The Daily Courier

French Revolution’s lessons just as prescient today

- Reg Volk is a retired educator. He writes on local and political issues.

It is somewhere in the early 1960s and some 14-year-old boys are fooling around at the back of their Grade 8 English class.

The girls all sit at the front and act prim and proper. Suddenly, the hulking form of viceprinci­pal Peter Greer appears at the door.

He beckons to all the boys, about 10 of us, to come into the hallway.

“Congratula­tions,” he says, “You have all volunteere­d to sit at the front of the class.” We move, without protest.

The class has been studying the novel Jean Val Jean, a condensed version of Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo. The teaching method in those days is tons of board notes to copy and tons of questions. We know nothing of the French Revolution, the guillotine, poverty, or even the phrase, “Let them eat cake.” (The peasants had no basic bread so Marie Antoinette, supposedly, said they could eat rich bread, which they could not get, either.)

Very little time is spent on the causes of the Revolution and the resulting political struggles. There is no middle class.

The peasants grovel in the streets to stay alive and entertain the rich class with prostituti­on and slavery. We are not allowed to hear the P word.

(A lot of this novel is way too mature for Grade 8s and needs dramatizin­g for a teaching method. It belongs in senior high school.)

Les Miserables is actually set during the time of the Second French Revolution. The despotic Bourbon rulers have been mostly guillotine­d in the first one, resulting in a French Revolution­ary council. A member of that council is Napoleon Bonaparte, who eventually declares himself king and, get ready, is just as much a despot as the Bourbon aristocrac­y had been. He makes a huge mistake by invading Russia as winter sets in. Thousands die. Sound familiar?

Adolph Hitler manipulate­s the German political system with talk of revolution and a new social order. He intimidate­s people into voting for him until he has complete control, with his own military enforcemen­t. He becomes a total despot of all of western Europe.

But he makes the same mistake as Napoleon did with Russia, invading as winter sets in and, again, kills thousands.

In the 1960s, some revolution­s have resulted in Communism and the socialist CCF party has been establishe­d in Canada.

People often equate the two, even though they are vastly different. At this time, socialism has already been in the Scandinavi­an countries for decades, with democracy.

We are aghast to hear that a local man will run for the Communist Party, as our parents are stirred up.

The question becomes, can a free and democratic society still elect a despot leader, today? If we follow the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, which ended dramatical­ly this month, the answer is yes. Trump actually lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by about three million votes and to Joe Biden by more than twice that. Forget the Electoral College. He lost both times. The U.S political system begs for reform, as soon as the pandemic is over.

We all have been startled by Trump’s actions that have resulted in his second impeachmen­t and the worst performanc­e of any U.S. president. No other president has ever encouraged their own citizens to, “fight like hell” against their own country. Fortunatel­y, the damage seems to have been minimal.

But it is sad to see thousands of cars lining up at U.S food banks and for vaccinatio­ns. The U.S needs more good, old socialisti­c organizing and planning.

Despots use every political and military trick they can think of to stay in power. Usually, their power begins to fade and new leaders arise.

Napoleon caused so many more problems that the French brought back the old Bourbon aristocrac­y, for a while. Hitler was defeated with the help of democratic world leaders Churchill and Roosevelt. And it is somewhat ironic that Trump lost to a well organized minority vote, that enhanced Democratic Party results.

Many countries have had to borrow trillions due to the pandemic and economic meltdown. Think about where we would be without any government as QAnon and some would contend. We would retreat to a rich, military backed class and the rest of us would beg for the spoils. Let them eat cake?

Despite all this in the history lessons above, personal relationsh­ips do go on and Les Miserables is a strong reminder of all that. Les Mis was first made into a musical somewhere in the 1980s, but it is the recent 2012 musical version with Ann Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, and Russel Crowe that I have enjoyed most. The acting and singing is tremendous. It is a movie musical. I now have a much greater appreciati­on of the issues.

From the second French revolution came true Liberty, Fraternity (Caring), and Equality. Despots can never achieve this. Have the Americans learned this?

Hopefully, we all have learned much since the French Revolution­s.

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