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About this book

The years between the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution of 1789 and the European Revolutions of 1848 saw fundamental shifts from autocracy to emerging democracy. It is a vital period in what may be termed 'modernity': that is of the western societies that are increasingly industrial, capitalist and liberal democratic. Unsurprisingly, these years of stress and transition produced some significant reflections on politics and society.

This indispensable introductory text considers how a cluster of key thinkers viewed the global political upheavals and social changes of their time, covering the work of:
• Edmund Burke * Georg Hegel
• Thomas Paine * Alexis de Tocqueville
• Jeremy Bentham * Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Lively and approachable, it is essential reading for anyone with an interest in modern history, political history or political thought.

Table of Contents

1. The Historical Context

Abstract
In one of the best-known social history books of the last century, Eric Hobsbawm famously designated The Age of Revolution.1 For him, it was the period between the French revolutions of 1789 and 1848, which he describes as witnessing ‘the greatest transformation in human history since the remote times when men invented agriculture and metallurgy, writing, the city and the state’. His subject was not merely France, but ‘the transformation of the world’ caused by both the French Revolution and the ‘contemporaneous [British] industrial revolution’.2 In the same vein, Jay Winik has more recently described the late eighteenth century as ‘the age that gave birth to the modern world. It is also arguably one of the most significant eras in all of human history.’3
Michael Levin

2. Modern Society and Modern Thought

Abstract
In his classic work on the outbreak of the French Revolution, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of ‘the belief that what was wanted was to replace the complex of traditional customs governing the social order of the day by simple, elementary rules deriving from the exercise of reason and natural law.’1 This transformation encapsulates much of the political aspect of modernisation. In medieval societies, the social order was taken as static and God-ordained. It could be presumed that the life of one’s grandchildren would be much the same as that of one’s grandparents. Hierarchies seemed immutable. Their gradations were steep and distinct. The aristocracy were unlikely to have considered their peasantry as belonging to the same people as themselves; in some instances, they did not even speak the same language. Jurisdiction was less standardised. Certain provinces, cities and religious authorities had their own particular rights and privileges. In time, these were mostly swept away by the rise of central state power.
Michael Levin

3. Edmund Burke

Abstract
Edmund Burke (1729–97) was born in Dublin, one of fourteen children, only three of whom survived infancy. He was educated at a Quaker boarding school at Ballitore in County Clare and then at Trinity College, Dublin. Like many young men of ability in Ireland and Scotland, he came to London to advance his career. His first intention was to study law but gradually he became more interested in literature, aesthetics and then politics, becoming the Member of Parliament for Wendover (1766–74), then Bristol (1774–80) and finally Malton (1780–94). He became Secretary to Lord Rockingham, who was twice Prime Minister (1765–6, 82) and was appointed Paymaster-General in 1782 and again the following year. For someone of his background, it was a remarkable achievement to rise so high in the British establishment. Burke was a commoner and an Irishman with Catholic connections on his mother’s side, whereas the governing class was overwhelmingly aristocratic, English and Protestant.1 Furthermore, Burke made only a limited effort to accommodate himself to those in power. One might say that he often denounced the political practice of his time for failing to live up to its declared norms.
Michael Levin

4. Thomas Paine

Abstract
Very few people ever have had as remarkable a public life as Thomas Paine. Having described our period as the age of revolution, we can designate Paine as the man of revolution — even more so than Marx — for he played an active part in both the great uprisings of the age. Paine’s Common Sense (1776) did much to stimulate and solidify anti-British feeling in the American colonies. One historian has described it as ‘the most effective tract of the American Revolution’.1 Furthermore, Paine’s participation in the actual fighting and his later election by Congress to Secretary of its Foreign Affairs Committee all served to give him a more comprehensive view than most of the problems of revolution and the inauguration of new political systems. Having returned to Europe in time for the French Revolution, Paine’s Rights of Man (1791–2) was soon accepted as the foremost rebuttal of Burke’s Reflection on the Revolution in France. This secured for Paine honorary French citizenship and, though he spoke very little French, he represented Calais in their National Convention. Here, he aligned himself with the Girondin faction and pleaded for the life of Louis XVI, arguing against the system of monarchy rather than the current incumbent.
Michael Levin

