W hen the educated layman thinks of the French Revolution it is the events of 1789 but especially the Jacobin Republic of the Year II which chiefly comes to his mind. The prim Robespierre, the huge and whoring Danton, the icy revolutionary elegance of Saint-Just, the gross Marat, committee of Public Safety, revolutionary tribunal and guillotine are the images which we see most clearly.
If the economy of the nineteenth-century world was formed mainly under the influence of the British Industrial Revolution, its politics and ideology were formed mainly by the French. Britain provided the model for its railways and factories, the economic explosive which cracked open the traditional economic and social structures of the non-European world; but France made its revolutions and gave them their ideas.
France provided the vocabulary and the issues of liberal and radical-democratic politics for most of the world. France also provided the first great example, the concept and the vocabulary of nationalism. France provided the codes of law, the model scientific and technical organization, and the metric system of measurement for most countries. The ideology of the modern world first penetrated the ancient civilization which had hitherto resisted European ideas through French influence. This was the work of the French Revolution.
The position of this vast class, the peasantry, comprising perhaps 80 percent of all Frenchmen, was far from brilliant. They were indeed in general free, and often landowners. In fact, however, the great majority were landless or with insufficient holdings, a deficiency increased by the prevailing technical backwardness; and the general land-hunger was intensified by the rise in population. Feudal dues, tithes and taxes took a large and rising proportion of the peasant’s income, and inflation reduced the value of the remainder. For only the minority of peasants who had a constant surplus for sale benefited from the rising prices; the rest, in one way or another, suffered from them, especially in times of bad harvest, when famine prices ruled.
The country poor were therefore desperate and restless with riot and banditry; the urban poor were doubly desperate as work ceased at the very moment that the cost of living soared. Under normal circumstances little more than blind-rioting might have occurred, But in 1788 and 1789 a major convulsion in the kingdom, a campaign of propaganda and election, gave the people’s desperation a political perspective. They introduced the tremendous and earth- shaking idea of liberation from gentry and oppression. A riotous people stood behind the deputies of the Third Estate.
It was the duty of the fatherland of the revolution to liberate all peoples groaning under oppression and tyranny. There was a genuine exalted and generous passion to spread freedom.
Two very different kinds of belligerents confronted one another during those twenty-odd years, powers and systems. France as a state, with its interests and aspiration confronted other states of the same kind, but on the other hand France as the Revolution appealed to the people of the world to overthrow tyranny and embrace liberty, and the forces of conservatism and reaction opposed her.
Revolutions occurred because of political systems re-imposed on Europe were profoundly, and in a period of rapid social change increasingly inadequate for the political conditions of the continent, and because economic and social discontents were so acute as to make a series of outbreaks virtually inevitable. The political models created by the Revolution of 1789 served to give discontent a specific object, to turn unrest into revolution.
The French Revolution was not made or led by an organized party in the modern sense, nor by men attempting to carry out a systematic programme.
The French Revolution was the revolution of its time. The French Revolution was the most important revolution, the world has ever seen. The French revolution may not have been an isolated phenomenon, but it was far more fundamental than any of the other contemporary ones and its consequences were there far more profound. Alone of all the revolutions, which preceded and followed it, the French Revolution was a social revolution, and immeasurably more than any comparable upheaval.
The new forces thrown up by the revolution, knew fairly precisely what they wanted. Turgot, the Physiocrafts economist, stood for an efficient exploitation of the land, for free enterprise and trade, for a standardized, efficient administration of a single homogeneous national territory, and the abolition of all the restrictions and social inequalities which stood in the way of the development of national resources and rational, equitable administration and taxation.
Its armies set out to revolutionize the world; its ideas actually did so. The French Revolution is a landmark in all countries. Its direct influence radiated as far as Bengal. It was the first great movement of ideas in Western Christendom that had any real effect on the world of Islam. Its indirect influence is universal, for it provided the pattern for all subsequent revolutionary movements.
The first breach in the front of absolutism was a hand-picked but nevertheless rebellious ‘assembly of notables’ called in 1787 to grant the government’s demands. The second, and decisive, was the desperate decision to call the States-General – the old feudal assembly of the realm, buried since 1614.
Since the peasants and labouring poor were illiterate, politically modest or immature and the process of election indirect, only 610 men were elected to the Third Estate. Most were lawyers who played an important economic role in provincial France; about a hundred were capitalists and businessmen.
The middle class had fought bitterly and successfully to win a representation as large as that of the nobility and clergy combined. They now fought with equal determination for the right to exploit their potential majority votes by turning the States-General into an assembly of individual deputies voting as such, instead of the traditional feudal body deliberating and voting by ‘orders’, a situation in which nobility and clergy could always outvote the Third.
