Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. Some Thoughts on the Political Trinity.


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IF IT HAS DONE NOTHING ELSE, the Charlie Hebdo tragedy has reacquainted us with the goals of the first great revolution of the modern era. Over the past painful fortnight the French people and their political representatives have repeatedly invoked the three founding principles of the French Republic: Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. There is no disputing the revolutionary potential of these principles. Individually and collectively, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity define the modern democratic project. Since 1789, every major revolutionary episode has drawn inspiration from at least one of them.

It is no accident that the French revolutionary credo is presented as a trinity. Hostile though the French revolutionaries undoubtedly were to the claims of organised religion, they also understood that the French state occupied a special place in the heart of the Catholic Church. This was because the Catholic Church had for centuries occupied a special place in the hearts of the French people. If Church and State were to be separated, as the Enlightenment values of the revolutionaries dictated, then the sacred trio of Father, Son and Holy Spirit would have to be replaced with an equally compelling trinity.

The correspondences between the Christian and the revolutionary trinity are interesting.

If it is true that “in the beginning” was God the Father, “the maker of Heaven and Earth”, then it is also true that Liberty – Freedom – lies at the very heart, and is the prime mover, of all truly revolutionary movements. Without freedom, all the other revolutionary goals are soon compromised. Indeed, it is precisely the restriction of freedom that allows inequality to flourish and renders human solidarity impractical.

But, if Liberty is the first demand of the revolutionary, that is only because the injustices of inequality are so many and so urgent that they cry out for the freedom necessary to address them. Equality thus plays the role of Jesus in the Christian trinity. Theologically speaking, although God precedes Jesus, Jesus is also God – or at least that much of Him as can be rendered intelligible to human-beings. Philosophically speaking, Equality cannot exist without Liberty, and yet it is also the state-of-being for which Liberty is constantly sacrificing itself.

Hence the need for Fraternity – the revolutionaries’ answer to the Christians’ Holy Spirit. Without the solidarity and empathy so crucial to fraternity’s historical expression, Liberty and Equality can very easily become empty, potentially contradictory – even deadly – political objectives.

The French Revolution itself bears witness to the consequences of abandoning Liberty in the name of Equality. Robespierre’s “Reign of Terror” was intended to coerce the French people into virtue. A surfeit of Liberty, according to Robespierre, had placed the egalitarian fatherland in mortal danger. Accordingly, the newly ratified Rights of Man and of the Citizen were suspended, pending the final destruction of the ancien regime and its aristocratic supporters. Fraternity, not surprisingly, was the first to feel the embrace of Madame Guillotine.

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The destruction of Fraternity is, therefore, incontrovertible evidence that the revolution is in the process of being, or already has been, betrayed. Just as the concept of Holy Spirit acts as a sort of miraculous glue – binding together God, Jesus and the faithful in an ineffably mysterious unity – so, too, does the principle of Fraternity serve to keep the people’s eyes on the revolutionary prize. One has only to be reminded of Stalin’s order to “eliminate the Kulaks as a class”, or recall Pol Pot’s genocidal determination to empty Cambodia of every human-being who was not a peasant or a party worker, to understand what happens when solidarity and basic human empathy are branded “counter-revolutionary” sentiments.

Madame Roland, the French revolutionary leader whose moderation earned her the enmity of Robespierre’s Jacobins, and whose own faction, the Girondins, were duly purged as soon as the Jacobins gained political ascendancy, is best remembered for her words addressed to the statue of Liberty in the Place de la Revolution as she awaited execution: “Oh Liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!”

But Madame Roland was wrong. It is not Liberty that inspires political extremism, but a perilous ambition to reduce all the dazzling diversity of the human family to a dull and ominously silent uniformity. As if Equality was a purely mathematical concept meaning sameness, instead of a political ideal describing the social condition of human-beings who are free to create rich and productive lives for themselves and their families while protected from chance and adversity by the collective love and support of their fellow citizens.

