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Though there are plenty of caveats and exceptions, it is safe to generalize that predictions of what the “next war” was going to be like before 1914 were completely inaccurate. The Great War would not be the quick, clean affair typical of the wars of German unification in the 1860′s-70′s or the sensationalist literature of the antebellum period. The generals were as wrong as the general public and war nerds. France had an irrationally fervent belief in the power of the offensive and dreamed of the Russians steam-rolling over Berlin before winter, while the Germans gambled their victory on the success of the Schlieffen plan. When the war finally came, the linear tactics of previous wars floundered in the machine guns, artillery, mud, and barbed wire of trench warfare. The belligerent societies were placed under so much strain by this first industrial total war that by its end, four great monarchies would vanish off the face of Europe.

Nonetheless, there were three theorists – a Communist, a Warsaw banker, and a Russian conservative minister – who did predict the future with a remarkable, even eerie, prescience. They were Friedrich Engels, Ivan Bloch, and Pyotr Durnovo.

Friedrich Engels

Way back in 1887, Friedrich Engels, the famous Communist theorist, wrote this remarkably accurate prediction of the next war.

world war of never before seen intensity, if the system of mutual outbidding in armament, carried to the extreme, finally bears its natural fruits… eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and strip Europe bare as no swarm of locusts has ever done before. The devastations of the Third Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent: famine, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses, provoked by sheer desperation; utter chaos in our trade, industry and commerce, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their traditional wisdom in such a way that the crowns will roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up; absolute impossibility to foresee how all this will end and who will be victors in that struggle; only one result was absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the creation of circumstances for the final victory of the working class.

Engels was completely right on the “total war” aspect. The number of military deaths in the war, 9.7mn, was within his predicted range. And indeed by 1918 there was a severe epidemic, the Spanish flu, and a year later the crowns of Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey were all rolling in the gutter. The working class only got their “final victory” in Russia (though they came close in Hungary, Slovakia, and Bavaria).

Ivan Bloch

Ivan Bloch was a Warsaw banker, railway planner, and campaigner against Russian anti-Semitism. In 1899, he wrote a book Is War Now Impossible?, in which he argued that its costs would be such that the inevitable result would be a struggle of attrition and eventual bankruptcy and famine. His hope was that by getting people to comprehend the vast costs and uncertainties of future war, he could forestall it. Though he was unsuccessful in that goal, he did at least get the muted privilege of being almost 100% right about its nature. For instance, see this direct extract from his book.

At first there will be increased slaughter – increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue. They will try to, thinking that they are fighting under the old conditions, and they will learn such a lession that they will abandon the attempt forever. Then, instead of war fought out to the bitter end in a series of decisive battles, we shall have as a substitute a long period of continually increasing strain upon the resources of the combatants. The war, instead of being a hand-to-hand contest, in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate, in which neither army being willing to get at the other, both armies will be maintained in opposition to each other, threatening the other, but never being able to deliver a final and decisive attack… That is the future of war – not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the breakup of the whole social organization… Everybody will be entrenched in the next war. It will be a great war of entrenchments. The spade will be as indispensable to the soldier as his rifle… All wars will of necessity partake of the character of siege operations… soldiers may fight as they please; the ultimate decision is in the hand of famine… Unless you have a supreme navy, it is not worthwhile having one at all, and a navy that is not supreme is only a hostage in the hands of the Power whose fleet is supreme.

This is, of course, a pretty accurate prevision of WW1. It was a stalemate of artillery and entrenchments. The German home front collapsed in late 1918 in large part as a result of dearth resulting from being cut off from global food imports and the requisitioning of the chemical fertilizer industries for munitions production. And the Kaiserliche Marine was indeed bottled up in port for most of the war. To further demonstrate Bloch’s predictive genius, I will quote from Niall Ferguson’s summary of his book in The Pity of War.

In Is War Now Impossible? (1899), the abridged and somewhat mistitled English version of his massive six-volume study, the Warsaw financier Ivan Stanislavovich Bloch argued that, for three reasons, a major European war would be unprecedented in its scale and destructiveness. Firstly, military technology had transformed the nature of warfare in a war that ruled out swift victory for an attacker. “The day of the bayonet [was] over“; cavalry charges were too obsolete. Thanks to the increased rapidity and accuracy of rifle fire, the introduction of smokeless powder, the increased penetration of bullets and the greater range and power of the breech-loading cannon, traditional set-piece would not occur. Instead of hand-to-hand combat, men in the open would “simply fall and die without either seeing or hearing anything“. For this reason, “the next war… [would] be a great war of entrenchments“. According to Bloch’s meticulous calculations, a hundred men in a trench would be able to kill an attacking force up to four times as numerous, as the latter attempted to cross a 300-yard wide “fire zone“. Secondly, the increase in the size of European armies meant that any war would involve as many as ten million men, with fighting “spread over an enormous front”. Thus, although there would be very high rates of mortality (especially among officers), “the next war [would] be a long war“. Thirdly, and consequently, economic factors would be “the dominant and decisive elements in the matter”. War would mean:

entire dislocation of all industry and severing of all the sources of supply… the future of war [is] not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the break-up of the whole social organization.

The disruption of trade would badly affect food supply in those countries reliant on imported grain and other foodstuffs. The machinery of distribution would also be disrupted. There would be colossal financial burdens, labour shortages and, finally, social instability.

