The Long View: Holy Madness

The 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries were the ages of revolution: The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the collapse of the vice-royalties of Spain and Portugual in the Americas, the Springtime of Peoples, the Russian Revolution. There were so many revolutions in part because there were so many revolutionaries; failed revolutionaries floated around the world after their exile, pitching in wherever they could. Which produced more revolutions, and so on.

In this age of total war, it is easy to forget that war was less brutal in the Napoleonic era. A successful uprising might produce casualties in the hundreds rather than the thousands. War really was romantic and fun for a while. The Great War was the Great War precisely because it shattered that comfortable illusion. It was the very success of nationalism that transformed war from a game between kings to a clash between peoples.

Often, the revolutions were the result of an upswing of nationalist feeling among the educated classes. However, the tide of nationalism was so strong that even reactionary backlashes tended to be nationalist too. After all, it was Napoleon who welded the Scots and English together into a nation 100 years after the Acts of Union.

Holy Madness:
Romantics, Patriots, and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871
By Adam Zamoyski
Viking, 2000
498 Pages, $34.95
ISBN 0-670-89271-8


In the 18th century, Western civilization began to shift from its traditional religious foundation to a new platform, compounded of personal emotional experience and what were believed to be the dictates of reason. Nations, nationalism, revolution, and mass warfare appeared during the long transition. So did new arts, mass literacy and, almost as an afterthought, an unprecedented increase in general well-being. This period is the subject of "Holy Madness." As the author points out in the Preface (the author is Adam Zamoyski: born in New York, settled in London, with several titles on Polish history to his credit), it really does not constitute a "subject" at all. Nonetheless, it seems to me that readers of Paul Johnson's "Modern Times" will find the genre familiar. The book is a sprawling, moralizing, cultural and political history with a conservative subtext. If you like this kind of thing, you will find few better examples.

"Holy Madness" is arranged more or less chronologically around the key dates of the history of the revolutionary tradition: The American Revolution of 1776; the French Revolution of 1789; the final fall of Napoleon in 1815; the Liberal Revolution of 1830; the "Springtime of Peoples" of 1848; and, finally, the Paris Commune of 1871. However, the story spreads far beyond the particular events that put those dates in the history books. We get synopses of the revolutionary histories of Latin America, Ireland, Spain, Italy, and, especially, of Poland.

Reading this book gives the impression that the Confederation of Bar of 1768 and its subsequent suppression were among the key events of modern history, because they began the long-running Polish diaspora of revolutionary patriots. The Poles were just an extreme case, however. The Western world soon hosted a floating population of freelance patriots like Kosciuszko, Byron, Kossuth, Bakunin, Garibaldi, and Alexander Dumas. These exiles by necessity or caprice might command a fleet off newly independent Peru in one decade and help drive the Bourbon dynasty from southern Italy in another. Nonetheless, in the years of reaction following the Congress of Vienna, "Polonism" was Metternich's term "for the whole internationale of bards and braves threatening his pan-European monarchical order with the promise of universal redemption through the apotheosis of the nations."

"Holy Madness" is chiefly concerned with a few key themes, the most important of which is that romantic nationalism retained the shape of the Christianity it so often sought to replace:

"[T]he national instinct is a natural one where religious belief-systems have failed...[I]t inherits from these not only crude fanaticism, but also a spark of divinity, for it is, ultimately, a kind of mission...However different the brutal gunmen of today may be from the noble Marquis de Lafayette, all who rally to the cause of some real or invented nation carry within themselves an instinctual religious germ; [they] see themselves as valorous knights defending their world against monsters, dragons and giants."

This was not quite what the philosophers of the French Enlightenment had in mind. Zamoyski makes Rousseau the chief theoretician of nationalism. Rousseau, whom Kant called "the Newton of ethics," tried to replace the transcendent with the national community as the basis of morality. It was Rousseau who popularized the idea that nations are created through suffering, and that the highest good is to die in the national defense. These notions simply relocate Christian ideals of sacrifice and atonement. The new nationalism even held out the hope of immortality, in the form of lasting renown in the national history.

Stated baldly, such propositions sound repulsive even today, but they have nonetheless shaped our language and thought. The expression "baptism of fire," for instance, was a neologism of the wars of the French Revolution. Having rejected or lost interest in the traditional sacraments, French revolutionaries instinctively tried to turn war and revolution into sacraments of a new order.

In its early phases, the revolutionary tradition managed to combine hopes for universal liberation with parochial nationalism. Thus began the long string of claims by national communities, most of them new and some of them largely imaginary, to be the "redeemer nation" of the current historical epoch. The first of these, in arrogance as well as time, was France itself, whose cynosure became Napoleon. Napoleon occasioned a type and degree of popular adulation that can be called cultic in a quite unmetaphorical sense, and not only in France. Alexander the Great, whose role in classical history has often been compared to Napoleon's place in the modern world, was frankly worshipped as a god after his death. Early modern Europeans came as close to doing the same to the French hero as their culture permitted. In some regions, the defeated emperor became the "once and future king," who had brought justice in the past and would someday return to re-impose it.