A Left that does not proclaim Liberty as its primary objective; a Socialism that is not of its essence emancipatory and libertarian; a Labour Party not proudly committed to helping their fellow citizens’ pursue happiness; none of these has a future – and, frankly, does not deserve one.

In a Christian’s life, St Paul told the Corinthians, only three things truly matter: Faith, Hope and Love – and the greatest of these is Love. When it comes to political salvation, however, the only three things that truly matter are Liberty, Equality and Fraternity – and the greatest of these is Liberty. We must never forget, however, that Liberty, like God, comes as part of a package deal.

Being free on your own is the best definition of Hell I can think of.


  1. Well-written, thank you Chris. But I am sure that there will be a loud whoosh as some people angrily decide that you are going beyond their perspective.

  2. As a civili libertarian, I find the big L Libertarians, such as Objectivists (Randroids), to be uneasy bedfellows. They rail against “collectivism” – meaning almost any government regulation at all – as an attack on individual freedom, but throw out fraternity in the process, and while they agree with equality in principle, futilely trust free market forces to provide it.

    • A prosperous New Year to you, Gosman!

      I would suggest that the French revolution was far more effectual and lasting than the American one. Possibly because it was followed up with three wars conducted to a greater or lesser degree on home soil.

      The Americans, lacking that testing and necessary humiliation, have reverted to a very stratified society with serious intolerance – and some parts seem happy to ensure that it continues – to the greater misery of millions.

      As Don Brash would have it, ‘Gone by lunchtime’ and back to business as usual.

      (America has continued as a war-mongering entity – so much of its wealth comes from that useless passtime – and as a creator-sustainer of a peon/serf class. Fraternity is for ‘varsities and equality is spoken but not practiced. Liberty is stuck on a rock at the entrance to a harbour with an imported piece of piety: something about ‘Give me your poor…’etc. Heck! Who reads the adverts?!)

  3. ” A Labour Party not proudly committed to helping their fellow citizens’ pursue happiness, none of these has a future _ and, frankly, does not deserve one.”
    Oh I see, but John Key, New Zealands’ most puerile and deceitful Prime Minister ever, and his bunch of no hopers, do?
    The other day, I once again, looked through the Labour Parties Policies for this last election and there was plenty to help fellow Kiwi pursue happiness.
    I then looked at Nationals’ and what I saw was an empty ,dusty closet.
    Even Bill English has admitted he has no ideas.
    I think you must be referring to National’s wonderful policies allowing millionaires from all over the world to drive our house prices to astronomical levels.
    That should keep all ‘fellow citizens’ happy, especially the young up and comers. Maybe they will be happy living with their parents for the rest of their lives!
    But no , what I really think you must be referring to is ‘ fishing quotas’. John Key’s benchmark policy. Took a lot of nutting out this one. Yep some real brainstorming must have gone on deep into the night .
    All in the interest of keeping all his fellow Kiwis ‘happy’ .
    But no again. I think what’s making everyone happy is that we all feel like we are living more on ‘the edge’ than ever. What the with ‘zero hours’ work policies meaning less food ,(if any ),on the table, sleepless nights, and the potential for no ‘tea breaks’ as well, we are so happy that that nice caring Mr Key has got our health at heart by ensuring we lower our calorie intake.
    Aahh, he thinks of everything. He is just sooooo wonderful and we are all just sooooo lucky.
    And to think he had the vision, even as young schoolboy to dream of being a Prime Minister one day. That’s why he pursued such an honest, earnest , career as a ‘money trader’. Ooohhh he is just soooo honest and had soooo much vision to help us all pursue ‘happiness’.
    Who needs Labour or The Greens or NZ First or Mana? What would they know compared to that wonderful Mr Key???

    • A+ for a deliberate misreading of the post, Grant. Not sure how you read “a Labour Party not proudly committed to helping their fellow citizens’ pursue happiness; none of these has a future – and, frankly, does not deserve one” as an endorsement of Key and the nats. No argument with your comments about them however.

