When one reads the sources about French Revolution, especially those which come from Anglosphere, the rather inevitable conclusion is that French Revolution was a rowdy action of unwashed masses, mobs, ending up in a grand, brutal ‘Terror’.
However, approaching the subject from an objective viewpoint which is supported by research into actual history paints a quite different picture than the endless repeating narrative that poisons Anglosphere discussion about French Revolution.
Why is so great disparage in between the narrative in Anglosphere and the actual history of the French Revolution?
Why an event from which we derived a majority of our modern society’s fundamentals, is depicted so negatively?
Let’s try looking for answers, and let’s start from the difficult ones first, like the ‘mob action’:
First, there is no revolution in history which was not conducted in ‘mob style’. The bigger the change that a revolution brings, the bigger the chaos and the conflict it has to go through. No exceptions.
Because revolutions are events that shake and change established order of the society, the bigger the repressed change, the bigger the upheaval is in doing that change.
The necessity for a revolution in a society comes to being from there being elements in that society that prevent and repress the need for change or progress. The longer the repression continues, the greater need for change becomes. And if that segment (generally elite) does not make any compromise with the rest of the society, then it eventually ends up in a revolution.
Prime example is French Revolution.
At the end of 18th century you have the French people, still living under feudal aristocracy, going through cyclic famines which kill untold millions over decades, having no course of action for bettering their own lives or effecting a change in society, instead having to ‘know their place’ and silently perish in cold winters in their village houses, starving, while the absentee landlord of their feudal fief engaging in previously unseen extravaganza with the income levied from the very villagers’ work, as villagers watch their own family members, children, relatives die in front of their eyes from starvation, sickness, malnutrition…
Worsening over the course of 1–2 decades, leading to people inevitably and rightfully blaming the aristocracy which is living in excess at their expense, leading them to start thinking and talking about politics, enlightenment ideas, joining clubs and engaging in discussions for change.
As the sentiment against exploitation by nobility grows, the response of that very nobility unbelievably ends up being more security measures, more of them starting to carry swords and having guards to retaliate against ‘the rabble’ in case any of them is roughed up or assaulted, and in some cases rules like banning commoners from being close to the road when a noble’s carriage is passing…
Them commoners should know their place. Even as their children starve…
Eventually the sentiment and the suffering reaches a climax point in which the commoners naturally don’t care about neither the old order, the tradition, or even the martial power the nobility holds as their ‘god given right’.
And they mount a revolution.
Demands are very modest at the start – representation, power in policy making, changes to old feudal rules, even a constitutional monarchy. Pretty much things which are practiced in various other countries. Still a class based society, but not so brutal.
What do you think the response of aristocracy was?
Within weeks of revolution, they were already writing to their relatives abroad, who were Kings and prominent aristocrats of other countries, and they were asking them to invade France and they were conspiring with them to have them invade their own country to repress their own countrymen and to ‘put them in their place’ – a place where they would continue starving and suffering silently.
Their calls were responded promptly too, for common people asking for heretical equality with their high-born masters was not something tolerable as far as the aristocracy of Europe was concerned!
Soon numerous absolute monarchies were preparing to invade France and end its people’s budding freedom, at the backdrop of which even the French King himself gets caught escaping to secure his own hide until his own people are repressed.
Even today, the cost of treason against your country during war is very severe, and can even lead to death penalty if things are not going well for your country. In 18th century penalty for treason was death – American Revolutionaries weren’t going to get chummy with Benedict Arnold and have a drink if they got ahold of him. He would be hanging from a tree promptly after a provisional revolutionary court had its way with him, like how many high profile traitors were executed. Names below don’t include things that happened in the field – ie nameless traitors, raiders, profiteers getting executed by commanders in the field.
Moreover, these accounts don’t include the random atrocities and mob-action which happened during that very American Revolution.
French had tens thousands of such traitors among them; not merely ordinary people with ideas or affiliations, but actual aristocrats with power, money and means. Collaborating and organizing with foreign invading regimes, supplying and recruiting for Royalist armies which were attacking their own countrymen as they were already being invaded.
There comes the ‘mob style’ part of the revolution…
~16,000 such aristocrats and their collaborators/servants/affiliates were executed France-wide during the ‘Reign of Terror’ which is drummed up so much in Anglo literature, with ~3000 of that being in Paris, the higher profile aristocrats and personas.
