By Bertrand de Jouvenel
It is not as an element in the happiness of the individual that the loftiest spirits have vaunted liberty, but rather because it consecrates the dignity of his personality and thus saves the human being from playing the merely instrumental role to which the wills of authority tend ever to reduce him.
Why is it that these lofty intentions have been completely lost sight of? That participation in government (absurdly called "political liberty" when it is in reality one of the means given to the individual of safeguarding his liberty against the unending onslaught of the sovereignty ) has come to seem to him more precious than liberty itself? That this participation of his in Power has sufficed to induce him to raise up and encourage state encroachments, which have, thanks to the approval of the mob, been carried to much further lengths than absolute monarchy could ever have carried them? *
The phenomenon looks paradoxical but only until it is analysed. It is easily accounted for when once a sufficiently clear idea has been formed of the thousand-year-old duel fought between sovereignty and liberty, between Power and the freeman.
Liberty is not a recent invention; on the contrary, the idea of it forms part of our oldest intellectual heritage.
When we employ the terminology of liberty we rediscover naturally formulas which had been elaborated in a social past far distant, long before the appearance of absolute monarchy, which is, properly speaking, the first in time of the modern regimes and first set in motion the destruction of subjective rights to Power's advantage. For instance, when we say that no man may be imprisoned or dispossessed unless in virtue of the law of the land and the judgment of his peers, we are getting back to the language of the Magna Charta.
Or if we seek with Chatham to affirm the inviolability of the private dwelling-house, we are unconsciously bringing back to life the imprecation contained in the ancient law of Norway: "If the king violates a free man's dwelling, all will seek out the king to kill him." And again, when we claim the right to act as we will, subject to liability for the consequences of what we do (which is, for instance, the state of British law in regard to freedom of the press), we breathe the air of the very earliest Roman law.
"And one sad servitude alike denotes The slave that labours and the slave that votes."— Peter Pindar.
We form an idea of liberty "instinctively," or so we think; but it is in reality a throwback of the collective memory to the day of the freeman. Unlike man in a state of nature, the freeman is not a philosopher's dream, but actually existed in those societies which Power had not invaded. It is from him that we derive our notion of individual rights. All we have forgotten is how they were hedged around and defended. We have become so inured to Power that we have now come to regard our liberties as held in grant from it. But viewed historically, the right to liberty was not an act of generosity on the part of Power: its birth was of another kind. And the chief clash with our modern ideas lies in this: that in the past this right was not of general extent, based on the hypothesis that there was in each man a dignity which Power had on principle to respect. It was the personal right of certain men, the fruit of a dignity to which they had enforced respect. Liberty was an achievement, which won the name of subjective right by self-assertion.
It is against this historical background that liberty must be viewed if we are to see its problem aright.
Liberty is found among the most ancient groupings of the Indo-European people, known to us.
It is a subjective right which belongs to those, and to those only, who are capable of defending it: to the members, that is to say, of certain virile families which have, with a view to forming a society, entered into a sort of federation. Whoever belongs to one of these families is free, because he has "brothers" to defend him or avenge him. These can, if he has suffered injury or death, beleaguer in arms the dwelling-place of the murderer; they can also, when he is the accused, range themselves at his side.
In this powerful family solidarity all the most ancient forms of procedure find their explanation. As, for example, the manner of serving a writ, the record of which is preserved for us in the laws of Alfred: acceptance of service was obtained by a mimic assault on the defendant's house— a clear indication of the fact that a suit was at first a recourse to arbitration held with a view to obviating a physical combat. It also explains why the suit took the form of a piling up of oath against oath, with that suitor winning the day who could bring up the larger reserves of "sworn men" to put their hands under his and swear in his behalf: 4 it was an obvious trial of strength, in which the more numerous and united family was bound to carry the day.
It was these powerful families, jealous of their independence but assiduous in matters of common import, that gave their tone to libertarian institutions. Unwilling at first to accept a leader at all except when circumstances made one necessary, they ended in sub- mission to a regular government, but always refused to admit that anything other than their express consent tied them to it. All the authority, strength, and resources at Power's command were those which were lent to it by assemblies of freemen. Life in cities disintegrated the clans progressively into families in the strict sense, but the chief still embodied the fierce spirit of independence which marked the beginnings of society. Witness the most ancient Roman law, which was built on the principle of the autonomy of the individual will.
