Thursday, April 9, 2009

Comparing the Ages

Following up on the subject of the Romanticism and the French Revolution which I touched upon yesterday - These are subject which are close to my heart and should, I believe, be more widely known and discussed because they are remarkably instructive as well as just plain fascinating. One of the interesting aspects of the events that followed the French Revolution is the strange similarity his has to our own times. The Revolution in France ushered in a terrific sense of optimism throughout Europe in people who  had grown extremely weary of the terrible injustice which so endemic to European society. Writers like Rousseau, Voltaire, and even Joseph Priestly had generated strong feelings toward a ‘natural’ sense of equality and justice which, in large part due to the strong resistance on the part of the ruling-class, eventually erupted into the uncontrollable anger of the events in France. In England the feelings of ‘leveling’ gave weight to a generation of writers and activists like Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, William Blake, and the members of the London Corresponding Society.  This radicalism was relatively short lived however as the events in France seemed to spin increasingly out of control. Anti-Jacobin groups emerged all over  Britain and the Government passed various laws to make suppression of dissent easier.

These events were very similar to the mood in the West in the decades after the ‘socialist’ revolutions  in the 20th century. A  genuine space was opened up in which reformers could call for more transparency, more democracy, and more socially responsible policy making. Governments reacted much the way William Pitt’s government had in the 1790s, with paranoia and suppression of dissent. J. Edgar Hoover was the Lord Castlereagh of the 20th century. With the apparent failure of the socialist projects real economic and social reform seemed impossible in the 1990s in the same way that reform was anathema in the decades after the French Revolution. Reform took ages. Universal Male suffrage which had emerged in 1792 in France took another 60 years to return. And the vote for women was still generations away. But the feelings of reform in Britain might be said to have turned inward into the literary struggles of the Romantics. Coleridge and Wordsworth may have abandoned reform but it was taken up again in the poetry of Shelley and Byron. Romanticism carried the mantle of reform until the Victorian writers began to make reform and the condition of the working-class  a fundamental part of their literary project.

So where are we today? The final failure of the neo-conservative project that began in the Reagan years seems to have once again opened up a space socialist types of reforms. At the very least, faith in the market has been badly shaken. However, we seem to live in a age of cynicism and there is very little of the Romantic idealism around in our time. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a Neo-Victorian sense of practical reform. 

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