Happy Birth of the Modern World Day

This is it. The biggie.

The American Revolution was all fine and dandy. A totally swell event. I’m hardly one to downplay the importance of the American Revolution, nor to characterize it as “conservative” or “moderate.” The Am Rev was radical and enormously important.

Storming of the Bastille

The New Orleans Times-Picayune celebrates the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, July 1926

But the French Revolution — whose beginning is traditionally held to be today, July 14, when Parisians overran the Bastille prison (which was where political and literary criminals were confined, and a hated symbol of the absolutist regime) — is the one that really changed everything, the one that created the modern world.

The American colonies were sparsely populated; France was the most populous nation in Europe, at a time when Europe was on the cusp of becoming the most powerful region of the globe. The American colonies had no genuine culture of their own; France was a world capital of literary and artistic culture. The American revolutionaries (if I may generalize) had no real problem with the British system of government, only its implementation; the French revolution, on the other hand, amounted to a sudden assault on not only the entire system of French governmental and religious power, but on the mentalities, social relationships, and habits of thought that had underpinned that power structure.

Eventually the Revolution led to a world war that changed the course of history in places like India, West Africa, and the Caribbean. (This also led to Britain’s global dominance in the 19th century.) It gave us the metric system (which the whole world uses) and a new calendar (which no one uses, but which is really cool). It gave us the guillotine, heads on pikes, a spectacular regicide, sansculottes, Jacobins, the “Terror,” and “let them eat cake” — forging the prototype and the iconography for our modern concept of what a revolution is, and the template for every major revolution since. It gave us the political geography of “right” vs. “left” — based on where the deputies of various factions in the National Assembly took their seats. Liberalism, radicalism, authoritarianism, conservatism — all these modern political categories were defined and reified by what happened in France in the decade that followed 1789.

A word about the conservative side. Edmund Burke (along with his ideological followers, the American Federalists) considered the French Revolution a disastrous calamity, a wrong turn on the path of history. Modern conservatism — a philosophy based not on the old idea of divine right of kings, which was essentially gone after 1793, but on the ideas that too rapid change is destructive and that “progress” is often an illusion — was a product of the French Revolution just as much as liberalism and radicalism.

Let’s not forget antislavery, either. In 1793 the Jacobin commissioners sent to the colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) declared the absolute, unconditional, immediate emancipation of the colony’s 500,000 slaves. True, they were really just ratifying what was already a reality on the ground, following Toussaint’s overthrow of the slave regime; but this nonetheless became the first abolition of slavery in a major slave society, 40 years before the British did it, 70 years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 84 years before the final abolition of slavery in Brazil.

When I was younger I was sort of an instinctive Burkean: I hated the Revolution’s excesses, its notorious violence. Now, as I get older, I see the violence as an inevitable outgrowth of the kind of society France was under the old regime, and the Jacobin urge towards what we would later call totalitarianism as a sort of involuntary continuation of the severe repression of Bourbon rule (a pattern that would be repeated in Russia after 1919, when the Bolsheviks duplicated many aspects of the Tsarist police state). I seem to be getting more radical as I get older, not more conservative, which is not the stereotypical pattern. But more and more I am starting to see the Revolution as it saw itself — as a triumph of human aspiration and imagination, an incredibly courageous reaching out for the notion of making the world what we want it to be, what we think it could be, rather than accepting what it is.

I think the key to it all is understanding how extremely durable, impressive, powerful, and eternal the old regime appeared, before 1789. The monarchy of the Bourbons was the wonder of the 18th century; they lived in the biggest and most beautiful palace in the world; the French aristocracy set the global standard for fashion and culture; French authors were read everywhere; the French language was a second tongue for elite children from London to St. Petersburg. And the regime’s power structures were awesome: a formidable army, colonies across the globe, intermarriage and kinship bonds with other ruling European families, a symbiotic relationship with the omnipresent Catholic Church, and a sophisticated apparatus of censorship and information control. Surely all this could not be defied, could not come crumbling down from mere popular opposition?

And then, so suddenly, it all did. By 1793: no more King, no more aristocracy, no more Church, no more “literary police.” Instead, liberty, equality, and fraternity; a Declaration of the Rights of Man; elections; abolition of slavery. And even further: war, famine, political terror, a new calendar starting at the Year One, a new state religion.

These incredible, unthinkable, and mindbogglingly rapid changes brought about a reversal in many peoples’ conception of history itself. From an old view that “nothing changes under the sun” we moved to a new understanding that profound change is not only possible but is in fact the natural state of things. The notion that the world has a trajectory, that things will not be that same for our kids as they were for us, was far, far more prevalent after 1789 than before. Think, for example, of all the nineteenth century thinkers, from Hegel to Marx and even Spencer and Darwin, whose theories were all based on the presumption of linear (not cyclical) change. Call it “progress” or “evolution,” it is basically the idea that the world changes, and that change has a directionality. Theirs was what you might call a post-Bastille consciousness. And this is the mental/historical consciousness we still live with today — when we vote for President, when we plan our lives, when we ponder our childrens’ future, when we wrestle with political and moral questions — and one of its deepest taproots is that day, 226 years ago today, when a crowd of hungry, unruly Parisians tore down a jail.

The first book I ever read on the Fr. Rev. was Simon Schama’s Citizens, which makes an engaging narrative I still recommend. The second was Michelet’s 1847 History of the French Revolution which I read in French (I was a show-off). Georges Lefebvre’s classic The Coming of the French Revolution is still a great path to understanding the Revolution’s origins. And R. R. Palmer’s brilliant Twelve Who Ruled is a wonderful study of Robespierre, the Jacobins, and the Terror. (DISCLAIMER: it’s not actually “my field”, I’m not up on the latest scholarship, and French historians would probably be appalled that all these books are so old. They’re not state of the field. But I still promise they are all good.)


  1. Kevin Leach - July 14, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

    Thanks Lo! Since I was very young, I always had a sense of revere for the fr rev and the Cuban rev that came with my parents teachings. As I have grown, I too lean further left. What are your thought on the Cuban rev? Is it still in progress?

    Darwin, btw, is one of the most fascinating stories ever. How do you sell chimps to churches? Outstanding marketing just not to be hanged!

  2. Lo - July 16, 2015 @ 2:06 pm

    Which Cuban Revolution, the 1890s or 1959-60? I’d say the first one was sadly co-opted and subverted by the US, and the second one had, shall we say, mixed outcomes, good in a material sense for many Cubans but bad for democracy and free speech, and it remarkable for how long the Castros have held on in the post-USSR world, but no I wouldn’t say it’s still in progress … but it’s not really my specialization so what do I know, really. Thanks for the comment

Comments are closed.