To us it is hardly credible that a society can remain alive in which each man is the judge and master of his own actions, and our first reaction is that the most hideous disorder must reign wherever there is no Power to dictate to men their behaviour. Patrician Rome is evidence to the contrary. It offers us the spectacle of a continuing gravity and seemliness which suffered no decline until after a lapse of centuries; and disorder set in at the very time that rules started to multiply.
Why is it that the autonomy of individual wills did not produce what seem to us its natural results? The answer lies in three words: responsibility, ritual, folkways.
The Roman was, it is true, free to do anything. But let him have answered imprudently the question "Spondesne" and he was bound; that he misunderstood, that he was deceived or even coerced, helped him nothing: there was no coercing a man; etiamsi coactus, attamen voluit.
- He was free, but, through carelessness, imprudence, or stupidity, he promised to pay a certain sum, and cannot: behold him now the slave of his creditor.
- Spondesne? ( Do you promise? ) Etiamsi coactus, attatnen voluit. ( Even though compelled, yet he decided. )
A world in which the consequences of mistakes were liable to be so heavy both required and formed virile natures. Men meditated long their actions, and, as though to induce reflection, their every action wore a ceremonial aspect. All might be done, the sale of a son or the substitution for him in the inheritance of a stranger in blood, but the necessary ritual had to observed. At the height of Republican Rome this ritual was strict in the extreme; and brought it home to men that their decisions and acts were grave and solemn things. It gave to their steps a measured and majestic gait. Unquestionably nothing did more to give to the Senate its air of an assemblage of kings.
Finally we come to the essential factor in the ordering of society, to the folkways.
The early imprinting on the mind by a feared and venerated father of the cult of the ancestors, a severe and uniform education, the formation in common of adolescent training centres, the early spectacle of behaviour commanding respect, this and all else conditioned freemen to certain modes of behaviour. Should they fall short, whether through whim or weakness, there fell on them the force of public censure, which checked their careers and might even go so far as to deprive them of their status of freemen.
The reason why Plutarch makes such elevating reading is that his characters, from the best to the worst, play their parts one and all without commonness or meanness. It is not surprising that they have furnished tragedy with almost all its heroes, for, even while they were alive, they were in some sense already on the stage, trained to play certain characters and fixed in their parts by the exacting expectations of the spectators.
The climate of opinion when Republican Rome stood at its summit was that of a small, privileged society, freed from all menial work and sordid preoccupation and nurtured on tales of heroic exploit; a betrayal of this standard, and its doors closed for ever against the offender. Let us remark in passing that it was because the political thinkers of the eighteenth century conceived of opinion after these classical models that they sought to entrust it with so large a part. They failed to notice that the object of their admiration was neither general nor natural, that it was the opinion of a class and a product of meticulous training.
The system of liberty rested entirely in those days on the assumption that men would use their liberty in a certain way.
This assumption implied no estimate of the nature of man as such. Speculations of that kind made their appearance only when Greek civilization was in decline, and came to Rome as an importation from abroad.
Reliance was placed on the observable fact that men— men, that is to say, of a certain class— in virtue of acquired characteristics which could be maintained in vigour, behaved for all practical purposes in this particular way. With them, and for them, the system of liberty was workable.
It was a system based on class. There lies the gulf which separates the city of antiquity from the state of today, ancient thought from modern.
The word "freeman" does not sound to our ear as it did to those of the men of old. The emphasis is, for us, entirely on the "man." In it is the substance, and the adjective is a mere redundancy which only develops an idea already contained in the noun; whereas for the Romans the emphasis was on the "free," so much so that they telescoped the noun and the adjective into a single noun: ingenuus.
The freeman is a man of a particular kind, and has, if we are to accept Aristotle, a particular sort of nature. It is to this nature that the privileges of liberty are linked. The moment a man belies it, they are lost to him— as, for instance, to the Roman who let himself be taken prisoner in war, or became a notorious evildoer, or, for the sake of security, placed himself in another man's power.
