Shitstorming the Bastille

On Saturday night, I wrote a post about a curious argument I’ve noted among a subset of liberal bloggers. On the one hand, they claim Obama is radically constrained (by Congress, the Republicans, etc.); on the other hand, they claim progressive activists and citizens are radically unconstrained. I noted that activists and citizens are far more constrained than Obama and that a chief constraint they face is the federated and decentralized nature of the American state and politics.

At least that’s what I thought my post was about.

I went to sleep, checked in on the blog the next morning, and then went apple-picking with my daughter and some friends in upstate New York. I got back Sunday night to find that I had unleashed a shitstorm on the Twittersphere.  Only it wasn’t about any of the points I note above. It was about a single sentence at the end of my post: “The French took the Bastille in four hours; it took American workers 100 years to get a goddamn weekend.”

That was a sentence I myself had tweeted, but rather than grapple with the point it was making, the twitterati decided to school me in French history. My chief tutor was a young journalist and blogger named Adam Serwer. He’s a sharp writer whose work I’ve been happily following and admiring for about a year, first at the American Prospect and now at Mother Jones. As far as I know, French history is not one of his areas of expertise. But he’s a smart fellow, with a great deal of confidence in his smarts, and so saw fit to instruct me in the basics.

In a series of tweets to me and others, he noted the following (these are reproduced verbatim):

really? the storming of the bastille and the russian revolution are examples of a LACK of institutional barriers? [After my Bastille comment, I had written the following two sentences: “That’s not because American workers are less radical or their leaders less militant; it’s because the levers of political power that ordinary citizens can use here are so diffuse. Radicals in Russia seized a block of Petrograd one day and brought down tsarism the next; their American counterparts have had to labor in every hamlet, county, city, and state to engineer much less dramatic transformations.”]

absolute monarchy = kind of a big institutional obstacle

why is it that it took “hundreds of years” for labor to get a weekend, but prior centuries in Russia and France don’t count?

and yet! 100 years to get a weekend still seems like not a lot of time compared to how long france and russia were autocracies

so just so we’re clear, you understand that French monarchy existed for centuries before the storming of the bastille right?

maybe I misunderstood. It’s just that the guy you’re defending seems to think French monarch was ended in four hours

the historical analogy at the end is really ridiculous.

well thats the other thing. Labor’s results compared to French/Russian revolution also far more desirable

Oh my.  Not since I took Robert Darnton‘s course on 18th century France have I received such an energetic critique of my views on French history. If only Serwer were as close a reader of me or of that history.

If I’m understanding his tweets correctly, Serwer’s objection goes something like this: The French monarchy existed for centuries. That demonstrates not only its absolutism but also its resistance to fundamental challenges from below. It didn’t take the French masses four hours to get rid of the monarchy; it took them four, seven, ten (I’m not sure, for Serwer, what the statute of limitations on feudalism is) centuries—and another century and half to establish anything like a decent democracy. So which country faces the greater institutional obstacles, Serwer asks rhetorically: France or the United States?

Serwer’s objection might have some force if the French people did indeed spend all those centuries organizing for the overthrow of the Old Regime. But they didn’t. (In fact, it’s not clear that when they did finally overthrow the Old Regime that they even knew they were doing that.) I’m not quite sure how one builds a case for the monarchy’s centuries-long resistance to the movement for its overthrow in the absence of any movement for its overthrow, but I’m all ears.

The demand for a shorter day and work week, by contrast, was a consistent and focused demand of American workers—as well as their European counterparts—from about the 1830s onwards. And in 1937, they got it.

One of the reasons the French masses did not work for centuries for the overthrow of what Serwer calls “absolute monarchy” is, as any intro European history student will tell you, that absolutism didn’t come into theory, must less practice, until the 17th century.

(Though my colleague David Troyansky, who’s a French historian, tells me there’s some evidence of a centralizing project, not called absolutism, as early as the 16th century, but it was a negotiated process, involving and incorporating many local players, and hardly a simple imposition from on high.)

Absolutism was a project of early modern theorists like Hobbes and Bodin and Bossuet and of monarchs like Louis XIV, who ruled France from the second half of the seventeenth century through 1715.  A project, not an achievement. For while Louis XIV was more successful at that project than most, his successors in France were not. Who, after all, does Serwer think agreed to convene the Estates General? And why does he think Louis XVI did it? Because he was so strong?

What the early modern monarchs did manage to achieve—and it was, again contra Serwer, fairly late in the game that they achieved it—was to amass the symbols, if not always the substance, of the French state in their person. Against the fractures of feudalism, they provided their subjects with a remarkable lesson in the potency of condensation, of the importance of giving definite shape and centralized form to dispersed modes of power.