He pretty much nails it! Now yes, Bloch wasn’t 100% spot on. He was slightly wrong about alliances. His was wrong in his conjecture that “the city dweller is by no means as capable of lying out at nights in damp and exposed conditions as the peasant”, which coupled with her agricultural self-sufficiency, would give Russia the advantage in a war with “more highly organized” Germany. And most of all, he was wrong in predicting that social instability and revolution would doom all the belligerent states – after all, the key war objective would only be to remain the last man standing.

Pyotr Durnovo

While reading Secular Cycles by Turchin & Nefedov, I came across a reference to a truly, remarkably prophetic document called the Durnovo Memorandum. It was penned by Pyotr Durnovo, a member of the State Council and former Minister of the Interior in Witte’s cabinet, and presented to the Tsar in February 1914. A conservative Russian nationalist, he emphasized that it was not in Russia’s interest to fight a costly and uncertain war with fellow monarchy Germany, a war he saw as only serving to further Albion’s aims. His fears were all astoundingly prescient and eventually, tragically realized. More than anything, this discovery spurred me to write this post.

After digging around I found that Douglas Muir had already written about it in History: The Durnovo Memorandum at A Fistful of Euros. It is an excellent summary and analysis, and I recommend you go over and read it in its entirety. In this section, I will liberally quote and paraphrase Doug’s post.

Under what conditions will this clash occur and what will be its probable consequences? The fundamental groupings in a future war are self-evident: Russia, France, and England, on the one side, with Germany, Austria, and Turkey, on the other.

Italy, if she has any conception of her real interests, will not join the German side. … [Romania] will remain neutral until the scales of fortune favor one or another side. Then, animated by normal political self-interest, she will attach herself to the victors, to be rewarded at the expense of either Russia or Austria. Of the other Balkan States, Serbia and Montenegro will unquestionably join the side opposing Austria, while Bulgaria and Albania (if by that time they have not yet formed at least the embryo of a State) will take their stand against the Serbian side. Greece will in all probability remain neutral…

Both America and Japan–the former fundamentally, and the latter by virtue of her present political orientation–are hostile to Germany, and there is no reason to expect them to act on the German side. … Indeed, it is possible that America or Japan may join the anti-German side…

Right off the bat, in February 1914, Durnovo correctly sketches out the WW1 alliance system, despite that “Italy was still officially allied with Germany and Austria, Ottoman Turkey was firmly neutral, and Romania was ruled by a Hohenzollern”.

Are we prepared for so stubborn a war as the future war of the European nations will undoubtedly become? This question we must answer, without evasion, in the negative… [T]here are substantial shortcomings in the organization of our defenses.

In this regard we must note, first of all, the insufficiency of our war supplies… the supply schedules are still far from being executed, owing to the low productivity of our factories. This insufficiency of munitions is the more significant since, in the embryonic condition of our industries, we shall, during the war, have no opportunity to make up the revealed shortage by our own efforts, and the closing of the Baltic as well as the Black Sea will prevent the importation from abroad of the defense materials which we lack.

Another circumstance unfavorable to our defense is its far too great dependence, generally speaking, upon foreign industry, a fact which, in connection with the above noted interruption of more or less convenient communications with abroad, will create a series of obstacles difficult to overcome. The quantity of our heavy artillery, the importance of which was demonstrated in the Japanese War, is far too inadequate, and there are few machine guns

The network of strategic railways is inadequate. The railways possess a rolling stock sufficient, perhaps, for normal traffic, but not commensurate with the colossal demands which will be made upon them in the event of a European war. Lastly, it should not be forgotten that the impending war will be fought among the most civilized and technically most advanced nations. Every previous war has invariably been followed by something new in the realm of military technique, but the technical backwardness of our industries does not create favorable conditions for our adoption of the new inventions. …

[A] war will necessitate expenditures which are beyond Russia’s limited financial means. We shall have to obtain credit from allied and neutral countries, but this will not be granted gratuitously. As to what will happen if the war should end disastrously for us, I do not wish to discuss now. The financial and economic consequences of defeat can be neither calculated nor foreseen, and will undoubtedly spell the total ruin of our entire national economy.

“Bang, bang, bang: too few heavy guns, not enough munitions production, inadequate rail network and rolling stock, too much reliance on imports, financial weakness. Durnovo doesn’t identify every problem Russia would have, but he’s hit about half of the top ten.” In particular, I was impressed with his negative assessment of Russia’s railways (which would break down later in the war resulting in food riots in the cities) and his gloomy perspective on the productivity and innovation potential of Russia’s military industrial complex. Obviously, he leaves out a set of other crucial factors – the administrative and political failings of the Russian state itself (the corruption and incompetence of many Russian ministers like Sukhomlinov, the personal foibles of the Tsar and the malignant influence of court lackeys, etc). Whether this omission was due to political considerations or Durnovo’s own blind-sidedness as a conservative stalwart is open to interpretation.

If the war ends in victory, the putting down of the Socialist movement will not offer any insurmountable obstacles. There will be agrarian troubles, as a result of agitation for compensating the soldiers with additional land allotments; there will be labor troubles during the transition from the probably increased wages of war time to normal schedules; and this, it is to be hoped, will be all, so long as the wave of the German social revolution has not reached us. But in the event of defeat, the possibility of which in a struggle with a foe like Germany cannot be overlooked, social revolution in its most extreme form is inevitable.