Freemen are, taken as a body, capable both of ruling others and of agreeing among themselves, and rest their pride simultaneously in the majesty of their own persons and in that of the city. Men of their breed, whether Spartiates or Romans, will never submit to slavery whether from within or from without. They put up a superb resistance to the aggressions of Power seeking expansion, while bringing to the discipline and defence of society a proud and assiduous succour.
They are the soul of the Republic, or rather they are the entire Republic.
But what about the rest?
It is passing strange that our philosophers of the Revolutionary period should have formed their conception of a free society by reference to societies where everyone was not free— where, in fact, the vast majority were not free. It is no less strange that they never stopped to ask whether perhaps the characters which they so much admired were not made possible by the existence of a class which was not free. Rousseau, in whose philosophy were many things, was fully conscious of this difficulty: "Must we say that liberty is pos- sible only on a basis of slavery? Perhaps we must."
The system of liberty in the ancient world rested on a social differentiation which the modern spirit finds profoundly shocking. At Athens there were from fifteen to twenty thousand free citizens, as against four hundred thousand slaves. And the slavery was, even in the eyes of the philosophers, the condition of the freedom; a section of humanity had to be tools. "The usefulness of slaves diverges little from that of animals/' said Aristotle; "bodily service for the necessities of life is forthcoming from both." It is thanks to them alone that freemen had the leisure to raise themselves to the true condition of man, as it was defined by Cicero: "The name of man is gen- erally bestowed but is in fact earned only by those who cultivate knowledge."
But, even so, the position at Athens in the time of Aristotle and at Rome in the time of Cicero, in which a large class of freemen rested on a bed of slaves, marked a stage in a long trail of generalization of liberty.
It is far from the case that in the epoch in which liberty glittered most brilliantly all who were not slaves were free. Full liberty be- longed only to some, but there were many who enjoyed what was called by Mommsen half -liberty.
Full civil and political rights were at first the portion only of the eupatrids or the patricians, members at one and the same time both of the founding families or clans and of the warrior bands in whose assemblage the strength of society consisted; the phratries and curias kept alive the memory of these bands. The plebeians who lay out- side these categories, or entered them only in the capacity of de- pendants, were not citizens and freemen in the true sense.
Naturally the mass of plebeians brought social pressure to bear on the privileged aristocracy, and this pressure had the effect of diffusing the system of liberty, though it also altered its characteristics.
To us, who are not satisfied with a liberty that is undiffused, this pressure, and its diverse forms and consequences— which are not, as we shall see, what was intended— are full of valuable lessons.
Out of an extremely complex process (one on which historians have been too silent ) it is only possible here to disengage the three main forms of emancipation, to which we shall give the names of "in- corporation," "differential assimilation," and "counter-organization."
It is certain that in the earliest days of Roman history whole families were taken into the patriciate. The authorities tell us of several occasions on which this happened, as, for instance, at the annexation of Alba, when the great Alban clans were taken in on a footing of equality. Enlargements of the patriciate effected after this manner did no harm to the system, any more than did the frequent admissions of individuals by way of adoption. The effect was merely that people who had the habit of liberty received an accretion of like- minded people, or, in the case of individual admissions, of people who were considered to display in the highest degree the characteristics proper to a state of liberty. The admissions of individuals went on almost uninterruptedly and greatly reinvigorated the patriciate. The admission of whole families, on the other hand, soon came to an end.
The result was that, instead of virile plebeian families coming in to enlarge and fortify the patriciate, they remained part of the plebs, gave it its leaders, and conducted a long-drawn-out political war- fare, in the course of which the right of plebeians to hold the various public offices was progressively recognized. Then these plebeian families, in the pride of offices held and administered, joined up with the patriciate to form a new governing class: the nobilitas, which presided over the destinies of Rome in the most glorious hours of her history.
In the course of its struggles with the patriciate the condition of the plebs changed, for it won for itself civil and political rights. These were not, properly speaking, the patrician rights, and this is why the expression "differential assimilation" has been used. For instance, the form of patrician marriage, the confarreatio, was bound up with rites which were purely patrician; other forms of marriage had, therefore, to be found. Again, the manner of making a will by means of a solemn declaration of testamentary intentions made be- fore the comitia curiata was unsuited to the plebeian; so there was invented the disposition by way of a fictitious sale of the estate. All these forms of plebeian usage were, moreover, of greater practical convenience than the ancient forms, which were in the end to be abandoned even by the patricians themselves.
