Culturally, the French Revolution provided the world with its first meaningful
experience with political ideology. The word, and the concept it expressed, were
revolutionary in origin. Indeed, it was Napoleon, a man who had no truck with idle
thought, who called the intellectual system-makers of the late eighteenth century
ideologues, abstractionists, or, as we have heard in recent years, "eggheads." The father
of the DuPont who founded the famous American chemical company was called an
ideologue by Napoleon. And this Pierre-Samuel DuPont de Nemours (1739-1817)
spent half a lifetime drawing up constitutions, writing letters, while also finding time to offer a learned paper to the American Philosophical Society on the language of ants, and to
inform his son that gout was the disease of the intellectual.
However, DuPont was not a brilliant mind, and Napoleon was an opinionated
soul. Despite these two figures, ideology triumphed; it directed the French Revolution,
and it soon grew, like roses on a bush or the heads of hydra--a matter of outlook, of
course--to provide the nineteenth century with an unusual number of competing
theoretical social systems.
What was ideology? It was and remains a system of ideas that are usually goal-
directed. Thus, it is a theoretical explanation of the world's situation and a prescription
for improvement or radical change of that situation. In this sense, ideology is rooted in
historical consciousness, in an awareness of mankind's progress through time and how
that progress might be redirected toward an alternate objective. Most ideologies are,
therefore, fundamentally political, bright descriptions of the means and methods by
which the instruments of revolution, party, or government ought be used for the
purpose of social change.
Ideology is, in a way, the secular equivalent of theology. It directs the believer's
attention to a perfected future when present woes will have dissipated and social
harmony will reign. The future, therefore, holds the promise for the ideologue that
heaven holds for the devout, religious-minded individual.
The introduction of ideology into the modern world was one major effect of the
new secular spirit of the eighteenth century. Once society was deemed to be man-
made--and here the influence of the Enlightenment is noticeable--then it could be
changed. Ideology was the prescription for that change. And the force of ideology was
felt throughout the modern era.
In sum, the French Revolution did many things, unleashed new forces,
destroyed old ideas, offered new promises. Not the Revolution itself, of course, but the
people who made it.
Many historians have described the French Revolution as the encounter of
competing classes. In such an appraisal the Revolution is seen to begin with aristocratic
protest against the absolute monarchy bequeathed by Louis XIV, then to enlarge in
scope as a bourgeois movement seeking fundamental political change, and, finally, to take on popular dimensions with working-class participation, particularly in Paris.
Certainly a most notable development of eighteenth-century political life was the
reassertion of the French nobility. During the reign of Louis XIV it had lost power and
had become noticeable only in show, in attendance at court and in participation in the
elaborate rituals that Louis XIV seemed to enjoy. After that monarch's death in 1715,
the nobility mustered its forces, with leadership now coming from the "nobility of the
robe," the legal and judicial sections, whose members wore the robes of magistrates,
and who raised matters of principle and law that reaffirmed the ancient rights of the
nobility and questioned the authority of the absolute monarchy.
In its first and nonactivist phase, from 1787 to 1789, the Revolution therefore
amounted to a legal debate between monarchy and aristocracy over the financing of
the state and the political authority which each claimed to enjoy and exercise. It was the
near bankruptcy of the state, largely caused by aid to the American revolutionaries,
that served as the immediate provocation for aristocratic opposition in 1787, when an
Assembly of Notables (consisting of aristocrats), called by the king and his finance
minister, demanded political authority in return for tax reform. This assembly achieved
nothing but further aggravation between monarch and aristocracy. However, if the
aristocracy now presumed to speak in the name of the "nation," it certainly made no
request to extend the political base of the nation.
Such an extension was demanded and obtained by the bourgeoisie, who ushered
in the major phase of the French Revolution. To quote again the words of Georges
Lefebvre, "The Revolution of 1789 restored the harmony between fact and law." The
fact was that the bourgeoisie were the most significant economic element within
France. The wealth they generated and the professions they filled were far more
important than the political role they were allowed by tradition and law to play.