As has already been said, the trouble will start with the blaming of the Government for all disasters. In the legislative institutions a bitter campaign against the Government will begin, followed by revolutionary agitations throughout the country, with Socialist slogans, capable of arousing and rallying the masses, beginning with the division of the land and succeeded by a division of all valuables and property. The defeated army, having lost its most dependable men, and carried away by the tide of primitive peasant desire for land, will find itself too demoralized to serve as a bulwark of law and order. The legislative institutions and the intellectual opposition parties, lacking real authority in the eyes of the people, will be powerless to stem the popular tide, aroused by themselves, and Russia will be flung into hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen. …

No matter how strange it may appear at first sight, considering the extraordinary poise of the German character, Germany, likewise, is destined to suffer, in case of defeat, no lesser social upheavals. The effect of a disastrous war upon the population will be too severe not to bring to the surface destructive tendencies, now deeply hidden. … there will be a revival of the hitherto concealed separatist tendencies in southern Germany, and the hidden antagonism of Bavaria to domination by Prussia will emerge in all its intensity.

Things went, as they say, to the letter. Not only does Durnovo seriously entertain the prospect of Russia’s defeat, but he spells out its consequences with an almost eerie accuracy. The Empire was indeed wracked by social revolution, as the railway system and food supply system began to disintegrate by late 1916 and popular resentment against the government was inflamed by court scandals. The soldiers in St.-Petersburg in February 1917, many of them recently drafted peasants who did not want to fight for a regime under which they were non-propertied and disenfranchised, would join the workers demonstrating for bread instead of dispersing them. Within another year, Russia was wracked by total anarchy. Likewise, following its defeat, Germany experienced political fissures between the far right and the far left, and even saw the emergence of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. If one were very generous, Durnovo’s mention of “destructive tendencies” could even be said to have hinted at the coming of Nazism.

“Durnovo glosses over a lot, and gets some details wrong. His contempt for intellectuals and the Duma is very clear in the last part of the memo, and it leads him down a couple of dead ends. But he’s so right about so many things that picking out his errors is really quibbling. In the last hundred years of European history, I’m not aware of any document that makes so many predictions, of such importance, so correctly. And I’m astonished that it doesn’t get more attention from western historians.”

The German General Staff

This is not to say that all European armies were infatuated with the offensive and the bayonet. In particular, certain thinkers from the elite German General Staff stand out for their prescience. They feared that rapid Franco-Russian military modernization meant Germany had to plan for a two-front war of attrition instead of a rapid, one-front campaign of annihilation. Thus Moltke the Elder foresaw that the convergence of social and technological trends would make the Prussian tradition of ‘total force applied in limited ways for limited objectives’ obsolete, or in his last Reichstag speech of 1890, that the “age of cabinet war” would have to give way to “people’s war”.

His disciple Colmar von der Goltz had expounded on these views in his influential book Das Volk in Waffen back in 1883, which advocated the mobilization of all human and material resources under firm military rule for the duration of the war. (Although, unlike Bloch or Engels he did not cover the impact on the civilian role in much detail, e.g. how to feed the population or maintain industrial production – on which total war would make unprecedented demands – under harsh conditions of blockade). Köpke , the Quartermaster of the General Staff, wrote in 1895: “Even with the most offensive spirit…nothing more can be achieved than a tedious and bloody crawling forward step by step here and there by way of an ordinary attack in siege style – in order to slowly win some advantages”.

Yet for all the brilliant foresight of a few members of the German General Staff, as a body it institutionalized the military philosophy of the past. The best proof is its fixation on the Schlieffen Plan, described by B.H. Liddell Hart as a “conception of Napoleonic boldness”, which aimed to knock out France early in the war so that Germany would not have to confront the geo-strategic horror of waging a two-front war against the Entente Cordiale. But while it may have worked a decade or two before WW1, by 1914 it suffered from a host of unwarranted assumptions that made its success highly uncertain – e.g., a lack of effective Belgian resistance, a slow Russian mobilization, the ineffectiveness of the British Expeditionary Force, and underestimation of French logistical capacities and overestimation of their own. So even an institution as brilliant as the German General Staff was trapped between the Scylla of past experience and the Charybdis of new technologies; they were just somewhat more aware of this trap than the other European armies.

What’s the point of this post? It is really a confluence of several interests – the history of World War One, history in general, and futurism. It might not challenge any existing “narrative”, but I do think it adds a bit of richness to the subject, and reinforces the theme that sometimes the “conventional wisdom” (among both masses and elites) can be very, very wrong, and only recognized as so by a few pundits coming from surprisingly varied, even opposed, ideological positions.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Realism has been falling out of favor since the end of the Cold War, condemned by the Kumbaya crowd, avoided by the liberal, PC-gone-wild intelligentsia, and denigrated by “end of history” ideologues (many of whom all too cynically remain realists while cloaking it under the mantle of “liberal interventionism”). What they all have in common is a denial of reality – denial of basic human psychology, and the inevitability of its transmutation onto the level of inter-state relations. Let’s look at this through the prism of human violence throughout history.

