*ROBESPIERRE AND THE GREAT FRENCH REVOLUTION
Click on the title to link to a "Wikipedia" article on French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre.
IN THE TIME OF THE GREAT FRENCH REVOLUTION
REMEMEBER THE BASTILLE, BUT HONOR ROBESPIERRE AND SAINT JUST.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, HISTORY CHANNEL PRODUCTION, 2004
This year marks the 218th anniversary of the beginning of the Great French Revolution with storming of the Bastille on July 14th 1789. An old Chinese Communist leader, the late Zhou Enlai, was once asked by a reporter to sum up the important lessons of the French Revolution. In reply he answered that it was too early to tell what those lessons might be. Whether that particular story is true or not it does contain one important truth. Militants today at the beginning of the 21st century can still profit from an understanding of the history of the French Revolution.
There are many books that outline the history of that revolution. I have reviewed some of them in this space. Probably the most succinct overview, although it was written over one half century ago, is Professor Georges Lefebvre’s study. For those who want a quick visual overview of the main events and political disputes the History Channel production under review has a lot to recommend it. The production covers all the main pre-revolutionary problems confronting France at the time, including its terrible debt problems caused in the main by its support of the American Revolution to the political, social and, yes, sexual inadequacies of Louis XVI. As has been noted by many commentators on revolution, including myself, one of the prerequisites for revolution is that the old regime can no longer govern in the same way. The personage of Louis XVI seemingly fits that proposition to a tee.
The production goes on to highlight the key events. Obviously, and most visibly, the storming of the Bastille that opened up the cracks in the old monarchial regime. It details the struggle to create a constitutional monarchy through the various legislative assemblies that sought to carry out the reforms necessary to bring France into the modern age short of declaring a republic. And also the attempts, including by Louis himself, by forces of the old regime to return the old monarchy or stop the revolution in its tracks. When those efforts failed and the revolution began in earnest the production details the internal struggle by the revolutionaries, most notably the great fight between the Girondins and Jacobins for power, and the formation of the republic. After the defeat of the Girondins this led to the further fights to ‘purify’ the revolution among the Jacobin forces and the reign of the Robespierre-led Committee of Public Safety that consolidated the gains of the revolution through the ‘Reign of Terror’. Finally, the downfall and execution of Robespierre in 1794 represented the reaction that most revolutions exhibit when the political possibilities for further leftward revolutionary moves are no longer tenable.
There are many great scenes portrayed here as well. The murder of Marat by Corday. The Festival of the Supreme Being. The oratory of Danton and many more scenes that give one a pretty good general feel for the dynamics of the revolution. Included are ‘talking head’ comments by noted historians of the revolution giving their take on the meaning of various events. This is a plus. The major negative is in the axis of presentation. Almost fatalistically the emergence of Robespierre is intertwined throughout all of the earlier events giving the impression that he was inevitably bound to take power. And, also inevitably, due to the excesses of the ‘Reign of Terror’, to lose it. This may be good documentary presentation form but it is bad history. Revolutions, particularly great revolutions, are few and far between. They are messy affairs at the time and reamin the same seen through the historical lens. Nevertheless if the social tensions in society could always, or should always, be resolved in a nice non- violent parliamentary way there would be no revolutions. Damn, where would that leave us as the inheritors of the sans-culottes tradition?