The French Revolution in the Minds of Men Author(s): Maurice Cranston Reviewed work(s): Source: The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), Vol. 13, No. 3 (Summer, 1989), pp. 46-55 Published by: Wilson Quarterly Stable URL: http://www. jstor. org/stable/40257906 . Accessed: 31/05/2012 21:13 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www. jstor. org/page/info/about/policies/terms. jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive.
We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected] org. Wilson Quarterly and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Wilson Quarterly (1976-). http://www. jstor. org 1789 THE FRENCH IN THE REVOLUTION OF MEN MINDS by Maurice Cranston July 14, 1989- BastilleDay- political and culturalleaders of every ideological persuasion assembled in Paristo celebratethe bicentennial of the French Revolution.
Was there something strange about their unanimous applause? All subsequent major revolutions, such as those that took place in Russia and China, remain controversialtoday. But the French Revolution, which served as the direct or indirect model for these later upheavals, now passes for an innocuous occasion which anyone, Marxistor monarchist,can join in celebrating. Wasthis proof only of the anaesthetizing power of time, that two centuries could turn the French Revolutioninto a museum piece, an exhibitionacceptable to all viewers, even to a descendent of the old Bourbon monarchs?
Or is there something about the French Revolution itself that, from its beginning, sets it apart from later revolutions? The tricouleur, the Marseillaise, the monumental paintings of David all celebrate a series of connected events, alternatelyjoyous and grim, which make up the real, historical French Revolution. But there is another French Revolution, one which emerged only after the tumultuous days were over and the events and deeds became inflated or distorted in the minds of later partisans. This is the French Revolution as myth, and it is in many ways the more importantof the two.
It is so, one could argue, because the myth, and not the reality, inspired the scores of revolutions that were to come. The actors of the French Revolution, anWQ SUMMER 1989 nouncing their principles on behalf of all mankind, clearly intended their deeds to have a mythic dimension. They wanted to inspireothers to follow their example. Consider the Declarationof the Rights of Man, passed in Augustof 1789. At no point does it refer to the specific conditions or laws of France. Instead, it speaks in grand universals, as if it were the voice of mankinditself.
Replete with terms like citizen, liberty,the sacred rights of man, the common good, the document provides the lexicon for all future revolutions. By contrast, the earlier revolutionary models which stirredthe French in 1789 to act- the English Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776- had been essentiallypolitical events, limited in scope and conservative in objectives. The English revolutionists claimed to restore the liberty that the despotic James II had destroyed; the American revolutionaries made the kindredclaim that they were only defending their rights against tyrannical measures introduced by George III.
Neither revolutionsought to change society. The French Revolution, however, sought to do exactly that. Indeed, to many of the more zealous French revolutionaries, the central aim was the creation of a new man- or at least the liberation of pristine man, in all his natural goodness and simplicity, from the cruel and corrupting prison of the traditionalsocial order. It is easy to see how this grandiose vision of the Revolution’s purpose went hand-in-handwith the emergence of Romanticism.
The great Romantic poets and philosophers encouraged people through- 46 1789 out the West to believe that imagination could triumph over custom and tradition, that everything was possible given the will to achieve it. In the early 1790s, the young William Wordsworth expressed the common enthusiasm for the seemingly brave and limitless new world of the Revolution: France standingon the top of golden hours, And human nature seeming born again. Here we encounter one of the many differences between reality and myth.
The reality of the French Revolution, as Tocqueville maintained, was prepared by the rationalist philosophers of the 18th-century Enlightenment, by Voltaire, Diderot, Helvetius, d’Alembert, and Holbach no less than by Rousseau. Its myth, however, was perpetuated during the 19th century by Ro- mantic poets such as Byron, Victor Hugo and Holderlin. Byron in his life and in his poetry bore witness to that romanticized revolutionary idealism, fighting and then dying as he did to help the Greeks throw off the Turkish yoke and set up a free state of their own.
