The French Revolution: A Study in Democracy by Nesta Helen Webster, originally published by Constable, London, 1919
All modern politics stems from the French Revolution (1789-1794). Despite apparent differences, the main parties today - whether conservatives, liberals, socialists or Marxists - are its ideological and spiritual heirs. They are products of the Enlightenment; secular (separating politics from religion); claiming to be vehicles for the people or demos; according primacy to economic considerations; and adherents of the sacred mantra of liberty, equality and fraternity. In this article, I will label these tendencies "left-wing". The parties owe something else to their origins too. For all their rhetoric about the public good, they conspire against the public in the interests of narrow, competing factions.
Our world is now run by "petty politicians who, whatever their party affiliations, are often figureheads at the service of financial, industrial or corporate interests... the rootless masses respond only to those who promise material advantages. When striking these chords does not suffice, the only influence over the masses today is on the plane of impassioned and sub-intellectual forces, which lack any stability. These are the forces that demagogues, popular leaders, manipulators of myths and fabricators of public opinion count on. Allegiances shift rapidly and radically, by the sole force of circumstances. One must expect this from every collective current that lacks a dimension of depth - corresponding to the pure demos" (Ride the Tiger, Julius Evola, 2003, Ch 25 'States and Parties', p 173).
The French Revolution was an assault on the traditional concept of sovereignty and political legitimacy. For centuries, kings were seen as sacred persons, representing a higher, transcendent order and not representing the people or society, which comprised a lower, natural order. The revolutionaries inverted this concept, disposing of the sacred element entirely and seeing rulers as delegates (in theory) and manipulators (in practice) of the people.
I shall argue that this Revolution was not a triumph of people power, but rather a case study of left-wing conspiracy, subversion and coup d'état. The techniques used were a model for later left-wing revolutions equally malign: in 1848, in France, Austria and Italy; in 1917 in Russia; in 1911 and 1948 in China; and in Eastern Europe after World War II - not to mention in the Left's "Long March through the Institutions" of the West. On a deeper level, the French Revolution can be seen as the beginning of a regression of the human spirit. Responsible paternalism ordained by Divine Right gave way to the moral vacuum of the fluctuating collective will, in which organized conspiracies flourish.
The popular notion of the French Revolution is of a grass-roots led people's movement for liberty and justice, which may have been stained by excesses, but which was nevertheless beneficial and progressive. As the Revolution was the seedbed for most of the baleful political developments in today's world, it is important that this view be challenged, not just for the sake of historical accuracy but to encourage new forces to counteract it. For a close study of the French Revolution shows it in a different and sinister light.
In 1919, The French Revolution: A Study in Democracy by Nesta Webster was published. Using primary sources (both Royalist and Republican) Webster comprehensively demolishes the positive myth of Revolution. The picture painted by her book is truly shocking. One of my school teachers recommended the book as "the best I have ever read on history". Nearly 20 years on, after many re-readings, I remain fascinated by it.
Webster's core thesis is that the French Revolution was the work of a small minority of conspirators, whose plot ultimately miscarried horribly, leading to most of them dying on the guillotine. The architect of this conspiracy was Louis Philippe Joseph, 5th Duc d'Orleans - who later reinvented himself as "the Citizen Egalité" - a distant kinsman of King Louis XVI. D'Orleans used his considerable wealth and connections to attempt to usurp the throne and become Regent. He had many agents working for the conspiracy, including his Secretary Choderlos de Laclos, an ex-soldier and writer; Mirabeau, a charismatic orator and rather unscrupulous businessman; and an Orleaniste faction in the States-General including the Duc de Biron and Marquis de Sillery.
The Duc d'Orleans was elected Grand Master of the French Freemasons, whilst Mirabeau - on a visit to Berlin - joined a Prussian secret society called the Illuminati, and, on his return, established a Parisian lodge of that Order. Both the Continental Masonic lodges and Illuminati were hotbeds of radical political ideas hostile to religion, conventional morality and the landed aristocracy. The Prussian King Frederick the Great had a cynical interest in destabilising France, a powerful neighbour aligned to Austria-Hungary through Louis XVI's marriage to the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette. Thus, Prussian finance was channelled to d'Orleans. The duke also had personal links with English radicals.
