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“Les Miz” and the Permanent Dream of the Left, Or, Immanentizing the Eschaton*

Traveling the last few days, I’ve been reading Les Miserables. There is a great deal to be said about a book so brilliant, so colossal, and so compelling, but I was struck in particular by a passage that occurs early. The Bishop of Digne, whom Hugo has already established as a remarkably holy man, a kind of latter-day St. Francis, makes a pastoral visit to an old man who had played a central role in the French Revolution.

Now the old revolutionary is dying. The Bishop attempts to prepare the dying man to meet his maker, but the revolutionary reverses the roles, submitting the bishop to a kind of revolutionary catechism instead. The Revolution involved abuses, he admits, but it proved necessary all the same:

Whatever else may be said of it, the French Revolution was the greatest step forward by mankind since the coming of Christ. It was unfinished, I agree, but still it was sublime. It released the untapped springs of society; it softened hearts, appeased, tranquillized, enlightened, and set flowing through the world the tides of civilization. It was good. The French Revolution was the anointing of humanity.

You must remember this: the Revolution had its reasons. Its fury will be absolved by the future. Its outcome is a better world. Out of its most dreadful acts there emerges an embrace for mankind ….

No longer gazing at the bishop, he summed up his thought in a few quiet words. ‘The brutalities of progress are called revolutions. When they are over we realize this: that the human race has been roughly handled, but that it has advanced.”

The bishop, who had intended to offer the sacraments to the dying man, now finds himself so deeply moved that he completes the role reversal.

‘What do you ask of me?’ [the dying man said].

‘Your blessing,’ said the bishop, and fell on his knees.

When at length the bishop raised his head there was a look of grandeur on the old man’s face. He had died.

What I found so striking is that Hugo, a widely-read and brilliant man, was of course acutely aware of the chaos the Revolution had caused–the Terror, the catastrophe of the Napoleonic Wars (Hugo’s father had served as an officer in the Peninsular War, one of Napoleon’s most brutal campaigns), the endless cycle of instability–the restoration of the Bourbons, their overthrow, the new monarchy, the July Revolution, the Revolution of 1848. Hugo knew all of this–he lived it–and yet as he composed Les Miserables during the 1850s he still proved capable of composing a passage glorifying the French Revolution. Hugo was a believer. He clung to the dream that animated the Left throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries–and, I believe, animates it today.

“The human race has been roughly handled, but it has advanced.”

imgres-2.jpgIsn’t that roughly the justification the American Left offers today? Expand government and raise taxes even if doing so diminishes economic growth. Unite the country? Nonsense. Divide it. Treat Republicans and conservatives as enemies. Jam through vast new entitlements. Grab power. All justified in the cause of anointing humanity.

What does this mean for our side? That we need to do more than run on good government or expertise in business. Pace the Romney campaign, the ability to articulate a conservative vision–to rally Americans to the cause of liberty and the Constitution–is not optional but mandatory, as, thank God, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and a few other Republican officeholders now seem to understand. When Ronald Reagan spoke of a “shining city on a hill,” in other words, he knew just what he was doing.

*”Immanentizing the eschaton?” Click here.

  1. TheSophist

    Really, really great post, Peter. Thank you.

    I would only add that before anybody can articulate a conservative vision, it’s probably necessary to agree on one.

    When nominal Republicans in the New York senate vote for plainly unconstitutional gun control legislation, it is well past time for a purge.

  2. Bereket Kelile

    From Kenneth Minogue’s book The Servile Mind:

    …nothing less is involved than the project of transforming the human condition, man taking human destiny out of the hands of God and into his own hands. It is the Titans storming Heaven. 

    A friend of mine on Facebook posted a video clip of an interview with Hayek in which he was making the point that the ever increasing complexity of our society is the reason why central planning will always fail. I think we can appeal to people’s intuitive (and correct) understanding that micro-management doesn’t work. Plus, we all hate the people who try it. 

    The left sets themselves up for failure by setting such lofty goals and we should remind them whenever we get the chance of how short they come and how much damage it does. 

  3. Gaius Baltar

    “Whatever else may be said of it, the French Revolution was the greatest step forward by mankind since the coming of Christ.”

    What about the American revolution that preceded and inspired the French one? It’s strange how the former never seems to elicit the same romantic outpourings from our leftist friends as the latter, despite being far less brutal but no less revolutionary. I often wonder if there is some dark corner of the leftist mind that regards the brutality as being as important as the “step forward”. Or, perhaps it is that they get to say things like “Whatever else may be said of it …,” thereby giving the illusion of a moral seriousness they do not possess.

  4. Valiuth

    Gaius Baltar: For the French and Europeans in general American history does not factor in very much to their assessments. Then again we may be prone to over emphasizing our own importance in driving the History of Republicanism. I also think we can over estimate our own success too. Our Revolution may have made us Nation but it did not unburden us of self inflicted problems. 