The grandeur of its lofty aims made the French Revolution all the more attractive to succeeding generations of revolutionaries, real and would-be; the violence added theatrical glamor. The guillotine – itself an invention of gruesome fascination together with the exalted status of its victims, many of them royal, noble, or political celebrities, made the Terror as thrilling as it was alarming. The wars which broke out in 1793, when France declared war on Great Britain, Holland, and Spain, were fought not by professional soldiers but by conscripts, ordinary men who were ex-
Duringthe 1790s, the FrenchArmybecame the “schoolof the Revolution,”where volunteers learned to “knowwhat theyfoughtfor and love what they know. ” WQ SUMMER 1989 47 1789 pected to ”know what they fought for and love what they know. ” These wars were thought of as wars of liberation. It hardly matteredthat Napoleon turnedout to be an imperialist conqueror no better than Alexander or Caesar;he was still a people’s emperor. If historians of the French Revolution are unanimous about any one point, it is this:thatthe Revolutionbroughtthe people into French political life. To say that it inwould be to say too troduced “democracy” much.
Althoughpopularsuffragein varying degrees was institutedas the revolutionunfolded, no fully democratic system was set up. But popular supportcame to be recognized as the only basis for legitimatingthe nationalgovernment. Even the new despotism of Napoleon had to rest on a plebiscitary authority. These plebiscites, which allowed voters only to ratifydecisions already made, denied popular sovereignty in fact while paying tribute to it in theory. (The vote for the Constitutionwhich made Napoleon emperor in 1804-3,500,000 for versus 2,500 against hardlysuggestsa vigorous democracy. But if Napoleon’s government was not democratic, it was obviously populistic. The people did not rule themselves, but they approvedof the man who ruled them. The end of Napoleon’s empire in 1815, which was also in a sense the end of the historicalFrench Revolution,could only be brought about by the intervention of foreign armies. Those foreign armies could place a king on the throne of France, as they did with Louis XVIIIin 1815, but they could not restore the principle of royal sovereignty in the hearts of the French people. They simply put a lid on forces which would break ut in anotherrevolution 15 years later,this time not only in France but in other parts of the Westernworld. The French Revolution had turned the French into a republican people. Even when they chose a king- Louis-Philippe to lead that revolution of 1830, he was more of a republican prince than a royal sovereign in the traditional mold. LouisPhilippe,the “CitizenKing,”had to recognize, as part of his office, “the sovereignty of the nation. “And what kind of sovereign is it, one may ask, who has to submit to the sovereigntyof the nation?
The answer must clearlybe, one who is king neitherby grace of God nor birth nor lawfulinheritancebut only through the will of the people, who are thus his electors and not his subjects. of “sovereignty the nation”was a new and powerful idea, a revolutionaryidea, in the 19th century. At the philosophical level, it is usually asto cribed,with some justification, the teachof JeanJacques Rousseau, whom Eding mund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and many lesser commentators considered the ideologue of the French Revolution.
What Rousseau did was to separate the concept which he said should be kept of sovereignty, the people in their own hands, from the by which he urged the concept of government, people to entrustto carefullychosen elites, their moral and intellectual superiors. Rousseauheld that neither hereditarykings nor aristocratscould be considered superiors of this kind. Rousseau was uncompromisinglyrepublican. To him a republic could be based only on the collective will of citizens who contracted to live together under laws that they themselves enacted. “Myargument,”Rousseauwrote in TheSo-
Maurice Cranston, a former Wilson Center Guest Scholar, is professor of political science at the London School of Economics. Born in London, he was educated at St. Catherine’sCollege and The His OxfordUniversity. books include John StuartMill (1965),Jean-Jacques: EarlyLife and Work of Jean-JacquesRousseau, 1712-54 (1982), and John Locke: A Biography(1985). WQ SUMMER 1989 48 1789 Three Leaders Three Phases of the Revolution. The liberalMarquisde Lafayetteinitiallyguided the Revolution. GeorgesDanton helped overthrowthe monarchy,but was executedfor being too moderate. Robespierre was both directorand victim of the Terror. ial Contract, “is that sovereignty, being nothing other than the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated; and the sovereign, which is simply a collective being, cannot be represented by anyone but itself- power may be delegated, but the will cannot be. ” The sheer size of France, however, with a population in 1789 of some 26 million of people, precluded the transformation the French kingdom into the sort of direct democracy that Rousseau a native Swissthe Americanshad very reenvisaged. Still, cently proved that a nation need not be as small as a city-statefor a republican constitution to work.