      • It was a deliberate misreading, just as the msm and Chris Trotter deliberately misread David Cunliffe’s speech to the Women’s Refuge last year.
        Chris probably put a bit of work into writing this blog as did David Cunliffe with his speech.
        When Chris had the opportunity ,(being marketed as an ‘opinion shaper’ for ‘The Left’ by msm),to wrap some perspective and clarity around the sentiments of ‘that’ speech, he chose not to, and instead decided to go along with ‘the crowd’ and wilfully misconstrue .
        I know the women from Women’s Refuge still have steam coming out of their ears.
        I have no time for people who lack the courage of their convictions.
        Thanks for the A+.

  4. If it is true that “in the beginning” was God the Father, “the maker of Heaven and Earth”, then it is also true that Liberty – Freedom – lies at the very heart, and is the prime mover, of all truly revolutionary movements.

    Well then, it’s plain that neither statement is true.

    Geezus Chris, you just can’t seem to stop yourself from indulging in religious bafflegab on occasion.

    • “Geezus” Well, yes. Just so.

      Meantime – please consider the times of which Chris writes.

      Lots of illiterates well-steeped in religious practice (and why not? They got heaps of holidays. All those saints’ days and such.) Totally familiar with the Catholic Trinity, as Chris points out.

      A rapid movement of a meme – it’s like Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, guys, only better – was essential. There were Royalists and the dam’ ros bifs across the ditch getting panicky. A massive uptake was urgent and essential to keep important necks intact.

      You may scorn to call in the fables of the Christian sky fairy to assist with your marketing and meme-propagation but the revolutionaries were a lot more pragmatic.

      PS – Chris is simply reporting and using a still-widely known concept to explain. And you did understand…You also share that set of stories.

  5. Chris most people see right through the MSM for the bunch of tossrs they are. Cunliff was punished for his I am sorry I am a man comment not for literal comment but he was stupid enough to say it thus allowing the media and opposition to run with it, the comment simply was more evidence of this guys lack of judgement and inappropriateness to be PM

    • Actually, he was ultimately punished by the media for not having the courage of his, or his speech-writer’s, convictions. He should have insisted that there is plenty for men to feel ashamed of. Just as many expect Maori to own and address their community’s family violence misdeeds, so all men have to take responsibility for the sins of our sex. Why apologize or walk the comment back? That was the misstep, not the comment.

      There is an element of publish or be damned in this posting, Chris, although the similarities are sometimes apposite.

      For me, by the way, the formula reads:

      Liberte/Fraternite= Egalite

      I’m not sure that works with the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, unfortunately, unless the Holy Ghost, who seemed to have had little role after impregnating Mary, is actually the religious zeal in all true believers, in which case the formula seems to work again.

      A little esoteric, perhaps?

  6. The Revolution abandoned Liberty in the name of equality?


    So the Haitian slaves who had their liberty revoked by Napoleon were then equal?

    No their Liberty was revoked to entrench inequality, the right of French slavers to make massive profits off slaves.

    The French Revolution was for the Liberty, equality and fraternity of one class only the bourgeoisie.

    Their liberty as citizens to trade; their equality as a class no longer subservient to the feudal landowners; their fraternity as a class of equals free to exploit the proletariat.

    Liberty, equality and fraternity for all will have to wait upon the socialist revolution and the creation of classless society.

    • I think that by the time Napoleon came to power, there wasn’t much left of the revolution. The reference to a loss of liberty, I imagine, was a reference to the development of a legislative straight-jacket and eventually the Napoleonic codification of law (useful but restrictive)…and maybe to the overuse of the Guillotine as the revolution consumed its own children.

      Maybe Napoleon didn’t do much good for the well being of slaves, however some years ago I had to do some research touching on that period in a small record archive office in Bordeaux. The improvement in the quality of record-keeping under Napoleon had to be see to be believed. (Like making the trains run on time?)

    • Nah check every popular revolution in history ever.

      The first to die are always the socialists. Stalin eliminated all of the socialists in his own party. Called them capitalists of course.

      The Chinese actually genuinely seem to have killed the capitalists. Trust them to screw up. Useless.

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