IN REMEMBRANCE OF THE ALGERIAN STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE—
France History Archive
Algeria and the defeat of French Humanism
Source: Chapter six of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, by James Heartfield, Sheffield Hallam University, 2002. Reproduced by permission of the author.
Many people—including historians—misperceive the way Napoleon was seen in his time. In their ascendancy, Napoleon, and the ideals of the French revolution represented a huge threat to the kings and emperors of Europe, and it was they who quickly combined against France to roll back the Republic and the "commoner" ideals it was beginning to spread. Far from the bloodthirsty monster depicted in most Anglo-American texts, Napoleon was a progressive figure in the 19th Century, and most of the wars he fought were largely forced upon him by the counter-revolutionary tide led by Britain. In effect, Napoleon and France at the time could be seen as the first victims of something akin to global anti-communism. —PG
The founding of the modern French state is unique in history. The state is created in the name not just of the French citizen, but of all mankind. The document adopted by the Constituent Assembly in June 1789 is headed Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The declaration is a sincere expression of the sentiments of the revolutionaries who created the state. It was also a beacon to liberals across Europe, and as far afield as Haiti in the West Indies, where the ‘black Jacobin’ Toussaint L’Ouverture was inspired to lead a slave revolt. The most adamant of the French revolutionaries deplored slavery as they deplored feudal privileges. ‘The moment you pronounce the word “slave” you pronounce your own dishonour’, said Robespierre, who also defended the civil and voting rights of free blacks in the West Indian colonies. Even after the restoration of a more centralised power under Napoleon Bonaparte’s military leadership, France remained a beacon of the universal rights of man to radicals and liberals across Europe. Napoleon’s army swept through Europe welcomed by some as an army of liberation. The Jewish ghettoes were emancipated. The Code Napoleon is, to this day, the basis of many countries’ civil law. Revolutionary France represented the hopes of the Enlightenment, of reason and of humanism for progressive Europe.
The extent of French humanism, though, found its limits. The German middle classes came to resent the French monopoly on universal civilisation, and jealously guarded their own, more grounded Kultur. England regarded France’s challenge as a threat. In Russia, Napoleon was defeated less by the winter, than by the sheer otherness of Russian society. Russia lacked any comparable enlightened middle class to those who had welcomed Napoleon in Austria and Prague. Napoleon’s army did not liberate Russia, but was reduced to a mere army of occupation, without supplies or support, and was defeated.
Revolutionary France’s moral mission to realise the ‘eternal rights of man’ was compromised, but by no means exhausted. French civic republicanism combined with scientific rationalism to exemplify the Enlightenment ideal. There were many setbacks, from the reactionary repressions of 1830, 1848 and 1870 to the anti-Semitism that split French society when Captain Dreyfus was charged with treason. In 1940, the reaction of the French middle classes, resentful of Leon Blum’s Popular Front government, to the German Occupation — ‘better Hitler than Blum’ — cast a dark shadow over France’s claim to represent the best in humanity. But the communist-dominated French Resistance kept the honour of French liberty intact. As long as France resisted France was occupied, and could avoid the shame of collaboration with Fascism. Much as the post-war French establishment loathed the communists and radicals, they had played a large part in saving France, while much of the upper class had collaborated. French Humanism, as an ideal, lived on in the ‘socialist humanism’ espoused by the communists, and in Sartre’s existential philosophy. ‘Existentialism is a humanism’ wrote Sartre. If the bourgeois elite had momentarily let go of the banner of humanism, the French left had taken it up. Continue reading »
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