Sunday, June 03, 2012

Troll History FTW

This is another one of those posts that I have been meaning to write for some time. The timing, and the exact content, have been strongly influenced by two books I have recently read: Europe and the Faith, by Hilaire Belloc; and Liberal Fascism, by Jonah Goldberg. These are both works of what I have decided to call 'troll history'. That is, no-holds-barred assaults on establishment historical narratives that assert that everything you thought was black is actually white, and everything you thought was white is actually black. For example, Belloc spends a great part of his book asserting that the Roman Empire did not so much fall as decentralise under new management; while Goldberg's main point is that the administration of the famous 'Progressive' President Woodrow Wilson was the prototype for all the demonstrably Fascist regimes of the early 20th century.

This is my small contribution to the genre for today. It is provoked in the short term by an assertion of Goldberg's: revolutions are bad, he says, and after recounting the bad consequences of numerous revolutions traces the roots of Wilson's proto-Fascism back to the utopian delusions of the French Revolution. However, he then makes an exception for the American Revolution, declaring it to be 'a good, conservative' revolution, rather than a 'bad, radical' revolution.

I say, bollocks.

If you violently sever your connections with a country that is universally considered to be the most free, the most classically liberal, currently in existence, in order to make a polity that is more free and classically liberal, is that conservative? Is it not instead utopian, an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good? If, instead of forming the political institutions of your new polity on incremental modifications in the directions of freedom and classical liberalism of the existing ones, you create de novo an experimental system modelled most closely on republican Rome, is that conservative? Is it not instead wildly radical and utopian? If a significant proportion of the most conservative elements of your new state - landowners, businessmen, professionals, clergymen - voluntarily flee it; and if such political refugees are numerous enough to permanently change the demographics of Canada from a French-majority to an English-majority nation, is that conservative?

The attempt to draw a line between a 'good, conservative' American revolution and a 'bad, radical' French revolution is untenable. The French revolution was just the American Revolution, but in France. France lacked the unique features that prevented the American Revolution from being a disaster for the rebel colonists: A highly decentralised country with no one centre of power for competing factions to feud in; a population already used to self-government, armed, and strongly democratic in spirit; and the sui generis Cincinnatus-figure of George Washington, content to win the war and go back to his farm.

Furthermore, without the American Revolution there would have been no French Revolution. The American revolution let the genie out of the bottle and began all this trouble. The fascist utopianism of Wilson, if such it was, had its ultimate roots not in France, but in the New World.

I do not wish to malign the motives of the participants in the American revolution, or deny the real injustices that drove them to their actions. My contribution to troll history today is to argue that the consequences over the past few centuries of this revolution have been largely negative and destructive. Far from being a force for liberty in the world and a shining example of democracy, the separation of the United States from Great Britain has weakened the Free World and provided an example of a limping, bogus, pseudo-democracy whose imitation as been calamitous wherever it has been attempted.

The most significant consequences I see are the weakening of Britain during the 150 years in which it was the greatest power for freedom in the world; and making revolution look easy – encouraging the French, Haitians, and others down terrible paths. Indirectly, then, through the French Revolution, I am going to blame the American Revolution for destroying Europe and plunging the world into two disasterous wars in the last century.

First, the no-brainer troll history assertions:

“We could have been a great nation together” Thomas Jefferson said, and this is perfectly true.

A Britain still in control of North America - instead of being distracted into fighting another war there in 1812-1815 - would have defeated Napoleon more easily.

If there had been no American Revolution, but the rebel colonies had remained part of a larger British polity, slavery would doubtless have been abolished there in the 1830s or 40s, and by an act of parliament, not a ruinous civil war. So millions of lives saved, no century of economic backwardness in the South, no Jim Crow. Maybe some dissatisfied slave-owners would have headed west beyond the writ of the Crown, like the Voortrekkers headed east from Cape Colony; but I doubt this would have been significant: slave-owning Southerners were more embedded in the global economy, more heavily invested in immobile capital improvements, and a much smaller fraction of the overall white population than the slave-owning Boers were.

Imagine what a difference another Dominion with 50 or 100 million industrialised European inhabitants would have made to the defeat of the Kaiser, entering the war in August 1914 instead of three years later.

Imagine that same Dominion's industrial-military complex turned against Hitler in 1939, instead of 1942. A shorter war? A war where Hitler was in too much trouble to go off and madly invade Russia, ending in a negotiated peace and an un-destroyed Europe? One of those, for certain.

Imagine the more durable Pax Brittanica, the more overwhelming British hegemony, the improved opportunity for the Mother of Parliaments to raise sturdy daughters all over the globe.

Now, to draw a longer bow:

The second successful revolution in the New World was the Haitian Revolution. I doubt anyone seriously believes they would have gotten away with it if the American Revolution had not paved the way. Have a quick squiz across to the Lesser Antilles: Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin. Overseas departements with First World standards of living. Is there any doubt the descendants of the slaves of St. Domingue would be better off if their ancestors had not imitated the Americans? Anyone?