  5. KT

    But Gaius, the French Revolution elevated the importance of the Leftist dream of equality (sometimes by doing violence to Equality Before the Law).  The American Revolution did not.   You’re right about the romance and about the brutality of the Leftist vision.   Though I am not sure everyone on the Left realizes that they are so closely connected.  

    “Free people can treat each other justly, but they can’t make life fair. To get rid of the unfairness among individuals, you have to exercise power over them. The more fairness you want, the more power you need. Thus, all dreams of fairness become dreams of tyranny in the end.”

    - Andrew Klavan

    http://www.prageruniversity.com/Political-Science/The-American-Trinity.html

  6. PsychLynne
    Peter Robinson

      …the ability to articulate a conservative vision…is not optional but mandatory

    YES!!! Several years ago I heard Drew Westen speak.  His book (Political Brain) purports that Democrats over-rely on logic and dry facts and that Republicans appeal to emotions–(I know, it’s the reverse).  But, to Peter’s point, we need inspirational figures like those you’ve mentioned–some who are wonky, some who are story tellers, some who inspire, but all of them must be good communicators! Our current narrative of fiscal and social decline is just depressing…but there is a way to tell a story that inspires, that elevates, that focuses on communication to people people they have the ability to write their own story of success and freedom and opportunity–to achieve, to be comfortable–to be in charge of their lives. 

    If we can’t tell the story in a compelling, inspirational–and yes, maybe even romantic way–we don’t deserve to win and we won’t.

  7. Danihel Tornator

    When I think of Les Miserables, I remember Whittaker Chambers’s explanation in Witness of how the book impacted his life.

    He says “In its pages can be found the play of forces that carried me into the Communist Party, and in the same pages can found the play of forces that carried me out of the Communist Party….It taught me two seemingly irreconcilable things — Christianity and revolution. It taught me first of all that the basic virtue of life is humility, that before humility, ambition, arrogance, pride and power are seen for what they are, the stigmata of littleness, the betrayal of the mind of the soul, a betrayal that continually fails against a humility that is authentic and consistent. It taught me justice and compassion, not justice of the law…but a justice that transcends human justice whenever humanity transcends itself to reach that summit where justice and compassion are one….It taught me revolution…as a reflex of human suffering and desperation, a perpetual insurgence of that instinct for justice and truth that lay within the human soul…”

    The entire passage is well worth reading (pp. 134-138, 489). 

  8. CoolHand

    Huh.

    And here I thought an escutcheon was that metal plate at the base of a light fixture that blocks off the hole in the wall. . .

    Damned commies ruin everything.

  9. Nick Stuart
    Peter Robinson

    That we need to do more than run on good government or expertise in business.  Pace the Romney campaign, the ability to articulate a conservative vision–to rally Americans to the cause of liberty and the Constitution–is not optional but mandatory…

    So is having the steel to take the fight to the other side fists, boots, and all. To go on offense, and not remain silent in the face of outrageous slander (e.g. the Obama attack ads in Ohio; Obama blaming Romney for the cancer death of the wife of a former employee; &tc.).

    So is having the discipline to back the winner of a primary in the general election without either incessant carping about the candidate, or damning him or her with faint (or no) praise and defecting to the Left. In this last election, conservatives were guilty of the former, moderate Republicans of the latter (e.g. Lugar walking away from Mourdock).

  10. Western Chauvinist
    Danihel Tornator: When I think ofLes Miserables,I remember Whittaker Chambers’s explanation inWitness of how the book impacted his life.

    [...] It taught me first of all that the basic virtue of life is humility, that before humility, ambition, arrogance, pride and power are seen for what they are, the stigmata of littleness, the betrayal of the mind of the soul, a betrayal that continually fails against a humility that is authentic and consistent. It taught me justice and compassion, not justice of the law…but a justice that transcends human justice whenever humanity transcends itself to reach that summit where justice and compassion are one….It taught me revolution…as a reflex of human suffering and desperation, a perpetual insurgence of that instinct for justice and truth that lay within the human soul…”

    I’ve heard “humility” defined as the quality of being teachable. As history has shown over and over again since the French Revolution, it is a quality the Left lacks entirely. “We are the ones [finally!] we’ve been waiting for!”  

    Nemesis always catches up with Hubris. The problem is she almost always claws her way over the backs of humble people to_get_to_him.

  11. Misthiocracy

    One could easily put the same words into the mouth of a delusional lefty trying to defend Lenin, Marx, Castro, Chavez, and Kim.

    “I agree it was unfinished, but communism happened for a reason. It’s fury will be absolved by history. It’s result is a better world.”

    Religious faith in atheist totalitarianism. Sigh.

  12. Giantkiller

    Peter – your comments bring a valuable insight to the post-election ructions.  The leading adherents of the Left are deeply, emotionally committed to their non-rational beliefs in mandated equality, huge Government, anti-science primitivism, and so on – they are today’s true believers, just as dedicated and self-worshipping as Hugo’s heroic old Revolutionary.  The small number of the elite Left that fit this description  infuse their political efforts with this misguided but compelling energy and win elections: emotional appeals win over emotional and uninformed voters.  