Imagine living in a society in a near-constant state of war, both within and without. A society where you lose 0.5% of your population to violence every year, a rate which would translate to 2bn war deaths during the 21st century. As a man, you are constantly mobilized for fighting and your chances of meeting a violent end are roughly equivalent to that of a French man during World War One or a Russian during the Great Patriotic War – throughout your entire life. Overall there is a 15-60% chance you will die by the club, spear or arrow. Doesn’t sound like a great deal, right? But such was human reality for the vast majority of its history, “noble savage” myths to the contrary. Quoting Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization:

The high war death rates among most nonstate societies are obviously the result of several features of primitive warfare: the prevalence of wars, the high proportion of tribesmen who face combat, the cumulative effects of frequent but low-casualty battles, the unmitigated deadliness and very high frequency of raids, the catastrophic mortalities inflicted in general massacres, the customary killing of all adult males, and the often atrocious treatment of women and children. For these reasons, a member of a typical tribal society, especially a male, had a far higher probability of dying “by the sword” than a citizen of an average modern state.

Below is a chart illustrating the vast gulf between the natural violence of man in the “natural state” (two meanings) and the artificial / coercive violence embodied in the “civilized” state.

This was total war on a scale even technological totalitarianisms had difficulties recreating. The constant prevalence of warfare in human prehistory also made a huge impact on society in terms of language (“…That language has evolved to be parochial, not universal, is surely no accident…Given the incessant warfare between early human groups, a highly variable language would have served to exclude outsiders and to identify strangers the moment they opened their mouths.”) and even psychological traits like altruism.

As if this wasn’t enough, tribal societies are also very violent internally, with homicide rates a full two orders of magnitude above those seen in modern industrialized nations like the US today (5.8 / 100,000). Typical homicide rates ranged from 165.9 / 100,000 for the Yanomamo of Brazil (1970-74) to the 778 / 100,000 of the Hewa of New Guinea (1959-68). As described by one of the first visitors to the New Guinea Highlands, Kenneth Read:

Both men and women are volatile, prone to quarreling and quick to take offense at a suspected slight or injury. They are jealous of their reputations, and an undercurrent of tension, even latent animosity, accompanies many interpersonal relationships. Dominance and submission, rivalry and coercion are constantly reccuring themes, and although the people are not lacking in the gentler virtues, there is an unmistakable aggressive tone to life.

Homicide rates fell somewhat by the time of the Middle Ages, though at 20-100 / 100,000 per year medieval societies were still far more violent than most countries today. (Again, images of bucolic Christian idyll to the contrary).

[Historical homicide rates in Germany and Switzerland (log scale) on vertical axis. Note the uptick in the 14th century, which corresponds to the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages].

Folks of all social classes carried knives with them (for eating) and were quick to perceive insults, at which point they summoned the help of their kin, servants and friends to deal with the offender (most murders were collective). Though medieval and early modern punishments, when they happened, tended to be brutal, public and excruciating by modern standards, they mostly focused on transgressions against the community and the sovereign – from larceny & theft to high treason.

As Norbert Elias wrote in his history of manners, which attempted to explain the gradual pacification of European societies over the centuries, “fear reigned everywhere; one had to be on one’s guard all the time… The majority of the secular ruling class of the Middle Ages led the life of leaders of armed bands”. So if that was how the elites behaved, not much hope for constraining the traditional (violent) ways of life of the peasants. Homicide was not treated as a particularly fell crime and conviction rates were much lower for it than for property crimes. Society only hanged those convicted of murder who were perceived to be outcasts. In most cases they were pardoned or suffered a lesser punishment, because the circumstances were held to warrant their homicide (e.g. defense of honor).

The culture of violence only really came to be suppressed by the power of the emerging, centralizing monarchies from the 15th century, which more-and-more effectively claimed a monopoly on violence as one of their core prerogatives (as well as a monopoly on issuing money and tax collection). The power of coercion, to punish and discipline, passed from the community to the state as part of the overarching transition to modernity begun in the late Middle Ages.

* Trying to explain differences between homicide rates today in different countries is interesting, but is not directly related to the main thrust of this post, and is relegated to the end.

But states themselves are run by humans (e.g. with the same basic psychological attributes of primitive warriors), who have found it useful to repress small-scale violence by coercion and territorial integration, but nonetheless feel it necessary to maintain a more traditional perspective in an arena where older arrangements, that is, anarchy (the state of nature), still prevails – international relations. Almost all modernization efforts from the early modern period to today were driven by the fiscal-military imperative of building taxable (or controllable) means of manning, equipping and supporting the military forces that are the last and truest guarantors of state security from the predations of other states.

Whether you think the world state system today resembles more an inter-tribal state of nature (constant risk of bloody warfare) or a medieval-like community based on clan ties and largely separate from the state (need to conform for safety and always risk offending another member by a perceived slight into violence against you – and if he does, then the community is not certain to be on your side, or may even take the side of your attacker), it is certainly not an “end of history” utopia** where you can afford to sing Kumbaya as your lullaby and slip away into the progressive pieties of the warm glow of common humanity. Welcome to the real world, in which said humanity – most of which still identifies itself by tribe, nation and faith – will make sure you never wake up.

