In my previous post on this topic, I discussed in brief that both the Russian revolution of 1917 and the French Revolution of 1789 were led by urban educated elites who sought to impose their revolution on the more conservative lower rural classes. This summation is of course painting with exceedingly broad strokes. In this post I will talk a little more about some of the parallels.
The revolutions of 1789 in France and 1917 in Russia were both birthed in war and subsequent economic hardship, as have been many revolutions since. For the French, it was the high debt resulting from their multi-year struggle against the British, of which the American Revolution was only a small side show. The Seven Years War (known here as the French & Indian War) combined with financing the American rebellion left the already precarious finances of Louis XVI’s France in shambles. In Russia, it was the crisis precipitated by the severe military reverses and economic upheaval engendered by the First World War that was catalytic.
In both the French and Russian cases, the initial revolution was moderate and classical liberal, and both were followed by more radical phases. The dictatorships that emerged from each revolution aimed not only to establish a new political order in their respective countries, but a wholesale transformation of society. Both revolutions used the same means: terror, requisitioning, price controls and both were class based revolutions. In both revolutions, foreign intervention was used as a pretext for the consolidation of power under increasing tyranny – in one case the tyranny resulted in a Bonapartist Empire, in other in the Soviet Empire.
The Bolsheviks often self consciously borrowed from the French Revolutionary history to both justify and anticipate developments. Thus The Terror of Robespierre was the antecedent for the Stalinist purges in the name of solidifying the revolution and tamping down the counter-revolution he was certain would come.
Unlike the American Revolution, the French and Russian revolutions were socially and politically transformational, transnational, and communitarian in their ethos. This kind of revolutionary transformation came to the US political system in the early twentieth century as part of the progressive movement. The Progressive Era is really the foundation of the modern Democratic Party though progressive era politics transcended party lines (Teddy Roosevelt was considered a progressive).
The Progressives had both religious and secular dimensions and led to substantial reforms. The Federal Reserve Bank, the Income Tax, Women’s Suffrage, anti-trust legislation, national parks, and numerous other now taken for granted facets of American life trace back to this Era. Prohibition also gained ground in the American consciousness in this era.
Many people forget that that great liberal icon of the Democratic Party, Franklin D. Roosevelt, began his political career in this era. It was also the era of that great internationalist and first class racist, Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps not incidentally, the Progressive Era was also the apex of state sponsored racism.
Yet the Progressive Era was also a time of vicious, state-sponsored racism. In fact, from the standpoint of African-American history, the Progressive Era qualifies as arguably the single worst period since Emancipation. The wholesale disfranchisement of Southern black voters occurred during these years, as did the rise and triumph of Jim Crow. Furthermore, as the Westminster College historian David W. Southern notes in his recent book, The Progressive Era and Race: Reform and Reaction, 1900–1917, the very worst of it—disfranchisement, segregation, race baiting, lynching—“went hand-in-hand with the most advanced forms of southern progressivism.” Racism was the norm, not the exception, among the very crusaders romanticized by today’s activist left.
The Progressive Era marked the beginning of the modern era of mass politics in the United States and paralleled the rise of revolutionary politics in modern Europe. It was allied with and thoroughly influenced by scientific approaches to society and public policy, not unlike the Democratic Party of today:
Such thinking, which emphasized “expert” opinion and advocated sweeping governmental power, fit perfectly within the Progressive worldview, which favored a large, active government that engaged in technocratic, paternalistic planning. As for reconciling white supremacy with egalitarian democracy, keep in mind that when a racist Progressive championed “the working man,” “the common man,” or “the people,” he typically prefixed the silent adjective white.
It is therefore unsurprising that the revolutionary socialist and totalitarian governments (both in their fascists and communist varieties) as these were the outgrowth of the Progressive Era and were also based on “scientific” approaches to society.