Postmodernism, Part 26: French Revolution Redux

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.  (Additional support includes 1848: Year of Revolution, by Michael Rapport.)

Previous posts:

Enlightenment and Darkness

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

Right Collectivism

Left Collectivism

Revolutionary Disappointment


Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism.  Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets.  Postmodernist philosophy is based on the metaphysical nihilism of (Nazi) Martin Heidegger.

Postmodernism’s radical left politics don’t flow naturally from Heidegger’s subjectivist philosophy.  Instead, their politics flow from twentieth century Marxists’ crisis of faith (in the face of undeniable Marxist catastrophe).  The postmodernists took refuge in the earlier collectivist Rousseau.  Rousseau’s ideas inflamed the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, and culminated in Napoleon’s conquests.

Right Collectivism has roots in the German Counter-Enlightenment (Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel).  They gave Rousseau a German twist, including hero worship, state worship, totalitarianism, and dialectical history (plus German supremacy).

marxKarl Marx

Left Collectivism has roots in the German Counter-Enlightenment, romanticism, and early industrial working conditions.  Romanticism valued passion, violence, radicalism, and revolution (morality, not so much).  Deplorable (“third world”) industrial working conditions were (truly) breeding revolution.  The Communists, Marx and Engels, thought this the new normal.  Their “scientific socialism” prophesied a Communist destiny.  In 1847, the Communist League published their Communist Manifesto.

Revolution was imminent.  The Revolutions of 1848 would be a big letdown.  They were driven by hunger (crop failures), nationalism (growing cultural and ethnic identities), and economics (growing industrialization).  The Communist Manifesto resonated little.  Marx and the radicals would be impatient and disappointed.

Revolution of 1830

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

Before the French Revolution of 1848, came the Revolution of 1830.  The 1830 Revolution began (as French Revolutions often do) with Paris uprisings.  They overthrew conservative King Charles X (the Bourbon nephew of Louis XVI, who had been beheaded in the 1789 Revolution).

France became a constitutional monarchy.  King Louis-Phillipe (of the house Orleans) now sat on the throne.  Louis-Phillipe expanded the vote (but still limited the vote to rich bourgeois).

Revolution’s Parisian supporters (who shed blood in the streets) felt disappointed. “The 1830 Revolution,” wrote French legislator Frederic Bastiat, “promised nothing, but did effect some notable tax relief.” However, he wrote, “in peaceful times, they retract their concessions and march on to new conquests”.  Any tax relief was quickly consumed by higher prices (driven by protectionist tariffs).


Louis-Phillipe focused on economic matters that benefited the rich (landowners and the growing bourgeois). He expanded roads and highways.  French industrialism benefited.  The betrayed revolutionaries were angry that the Revolution had been stolen by the rich.

Frustrated, republicans led Paris uprisings again, in 1832 and 1834. Louis-Phillipe violently crushed the revolutions, leaving simmering resentments. Cycles of violence and repression followed.  Attempts were made to assassinate the King.

Radicalism worsened. Radicals plotted revolution and authoritarian rule of their own. They led a failed uprising, in May 1839.  Even with the vote only for the rich, Leftist radicals gained power in the Chamber of Deputies.

Revolution was (again) in the air.  “It will fall, this royalty,” declared revolutionary historian Alphonse de Lamartine, “Be sure of that … And after having had the revolution of freedom and the counter-revolution of glory, you will have the revolution of public conscience and the revolution of contempt.”

February Days

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fold, that’s all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
‘Cause the banners, they are flown in the next war

bastiatFrederic Bastiat

In January 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville felt revolution stirring. “I believe right now we are sleeping on a volcano … the earth is trembling,” he warned the Chamber of Deputies, “The wind of revolution is in the air”.  Bastiat smelled it, too, but cautioned, “Seeking relief through revolution is an illusion.”

In Paris, political outsiders (wanting their share of the spoils) and republicans demanded reform.  In February, protestors marched on the Chamber of Deputies (as they had in 1789, in the run up to the Reign of Terror).  This time, they were pushed back by the National Guards.  Crowds threw stones at the Municipal Guards.  They counterattacked, killing rioters.

guizotFrancois Guizot

Louis-Phillipe was in horror.  To appease the mobs, he sacked his hated Minister Francois Guizot. (When protestors had complained that only the rich could vote, Guizot had arrogantly replied, “Get rich!”)  Sacrificing the despicable Guizot wouldn’t be enough.  (In the 1789 Revolution, appeasement only encouraged worse radicalism.)  A mob marched on Guizot’s lodgings (celebrating his sacking).  Troops panicked and fired on the crowd.  This set off a chain reaction of mob protests, throughout Paris.

