'The Storming of the Bastille' by Jean-Pierre Houel
Since I am writing on Bastille Day, I am prompted to wonder why the French—or anyone else, for that matter—celebrate this infamous date. After all, the “storming” of that royal keep in 1789 was the spark that started the conflagration of the French Revolution. Unlike the American Revolution, in which the rule of law and the institutions of civil society survived the change of governments, the French Revolution was one of the signal bad events in world history. It consumed civil society and the centuries-old institutions of civilization. It was an unalloyed triumph of the totalitarian spirit, and in this respect it presaged and inspired that even greater assault on decency and freedom, the Bolshevik Revolution, the opening act of one of the darkest chapters in human history. The butcher’s bill for the French Revolution is many hundreds of thousands. Soviet Communism was responsible for the deaths of tens upon tens of millions and the universal immiseration of the people whose lives it controlled.
Yet today’s news is full of cheery stories about Bastille Day celebrations. Why?
It is generally a bootless errand, I know, to oppose myth with history. Myth, feeding a deep need, subsumes history. Still, truth demands that the effort be made.
One canard that we were all brought up on is that the Bastille was a loathsome dungeon full of innocent political prisoners. In fact, it harbored not hordes but precisely seven inmates when the mob stormed it. Contrary to what you have been told, the prisoners were detained in good conditions. At least one was attended by his own chef. Bernard-René de Launay, the governor, was by all accounts a fair and patient man. But that did not save him from the mob’s “revolutionary justice.” They dragged him out of the fortress and stabbed him to death.
By rights, Bastille Day should be a day of national mourning or contrition. That it is not tells us a great deal—about the persistence of human credulousness, for example, and the folly of subordinating the imperfect, long-serving structures of civilization to the demands of impatient people infatuated by their own unquenchable sense of virtue. Tocqueville, in his book on the ancien régime at the eve of the revolution said that the “the contrast between benign theories and violent acts” was one of the Revolution’s “strangest characteristics.”
Strange it may have been, but it has turned out to be a regular feature of the totalitarian sensibility. What could be more benign sounding than slogans about “liberty, equality, fraternity,” OCitoyen, but how oppressive, how murderous, were their implementation “on the ground”? Robespierre cut to the chase when he spoke of “virtue and its emanation, terror.” He knew that the index of the sort of virtue he proselytized—a heady confection inherited from Rousseau—was the rapidity with which le rasoir national, the guillotine, pursued its grisly business. The pursuit of virtue by communists is a hundred, a thousand times bloodier and more soul blighting.
But I do not want to spend Bastille Day rehearsing horror stories from the past. Rather, I’d like to say just a word or two about one feature of the totalitarian impulse that has survived and thrived in modern democratic societies.
I am promoted by a story I saw this morning about Bernie Sanders, the aging socialist Senator from Vermont who is once again running for the presidency of the United States. A tweet from Christina Hoff Sommers alerted me to the report that although Bernie had chosen to spend his honeymoon in the Soviet Union, he never availed himself of the opportunity of visiting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when the great writer and moral witness was living as a refugee in Cavendish, Vermont. Some of the comments evinced surprise. Some put it down to ideology, as if Sanders, being a fan of the Soviet Union, made a silent protest by ignoring the famous anti-Soviet figure in his midst.
But I think the deeper reason for Sanders’s neglect was a quality of the socialist or communist or revolutionary sensibility that is too little remarked. I mean its ingrained, indeed its programatic lack of curiosity about other people.
Roger Scruton, in a thoughtful anatomy of the French Revolution, is one of the few people to underscore this feature of the totalitarian habit of mind. “This absence of curiosity,” Scruton notes, “is a permanent characteristic of the revolutionary consciousness. It can be seen in Marx, in his impoverished and impatient descriptions of the ‘full communism’ towards which history is tending. And it is even more evident in the writings of Lenin, in which blocks of wooden language are constantly shifted so as to conceal the goal of communism from view.”
An important reason for this lack of curiosity (and this was something grasped by Burke and Tocqueville) is the prominent role that abstractions play in the mental and moral metabolism of the totalitarian sensibility. It was articulated with some poignancy by Rousseau who, at the end of his life, sadly observed, “I think I know man, but as for men, I know them not.” Thus it should come as no surprise that Rousseau, in an influential prelude to totalitarian dramas to come, should insist that true liberty consisted in sacrificing all merely individual wills to the imperatives of a “general will” whose dictates were as preemptory as they were abstract. As sage of Geneva put it in The Social Contract, anyone who would dare to undertake the creation of a people must feel himself capable of “changing human nature.” Human reality is drained of dignity and becomes material to be shaped and formed according to the schemes of utopian power. Hence the terrifying logic of Stalin’s observation that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. Revolutionaries do not trade in individuals, only masses.
I was struck by the story of Bernie Sanders’s curiosity deficit because it seems to be such a widespread liability of our political class. Absorbed by their ideological battles, the political actors of the establishment—and I include here the army of consultants, lobbyists, staffers, and pundits as well as elected officials—seem to have constructed an all-but impenetrable carapace that protects them from the unwanted intrusion of empirical reality. Their lives are given up entirely to politics. They thereby neglect the non- or pre-political reality which is the end for which politics labors, or should labor. This disaster was promulgated by the architects of the French Revolution, for whom there was no private sphere apart from the imperatives of the state, and perfected by Soviet Communism and its progeny, for whom the individual is faceless datum, a “cog” as Lenin put it, in the party machine.
The cruel and suffocating intrusiveness of those dystopian “experiments against reality” are not so seamlessly or so thoroughly and viciously implemented in American society. But I submit that anyone who looks around at the vast, unaccountable, self-engorging bureaucracy of the so-called administrative state, anyone who watches the ignorant and vituperative grandstanding of so many of our elected officials, cannot help but mark the parallels with the remorseless incuriosity that stood behind the totalitarian juggernaut as it systematically discounted truth for the sake of the accumulation of power. All of which is to explain why I regard Bastille Day as a sobering reminder of man’s pernicious folly rather than an occasion for celebration.