Home > Europe, Middle East > >One Turk’s view of the French Revolution

>One Turk’s view of the French Revolution

>I’ve mentioned before that the Turkish Daily News is an interesting read, especially the opinion pieces, which really show the freedom Turks have to speak their mind.

From Mustafa Akyol comes this piece reflecting on the failure of the French Revolution to create a society that could keep up with the English speaking world, which has dominated global affairs for the last 500 years or so. The fact that it’s coming from an entirely different world view helps make the analysis even more interesting.

France today is in a parlous state and the expectation is that Sarkozy will be able to energise French workers to increase the number of hours they actually work (note that efficiency is on a par with the rest of Europe) and when they retire and start receiving benefits.

Today Edmund Burke’s genius is manifested not only in the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon ways over that of the French, but also in the utter failure of imitations of the latter.

Chou En-Lai, the late prime minister of communist China, was once asked what he thought about the French Revolution. He declined to comment, and explained, “It’s too early to tell.”

That was in the early 1960s. Perhaps today it is a little bit less early to comment on whether the French Revolution really was a good idea. That seminal event – which inspired not just the French but also many other revolutionaries in many countries all around the world, including Turkey – has borne some notable fruits by which we might judge their political roots.

The next sick man of Europe?

To be blunt, today France is on a slippery slope toward becoming the next sick man of Europe. Its economy is in bad shape, in particular compared with its historic rival, the United Kingdom. French society is growingly nationalist, protective and even xenophobic – evidenced by its obsessive reaction to Turkey’s European Union membership process. (Again, compare that to the Britain’s self-confident and all-embracing attitude.) In world politics, the influence of France is in continuous decline, and has become not a creative but a reactionary force in the face of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. No wonder that the man who promises to restore France’s good-old days, Nicolas Sarkozy, tries to do that through Anglo-Saxon ways.

Even French culture, of which virtually all Frenchmen are proud, is in acute crisis. Several weeks ago, Time magazine’s cover story was titled, “The Death of French Culture.” “Once admired for the dominating excellence of its writers, artists and musicians,” the story noted, “France today is a wilting power in the global cultural marketplace.” This has something to do with the protectionist, statist and socialist attitude so prevalent in the country. “There is a strain in the national mind-set that distrusts commercial success,” Time noted. “Success is considered bad taste.”

French Enlightenment revisited

But why? Why does the common French mind prefer statism to free-markets, nationalism to globalism, and, moreover, despair and melancholy to hope and joy? According to historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, the answer lies in the foundational ideas of French society. In her book, “The Roads to Modernity” she contrasts the French Enlightenment with that of the British and the American. The former, according to her, “was excessively preoccupied with reason and insufficiently concerned with individual liberty.” (Hence the tyranny of the Jacobins and the guillotine.) In contrast, “the British Enlightenment was underpinned by ideals of social virtue; compassion, benevolence and sympathy.” British thinkers were also “tolerant and pragmatic.”

Attitudes toward religion were also a fundamental divide. According to Himmelfarb, the French Enlightenment saw religion as “the enemy” while the Anglo-Saxons regarded it as “ally” in modernization. Unlike the French, the American and the British did not wage wars on churches and the clergy. Instead, they drew spiritual support from religion for individual entrepreneurship and social reform.

Probably no one foresaw the doomed destiny of France as clearly as the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797. In his most famous work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790, Burke argued that the revolution was not a signal of a representative, constitutional democracy, but rather a violent rebellion against tradition and proper authority, and an experiment disconnected from the complex, natural (and divinely ordained) realities of human society. In the face of French obsession with “reason” as a constructive and autocratic force, Burke defended tradition, liberty and evolutionary change.

The France in Turkey

Burke was right. Today his genius is manifested not only in the supremacy of Anglo-Saxon ways over those of the French, but also in the utter failure of imitations of the latter. In that regard, Turkey is a perfect case study. Right from the beginning of the republic, the Turkish state and the elite emulated all the ideas of the French Enlightenment and tried to impose them on society. The veneration of “the Republic” as if it is an end in itself; the obsessive hatred toward traditional religion and the conception of secularism (laïcité) as an alternative faith; distrust toward freedom and free markets, and a deep-seated belief in protectionism and “statism”, are all ideas that the Turks borrowed from the French and made far worse.

But of course – and thank God – not all Turks bought into the same ideas. Some of them have found an alternative road toward modernity, a one that is similar to that of the Anglo-Saxons. Turkey’s center-right politics, best represented by the governments of Adnan Menderes (1950-60) and Turgut Özal (1983-93), have corresponded to that. This political line defended freedom and tradition in the face of an authoritarian and ultra-secularist establishment. Menderes paid the price by being executed by the military in 1961. Özal was abhorred, and continuously blocked, by the Kemalists.

During the 2000s, the AKP has done a great job by moving away from the Islamist line to the conservative/liberal tradition of Menderes and Özal. By doing so, it has started to transform Turkey’s conservative Muslim masses, who have always despised their Jacobin rulers (for good reasons) and held modernity to be the problem. With the AKP experience, these masses have started to realize that the problem is not modernity itself, but rather a specific way of attempting to get there.

Meanwhile the Turkish champions of that specific way are growingly insecure, reactionary and xenophobic — a devolution which parallels the experience in its motherland, France, and which signifies that the French Revolution was a lot less progressive than its protagonists assert.

Alas, Burke should have lived to see all this.

(Nothing Follows)

Categories: Europe, Middle East
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