The King deployed troops to clear the streets. National Guards were reluctant to fight the mobs (who had armed themselves).  Some troops retreated to defend the royal palace. Others (in French Revolutionary turncoat fashion) joined with the mobs.  The King escaped the palace, vacated his throne, and escaped to Britain.  (Louis-Phillipe had no wish to share the fate of the beheaded Louis XVI.)  After fierce fighting, insurgents captured the royal palace.  They celebrated, taking turns sitting on the throne.

A provisional government was announced. This would be the short-lived Second Republic.

Radicals demanded the “red flag” as the new national banner.  The republican leader Lamartine rejected their demands.  He tried to tamp down radicalism, fearing another another Reign of Terror.  Once again, the radicals wanted to export revolution (as they had in 1789, leading to the dictatorship of Napoleon).  French paramilitary bands marched off to “liberate” disputed territories (only to face defeat or capture).

June Days

There’s nothing in the streets
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Are now parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

Leftist Paris radicals had begun organizing themselves as “democratic socialists”. They demanded “a guaranteed right to work”, “an assured minimum for the worker and his family in sickness”, and “the organization of labor” (worker management of wages, hours, and working conditions).  (A century later, Hitler would organize workers this way, ending in forced labor.)

blanc-louisLouis Blanc

Socialist Louis Blanc took charge of the government labor commission. (Blanc was famous for demanding equalization of wages, coining the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”).  Blanc introduced “National Workshops”, that offered the poor employment in public works projects. (Blanc’s end goal was a system of worker-owned co-operatives.)

Meanwhile, the government had a budget crisis. It raised taxes on property owners (including struggling rural peasants). This pitted urban leftists against struggling rural conservatives. In the elections, conservatives and moderates dominated.

Radical violence broke out (as always). In April, militia fired on a radical leftist insurrection, in Rouen. In May, Paris radicals took to the streets and invaded the National Assembly (in their usual fashion). The government decided that Blanc’s National Workshops were breeding an army of Paris radicals (over one-hundred thousand strong).  In June, the government closed the Workshops, and ordered the unemployed into the army or to public works far from Paris.

french-revolution-1848Paris 1848

Radical violence broke out, again. In Paris, radicals and the unemployed protested in the streets, demanding work.  Thousands marched in the streets, chanting “Bread or lead! Bread or lead!” Karl Marx (who was in Paris, at the time, fomenting German revolution) thought this was a setup (that the Workshops were closed to provoke violence, so that the government could crush the workers).  On June 23, eight thousand protestors gathered at the Bastille, chanting “Liberty or Death!” Insurgents gained control of the streets.

The government had no interest in an another Reign of Terror.  The National Guards attacked.  Bitter fighting ensued. Socialist Louis Blanc pleaded with the government to negotiate with the insurgents. “One doesn’t reason with insurgents, one defeats them!” they replied.  Troops violently crushed the insurgency, arresting their leaders (“social democrats” who demanded that “the worker receives the product of his labor … which is at present taken away from him by the man who provides the capital”).

Alexis de Tocqueville saw the June days as class conflict. “The whole of the working class was engaged in the fight,” he wrote, “the spirit of insurrection circulated from one end to the other of that vast class … like blood in a single body”. The was not a political uprising, he said, “but a class conflict”. Marx agreed, saying, this was “tremendous insurrection in which the first great battle was joined between the two classes … a fight for the preservation or annihilation of the bourgeois order”.

Nevertheless, Marx’s communism resonated little with the French.  France lagged in industrialization (the prerequisite for socialism, according to Marx).  The unemployed wanted work. The poor wanted food and shelter.  Blanc’s utopian socialism offered them dreams.

Marx would die, impatiently waiting for his ideas to bear fruit.


Tocqueville and Marx thought this a class revolution.  Frederic Bastiat contended with Louis Blanc and the radicals.  Blanc and company were (in fact) disciples of Rousseau (who had inspired the Reign of Terror).


Next: Part 27, Bastiat, Rousseau, and Revolution.