Orleaniste hirelings like the journalist Camille Desmoulins and the lawyer Georges Danton (both to perish during the Reign of Terror) stirred up popular discontent against the Bourbon king. The red, white and blue cockade - the origin of the revolutionary tricolore - happened to be the livery of the Duc d'Orleans. Desmoulins said: "When patriots needed a rallying sign, could they have done better than to choose the colours of the one who first called us to liberty?". When, in Oct 1789, the King's palace of Versailles was invaded by a mob - 398 witnesses testified to an official enquiry that d'Orleans and his supporters were implicated.
Lord Henry Fitzgerald, an English observer in Paris, wrote to the Duke of Leeds on 29 Oct 1789: "In short, my Lord, the general impression is that the Prince (d'Orleans) was chief promoter of all the disturbances... that he aimed at the Regency of the Kingdom for himself and proposed to bring his own party into power". The King sent d'Orleans on a pretend mission to England to get rid of him, but he returned in 1790 to re-enter the fray, bolstered by Prussian finance.
Out of 600,000 to 800,000 Parisians, only a tiny minority supported the revolution. In 1789, about 1,000 people marched on the Bastille, and 8,000 on the Palace of Versailles - mostly people mobilised by the Duc d'Orleans. In 1792, 20,000 people marched on the Tuileries - still a minority and many were neither Parisian nor even French (see below). Speeches by these poor and uneducated working people read strangely - for example, the workers of Saint Antoine were meant to have declared: "Imitate Cicero and Demosthenes and unveil before the whole Senate the perfidious machinations of Catilina!"
In June 1792, the King's palace of the Tuileries was attacked by the Marseillais (Men of Marseilles). Official history records them as "children of the south and of liberty", singing their hymn The Marseillaise (whose composer, Rouget de L'Isle, was imprisoned under the Terror and whose patron, the Mayor of Strasbourg, was guillotined: "thus did the Revolution reward the authors of the Marseillaise."). However, contemporary accounts point out that most of these men were not French.
A deputy of Marseilles, Blanc-Gilli, noted that the port was "the sink of vice for a great portion of the globe, where all the impurities of human nature forgather... the scum of crime, vomited by the prisons of Genoa, of Piedmont, of Sicily, of Spain and of Barbary... the horde of brigands without a country of their own". An eyewitness in Paris, Thiebault, a democrat, said: "I do not think it would be possible to imagine anything more frightful than these 500 madmen, three-quarters of them drunk, nearly all of them in red caps". Behind the Marseillais came "a reluctant rearguard from the Faubourgs led by a German and a Pole" (Westermann and Lazowski). "And this was the French people rising as one man to overthrow the monarchy!"
The situation has a parallel in the Russian Revolution, where most Bolshevik leaders were non-Russians: Poles, Jews, Georgians etc. The use of foreigners to kick-start revolutions and to terrorize local people into acquiescence has always been a major strategy of the Left, perhaps why they are so keen on mass immigration.
Official history records that 47 out of 48 sections of Paris supported a resolution demanding the deposition of the King. But an examination of the registers of the sections shows this to be untrue. Only 14 of the sections supported the resolution and 16 opposed it, the others not voting. In order to hide this, the conspirators resorted to a coup d'état by committee - a strategy used time and again by the Left from Soviet Russia to town halls and trade unions in the United Kingdom. The coup worked as follows: handfuls of delegates were assembled from sections that opposed the coup and met late at night in secret meetings. Hey presto, these sections now supported the coup!
In the words of Mortimer Ternaux: "At the Arsenal (a section opposed to the coup) six people who happen to be in the hall of the Committee name three amongst them to represent 1400 'active citizens' (citizens who had the right to vote). Things happen much the same way at the Louvre, the Observatoire and the Roi de Sicile". Meetings were held at 10 o'clock at night on 9 Aug 1792. The next day, the "Commune" or Conseil Général Révolutionnaire du 10 Août took power and announced that the King was deposed.