The spirit of the law underwent a change. So long as Roman so- ciety was powerfully organized in private groupings, each of them presided over by a man of strong will, whose will had been disciplined by beliefs and folkways, all the law that was necessary was to keep some sort of watch on the various crossroads at which collisions were possible.
But behaviour became less calculable when it was a case of a crowd of men whose wills had received less conditioning. Weaker characters, of men who had not previously enjoyed complete autonomy as regards law, could not be made subject to the cruel con- sequences of mistakes, which would be more frequent. It became necessary to temper and humanize the law. Public authority, in the form of the praetor, was brought in to protect individuals. Regulations multiplied under it.
Nor was that all. Primitive law could do without means of coercion. Judgment was an arbitral award accepted in advance. Maine noted the entire absence of sanctions in the earliest systems of law. Now, when it was in operation over a wider area, justice acted in a sovereign rather than in a mediatory capacity. She needed the wherewithal to execute her will.
Liberty, now cut to the habits of more people, lost something of its primitive stiffness and haughtiness. Yet it still reigned, though the phenomenon that was to destroy it was already forming.
The acquisition of civil and political rights was a very big thing for the plebeian. It was a big enough one even for the strong characters and bold spirits who had made their own way and founded powerful families, thereby putting into the shade many enfeebled patricians and gathering about them in their turn a numerous retinue of dependants.
In law there was, it is true, no longer a plebs, but there was still one in fact. In the mistress of the world that was now Rome, in- equality of conditions took a form far different from that taken in the days when even the proudest patricians were no more than swollen peasants. Prodigious fortunes were now amassed, to which the inviolability of individual rights gave the same protection as formerly it gave to the peasant's field.
The men of the people came thereby to set less store by their legal status of freemen than by their participation in the public authority. By means of the first, whether through their own fault or that of circumstances, they could not make progress adequate to their situation. The second was to be their instrument, and they were to make such use of it as would destroy liberty itself, their own along with that of the mighty who kept them down. The tribunate and the plebiscite would, between them, produce this result.
In the time when the plebeian had no rights, he had obtained, by means of the celebrated secession of the plebeians to the Aventine, the institution of inviolable tribunes, armed with complete powers for protecting him and with the right to halt for his behoof any ac- tivity of the government. This tribunician power had about it an arbitrary character which was necessary at first to make up for the plebeian's lack of rights: it should, logically, have disappeared as soon as equality of rights had been realized. Far from that, how- ever, it continued in existence, backed by the Senate, which made clever use of it to check the designs of magistrates who were too independent, and to concentrate finally in its own hands all public authority.
The Senate permitted the tribunes to unite the plebs as a separate community within the city, and to arrange for it to pass by vote resolutions of its own, plebi scita, resolutions which acquired in the end the status of laws in the true sense.
These laws were very different both in intent and content from those which had in former days been presented by the magistrates, the Senate consenting; the latter had been limited to the formulation of general principles. The tribunician plebiscites, products for the most part of the needs or passions of the passing hour, came often into conflict with the most fundamental principles of the law.
In this way there was introduced into Roman society the essentially erroneous notion that it is the business of legislative authority to prescribe or forbid anything whatever. Anyone who put forward a proposition of a nature seemingly advantageous for the immediate future was blindly applauded, even though his proposition subverted the entire permanent edifice of order. It was the tribunate which habituated the people to the idea of a saviour redressing at a stroke the social balance. Marius and Caesar were to be its heirs, and the emperors would find it an easy task to establish themselves on the ruins of the Republic and liberty.
And who were the men who would try to stay this process? Free- men of the old school. Brutus's dagger, so dear to the Jacobin heart, was wielded by an aristocratic hand.
The death or the Roman Republic may be ascribed with equal truth either to the fault of the masses or to the failure of the great.
The system of civil and political liberty could be made to work so long as it was not extended beyond men whose folkways accorded with it. But it ceased to be workable when once it had come to include strata of men for whom liberty was as nothing beside political authority, who expected nothing from the one and hoped every- thing of the other.
