Year One, Then and Now

“Wo to the land,” lamented Carlyle, “over which Sansculottism, in its day of vengeance, tramps roughshod—shod in sabots!”

The sans-culottes’ fervor was on grand display when, in September 1792, murder squads stormed the jails of Paris, killing more than a thousand clerics and political prisoners. So too the following year, when the National Convention issued a warrant for the arrest of all suspected opponents of the Revolution. By the fall of 1793, all of France lived in fear. In the capital, purges were the order of the day. The Girondins were purged; the Hébertists were purged; the Dantonists were purged. After being sentenced to die, one Girondin deputy committed suicide. The next day his body was guillotined anyway. In the countryside, meanwhile, representatives-on-mission massacred noble and peasant, priest and nun, mother and child. In Nantes, most of the victims were drowned in the river.

The Terror was not some freak byproduct of the French Revolution. The revolutionary government “had lived since 1789,” François Furet observed, “on the idea of a new absolute—and indivisible—sovereignty, which excluded pluralism of representation because it assumed the unity of the nation.” “Since that unity did not exist,” the “function of the Terror, as well as of purging elections, was invariably to establish it.” The revolutionaries thought they could create a new world. A world of harmony, where everyone agrees. But they could create this paradise only by rejecting compromise, dismantling checks and balances, and violently crushing dissent. Without terror, Robespierre explained, virtue is powerless.

In an Atlantic essay entitled “The Revolution is Under Way Already,”  Professor Rebecca Spang seeks to apply some of the lessons of the French Revolution to our current predicament—though not the lessons you might expect.

Spang focuses on the aspects of the Revolution that suit her. Even those are not altogether marvelous. Take, for instance, the many entitlements the people supposedly gained from the new regime. “For a short time at least,” Spang writes, the revolutionaries “defined employment, education, and subsistence as basic human rights.” Back in reality, they provided almost none of the fine-sounding things they compulsively put to paper. They could not even offer freedom of conscience. The only valid opinions were those espoused by the left-wing oligarchs in the seat of power. The rulers had a sacred duty not to tolerate other ones. “If the people do not leap quickly to the pinnacle of their destiny,” Robespierre wrote in 1794, “it can only be the fault of those who govern them.” Saint-Just was a little blunter: “Imprisonment,” he exclaimed, “is the progress of reason and justice.”

It was, of course, no better with religion. The government closed the churches of Paris, and Notre Dame was converted into a temple of rationality. A propaganda campaign was waged to boost the unpopular new civic religion. The majority’s faith counted for nothing; the citizenry would convert to correct belief—the Cult of Reason—or else.

If we are to have a revolution, let’s have one in which we recommit to the principles of liberty and moderation.

Alongside a dash of snark (“the 18th century—a time some still call the ‘Age of Enlightenment’”), a pinch of Marxist rhetoric (our nation might “implode” under its “grave contradictions”), and a splash of wealth theory from the school of Howard Zinn (obsessed with exploitation; silent about innovation), Spang slips in some shrewd questions: Are we at the beginning of a revolution? Do we want to be? Spang seems rather sanguine, even a touch giddy, about the prospect of answering yes. “To claim this moment as a revolution,” she says, is “to claim it for human action.” We are not “fated to see a Reign of Terror,” she assures us, even though in her view “everything is up for grabs.” “We need to imitate not the outcome of the French revolution but the energy, creativity, and optimism of the French revolutionaries.”

If history teaches us anything whatsoever, it is that acting like “everything is up for grabs” is precisely what produces reigns of terror, and that the revolutionaries’ “energy, creativity, and optimism” cannot be separated from the horrors they brought forth. The revolutionaries naively believed that they could do anything through politics, even construct a better society from scratch. They were animated by an undaunted zeal to bring that society about. On the whole, their intentions were pure. The historian David Andress notices the “dedication of Robespierre and his cohorts to the well-being of their fellow citizens.” These men were propelled, Andress reminds us, by a “stark certainty that devotion to the cause of liberty and justice licensed them to eliminate opposition by means beyond the rule of law.” “It was a formula,” he concludes, “for an ever-narrowing definition of political purity and legitimacy”—and thus for ever-intensifying fits of rage and violence.

Comparisons can “easily be made,” Spang proposes, between “the beginning of the French Revolution and the United States today.” She is not wrong. We face a debt crisis. We are led by a man who seems to wish he were a Bourbon king. We distrust our institutions—including, though Spang omits to mention them, universities, brimming as they are with tenured radicals. There is, however, a key difference. Our average citizen is wealthy beyond the imagining of the typical 18th-century Frenchman. And even our poorest know nothing of the misery of the French peasant. (Witness Monsieur Defarge’s wrathful cry, in A Tale of Two Cities, against the royal minister “who told the famished people that they might eat grass.”)

Our prosperity is built on rights of property and freedoms of enterprise that Spang’s article ignores—or forgets. The pandemic spurs Wall Street Journal columnist Andy Kessler to recall Tom Wolfe’s essay “The Great Relearning,” about hippies who, having decided to “sweep aside all codes and restraints from the past and start from zero,” must relearn “the laws of hygiene by getting the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.” The desire for a revolution along socialist and antimodern lines is, Kessler says, “a mental grunge, mental scroff and mental rot,” and he hopes that another great relearning is afoot. If we are to have a revolution, let’s have one in which we recommit to the principles of liberty and moderation, flawed though they may be, rather than one in which we suffer the misery that comes with every pursuit of flawless utopia.

Let’s even dream a little bigger. Another easily made comparison: we are familiar with activists who inject politics into everything, who dramatize slights and demonize opponents, who equate nonconformity with sacrilege, and who wield rights talk as a cudgel. What a fine moment this would be for a new birth of sobriety and tolerance.

The Jacobins established Year One, and their country paid for it. So, in the end, did they. There is indeed a sound lesson to be had from this. Do we understand it? It is always at risk of slipping through our fingers. As he surveyed the carnage and broil of the Terror, Carlyle consoled himself with the notion that, as the ages pass, hatred subsides, wisdom accrues, and the truth prevails. “All lies,” he swore, “have sentence of death written down against them, in Heaven’s Chancery itself; and, slowly or fast, advance incessantly towards their hour.” If only it were so.