James Hastings Nichols
What Rousseau and the other theoreticians of equality and human perfectibility had done was to remove all the bonds of inner political discipline. They had taught the mass of people to think that all things were possible in human society, and that everyone has an equal right to them. And since the mass of people seeks chiefly material things, these conceptions were translated into terms of material comfort and power. They did not teach, on the other hand, that sense of responsibility, that respect, that inner acceptance of authority, that readiness to renounce for the good of the whole which give Anglo-Saxon Protestant democracy its substantiality. That is why 'liberalism,' as in Burckhardt's case, was often found opposing 'democracy' in Europe.
Burckhardt returned again and again to this 'terrible intellectual nullity' of radicalism. It could only level, destroy, or dissolve, it could not build. Its only program was greater material comforts for the masses, but it had no services or responsibilities or respect to demand of the citizen. The democrats even lacked respect for their own laws or constitutions, and would toss them aside as soon as some new demagogue or journalist thought up a new public service for the people to claim as a 'right of man.' The result was the 'chief political phenomenon' of the nineteenth century, that all political and social and even religious institutions and relationships were now become 'provisional.' All things now depended on the whims—or manipulation—of public opinion. With the new popular suffrage, public opinion had now taken the place of divine right and tradition as the sanction and authority for all political arrangements.
But that was as much as to say that no political arrangements could again be stable. There was always some group or some interest which could profit by a change, and the reign of public opinion in the style of French egalitarianism meant that everyone was now licensed to demand anything because someone else had it. Such demands could be, and were, pressed with no reference to like or contrary desires of other groups or classes, or to the interests of the community as a whole. Let everyone get what he could, and the devil take the hindmost. Only the tiniest fraction could succeed in rising in the world; the vast majority would only become soured with the lot in which they must still remain and ripe for a political 'saviour.'
One aspect of this process was the gradual lowering of the quality of political leadership. Men of education, tradition, and character were suspected and hated by the traditionless, rootless masses, even if not actually ostracized in Athenian fashion. Burckhardt felt that he was watching in Europe the same degeneration that occurred in Greek democracy where the worse coinage in political leaders quickly drove the better out of circulation. The man of scruples in this kind of politics only has so many weapons the less and his very distinction and abilities can be used to make him unpopular with the masses who understand only mediocrities or men of their own type. By virtue of impossible promises an intelligent and scrupulous man would not make, the journalist and the demagogue ruled in his place, and the trend, Burckhardt felt, was toward the more corrupt types. In the end would come the generals.
All these demands of popular democracy were made of the state, and no one seemed to observe that as the state took over these things, individuals became more dependent on it. If the state ran schools for everyone, then everyone's children would learn what the state wanted to teach them. If the state provided free public baths, free hospitals, old age pensions, and the like, then the state in turn would demand supervision and control of all related matters in the lives of its individual citizens. Burckhardt, in fact, saw a century ago what many liberals are now discovering, that all progress toward a 'social service' state was at the same time loss of individual liberties and initiative, and that the democrats were sacrificing liberalism for—at best—paternalistic control.
And back in the days when there was scarcely a socialist party of note in Europe, Burckhardt foresaw economic socialism as the end of this democratic tendency. When all the other 'rights of the people' had been exploited, and 'envy and greed' encouraged by their success, then would come the turn of personal and family property and wealth. 'I don't fear the evil will come from sudden attacks so much as from gradually increasingly socialistic legislation.'
Socialism and all the rest of the democratic program, however, would certainly some day bow to ruthless military authority. Here was Burckhardt's second great insight into the program of the progressives. He saw that while in their program they were postulating an ever increasingly despotic state to do their errands for them, in fact they were offering this over-developed state machine to any political adventurer bold and ruthless enough to seize and exploit it by force. More or less pacifistic in intention, the democrats were building European military despotism
brick by brick.
This whole process seemed to Burckhardt to be summed up in the paradigm of the French Revolution. It was the logical sequence Rousseau-Napoleon, which in a symbol presented his whole prophecy for the democratic movement of the Continent. Those two personalities represented the two claws of the pincers in which Europe was caught, and their pernicious influence dominated the whole century. The revolt of the masses against authority, and militarism as the only remaining possibility of order-that was the history of the people's revolution on the Continent. We should remember that The Age of the Revolution was Burckhardt's fullest and most influential course, and that it summed up in essence all subsequent history. In 1870 Burckhardt saw himself in the eighty-third year of the Revolution, and 'the worst is yet to come.'