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Lessons of the French Revolution

Other than the American Revolution, the French Revolution is the political event of modernity with the longest-lasting influence. Both revolutions created new regimes (although only America’s lasted) and advanced political ideals that still resonate around the world. It is not a surprise that famous politicians of recent times still assess an upheaval that occurred 200 years ago in a different nation than their own: “It resulted in a lot of headless corpses and a tyrant” was Margaret Thatcher’s verdict on its 200th birthday. Zhou Enlai was less certain, suggesting that even after 175 years, it was “too soon to tell” about the revolution’s ultimate significance.

Thus, it is always worth learning more about the French Revolution, and Jeremy Popkin’s The New World Begins is the most important English language history of this epochal event since Simon Schama’s Citizens appeared 30 years ago. Its fair-minded and fast-paced recounting of the events allows for a reassessment of the Revolution’s causes and of its value. Popkin provides a brilliant frame for understanding what sparked and sustained the revolt by contrasting the life of Louis XVI, the French King who lost his head, with one of his subjects, Jacques Menetra, a skilled glazier who left a full memoir of his own life in the turbulent times.

Louis XVI was not unintelligent, but his entire education and routine left him unfit to understand his nation, let alone deal shrewdly with a political cataclysm. His lessons as a youngster focused on the glorious past of his ancestors, and his routine as an adult confined his experience, giving him few opportunities to meet with people outside fawning courtiers. It is thus not surprising that Bourbons like Louis “learned nothing and forgot nothing” in Talleyrand’s well-known jibe. Incredibly, Louis XVI journeyed outside the environs of Paris only once before his failed attempt to escape abroad in 1791.

In contrast, Menetra traveled around much of France. While he was not well-educated, he was literate and skilled in creating social (not to mention sexual) networks wherever he went. The country, Popkin implies, was full of Menetras. Their collective power and intelligence overmatched a monarchy that had few reliable sources of information and a self-understanding that was at least a century out of date.

Nevertheless, I believe Popkin could have done more with his framing device by briefly juxtaposing Menetra with a skilled and propertied artisan of the American colonies just prior to their Revolution. The important contrast there is that for all his worldliness Menetra had no experience of popular government. Even those colonists who did not vote heard through newspapers about their colonial assemblies, and many Americans of Menetra’s class actually participated in governance. The representative assemblies of colonial America before its revolution thus sharply contrast with the complete absence of any popular input into government in France.

To be sure, the French monarchy was not absolutist. The most important restraints on its power were thirteen “parlements” that sat throughout the country. These were not legislatures, however, but judges, often holding hereditary office. While they sometimes opposed the King, they were nobles themselves, not republican schoolmasters educating their countrymen in the exercise of popular responsibility. When in 1789 the King summoned an Estates General, a legislative assembly composed of the three classes of nobles, religious officials, and commoners, it was the first time it had met since 1612!

As a result, people like Menetra had no sense of the give-and-take of representative government, and no appreciation of pluralism. The absence of this tradition helps explain why the Revolution, from the taking of the Bastille on, was again and again propelled by popular uprisings when part of the population either became incensed at some turn of events or was manipulated to support a faction in the National Assembly, the body that rapidly succeeded the Estates General when the commoners declared themselves a unicameral assembly. Americans were skilled at compromise because of their long experience of representation in the colonies, but the French relied on direct and violent action, being wholly unschooled in any institution of representative government.

Edmund Burke observed that French philosphes abetted the violence of the Revolution because their abstract theories did not grow organically from political experience. But France had not even fledgling democratic experience on which their political philosophers could draw. As Bernard Bailyn makes clear in his great book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, many of the English political philosophers on which the colonists relied were themselves practical statesmen, like the Earl of Shaftesbury, or at least advisors to such statesmen, like John Locke. In contrast, Jean-Jacques Rousseau—the patron philosopher of the Revolution—had no substantial connection to politicians. His theory of the General Will, which posits that there is a collective will for the general good that can be sharply distinguished from the view of particular groups within society, discouraged compromise because it made it easier for any faction to fancy itself the sole reflection of that general will. When American statesmen like John Adams read his works, they thought him mad.

Popkin’s narrative shows how many of the famous actors in the Revolution—from Georges Danton to Maximilian Robespierre—were borne along by the current of a people unlearned in democracy. As a result, the leaders of the Revolution had little choice but to engage in conspiracies against other factions, because they rightly feared that other factions would also seek to conspire against them, mobilizing the French street at the first opportunity. Danton still has statues in his honor in France and is often contrasted as the good revolutionary compared to the bloodthirsty Robespierre (much like Lenin was once contrasted with Stalin). But in this book, Danton comes across as just a less deft (and more corrupt) schemer in the days of the Terror. Indeed, Robespierre is shown to be more moderate than this reputation. There were politicians farther to his left who were even more eager to destroy the past, whatever the cost, particularly when it came to the Catholic Church. Robespierre tried to restrain them.

My greatest disagreement with this outstanding achievement of narrative history is the author’s ultimately positive assessment of the French Revolution. At one point he somewhat excuses the Terror, while lamenting its dreadful excesses, by noting that the Revolution could probably not have survived without it. But on balance, why was the survival of the Revolution desirable? For instance, if Louis XVI had escaped (and it was his lack of ruthlessness in refusing to leave his family behind that doomed his attempt) and had come back with an army to put down the rebellion, the world and France would likely have been better off in the short and long term. Louis XVI was more moderate than the Bourbon brothers who succeeded him after the Restoration and could well have begun the transition to a constitutional monarchy. In any event, the current of the times was such that transition would have occurred.

As it was, the immediate legacy of the Revolution was a military dictatorship under Napoleon that killed millions of the French and other Europeans in wars of conquest. That dictatorship—predicted by Edmund Burke ten years earlier—was a direct reaction to the continual chaos of the Revolution. And Napoleon’s wars were a continuation of the wars of revolutionary liberation that began almost as soon as the Bastille fell.

Even in peace and even in its home country, the legacy of the Revolution continues to be an unfortunate one. When democratically elected French leaders try to make needed political reforms against vested interests, like unaffordable pensions for select groups, they are generally defeated by strikes and illegal disruptions. The spirit of the Revolution lives on in France as an impediment to democratic compromise and, even more ironically, as a protector of anachronistic privilege.

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