The 19th Century was a century filled with Revolutions. We think of them mainly occurring in France, but in 1830 and 1848, inspired by the Revolution of 1815, they spread across Europe, fueled by Marx’ and Engels’ Communist Manifesto.
One French author caught up in the fever of rebellion was novelist Victor Hugo (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Les Miserables”). His father, Leopold, a career soldier was made a count and then a general under Napoleon. When his parents divorced, he went to live with his mother and brother in Paris, where he attended Royalist salons.
But at heart, while accepting royal patronage, he was a Romantic, concerned with the plight of the poor, the dispossessed, and the social outcasts. He was inspired by Karl Marx and the social-progressive movement spreading throughout Europe, demanding shorter hours, better wages, and suffrage (the right to vote).
A true Romantic, the unabridged version of his novel “Les Miserables” ran over 1,400 pages. In the 20th Century, it became a wildly popular Broadway musical. Long before “The Coming Insurrection” he wrote the book on how to stage a revolution, including the formula for how to make gunpowder.
At the time of the Revolution of 1830, Louis-Phillipe was crowned King of France. The Revolution of 1815 had deposed the tyrant Napoleon. This period was called “The Restoration” ostensibly to restore what the French had gained in the French Revolution. What they regained, though, was the monarchy.
Louis-Phillipe was a difficult monarch to revolt against, not because he was a strongman but because he was peaceful. The “bourgeois” (middle class) wanted no part of any violent revolutions and disdained the lowly “proletariat.” “The Revolution of 1830,” Hugo notes, ground to a halt.”
“Les Miserables” addresses the period between 1830 and 1848, when more revolutions erupted throughout Europe, seeking the redress of social and economic inequities, Hugo tells us. “The Spring of Nations,” it was called. “The Springtime of the Peoples” and simply, “The Year of Revolution.”
An 1848 painting by Horace Verne, entitled Barricade on the rue Soufflé” depicts students erecting barricades. Hugo gives a fictional account of a group of students who erect a barricade across the city in 1832 – to prevent the streetcars from going through – when their leader is arrested and eventually dies. Historians have noted the useless deaths of these students, whom the government easily put down. The authorities quickly put down their rebellion and the city went back to normal.
Their victory, Hugo insists, was in the attention brought to Paris’ social problems, the awakening of the “bourgeois,” and the easing of the plight of the poor, as well as the advent of public education for all. He writes that the most successful revolution is the one that can bring about its goals without violence, something his lead character, Jean Valjean, eschews.
The riots in Tahrir Square are somewhat different. Ostensibly, the demonstrations are about poverty and the stranglehold the current administration has on the economy, which is no doubt true; it was the complaint of Mohammad Atta. There is one very telling video clip of a young woman (dressed in the habib) complaining that she has a master’s degree but hasn’t worked in years. Many Americans suffer the same plight. Overeducated and underemployed.
The young woman who edits our website publication is in, or at least faces, a similar dilemma. She has a master’s degree in communications, yet may be forced to take on a lower-paying, menial job under our company’s current plans for restructuring. She faces competition from many employees who are equally educated. A divorced mother with two children, she’s understandably worried.
The current news from Egypt is that Mubarak isn’t budging and neither are the protesters. However, the Egyptian president seems amenable to stepping down in favor of a transitional government that will hold elections in September, these eight months being the time needed for proper opposition parties to form. Meanwhile, Westerners are fleeing for their lives. The airports are being guarded by the military, businesses have shut down and are losing money, particularly the vital tourism industry, and terrorists are being freed from prisons.
The Egyptians authorities have promised Obama that they will not attempt to remove the protesters from Tahrir Square. And indeed, it would probably be a waste of tear gas and what not. The middle class protesters, upon whom the organizers depended for credibility, are beginning to get antsy. Just like our Tea Partiers, there is a limit to their time and patience. We who helped organize the Tea Parties recognized that fact.
But the organizers in the Middle East have different aims. Like the organizers in the 19th Century revolutions, they’ve spent months developing this crisis, with meetings in local hotspots and word-of-mouth advertising, which did not fail to reach the ears of our intelligence agents but went unheeded – or perhaps was even welcomed – by our socialist administration.
“All the problems the socialists raised, aside from cosmogonic visions, dreams, and mysticism, can be raised to two principal problems:” Hugo wrote, “First problem: to produce wealth. Second problem: to distribute it.
“Communism and agrarian law think they have solved the second problem. They are mistaken. Their distribution kills production. Equal partition abolishes emulation. And consequently, labor. It is a distribution made by the butcher, who kills what he divides. It is, therefore, impossible to stop at thee professed solutions. To kill wealth is not to distribute it.”
Hugo, apparently coined the term, “evil rich,” incidentally. That is what he called countries, like England, that enjoyed material power. “You will perish by violence, as Venice died, or by bankruptcy, as England will.”
Finally, Hugo goes on to describe two different types of insurrection: insurrection and emeute. “One is wrong; one is right,” he says. “In democratic states, the only governments founded on justice, it sometimes happens that a faction usurps power; then the whole rises up, and the necessary vindication of its right may go so far as armed conflict. In all questions springing from the collective sovereignty, the war of the whole against the faction, I may call “insurrection.” The attack of the faction against the whole is emeute.”
He goes on to say, “What universal sufferance has done in its freedom and its sovereignty cannot be undone by the street. The same foes for affairs of pure civilization; the instinct of the masses, clear-sighted yesterday, may be clouded tomorrow. The destruction of machines, the pillage of storehouses, the tearing up of rails, the demolition of docks, the mistaken acts of the multitudes, the denial of justice to progress by the people, [assassinations, stonings], is emeute…. The mob is traitor to the people… Usually, rioting springs from a material fact; insurrection is always a moral phenomenon. Universal suffrage is admirable in that it dissolves the riot in its principle and, by giving a vote to insurrection, disarms it.”
Whatever Hugo or Obama might say about riot and insurrection, it does get people’s attention, particularly in our media-obsessed modern world. Someone set the fire under this boiling pot and increased the heat for a reason, and not necessarily a noble one.
Republics are set up to guard against the rule of the mob, unscientific, subjective, and emotional. Yes, there are dangers in the corruption of leadership. That is why America set up three branches of government to serve as a check and balance against one another, and promoted a two-party system by which citizens can elect their representatives.
Still there is corruption. That is why in America we don’t hold riots or insurrections; we hold Tea Parties.