So far the responsibility for error is that of the masses. But that of the great is just as heavy. They had changed from the austere patricians of old into greedy capitalists, enriched by the pillage of whole provinces, by the illegal occupation of conquered territories, and by the squalid practice of usury. There were those who, like a certain Caecilius Clodius, had come to possess 3,600 pairs of oxen and 257,000 head of cattle. As absences on military service ruined the small proprietors, the capitalists acquired their land, and— an eloquent symbol, this!— ruined the once fertile soil by periodical changes of pasture for their vast herds of cattle, to such an extent that it was to be out of cultivation for nearly two thousand years.
It thus appears how right Tiberius Gracchus was in seeking to limit the large and multiply the small estates, thus tightening the dangerously relaxed bonds of the social order.
In so doing he hit on a fundamental truth— on what may truly be called the secret of liberty. A libertarian regime— one, that is to say, in which subjective rights are inviolable— cannot be maintained if the majority of those members of society who take a part in politics are not concerned to keep them intact. How can they be made concerned? By all the citizens having interests— not, it is true, of the same extent, but at least of the same kind and not differing: too widely in degree— interests which all are glad to see protected by the same rights.
In the heyday of the Republic the more fortunate citizens had been able without occasioning discontent to predominate at the elections, just as in war they were in the forefront of the battle. The reason was that their interests, though large, were not different in kind from the smaller ones of their neighbours.
But this natural harmony could endure only so long as the mate- rial conditions of life stretched in an uninterrupted chain from high- est to lowest, a chain in which the various links were not too far apart. It was utterly destroyed when there came to be at one end of the social ladder a disinherited mass, and at the other an insolent plutocracy. The subjective rights, regarded as legitimate when all that they included was the modest holding of a quiris, came to in- spire hatred when immense fortunes, however acquired, however large, and however used, sheltered beneath them. Thereafter the social pressures were directed against just those individual rights which should have been dear to each single member of the body politic, but had in fact come to be regarded by most of them as a mere blind, as the jealously guarded abuse of a small minority. From that time the majority laboured for the destruction of those rights. And liberty foundered with them.
It would be an error, disastrous alike to intelligent historiography and to the formation of political science, to confound in one and the same bland admiration everyone who has "espoused the popular cause," without distinguishing the two ways of serving it and the two roads along which, in pursuit of this end, society can be brought.
The situation to be coped with is the same, whichever way is taken: it is the vast gulf set between the legal status and the economic status of the ordinary man.
Whereas at Rome, in the first period of growth, economic independence and personal autonomy in matters of everyday life had gone on broadening down at the same pace as the right to political liberty, or even at a faster pace, a second phase arrived in which this independence and this autonomy started contracting, while the right to liberty continued to be extended to those members of society who were as yet without it (instance the admission to citizen- ship by Marius of the capite censi).
In this way a position was reached in which a large crowd of individuals, weak and wretched in isolation, had at their collective disposal a great influence on public affairs. Naturally financial advances were made to this influence by the plutocratic factions. But in the end, as was certain to happen, it was caught by the popular leaders.
When that point had been reached, there were two courses open to the popular leaders. The first was that of Tiberius Gracchus. To him it seemed that the spirit of citizenship, the will to safeguard and defend common interests and sentiments, gets at once lost sight of both at the top and at the bottom when the capitalists have too much to defend and the proletarians not enough. Therefore he sought to re-establish as between citizens a real similitude, together with the solidarity which flows from it: to put an end to the existence side by side of a plutocracy and a proletariat, and to arrange matters so that each single citizen could enjoy effectively an independence and an autonomy such as would bind all together in de- fence of the system of liberty.
The second course, to which Gaius Gracchus allowed himself to be committed by the failure of his brother, was quite different. To him the monstrous individual strength of the grandees and the utter individual weakness of the ordinary man were accomplished facts on which there was no going back, and he set himself the task of installing a public authority as manager of the people's affairs on their behalf.
