Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Failure of the French Revolution: Setting a Pattern

Although the French Revolution ended in 1799, its influence on political and social movements continues today. Although triggered by human impulses which were understandable and perhaps even noble, it was shaped and directed by intellectual frameworks which ultimately caused it not only to fail, but to self-destruct.

Begun with a demand for freedom of speech, it ended with the harshest censorship known at the time. Begun with a demand for freedom of religion, it ended by killing people merely because they were followers of Jesus.

Begun with a demand for people’s participation in governance, it ended with a dictatorship more tyrannical that the monarchy it replaced. Begun with a demand for an end to hereditary rule, it ended by paving the way for a self-proclaimed emperor who would, in turn, give way to the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty.

What was the built-in flaw of the French Revolution? In part, it confused society with government.

The French Revolution sought to change not only the government, but also society. Political problems need political solutions, while social problems need social solutions. As historian Jonah Goldberg writes,

Whatever else it may have been, however, one thing is clear: the French Revolution was the first totalitarian revolution, the mother of modern totalitarianism, and the spiritual model for the Italian Fascist, German Nazi, and Russian Communist revolutions. A nationalist-populist uprising, it was led and manipulated by an intellectual vanguard determined to replace Christianity with a political religion that glorified “the people,” anointed the revolutionary vanguard as their priests, and abridged the rights of individuals. A Robespierre put it, “The people is always worth more than individuals … The people is sublime, but individuals are weak” — or, at any rate, expendable.

Because the French Revolution sought to control both society and government, it was a totalitarian movement. It wanted to control and redesign every aspect of culture and civilization - which meant that the ordinary individual had almost no liberty.

As the leadership of the French Revolution became more and more paranoid, the few executions which began the Revolution increased and became indiscriminate. Historian estimate deaths from the ‘Reign of Terror’ total between 20,000 and 75,000.

Further casualties were the result of the war declared by the French Revolutionary government on April 20, 1792 against Austria. Even more fatalities arose when the Revolutionary government imposed price controls on food in September 1793, causing a collapse of the agricultural production, and causing thousands of deaths from famine.

Although the French Revolution was, itself, a failure, it created a pattern which shaped many later revolutionary movements.