Dimitris Dimitrakos on the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille
On the occasion of this year’s anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, KEFiM presents the article entitled “A great democratic anniversary” by Dimitris Dimitrakos, Professor at the University of Athens and member of our Academic Board:
July 14th. It is an anniversary of great symbolic importance to democracy in the world. On July 14th, 1789, Bastille fell, a notorious prison – a symbol of the tyranny of the royal regime. It was the beginning of the French Revolution, an event that inspired many other revolutions in Europe and the world during the 19th and 20th century.
Unfortunately, the French Revolution quickly evolved into a tyranny in the name of democracy. Therefore, it became what J.L. Talmon called a “Totalitarian Democracy”. It also set the foundations of a messianic utopia proclaiming a New Age for mankind, with new ideas, new revolutionary symbols and even the implementation of a “Republican Calendar”, since the history of mankind before the French Revolution was considered to be its “prehistory”.
The regime that arose from the French Revolution had worldwide consequences. It used an extreme rhetoric, as well as massive violence. It fought the European kings, tried and beheaded its own king and queen and for many years was used to exterminate the “enemies of the people” (a concept introduced by Robespierre into the revolutionary language, later adopted by Lenin and Stalin). And it spread the slogan LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, which inspired and impressed many. Some form of freedom can be imposed by revolutionary means, as well as a sense of equality. Perhaps the imposition of brotherhood by force is more difficult, but that is not so important since Fraternité blends nicely with the whole bouquet of rhetoric.
Historically, the French Revolution is after the American Revolution, which influenced it greatly. I think a comparison between the two is worth doing. The American Revolution does not have the aura that the French does and clearly has an inferior position in the imaginary museum of modern revolutions. It began with the humble and not rhetorical slogan NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION. Simple as that. And it ended – at least during its first phase – with the Declaration of Independence. This was done on the principal that Every person has rights, and not due to one’s privileged ancestry, nor because they were given by some divine or revolutionary entity, but because they are his to begin with. These rights are the right to life, freedom and the ability to search for happiness.
With these ideas, the American Rebels built a new democracy, a new form of state organization, a federation of originally 13 states – a model of constitutional democracy – which over time became permanent – which went through a civil war 87 years later, from which it came out united and stronger, despite the predictions of its dismantle by the Europeans.
The democratic formula of the American Revolution consists of institutional predictions for the taming of the beast of power, mainly by strictly distinguishing between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary authority. It recognizes the rule of the populace (“We, the People”), but significantly restricts it. On the contrary, the European tradition, inspired by the French Revolution, underlines the element of absolute – or at least the most possible – rule of the people.
It can be argued that many cases in which the democratic regime was injured, its wounds infected, it changed, are linked to this emphasis on the rule of the people and the lack of and adequate institutional defense of the democratic regime from the influence of the enemies of an open society.
Today democracy is in danger, not so much by coup d’état, or forces that can hurt the democratic state and establish an authoritarian regime. What threatens democracy nowadays is the devastating consequences that power can lead to when it has no boundaries, on the grounds that its used for the benefit of the people.
Modern populism is directly linked to this idea of the absolute rule of the people, which does not yield to institutional barriers. A part of the legacy of the French Revolution is that of the rule of the populace without barriers. Fortunately, however, there are institutions in modern democracies, as well as political forces that hit the brakes when power shows totalitarian tendencies. Modern democracies are inspired by both the principles of the French and the American Revolution, since they express the need for controlled authority through the popular verdict, while at the same time absolutely deny the right to limitless authority by the governors. A right which they invoke in various ways even if they present themselves as representatives of the people.