So here are the lessons and suggestions for further discussion:

  1. Though I call prehistoric peoples with a low material & technological level “primitive” and “violent” (which they are – by our standards), I do not consider them evil or even inferior to modern “civilization” – that would be quite illogical, consider that our understandings of “good and evil” are quite foreign to them, whereas “inferiority” implies measurement by one’s own yardstick. Instead, I go by Trubetzkoy’s moral relativism as to “the equal worth and qualitative incommensurability of the cultures and peoples on this earth”.
  2. The concept that violence is our reality – and perhaps the most basic human commonality of all – is one of the major wellsprings of my geopolitical analysis, and I make no apologies for this.
  3. International relations are amoral (not immoral) and profoundly opportunistic. State security should always be (and usually is by wise leaders) prioritized in an optimal way – focus on power maximization, but not so overtly or arrogantly as to alienate the conformist “international community”. Applied to today’s world, act realistic while paying lip service to the tired tropes of liberalism and idealism.
  4. At times, this will have to include the sacrifice of internal liberties (economic, political and social) to guarantee the retention of greater liberties – foremost, sovereignty – from other Powers. The optimal balance between cooperation and coercion, both internal and external, varies between countries. It is logical for nations under intense geopolitical pressure like Israel, Russia or Iran to institute a greater degree of coercion within and aggressiveness without; geopolitically secure nations like the US can afford a greater degree of leeway.
  5. Assuming a medieval-era society is an acceptable model for the international system, note the spike in homicides during the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages recorded in almost every European region. This was a time of resource shortages (deforestation), famine and the Black Plague, i.e. a Malthusian crisis. Similarly, internal warfare – inter-tribal raids in primitive spaces and civil war in collapsing empires – spikes during Malthusian crises. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that if the energy-and-environmental crises are not checked and reversed soon – and there is absolutely no indication of that happening – one can expect a similar spike in global violence in the decades ahead. This is expected to manifest itself in resource wars externally and rising crime rates and authoritarianism internally.

Further Notes

* Today, most advanced industrial nations have very low homicide rates, ranging from 0.4 in Japan and 1-2 in most Western European nations to 5.8 in the US (which has pockets of medieval-level violence in many inner-city hoods). Only a few countries have homicide rates much above 20 / 100,000, encompassing mostly Latin American and failed / semi-failed states. Though there is a great deal of concern over violent murders even in extremely quiescent societies like Britain (by historical standards), their prevalence is mostly illusion. On the other hand, in a place like Venezuela, with its homicide rate of 48 / 100,000, the everyday danger from violence is very real (accounting for Venezuelans’ life expectancy, this roughly translate into a 1/30 lifetime risk of dying by the bullet, and would be translate into prestate-era rates in some barrios).

To a great extent, many of the differences in homicide rates between different nations today are the result of deeply-ingrained cultural legacies. For instance, why is the US so much more violent (typical homicide rates 5-10 / 100,000) than Western Europe (1-2 / 100,000)? Eric Monkonnen suggests America’s exceptionalism may have something to do with the historical weakness of the US state relative to its European peers:

There is no direct comparison, but arrest, prosecution, and punishment would appear to have been much more likely and much harsher in England than in the United States, at least until the mid-nineteenth century. Vic Gatrell’s study of English executions, The Hanging Tree, is chilling. In the waning years of capital punishment, 1805–1832, more than 2,000 people were publicly hanged; only 20 percent of those were for murder. Those numbers—about 75 a year—were down from an estimated 140 per year for 1770–1805, and even more dramatically down from 75,000 executions in the century between 1630 and 1730. In the United States, Watt Espy’s research suggests about 800 executions for 1770–1805, and 840 for 1805–1832. The execution rates per capita would be about 20 percent higher for England, and this crude estimate ignores the much lower crime and homicide rates there. In addition, we often forget that transportation loomed as a terrifying alternative for English felons. However, an English criminal would have found life easy in the American colonies and the young United States.

We can directly examine the figures on homicides and executions in New York City from 1800 to 1950, and the record shows that there is no statistical relationship between the two rates. In the nineteenth century, in slightly more than half of the years there were no executions in New York City, but there were plenty of murders. Very few New Yorkers were executed in that century—maybe 82 of some 3,400 murderers, less than 3 percent. Such a low rate of executions may seem surprising, but even today, the rate of executions for murder in the execution-prone state of Texas ranges from .1 to 1.3 percent. Even the dimmest murderer may not worry too much about capital punishment.

Combined with Americans’ different mentality from Europeans – they put a much greater stress on older values of individualistic, rugged, manly asperity and honor; as well as pockets of distinctly pre-modern social attitudes seen amongst “ghetto” communities (based on “respect”, turf wars, etc) – and it’s not surprising its homicide rates are much higher than in Europe. And although the US managed to substantially reduce it’s homicide rates from the highs of the 1980′s, this was most likely due to its record-breaking achievements in raising incarceration rates than any kind of cultural shift.

(Though some would argue that guns are responsible for the higher American murder rates, this is a vacuous argument I will not bother debunking here).

Russia’s homicide rate is a lot higher even than America’s (around 16.5 / 100,000), nor is it a recent phenomenon born of “transition shock”. Soviet propaganda to the contrary, socialist Russia had a higher homicide rate than the US for the vast majority of the post-Stalin period, despite the relative severity of Soviet laws. Partly this was due to Russia’s traditional proclivities towards excessive alcohol consumption, but also partly due to the fact that by the time industrialization came to Russia in the late 19th C it was still, in a sense, a medieval society – very violent, community- and kin-based, and very touchy on matters of respect / social status (see Figes’ unflattering description of pre-revolutionary Russian village life in A People’s Tragedy). A century of state coercion did not break its embedded medieval cultural traditions, and through its arbitrary nature perhaps even reinforced them.