This entire figure includes all kinds of treason; top nobility, minor nobility, their men-at-arms, their officers, commanders, messengers, those who did agitation on their behalf, those paid for sabotage, those who helped Royalist Armies attacking their own countrymen even as foreign powers invaded their own homeland and so on…
It is a given that during these prosecutions and executions, people who were not as guilty as charged and even innocent people might have been executed – not talking about the top nobility of course, their deeds were rather in the open. It was 18th century, and intelligence operations or policing weren’t things that were developed like today or even like in late 19th century. However it didn’t require much to conclude treason after you catched a messenger carrying a top noble’s correspondence informing his brother-in-law in command of a foreign contingent invading their country.
We are told that this is a ‘Reign of Terror’, with 16,000 people being executed.
However at the same period, Britain itself was executing ~1000 people/decade in British Isles without there being any war, conflict, leave aside a revolution, for crimes as petty as stealing food, pickpocketing and so on…
The reason why hanging 1000 people/decade is not terror but execution of 16,000 people during a revolution and invasion in France is a reign of terror is because the people executed in France this time were people of upper strata – nobility, their affiliates, minor nobles – the elite.
And British establishment was aghast at this occurrence, and entire literature which came out during the period reflected this, because they could suffer the same fate. Hence the centuries-long hostility of Anglo-literature against French Revolution started. The ‘Literature’ instead of ‘Establishment Literature’, because it wasn’t Scottish day laborers in 18th century or 19th century coal miners in Wales who wrote treatise over treatise over French Revolution and its ‘horrors’ or book after book recounting the ‘tragedy’ that occurred in French Revolution. In those centuries the production of literature was the domain of those who were fortunate enough to be able to have time to write a book, leave aside education or knowledge – neither of which were found in the ordinary segments of British society.
The only actual accusations against French Revolution about a ‘mob style’ execution can be made regarding the chaos and paranoia that engulfed Paris during the time when foreign armies were marching on Paris and rumors which said that imprisoned nobles were conspiring with the advancing armies, leading to Parisians raiding prisons and executing imprisoned aristocrats and accused collaborators, due to the fact that no court or any official capacity was involved in accusing or prosecuting them. However even in this case it is hard to bring a certain judgment as to whether they were innocent, because being in prison as a powerful noble was not an big impediment to engaging in politics, as the long French history shows. However to our standards and even by the standards of the time, ~1500 people being killed in this manner without even individual accusations or prosecutions is something that is ‘mob style’. Which may have been mirrored in bigger feudal fiefs away from Paris.
But is very hard to accuse these people:
These very people imprisoned were the aristocrats and their affiliates who ran the country, and more importantly, the actual fiefs that many people lived in.
Ask yourself, how would you be disposed towards someone if that person caused your children, your relatives, your neighbors to starve and die over decades by repressing you and taking a good fraction of what you had, to spend it in excess and hedonism.
Millions of people dying due to poverty, starvation, malnutrition over decades create millions more righteously angry, upset people.
Compared to the suffering of French people, and the repression they endured up until the very end of 18th century, one can easily conclude that the toll of this ‘terror’ is very small – today we call starving, depriving millions of people to death, ‘genocides’. What French nobility effectively did is logically no different from a genocide, minus the ethnic component.
We cannot condemn the French Revolution.
Not only because the ‘Terror’ which is relayed to us by opposing literature is beyond exaggerated, but also because we owe our modern society and modern values to French Revolution more than anything else:
Our modern society is founded upon values of equality of all peoples which was proposed and realized at large by French Revolution, and every single civil concept we come to accept, ranging from human rights to modern political standards as we know them today comes from those values – without exaggeration.
Whereas many societies in Europe at that time kept the absolute feudal system, and a psuedo-feudal system continued in Britain, French Revolution abolished all classes and made everyone equal, as opposed to allowing class-distinction in societies. No one could claim any more right or privilege than anyone else. For the first time in history, giving everyone equal right and say in everything in his/her society, therefore opening the doors for what we have today by exporting that social structure to entire Europe through – maybe ironically so – Napoleon’s conquests.
The difference in results are stark – whereas entire Europe eventually (in roughly ~40–60 years) transformed into egalitarian societies in which citizens had equality and rights, even if theoretically at the start, Britain had remained as a class-based society up till mid 20th century, by nobility giving some concessions to the ‘unwashed masses’ to avoid a revolution.
But they delayed it as much as they could, without hesitating from brutality:
That’s what happened when 70,000~ people went on to a demonstration to demand parliamentary representation in 1819 – British establishment had Cavalry charge those people and massacre ~400–500 right there.