So when the revolutionaries in the Estates General set out to act, one of their first orders of business was to convert themselves into a National Assembly. And when the revolutionaries in the street managed to take the person of the king—as well as Paris—captive, they were in a position to act with remarkable dispatch. Not to bring democracy or workers’ rights into being, as Serwer and some of my other readers wrongly assume me to be saying, but to overthrow feudalism.

So, yes, Mr. Serwer, the French did take the Bastille in 4 hours—that is, in fact, true—and when they finally decided to overthrow the Old Regime, they managed to do it fairly quickly. And one of the reasons they were able to do it so quickly is that there was a locus of symbolic power in France, and an imperfectly yet steadily centralizing state apparatus, that provided them with the levers and instruments to achieve that transformation.

In the United States, activists have often wanted but seldom had those levers and instruments. Not for lack of trying: as I’ve argued elsewhere, the entire history of American social movements has been about trying to bring the power of a—often sadly non-existent—centralized state apparatus to bear on private regimes of power (on the plantation, in the family, and in the workplace), to use a decentralized, federated national state to break the back of private autocracies. In the process, these activists have managed, on occasion, to centralize the national state, but only rarely and often imperfectly.

The overwhelming trend has been one of resistance to those attempts.  And the reason that trend has been so successful is that the American state is not nearly as unified or centralized—not by accident or because of the vagaries of history but by constitutional design—as other states.  This kind of programmatic decentralization gives local elites, with all their ideological legitimacy, economic power, and coercive power, an automatic and tremendous advantage. And even when local or state-level activists manage by some small miracle to achieve victory, they are immediately confronted by a sea of hostile forces around them, in nearby states and the federal court system—not to mention federal armies—that often overturn their victories.

So if we simply imagine some of the labor wars in copper country of Colorado, or in West Virginia’s coal country, we see a level of violence and Jacobin ferocity that certainly parallels that of the revolutionary street fighting in Paris.  But what we don’t see is the demonstration effect that revolutionary Paris had throughout the French countryside.  Nor do we see, except rarely, a national state that would be able to take those local victories (more often defeats) and turn them into national achievements.

So that’s why, to bring this all back to where we began, I get a little impatient when liberal bloggers tell citizens and activists, as Matt Yglesias did recently, that activists can “in principle force their way onto the agenda if there [is] enough will and organization.” I believe in will and organization, but as none other than Adam Serwer noted in his response to Yglesias, those activists will often by “thwarted by structural forces beyond their control.” Precisely.

Just a quick shout-out and thanks to David Troyansky and French historian Kieko Matteson, who kindly read through this post and pointed out some errors. Needless to say, any errors that remain are entirely my own.


Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I got notice that Ta-Nehisi Coates, who really kicked off this whole argument, had responded to my original post. It’s kind of a strange response that labors under the belief that I think history is bunk. That belief is apparently evidenced by my question to Coates, “I mean, seriously, do we really need yet another post about Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry for Freedom?” (As one of Coates’s reader correctly notes, the title is actually Battle Cry of Freedom. Oy, I hate making those kinds of errors.)

In response to that question, Coates writes:

The subtext of that critique is that the notion that the stories of the past have no real import on the struggles of the present. Perhaps more generously, addressing history doesn’t really address the struggle. In either case, I disagree.

That’s some subtext. How about we look at the actual text instead? In my post, I noted that Coates doesn’t seem to have a clue about what’s going on in the progressive activist world, and I suggested that rather than expound on a book that’s nearly a quarter-century old,  he should get his facts straight about the present. Personally, I don’t think those two tasks  need be at odds, but since he’s clearly failing at the one, I figured that his (not mine or someone else’s) analysis of the present would, at this point, probably be better enhanced by an accurate picture of that present than by further reading in the past.

I did find it amusing to be accused of indifference to history—my post concludes on a historical comparison and an argument about the historical constraints on American activism, going back to the Founding era—and even a one-second glance at my bio would tell you that I’m a historically trained and oriented political scientist. (The sub-title of my first book is “The History of a Political Idea.”) I guess for Coates that’s the kind of research that needs to fall by the wayside in favor of his forays into the past.

After treating me to a dutiful lecture on the virtues of historical knowledge, Coates concludes thus:

Finally, I think it’s important to be able to intelligently evaluate politicians who enlist the past in their causes, as they so often do. In the matter of hippie-punching, I couldn’t help but notice that Robin agrees. I don’t want to sound ungracious, but I noticed in his agreement, he skipped past the historical foundation and went for the present conclusion. I take that as my failure, as a progressive, to duly emphasize and elucidate the history.