The tactic of assassination was refined by anarchists in the 19th Century, but also used during the French Revolution. The Tuileries were defended by a competent officer loyal to the King, the Marquis de Mandat. Accordingly, the new Commune summoned Mandat to give an account of his work in organizing the defences. "But all explanations were useless; Mandat had been sent for to be murdered, not to be judged. Huguenin, now President of the Commune, with a horizontal gesture across his throat, said 'Let him be led away'". On his way down the steps, Mandat was shot in the head by a man employed by Danton. An Orleaniste agent also assassinated a journalist, Suleau, who had boldly produced writings exposing their plot.
Starting with the humane and well-meaning Governor of the Bastille, de Launay, the Royalists were paralysed and ineffectual. "Always, throughout the Revolution, the same unpreparedness, the same hopeless lack of design on the part of the Old Order". De Launay dreaded to shed blood, and only one warning shot was fired from one of the Bastille's 15 cannons, despite cannons being fired by the besiegers. De Launay preferred to parley, whereupon the mob beheaded him. The dungeons of the Bastille were not used, and only seven prisoners were held there: four forgers, two lunatics and the Comte de Solages, imprisoned at the request of his family.
Louis XVI also could not bear to war on his people, ordering the Tuileries garrison to surrender. "The soldiers who had remained at their posts, even the wounded lying helpless on the floors and the doctors bending over them - were barbarously butchered". The mob looted the wine cellars and some became so drunk they died of alcohol poisoning. Servants were slaughtered too. In Montjoie's vivid words: "the cooks' heads fell into the saucepans, where they were preparing the viands".
After the King's judicial murder, the Commune turned on the people. Why did so many go to their deaths without fighting back? "The despotism of the demagogues was organized, while the people were composed of solitary units that could not coalesce". There was a fear of whom to trust. The Left relies on its superior organization to paralyse all opposition. Method has always been its chief strength.
As George Orwell observed in his dystopia, 1984, it is not enough that enemies of society be destroyed - they must go to their deaths utterly discredited even in their own eyes. In Dec 1792, Louis XVI was put on trial on sundry trumped-up charges, including: stockpiling bottles of rum, committing more cruelties than Nero and bathing in human blood. This travesty of justice - the Assembly being both accusers and judges - ended with the King being condemned to death. At her trial in Oct 1793, Marie Antoinette was similarly demonized and even accused of the sexual abuse of her own children, before being executed. Wild accusations and enforced confessions also featured in the Bolshevik Revolution, strongly reminiscent of Mediaeval witchcraft trials.
According to the French penal code, for the Assembly to pronounce a death sentence there needed to be a two thirds majority. "But Danton, shrewdly foreseeing that this majority would not be forthcoming, proposed that the Convention should pass a decree ordaining that a majority of one voice should be sufficient". The Left has become notorious for changing the law, electoral system, constituency boundaries etc to get the result they want. The decree was immediately passed and the King condemned to death by 361 votes to 360 votes. Philippe Egalité announced: "Solely occupied by my duty... I vote for death." When, in late 1793, the Duke himself was out-manoeuvred and ended up on the guillotine, onlookers shouted mockingly "I vote for Death!" and "You voted for the death of your kinsman!". D'Orleans had used too much dynamite; in blowing up the Bourbons he destroyed the throne itself.
Despite being ostensibly democratic, the hard-line Socialist Republicans under Robespierre changed the law in other ways too: banning "coalitions of workmen" (i.e. trade unions), freedom of the press, religious liberty, free speech and being allowed a defence or witnesses during a trial. "Democratic despotism" is no empty phrase but a well-attested reality.
There were certain people the Left could never win over, therefore, in the words of Jean-Paul Marat: "We must give up the Revolution or do away with these men... we must destroy them." By warring against elements of the nation (the Church, independent craftsmen, landed gentry, the educated, people with property or aspirations etc) - mostly on the grounds of class envy - the Left has historically always been a force for division. Marat - described by Webster as "a malignant dwarf" and "homicidal maniac" - was a former Orleaniste fixated with purging society of class enemies. He inspired the Reign of Terror (1793-94), which - like Stalin's War on the Kulaks (rich peasants), Mao's Cultural Revolution or Pol Pot's Killing Fields - devastated many rural provinces. Recalcitrant Royalist areas like the Vendee, Lyons, Normandy, Toulon and Franche-Comte became scenes of horror, with thousands killed in mass drownings, shootings or by the guillotine. Prudhomme estimated just over 1 million deaths in a nation of 25 million. France thereafter ceased to be the most populous nation in Europe.
