by Robert Freeman
We may have dodged a bullet in the shutdown/debt limit debacle. But it is worth reflecting on what happens when radicals seize control of government. Examples from history are almost too frightening to fathom. They should give us great pause before we head down that path again.
One of the earliest instances of radicals seizing power and destroying their government was in England in the 1640s. Charles I and Parliament had fallen out on a number of issues. But when the (then-radical) Puritans gained control of Parliament and denied Charles the funds to suppress a rebellion in Ireland, the result was the English Civil Wars.
Thomas Hobbes called them “a war of all against all.” For six years Englishmen fought one another. In the end, Charles, who happened to be a hunchback, lost the Wars and got his head cut off. The House of Lords was abolished. Not to make light of it, but that is origin of the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty.” And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men...
The next historic breakdown as a result of government gridlock came in 1789: the French Revolution. The Bourbon family had ruled France since the late 1500s. To stave off aristocratic challengers, Louis XIII exempted nobles from taxation. The only proviso was that they back the government as it squeezed the politically powerless peasants to make up the lost funds.
But by 1789, the game was run. Two centuries of decadent living, dynastic wars, and avoidance of taxes by those with the means to pay left the government bankrupt. The rich were adamant that they would not pay. The government had no recourse but to call the Estates General to reconceive the nation’s constitution.
But that body hadn’t met for 175 years. It was a different world. The upstart bourgeoisie seized power, and then lost it to the radical Jacobins led by Robespierre. They cut off the king’s head and instituted a Reign of Terror, murdering tens of thousands of political opponents. In 1799, Napoleon pulled a coup d’etat to put an end to the nonsense.
But his reign was hardly a model of peace and probity. He carried out continuous wars to conquer all of Europe until he was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The French Revolution was the most explosive upheaval to established government in the last thousand years. And it started when the government ran out of funds.
The next tectonic eruption from radicals seizing power came during World War I. The Romanovs ruled Russia but it was a grievously antiquated reign, more reminiscent of a medieval dynasty than a modern nation state. It could not stand up to the pounding of the ultra-modern German army.
Order began to break down. Bread riots convulsed the cities. Defections from the front were endemic. Finally, in March 1917, unable to govern, Tsar Nicholas abdicated. For seven months different factions jockeyed for power in a Provisional Government. In October, the Bolsheviks
seized power, literally, by shutting down Moscow. They closed the train stations, the phone switches, the depots, the banks. That was the Russian Revolution, headed by Vladimir Lenin.
After having Nicholas killed, Lenin imposed the first communist government in the world. His successor, Joseph Stalin, murdered some 30 million people in the gulags of the 1930s. The Soviet Union went on to challenge the U.S. in the Cold War until collapsing in 1991.
A fourth calamitous breakdown from radicals seizing power occurred in Germany in the 1930s. The oligarchs, industrialists, and militarists who had started, managed, and lost World War I, refused to accept the liberal, i.e., republican, Weimar Government which was installed in its aftermath. They did everything they could to undermine that government.
They used parliamentary maneuver, staged media spectacles, legislative obstruction, judicial intimidation, relentless pressure by narrow but powerful interest groups, and outright murder of their political opponents. They eventually succeeded.
In the election of 1932, with unemployment at 45%, the National Socialist or Nazi party garnered only 37% of the votes. But Adolph Hitler made a deal with the right-wing leaders who controlled the government. If they appointed him Chancellor, he would ban labor unions, repudiate the Treaty of Versailles, rebuild the military, and restore Germany to its “rightful place” in the world. On that basis, Hitler was appointed Chancellor on January 30, 1933. He kept his promises. And more.
Puritans. Jacobins. Bolsheviks. Nazis. There’s a reason these radicals hold iconic one-word status in Western culture. Gridlock is nobody’s ideal of effective governance. But history shows that capitulating to radicals—of the right or the left—is ever so much worse. We’ll see if we’re smart enough to have learned that lesson.
Robert Freeman is the author of The Best One-Hour History series, whose titles include, The French Revolution and World War I. He is the founder of the national non-profit One Dollar For Life which helps American students build schools in the developing world from donations of one dollar. For more information, please visit, www.onehourhistory.com and www.odfl.org.