And as an inspirationto the average Frenchman, the American Revolution was no less importantthan the writings of Rousseau. The American Revolution thus became a model for France,despite its conservative elements. Moreover,the AmericanRevolution later served as a model for others largely because its principles were “translated” and universalized by the French Revolution. In Latin America, the Spanish and Portuguesecolonies could not directly follow the American example and indict their monarchs for unlawfully violating their rights; Spain and Portugal, unlike England, recognized no such rights.
But following the example of the French RevoWQ SUMMER 1989 49 1789 lution, LatinAmericanslike Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martinwere able to appeal to abstract or universal principles. To describe Bolivia’s new constitution in 1826, Simon Bolivarused the same universaland idealisticcatchwordswhich the French had patented 37 years before: “In this constitution/’ Bolivar announced, “you will find united all the guarantees of permanency and liberty, of equality and order. ” If the South American republics sometimes seemed to run short on republican liberty nd equality,the concept of royal or imperial sovereignty was nonetheless banished forever from American shores. The short reign of Maximilianof Austriaas Emperor of Mexico ( 1864- 1867) provideda brief and melancholy epilogue to such ideas of sovereignty in the New World. Even in the Old World,royal and aristocratic governments were on the defensive. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna, under Prince Metternichof Austria’sguidance, attempted to erase the memory of the Revolution and restore Europe to what it had been before 1789.
Yet only five years after the Congress,Metternichwrote to the Russian tsar,AlexanderI, admitting,”Thegovernments, having lost their balance, are frightened, intimidated, and thrown into confusion. ” French Revolution had permanently destroyed the mystique on which traditional regimes were based. No king could indisputablyclaim that he ruled by divine right; nor could lords and bishops assume that their own interests and the nationalinterestscoincided. After the French Revolution, commoners, the hitherto silent majorityof ordinaryunderprivilegedpeople, asserted the right to have opinions of their own- and to make them known.
For once the ideas of liberty, democracy,and the rightsof men had been extracted from philosophers’treatises and put on the agenda of political actionwhich is what the French Revolution with its “universalprinciples”did- there could be no security for any regime which set itself againstthose ideals. In old history textbooks one can still find the interpretation of the French Revolutionfirstadvancedby Jules Micheletand Jean Jaures and other left-wing historians who explained the Revolution as one abolishing feudalismand advancing bourgeois capitalist society.
While few historians still view the Revolution this way,the Micheletinterpretation was widespread during the 19th century,and its currency promptedmany an aspiring Robespierreto “comThe revolutionaryuprisingin Frankfurt 1848. “Thedull sound plete” the revolution. in Completing the revoluof revolution,”which VictorHugo had detected “pushingout under every kingdomin Europe,”grew dramaticallyloud thatyear. tion meant overthrowing 50 WQ SUMMER 1989 1789 the bourgeoisie in favor of the working class, just as the bourgeoisie had supposedly overthrown the feudal aristocracyin 1789.