In Paris, thousands died in a highly "proper", well-organized manner, their names, occupations and crimes carefully recorded in ledgers. In one month, June - July 1794, 1,366 victims were put to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal, staffed by 5 judges, 10 jurymen and the Public Accuser: Fouquier Tinville (a greatly feared individual who was himself destined for the guillotine). Bizarrely, most of the revolutionary leaders were consumed by the killing machine they helped to set up. One faction after another was purged: the atheists Hebert, Clootz and their allies; then the former Orleanistes Danton and Desmoulins; then Robespierre, St Just and Tinville - killed by the Thermidoriens. We are reminded of the bloodletting in Soviet Russia under Stalin, with mass purges of Trotskyites, Left-wing Deviationists, Right-wing Deviationists etc.
With a few exceptions, like Marat (whom Webster described as "an elemental - a materialization of pure evil emanating from the realms of outer darkness") it is hard to see most of the revolutionaries as wicked human beings. Some - the conspirators like the Duc d'Orleans - were basically selfish and greedy, which are reprehensible qualities, but which are also extensions of the normal drive for self-preservation. Some - the idealists - were narrow-minded fanatics, but no doubt well-intentioned and convinced they were building a better world. The "Incorruptible" Robespierre was almost a paragon of the disinterested intellectual.
Psychologists have found that people in a group (particularly if they are wearing uniforms) do things they would never do as individuals. There are many individual criminals, who attack individual victims, but it would seem from an historical perspective that most bloodshed and misery can be attributed to groups acting against other groups. Unlike flawed individual criminals, the people who comprise these groups are generally normal, often compassionate, family-minded, thinking people.
Out of group self-interest they are naturally conspiratorial. Only hierarchy restrains them. In its absence, they will do harm to rival groups, often being influenced by irrational fears and myths, emanating from a herd mentality or collective sub-conscious that takes over their minds. This we could attribute simply to very powerful influences on them - either personal or from popular culture and the media. Alternatively, as Julius Evola argues, we could posit the existence of 'the demos' as a distinct living 'group force' in its own right, although this raises many questions. I am uncertain about the mechanism, but the conclusion must be the same. By taking political power from the King, aristocracy and Church - witnesses to a sacred order higher than man (a divine mystery) - the French Revolution invested this power in the demos - a natural order lower than man, sub-personal, elemental and collective (a demonic mystery). This levelling invited bids for power. Those who incarnated this power then played the role of the Gaderene swine - being possessed by a force which rushed them to destruction.
The French Revolution forms history's classic model of left-wing subversion and coup d'état. It stands condemned on that basis; yet I have come to agree with Nesta Webster's seemingly odd, additional judgement that true powers of darkness lurked beneath the facade.
Nesta Helen Bevan was born in August 1876, the youngest daughter of Robert Bevan, a director of Barclays Bank, and his second wife Emma Shuttleworth, the daughter of Bishop Shuttleworth of Chichester. She grew up in Trent Park, a stately home, and was educated at Westfield College, Hampstead. Nesta Bevan later toured the Far East and met her husband in India, Captain Arthur Webster, who was the Superintendent of the English Police there.
Under her married name of Nesta Webster, she began writing on historical and political topics in her forties. Webster's books were characterised by exhaustive research. The French Revolution was the outcome of three years of study of original primary documents in the British Museum and Bibliotheque Nationale, where she was assisted by the French historian Gaston Maugras.
Nesta Webster died in 1960, and her Times obituarist paid the following tribute to her scholarship:
"Deeper and deeper she sank into the literature of the Revolution, collecting several such rare books as La Bastille Devoilée... She published The French Revolution: a Study in Democracy. At last Carlyle's semi-hysterical rhapsody had been met factually... Like Lord Acton she perceived evidence of design in the tumult and a calculating organization. As she worked from original papers as well as printed sources she claimed to have faulted the great Acton nine times. The First World War together with her Revolutionary studies drew out her fearless Bevan fervour. She turned with confident fury on the possible enemies of England. Three books followed in 10 years: World Revolution: The Plot against Civilisation, Secret Societies and Subversive Movements and finally The Surrender of an Empire. They will be worthy of the attention of unbiased historians."
