French Revolution
was one of the most significant events in modern history, many of its
fine points are still argued about by scholars in France today.
The First Republic was followed by the Directoire, the Consulate, the
First Empire (Napoleon), the First Restoration, the return of Napoleon
to power for the “Hundred Days,” the Second Restoration, Charles X, the
Civil War of 1830, which preceded Louis- Philippe and the “July
Monarchy,” the Civil War of 1848 which led to the Second Republic, the
Second Empire (Napoleon III), the Crimean, Mexican, and Franco-Prussian
Wars, which were followed by the declaration of the Third Republic,
which was interrupted for two months by the Commune of Paris, whose flag
is still wrapped around the mummy of Lenin in Moscow — the Commune (the
Soviet view) having been the first time in world history that the
working class had taken power.
This led to General Boulanger, the Dreyfus Case, and a variety of
anarchist attacks — leaving us with two World Wars and a hundred years
to go. But even after the end of the Second World War, France was not
peaceful, war continuing in the former French colonies in Indo-China and
– the last and biggest — Algeria. In this period the French Fourth
Republic was succeeded in 1959 by Charles de Gaulle and the Fifth
Republic. But even then all was not peaceful. In 1968, while I was at
school in France, the country was paralyzed by the biggest
anti-government demonstration in its history. I myself was called on as
head of the international wing of the student movement — a position I
did not know I occupied.
I mounted the stage at a monstrous demonstration, but, although my
French is both impeccable and sonorous, I don’t think the crowd took in
a word of what I said. I called for universal popular elections and –
exactly as if I was calling for a revolution — I was carried on the
shoulders of the crowd to Place de la Republic, when a picture was
flashed all over France of de Gaulle shaking the hand of Gen. Massu –
whom the students had not thought would defend the regime. The wires
hummed with news that French tanks were crossing the Rhine (in the
reverse direction) to put down the insurrection.
The country made the instant assumption that the French army was
defending an established French government (the Fifth Republic as it
happened), and the revolutionary movement disappeared in a heartbeat.
And a wild-eyed student movement — the biggest political demonstration
in French history — yielded, in the modern manner, before a popularly
elected democratic government.
Years afterward, people recognizing me in the street in Paris would
stop me to ask, “What was that all about anyway?” And it appears now
that Yugoslavia, too, has reached that stage in political development:
The people rule.