The convulsive year of 1848 was marked in Europe by several revolutions which attempted to complete the work of 1789. Their leaders all looked back to the FrenchRevolutionfor their “historicjustification. “Tocquevilleobservedof these revolutionaries that their “imitation [of 1789] was so manifestthat it concealed the terrible originalityof the facts;I continuallyhad the impression they were engaged in playactingthe FrenchRevolutionfar more than continuing it. If the 19th centurywas, as many historians describe it, the “century of revolutions,”it was so largelybecause the French Revolution had provided the model. As it turns out, the existence of a proper model has proved to be a more decisive prod to revolution than economic crisis, political unrest, or even the agitations of young revolutionaries. Indeed, the role of professionalrevolutionaries seems negligible in the preparation of most revolutions. Revolutionaries often watched and analyzed the political and social disintegrationaround them, but they were seldom in a position to direct it.
Usually,as HannahArendtobserved,”revolution broke out and liberated,as it were, the professional revolutionistsfrom wherever they happened to be- from jail, or from the coffee house, or from the library. ” Tocqueville made a similar observation about the revolutionaries of 1848: The French monarchy fell “before rather than beneath the blows of the victors, who were as astonishedat their triumph as were the vanquishedat their defeat. ” Disturbances which during the 18th century would hardly have proven so incendiary ignited one revolution after another during the 19th century.
They did so because now there existed a revolutionary model for respondingto crises. During the 1790s, revolutionaries outside of France such as ToussaintL’Ouverture Haiti and in Wolfe Tone in Ireland tried simply to import the French Revolution,with its ideals of nationalism,equalityand republicanism, and adapt it to local conditions. And well into the 19th century,most revolutionaries continued to focus their eyes not on the future but on the past- on what the French duringthe 1790s had done in roughlysimilar circumstances. e sure, the French Revolution possessed differentand even contradictory meanings, differences which reflect die various stages of the historical Revolution. The ideals and leaders of each stage inspired a particulartype of The revolutionarymen later revolutionary. of 1789-91, including the Marquisde Lafayette, inspired liberal and aristocratic revolutionaries. Their ideal was a quasiBritish constitutional monarchy and suffrage based on propertyqualifications. The revolutionariesof 1830-32 realizedthis liberal vision in France and Belgium.
The Girondins and moderate Jacobins of 1792-93 became the model for lowermiddle-class and intellectual revolutionaries whose political goal was a democratic republic and usually some form of a “welfare state. “The French Revolutionof 1848, with its emphasis on universal manhood suffrage and the state’s obligation to provide jobs for all citizens, initiallyembodied their vision of society. A third type of revolutionary,the extremists of 1793-94 such as Robespierre and GracchusBabeuf, inspired later working-classand socialist revolutionaries.
A reactionarysuch as Prince Metternich would hardly have distinguished among these three types of revolutionaries. But a later observer,Karl Marx,did. Seeing that the nationalist revolutions of his time igWQ SUMMER 1989 51 1789 Lenin (shown here in a 1919 photograph) exploitedthe precedentof the FrenchRevolution to legitimizethe BolshevikRevolutionin the eyes of the world. nored the socialist-radical strain of the French Revolution, he came to deplore its influence on later revolutionaries.
Marx,who by 1848 was alreadyactive in communist politics, condemned what he considered the confusion of understanding in most of these revolutionarymovements. An emotional yearning to reenact the dramas of 1789-1815 seemed to him to stand in the way of a successful revolutionary strategy. In a letter to a friend in September, 1870, Marxwrote: “The tragedyof the French, and of the working class as a whole, is that they are trapped in their memories of momentous events. We need to see an end, once and for all, to this reactionary cult of the past. ” VladimirIlyich Lenin had no such resWQ SUMMER 1989 ervations.
