William Morris and E. Belfort Bax

Socialism From The Root Up – Chapter 6 – Preparing for Revolution – France

As we have said, Louis XIV succeeded in making the French monarchy a pure autocratic bureaucracy, completely centralised in the person of the monarch. This with an ambitious king like Louis XIV involved constant war, for he felt himself bound to satisfy his ideal of the necessary expansion of the territory and influence of France, which he looked upon as the absolute property of the king. The general success of Louis XIV brought with it the success of these wars of aggrandisment, and France became very powerful under his rule. Under the rule of his minister Colbert industrialism in France became completely commercialized. Colbert spared no pains or energy in bringing this about. Often, with more or less success, he drove an industry forward artificially, as with the silk and woollen manufactures. For he was eager to win for France a foremost place in the world-market, which he thought but the due accompaniment of her monarchial glory; and he knew that without it that glory would have died of starvation, since the taxes would not have yielded the necessary food. It is true that even in England growing commercialism was subordinate to constitutionalism, the English form of bureaucracy; but the idea was already afoot there that the former was rather an end than a means, whereas in France commercialism was completely subordinated to the glory of the autocratic monarchy – a mere feeder of it.

The religion of this period of the 'Grand Monarque' shows little more than an ecclesiastical struggle between Gallicanism on the one hand, which claimed a feeble spark of independence as regards Rome for the French Church, and is represented by Fénélon and Bossuet, and Jesuitry on the other hand, which was the exponent of Roman centralization. The leading intelligence of the time was on the Gallican side; but the king in the long run favoured the Jesuits, as being the readier instruments of his bureaucratic rule. Outside this ecclesiastical quarrel there was no life whatever in religion, except what was shown by the existence of a few erratic sects of mystics, confined to cultivated persons like the Quietists and Jansenists. The former of these may be said to have put forward the complete abnegation of humanity in the presence of God, while the latter attempted a revivification of the pietism of the Catholic Church.

The Regency which succeeded to the reign of Louis XIV saw the definite beginnings of the last corruption which betokened the Revolution. The wars of aggrandizement still went on but were now generally unsuccessful; the industrialism set a-going by Colbert went on steadily, but the profits to be gained by it did not satisfy the more adventurous spirit of the period, and the Regency saw a curious exposition of stock-jobbery before its time in the form of the Mississippi scheme of Law, which had its counterpart in England in the South-Sea Bubble. It was a financing operation – an attempt to get something out of nothing – founded on the mercantile theory of economy then current, which showed but an imperfect knowledge of the industrial revolution beginning under men's very eyes, and assumed that the wealth of a country consists in the amount of the precious metals which it can retain. This assumption, by the way, is curiously exemplified in the half-commercial half-buccaneering romances of Daniel Defoe, whose works we should have mentioned in our last chapter as a relief to the monotony of dulness of eighteenth century literature in England.

It is necessary to say something about the literature and art of this period that goes before the Revolution in France, because that country is the especial exponent, particularly in art, of the degradation which indicated the rottenness of society. As in England, literature was formal and stilted, and produced little except worthlessly clever essays and still more worthless verses that have no claim to be called poetry. The French verse-makers, however, aimed at something higher than the English, and produced works which depend on pomp and style for any claim to attention they may have, and for the rest are unreal and lifeless. Amidst them all one name stands forward as representing some reality -- Molière, to wit. But the life and genuineness of his comedies serve to show the corruption of the times as clearly as the dead classicalism of Racine; for this, the one man of genius of the time, was driven into the expression of mere cynicism; though in one remarkable passage of his works he shows a sympathy for the ballad-poetry of the people, which, when noticed at all in England at the same period, and even much latter, received a kind of indulgent patronage rather than admiration. At the same time as there was a sham tragedy current at this time, so also there was a sham love of simplicity. The ladies and gentlemen of the period ignored the real peasants who were the miserable slaves of the French landlords, and invented in their dramas, poems, and pictures sham shepherds and peasants, who were bundles of conscious unreality, inane imitations of the later classics. This literature and art would be indeed too contemptible for mention, if it were not a sign of a society rotting into revolution.

The fine arts, which had in the end of the sixteenth century descended from the expression of the people's faith and aspirations into that of the fancy, ingenuity, and whim of gifted individuals, fell lower still. They lost every atom of beauty and dignity, and retained little even of the ingenuity of the earlier Renaissance, and became mere expensive and pretentious though carefully finished upholstery, mere adjuncts of pomp and state, the expression of the insolence of riches and the complacency of respectability. Once again it must be said of the art as of the general literature of the period, that no reasonable man could even bestow a passing glance at them but for the incurable corruption of Society which they betokened.

So the time wore away through the disgraceful years of the Regency and of Louis XV, till the accession of the once Dauphin, now Louis XVI, to the throne, which was hailed as a new era by the respectability of France; and was, indeed, the inauguration of a new era undreamed of by the actors in it. Of the conscious hopes and aims which came to the surface with this change, there were indications in the opposition of the higher bourgeoisie to the whimsical and scandalous courtesan-Absolutism, the rule of the Pompadours and Dubarrys, which was predominant under Louis XV, this opposition took the form, amongst others, of the assertion of the formal legal rights of Parliament so-called, which in France was but a privileged body of lawyers, representative of nothing but the crystalization of the abuses of a sham feudality, but which, nevertheless, both under Louis XV and his successor, found itself put forward as a champion of the respectability of Bourgeoisedom against the rampant corruption of the Court. But on the accession of Louis XVI this tendency of respectability to assert itself received fresh impulse, and took a more definite form, and became almost a party in the country, though it had no chance of exercising any direct influence on the government, which was a mere mass of abuses. This respectable reforming party, although for the most part outwardly orthodox, amongst themselves professed materialism and the worship of reason, and was inspired by a bourgeois humanitarianism which was its most genuine side, and which was largely fed, if not created, by the writings of Voltaire, and still more of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Diderot. This party was a most important element amidst the causes of the revolution; it rallied to it all who had any pretence to cultivated progress, and though it meant nothing but intelligent Conservativism, it formed a screen as it were behind which the true revolutionary forces could gather for the attack on privilege. Its formation was the last sign of the approaching end of the absolutist bureaucracy which was, so to say, propped up by the bodies of its former enemies which it had triumphed over, the feudal rights of the older nobility. That great French centralized monarchy had been a long time ripening, but once ripe it decayed very speedily, and no wonder since it was the corruption of a corruption.

Here, then, we have in France a contrast to the state of things in England. No constitutionalism here; an absolutism despised even by the privileged classes; unable to move in the direction of progress, even when, as in the case of Louis XVI, its head has a tendency to the intelligent conservatism above mentioned; bankrupt also amidst a people broken down, and a commerce hampered by the exactions of the hereditary privilege which is its sole support, discredited by unsuccessful wars, so that the door is shut to its ambition in that road; at home it has to face uneasily the new abstract ideas of liberty and the rights of men. These ideas are professed, indeed, by those who have an interest in preserving the present state of things, but are listened to and pondered by people who find that state of things unbearable. In short, while England, at peace at home and prosperous under reasonable conservatism, is forced to be seeking colonies and markets abroad, while within her own bounds industrialism is quietly developing toward the great change, France, driven back on herself, is forced face to face with the elements of violent change at home; on the one hand bankruptcy and deadlock, on the other intellectual activity directed wholly towards theories of material well-being of a well-to-do-class. And at the back of all a commercial bourgeoisie oppressed by privilege, and a miserable proletariat of mere starvelings. From such elements political revolution must be born.

Commonweal, Volume 2, Number 25, 3 July 1886, PP. 108-109