** Granted, there are some improvements. Modern leaders tend to be more rational than the prestige-obsessed “big men” presiding over primitive societies, and most do not react to slights with the same zeal or violence. Another factor is that in relative terms, war has become less demographically damaging in modern times. In primitive societies, because political units were very small and dispersed, the “bloody borders” between states were much longer in aggregate, whereas the borders between today’s big states may sometimes get very bloody very fast, but there are much fewer of them. [A metaphor for primitive war would be a thousand gashes continually inflicted over humanity's body all the time, whereas modern warfare (WW1-style) would be infrequent maulings with an ax]. On the other hand, the advent of missile / nuclear weapons and post-2nd generation warfare has married the technological destructiveness of modern war with the totality of primitive war.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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The classic Marxist argument holds than an emerging bourgeois class, its wealth based on commerce, industry and capital accumulation, was constrained and frustrated in its political ambitions by the nobility. France was divided into Three Estates, the Third Estate which bore the taille (the main direct tax), the nobility (subject only to the capitation poll tax and viengtième) and the clergy (only required to donate a pre-negotiated don gratuit). The ‘privileged’ orders maintained monopolies, held the right to collect the tithe or seigniorial dues and enjoyed many exemptions, e.g. on military service, the corveé and most taxes. L.S. Mercier in his Tableau de Paris succinctly summed up the many grievances against the aristocracy – “The castles…possess misused rights of hunting, fishing and cutting wood…[and] conceal those haughty gentlemen who separate themselves effectively from the human race…who add their own taxes…beg eternally for pensions and places…[and] will not allow the common people to have either promotion or reward”. The last point was expounded on by the Abbé Sieyès, in the heady atmosphere of 1789, when he wrote, “All the branches of the executive have been taken over by the caste that monopolizes the Church, the judiciary and the army. A spirit of fellowship leads the nobles to favor one another over the rest of the nation”. These illustrated the main complaints of the Third Estate against the nobility – they were perceived as venal, reactionary and parasitic, a foreign blot on the French nation.

Yet the above view that 18th century France saw the bourgeoisie superseding the old nobility economically but being frustrated in their social ambitions by them is a flawed and simplistic narrative. The arguments of the revisionist school, which challenged the French Marxist interpretation of the Revolution as the replacement of the nobility by the bourgeoisie as the dominant class, are many and covering all major revisionist historians (Cobban, Taylor, Doyle, etc) is futile in an essay of such length. However, Schama’s Citizens encompasses their arguments in one book, albeit one we have to treat with caution due to its constant and unwarranted bias against the revolutionaries, harkening back to historical dramatizers like Carlyle, Dickens and Baroness Orkzy.

In a nutshell, Citizens considers the old regime to have been surprisingly modern – progressive, prospering, addicted to science and change. Old-style feudalism was supposedly already pretty much vanished from the countryside – most dues were equivalent to money rents. French state-funded pure science was the equal of any in Europe and was translated into many useful applications, particularly in military technology. Economic growth proceeded at 1.9% per annum in the late 18th century, a rate only matched during the era of the Empire and its artificial Continental System. Transport (from 1760 to 1780 travel times by coach from Paris to Bordeaux fell from fourteen to five days), communications and trade) were developing rapidly, unifying the French market. Industry burgeoned, growing at an impressive average of 3.8% per annum from the 1760′s to the Revolution) and was the most developed in Europe outside Britain. Growing literacy and the rise of a public opinion fueled an explosion in newspapers, pamphlets and encyclopedias.

Also incorporated is Doyle’s insight that by the late 18th century, nobility could be easily bought (France had 120,000 nobles in 1789, an order of magnitude greater than in Britain) and that the late ancien régime underwent fusion between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. While officially engagement in commercial activities was to be punished by derogation, in practice France’s leading industrialists were also nobles – for instance, the Duc d’Orléons, the King’s own brother, owned glass-works at Cotteret and textile plants at Montargis and Orléons. Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely. Moreover, the biggest frictions were not between the commercial bourgeoisie and nobles, but between different sections of the nobility – the usually successful urban nobles of Paris and the booming peripheral cities like Lyons, Marseilles, Bordeaux and Nantes, and the rural gentry, which comprised 40% of the noble population and frequently had nothing to distinguish themselves from the commoners around them than by their titles, and thus had the most to fear from a loss of privileges. This was the main reason behind the 1781 Ségur Law, which limited sales of military ranks to the old nobility and was primarily aimed against the recently ennobled nouveau riche. Furthermore, there is evidence that even the more ordinary bourgeoisie (which number some 2.3mn souls on the eve of the Revolution) admired and aspired to nobility – for instance, in December 1788 the lawyers of Nuits declared, “The privileges of the nobility are truly their property. We will respect them all the more because we are not excluded from them…why, then, suppose that we think of destroying the source of emulation which guides our labors?” For every corrupt and unpopular intendant there would be a progressive like Saint-Sauveur in Languedoc, who applied science to solve economic and public health problems in his province. To quote Schama in extenso, assuming modernity to be a “world in which capital replaces customs as arbiter of social values, where professionals rather than amateurs run the institutions of law and government, and where commerce and industry rather than land lead economic growth”, the “great period of change was not the Revolution but the late eighteenth century”.

