There’s an old story that takes place 229 years ago, in a charming country village called Versailles. The news of a spree of vandalism, theft, jailbreak and murder at Bastille, a prison based in neighboring Paris, has just reached the ears of one Louis Capet, the reigning king of France. “It’s a revolt?” exclaims the addled king. “No, Sire,” replies his interlocutor, the duke of la Rochefoucauld: “It’s a revolution.”
I’ve always liked this little anecdote for suggesting, in its own way, a distinction between a mere “revolt” and a proper “revolution.” At the same time, it’s also great for its suggestion that what sounds like a mere revolt could be, in fact, a revolution. In the French, especially of the time, the Latin root of revolvere (“to revolve”) stands more clearly out and gives the term a nearly cosmic significance. Revolution is what celestial bodies do—not quite an act of spontaneous lawlessness, but a process every bit as natural and inevitable as the movement of the heavens.
By the fall of the Bastille, the term revolution had already taken on its modern sense as a political phenomenon; that is, a radical shift in the political order. Still, it retained the recursive or restorative sense implied in its celestial origin: revolution was a return to a previous starting point. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was seen as a restoration of the legitimate Protestant monarchy of England. The revolutionists of North America struggled to restore their legal rights as British citizens, and later to assert “inalienable rights” ordained by God. This is why the “Old Whig” Edmund Burke endorsed the revolutions in England and America but condemned the one in France. “Oh! what a revolution!” he wrote famously in 1790—describing not the birth of the French Republic, but the grace of Marie Antoinette: “just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,—glittering like the morning-star…”
Three years later, Maximilien Robespierre was to rebuke this vision of revolution as a thing that follows a fixed, eternal path. Against those who thought that revolution had gone on too long, he scoffed: “You measure political revolutions as one does those of the sun.” He knew that revolution was volatile. More than that, he knew that its trajectory was not immutable. Inspired as they were by philosophers like Rousseau, the revolutionists of France must have thought they were “restoring” some initial, uncorrupted state of liberty. Yet something else was going on, something newer. It’s no coincidence that the Republic would not just roll back the calendar to Year I, but make a new one altogether. The revolution in France was an attempt to start history anew.
The insurrection of 14 July was not especially revolutionary. It was the first major throb of popular resistance to the crown, but that’s still in the realm of mere revolt. Nor was its proximate goal—to fight the “royal coup” against the budding democratic movement—especially radical. In 1789, the revolutionists were still largely intent on furnishing a constitutional monarchy—progressive, to be sure, but only a reform. What’s really radical is what came after, prefigured at Bastille but only realized in the aftershocks of insurrection: the will and the resolve to abolish the ancien régime. And this was done on the initiative and authority of none else but their own.
It’s often thought that revolutions are—as Edward Gibbon called the one in North America—a “criminal enterprise.” It’s not exactly unambiguous that this was the case in France. Louis XVI had assented to the Constitution of 1791, which recognized the people’s sovereignty and spelled out the conditions under which the king would be found to have abdicated. By conspiring with foreign crowns to invade France and overthrow the constitution, Louis was guilty of treason and had forfeited the throne. The philosopher Immanuel Kant placed this abdication even earlier, when the king convened the Estates-General of 1789 (“a very serious error in judgment”), which Kant saw as an implicit grant of popular sovereignty.
But the revolution was not waged by legal technicalities. The National Assembly declared itself into existence, and stayed assembled in an act of civil disobedience. For 3 years it existed in a state of “dual power,” in (sometimes violent) tension with the crown. Popular uprisings in Paris and the countryside undermined the power of the king and the nobility. By September of 1792, the abolition of the monarchy was a mere formality to acknowledge this bare fact: the king’s authority had been subdued by force.
In a way, the question of legality is irrelevant. Antoine Saint-Just had little time to quibble about the guilt or innocence of Louis Capet: “They had, even before his crime, the right to banish him and send him into exile…It is impossible to reign in innocence…All kings are rebels and usurpers.” And to those who had denounced the revolutionists’ illegalism, Robespierre had this to say:
Why don’t you prosecute the Commune, the Legislative Assembly, the Sections of Paris, the Assemblies of the Cantons and all who imitated us? For all these things have been illegal, as illegal as the Revolution, as the fall of the monarchy and of the Bastille, illegal as liberty itself.
This reversal in the discourses of power—where the crown’s authority, not the Republic’s, was recast as illegitimate—is the revolution’s chief success. The Republic seized the power of the Lawgiver and made the dilemma clear. Either the ancien régime was right and the revolution wrong, or vice-versa. “I can see no middle ground,” Saint-Just told the National Convention. “This man must reign or die.”
You can tell a lot about someone’s politics based on where their sympathies happen to fall. Robespierre, for his part, had made his name as a provincial lawyer and Assembly member with his outspoken opposition to the death penalty. But revolution gives a new sense of proportion and perspective. He asked: “For how long will the rage of despots be called justice, and the people’s justice be called barbarity or rebellion? How tender people are towards oppressors and how inexorable towards the oppressed!” The guillotine and the mob may have been barbaric, but how much more humanitarian was the quarter and the draw? (Incidentally, the last Frenchman to be drawn and quartered, Damiens the Regicide, was rumored to be Robespierre’s blood-relative.) A century later in America, the novelist Mark Twain made the following observation:
There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.
The journalist Adam Gopnik, writing in that pat and cliché way that is the lifeblood of The New Yorker, once said that “there is something new in the [Jacobin] Reign of Terror, and that is its absolutism. You couldn’t escape it. In the old regime, if you were determined to stay out of politics, politics could stay out of you.” That isn’t quite right. That’s the glib and clueless sort of thinking you’d expect from someone with the luxury of being apolitical. For everyone else, the old regime of royal tyranny, feudal subjugation, clerical abuse and mass starvation wasn’t something you could simply step away from.
If there’s anything that’s novel in the revolution, it’s surely not the introduction of violence and repression. The history of class society is the history of violence and repression, by the ruling class against the ruled. We only notice it more starkly in times of revolution because the violence is directed the other way. And, lest one forget, it wasn’t till the king amassed a concentration of foreign troops against the people of France that Camille Desmoulins aroused the crowd to take up arms and to prevail on the Bastille.
In some way or another, all modern politics is a re-litigation of that seismic moment and its aftermath. If Bastille was the flashpoint of revolutionary mass consciousness, it’s also the origin of the reactionary impulse. The French nobility began to flee en masse as émigrés to neighboring countries, spreading their alarm throughout the monarchies of Europe. It signaled to the ruling classes that the class war would no longer be one-sided, inspiring the self-pity of the powerful and sympathy for the privileged. Across the English Channel, Edmund Burke bemoaned the end of “the age of chivalry…the glory of Europe…that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart”—a laundry list of grievance for all conservatives if there ever was one. Shortly before he died, Burke was happy to receive a copy of Augustin Barruel’s Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, which blamed the revolution on a conspiracy of Freemasons and the Illuminati—arguably the urtext of right-wing crackpot theories. Meanwhile, the monarchies of Europe pledged themselves to overthrow the French Republic and to restore the Bourbon line, confirming that class war is international indeed. That struggle between established power and the forces of democracy continues to this day. As early as 1791, the monarchist Antoine Barnave knew what was at stake:
Are we going to end the Revolution, are we going to start it again? One step more would be a fatal and culpable act; one step more in the line of liberty would be the destruction of royalty; one step more in the line of equality, the destruction of property.