The contrast between the policies of the two brothers at once leaps to the eye; the aim of the elder was to restore every citizen to the status of owner, whereas the younger got a law passed which allotted to each citizen his ration of corn at a low price, soon to be given gratis. This measure went in the diametrically opposite direction to the policy of Tiberius Gracchus. Tiberius had sought to multiply the numbers of independent proprietors; Gaius brought into Rome the last of them, lured there by free rations.*
- The reference here is to the lex frumentaria of 123 b.c. by which Gaius Gracchus fixed the price of corn at six and one-third asses to the modius. The view that this measure had the effect suggested in the text, though it has often been taken, is not accepted by die writer in the Cambridge Ancient History (vol. IX, chapters II and V), who maintains that, even though the law was repealed some four years later by reason of its cost, the price of six and one- third asses was probably not much below that at which the state might, with judicious buying, have hoped to sell without serious loss to itself. It is now, not surprisingly, impossible to determine with any sort of certainty what, on any hypothesis, was the economic price of corn at Rome in 123 B.C. The view taken in the text can, it is thought, claim this much at least of justification: even on the most favourable view of the lex frumentaria as such— even if there was n« offence in it to the most "classical" of economists— it set a course which led, first to the proposal of Saturninus in 103 B.C. to fix the price of the modius at only five-ninths of an as (though neither the figure nor the date can be regarded as certain), and then to the free distribution by Clodius in 58 B.C. It can, in short, be fairly said that it was Gracchus who "fished the murex up."
The result was that, instead of the physical independence of so- ciety's members becoming generalized, the bulk of them became the dependants of the public authority.
To carry out its new duties, that authority had necessarily to build up a separate administrative corps. It was, in time, to turn into the Empire, which lost no time in creating permanent officials and praetorian guards.
In truth there is no republic except where Power does not take the form of a concrete entity with its own members, where the citi- zens may almost without distinction be called on to manage temporarily common interests commonly conceived, and where none has a motive to increase the burdens which all support.
On the other hand, Power comes into being (a state in the modern sense) as soon as the gulf between individual interests has be- come so deep that the weakness of the mass requires the permanent protection of an all-powerful care, which cannot but behave as master.
Shall I be reproached for having buried my head too deeply in ancient history? But I have buried it in very recent history, too.
I find a remarkable counterpart to the story of the two Gracchi in that of the two Roosevelts.
Theodore Roosevelt, considering that the physical independence of the majority of citizens was the essential condition of their attachment to libertarian institutions, applied himself to fighting a plutocracy which was transforming citizens into salaried dependants. He came to grief on the same blind egoism of the men of great place as caused the downfall of Tiberius Gracchus.
Franklin Roosevelt accepted the accomplished fact, took up the defence of the unemployed and the economically weak, and constructed, by means of their votes and to their immediate advantage, such a structure of Power as recalled in striking fashion the work of the first Roman emperors. The individual right— the shield of each, which had become the bulwark of a few— had to bow down before the social right. And the free citizen passed a milestone on his way to becoming a protected subject.
The phenomenon, when once its essence has been grasped, throws a flood of light on the political history of Europe. We may pass over the evolution of the Italian republics, which, in their progress from the patriciate to the tyranny, exactly reproduce the course of events at Rome; for it is not by these, but rather by the monarchies, that the modern states have been created, receiving from them indelible characters.
An important class of freeman can be dimly discerned in the darkness of the Merovingians.* But troubled times cast them into a de facto dependence— to become de jure— on a powerful squirearchy. The kingdoms of the early Middle Ages may be conceived of as a species of vast and loosely knit republics in which citizenship was the perquisite of only a few notables.
But, as we have seen, the chances of preserving libertarian instititions are bound up with the proportion of the politically effective members of the society in question who desire benefit from them. We ought not, therefore, to feel surprise at the wide measure of support accorded to kings in their attempts to substitute their own authority for liberties which benefited only the few and were an oppression to the many.
Those historians who are impelled by an inner need to take sides are much embarrassed by this struggle between monarchy and aristocracy. How should they pay tribute to the authoritarian labours of kings, which rescued men from feudal servitude? Albert de Broglie has described this tendency:
We have had already, and even from the highest quarters, theories of French history which were very consistent, very well pieced together, and in which the whole construction stood its ground to perfection. According to these system-builders, the two principles which have always taken charge of the development of France are also the fulfilment of all its prayers— Equality and Authority. The greatest measure of equality possible protected by the largest amount of authority imaginable, there is the ideal government for France. That is what the crown and the Third Estate were seeking in common all through our long convulsions. To suppress both the superior ranks which dominated the bourgeoisie, and at the same time the intermediate authorities which inconvenienced the throne, to reach by that road complete equality and unlimited power, that is the final and providential tendency of French history.