So instead of being a class war between bourgeoisie and nobility, there is evidence that it was ideas, a reaction against this brave new world of ‘money and death’, that generated the Revolution. This new social phenomenon was based on several sources – foremost, philosophy and reviving interest in antiquity, all reinforced by the decline of absolutism throughout the eighteenth century and the rapid spread of literacy. Louis-Philippe, the Comte de Ségur, recalled in 1826 – “We were inclined to surrender whole-heartedly to the philosophical doctrines put forwards by men of letters…we took secret pleasure in the fact that these men attacked the old edifice that seemed to us to be so Gothic and ridiculous. Censorship in the last decades of the ancien régime was relatively light and forbidden books and pamphlets could be bought even near the entrance to the Palace of Versailles, where they found willing customers amongst the aristocrats and courtiers who as often as not were the subjects of their vitriol and ridicule. Rousseau captivated people with his aspiration to candidness, simplicity and Virtue; Voltaire criticized the bloated upper hierarchy of the Church; Montesquieu proposed the division of government into the legislative, executive and judicial branch, replacing the old feudal system of the Estates. In general invective was directed against the system of monarchical rule – writing the Rights of Man in 1791, Tom Paine summarized these sentiments by stating that “what is called the splendor of a throne is no other than the corruption of the state, which “indiscriminately admits every species of character to the same authority”.

A renewed interest in the ancient world stirred ascetic Roman ideals of asperity, simplicity and readiness to sacrifice, as exemplified by the tale of the Horatii (which inspired the famous David painting, Oath of the Horatii). Modern manifestations of the Roman ideal were seized upon, as illustrated by the emergence of patriot citizen heroes during the French involvement in the American Revolutionary War (against a monarchy!) – e.g. du Couëdic, a ship commander who became a patriot hero after his Pyrrhic victory over a British frigate in which he was mortally wounded and his sloop practically destroyed. And finally there was the reflection of these ideas in the popular culture of the time – plays caricaturing the privileged orders (e.g. The Marriage of Figaro), David’s paintings and the polemics of folks like Mercier and Linguet. Thus as we can there was more to the background of the Revolution that social and economic turbulence – also playing a great rule were new ideas like equality of opportunity, the virtues of simplicity and patriotism, and a return to an imagined past while being propelled forwards technologically – as gushingly envisioned in Condorcet’s futurist writings.

The other side of the Marxist argument is that, in Albert Soboul’s words, “The French Revolution was the crowning achievement of a long economic and social evolution that made the bourgeoisie the master of the world”. He has a point regarding his evaluation of the Revolution’s lasting legacy – in particular, that of its Constituent Assembly. The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) was the foundation for civil equality – Clause 2 states, “These [natural and inalienable] are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression”. Guilds and price controls were abolished and the Le Chapelier Law (1791) prohibited workers’ associations. That said, many of the liberal reforms of that era were simply a continuation of previous royal policies. The main Revolution-inspired tax, a common one on land and movables, had precedents in Calonne’s reform proposals of 1786 and free trade was in favor from Turgot to the Eden Treaty. The removal of internal customs barriers and the emancipation of Protestants both happened in 1786 under the ancien régime.

The Revolution opened up careers to talent, which could only favor the bourgeoisie since urban workers and peasants did not have the educational opportunities to exploit this. However, in the short term, because of the Revolution’s distrust of professional associations (links to old regime corporatism and privilege), medicine and law were “thrown open to the market, with minimal qualifications required”, resulting in “revolutionary France being a happy hunting ground for quacks and charlatans”. Afterwards, the militarized bureaucracy that was the Napoleonic state employed 250,000 officials, five times more than the old regime and about 10% of the entire bourgeoisie, who even enjoyed the rudiments of a contributory pension system. The army was very successful in adapting to the new society, as Napoleon could testify. So the bourgeoisie, as in middle class, gained authority – but what about the other meaning of bourgeois, as in capitalist?

The Revolution affirmed property rights and produced aforementioned pro-capitalist legislation. However, in the short term it was a catastrophe – war and British naval superiority, coupled with revolts in the provinces led to the eclipse of France’s most dynamics economic sector in 1789, overseas trade, as well as the cities that sustained it (Bordeaux, Marseilles, Nantes, etc). Emigration and persecution of the old noble elites caused the collapse of Lyon’s silk industry. Granted, military campaigns and the Continental System created artificial demand for cotton and metallurgy, but these also collapsed following the defeats after 1812. From a long term perspective, the ruling class remained confined to land-owning nobles and bourgeoisie as before, who invested in land rather than industry, especially because of the mass sale of the biens nationaux – for instance, one asked what kind of Frenchman is mad enough “to risk his fortune in a business enterprise…[and not]…one of the confiscated estates”. France had to wait for the railways to really ‘take-off’ into its industrial revolution and its main impact, meanwhile, was in its ideas – nationalism, civil equality, sovereignty and meritocracy, which were born in the last decades of the ancien régime and propagated through Europe by French armies. “The people thought kings were gods upon earth…[now] it’s more difficult to rule the people”, according to Kolokotrones, a Greek brigand and patriot.

