I want clarify and expand upon a point I’ve made before: What is it that reactionaries truly fear?
More people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. The British government killed more people in their suppression of the 1798 Irish bid for independence. The Catholic Inquisition in just one province of Spain had a death count that far exceeded the number killed in the entire French Revolution.
In criticizing revolution, such counter-revolutionaries were defending colonial empires and theocracies that were more violent and oppressive than any revolution in history. For example, the Catholic Church, that ancient bastion of traditionalism and conservative morality, ordered the death of millions over six centuries. At least, a revolution is typically a single event or short period of violence. Oppressive governments can extend such violence continuously generation after generation.
Reactionaries obviously haven’t minded violence. They are criticizing the ends, not the means. It is impossible to say the world is a worse place for most people because the revolutionary era happened with its ensuing democratic reforms. But it is far worse for the elite that once ruled without having to tolerate their power being questioned. Some reactionaries would claim that they fear the disruption of the social order. Really? Whose social order? Those who suffered under those regimes would have liked a bit of social order in their favor. No revolution ever happens in order to fight all social order. Only oppressive and violent social orders incite revolutions.
What is feared by the ruling elite and those aligned with it isn’t even necessarily overtly physical violence. The French Revolution started off fairly peaceful and moderate. But what the French revolutionaries wanted to take away from the ruling elite was their privilege over everyone else and their power to wantonly abuse those below them. The French Revolutionaries began with no desire to kill the king, take the land away from the rich, or abolish religion. They simply wanted a democratic society. It was only after that was denied and undermined by those in power, both domestic and foreign, that the revolutionaries eventually turned to more drastic measures.
If the reactionaries hadn’t fought against democracy, the French Revolution may have been more like the American Revolution. That is the main difference. In the American Revolution. the ruling elite mostly decided to fight on the side of the masses instead of against them. It was only later on that the American ruling elite co-opted power and suppressed the very people who fought for democracy.
So, what exactly is the fear that reactionaries have?
Edmund Burke wrote his famous passage about the French Queen and her demise. While untold numbers suffered in prisons and from starvation, Burke decried the end of an age of chivalry because the masses refused to chivalrously lay down and die. Thomas Paine offered an incisive response, even more famous:
“Through the whole of Mr. Burke’s book I do not observe that the Bastille is mentioned more than once, and that with a kind of implication as if he were sorry it was pulled down, and wished it were built up again. “We have rebuilt Newgate,” says he, “and tenanted the mansion; and we have prisons almost as strong as the Bastille for those who dare to libel the queens of France.” As to what a madman like the person called Lord George Gordon might say, and to whom Newgate is rather a bedlam than a prison, it is unworthy a rational consideration. It was a madman that libelled, and that is sufficient apology; and it afforded an opportunity for confining him, which was the thing that was wished for. But certain it is that Mr. Burke, who does not call himself a madman (whatever other people may do), has libelled in the most unprovoked manner, and in the grossest style of the most vulgar abuse, the whole representative authority of France, and yet Mr. Burke takes his seat in the British House of Commons! From his violence and his grief, his silence on some points and his excess on others, it is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry, that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope and the Bastille, are pulled down.
“Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.“
To someone like Burke, a single queen or rather what she symbolically represented is worth more than the lives of thousands of people oppressed and thousands more dead because of that same despotic power. The personal is lost within Burke’s moral imagination. He complains about the supposed abstract ideals of revolutionaries while he himself gets lost in his own abstractions. The conservative moral imagination is haunted by its own imaginings.
His concern isn’t with the mere violent force that can be wielded by military and mob alike. Instead, he wishes to hold up the symbolism of power. When that symbolism is challenged, the entire symbolic order is challenged. If Burke understood nothing else, he understood the power of imagination. For the imagination to serve established power, social order must be enforced upon imagination. The true danger of revolutionaries isn’t that they threaten to bring bring down social orders but that they imagine new ones.
17 thoughts on “The Haunted Moral Imagination”
The calculus you are not waiting is the Russian and Chinese revolutions and transitions. That is what people are using the French revolution as a proxy for now.
weighting, not waiting
I was thinking about contemporary reactionaries as well, but my mind was mostly caught up in thoughts of the revolutionary era. That is why the only reactionary I refer to by name was Burke.
But you are correct about past revolutions being used as a proxy for Russian and Chinese revolutions.
As far as that goes, for Burke, the regicidal English Civil War probably was a proxy for his criticisms of the French Revolution. His fear wasn’t that it was a foreign revolution, but that it hit too close to home. He was fearing his country’s tradition as much as defending it. Even at that time, there had been a long history of radicalism, rebellion and revolution in Britain.
Yes, in fact, I say that the first modern revolution is probably the English civil war, not the American revolution, as many of the ideas that revolutionized both religion and government are found in the various factions fighting with Cromwell. That it was a failed revolution and one with come reactionary tendencies even in the progressive side is why we remember it merely as a civil war.
But I think the French as proxy for the Russian and Chinese is the only reason we are still pulled to it in the way we are. The French revolutions bloody nature was particularly aimed at a relatively small class, whereas, as you know, the American revolution was more or less war between related by geographically separated powers which, as a such a war, can be much more bloody. Our civil war, which could be thought of as a counter-revolution attempt, was one of the most bloody in history and overtime ideological narratives ignore that and play down the nuance (The south lying about their motivations being related to slavery, and the North leaving out that for the vast majority of Northerners it was not about slavery for the first two years of the war. Both sides tend to be somewhat dishonest on that in historical. )
Although Burke is a more mixed character than we—or most conservatives–saw him. And, frankly, he was not wrong about the excesses of the Jacobins, but it was not the terror that caused was the worst offender, it was that the Jacobins, in their political purging, could not put food on the table for a good deal of the emerging middle classes and then that gives us the good Citizen Emperor in time.
Burke remained a whig–not a Tory–his entire life, so his defense of tradition was a specific one in line with early liberalism. That is not to say I disagree with you about Burke, but I sometimes think progressives buy into that narrative too much.
I go back and forth about Burke.
It doesn’t make sense to me that he was a conservative for his time and especially not for ours. I don’t even know that it is fair to call him a reactionary. He expressed reactionary attitudes in old age, but that was just one small part of his personality and political views.
I could be persuaded that he was a conservative-minded liberal. My criticisms of conservative-minded liberals might very well apply to Burke.
I see him as a conservative liberal and Paine as a the first left liberal. When I say US politics is basically a battle with theocrats and two or three forms of liberalism (classical liberal, libertarian, and left liberal). These distinctions are pretty vital, but it also explains why truly right-wing (Fascist, traditionalist, ultra-nationalist) and truly left-wing (Marxist, red anarchists, left nationalists, hard socialists, communists) are rare in the US after 1950, and almost extinct after 1980.