Through revolutionary ideology and institutional change, the bourgeoisie gained a
political authority not known before in any European country. In this sense, the French
Revolution was a bourgeois revolution. The abolition of aristocratic privileges, the
confiscation of church and aristocratic lands and their purchase by the bourgeoisie, and
the removal of internal obstacles to trade and commerce allowed the middle class
greater economic and social mobility.
In rhetoric and institution, the French Revolution was a liberal revolution, in
which the liberty of the individual was proclaimed, private property was respected.
Later, when Napoleon announced his doctrine of "careers open to talent," he was
following revolutionary thought and also anticipating the Horatio Alger theme of
"pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps." In truth, the ideology of the Revolution
amounted to extended praise of the "self-made man."
Yet it should not be assumed that revolutionary practice directly followed
revolutionary principle. The exigencies of the time--war, counterrevolution,
factionalism within the various governments--combined to tempt the revolutionary
leaders to shelve most of the ideals until peace and calm were restored. The most
influential factor in this decision was the war which the French began, out of fear of
foreign invasion, on April 20, 1792. As the "Declaration of Revolutionary Government,"
issued on October 10, 1793, succinctly stated: "The provisional government of France is
revolutionary until the peace." Put otherwise, revolutionary times required
revolutionary, not democratic, government. The now familiar arguments about
"national security" were then new, but no less disturbing.
The problem of war against France--England had joined Prussia and Austria in
April of 1793--and the problem of provisioning the home population with sufficient
staples--again the issue of "bread"--complicated government and allowed another social
element to play an important role in the Revolution. This element was the multitude,
variously called the "crowd," "the mob," or the "rabble." Thomas Carlyle, trying to paint
a fiery-bright picture of the Revolution, described Paris in the second week of July 1789
as already a city in which "the streets are a living foam-sea.... Mad Paris is abandoned
altogether to itself." From his mid-nineteenth-century perspective, Carlyle viewed the
crowd as an uncontrolled mob, blood-thirsty and wild-eyed.
Recent scholarship has disputed and abandoned this view. Today we know the
so-called "mob" was composed primarily of lower middle-class artisans, that their initial
behavior was no more disorderly than that of protest movements we witness with
great frequency in our own age. Far from wishing to be part of a "spontaneous
anarchy," as a French contemporary of Carlyle's saw the situation, the Parisian crowds
were set upon relieving the unsatisfactory living conditions they felt had resulted from
a government both mismanaged and insensitive.
This urban crowd was made up of the sans-culottes, the craftsmen, skilled and
semi-skilled workers who wore no knee breeches (culottes ), hence who enjoyed few of
the benefits of the wealthy and the aristocratic. They were interested in having their
immediate grievances righted; high-flung ideological considerations were of no concern
In a way, therefore, the revolutionary forces that disturbed France in the
summer of 1789 were coincidental: the coming together at a particular time of people
protesting their economic plight and people seeking fundamental governmental
reform. As many critics have asserted, it was the weight of the urban crowds and the
direction of the reform-minded bourgeoisie that gave the French Revolution its force.
At no time was the importance of the sans-culottes more obvious than in the years
1792 and 1793, in that extended moment of transition from constitutional monarchy to
republican government. According to the eminent French historian Albert Soboul, the
sans-culottes were representative of popular democracy. They disdained the aristocrats
and viewed with contempt the airs and manners of the rich and well-born. In a public
display without precedent in Paris, they strolled the fashionable boulevards where
before would have been seen only the knee-breechered gentleman with gold-headed walking stick and fair-headed companion in hand.
As the Revolution became more popular in support, it also became more
intolerant; this dual situation occurring in the years 1793 and 1794, when the Jacobin
faction, that most closely identified with the people of Paris and with democracy, was
supreme. (The Jacobins were named after their meeting place in a monastery in the rue
St. Jacob.) In June 1793 the Jacobins effectively removed their political opposition and
proclaimed a "republic one and indivisible," in which legislative power would be
predominant. The ascendancy of the legislative assembly had begun earlier and had
reached an important stage in April 1793, when the Committee of Public Safety was
established. This twelve-man group was, as its title suggests, responsible for the well-
being of the state. But by the summer of 1793, when the Jacobins had reorganized the
Committee and effectively controlled the government, the revolutionaries were
exhibiting a political ruthlessness unlike any seen before. As they set out to eliminate
their enemies, they seemed to follow the cynical imperative coined at the time: "Be my
friend, or I will kill you."