(The Times, 18 May 1960, p. 17).
Unfortunately, as the Left gained ground in British society and academia, Mrs.Webster became persona non grata. Her personal reputation was lambasted by Richard Thurlow, a professor of Economic History at the University of Sheffield. In his book Fascism in Britain: A History (Blackwell 1987), Thurlow "exposed" Webster for associating with eccentric, fascist-sympathizing grandees in the late 1920s, including Rotha Lintorn-Orman of the British Fascists (BF). She also wrote articles for the right-wing newspaper The Patriot, published by the 8th Duke of Northumberland.
Of course, Thurlow does not do justice to her views in the context in which they were held. The troubled destiny of fascism was not evident in the 1920s and many saw it simply as a bulwark against communism. Nor does Thurlow dwell on Webster's popular lectures to officers of the Royal Artillery, the Brigade of Guards and Britain's Secret Service, who are not known for patronising ill-intentioned subversives.
Webster's scholarly reputation Thurlow slyly attacked as follows. Before writing The French Revolution, Webster wrote an historical romance, The Chevalier de Boufflers - a successful book which ran into 15 editions. Thurlow uses it to suggest that Webster blurred fact and fiction. "She began to form a coherent political ideology based on what she imagined the ancien regime to have been like... the French Revolution came to represent the cause of all the problems of the modern world". From assertion, Thurlow then moves towards a psychological demolition job. Webster's work was criticized by some reviewers and "in retrospect it is clear that the rejection of her work merely deepened her anxiety and revealed the beginnings of a persecution complex". Shades here of Soviet Russia, with dissidents classed as mentally ill on the circular grounds that they hold dissident views. That such people are often persecuted does not mean that the problem lies within themselves in the form of a "complex".
Unlike typical "fascist" writers, Webster (she just cannot win, it seems) is also criticized for being an anti-German bigot. I have been unable to find evidence of this. Webster opposed Prussian expansionism and Pan-German Imperialism, but not the German nation per se, nor even German militarism, which she admired as a sign of discipline and devotion to duty. Her argument was against that blinkered Realpolitik that led to Frederick the Great financing the Orleanistes; Kaiser Wilhelm II facilitating Lenin's entry into Russia in 1917; and the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 (whereupon Webster supported Britain's declaration of war). The use of forces potentially hostile to one's own nation to undermine other nations is a dangerous expedient which can lead to what Evola called the "nemesis" or "rebound effect", as the forces you unleash turn on you. Pointing out that German governments have repeatedly fallen into this trap does not make one anti-German. Nor are they unique in getting their fingers burned: consider the USA's financing of the Afghan mujahideen.
Thurlow argues that the plot theory of The French Revolution "was taken to its logical conclusion in her most notorious work: Secret Societies and Subversive Movements". This he paints as a "highly eccentric" book. "With meticulous footnoting, she now argued that all plots and revolutions in human history" - (an exaggeration) - "had been caused by secret societies, through the use of black magic, mass hypnotism and telepathy". Thurlow's footnote for this assertion is: Secret Societies and Subversive Movements, p 30.
However, readers who are able to turn to that page (or indeed any other page in this book) will find no reference whatever to hypnotism or telepathy. Instead, page 30 contains a discussion of a 2nd Century Gnostic sect, the Carpocratians. Their deification of humanity Webster argued was the precursor of communist ideas of remodelling man. This is not unreasonable and is supported by studies of the intellectual origins of communism by modern experts like Professor Richard Pipes. How dangerous it is to criticize books without apparently having read them! Webster's Secret Societies is in fact a carefully (though not flawlessly) argued thesis, and far from the lunacy Thurlow implies.
The Left have the audacity to dismiss right-wing scholarship as "pseudo-academic", a term I have only ever heard applied to historical theorists like Webster and to heredity studies by well-qualified biologists which show human characteristics to be inborn. Yet, on examination, both positions are very strong and hard to disprove. Doubtless Galileo was criticized as pseudo-academic in his day. For me, Nesta Webster remains the doyenne of history writers at their best, and The French Revolution her sparkling magnum opus.