Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat
The People’s Friend


THE eighteenth century represents in a sense a unique division of universal history. The sixteenth century saw the break-up in its older form of the political, social, and religious systems of the Middle Ages. But though the real life of medieval institutions was passing away, the forms – their outer husk – still remained in many cases intact. These forms, in the course of the social evolution in the second half of the sixteenth century and during the seventeenth, became gradually filled with a new content, which completely changed their nature. To enter in detail into the character of these changes would carry us too far. They were, however, everywhere characterised by two main features the substitution of bureaucracy or officialism for the personal or group relation, and the fusion of local autonomies into centralised state-systems. These two features reacted upon one another, and were, in fact, parts of the same movement. Bureaucracy tended to be the condition of the centralised state; and, on the other hand, the centralised state, when it became a conscious purpose, with monarchs and statesmen, involved the weakening or abolition of the personal or group relation, and the consequent creation of an official class of bureaucracy with all its attendant forms.

Now, the above process of social and political development may be said to have reached its completion as such by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Feudalism existed nominally, it is true, but as a tolerated and protected appanage of the system which had readily superseded it, or, it might be, merely as the ornamental exterior of the latter.

In France, the evolution spoken of is particularly well marked. During the reign of the “great monarch” the centralisation of the French kingdom in the hands of the King and his advisers, which had been attempted with varying success from Louis XI. onwards, was systematically carried out. Meanwhile, the economic change from medieval conditions to the earlier forms of capitalism, both industrial and mercantile, which for a century and a half past had been making steady progress, meant the growth in influence, if not in actual political power, of the Third Estate in the larger towns. This had been artificially forced on by the new bureaucratic system during the latter part of the seventeenth century, especially as represented by Colbert. The new conditions of fiscal and bureaucratic centralisation, m which each district and manor was subject to the authority of the “Intendant” of the Province and his sous-délégué, they in their turn being nominated and strictly accountable to the Crown Minister at Paris or Versailles, proved nevertheless in the long run incompatible with the economic advance all along the line. Hence the movement towards revolution in France was pre-eminently political. Dissatisfaction with the prevailing order of things, which made itself first actively felt amongst the literary and smaller official class, slowly but surely spread above and below this social stratum, until in the years immediately preceding the Revolution there was no one contented with the existing order save the higher nobles and ecclesiastics (and they not entirely) and the Court and its immediate satellites – in short, those who directly profited by the bloodsucking of the tax-gatherer and the general abuse of authority.

Thus the eighteenth century was unique in its political aspect as representing an arrested development on nearly all sides. Feudal forms were preserved as the encasement under cover of which bureaucratic realities were called into being immediately by the rapacity of kings and courtiers, this rapacity itself having been called forth by the expansion of the new capitalism with its world-market and its new finance based thereupon, with all that this involved economically and socially. But the eighteenth century was not far advanced before it became obvious that the whilom new reality itself had become crystallised and was incompatible with further progress on the same lines. The only branch of human affairs that escaped stagnation was the speculative. In spite of all repressive laws, in spite of the sword of the executioner, theoretically suspended over the head of any exponent of views hostile to the status quo, political and religious, the intellectual revolt, headed by the philosophes, went on apace. Apart from this, it was not only politically that the eighteenth century was one of arrested development. Its art, its literature, and its social life bore the impress of the stiffness which its political side so prominently exhibited. Pictures à la Watteau, Louis-Quinze furniture, periwigs and shoe-buckles, all testify to the formalism that flowed from the arrested development in the body politic and social. And these characteristics were not confined to France alone. France was then setting the tone to all the rest of Europe in manners, in art, in literature, and to some extent in public policy. England had her Pope, her Samuel Johnson, her Sir Godfrey Kneller, her new parish churches with their sham classicism and their bescrolled monuments and tombstones, and her formal gardens with stone arbours, grottoes, and statuary. In Germany, all the century’s distinctive art and architecture – all that there was in addition to the traditional mediaeval examples – was no more than a slavish imitation of French models. As for the political forms in Germany, the court of every petty potentate was a more or less successful attempt to emulate Versailles, alike in its etiquette and amusements and in the public policy (save the mark!) that issued from it.