On this issue the first revolutionary break-through occurred. Some six weeks after the opening of the States-General, now called the House of Commons, anxious to forestall action by King, nobles and clergy, constituted themselves and all who were prepared to join them in the National Assembly with the right to recast the constitution. An attempt at counter-revolution led them to formulate their claims virtually in terms of the English House of Commons. Absolutism was at an end as Mirabeau, a brilliant and disreputable ex-noble, told the King: ‘Sire, you are a stranger in this assembly, you have no the right to speak here.
The Third Estate succeeded, in the face of the united resistance of the king and the privileged orders, because it represented not merely the views of an educated and militant minority, but of far more powerful forces: the labouring poor of the cities, and especially of Paris, and shortly, also, the revolutionary peasantry.
The price of bread registered the political temperature of Paris with the accuracy of a thermometer, the Paris masses were the decisive revolutionary force.
Peasant revolutions are vast, shapeless, anonymous, but irresistible movements. What turned an epidemic of peasant unrest into an irreversible convulsion was a combination of provincial town risings and a wave of mass panic, spreading obscurely but rapidly across vast stretches of the country.
What turned a limited reform agitation into a revolution was the fact that the calling of the States-General coincided with a profound economic and social crisis. A bad harvest in 1788 (and 1789) and a very difficult winter made this crisis acute. Bad harvests always hurt the peasantry.
Under normal circumstances little more than blind-rioting might have occurred, But in 1788 and 1789 a major convulsion in the kingdom, a campaign of propaganda and election, gave the people’s desperation a political perspective. They introduced the tremendous and earth-shaking idea of liberation from gentry and oppression. A riotous people stood behind the deputies of the Third Estate.
Counter-revolution had turned a potential mass rising into an actual one. The old régime could have fought back with its armed force; though the army was no longer wholly reliable. Counter-revolution had mobilized the Paris masses, already hungry, suspicious and militant. The most sensational result of their mobilization was the capture of the Bastille, a state prison symbolizing royal authority, where the revolutionaries expected to find arms. In times of revolution nothing is more powerful than the fall of symbols. The capture of Bastille, which has rightly made July 14th into the French national day, ratified the fall of despotism and was hailed all over the world as the beginning of liberation.
All that remained of state power was a scattering of doubtfully triable regiments, a national Assembly without coercive force, and a multiplicity of municipal or provincial middle class administration which soon set up bourgeois armed National Guards, on the model of Paris.
Feudalism was not finally abolished until 1793. By the end of August the Revolution had also acquired its formal manifesto, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens.
The financial troubles of the monarchy brought matters to a head. The administrative and fiscal structure of the kingdom was grossly obsolete, and the attempt to remedy this by the reforms of 1774-76 failed. France became involved in the American War of Independence. Victory over England was gained at the cost of final bankruptcy. Various expedients were tried with diminishing success, but nothing short of a fundamental reform, which mobilized the real and considerable taxable capacity of the country could cope with a situation in which expenditure outran revenue by at least 20 per cent, and no effective economies were possible.
The French Revolution was not made or led by a organized party or movement in the modern sense, nor by men attempting to carry out a systematic programme. Nevertheless a striking consensus of general ideas among a fairly coherent social group gave the revolutionary movement effective unity. The group was the bourgeoisie; its ideas were those of classical liberalism, as formulated by the ‘philosophers’ and ‘economists’ and propagated by free- masonry and in informal associations. It would have occurred without them; but they made the difference between a mere breakdown of an old régime and the effective and rapid substitution of a new one.
In its most general form the ideology of 1789 was the Masonic one expressed with such innocent sublimity in Mozart’s Magic Flute.
More specifically, the demands of the bourgeois of 1789 are laid down in the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens of that year. This document is a manifesto against the hierarchical society of noble privilege.
‘Men are born free and live free and equal under the laws’, said its first article. Private property was a natural right, sacred, inalienable and inviolable.
“The source of all sovereignty”, said the Declaration, resides essentially in the nation. And the nation recognized no interest on earth above its own.
One of the earliest and most spectacular acts of the great uprising in Paris in July 1789 was to pursue the economic vampires who were widely rumored to have secreted away their booty. “Tremble, you who sucked the blood of poor unhappy wretches”, warned Marat. “These blood suckers either give an account of their larceny and restore to the nation what they have stolen or else, be delivered to the blade of law”.
One of the lessons of history is that when hunger and anger come together, people sooner or later, come on to the streets and demonstrates Lenin’s Maxim that in such situations voting with citizen’s feet is more effective than voting in elections. The bringing together of anger with hunger is like the meeting of two livewires. At their touch a brilliant incandescence of light and heat occurs. Just what and who would be consumed in the illumination is hard to tell.