Zamoyski highlights the fact that the Enlightenment took different forms in different places, or even that there was more than one Enlightenment. French enthusiasts for the American Revolution never quite took on board the fact that, while they used millenarian rhetoric, American revolutionaries were often literal millenarians. The German Enlightenment, like German Romanticism, was always more frankly mystical than its French counterpart. In fact, gallophobia was an early component of German nationalism, which would have nasty consequences after a century or so. There were other continuities. The Burschenschaften ("fellowships," or perhaps "guy-ships") of post-Napoleonic Germany bear comparison with the "Wandervögel" of the pre-World War I era. Like that later generation, the student members of the Burschenschaften seemed to be simply waiting for some cause hopeless enough to call forth their suicidal devotion. I might note that in this they differed from the still later babyboom generation in America: the "Counterculture" of the 1960s was also a movement of rumpled young people who were credulous of wonders, but those young people, especially the men, had a keener eye for their personal safety than did their 19th century predecessors.

The revolution in Latin America was not simply an artifact of the Enlightenment. There was also a lively tradition of military insubordination that went back to Cortez and Pizzaro. However, until the late 18th century, this had not greatly interfered with social order. The author is at pains to emphasize the prosperity and general tidiness of the Spanish viceroyalties. (La Plata, with its frontier economy and precocious proletariat in Buenos Aires, was something of an exception to the norm of civil order.) What really shook Spanish Latin America free of Spain was the eclipse of the monarchy by the Napoleonic occupation of the metropolitan country. The separation was sealed by the collapse of the Spanish revolution in the 1820s, which left a metropolitan authority too weak and too unattractive to reassert control. In Brazil, monarchy lasted longer because the royal family decamped from Portugal to Brazil during the Napoleonic emergency, but the link to Portugal itself dissolved in any case.

Great Britain, in the author's estimation, is almost as much a product of the era of revolutions as is the United States. The monarchy and the army had been held in light regard in the British Isles for generations. Then the existential crisis of the Revolution and Napoleon served to weld the kingdoms together, with the king and the army becoming popular symbols of a new national identity. Zamoyski suggests that the French Revolution may have prevented revolution from breaking out in Britain. There was at least as much elite sentiment in Britain as in pre-revolutionary France for radical change, and probably more popular discontent.

Here is a bit of alternative history for you: suppose that the American Revolution had failed, thereby depriving French radicals of a template. The French monarchy might then have survived the fiscal crisis of the 1780s. In that case, however, radicals in Britain would have had no example of French excess to restrain them. They would probably have had the added grievance of a reactionary (and expensive) policy of pacification in North America. The result might have been a British Revolution. Had that happened, the North American colonies would likely have drifted away in a fashion comparable to the disengagement of the viceroyalties from Spain. The interesting difference would have been that the United States (or whatever the successor entities were called) would have come into being on the other side of the modern watershed. Instead of looking back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, America, like Revolutionary France, would have been founded on the slippery slope that led to the Finland Station. That would not necessarily have meant a better world.

What was the motivation of those bards and braves who kept Metternich's numberless spies employed? Though they justified themselves in terms of devotion to the public good, one cannot escape the impression that, as with anarchists today, the whole exercise was oddly self-referential:

"The generation brought up on the literature of the Romantics abhorred inactivity and routine; they demanded bursts of action and craved danger, they relished the mysterious, the hidden, the forbidden. Action in this sense was a sublimation of love, and was indulged in with the requisite passion and the same sense of relish for the hopeless, the unrequited and the fatal, which translated into a politics as a capacity to luxuriate in the poignances of failure and defeat."

One of the drawbacks to politics as a hallucinogen is that it discourages its practitioners from excessive concern with mere facts. Quite early on, the revolutionary tradition embraced the practice of pious falsehood. Zamoyski's account of the American Revolution is perhaps unnecessarily jaundiced, giving excessive attention to the persecution of loyalists, as well as to George Washington's interest in acquiring land that the British government wanted to reserve for the Indians. On the other hand, he is onto something when he implies a parallel between the French fantasy-literature about the new United States with what progressives in the 1930s told themselves about the Soviet Union. The fraud was even worse about Greece, where the ultimately successful uprising of the 1820s against the Turks was marked by "cowardice, cunning and cruelty." Nonetheless, Romantic revolutionaries flocked to the region from all over Europe. Under the gross misapprehension that they were assisting in the resurrection of the Hellas of Pericles, they were often robbed by the very people they had come to help.

On the subject of fraternal societies, it would not be possible to write a history of the revolutionary era without reference to the role of the Masons, whose lodges could be found in every part of the West. However, Masonry itself seems to have been not so much an actor as a utility, a means of communication but not a single ideology. Adam Weishaupt's Illuminati do put in an appearance in the book, but the author believes that most of the activities attributed to them were fantasies of the police. Zamoyski places the real origin of the tradition of revolutionary conspiracy with Buonarotti. It was he (working with Babeuf) who adumbrated the underground armentaria of centralization and dissimulation. It was several generations before revolutionary strategy achieved the clarity of Lenin's time, however. Until then, insurgents generally employed many Gothic properties. During improvised faux-Masonic ceremonies, terrible oaths were exchanged in cellars and darkened rooms from Bogotá to Belfast to Krakow:

"These rituals [of the Carbonari], as well as the patents, membership certificates and other material that has come down to us &emdash; all decorated with variable combinations of the cross, the crown of thorns, the sun, the moon, the cock, the fasces, the ladder, St. Theobald, skulls, crossed bones, geometrical dividers, pentangles, triangles, and the odd papal tiara being struck by lightening &emdash; suggest organized religion had somehow let these people down."