Don’t be so hard on yourself, Mr. Coates. It wasn’t your failure to duly emphasize and elucidate the history that led me to ignore it in favor of what you wrote about the present. It was that I actually happen to already know that history, and felt it wasn’t your rehashing of it, so much as your analysis of the present, that was worthy of remark.


  1. Stephen Zielinski September 19, 2011 at 4:26 pm | #

    A modern functionally differentiated social system is complex to such a degree that even the center of political authority lacks the decisive power to essentially alter itself or even many of the systems related to it. So long as that social system remains integrated — that is, so long as the various system functionally cohere and support one another — even radical reform will be difficult to achieve. Toppling a monarch and a monarchical system should be much easier than radically reforming a modern democracy. Achieving a transition to democracy in an authoritarian system is a feasible and dangerous political project. Yet implementing political reforms that would make the United States a significantly more humane society seems quixotic in comparison.

    A thought experiment: Ralph Nader would have accomplished what had he been elected in 2000? or 2008? I assume his election would have entailed the presence of organized social and political movements which wanted the kind of reforms Nader would have pursued had he been elected.

    My grandly abstract answer: Nader would have likely become our Mitterand (he implements his policies but then opts to save the nation-state through compromise with capital) or, sadly, our Allende (the military assassinates him and saves the nation-state by eliminating reckless political groups and movements).

    The upshot: An integrated modern democracy is a much more formidable foe than an absolute monarchy. And no 18th Century monarch had the police and military powers now in the hands of America’s national-security technocrats.

    Of course, it is possible that the American system disintegrates at some future time. That is hardly impossible. Who, after all, thought the Soviet empire would implode in 1983?

  2. donald September 19, 2011 at 7:07 pm | #

    My impression of TNC (I only read him sporadically) is that he isn’t entirely clear in his own mind where he stands when it comes to criticism of Obama–sometimes he agrees with the criticism and other times he criticizes the critics. You caught him doing the latter, he wasn’t sure what to say in response, so he decided to zero in on one of your throwaway lines and take a heroic stand in defense of the study of history.

    That said, I do like his posts on the Civil War.

  3. Mark September 19, 2011 at 11:17 pm | #

    Coates’ response was interesting. It seemed to me to do nothing more than encourage “the horde” to give him positive reinforcement.Just odd.

    There’s a lot of careerists who are in the business of attacking critics of the President. I don’t think Coates is one of them. Not yet at least.

    As a guy who has worked on campaigns for mainstream dems, I think we pretty much went out of our way to thwart progressive agendas, mostly by just not answering the phones when they called (this was back when it was the DLC folks using the term “progressive” to describe themselves, lol).

    Progressives seem to me to be always on the cusp of throwing away whatever gains they make because the end for them seems to be a takeover of the Democratic party. It’s such a waste, they can just look at how much political capital the Tea partiers are throwing away by trying to remake the Republican party. Tea partiers may have won a few battles here and there but in the end the GOP congress will do as the leadership wants.

  4. E.D. Kain (@erikkain) September 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm | #

    This is very good, Corey. I think it’s generally true that the more tyrannical and rigid a society is, the more brittle it becomes. Hence it is simply much easier to quickly topple a monarchy than it is to topple a modern democratic society. I think bread and circuses play a role as well, though I’m not sure how much of one.

    I also take your point on the tyranny of local elites and the need for a strong central state to provide balance against the local autocrats. But there is a lot of risk when you concentrate power that it will be used for just the opposite purpose, and that it will become itself the brittle, autocratic institution you feared in the first place.

    • Corey Robin September 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm | #

      That’s true. In the American context though the danger has always been in the opposite direction. Or at least the main danger. And unlike a centralized state, those local tyrants — who often have just as much power, if not more, as the state itself (no Bill of Rights against a slaveholder, patriarch, or employer; no separation of powers or federalism in the plantation, the family, or the workplace) — often ply their trade in obscurity, without oversight or scrutiny.

      • E.D. Kain (@erikkain) September 20, 2011 at 2:38 pm | #

        True, and this grows even more problematic when the local autocrats are also “private contractors” with state-sanctioned monopoly rents. The Bastille, only privatized.

  5. Corey Robin September 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm | #

    Erik: You’ve just put your finger on what I call “Fear, American Style,” the way that tyranny is sub-contracted out by the state to the private sector. Both to do the business of the private sector, but even more important, to do the business of state repression. The whole story of McCarthyism is *that* story. Very few people put into prison for political reasons, but anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the workforce investigated, disciplined, and punished for their political views. Far more lethal, it turns out, then the first Red Scare precisely b/c of this arrangement.

  6. Romney February 21, 2013 at 12:07 pm | #

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya and commented:
    Even if you’re not a leftist, this is a pretty interesting take on French and American history, and how they relate to the growth of social movements. .

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