As we move forward towards the 4th and 14th of July, both symbolizing a revolution, and while we use this word today in completely different contexts, it might be a good time to reflect on what ensures a successful revolution and what makes it go astray.
July 4th commemorates the vote in favor of the Declaration of Independence by the 13 British colonies in America in 1776, written by Jefferson, following the secret and unanimous vote (less the New York delegates’ abstention), two days before, of the secession of the United States through a “Continental Congress,” meeting in Philadelphia. July 14th refers to the storming of the Bastille in 1789, which is only an anecdote in the actual French revolutionary process.
In a way, the American Revolution ends on July 4. The French Revolution begins on July 14.
More generally, a revolution, is first and foremost, the time when a new elite succeeds in getting rid of the elite previously in power.
This was the case in the United States in 1776 when America got rid of its British masters and created the American Republic on principles developed in Europe, and in particular in France, by Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau.
This was the case in France in 1789 when the bourgeoisie, happily, got rid of its masters, sometimes willingly because it felt it could itself gain new privileges, in such a context, more modern privileges; as happened on the night of August 4th, an event usually so often misunderstood.
A revolution therefore always begins with what is now called a “degagism,” or what I would call a “bourgeois populism” where a new elite gets rid of the old elite, without calling into question the nature of society.
Sometimes, as in American society, this revolution is enough; because the country has other things to do: a war in order to survive, a territorial conquest to establish its authority and power.
Sometimes this is not enough: in France, neither the war against the enemies of the revolution nor the territorial conquests that took place were sufficient to satisfy the desire for power of those who claimed to speak on behalf of the people. They were not satisfied with “bourgeois populism.” They wanted more. They imposed a “degagism of the bourgeoisie,” all, or almost all, of whom died on the scaffold. Until fear seizes the murderers, leading to the coming to power of a dictator, greeted with relief by the survivors of the massacres.
That is true in many revolutions: the desire of the peoples to get rid of their elites isn’t happy with them being replaced by some others cast in the same mold. The revolution then functions like a ticking-time-bomb, which explodes in the end. Until a dictator comes along and puts the hierarchies back in place for his sole benefit.
Today, bourgeois populism, so common in many countries, and especially in Europe, may give way to a “degagism of the bourgeois;” not by the guillotine, or even a regime crisis, because the institutions are robust; or even by justice, too meaningful and slow given the level of impatience that is multiplying. But by an external authority to the institutions, one of the few left to the people, one of the best and the worst: the press; and more generally, the media, especially new social media. That, in turn, will attack any reputation.
Thus, through them would pass the joyous destruction of all those who, to one extent or another, initiate contact with those in power and, being equated, for lack of a better term, with a contemptible bourgeoisie. Sometimes, for very good reasons, when it comes to denouncing unlawful conduct. Until the executioners also become targets as in previous revolutions. In other words, journalists being the ultimate victims of a terror that they themselves will have initiated.
The American Constitution shows us how to avoid it: with the most rigorous application of the separation of powers, and a vigilant stand to ensure freedom of the press and the protection of citizens against defamation, and trusting only institutions to judge men and their actions.