One might note that it was possible for Poles and Italians, and even some Germans, to have fond memories of the Napoleonic era because the wars of that time lacked the savagery of the Thirty Years' War, or of the 20th-century World Wars. Popular uprisings, even a successful campaign like Garibaldi's liberation of the Two Sicilies in 1861, might produce casualties in the hundreds rather than thousands.

In the days of reaction after the Congress of Vienna, revolution became a matter of grand opera. In fact, quite a lot of good grand opera was written with implicitly revolutionary themes, as well as literature extolling Romantic nationalism. (This book reminded me of Mark Twain's surmise that Walter Scott's novels caused the Civil War.) Following the precedent of the fraudulent works of Ossian, ancient national epics were discovered or forged in central and eastern Europe. Aristocrats who spoke French socially and conducted government business in Latin made an effort to learn the language of the colorful peasants. By 1830, some of these operas succeeded in bringing down the house. To everyone's surprise, another French Revolution succeeded. New "nations" appeared in Belgium and Greece. There was a flurry of unrest everywhere.

In 1848, half of Europe rose in revolt. At any rate, half of Europe's students, lawyers, and newspaper editors held noisy rallies and stormed city halls. The continent was briefly covered with constitutional conventions and new flags. When even this outburst of enthusiasm was suppressed, or simply subsumed by ordinary politics, a terrible truth began to dawn on the Romantic internationale:

"The urge for national liberation, so long assumed to be a natural instinct, intimately bound up with personal liberation and empowerment, appeared not to have fired the masses at all. Earlier [pre-1848] failures had been put down to lack of education among the people and to their indoctrination by the civil and religious agencies of the ancien regime. But this argument was wearing thin. If anything, they had rallied against the revolution with some spontaneity."

This was not a new phenomenon. When the French Revolution came to Haiti, it was the slaves who rose in support of the king, while their masters sported tricolor cockades. In the Polish territories of the Habsburg lands, the peasants were quite willing to hunt down the educated city-people who marched through the countryside in yet another attempt to restore national independence. The rural masses sided with "the good emperor," partly because his government was familiar and not altogether unjust, but also because the would-be revolutionaries were often so obviously self-interested. This was particularly the case in the Kingdom of Hungary, only 40% of whose people were Hungarian. The rest, Slavs and Romanians and Saxons, knew that their own hope of retaining their communal identity lay in keeping the kingdom part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

There were exceptions to the rule that revolutions tended to have a rather restricted audience. The Russians really did succeed in provoking the Polish peasants to rise on occasion. Garibaldi, who was as responsible as anyone for creating the Kingdom of Italy, did become a national legend in his own time. Even in his case, though, "popular support" usually meant the kind of support that people give their favorite sport teams.

The deeper problem with the Risorgimento was that, as Zamoyski puts it: "a handful of patriots had been manipulated by a jackal monarchy and its pragmatic ministers." The people of Sicily did not even speak a language comprehensible by northern Italians. (Garibaldi's own first language was Ligurian). When the nationalists delivered control of Italy to the rulers of the Piedmont, they were in effect handing over colonies.

Because of this futility even in success, the revolutionary impulse darkened. By the 1860s, the "new men" had already begun to appear. These forerunners of today's terrorists despised liberal democracy, as well as the Romantic view of politics as a spiritual exercise. For them, liberation was a kind of surgery: scientific, focused, and without anesthetic.

Poetic nationalism helped create actual nations, but these entities evolved on a trajectory of their own. The ideals of 1789 were drowned by both materialist socialism and by nationalism reconceived as a Darwinian struggle. The nationalism of real nations transformed war from a conflict between sovereigns to a conflict between peoples. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was the logical conclusion to this process. In Zamoyski's estimation, the Commune of 1871 should not be seen as the forerunner of the following century of socialist politics. Rather, it was a nostalgic reenactment of the first French Revolution by the last adherents of the politics of the Lost Cause.

This book does not touch on the later expressions of Romantic nationalism. I might mention in particular the Celtic Renaissance and Easter Uprising in Ireland, which together achieved something close to the Platonic ideal of thuggish political mysticism. The true "Springtime of the Peoples" came only with the Versailles Conference: nationalism's greatest practical proponent was not Rousseau, but Woodrow Wilson. Then there was the history of decolonization and Third Worldism. Nonetheless, Zamoyski may be right in ending the story in 1871. After that point, there were few novelties in the ways that nations came into being and expressed themselves. The Holy Madness of nationhood had become a commodity.

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