France being therefore the classical land of the political system which superseded mediaeval feudalism proper – the land where the system of centralisation and bureaucracy had been carried out more logically than in any other – France became also the classical land of the political Revolution that was to inaugurate the popular political forms under which the economic realities of nineteenth-century Capitalism should work. In England, post-mediaeval officialism never reached the point it did in France, and the Court oligarchy never showed the same capacity for extortion. English taxation was not so oppressive as French, and English finance never reached the hopeless confusion and entanglement of that of France. As for Germany, despite the attempts of princes and grand dukes to pose as miniature facsimiles of Louis Quatorze, its older feudalism did not become so completely encrusted with bureaucracy as in France. For one thing, the important element of centralisation on a large scale was absent. In Prussia alone was the contrary the case, and here, therefore, the French model was most successfully imitated. Hence, in England and in Germany, the political interest was never all-embracing, and hence the modern industrial and intellectual revolutions respectively were neither overshadowed nor absorbed by the political struggle. They were thus enabled to work themselves out more or less independently.

My object in pointing out the foregoing general characteristics of eighteenth-century political life, especially so far as France is concerned, is to show the kind of world of which the subject of the present biography formed part and parcel. As the second half of the century. got well advanced, the new ideas which inspired the intellectual movement of the age, and which in many of its phases had been initiated in England, though they had fructified in the hands of French litterateurs and publicists, spread over the rest of Europe, including even the land that was originally the land of their birth. Notions of justice, equality, liberty, which the philosophic movement had impressed upon men’s minds, took root and began to give rise to almost limitless hopes for the future of mankind, and of the dawn of a new era of universal peace, happiness, and rationality. Wordsworth has well expressed the sentiment of the time:-

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven.

This awakening was quite different in character from that of the Renaissance and Reformation periods, although, – as Renan has pointed out, the French literary salon was the lineal descendant of the courts of the Medici and the Farnese gardens. In fact, the resemblance between the cultures is obvious at a glance. We have the same cynicism, the same air of superiority, and the same contempt for dogma and tradition. The difference is, that in the former case the new learning and the new ideas to which it gave rise remained the monopoly of the few, whereas in the latter case they speedily made their influence felt throughout ever-increasing areas of the population, ultimately coalescing with the contemporary discontent of the people. The correlative popular movement in the former period was that of the Reformation and of the agitations leading up to it. But the Renaissance and the Reformation had little direct connection with one another, and developed, in the course of time, an actual antagonism. The popular movements of the Reformation took their stand almost entirely on the Bible and the traditional Christian dogma. Justice and equality ought to be established because the Gospel declared all men to be brothers and proclaimed the law of brotherly love. The basis of the whole popular thought of that time was believed to lie, not in human learning and reason, but in the correct interpretation of the words of the Old and New Testaments.

Now, on the contrary, as has been said, the primarily exclusive culture of the French salons was destined to leaven the ideals of the whole people. The most classic expression all round of the salon order of thought per se was in Voltaire’s writings, whilst the works of Rousseau expound the same essential code of thought in a form adapted not to wits and versifiers, but to the general consciousness of the time. In Rousseau we have the earnestness of a man of the people face to face with the practical problems of contemporary life and society, and at the same time a true son of his time as regards his general thoughts and way of looking at things. Rousseau, like the philosophes, drew, indirectly at least, from English sources. The Contract Social was based upon Hobbes’s Leviathan, where the theory of an original compact between the members of human society is clearly laid down. The fundamental distinction between the two resides chiefly in the fact that whereas Hobbes postulated that the compact once made was irrevocable, whence he deduced his absolute monarchy principles, Rousseau introduced the crucial innovation that the “people”, as representing the original makers of the compact, were free to revoke it whenever they wished. The “Social Contract” of Rousseau was an agreement made “once upon a time” by a society of human beings who found the “state of nature” inconvenient or uncomfortable. When, where, or how, men did not at that time stop to consider. It was sufficient that this theory of asocial contract, as having been the origin of men’s living in communities, with recognised laws, institutions, and customs, was a plausible one for it to be accepted unhesitatingly without further examination of its historical or anthropological basis – or even as to whether it had any. Serious scientific researches into the beginnings of man and society hardly existed in the eighteenth century, in spite of luminous suggestions from thinkers like Montesquieu, Herder, and Kant, and even of seemingly prophetic glimpses of nineteenth-century scholarship. What has been sometimes, though with questionable propriety, called the “metaphysical method” satisfied the average contemporary needs in matters of this kind. An abstract proposition was, to the eighteenth century mind, a sacramental formula, in the attempt to realise which it was prepared, according to the measure of its sincerity, to sacrifice all other considerations.

