Shockingly Worldly

David Runciman

  • Emmanuel Sieyès: Political Writings edited by Michael Sonenscher
    Hackett, 256 pp, US $34.95, September 2003, ISBN 0 87220 430 8

Most of the 18th-century political theorists with the biggest reputations come from rather out-of-the-way places, at least in geopolitical terms: Vico from Naples; Hume and Adam Smith from Edinburgh; Rousseau from Geneva; Kant from Königsberg. But because the 18th century was also, in the end, an Age of Revolution, its two most important political thinkers do not really belong in this club of international superstars. One, James Madison from Virginia, is more than just a superstar in the United States. He is one of the secular gods of the American Republic, the architect of its Constitution and the author of many of the Federalist Papers written in its defence, including ‘Federalist No. 10’, which is one of the Republic’s holy texts. This makes the rest of the world uncomfortable, and Madison’s ideas can often seem too American to be true (in contrast to Rousseau, whose ideas can often seem too true to be Swiss). The other, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès from Provence, is not mistrusted outside his native France so much as ignored. Even in France he is more of an intellectual curiosity than an object of reverence. The French Republic has had too many constitutions, too many false gods and too many false dawns to go in for the hero-worship of its founding fathers that gives Americans such satisfaction. Sieyès contributed to some of the shortest-lived of those constitutions, and he was responsible for more than one of the false dawns. Nevertheless, he was a political thinker of genius, one to compare with any of the great names of the 18th century. And he understood, perhaps as well as anyone, the new world that both the American and French Revolutions helped to create.

Another obstacle to a wider appreciation of Sieyès’s ideas in the English-speaking world has been his name. Not Sieyès, though that is tricky enough (it should be pronounced something like seeay-ez, but in English it more often comes out as c-s, like the gas), nor Emmanuel Joseph, but Abbé. Where he is known, he is almost always known as the Abbé Sieyès, which he became when he was ordained at the age of 24, in 1772. His formal education had taken place at a seminary in Paris, and then at the Sorbonne, where he read theology. His public life began when, as secretary to the Bishop of Chartres, he was appointed vicar-general of the diocese in 1780, and his involvement in local government started in 1787, when he became a representative of the clergy in the provincial assembly of Orléans. None of this helps his claim to be taken seriously as a theorist of modern politics, and the unsuspecting reader could be forgiven for fearing the worst. But Sieyès was not a religious man, and his work is free of theological speculation; it is entirely, almost shockingly, worldly. The Church was a career for him, until 1788, when he discovered his true vocation, which was politics.

The event that made him was the decision of Louis XVI to convene the Estates-General, in a desperate attempt to resolve the financial crisis that was threatening to bankrupt the French state. It had not met since 1614, and no one, including Louis and his advisers, knew what to expect from it this time, though almost everyone had their hopes (Louis hoped for new taxes, the various estates for new rights). Sieyès had no such hopes, because he did not believe the realm should, or could, be divided into three estates, each with separate rights of representation. For Sieyès, only the third estate counted, and the nobility and the clergy had no rights separate from those of the people. By the logic of this argument, there was no such thing as the realm, since the realm was made up of the three estates; instead, there was only something called the ‘nation’, which was constituted by the 25 or 26 million individuals who inhabited it. During the last six months of 1788, Sieyès wrote three pamphlets in which he pursued this line of thought as far as it would go. The second of them, entitled What Is the Third Estate?, was published in January 1789, when it caused a sensation. When one reads it now, in this excellent new edition by Michael Sonenscher, where it appears for the first time in English alongside the other pamphlets Sieyès wrote in 1788, it is still easy to see why. It is not a beautiful or polished piece of writing, it is poorly organised and it is probably too long for what it has to say; but it is thrilling in its remorselessness.

Sieyès steadfastly refused to shirk any of the implications of his argument. He begins with three questions, which became the best-known things he ever wrote: ‘1. What is the Third Estate? – Everything. 2. What, until now, has it been in the existing political order? – Nothing. 3. What does it want to be? – Something.’ If the answer to the first question was correct, then the answer to the second question was irrelevant, which made the answer to the third question a big mistake. Other champions of the people were hoping that the calling of the Estates-General would be an occasion for the third estate to assert itself against the other two, to make something more of itself. But if the people were everything, then it made no sense to demand that they should be better represented within an assembly of the nation. They had to be the whole of that assembly. The obvious rejoinder to this is that one estate cannot be the whole of an assembly made up of three estates. Sieyès’s reply could hardly have been clearer: ‘The Third Estate, it is said, cannot form the Estates-General all by itself. Very well! So much the better! It will form a National Assembly.’ And this, thanks to Sieyès, is what happened.

He made it happen from within the Estates-General, to which the third estate of Paris elected him. Once there, he presented on 10 June and 15 June 1789 the two motions that brought about the transformation of the Estates-General into a National Assembly, so initiating the French Revolution. As an elected representative of the people, Sieyès revealed himself to be a successful political opportunist, but he was no orator. He owed his place in the chamber to his three pamphlets, which had made him famous. They do not read like election addresses – they are too intellectually fearless for that – but they do read like the work of someone for whom political thought is a matter of real and almost desperate urgency. In this respect, they are nothing like the Federalist Papers, which had appeared in New York only a year previously. Though these too were motivated by urgent questions, and though they were explicitly written for an election (in order to persuade the people of New York State to ratify the new Federal Constitution), they are marked by an air of measured calm, which explains much of their enduring appeal. There is no sense of desperation, but a steady confidence in the power of good arguments, from the people with the best ones. As a revolutionary, Sieyès reads less like Madison, and more like Lenin – not the Lenin of 1917 but the Lenin of 1905, during the first, aborted Russian Revolution, when he was driven almost to distraction by the unwillingness of his fellow Marxists to seize the moment and make something happen. For most of Lenin’s revolutionary colleagues in Russia, the 1905 Revolution wasn’t quite right – it had come too soon, they hadn’t had enough time to prepare, the situation on the ground was too confusing, none of the necessary institutions was in place, much better to wait for the right moment. Their tactics, Lenin said, were like the famous advertisement for fly powder: just catch the fly, then sprinkle it with the powder, and the fly will die. Sieyès, like Lenin, believed in upending all available stocks of fly powder on the old regime, and seeing who was left standing. ‘A privileged class,’ Sieyès wrote, ‘is like a pestilence upon the nation.’ In a related image, also somewhat Lenin-like in its apparent ruthlessness, he responded to the anxieties of those who wondered what would happen to the first two estates if the third estate became everything: ‘It is like asking what place a malignant tumour should have in the body of someone who is ill, as it devours and ruins his health. It simply has to be neutralised.’

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