A royal democracy, as it has been called, in other words a master but no superiors, equal subjects but no citizens, no privileges but no rights, such is the constitution which suits us.
- The Merovingians were the first dynasty of Frankish kings in Gaul. It was founded by Merovech in a.d. 448; his grandson, Clovis, established its for- tunes. The Carolingians succeeded in a.d. 752.
Will historians, in their passion for libertarian and anti-absolutist institutions, admire the resistance of aristocracy to the formation of absolutism? Sismondi, for instance, states that in the Middle Ages "all the real advances made in independence of character, in the safeguarding of rights, and in the limitations forced by discussion on the caprices and vices of absolute Power, were due to the hereditary aristocracy."
Only the English political scene does not impale the historian on this dilemma, and that by reason of certain historical peculiarities which have been well set forth by de Lolme. There, in effect, the authority of the crown was from the first sufficiently great and security sufficiently assured to save the large class of freemen from shrivelling into a narrow caste.
Instead of the ambitions which had been thwarted and the activities which had been exploited by the oppressive measure of liberty enjoyed by the notables finding, as in France, a rallying-point be- neath the royal banner, the political strength of what may already be termed "the English middle class" was mustered in the wake of the squires (regarded as large-scale freemen) under the banner of liberty. The phenomenon is one of decisive importance: for it has had the effect of forming, for and throughout whole centuries, an English political outlook very different from that prevailing on the continent of Europe.
J. S. Mill, in a famous passage, threw into contrast the different political tempers of the peoples of France and England:
There are two states of the inclinations, intrinsically very different, but which have something in common, by virtue of which they often combine in the direction they give to the efforts of individuals and nations; one is the desire to exercise power over others; the other is disinclination to have power exercised over themselves. The difference between different portions of mankind in the relative strength of these two dispositions is one of the most important elements in their history.
Barely troubling himself to camouflage the cap, Mill then fits it on the French, who sacrifice their liberty, he explains, to the most exiguous and illusory participation in Power.
- In stressing this tendency, de Broglie was animated by the wish to fight the Bonapartism for which it had paved the way.
There are nations in whom the passion for governing others is so much stronger than the desire of personal independence, that for the mere shadow of the one they are found ready to sacrifice the whole of the other. Each one of their number is willing, like the private soldier in an army, to abdicate his personal freedom of action into the hands of his general, provided the army is triumphant and victorious, and he is able to flatter himself that he is one of a conquering host, though the notion that he has himself any share in the domination exercised over the conquered is an illusion.
A government strictly limited in its powers and attributions, required to hold its hands from overmeddling, and to let most things go on without its assuming the part of guardian or director, is not to the taste of such a people; in their eyes the possessors of authority can hardly take too much upon themselves, provided the authority itself is open to general competition. An average individual among them prefers the chance, however distant or improbable, of wielding some share of power over his fellow- citizens, above the certainty, to himself and others, of having no unnecessary power exercised over them.
These are the elements of a people of place-hunters; in whom the course of politics is mainly determined by place-hunting; where equality alone is cared for, but not Liberty; where the contests of political parties are but struggles to decide whether the power of meddling in everything shall belong to one class or another, perhaps merely to one kind of public men or another; where the idea entertained of democracy is merely that of opening offices to the competition of all instead of a few; where, the more popular the institutions, the more innumerable are the places created, and the more monstrous the over-government exercised by all over each, and by the executive over all.
The English people, on the other hand, according to Mill, "are very jealous of any attempt to exercise power over them, not sanctioned by long usage and by their own opinion of right, but they in general care very little for the exercise of power over others"; the English have little sympathy with the passion for government, but "no people are so fond of resisting authority when it oversteps cer- tain prescribed limits."
To the extent to which these two pictures seem to us to be true, how are we to explain such a contrast? By the characteristics ac- quired in the course of two quite different historical evolutions.