    For conservative candidates to compete, there must be a compelling, but rational, conservative vision, communicated effectively.  Last November’s  irrefutable result, not only in the national election, but in several of the Senate races, was the clearest possible objective demonstration of this need.

    Perhaps you are right that Rubio, Cruz, Jindal can deliver this message to the electorate – perhaps.  Maybe Ryan and some others could also be a rallying point for conservatives. 

    Maybe as Rob Long argues, I am one of those just kidding himself, but I still see a future (a market?) for the American ideal of limited Government and individual liberty.

  13. Sabrdance

    Yesterday I read James Buchanan’s essay “Public Choice: Politics Without Romance,” in which he makes a similar claim to the revolutionary’s: understand the context in which the ideas came together.  In the revolutionary’s telling, the Monarchy was the cause.  In Buchanan’s, the socialist and Marxist domination of Social Science was the cause.  In neither case do I actually believe either of them.  The Revolutionaries and the Public Choicers believed they were right.  The excesses of the past only provide an excuse to deflect critics from the excesses of the present.

    Buchanan should get more credit, though, that his excesses consisted of writing intemperate books and articles, and even his followers are mostly just anti-social.  The Revolutionary’s excesses involved deliberate slaughter, and his followers kept it up for centuries.

  14. Aaron Miller

    Well said, Peter.

    Peter Robinson

    *”Immanentizing the eschaton?” Click here.

    You had me until there. Can we please — pretty please! — retire this terrible, awful, no-good phrase?

    To anyone other than a political junkie, it is absolutely meaningless.

  15. Misthiocracy
    Aaron Miller: Well said, Peter.

    Peter Robinson

    *”Immanentizing the eschaton?” Click here.

    You had me until there. Can we please — pretty please! — retire this terrible, awful, no-good phrase?

    To anyone other than a political junkie, it is absolutely meaningless. · 8 minutes ago

    This is a web site for political junkies, is it not?

  16. The Mugwump

    The French Revolution toppled a monarchy and replaced it with a tyranny.  I guess by that standard World War One was an even greater success!  If Hugo had lived longer, he would have seen that true advances would come through science, industry, and capitalism. 

    The message for conservatives remains the same:  limited government limits our capacity for self-inflicted damage.  And the more we turn to government for the answers, the more damage we do.  Of course, even the so-called conservative party has forgotten the lesson.  Humanity is just stupid like that.    

  17. Mollie Hemingway
    C
    ~Paules:

    The message for conservatives remains the same:  limited government limits our capacity for self-inflicted damage.  And the more we turn to government for the answers, the more damage we do.  Of course, even the so-called conservative party has forgotten the lesson.  Humanity is just stupid like that.     · 4 minutes ago

    I know The Sophist and other members have already made this point, but our response to gun violence shows exactly this split. Some respond to the evil in the world by arming themselves against it. Others respond by seeking greater government control to combat it.

    Such a big divide between these two ways of thinking.

  18. Don Tillman
    Peter Robinson

    What does this mean for our side?  That we need to do more than run on good government or expertise in business.  Pace the Romney campaign, the ability to articulate a conservative vision–to rally Americans to the cause of liberty and the Constitution–is not optional but mandatory, as, thank God, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and a few other Republican officeholders now seem to understand.

    That’s a great thing Peter, but in practice I don’t think it’s enough.  

    You know what they say, “Never bring an articulate conservative vision to a gun fight.”

  19. Owl of Minerva
    Aaron Miller: Well said, Peter.

    Peter Robinson

    *”Immanentizing the eschaton?” Click here.

    You had me until there. Can we please — pretty please! — retire this terrible, awful, no-good phrase?

    To anyone other than a political junkie, it is absolutely meaningless. · 26 minutes ago

    We could call it, instead, a kind of “millennial anxiety” in which a person of faith (whether in religious or ideological) become so frustrated with events that they seek to force them into producing the millennial outcome. The desire to reconcile the world with humankind or humankind with God is an eternal one. Conservatives demonstrate it often. During the 1980s, the defeat of Communism and the restoration of traditional values was supposed to offer some approximation of the millennium, broadly understood. By 1992, that outcome seemed unlikely.

    I suppose it’s worth remember that eschaton forms the root for “eschatology,” that is the study of the last days. Those “last days” don’t have to be Christian. They could just as easily be the Randian fantasy of Going Galt and, at last, establishing a market-based, meritocratic community. Hardly meaningless, perhaps the problem is the term but our ability to use it well in public discourse.

  20. Mark Lewis

    Wow. 

    Western Chauvanist - 

    Nemesis always catches up with Hubris. The problem is she almost always claws her way over the backs of humble people to_get_to_him. · 2 hours ago

    I think I will read and contemplate that another dozen times…

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