It would seem scarcely necessary in this book to discuss at great length once more the Rousseauite theories in detail. As is well known, the epoch-making Genevese writer, starting with what was nothing more than a debating-society paradox, was gradually brought to meditate seriously on the problems of society, on inequality of condition, on the nature of the bond which held men together in political communities, in short, on the “Rights of Man” in all their bearings. The ripe fruit of all these meditations, and, we may also add, the ripe fruit of eighteenth-century thoughts on these questions, was embodied in the momentous volume above referred to, Le Contrat Social. It would hardly be too much to say that never in the history of the world has a single literary production had an influence so immediate and so far-reaching as this remarkable book. To remind the reader how it has been called the Bible of the Revolution would savour of platitude, but we must never lose sight of the fact, when considering the views, immediate objects, and remoter ideals of the men of the Revolution, that Rousseau’s writings, and chiefly this book, formed the basis, if in varying degrees, of all of them.

The other great writer whose name is constantly coupled with Rousseau’s – namely Voltaire – had also an influence both deep and wide on the theoretical side of the Revolution, but it was an influence of a very different kind from that of Rousseau. In the first place, Voltaire’s influence was much more indirect than Rousseau’s; and in the second place, it was negative rather than positive. As far as it went, Rousseau’s was eminently the latter. The principles he enunciated seemed to furnish the gate into the promised land. Voltaire had scorched up with his wit the superstitions that stood in the way of progress, and had pointed out and gibbeted abuses that needed destroying, but of any serious attempt at constructive proposals there is little trace in his writings. The difference between the two men was also illustrated by the respective classes mostly swayed by their teachings. As often before remarked, Voltaire, the aristocrat, the friend of kings and courtiers, the brilliant cynic, and withal the foremost apostle of eighteenth-century “culture”, was preeminently the man of the “Girondins”, of the educated higher middle-class and petite noblesse of France.

Rousseau, the serious thinker, the fanatic at times, the apostle of equality and of social regeneration, as he understood these things, was pre-eminently the man of the “Mountain”, of the lower middle and working class, of the mass of the French people, whether in the towns or on the country-side. Wherever such were given to reading at all, they were sure to read Rousseau. But in neither case must this be regarded as exclusive. There were few men of the Girondin type who had not studied Jean-Jacques’ productions, and, on the other hand, the Voltalrean spirit had penetrated widely amongst the people, far more widely than the writings themselves. The effect of these two intellectual giants was felt far beyond the frontiers of France. The foreign monarchs, princes, and cultured upper classes, who had been willing to accept the lead of France as the tone-giver in literature, art, manners, and policy, could not escape the inevitable Nemesis. The doctrines of the revolutionary thinkers already began to ferment in the minds of their own subjects or social inferiors. Thus throughout Western Europe the revolutionary spirit, and as often as not the actual ideas of the representatives of contemporary French thought, had found their way into the most unexpected nooks and corners of social life. This was notably the case in the years immediately preceding the great convulsion. The stock phrases and words of the time – the “Rights of Man”, “Equality”, “Reason”, above all that name of might the “People” – were household words far outside French soil.

To the last of these it behoves us to devote a few words before concluding these introductory remarks. The “People” of the period with which we are dealing connoted the whole of society outside the governing class as such, that is, monarchs, ministers, higher nobles and ecclesiastics, together with all those whose function it was to carry out the main work of government. The reigning potentate, wherever he was, was regarded as the embodied antithesis of the “People”, who were deemed the victims of his tyranny. Of the distinctions, potential and actual, of the embryonic germs, even of antagonism, existing within this somewhat amorphous concept, the “People”, men of the eighteenth century recked but little. The “People” must be freed from tyrants, from bad laws, from oppressive taxes, from the bondage of superstition. The monarch must be converted into the representative or trustee of the “People”, if he were to continue at all. Good and equal laws for all must be established. No favour or exemption must be shown in taxation, which must be strictly proportioned to means. Priestcraft must be abolished. The dogmas of the churches must give way to a “natural religion”, founded on the sentiments common to all good men and easily understanded of the multitude. Given these things and all would be well. Such were amongst the staple thoughts of the awakened intelligence of the period. Little did men then dream of the tyranny of economic circumstance, blind as they were to the facts of economic evolution and to the truth that beneath the consciously made laws of human society at any given period lie the fundamental natural laws governing the development of production, distribution, and exchange, that indeed the laws of the code or the state-book are in the bulk dictated by these. A political change, a change from privilege and status to equality before the law and freedom of contract in the political sphere, together with the establishment of the reign of reason on the ruins of superstition in the intellectual sphere, seemed all that was necessary to place men in a position to be happy for all time. The notion of continuous development, of society as a dynamic synthesis, was to all practical intents and purposes entirely absent from revolutionary and pre-revolutionary speculation on political and social matters.

Such was the condition of life and thought at the time when the subject of the present study had reached manhood and had gone forth on his wanderings through various cities of Western Europe, to seek, if not fortune, at least the livelihood that he may perhaps have found it difficult to obtain at home.

Last updated on 21.6.2003