The Revolutions 1917 And 1789: Essay, Research Paper
The Revolutions 1917 and 1789:
Justifications for Violence.
The question of whether or not a violent revolution is justified or not is a subjective one that is judged differently depending on where one finds oneself in reference to the political spectrum. Even contemporary progressive conservatives would undoubtedly dissuade the notion that violent revolutionary change is ever justified or needed, while others, such as those living in regimes that were set up through revolutions or violent upheavals, could not conceive of anything but violence for the establishment of what, at least they perceive as, a more just society. In addition to the political perspective, justifications for revolutions are also subject to cultural views. Most French citizens for instance (save of course for the Monarchists) see the French Revolution as the triumphant and necessary overthrow of tyranny while many British citizens, looking kindly upon their own constitutional monarchy, may be put off by the seemingly unnecessary brutality of the great terror. Similarly, in modern post-Soviet Russia there are still those who hold to the old revolutionary ideals that glorified the Bolsheviks as the saviors of the Russian people, while most Western democracies have seen the second 1917 revolution (the anti-democratic Bolshevik revolt against the Kerensky government) as an unnecessary bloodbath. Putting aside the subjective views of both cultural and political extremes, an inter-subjective standard of some kind of criteria may be said to exist. One may base such a standard s criteria on the very simple and all-encompassing notion of utilitarian progress under which any change that betters the situation of the majority is justified. Under such a standard both revolutions could conceivably be justified if it could be demonstrated that their outcome resulted in a situation more favourable to the majority.
Such an argument could easily be made for the 1789 French Revolution. The Old Regime of France headed by an absolute monarch with no constitutional limitations, an inefficient and self-serving bureaucracy, an all powerful Catholic Church and a privileged aristocracy was tyrannical even by eighteenth century standards. Power over the law, the ability to create national policy, to wage wars and collect taxes resided first of all in the king, secondly in the Clergy, thirdly in the aristocracy and finally in the so-called third estate which was comprised of the rest (i.e. the vast majority) of French society. The existence of such a system could not be justified in the age of enlightenment and reason in that it conflicted with the essential premise of the philosophy of the times: the inherent worth and basic equality of all human nature. The American Revolution and the creation of the first major republic in modern times paved the way for the possibility of a French Republic.
There is no denying the fact that the results of the initial revolutionary changes brought about by the first Republican bodies: the General Assembly, and the National Assembly lead to a more favourable situation for the great majority of citizens. The powers of the King were initially restricted and then eliminated all together, as was the interference of the Church in education. The inequitable system of taxation was reformed to eliminate the exemptions of the aristocracy and wipe out the hated tithe. More importantly, an elected governing body was now the source of all government policy putting power firmly into the hands of people, or at least the property owning bourgeoisie. The end result of this initial reforms was in essence the creation of a moral rational, and equitable system based on the three pillars of liberty, equality and fraternity.
The 1789 revolution was, of course, only the first in a series of upheavals that grew gradually more radical and which under the Jacobins resulted in the creation of a state run by an oligarchy that ruled by terror, a regime that undermined the progress made during the initial years of reform. The downfall of this radical regime ultimately resulted in the military dictatorship (and later the Empire of!) Napoleon. While it is hard to conceive of an argument that would justify the great losses suffered during the Napoleonic Wars of conquest as utilitarian progress, it is clear that, in its immediate affects at least, the 1789 Revolution brought about a more just system.
Similarly in the 1917 Russian revolution, the original insurgent government was one headed by democrats who sought only a system that would be more accountable to its people than the autocracy lead by Tsar Nicholas II and his ministers. The democratic reforms instituted in this revolution, were however, of a very temporary duration and were quickly overshadowed by the Bolshevik revolution which had a much more serious repercussions, ones that were perhaps less obviously justifiable.
The Russian Empire in 1917 was in many ways similar to France in 1789 in that it was an extremely autocratic state with all power concentrated in the hands of the ruling monarch and a very tiny aristocratic class that constituted only a small percentage of the entire population, a state that was exhausted by war and on the verge of collapse, drained by an inefficient bureaucracy and anachronistic agricultural practices. The existing governing body (the Duma) was merely symbolic, the lack of universal compulsory education, lack of investment and industrialization and other factors precluded the formation of strong middle class capable of negotiating some power away from the central government. No personal freedoms existed and the authority of the state was protected by the army and a brutal secret police.
The Bolshevik revolution, however, did not bring about a system that was much more free or equal than that it demolished. Russia became a dictatorship of the proletariat under Lenin. All political parties except the communists were outlawed and freedom of expression was severely restricted. Furthermore, while in the long-run communist reforms lead to greater industrialization and thereby a higher standard of living, in the short term radical plans such as farm collectivization (and the suppression of the resistance against it) resulted in widespread deaths due both to famines and violence. The actual political repercussions of the revolution were a war that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and which was soon followed by political executions (the Tsar and his family being the first victim of these executions).
In conclusion then, it may be said that while the French Revolution of 1789 did result in utilitarian progress (definitely in the short term and by starting a liberal democratic tradition in continental Europe even for the long term) the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 did not.