Why history? 9 – Revolutions

In 1765 Watt made a steam engine.  This led to more travel, and the world shrank.  Factories were built.  These required both capital and labour.  The craftsman was on the way out.  Workers were brutally treated.  This was the Industrial Revolution.

The English sought to tax the American colonies without giving them representation.  The Americans reacted to George III as the English had to the Stuarts.  This was the American Revolution.  In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson said that the compact between America and the English Crown had been broken, and that all men were equal.  This was a bare-faced lie because slaves were anything but equal.

The French had supported the American rebels and went broke doing so.  Louis XVI had to convene an ancient assembly to ask for money.  When this process was threatened, the mob stormed the Bastille for arms on 14 July 1789.  This was the start of the French Revolution.  The French king and nobility had not been conditioned to negotiate as they had been in England and they were annihilated.  But the peasants had not been relieved of most of their feudal burdens, as they were now, and the middle class had little experience in government.  There was chaos and a reign of terror.  The way was open for the strong man, but no one could have predicted Napoleon, a military and administrative genius.  Ideals got lost and an emperor replaced the king.  The attempt by Napoleon to force people to be free only ended at Waterloo in 1815.  More than five million had died in wars driven by his ego.  The great poets of the Romantic Revolution – Keats, Shelley, and Byron – had celebrated the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, but Beethoven renounced Napoleon when he became Emperor.  It took France a century to recover.

There were more uprisings and revolutions in 1848.  Garibaldi led the emergence of Italy and Bismarck led the formation of Germany.  Europe at large carved up the continent of Africa while trading in slaves.  Africa still feels the wounds.

It was slavery that led to the American Civil War.  The Southern states depended on it, although it had been declared illegal at common law and trading was outlawed by statute in England.  This was modern war, more lethal than the Napoleonic Wars.  The Americans lost more in it than they have lost in all other wars.  The political genius of Abraham Lincoln saved the union.  At Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The Russian Revolution erupted finally in 1917.  Lenin misapplied Marx’s theory and left the succession to Stalin, a grisly dictator who ruled by terror for decades and killed many, many millions of Russians.  In Asia, Japan was awakened from its slumbers and defeated Russia in a war.  China began to throw out European intruders.

The lot of ordinary people improved in Europe and the U S.  Electricity and the phone improved communal life.  Governments accepted responsibility for education.  Workers formed trade unions.  The goal of socialism was to break down the class system and involve government in distributing wealth and looking after ordinary people – from cradle to grave.  The great novelists – like Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy – threw light on our condition.

One Englishman and three German Jews revolutionised the way we think.  Darwin said that all nature was evolving, that man was descended from the ape, and that only the fittest survived.  The Church went mad; people said God was dead; others wondered who were the fittest.  Karl Marx was an anti-Semitic Jew who never set foot in a factory.  He developed an elaborate theory that said that capitalism would end when the workers took control (the dictatorship of the proletariat), private property was abolished, and we all would live happily ever after.  Religion had failed to impose world order – now it was the turn of the atheist.  Just look at Cuba or North Korea.  Sigmund Freud analysed hysterical women and explored the subconscious of bourgeois Vienna.  He saw sex everywhere, but now the analyst could challenge the priest for the confessional.  Albert Einstein rewrote the laws of physics.  His Theory of Relativity rattled science.  His shattering insights put science beyond our reach – as religion had sought to do – and led to the splitting of the atom.  It looked like the future was here. He died in my tenth year.

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