REMEMBER THE BASTILLE, BUT HONOR ROBESPIERRE AND SAINT-JUST.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION-FROM ITS ORIGINS TO 1793, VOLUME 1; FROM 1793-1799, VOLUME 2, GEORGES LEFEBVRE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS,
NEW YORK, 1962, 1964
This year marks the 225th anniversary of the beginning of the Great French Revolution with storming of the Bastille on July 14th. An old Chinese Communist leader, the late Zhou En Lai, 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 reading the history of that revolution.
Professor Lefebvre’s two volume account of that revolution is still a good place to start. Although scholarship on various aspects of the French Revolution has mushroomed since his books first appeared, especially around the time of the 200th anniversary of the revolution, most of that work has been very specialized. After over 40 years these volumes still set the standard for a general overview of the convulsions of French and European society before the rise of the Napoleonic period.
The French Revolution, like its predecessor the American Revolution, is covered with so much banal ceremony, flag- waving, unthinking sunshine patriotism and hubris it is hard to see the forest for the trees. The Bastille action while symbolically interesting is not where the real action took place nor was it politically the most significant event. For militants that comes much later with the rise of the revolutionary tribunals and the Committee of Public Safety under the leadership of the left Jacobins Robespierre and Saint Just. Their overthrow in 1794 by more moderate members of their own party, in what is known as the Thermidorian reaction, stopped the forward progression of the revolution although it did not return it back to the old feudal society. The forces unleashed by the revolution, especially among the land hungry peasantry, made that virtually impossible. In short, as has happened before in revolutionary history, the people and programs which supported the forward advancement of the revolution ran out of steam. The careerists, opportunists and those previously standing on the sidelines took control until they too ran out of steam. Not for the first or last time, the precarious balance of the different forces in society clashed and called out for a strongman. Napoleon was more than willing to be obliging when that time came.
The values of the Enlightenment- the believe that human beings can more or less rationally order the way they organize society in the interest of social justice and human dignity- are under extreme attack today. These Enlightenment values are reflected in the successes and failures of the French revolution. So what can militants of the 21st century gather from those tumultuous experiences as we try to extend the gains of that revolution and defend Enlightenment values against the ‘bully boys and girls’ of this world? The most obvious is that the very fact of the French revolution changed the whole nature of political discourse by the creation of a civil society. Today, that task may seem of little importance. However, at the time the vast majority of the population was treated by the old regime as a brute, silent herd. And was suppose to like it, to boot! Seem familiar.
The French Revolution also highlights the need to defend the revolution against both active internal counterrevolutionary elements of the old regime and foreign powers opposed to the new order, the new way of doing business in society. This necessity had also occurred previously in the English revolution where continental powers allied with segments of the old royal establishment tried to use Ireland and Scotland as bases to return the Stuarts to power. Later, in the Russian revolution that same phenomenon occurred with the White Guards and a seemingly world-wide array of hostile powers. In short, the old order will not give up without a fight. We should have that lesson etched in our brains.
Probably the greatest service that Professor Lefebvre provides in his volumes is to encourage an understanding of the relationship of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces. That is, the policies of the various post-1989 governments in reaction to the various forces in Europe, particularly but not exclusively the British, that most certainly were trying overthrow the revolution and either return to the previous status quo or make France a subordinate client state. In fact, this writer argues that one cannot understand French domestic governmental policy in this period without an understanding of that interconnectedness. The various revolutionary governmental forms, culminating with the Committee of Public Safety under Robespierre, were increasingly charged with defense of the revolution by putting France on a multi-front war footing. That meant both raising troops, one way or another, and assuring the support of the sans-culottes and small peasant landowners by appropriate measures. Whether, those governments did that well or poorly is up to the reader to decide. In any case, thanks, Professor Lefebvre.