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What can we learn from the French Revolution?

By Marisa Linton


The world has seen a new wave of revolutions; in North Africa, the Middle East, and beyond, we can see revolutions unfolding on our tv screens even if we’ve never been near an actual revolution in our lives. The experience makes us think anew about the nature of revolutions, about what happens, and why it may happen. Revolutions are born out of hope for a better future. People who participate in revolutions do so believing in the possibility that they can transform their circumstances. They may be ready to make immense personal sacrifices, even sometimes their own lives, in the struggle to create a genuine democracy, where government would be an instrument of the people’s will, rather than a source of power and enrichment for a privileged and corrupt elite.

The lion of Egyptian revolution at the Qasr al-Nil Bridge. Photo by Kodak Agfa from Egypt, 2011. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

The lion of Egyptian revolution at the Qasr al-Nil Bridge. Photo by Kodak Agfa from Egypt, 2011. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet such a fledgling democracy born out of revolution can be fragile. Its leaders have to learn how to manage the new business of politics, often with very little previous experience. Revolutions are by their very nature unstable and perilous, often beset by internal conflict and outside intervention. State violence and militarism can bring a return to stability, but at a price. Revolutionary leaders who started out as humanitarian idealists, given certain circumstances, may adopt brutal methods; they may choose to use political violence, even terror, either to defend the gains of the revolution or, more cynically, to maintain themselves in power. The quest for liberty and equality can be a disheartening experience.

How does such a transformation from boundless hope to the nightmare of terror come about? Is there any way it can be avoided? One way to reconsider this problem is to look at revolution as a process, and to study how the process of revolution unfolded in previous revolutions. By taking a comparative approach we can throw light on how certain choices made by people in positions of power had particular consequences. Above all, we can consider what kind of circumstances could lead to revolutionary leaders choosing terror.

The French Revolution that broke out 1789 became a model for future revolutions. It was in the course of the French Revolution that the idea of political terror was invented; the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ were coined in late 1794 to describe the regime that had been overthrown the previous July, that of Robespierre and the Jacobins. We should be wary, though, of making simplistic comparisons; the Jacobin version of terror was different in many ways to the modern phenomenon. When we speak of ‘terrorism’ in the modern era we think of anarchic movements directed against the government and innocent bystanders, of bombs, of suicide bombers. The Terror in the French Revolution was different. It was not directed against the government; it was led by the government. It was a legalised terror.

La Liberté guidant le peuple by Eugène Delacroix, 1830. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

La Liberté guidant le peuple by Eugène Delacroix, 1830. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

So what makes idealistic, humanitarian people choose terror? Too often the French revolutionary leaders have been glibly compared to twentieth-century dictators. The leaders of the French Revolution weren’t all-powerful dictators. Nor were they violent psychopaths. Most of them were genuine idealists, even if they also sought to derive personal advantage from events, by forging a career for themselves in revolutionary politics. They did not set out to become terrorists; it was a path that they took, step by step, making contingent choices along the way.

Political inexperience was a key problem. France had no tradition of representative politics — of the tactics, backroom deals, political image-making — all the rather cynical, sometimes frankly seedy, business that is day-to-day politics. The revolutionaries’ baptism of fire came through transformative politics — the politics of revolution — which they invented even as they practised it. After this tumultuous beginning, they found it hard to establish a stable politics. Revolutionary politics had been constructed in deliberate contrast to the system that had existed under the monarchy: a system that had been opaque, corrupt, venal and self-serving, with power concentrated in the hands of the king and a few powerful court nobles with their ‘behind closed doors’ influence. At the same time the French revolutionaries also rejected the corrupt party politics and cronyism that characterised the English parliament in the 1790s.

Instead, the French revolutionaries were committed to transparent politics. They believed that every national representative should think only of the public good; his public and private life should be an open book, reflecting the purity of his devotion to the patrie. This volatile political birthing process might well have settled down given time. During the early years of the Revolution a constitutional monarchy was established, along with a limited franchise based on property-holding, and to all intents and purposes the Revolution was over.

