Our time is characterized by the West’s love for war. The great empires in history were also characterized by conquest of the weak and revenues from the conquered, yet he who holds the moral high ground tends to win in the long run. So states the Chinese man of wisdom, the military genius Sun Tzu. A quick glance into history reveals this simple fact to be quite true. For example, the radical French Revolution, which brought massive anarchy to France. Peace was not restored until Napoleon seized power and reinstated the rule of law.
The Revolution of 1789 came only years before Karl Marx and Engels wrote the famous thesis “The Communist Manifesto.” Europe was in turmoil, and many wanted to break free from the traditional systems. It is true that before the Revolution, the French ruling classes did little to alleviate poverty and other challenges in a society experiencing corruption and internal unrest. Its wealthy kings failed to address painstaking issues that made life miserable for ordinary citizens. Injustice and discontentment among the people have in history tended to be the root cause of many a revolution. Yet, the idealization of brute revolutions has tended not to always lead to the wished for result.
The new radical French leaders “of the people” who first spoke so gloriously about “liberty, equality and fraternity” soon proved to be far more ruthless than their bourgeois predecessors. A few years after the rebels had ousted the king’s court, they constructed a power-elite that became vastly more tyrannical than the aristocracy they had removed. This enhanced a brutal tyranny of the mob that to this day reminds us of our own ruthless legacy of authoritarian intolerance draped in the disguise of liberty and freedom. We are often good speakers of “democracy and freedom,” but even better at waging wars.
Under the French revolutionary leader, Maximilien de Robespierre, guillotines were set up on almost every street corner in Paris. The little that was left of order now fell apart. People were executed at the smallest hint of opposition; orgies were organized in churches as a direct move by radicals to spite religion. Robespierre summarized his totalitarian logic, stating that there are only two types of people in France, the people and their enemies. Anyone who opposed the revolution was to be eliminated. Priests and the well-educated were beheaded and killed by the thousands without trials or examining evidence; their bodies were thrown into the streets. Nobody cared about the rule of law in the midst of this so-called glorious revolution. And it was profoundly anti-religious. Churches were locked up; priests demeaned and killed. The French Revolution meant the end of religious freedom in France. A new tyranny had begun – a “democratic” tyranny.
The anarchy during the French Revolution and its early implementation of democracy – the rule of the people – gave criminals the opportunity to exercise all kinds of violence freely. Its new consensus-oriented politicians were driven by a deep resentment, not only against religion but against all traditional values. In the “New France” no violation of the strict radical consensus was tolerated. Conservative intellectuals, religious dissidents, kings, anyone of authority who did not submit to the new rulers, were ruthlessly killed. In “Demonic,” best-selling author Ann Coulter points out that the French Revolution was an uprising of a peer-pressure oriented nihilistic mob, further characterized by irrationality, violence and destructive social attitudes.
The French Revolution was essentially a disaster for France. It resulted in total anarchy. There was no peace until Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and restored the rule of law. He ended up saving the French “government of the people” from their own merciless spiral of violence against the population. It is quite remarkable – this is how modern Western democracy first was implemented in Europe, by brutal force and authoritarian, illiberal new elites. It was Napoleon who brought back a functioning legal system, restored freedom of religion, the protection of minorities such as the Jews and reinstalled respect for the clergy.
The French church was not reinstated until Napoleon came to power. He understood how vital this traditional force was for the upkeep of morality and order. He allegedly even forced his atheist marshals to attend church and pay their respects. Napoleon was acutely aware of the dangers of hypocrisy within the church, having attended Catholic schools and seen much of the injustice within the institutionalized church systems, yet he still believed that religious values such as “love thy neighbor” were ideals that needed to be taught in society to uphold social order. So, war and revolution may not always be the answer that brings more justice to the world.