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Warnings for Today from the French Revolution

It’s Bastille Day—an occasion to heed the echoes of 1789 in 2022.
July 14, 2022
Warnings for Today from the French Revolution
Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.

An ineffectual and unpopular leader; a country beset by economic troubles exacerbated by a two-year-long natural calamity; a political class mired in bickering, resentments, ambitions, and petty rivalries and chronically unable to accomplish necessary reforms; rampant populist resentment against the elites; a society in the grip of ideas—some profound, some quacky and conspiratorial—that challenge its foundations; publications elevating a cacophony of voices once unheard.

Welcome to France in 1789, on the eve of the revolution that officially began with the taking of the Bastille fortress on July 14—the day the French now commemorate as Bastille Day.

Obviously, comparisons between France in the late eighteenth century and the United States in 2022 are of limited use. Our economic difficulties after the COVID-19 pandemic are hardly in the same league as those of France in 1789, when skyrocketing food prices forced working-class men and women to spend close to 100 percent of their earnings just to keep starvation at bay. The effectiveness of the French political class was hamstrung by the near-absolute power of the King. Hatred of the elites in pre-revolutionary France was driven not just by cultural and economic grievances but by the fact that the aristocracy and the clergy determined (and received) legally defined privileges, including tax exemptions. And, most important, the population of France did not have the ability to change the country’s leadership via ballots, so they had to opt for bullets instead.

And yet echoes of 1789—and the other banner year of the French Revolution, 1793, which ushered in the Reign of Terror—continue to fascinate and find resonance in twenty-first-century political rhetoric. Those echoes include the right-wing casting of Hillary Clinton as Queen Marie Antoinette, entitled and fatally out of touch with the populace. They also include the fondness for guillotine memes on the left.

One reason these themes hold such a fascination, perhaps, is that in many ways the French Revolution has shaped the language of the modern world—including the very concepts of left and right, which derive from the accident of seating arrangements in the National Assembly that replaced the Estates General in June 1789. (Supporters of the monarchy sat to the right of the presiding officer, liberal reformers to the left.) The words “terror” (in its modern political meaning) and “terrorist” are also of French revolutionary origin. The French Revolution inspired critics both conservative (e.g., Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France) and reactionary (e.g., the work of Joseph de Maistre); it also sowed the seeds of utopian progressive totalitarianism via the Jacobin dictatorship of 1793-94, which arose partly in response to wartime emergency but was also fueled by ideological fanaticism and dreams of remaking the world and even human nature through righteous violence. One of the Revolution’s moderate political theorists, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, arguably foreshadowed the concept of totalitarianism in a 1795 speech in which he noted that a republic that demanded total devotion and unity from its citizens was no longer a “re-publique,” or “public matter,” but a “re-totale.”

So, with all those echoes and parallels, what lessons can the French Revolution offer us today at a distance of more than 230 years?

Here are just a few:

Narratives beat facts. Much of what we “know” about the French Revolution today comes direct from the “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” department. The oft-debunked story about Marie Antoinette dismissing the poor clamoring for bread with “Let them eat cake” is the best-known example, but many other clichés live on. Take the idea that the Reign of Terror primarily targeted the aristocracy—which has been perpetuated both by reactionaries like Scarlet Pimpernel author Baroness Orczy and by leftists who cackle about chopping the “one percent.” In fact, as the leftist website CrimethInc points out:

Between June 1793 and the end of July 1794, 16,594 people were officially sentenced to death in France, including 2639 people in Paris. Of the formal death sentences passed under the Terror, only 8 percent were doled out to aristocrats and 6 percent to members of the clergy; the rest were divided between the middle class and the poor, with the vast majority of the victims coming from the lower classes.

Revolutions eat their children. Yes, it’s a cliché—one that, as it happens, also has its origin in the French Revolution: “Like Saturn, revolutions devour their children,” wrote moderate-turned-royalist Jacques Mallet du Pan from his exile in Switzerland in 1793. Even so, it’s nearly always true. (The American Revolution is one of the exceptions.) Even the nobles who perished in the Reign of Terror were, more often than not, liberal reformers rather than hardcore monarchists, if only because the latter were far more likely to emigrate before heads started falling. Other than the royal couple, the Terror’s most notable victims were revolutionaries themselves, from the Girondins—republicans who rapidly went from being the Revolution’s radicals to being its conservatives and then its “enemies of the nation”—to Georges Danton and finally to the Terror’s own leaders, including Maximilien Robespierre.

Twists of fate may shape history. The royal family’s disastrous attempt to escape France and join anti-revolutionary forces over the border (the so-called “Flight to Varennes”) ended in their capture, largely through a series of mistakes and accidents that slowed down the journey. This ill-fated venture not only doomed the efforts of moderates like Lafayette to preserve the constitutional monarchy, which existed on borrowed time from the moment the king and his family were brought back to Paris, but caused public confidence in the moderates to plummet while boosting the stock of radicals like Jean-Paul Marat (who called not only for the overthrow of the monarchy but for large-scale terror against enemies of the Revolution). It’s hard to say how the things might have changed if the royal family’s escape had succeeded—but if it had never been attempted, or if it had been nipped in the bud before it became public knowledge, it’s tempting to speculate that the Revolution might not have spun out of control.

The dangers of normalizing political violence. France had no mechanism for either the peaceful transfer of power or the reform of power, so in retrospect some level of violence seems inevitable. But from the beginning, the Revolution was also marked by grisly brutality against perceived evildoers. The most dramatic example of this was the lynching of finance minister Joseph Foullon de Doué and his son-in-law, the intendant of Paris Louis Bertier de Sauvigny, on July 22, 1789; both men, named as culprits in paranoid rumors about a “famine plot” to starve the population of Paris, were hanged from lampposts and then beheaded, their severed heads carried on pikes through city streets. After some Assembly members voiced dismay at the killings, others rose to excuse them as a justifiable expression of popular anger; one, Antoine Barnave, rebuked his “tender-hearted” colleagues and suggested that the victims deserved little pity because the spilled blood was not “pure” but tainted by their offenses. Predictably, Barnave himself later joined the ranks of such “impure” victims.

When the Republic was established in September 1792 and the mass of (male) French citizens acquired the ability to change their government at the ballot box, the habit of political violence persisted. On May 31, 1793, a Paris mob invaded the hall of the national legislature—the Convention—and demanded the expulsion and arrest of the Girondin deputies. The mob, supported by Robespierre’s radical Montagnard faction, prevailed. Long before the ascent of Napoleon, that was the end of France’s first experiment in liberty.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.