Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Food for Revolutionary Thought

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Government censorship of certain widely transmitted public opinions has an important role in the history of many countries. What the masses believe, what we trust in and into whose hands we wish to place our own survival; these components are the most important to the mechanics of revolutionary change. My definition of revolutionary will remain broad for these purposes, encompassing everything from civil disobedience and general criticism of authority, all the way up to the gates of the Bastille. The French Revolution especially is a prime example of the evolution of public opinion and the intellectual origins of one of the Western World's most remarkable regime changes.

An interesting work titled The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, by Robert Darnton, contains a mountain of theses, most of which are supported by some of the most intriguing research of an illegal trade that I have ever read. One of Darnton's most ambitious conclusions has to do with this role of public opinion, and whether clandestine publications called livres philosophiques could have generated or indeed only reflected certain widespread opinions of the 18th century French population. This warning, which surfaced in the form of a correspondence between a sub-delegate and the authorities, shows the strong belief that forbidden books were being taken seriously by readers "Reading these bad books produces a disturbed spirit among the citizens and provokes them constantly to shake the yoke of submission, of obedience, and of respect" ().

Darnton urges his readers to look past the literature of well-known greats, Voltaire and Rousseau, and to recognize that the more widely read publications were often the less literary libelles and chroniques scandaleuses, which resemble more our modern-day tabloids. His conclusions about these best-sellers seem reasonable considering the arguments against him, which he brings up throughout his work in answer to some of his more confident assertions. For example, he concedes once or twice that it is truly impossible to know what people were really thinking two centuries ago. With this in mind, his arguments take on the form of speculations, which are, nonetheless, convincing because of the holistic approach he consistently takes. He treats the revolution as it should be treated; like a gradual dissention that took centuries to promulgate until it finally burst, a bottle of seltzer aimed directly at the establishment of the weakened monarchy and the self-perpetuating nobles.

The accomplishments of the Enlightenment were substantial. Many of the sources shown in Darnton's analysis are records of the amount of effort invested by the government in the stifling of the underground print industry and the degree to which its subjects were discussed. Even the authorities found it hard to cope with its suppression, like C.-G. de Lamoignon de Malesherbes who refuses to do it completely for these reasons "A man who had read only books that originally appeared with the formal approval of the government," he wrote, "would be behind his contemporaries by nearly a century" (Intro. xix). Police records, overheard conversations in cafes, bookseller records, demands for philosophical books, all point towards the definite importance of clandestine publications and their unheard of popularity. The World History textbooks used for this series this year outline public opinion as a major influence on various steps of the French Revolution. A metaphor is given for the role public opinion played in the decades before, during, and after the fall of the Old Regime "Like the movement of a clock pendulum, the revolution passed through various stages, becoming more extreme and reaching the high tide of radicalism in 17-4, before a revulsion in public opinion led to the return of moderate rule" (506).

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This statement shows that public opinion was not at the whim of anyone, because anyone with enough money for paper could make their ideas known to a broad base of readers, especially within the urban centers. Without a form of mass media, such as television or the printing press, public opinions that are at odds with orthodoxy remain relatively isolated and more easily suppressed; this is why media, specifically the print industry, opened the floodgates of revolutionary thought in 18th century France. Another assertion of Darnton's is that even the worst smut and libel can etch away at orthodox thinking and in some measure perpetuate public opinions.

The scientific crusades of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton provide other excellent examples of shifts in public opinion. Though all three published their work with a select readership in mind, their impact on the basic beliefs of people concerning their surroundings is apparent in the wide spread diffusion of their discoveries and their eventual acceptance as the European status quo. As popular beliefs changed, trials of scientific advancers ceased and the scientific method became an accepted way of thought, applicable in the social, political and philosophical realms. Though a much more subtle and gradual formula, this process is nevertheless dubbed the "Scientific Revolution."

What begins as a general distrust of a government often evolves into the widespread wish for reform. Until a government oversteps certain bounds with its citizens, it will have little or no opposition. But ideological control, the censorship of books being a prime example, often spurs a movement to shake off this oppression and return public opinion to the people. We have seen this pattern not only in pre-revolutionary France, but also in the equally drastic regime change in England not a century earlier, throughout most of Europe with the idea of heresy in the Roman Catholic Church, and in the form of institutionalized censors in Beijing. It is historically rare for dissent to morph into full-scale revolution, but it is equally as rare that governments remain the same far past the point when public opinion is against them.

In England, the targets were the same as for the rest of the Enlightenment absolutism in the monarchy, superstitions in the church and inequalities perpetuated by the aristocracy. The ideological control emanated from the highly powerful and well-landed Church. Members of the clergy were obligated to root out heresy, an abstract notion of disobedience or lack of faith in the Church. This notion carried over into all parts of Europe, making it an effective means of control. A huge difference between England and France at this time was their freedom of press, England had it, and France did not. Publications from Locke, Newton, and Smith had wide readership and their publishers were could not be imprisoned for the perpetuation of this trade, so the oppression of orthodoxy was not as painfully felt because of certain freedoms they were never denied.

This sets the situation in France apart from the censorship in the Chinese bureaucracy as well. Though censors stationed in the capital caused many irrelevant and biased challenges to be placed in the path of innovators, this was not a form of ideological control. Their duties were confined to the inspection of changes in traditionalized practices, which left the more personal aspects of the innovator's beliefs and philosophy out of the picture. What finally distinguishes France and its full-scale revolution from these other historical examples is the overwhelming fiscal deficit of the country and the governments' almost complete inability to support the people. The monarchy and its supporters were as diverse in their interests as the people, and on the eve of the French Revolution, this effectively pulled the country to pieces.

Returning to the Enlightenment in France, this new way of seeing the world, as mechanical, rational, and inherently flawed, was a literal enlightenment in terms of impact on the minds of average citizens. Superstition and blind obedience no longer reigned supreme and laws concerning censorship and heresy were continually ignored. Though censorship of press remained in 18th century France, while neighboring countries enjoyed more freedom, the importance of what was being published caused the laws to be broken diligently and under great demand. In reality, censorship backfired for the Old Regime, and the harsh penalties turned into nothing more than reassurance for the masses that the orthodoxy was truly feeling threatened. With the help of Darnton's speculations, and aided by the patterns of public opinion that are still in effect today, we get a clear illustration of the shift in power that occurs when individuals realize that they are a part of something huge, a movement that has the strength to instigate change all the way up through the highest powers.

Reading through Darnton's research, through the seemingly endless records, pamphlets and correspondences, a vein of unchecked hope is most apparent to me. To a writer living in a country just screaming for reform, it is reassuring to see that the legacy of unorthodox publication and strong political opinion is a long one, full to the brim with tangible results. In a stirring article written by Louis-Sebastien Mercier in his Tableau de Paris, reproduced by Darnton on page 6 of his book, the unfailing reason of the masses is upheld, though we are constantly bombarded by the stiflingly orthodox and the violently profane in media;

"An excessive libelle is revolting…and undercuts itself by its own violence. But if it is more moderate, it sometimes counterbalances an excessive concentration of power; it goes beyond the limits of decency in the same way as the authorities abuse their power. It was often provoked by insolent little despots, and the public perceives the truth between two extremes."

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