He passed up no rhetorical opportunityto present his Russian Bolsheviks as the heirs of the French revolutionary traditionand the RussianRevolutionof 1917 as a reenactment of France’sRevolution of 1789. Lenin went so far as to call his Bolshevik faction “the Jacobins of contemporarySocial-Democracy. ” is not difficult to understandLenin’s motives. Throughoutthe 19th century, most of the successful revolutions in Europe and Latin America had been nationalist revolutions. (Indeed, when the revolutionaryGerman liberals of 1848 issued their Declaration of Rights, they ascribed those rightsto the GermanVolkas a whole and not to privatepersons. But the 52 1789 into his hands but the ideology and propaexample of the French Revolution suga revolutioncould be more than ganda adopted by the Allied powers in gested that World War I did so as well. When their just a matter of nationalism. Takingthe example of the French Revolution under the earlymilitarycampaignswent badly,the Alfanatical Robespierre,one could argue, as lies attemptedto make the war more popuLenin did, that the true goal of revolution lar, and the enormous casualties more tolwas to alter the way people lived together, erable,by declaringtheir cause to be a war In for “liberty. the name of liberty,Great socially and economically. as we know, Lenin looked back Britain, France, and the United States enYet, a century when attempts at radical couraged the subject nations of the Gerupon social revolutions had been ultimatelyand man, Austrian and Turkish empires to uniformlyabortive. The French Revolution throw off the imperialyoke. of 1848, which removed the “liberal”King But in championingnationalliberty,the Allies were guilty of hypocrisy.
Neither Louis-Philippe,briefly gave greater power to the working class. Duringits most prom- GreatBritainnor France had any intention of permittingnationalistrevolutionswithin ising days, the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) even accepted a their own empires or those of any neutral seat in the legislative chamber. But the power. But Leninwas able to catch them in the trap of their own contradictions. coup d’etat of Napoleon III in 1851 soon brought an end to all this.
The communist By declaring to the world that the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 was a removement, which Marx described as a enactment of the French Revolution, he specter haunting Europe, produced no more tangible results than most specters was able to attach to his regime all those do. Before World War I, Marxwas notably less influential as a theoretician than were the champions of “revolutionary socialism” such as Proudhon and FerdinandLassalle(1825-1864) who persuaded the workers that their interestswould be better served by reform and democratic process than by revolution.
It was World War I which put revolutionarysocialism back on the agenda again. The “war to end all wars”gave Lenin the opportunityto persuade the world that the French Revolution could be repeated as a communist revolution in, of all with a Chinese face”: Mao’s Cultural Revolution “Robespierre places, Russia. Not only did hoped to realizeRobespierre’sdream of pushing beyondpolitical the upheavals of war play reformto remakeman and society. WQ SUMMER 1989 53 1789 strong, if mixed, emotions which the French Revolution had kindled in the outside world from 1789 on.
In symbolicways, both large and small- such as naming one of their first naval ships Marat, after the French revolutionaryleader- the early Soviets underscored their connection with the earlier revolution. The attempts of the Allied powers to send in troops to save TsaristRussiafrom the Bolshevikswas immediately seen by a war-wearyworld as a reactionary,counter-revolutionary”White Terror,”and public opinion soon put an end to that intervention. After1917,the Soviet Union’sself-image became less that of a revolutionaryregime socialist and more that of a well-established empire.
This transition unexpectedly enabled its adherents at last to obey Marx’s injunctionto abolish the cult of the revolutionary past and to fix their eyes on the present. The idea of revolutionthus passed from the left to the ultra-left,to Stalin and Trotskyand, later, to Mao Zedong and his CulturalRevolutionin China. Yet even during the extreme phase of the CulturalRevolution, Mao still evinced his debt to the French Revolution, a debt which he shares with the later “Third World”revolutionaries.
Whenever a revolutionary leader, from Ho Chi Minh and FrantzFanonto Fidel Castroand Daniel Ortega, speaksof a new man, or of restructuring a whole society, or of creating a new human order,one hears againthe ideas and assumptionsfirst sounded on the political stage during the French Revolution. fact, there can be no doubt that a “cultural revolution” is what Robespierre set afoot in France, and what, if he had lived, he would have tried to bring to completion. As a disciple of Rousseau, he truly believed that existing culture had corruptedmodern man in all classes of society, and that an entirely new culture was WQ SUMMER 1989 ecessaryif men were to recover their natural goodness. The new religious institutions which Robespierre introduced the cult of the Supreme Being and the worship of Truthat the altar of Reason, as well as the new patrioticfestivalsto replace the religious holidays were all intended to be part of what can only be called a cultural revolution. Robespierredid not believe that political, social, and economic changes alone, however radical,would enable men to achieve their full humanity.