It was during the Reign of Terror, 1793-1794, that revolutionary tribunals meted
out hasty justice. Opponents of the regime, revolutionaries themselves, fell beneath the
blade of the guillotine. This was the awful period in which "the Revolution devoured its
own." Some eleven thousand individuals died as enemies of the state, and their deaths
added up to a new, horrendous activity of modern Western civilization:
institutionalized violence, the harsh elimination of political opposition by the state.
Later, Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany would cause the figures of the French
Revolution to seem small. Unfortunately, the mass age would also mean mass
The Terror was spent by the summer of 1794, when reaction against it set in. The
end was reached at the moment the individual most frequently identified with the
harshness of revolutionary retribution, Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794), was
himself beheaded on July 28, 1794. It is important to note that Robespierre came closest
to being the revolutionary "hero." A lawyer and one of the first declared republicans,
Robespierre was a man of determination, anxious to see the Revolution realized
according to his lights. Many say that Robespierre was Rousseau's translator, taking
the philosopher's ideas on equality and civil government and making them public
policy. Yet Robespierre's political behavior was far from democratic. Elected to the
Committee of Public Safety in July 1793, he soon came to dominate that group, hence
dominate the revolutionary government. He exhibited himself as a ruthless individual,
incorruptible, dictatorial, impersonal, and determined to sweep away all who opposed
the Revolution. He urged the war on against the monarchical powers of France, and he
encouraged the Reign of Terror. He was feared and unloved. He was the image of the
modern revolutionary whose profession and passion are political.
But for all this, Robespierre was not of the heroic dimensions of a George Washington or a V. I. Lenin. The French Revolution did not support such a person. It
almost seemed as if individuals followed the Revolution, did not lead it. Some French
historians of a romantic bent have insisted that the real hero of the revolutionary
decade was the French people, a collectivity then acting with one mind, feeling with one
Certainly, the French Revolution had a quality of spontaneity, of accident, that
later revolutions would not have. There was no clearly defined revolutionary party or
conspiratorial group that initially plotted the Revolution, and the contending factions
that followed after the Revolution had occurred never gained a firm grip on the
nation's imagination or its institutions. The Jacobins came closest, but their
unchallenged period of rule was limited, lasting only a year.
It must be remembered that the French Revolution was the first major social
revolution, of far greater dimensions and of deeper purpose than the American
Revolution that had preceded it. Only the Russian Revolution of November 1917, the
one that ushered in modern Communism, would rival in world importance what
occurred in France between 1789 and 1799. Underlying this extended dramatic
development was the new belief that revolution was the most effective means to
achieve political and, consequently, social change. Not reform from within, but
overthrow from without appeared to be the new law of political physics.
The ten years of the French Revolution have since been reviewed in terms of the
old historical concern with change and continuity. To the revolutionary demand for a
"new secular order" came the conservative response that society can never be built
anew. According to this interpretation, we are all inescapably part of our own age--
historically determined, hence socially indebted to previous generations. The usual
analogy made to support this argument was that of a house: the present occupant can
renovate, alter, add new wings; but if an attempt is made to remove the foundation, the
whole structure will collapse.
At the basis of the debate over what the French Revolution could and did
accomplish is to be found the nineteenth-century concern with liberalism and
conservatism. To sweep away the old and begin the new was the liberal solution; it was
predicated upon the assumption that human nature was essentially good, mankind
essentially rational, and the purpose of life the "pursuit of earthly happiness." To respect
the past, to work within the social structure that now exists so that it is modified, not
destroyed, was the conservative solution; it was predicated upon the assumption that
human nature was weak, mankind essentially selfish, and the purpose of life the search
for social stability and order.
Equally enduring as a historical problem was the position of the French
Revolution on the time scale: was the Revolution the end of one era or was it the
beginning of another? It seems to have been both: it ended a world based on tradition,
on blood-right, on fixed social status. In principle and by legislation, it made the individual citizen the center of a new social order. The social order should, therefore, be designed to maximize this freedom, this personal liberty.
NEXT: The Age of Napoleon