Following our analysis of the origins and results of the Revolution – in which we say that although its repercussions did impact somewhat on the social structure, the main motivations seem to have been based on ideas, not class – it’s time to look at course of the Revolution itself. The first and most famous French Revolution was, according to Lefebvre, actually four revolutions. The first was the ‘aristocratic revolt’, which, due to circumstances and Louis XVI’s indecisiveness and assorted gaffes, succeeded in calling up the Estates-General to approve new taxes. However, the privileged Estates’ insistence on the ‘forms of 1614′ transformed the debate – “King, despotism and constitution have become only secondary questions. Now it is war between the Third Estate and the two others”, according to the Abbé Sieyès. Eventually though, faced with deadlock and ominous signs from the government, they joined in common with a doubled Third and took the Tennis Court Oath. The popular revolution stormed the Bastille, took control of Paris and destroyed the capital’s hated customs wall on hearing rumors of a royalist plot to dissolve the National Assembly by force. Meanwhile the peasant revolution destroyed feudalism from below via the widespread burning of seigniorial obligations. The King was forced to back down. With its newfound power, the bourgeoisie used the National Assembly to enact Enlightenment-influenced civil equality reforms.

The above account is not as simply as it might appear. The composition of the Third Estate in the Estates-General of 1789 was actually mostly composed of venal office holders (43%) and lawyers (25%), while only 13% were involved in commercial activities. Furthermore, the Third was actually more conservative than the Second on the vast majority of economic and social issues! Also the Estates were prepared to fuse together into a National Assembly to demand a constitution and afterwards, all (former) orders overwhelmingly supported measured to eradicate privileges (e.g. the August Decrees).

The other major period as regards social interpretations is from the purge of the Girondins in June 1793 to the Thermidorian reaction in July 1794. Now the legacy of this period – the Maxima, forced loans, laws against hoarding, the Vendôme Laws – is certainly not pro-bourgeois under any understanding of the term. According to a variant of the Marxist interpretation, the bourgeois bent over backwards to appease the sans-culottes by implementing economic Terror. In this way war pressures (the levée en masse and its associated release of democratic sentiments), food shortages and radicalization of the clubs (e.g. Cordeliers) was to be sublimated and redirected against the Republic’s foreign enemies.

The problem with this interpretation is the assumption that the sans-culottes had a powerful political identity and goals of their own. They were in fact politically passive. They did not lash out when their champions were destroyed (e.g. Roux imprisoned under the Law of Suspects in September 1793, the Hébertists guillotined for their excessive zeal in March 1794, etc). All their journées during the period – the overthrow of the King, the purge of the Girondins, demands for the Maxima – were in any case supported by a large number of Assembly deputies. Finally, they faded as a political force after Thermidor once the war started going much better, despite the winter of 1794-95 being one of the harshest on record and rampant inflation following the abandonment of the Maxima. This is illustrated by the failed uprisings of Germinal and Prairial. One cause of this is that the “popular societies of the sections rarely numbered more than 400 members”, meaning that only 5% to 10% of Parisians actively participated (and were mainly drawn from artisans and shopkeepers), in contrast to the sectional battalions which numbered around 100,000 men. Thus they were too weak without the support of bourgeois Jacobinism. They defined themselves culturally (not politically) as favoring fraternity, liberty and candidness, and in opposition to the corrupt, superficial ‘aristos’. It wasn’t really a class with common social backgrounds, but rather an intellectual and cultural fad which predated the worker movements of the 19th century, e.g. in its politicized social goals and partial tolerance of a feminist movement.

Although in general the Jacobins shared moderately well-off bourgeois backgrounds, what defined them were their ideas. Robespierre dreamed of a Rousseaun Republic, a Romantic vision of Virtue as absolute end. But “virtue without which terror is harmful and terror which without virtue is impotent” – political Terror was necessary for the preservation of the Republic from its internal enemies and to inculcate virtue. Rationality, incorruptibility, candidness, the Supreme Being were virtue – and those who dared stand against it (Hébertists, dechristianizers, feminists, Enragés, etc) were to be smitten down by the guillotine. Even as the Convention passed Saint-Just’s Vendôme Laws (the transferal of the lands of émigrés to landless French patriots), the deportation of French vagrants to Madagascar was being seriously discussed. Furthermore, it was more about “punishing political crime and rewarding political virtue” than any social consideration, especially considering it “[only appeared] as an appendage to a prolonged denunciation of disloyalty”. The Thermidorian reaction was a grouping of republican moderates intent on ending the Terror, and consequent reprisals against the Terrorists were a matter of vengeance, not class war, since they were almost all bourgeois themselves.

While the Marxist view of the Revolution as a social struggle (transition from feudalism to capitalism) is useful in analyzing social changes between 1789 and 1799, it is bankrupt as an explanation for why tendencies already embedded in ancien régime France erupted so suddenly and violently. It was an unqualified boon only for landed middle-class bourgeoisie who were focused on a career of state service, but was disastrous for those in commerce (at least in the short-term). In general the bigwigs of the nobility retained their positions, and social conditions worsened for the urban poor because of the much reduced influence of the Church, which had been the main system of social support in the old regime. Amazingly, despite population increase, the number of hospitals in 1847 was 42% less than in 1789. However this was in a sense just an acceleration of late 18th century trends, when worker incomes plunged, economic inequality soared and the system was increasingly decried by polemicists like the doom-mongering Mercier. French reality fermented with the intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment to produce a social and above all an intellectual one. It was a revolution primarily inspired and fueled by ideas – not by class conflict.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.