But we don’t talk about things like these at all. Britain was civilized. French Revolution was ‘bloody’ – mainly due to the fact that the blood in the latter belonged to the aristocracy. Killing of the ‘commoners’ to protect the right of the rule of the opulent is not ’terror’…
As a result, Britain not only had a class-based political system for 2 centuries, with only male property owners who owned property larger than a certain estate (aka,the rich) getting the right to vote in 1832, ‘male household heads’ (ordinary people, regardless of property value) getting the right to vote in 1837, but even still had an unelected, hereditary House of Lords which could overrule the laws of the Parliament up until 1911.
Even more, ‘the right of the rule of the opulent’ and the necessity of obedience of ‘the masses’ stayed as real phenomenon in the society, even shadowing the political streams in Anglo-world in last century. It was only 1930s when an opulent Winston Churchill, a firm believer of the right of the rule of the opulent, was having the army shoot at striking mine workers when they demanded better working conditions – weekend vacation and whatnot. And at the same time, Tory government of Britain was propping up Fascists around Europe to counter the USSR because it challenged the right of the rule of the opulent.
Even today, in many Anglo countries including UK and even US, which inherited a good measure of philosophy of ‘the right of the rule of the opulent’ which its founding fathers (except Thomas Paine) so fervently supported, you have major and apparent class distinctions in the society, whereas European continent is visibly and factually more egalitarian – from philosophy to practice. That determines huge differences in between US and UK and Europe in regard to many policies and social phenomenon ranging from social programs, politics to elitism, foreign policy. Which is a long and detailed topic to get into, thus its better to avoid it to stay on topic at this juncture. And then there is the topic of French Revolution diminishing religion and enforcing the Age of Reason – even though forcibly, sloppily and half-done – and causing religion to lose its power as a policy tool and social-control mechanism across entire Europe, which is an even bigger topic.
One may naturally question, why the focus on Anglo-literature, Britain regarding this matter. The answer is very simple:
The bulk of the material vilifying the French Revolution does not come from Germany, Italy, Greece, Sweden, any European country, or even China, India or any other country. It comes from Britain due to British establishment’s ~200 year old opposition and fear of French Revolution. In many other countries, French Revolution is taught in school textbooks as an important event which established the main principles of our modern society. Hence the natural focus regarding British establishment and its literature.
In the end, to summarize:
We cannot condemn French Revolution because the ‘mob action’ exaggerated by opposing literature is not as grave as depicted when compared to any other revolution, nor it is without logic or cause, and French Revolution de facto established the principles on which our modern society is founded upon.
A few footnotes for the historically inclined:
One may object, bringing the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 as an example.Which would be invalid due to the fact that that event was neither a revolution, nor glorious, but a very well executed Dutch invasion involving ~30,000 troops, replacing one monarch with another, with solely the promise of ‘I wont meddle in your religion’. It didn’t change anything in the society.
Another objection may come in the form of proposing American Revolution as the event that established our modern principles. Which would be wrong on grounds that American founding fathers were not only elitists who strongly and openly defended the ‘right of the rule of the opulent’, but also shaped the new system to protect it ‘from the masses’ – with the strongest proponent being John Adams, de facto architect of constitution. Which is the main reason why there are things like Senate, Electoral College to prevent the ‘masses’ from electing a parliament (Congress) and asking for greater economic equality, and (at that time) * gasp * land redistribution – which the founding fathers so badly and openly feared – ‘If the masses demand fairness through democracy, what would happen’. This is another huge topic, thus its much easier to reference a lecture about it:
Final objection may come in the form of Magna Carta…
Which would be unfounded, since it was a contract in between the biggest overlord (King) and its noble subjects, giving some promises and rights to the nobles ranging from things in the form of ‘I wont jail or kill you without a reason or due process’, and ‘I will occasionally counsel with you regarding policy’, to giving some autonomy to medieval towns and Church and whatnot.
It was a body of concessions to the elite, with a majority of society being unaffected.
It does not provide any fundamental change in the nature of society by making it an actual egalitarian and participatory one, and ends up being a contract in between the sovereign and elites – likes of which, though not as large as Magna Carta and partial, can be found in many setups in different cultures throughout history.
If we go about accepting Magna Carta as a major milestone and fundamental for our modern society, Chinese scholars can easily show up with piles of arguments to show from Chinese history to argue how principles of modern society were developed and implemented at large in China – even the fact that Emperors guaranteed similar Habeas Corpus rights, and even gave more power to their non-noble bureaucrats would make a major statement.