The assertion of the modern Western identity flows from the age of the American and French Revolutions. Here is where we find the declarations of political rights in which people finally revolted against the arbitrary use of power. Before the age of revolution, the wealthy and powerful classes possessed nearly all the political power in society while the mass of the population took no meaningful part in political life. The nineteenth century saw the steady expansion of democracy, judicial equality, and political accountability. But along with the expansion of political rights emerged the gradual realization that political rights were not nearly as meaningful as people expected unless they were accompanied by the expansion of economic rights and a fair distribution of wealth. Thus from a symbolic beginning in 1848 with the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the second half of the 19th century also saw a kind of economic revolution, the greatest manifestation of which was the birth of the modern trade-union movement.
The first revolution was the cry for liberty; the second was the cry for equality. I say this because regardless of one’s political stripes, it is essential to understand that without organized labour, the fundamental rights of collective bargaining, and a fair distribution of social wealth, political rights not only mean little, they will gradually break down under the weight of social injustice and turn any genuine democracy into a bastion of corruption and a democracy in name only.
In the 20th century these two revolutions melded into very socialist and communist revolutions that began as cries for both liberty and equality. And this is where a number of interesting historical parallels begin. Just as the French Revolution regressed into the terror, the communist revolutions went badly off the rails of both liberty and equality. And the cynicism of the post revolutionary generation in the early 19th century is repeated in the cynicism or our generation; there is a terrible foreboding sense that reform is impossible and that any striving for genuine liberty and equality will end in the very opposite of that for which we began to fight.
There are other, deeper, parallels to be considered too. One is that while the revolutions fell short in many respects, they also compelled many outside their direct purview to adapt to the changing demands of populations. So, for example, while in many ways the Russian revolution failed to deliver its principles to its own population, many workers in the West benefited directly from the fear it created in other ruling classes who realized that they may suffer a similar fate to that of the Russian aristocracy if they failed to deliver some basic economic rights to their workers. (This is very similar to the way in which all workers benefit from the victories gained by any one particular trade union struggle, because it sets an example and a standard for the whole of society.) Another, more negative, parallel can be witnessed in the way that once the initial shock of the events have passed and the cynicism has set in, the very victories that have been so painfully gained are slowly chipped away. Thus, in our own society, just like much of post-revolutionary Europe, the gap between rich and poor is gradually widening again, trade unionism is slowly dying out, and general economic equality is getting worse. With these events we can find a great empathy for the radicals of the early 1800s who battled with many of the same problems. I personally, have a great deal of sympathy for Shelley and Byron who saw the prior generation of Romantic poets turn away from the principles that drove the French Revolution forward. I feel a similar nausea when I see people turn away from the principles that drove the reforms and revolutions of our own times and gradually slip back into the degradation of economic inequality. The increasingly uneven distribution of wealth in societies all over the world means people will have fewer choices; they will have less control of their lives, their work-places and their futures.
But if anything is to be said for the case of historical parallels, then this age of historical cynicism will not stand indefinitely, and even as our political and economic rights are being undermined a new kind of revolution is brewing that will assert the principles of liberty and equality in a new way. It seems to me that most conservatives (as well as most of the wealthy) understand very little about history. If you chip away at people’s political rights and allow an obscene increase in the uneven distribution of wealth, you get a more general breakdown in the political, social, and economic life of society. This breakdown will inevitably lead to a revolution in perceptions and from there to a revolution of a more literal sort. Make no mistake, at some point people will band together once again to assert their rights to liberty, fraternity, and equality!