But a series of factors destabilised the new regime. Chief amongst these was the counter-revolutionary opposition of many leading nobles, who resented their loss of power and prestige; they would never accept the Revolution and did all they could to undermine it. The greatest betrayal of all was that of the king himself who, in June 1791, attempted to flee his country, getting close to the border before he was intercepted and brought back. The onset of war with the major foreign powers in April 1792 put France under increased threat, and ratcheted up the tension, making internal compromise all but impossible. War in turn led directly to the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the first French Republic. Further betrayals took place as leading generals, Lafayette and later Dumouriez, attempted to turn the French armies on the representative assembly and to overthrow it by force. Suspicion, polarisation and renewed internal conflict were a consequence of such betrayals. A further factor was the anarchic violence of the people on the streets. This violence, and the threat of further popular violence, helped maintain the revolutionary leaders in power, yet the leaders were all too aware that this anarchic violence might at any time be turned on themselves if they failed to deliver.

It was largely in response to popular street violence that in September 1793 the revolutionary leaders set up a legalised system of terror, bringing violence under state control, though they preferred to think of it as justice — the swift and often brutal justice of a wartime government under pressure. Ironically, the revolutionary leaders were hardest on themselves; they too were subject to terror. Many revolutionary leaders were accused — in most cases falsely — of being the ‘enemy within’, secretly in league with the counter-revolutionaries and the foreign invaders to subvert the Revolution for their own benefit, even to destroy it. They had no parliamentary immunity, and were relatively unprotected whether from terror, assassination or any other form of violence that might be used against them. They had no personal defences, no bodyguards, and they were not hidden away behind palace walls. Most lived in lodging houses, hotels and private homes. Robespierre himself lived, not in a palace, but as a lodger in the house of a master carpenter.

In this, as in many other ways, the French revolutionary leaders were unlike Stalin and other twentieth-century dictators. In the Year II many of the leading revolutionaries fell victim to the Terror that they had helped to set up. The revolutionary leaders were afraid and with good reason. They were desperate to show their own integrity, that they could not be bought by the counter-revolution. And this very fear in its turn made them pitiless with one another. They dealt out terror in part because they too were terrorised. Paradoxically, the Terror emerged partly from the relative weakness of the revolutionary leaders. The Jacobins used coercive violence and the power of fear to subdue their enemies, including opponents from their own ranks, ‘the enemy within’. Terror was motivated less by abstract ideas, than by the gut-wrenching emotion of fear on the part of the people who chose it.

As a Jacobin leader, Robespierre had supported the use of terror. He made some of the key speeches seeking to justify its use in order to sustain the Republic. But he was far from alone, and very far from being the dictator of a Reign of Terror — that was a myth perpetrated by the revolutionaries who overthrew him out of terror for their own lives, not because they wanted to dismantle the Terror. These surviving former terrorists ensured that Robespierre and the group around him took the rap posthumously for the Terror; even whilst they opportunistically reinvented themselves as men who had kept their hands clean.

Robespierre himself remains a complex figure. He was known as ‘the Incorruptible’ — a quality almost as rare in contemporary politics as it was in his lifetime. He was that rare figure, a conviction politician. For nearly thirty years now, since long before I became a professional historian, I have been haunted by a question: what led a man like Robespierre (and others like him) who at the start of the Revolution was a humanitarian opposed to the death penalty, to chose terror four years later? I’m not the first person to ask this question. Many historians have asked it and come up with very different answers. But then historians always disagree with one another, and few people have divided historical opinion as much as Robespierre. Yet two things I do know: firstly that the answer has to be sought not in some warp of Robespierre’s personality, but in the politics of the Revolution itself; and secondly, that in addressing it there is no room for complacency.

To understand the French revolutionaries is to better understand ourselves. We have cause to be grateful that we have not been confronted with such choices, in such circumstances, and with such tragic consequences, as they faced in their own lives.

Marisa Linton is a leading historian of the French Revolution. She is currently Reader in History at Kingston University. She has published widely on eighteenth-century France and the French Revolution. She is the author of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution (2013), The Politics of Virtue in Enlightenment France (2001) and the co-editor of Conspiracy in the French Revolution (2007).

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2 Responses to “What can we learn from the French Revolution?”
  1. As it was the peasants who drove many of the revolts leading up to the beginning of the French Revolution, such as the Day of the Tiles (Grenoble, France, June, 1788) and the Réveillon Riots (Paris, France, April, 1789), I wonder if the politicians who were able to harness the peasants’ anger were those who grew powerful.

    Debra Borchert, Author, “Not Our Blood,” one of many stories of the French Revolution.

  2. [...] are some recent thought on the question of revolution and revolutions, by Marisa Linton, and Dave [...]

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