In their capacity as leaders of the middle classes, the English aristocrats, ever since Magna Charta, associated them in their own resistance to the encroachments of Power. From that ensued a general attachment to safeguards for the individual and to affirmation of a law which was independent of Power and, at need, opposable to it.
In France, on the other hand, it was around the monarchv that the middle classes rallied in their struggle against privileges. The victories of state legislation over custom were popular victories.
So it came about that the two countries entered on the democratic era with very diverse dispositions.
In one of them, the system of liberty, from being a right of per- sons of aristocratic origin, was to be progressively extended to all. Liberty would become a generalized privilege. For this reason it is misleading to speak of the democratization of England. It would be truer to say that the rights of the aristocracy have been extended to the plebs. The British citizen is as untouchable as a medieval noble.
In France, on the other hand, the system of authority, the absolutist machine constructed by the Bourbon monarchy, was to fall into the hands of the people, taken in mass.
In England, democracy would take the form of the extension to all of an individual liberty which was provided with centuries-old safeguards; in France, that of the attribution to all of a sovereignty which was armed with a centuries-old omnipotence and saw in individuals nothing but subjects.
When the people appears in the political arena in the leading part, it enters on what has been for centuries the battle-ground of monarchy and aristocracy. The former has forged the offensive weapons of authority, the latter has strengthened the defensive positions of liberty.
According as the people has, during its long minority, rested its hope in the monarchy or in the aristocracy and collaborated in the extension or in the limitation of Power, according as its admiration has traditionally gone out to kings who hang barons or to barons who turn back kings, it will have formed potent habits of mind and inveterate sentiments which will lead it on to continue either the absolutist work of the monarchy or the libertarian work of the aristocracy.
Thus, the English Revolution of 1689 invoked the name of Magna Charta, whereas in the French of 1789 praises of Richelieu rang loud; he was canonized as "man of the mountain and Jacobin."
But even in countries where popular authority is orientated by potent memories towards the safeguarding of individual rights, it will inevitably tack about to Power's side, and its breath will come, sooner or later, to puff the sails of sovereignty.
This tacking about takes place at the bidding of the same causes as we have already seen at work at Rome. So long as the people, consisting of freemen participating in the work of government, comprises none without some individual interests to defend, so that all feel an attachment to subjective rights, liberty seems to them precious and Power dangerous. But so soon as this "people with voting power" comprises a majority of persons who have, or think they have, nothing to defend, but are offended by great material inequalities, then it starts to set no value on anything but the power which its sovereignty gives it of overthrowing a defective social structure: it delivers itself over to the messianic promises of Power.
Louis Napoleon, Bismarck, and Disraeli perfectly understood this —great authoritarians all of them, who realized that, by enlarging the franchise at a time when property was becoming a closer preserve, they were, by calling in the people, paving the way for the distension of Power. It was the politics of Caesarism.
What folly it is to remit the judgment of events to posterity when contemporaries often see so much more clearly! Those of Napoleon III saw very well that he was not acting illogically in instituting universal suffrage while at the same time favouring the concentration of wealth and the accentuation of social inequality.
Only three things matter to Caesarism. First, that those who are oldest in liberty within the society should lose their moral credit and become incapable of imparting to those who enter on the heritage of this liberty a pride of personal status embarrassing to Power. Tocqueville has remarked on the part played in this respect in France by the complete extirpation of the ancient nobility. 31 The second factor necessary to Caesarism is that a new class of capitalists should arise, without moral authority and possessed of an extreme of wealth which sets them apart from their fellow-citizens. Lastly, there is the third element, which is the union of political strength with social weakness in a large dependent class.
Though they heap treasure on treasure and think themselves thereby more powerful, the "aristocrats" of the capitalistic creation, by awakening the resentment of society, disqualify themselves for ever from being its leaders against the inroads of Power. Whereas the infirmities of the multitude find a natural haven in the omnipotent state.
In this way is removed the only obstacle that Caesarism has to fear— a movement of libertarian resistance, emanating from a people with subjective rights to defend and under the natural leadership of eminent men whom their credit qualifies and whom the insolence of wealth does not disqualify.
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