But while the ideals and the languageof the cultural revolution sound nobler than those of the political revolution,such elevation of thought seems only to authorize greater cruelty in action. Robespierre’s domination of the French Revolution lasted for only a short period, from April 1793 until July 1794, when he himself died under the same guillotine which he had used to execute his former friendsand supposed enemies. Moderationwas restoredto the French Revolution after his execution by the least idealistic of its participants a a cynical Talleyrand, pusillanimousSieyes, and a crudely ambitious Napoleon. ikewise, moderation was restored to the Chinese Revolutionby the Chineseadmirersof Richard Nixon. Yet while moderation had been restored to the real historical French of Revolution,the inevitability the returnto was often conveniently ig”normalcy” nored by later revolutionaries. And what of France itself? At first glance, all the majorsubsequent “dates”of French history seem to be in a revolutionary tradition or at least of revolutionary magnitude- 1830 (Louis-Philippe); 1848 (the Second Republic); 1852 (the Second Empire); 1871 (the Third Republic); 1940 (the Vichy French State); 1945 (the Fourth Republic); 1958 (the Fifth Republic).
Yet these headline dates, all suggesting recurrent tumult, may be misleading:Francehas not been wracked by major upheavalsnor 54 1789 that left the structure by social earthquakes of society unrecognizable, as Russia and Chinawere aftertheir revolutions. Continuity may be the most striking feature in Frenchlife. Robertand BarbaraAnderson’s Bus Stop to Paris (1965) showed how a village not more than 10 miles from Paris remained unaffectedyear afteryear by all the great rumblingsin the capital. Are we dealing with a revolutionwhose myth is all out of proportionto the facts?
Tocqueville,that most dependableof all politicalanalysts,offersan answer:The major change effected by the Bourbon kings duringthe 17th and 18th centuries was the increasingcentralizationof France and the creation of a strong bureaucracyto administer it. This bureaucracy,in effect, ruled France then and has continued to rule it through every social upheaval and behind every facade of constitutionalchange. This bureaucracyhas providedstabilityand continuitythroughthe ups and downs of political fortune.
The French Revolutionand Napoleon, far from making an abrupt break with the past, continued and even accelerated the tendencytowardbureaucraticcentralization. Tocquevillealmost broached sayingthat the French Revolution never happened, that the events not only looked theatrical but were theatrical:The French could afford to have as many revolutions as they pleased, because no matter what laws they enacted, or what persons they placed in their legislative and executive offices, the same civil servants, the functionaries,the members of V would remain Administration, in command. any revolutions can the historian cite as having left the people better off at the end than they were at the beginning? Unfortunatelythe discrepancybetween its mythand its reality may have made the French Revolution a deceptive model for other nations to imitate. The mythtreatedsociety like a neutral, ahistoricalprotoplasmfrom which old corrupt institutions could be extracted and into which new rules for human interaction could be inserted at will. The reality was that France, with its unusually strong state bureaucracy, could withstand the shocks and traumas of radical constitutional upheaval.
In modern history, revolution often seems a luxurythat only privilegedpeoples such as the French and the Americansand the English can afford. Less fortunatepeoples, from the Russiansin 1918 to the Cambodians in 1975, on whom the burden of the establishedregimes weighed more cruelly, have often enacted their revolutions with catastrophicresults. It is perhaps one of the harsherironies of history that, since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the more a country appears to need a revolution, the less likely it will be able to accomplish one successfully. WQ SUMMER 1989 55