5. Jeremy Bentham

Abstract
Jeremy Bentham started his intellectual work at a young age, studying Latin when he was three. At Westminster School, he was known as ‘the philosopher’, a sobriquet that the remainder of his life amply merited. Already at the age of 11, he was writing letters in Greek and Latin to his uncle. At 12, he was able to write in French. He entered Oxford University at 12 and graduated when he was 15.
Michael Levin

6. Georg Hegel

Abstract
Georg Hegel was born in Stuttgart in southern Germany in 1770. He was not only the son of a minor official in the government of Württemberg but also the descendant of a long line of bureaucrats and church officials. In that, he became a great advocate of rational administration, and so his political recommendations were in accord with the family heritage. Whether the same can be said for his religious views is much harder to determine. Hegel attended a secondary school from which more than half the pupils usually entered the church, and then the local university where higher education ‘was virtually synonymous with theological training’.1 Though an avowed defender of Lutheranism, the place he eventually gave to religion in his philosophical system was both more complex and idiosyncratic than his church was accustomed to. In that, religion was taken to express in mythical form the truths that are explicitly enunciated in philosophy; Hegel implicitly relegated religion to a lesser form of understanding. He believed that
strictly speaking, philosophy’s topic is God alone, or its aim is to know God. This topic it has in common with religion but with this difference, namely that religion treats the subject pictorially while philosophy thinks and comprehends it.… religion is that form of consciousness of truth which is available to all men.2
Michael Levin

7. Alexis de Tocqueville

Abstract
Alexis de Tocqueville, politician, historian and sociologist, could trace his ancestors back to the time of William the Conqueror. His ancestral home was Tocqueville in Normandy though he was born in 1805 in Paris, the centre of the revolution that had broken out 16 years earlier. Though very much an aristocrat, Tocqueville was fated to live in the country where aristocracy had suffered its most spectacular defeat. Here, then, in the contrast between aristocracy and democracy, we find the polarity that informs all his major writings. The French Revolution of 1789 had culminated in the great Terror of 1793–4 when, among many others, half a dozen of Tocqueville’s immediate relatives had been guillotined. His mother had watched her parents and grandfather being led to their deaths. Both Tocqueville’s parents had been imprisoned but were saved by the fall of Robespierre in July 1794.
Michael Levin

8. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Abstract
Karl Marx was born in the ancient Rhineland city of Trier in May 1818. The area had come under Prussian jurisdiction just a few years earlier, following the defeat of Napoleon. Before that, it had experienced 20 years of French rule. With that had come French ideas and the influence of the early socialist Henri de Saint-Simon was still evident in the years of Marx’s youth. One follower of the French reformer was Baron von Westphalen, Marx’s neighbour, friend and eventual father-in-law. Just as the Rhineland province achieved its distinctive character through the alternation and integration of German and French influences, so too did the early intellectual development of Karl Marx.
Michael Levin

9. Epilogue

Abstract
The American Declaration of Independence can be seen, with hindsight, as the start of a long process of decolonisation that was most pronounced only after the Second World War. For Europe, its effect on the collective consciousness was less than that of the 1789 French Revolution. What happened, or threatened to happen, in the home country struck deeper than events, however disastrous, in the colonies. The excesses, perhaps more than the successes, of the French Revolution have been a constant source of fascination for both opponents and supporters. Dominic Lieven once noted that the ‘shadow of 1789 lay over Europe’s nineteenth-century aristocracy. Never again would aristocratic politics be quite so carefree.’ As just one instance, he mentions that ‘Alexander II of Russia, contemplating cautious constitutional reform in 1881, could terrify himself by memories of Louis XVI and the Estates General.’1
Michael Levin
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