Ditto across Latin America. Would these countries have broken the links to Spain or Portugal quite so readily? Would they have adopted systems of government so readily corruptible into unstable military dictatorships? Would these countries have held on to slavery as long as they did? Without the bad example of the American Revolution - and without the devastating effects of the French Revolution on the Iberian Peninsula - I think, no. (Would they have been better off remaining dependent on the mother country? Well, despite the weakened state of Spain after the Napoleonic Wars, economic growth in the 19th century was higher in Cuba, which remained a Spanish Colony, than the Latin American average. And, parenthetically, the Monroe Doctrine dissuaded Great Britain from annexing Cuba. Would Cuba be better off today if it had been a British Colony? What do you reckon?)

Would there have been a French Revolution without the American Revolution? I think it is impossible to tell: but I think it is certain that the radical, utopian success of the American Revolution inspired the French Revolution to be more radical and utopian. Here is a big quote from some random historian on the interwebz:

...There is little doubt that the American Revolution of the 1770s and the formation of a republic in the 1780s served as a profound example to all European observers. Hundreds of books, pamphlets and public lectures analyzed, romanticized and criticized the American rebellion against Great Britain. For instance, in 1783 the Venetian ambassador to Paris wrote that "it is reasonable to expect that, with the favourable effects of time, and of European arts and sciences, [America] will become the most formidable power in the world." American independence fired the imagination of aristocrats who were unsure of their status while at the same time giving the promise of ever greater equality to the common man. The Enlightenment preached the steady and inevitable progress of man's moral and intellectual nature. The American example served as a great lesson - tyranny could be challenged. Man did have inalienable rights. New governments could be constructed. The American example then, shed a brilliant light. As one French observer remarked in 1789, "This vast continent which the seas surround will soon change Europe and the universe."
Those Europeans who dreamed about the dawn of a New Jerusalem were fascinated by the American political experiment. The thirteen colonies began with a defensive revolution against tyrannical oppression and they were victorious. The Americans showed how rational men could assemble together to exercise control over their own lives by choosing their own form of government, a government sanctified by the force of a written constitution. With this in mind, liberty, equality, private property and representative government began to make more sense to European observers. If anything, the American Revolution gave proof to that great Enlightenment idea - the idea that a better world was possible if it was created by men using Reason. As R. R. Palmer put it in 1959 (The Age of Democratic Revolution: The Challenge):
The effects of the American Revolution, as a revolution, were imponderable but very great. It inspired the sense of a new era. It added a new content to the conception of progress. It gave a whole new dimension to ideas of liberty and equality made familiar by the Enlightenment. It got people into the habit of thinking more concretely about political questions, and made them more readily critical of their own governments and society. It dethroned England, and set up America, as a model for those seeking a better world. It brought written constitutions, declarations of rights, and constituent conventions into the realm of the possible. The apparition on the other side of the Atlantic of certain ideas already familiar in Europe made such ideas seem more truly universal, and confirmed the habit of thinking in terms of humanity at large. Whether fantastically idealized or seen in a factual way, whether as mirage or as reality, America made Europe seem unsatisfactory to many people of the middle and lower classes, and to those of the upper classes who wished them well. It made a good many Europeans feel sorry for themselves, and induced a kind of spiritual flight from the Old Regime. (p. 282)

Without a radical utopian French Revolution, there would have been no Napoleonic conquest of Europe - so a stronger Spain, a stronger Austria - so no reorganisation of Germany and Italy paving the way for their unifications later in the century. Quite likely no Germany to kick off World War One. Thus no round Two. No need for America to intervene and keep the world safe for democracy.

Of course there was another bad guy in World War Two. A country that had slept quietly untroubling the rest of the world for hundreds of years before America went and poked it with a stick. Would it have grown powerful enough to beat Russia and get all Imperialist and troublesome if it had been left in peace for a few more decades? I think, probably not. It would have industrialised at the same time as that other Hermit Kingdom across the straits and the Americans would not have had to drop bloody great bombs on it.

The rapidity of decolonisation after World War Two was another function of the relative strength of the United States and weakness of Europe. Would those countries, by and large, have been better off with a few more decades of development of physical and social infrastructure under European control? I think the evidence in to date makes it hard to argue otherwise.

Would there have been any downsides? One thing I thought of was a reduced British involvement in East Asia and Africa. But this might not have been such a bad thing either.

An Indian Subcontinent that was more imperfectly and lately colonised, by a mixture of powers, and on decolonisation was a mixture of British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies and native states, would not be a place that would try the utopian radical experiment of 'Partition' with all its attendant horrors.

Reduced British involvement in East Asia might have translated into 'no Opium Wars'. Might have translated to 'China with less of a chip on its shoulder'.

Without the American Revolution there would have been no need to find a new dumping ground for British criminals. A later, more imperfect colonisation of Australia would have given the Aboriginal population a fighting chance. A continent divided between powers, where guns and livestock had more of a chance to permeate beyond the frontiers of white control, would be blacker today: and the Aboriginal people would have more heroic achievements to take pride in.

No Napoleonic Wars means no British takeover of the Cape of Good Hope: means an Afrikaner population kept refreshed with more progressive Hollanders and more integrated with Europe and the East Indies: means no Apartheid state.

So in summary: the American Revolution was the greatest wrong-turn since the Reformation. That is my troll history contribution for today.


Marco said...

I like this troll history, despite its arbitrariness. The points are mostly valid, and inasmuch that each revolution tends to learn the wrong lessons from previous revolutions, the net result could easily have been better without the "good" revolutions.

Dr Clam said...

Thanks Marco! I have just realised this is my 'Jubilee' post. :)